04 May 2013

And Southampton delivers! Well, their academy did, anyway…

I asked for Southampton to do us a solid today in its match against Spurs.

And Southampton complied. Well, sort of...

It wasn't pretty, but Southampton did its followers proud as two of its most-famous products scored game-winners today, delivering much-needed victory. Too bad that neither of them were playing for Southampton, and even worse that one was playing against Southampton in the form of Gareth Bale, who marked his 200th appearance away from Southampton by scoring in the 86th minute to secure three points for Spurs. For 86 wonderful minutes, then, the Southampton faithful—many of them temporary Gunners converts—were feeling pretty good. The Saints had up 'til then denied Bale and his new team a result, and then...well, you can't win 'em all. Spurs therefore will keep the pressure on for another week.

It's therefore quite gratifying that Southampton's other product, the one I deigned to compare to Bale, outdid his one-time teammate by scoring within the first twenty seconds, less time than it's taken me to type this very sentence. It was just enough, too, as QPR looked threatening enough to score but for some solid keeping from Szczęsny, especially in the second half. I daresay that he delivered one of his best performances in a while. That it came against the likes of QPR is a bit of an indictment of the ten who played in front of him, but I'll take the three points just as gladly as I'll take that kind of showing from the lanky Pole. Absent a hilarious-but-only-because-nothing-came-from-it throw that allowed QPR to take another shot, he was on his game, making a number of key saves and coming off his line intelligently to keep a well-deserved clean sheet. He was tested on a number of occasions and did quite well.

Today, however, will be mostly about Theo. Although he only tallied once, he's done well enough to earn the "glory" MOTM, a new but important category I'm creating as of this moment. Whereas Arteta and Ramsey should probably share the actual MOTM for their orchestration of defense and attack and while their trench-work laid the foundation for the victory, we would've gone home with just one point today were it not for Theo. Podolski looked a bit sluggish out there, but this is not to say that Theo should therefore assume the central role. Indeed, his performance today only further confirms my argument that he continue to play wide. Yes, he scored our only goal, but he was on the verge of scoring a second all afternoon. Four of his five shots were on target, and only decent saves from QPR's Green kept Theo from a brace or even a hat-trick. Put it this way: Theo had more shots on target than any other teammate even took. Yes, he fell short of my call for an orgy of goals, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

Just as nice as the goal itself was the manner in which it was scored. The build-up was wonderful, involving no fewer than seven touches before finding Theo, onside (by contrast with last week) and ready to pounce. There will be no questions this week about the goal's legitimacy or style.

It would have been nice to see a few more goals, and I do feel it was a bit churlish of Ramsey, Podolski, and Cazorla to spurn my request, but three points is three points. I had hoped to compose a rather-smug post in which I mocked Spurs for their inability to close out an inferior opponent; then, I had to settle for a less-smug post in which I mocked Spurs for struggling to close out said opponent. At the end of the day, each of us has had to settle for a win less comfortable than it should have been. Here, then, is to Man U running rough-shod over Chelsea on Sunday.

The race for 4th is as tight as it was at the beginning of the day, but the pressure, momentum, and fixtures continue to favor us. We'll look forward to a Chelsea loss tomorrow and a draw with Spurs, if not a victory over them, on Wednesday. Last year, 70 points was enough to secure 3rd place. This year might require a few more than that. Thankfully, there are still six points just laying there, waiting for us to seize them.

03 May 2013

Spurs-Southampton: Reasons for hope

At first glance, Southampton's trip to White Hart Lane looks to be a joyride for Spurs. After all, they come in as the 5th place team in the Prem while Southampton languishes in 13th, still at risk for relegation because Wigan could still mathematically overtake them. Southampton sports a -10 goal-differential on the year; Spurs, +17. Southampton is positively woeful on the road, having taken only 15 of of 51 points, and Spurs have been strong at home, keeping 32 of 51. So far, it's looking bad for the Saints as they visit White Hart Lane to reconnect with their dearly departed Gareth Bale, set to make his  200th appearance for Spurs, bathed in glory with so many individual accolades this year I've quite lost count.

And yet. And yet. Southampton comes in as the 6th-hottest team in the league, having kept 11 of its last 18 points, beating Liverpool and Chelsea in the process, while Spurs have staggered and stumbled, dropping 10 out of its last 18 points. I'm not going so far as to say that anything could happen, but stranger things have happened, like Chelsea losing to Southampton, for example. By the time we arrive at Loftus Road on Saturday, we'll know how Spurs have done, not that we should need to adjust our intensity either way. Whether Spurs win, lose, or draw, our only acceptable outcome is to win. I've called for an orgy of goals, believing we need to resurrect a little of the momentum that had impelled into 3rd momentarily, especially after two consecutive draws.

The more that the pressure builds, the more that nervous Spurs minds will turn to last year as they recall that, as they tried to keep up with our surge, they dropped points to teams like Sunderland (13th last year),  Norwich (12th), QPR (17th), and Aston Villa (16th). For all the talk of our fragility or inconsistency, it's Spurs who can't handle the pressure. In recent weeks, they've dropped points to Wigan (18th) and Fulham (11th), not quite as sloppy as last year but still too careless. In that sense, it's a bit of a shame that we don't play first on Saturday. If we could put a proper pasting on QPR, this would only amp up the anxiety at White Hart, making various Spurs players twitchy and tight. However, we'll have to settle for re-ratcheting the pressure to a fever-pitch for them. It's after this, after all, that they have to make the trip to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea on Wednesday for what is sure to be brutal.  We'll know who to root for in that match by late Sunday as Chelsea has to travel to Old Stafford.

In an ideal world, of course, we win while Spurs and Chelsea lose. This puts us at 67 points, 3rd place with two to play, while Chelsea stays at 65, 4th place with three to play, and Spurs remain at 5th with 62 points with three to play. From there, would we root for Chelsea to defeat Spurs, leaving Spurs at 62 with only two matches to play?  To seize 4th place, we'd then only need one point from our two remaining matches against Wigan and Newcastle. I'm not enough of a mathematician to dissect the various permutations of what might and could happen, so let's leave it at that for now. Saints, ruin Bale's 200th. Rain on his parade. QPR, expect us to be very rude to you when we arrive.

We'll see where things stand on Saturday night.

Against QPR, Walcott will be unleashed

Last week, Theo Walcott scored for the first time since January. As we prepare for the run-in against QPR, here's hoping that that goal has broken the seal on the lad, releasing the pressure to score that has built up ever since he put pen to paper on that new contract in (coincidentally?) January. Even as we await news on the starting line-up, I'm issuing my call for Walcott to start, whether it's in that central role that he covets so much or out on the wing, where he actually seems to thrive. Wenger has suggested that it will be Podolski who starts at center as he did against Man U.  It's not like Podolski set the world on fire with his performance, but he's just as good an option for the central role as Walcott, by which I mean "as good as we have".

Here's a quick break-down of Walcott's appearances, courtesy of whoscored.com. As you can see, he's been very prolific and been so against high-quality opponents like Schalke, Spurs, Everton, Chelsea, Liverpool (yes, Liverpool), and Bayern. That's an impressive c.v. However, playing from the central role, he's been less impressive, tallying four goals and two assists in six appearances. Yes, his whoscored rating is a 7.3, similar to his 7.32 rating as an attacking midfielder/wing, but take a closer look: one goal against Reading, and three goals and two assists in that laugher against Newcastle. In short, similar production but against much weaker opponents.

I wish therefore that someone could disabuse Walcott of the notion that (a) he should play more centrally and (b) there's more glory to be had in that role. Whatever position you play in, a goal creates glory,  and he has shown that he can score goals more often from the wide role than from the center. It's as if he sees the center role as the lead guitarist's role, and he resents playing rhyhtm or bass. Yet when you hand him the lead role, he stumbles through it. He's at his best coming in from the right, simple as that, and the sooner he gets this through his skull, the better off we all are.

Just as vital as where he plays is when he scores. He's had a feast-and-famine kind of season, scoring goals in bunches and then disappearing altogether. This was true in the first half of the season when he'd put together a string of three or four games in which he'd tally, or a game in which he'd get a hat-trick, only to do little to nothing else for a stretch of games. It's been especially in the season as a whole, in which the feast came in the first half and the famine has lasted for almost the entire second. Here's hoping, then, that that goal against Man U unleashes the beast within and he can go on a tear to close out the season. With Giroud out, we need him now more than ever, and these last three games present him a sparkling opportunity to lead the team across the line, disproving his critics wrong and earning plaudits for a flurry of goals that puts him in the top ten, if not the top five, in the Prem. He's caught in a four-way log-jam at 12 along with Cazorla, Rooney, and Dzeko, and three goals in our last three games should be enough to finish in the top ten. I'll therefore adjust my call for goals from my previous post, hoping that Walcott can add at least one to our tally. Come on, Theo. You know you want it!

Redknapp's talkin' some trash ahead of Saturday's match

Tomorrow's run-in with QPR just a got a little saucier thanks to a helping of trash-talk on offer from manager Harry Redknapp. One would think that a team just relegated would be ready to just roll over as its players eye Mediterranean beaches and frou-frou cocktails. Instead, Redknapp was full of tough talk as he addressed our impending raid on Loftus Road. Turns out he was addressing rumors concerning keeper Júlio César, saying:
[César] wants to go to Arsenal? Arsène Wenger will be here tomorrow. If he's interested, I'm sure he'll speak to me. [César's] a top, top goalkeeper. There's no doubt about that. He's a Brazil international so to play in the Championship next year would be difficult...It would take a good offer [to move to another team]. You've got to get what you feel is value for him. He's going to cost decent money if anyone wants to buy hims. He's a good goalkeeper.
Okay. Hardly full of piss and vinegar. Redknapp seems rather resigned to César's  departure, and it makes sense. The man is 33 and hardly wants to waste a year trying to win the Championship when teams (including us) are sniffing around and can offer Champions League play instead. Of the teams at the top, we're the only ones with anything resembling an unsettled keeper situation. I've suggested in the past that we pursue a seasoned keeper, one willing to play a mentor's role while accepting less playing time. I don't know César well enough to claim that he would like that roleis the prospect of sitting for a team contending for the Prem title and playing in the Champions League enticing enough, or would he prefer actual playing time for a mid-table team instead?

It would be a tough decision for him to make should an offer be made, but as QPR's season fades, we're bound to hear more stories concerning Cesar's availability, as well as that of Rémy and Samba, among others. As we turn our attention towards the actual game, will we see more spirited-performances from the likes of César and Rémy, not so much to try to win as to audition for a role with us next year? We saw touches of that when we went to Upton Park in October amid stories linking us to Mohamed Diamé, who opened the scoring with a stunner of a goal before we set things right with a 3-1 winner.

I'm not seeing it, frankly. While we should be wary of getting bogged down in a lethargic affair, and we should likewise be prepared for a more-free-wheeling, pressure-free game full of wild abandon from a team no longer worried about anything. They're finally and fully relegated, so they might just be content to knock around, or they might be happy to get nutty. We'll see. We are, after all, facing a team that has won just four Prem league games, although they have managed to draw at home against Chelsea, Everton, Spurs, and Man City, keeping four points against top-table teams. For comparisons, we've kept five points against the same (beating Spurs and drawing with Everton and Man U). This is a team that can park the bus just fine when it needs to, and with César in the back, this could turn into a sticky one.

Then again, this is a team that has just won twice in 17 home matches, keeping just 14 of 51 available points while being outscored 25-12. They're averaging less than a goal a game. However, it's a touch undignified for us to dabble too much in statistics. This is, after all, a club that saw fit to let Joey Barton play for it. One regret of mine is that Gervinho won't have a chance to slap him around as he did last year against Newcastle. Absent that, we'll just have to come in and throw our weight around general. We have a lot of players due for a goal, and it's been a while since we've laid gave anyone a proper thrashing. Let's have tomorrow turn into a goal-fest (for us, of course). I'm calling for goals from Cazorla, Podolski, and Ramsey, not because I'm overconfident, but because we should approach this game as a pack of starved wolves.

Final score: AFC 4-1 QPR.

02 May 2013

The Gonzalo Higuain domino theory

Real Madrid's general manager Jose Angel Sanchez said today "we need two number nines of a high level...we have Benzema and Higuain. Higuain will leave, Benzema will stay, and two others will come." I'm not here to suggest that Arsenal should target Higuain, although we could do worse. In just 16 appearances, he's tallied 13 goals. I'm sure that, by the time I finish typing this sentence, the rumors linking him to Arsenal will fly. However, we all have more important issues to deal with, like winning actual games. The rumor mill will spin; that's what it does. Should Higuain find his way here, we'll find out at some point in August, I'm sure.

However, the chain of events that a Higuain departure could set off might very well tip the scales in our favor even if he doesn't come to the Emirates. Following up on Sanchez's comment, he says that "two other [high level] nines will come." Who knows what he has in mind or how certain he is of what he says? In a dream scenario, Higuain comes here. A near-second sees him go to PSG or Juve or Dortmund, anywhere but the Prem. As a result, Real looks to sign two new strikers (I'm not sure why Sanchez says that Real needs two more if Benzema is staying, unless he means to imply that Benzema is not good enough). Pardon the digression. Gareth Bale has been mentioned time and again in connection with a move to Real Madrid, as has Man City's Sergio Agüero. In either case, we'd see a competitor lose one of its top scorers. Man City is unlikely to be troubled too much, as they'll still have Tévez and Džeko, not to mention piles of oily cash to splurge on whoever else they please.

It's Spurs who have to worry. Each award Bale earns as an individual seems only to highlight how much of one-man team Spurs is. This problem will only loom larger should Spurs fall out of the Champions League again this season. After the mammoth campaign Bale has had, falling short might force him into deciding that it's time to shop around a bit. He might play for our arch-rivals, but I'd hate to see him go. I know we are one of the 'big clubs' of Europe, but I always hate to see a player join one of the big clubs rather than staying where he started, developed, was discovered, and so on. We've been victim to it, so I don't see anything wrong with sympathizing with Spurs should it happen to them. Zinedine Zidane has come out to suggest that Real might be willing to offer as much as £60million for him, money they might very well have on hand should Ronaldo leave the Bernabeu (himself drawing a fee of perhaps £70million). If he returns to Old Trafford, it doesn't change much about Man U's status. They'll just score even more often, but a win only brings three points no matter the margin. It might be enough to keep Man U in the Champions League past the group stage next time around, though (couldn't resist mentioning that even it is a little petty of me).

To make a long story short, we'll avoid all of the various permutations of what might happen at Real's end: Mourinho is all but gone, Ronaldo has already said he won't renew his contract past 2015, Casillas's name has been bandied about, and Higuain is also apparently about to leave. By the end of the summer, we might see Ronaldo at Man U, Higuain with us or Man City, Bale at Real, Mourinho at Chelsea, Rooney at PSG...it's too much to keep track of.  Therefore, if we just keep our house in order, win these last three games, and strengthen the squad with one or two strong signings, I don't really care what happens at these other clubs. We've shown that we can respond to upheaval and continue to contend with the best of them.

A few aggregates to ponder: Bayern 7-0 Barcelona. Bayern 3-3 Arsenal.

I don't think anyone foresaw last night's result. That was embarrassing, a true dressing-down of Barcelona and at the Camp Nou, no less. Of course, this was hardly a full-strength Barcelona, missing Messi, Puyol, Busquets, and Mascherano to injury and Alba to suspension. All the same, one would expect a more determined performance from them, at least enough to score one goal (against Bayern, that is). Once this one got to halftime as a scoreless draw, it's as if Barça pulled up stakes and packed it in. We'll now have an all-German Champions League final prefaced by a Bundesliga run-in between Dortmund and Bayern on Saturday. For what it's worth, Dortmund has won three of its last four matches with Bayern, having outscored them 8-3 across those four (inflated by a 5-2 drubbing in the DFB Pokal, the Bundesliga's second most-important title after the league title itself).

After the first leg, in which Bayern demolished Barcelona 4-0, I made light of the situation by suggesting we're therefore six goals better than Barcelona. Are we now nine goals better than them? Hardly. However, it is worth pointing out that, between this year and last, we outscored the Champions League finalists 6-53-3 with Bayern this year and 3-2 over Dortmund in last year's group stage.  As I took pains to remind us in that previous post, such outcomes hardly mean that we've restored our former glory. We still have to wrestle with a fair number of issues, not least of which is ensuring that we win our last three matches. I don't think anyone here would blithely assume that our run of form since beating Bayern does anything more than paper over our deficiencies and our struggles. Even if we do win out, after all, it's still possible for Spurs to squirm their way past us into 4th.

It's in moments like this, though, that I think we're all mature and level-headed enough to see the situation for what it is: when the circumstances are right, we're capable of producing some very good football, maybe even great football. Beating Bayern in their house puts us in some pretty rare company. Only one other team, 3rd-place Bayer Leverkusen, can say that. At the risk of repeating myself, it's not like Bayern simply rolled over against us, content to advance on aggregate. Once we went up 1-0, their intensity rose, never mind the near-desperation with which they played once we went up 2-0. We produced a stirring, memorable victory against a team absolutely obsessed with winning the Champions League and very nearly came away with something truly historic. Despite my own proposal that a win wouldn't matter much, we've gone on a tidy little run since that day.

Of course, an eight-game unbeaten streak has not been quite enough to compensate for a season of un-even performances and shocking losses (Bradford, Blackburn, Norwich...) or our struggles against top-of-the-table rivals, but it has strengthened our position on the table, one that we still have yet to fully consolidate. Santi Cazorla has said much the same in an interview at Arsenal's website:
We weren't very consistent for half of the season, which cost us in terms of reaching the higher positions in the league. Now we are a lot more consistent and that's the form we were lacking before being consistent and getting three points whenever we could.
Now, I would hesitate to say that our performance has been consistent, but our outcomes have been more consistent than earlier in the season. In our defense, we've had to integrate four new regulars into the squad, and that's bound to undermine consistency, not to mention the impact of injuries on top. When a player leaves, a team has to deal with more than just replacing those statistics. A new player has to overcome quite a few barriers: culture, language, style of play, position and responsibility, teamwork, and on and on. Perhaps our recent run has just as much to do with feeling like a proper team for the first time all year (with apologies to Giroud) as it has to do with the momentum generated by beating Bayern.

Whatever the proximate cause may be, we need it to continue. For now, it is gratifying to be able to watch this year's Champions League final and say, "yeah, we beat both of these teams." Let's just make sure we're there next year for a chance to do it again.

01 May 2013

Race for 3rd, 4th, or bust...

Ugh. Everton, you maledicta maledicta maledicta. Those two dropped points are like an albatross around our necks, and the point you nicked from us have done you absolutely no good. Why couldn't you have just let us win? Now, having dropped four points in our last two matches, we've re-opened a door that was effectively closed, and our grip on 4th place has loosened to the point that we now have to confront the ugly possibility that Spurs would slip into 4th place with little we can do to stop them. Even with their game against Chelsea, in which one or both will drop points, Spurs could theoretically reach 74 points on the season, one point higher than our max of 73. In other words, even if we win out against QPR, Wigan, and Newcastle, it's possiblehowever remote or unlikely as it may seemthat Spurs could eke out the 4th place finish we so earnestly covet.

However, we shouldn't really lament the dropped points against Everton or Man U. Those were hard-earned draws for all concerned. I don't want to dwell on how drawing with Everton might reflect our diminished status; I respect the squad and don't begrudge them in the least. No, instead, I find myself scouring earlier fixtures and agonizing the points we've dropped against far-lesser squads. Look at that. Just look at it. We've dropped
thirteen points against teams that have no business contending with us, much less threatening to win. I might be willing to concede the early-season matches against Sunderland and Stoke as we were still figuring out how to integrate Giroud, Podolski, and Cazorla and deal with the departure of van Persie. However, there is no good explanation, none that I'll except, for why we've dropped points against Norwich, Fulham, Aston Villa, or Southampton. If we had kept those nine points, Chelsea and Spurs could bid us a fond adieu, and it would be Man City staring up at us while we perch in second place. Talk about squandered opportunity. "My kingdom for a horse" indeed. For want of a mere four goals, we've dropped from 2nd place to a very precarious 4th.

If there's any saving grace in this, it's that we haven't dropped points carelessly since the trip to Southampton. Over the last four months, we've kept all of the points we really should have kept even while dropping points against top-five (okay, seven) rivals: a home-loss to Man City, an away-loss to Chelsea, a home-draw with Liverpool, and an away-loss to Spurs. Dropping those points is not inexplicable; each of them, except perhaps the draw with Liverpool, is understandable, if not acceptable.

At this point, we find ourselves in an uncomfortable position, hoping for Spurs to drop two points. Early-season draws that seemed innocuous at the time have become all the more important now. Keeping maximum points at this point in the season therefore becomes paramount. We've left ourselves in a position of hoping that Spurs, if not Chelsea, drop pointsnot just against each other but also against other, lesser opponents. It's enough to cause a Gooner to punch the drywall (mind the studs, stud). As much as it irritates us, we do find ourselves hoping that Spurs drop a few points, whether it's against Chelsea or one of the teams we ourselves have dropped points against: Southampton, Stoke, or Sunderland. Such are the wages of sin, as they say.

If Fàbregas is available, should we buy him back?

I'd love to see him back, first off. Let's just get that out of the way. However, I don't think that getting him back is our first priority. If there's one area that has been a strength for us all year, it's been midfield. Our defense has definitely gotten stronger, but it's had its ups and downs; we have all watched the keeper situation wobble along, and I won't even mention offense because there's so little of it to discuss. I'd therefore prefer to see us target a striker who can generate more offense, put more shots on target, and score with greater frequency. I think Giroud will emerge next year with more of these qualities than he's shown this year, but that still seems like our #1 need. Once we've secured someone there, we can perhaps turn our attention to Cesc.

First, the financials. As reported at JustArsenal, Fàbregas's deal with Barcelona gives us the option to buy Fàbregas first should Barcelona choose to sell him. If we refuse, we get half of what he sells for on the open marker. We'd therefore be Barcelona's first option if they do sell. Having purchased him for £35million, Barcelona has arguably felt pressure to keep him on the field even if it distorts their preferred line-up and attacking options. Indeed, Fàbregas has seen time all over the midfield and even as a forward as they seek creative ways to keep on the field to (a) justify their investment, (b) keep him happy, and (c) keep up his market value in case selling becomes necessary. He has done pretty well, but it hasn't been the fairytale homecoming many had envisioned.  Yes, he has 10 goals and 10 assists, but four goals and three assists have come from the forward position, not a huge shift from his midfield role, but enough to add a small asterisk.

Stats courtesy of whoscored.com.
The chart you see compares Fàbregas's stats to those of Santi Cazorla, the man brought in to replace him and the one most likely to lose his starting spot should Fàbregas return. I was amazed to see that Cazorla outscores him on whoscored.com's metrics, not that Fàbregas is some kind of slouch. How much of an upgrade from Cazorla would he be? It's not an apples-to-apples comparison, of course, but they do occupy the same position on the pitch. As wonderful as it could be to have him back, I don't think that his return, by itself, would not see us surge to the top of the Prem next year.

Then again, what if we killed two birds with one stone? Fàbregas has done well from the center-forward position, tallying four goals and three assists in six appearances there (thanks again to whoscored.com). It's an admittedly small sample-size and one from which it's hard to extrapolate, even more so when we see that three goals and an assist came against woeful Mallorca (last place in La Liga, -31 GD), one goal came against Levante (13th, -17 GD), and two assists came against Getafe (9th place, -10 GD). He's played there for Spain's national team as well and had this to say about the striker role:
I like scoring goals, and I hope it continues for a long time. It's a position I've played in a lot with Barcelona. I'm happy there. I hope I can keep scoring goals...I am still learning.
Even if he is happy in that role, it remains to be seen if he could become the striker that we need, especially against the teams we strive to reel in and overtake. It's one thing for him to score against La Liga's equivalent of QPR or Sunderland; it's quite another to pull it off against Man City or Chelsea. Therefore, I'd maintain that an out-an-out striker is still the higher priority.

In one regard, his return to Barcelona has reaped him one benefit; he's won a league championship, and we'll find out soon whether Barcelona can overcome its 4-0 deficit against Bayern to advance to the final against Dortmund (if it does turn out as a Dortmund-Barça final, I hope do one better than we did. Go, Arsenal jr.!) If he does return, would his experience in winning translate to Arsenal? One can hope, but I do wonder how we'd make room in the midfield. With Arteta and Ramsey in the defensive midfield, would Cazorla and Wilshere move wide to give the middle to Fàbregas? Would Fàbregas reassume the captain's role? These would be delicious problems to have, a nice improvement over some of the dilemmas we've had to wrestle with lately.

I usually don't welcome back those who leave, but I do think the manner of Fàbregas's departure differs considerably from those of Nasri, van Persie, and others. He was more of a prodigal son returning home than a mercenary seeking greener pastures. As long as it doesn't become a back-and-forth saga, I'd welcome the lad back with open arms. Just don't view it as a panacea. We still need to find another striking option even if Giroud and others benefit from Fàbregas's contributions. As long as his return isn't billed as the triumphant return of the all-conquering hero, and isn't the only move we make over the summer, by all means, bring him back.

30 April 2013

Szczęsny stops 'em all...

Okay, so he's still not quite the dominant keeper we need to lead us to the top of the Prem, but since his return to the starting lineup, Wojciech Szczęsny has re-emerged as a confident and capable keeper, doing just enough to keep us climbing to the top of the
Hardly bathed in glory, but it'll do.
Prem (okay, as close to it as mathematically possible). In the last three matches, he's allowed only one goal, a penalty kick from the league's most lethal scorer, a shot that he anticipated correctly but just couldn't do anything to stopnot that anyone else could have. Two clean sheets, one against a stubborn Everton and one against a mid-table but scrappy Fulham, is not bad at all. It's not a dramatic improvement on Fabiański's performances, nor has Szczęsny stopped us from reaching for the antacids just yet, but he's still our best bet between the sticks, so it's reassuring to see him regaining some form and momentum.

First, Fabiański. We'll never learn whether his rib injury is legitimate or contrived, but he did well for himself and the team with the chances he had. He filled in admirably and stepped back when the time was right without complaint, at least publicly. He deserves credit for managing a tricky situation. A lesser man would have found a way to complain. His willingness to play the role he's been asked to play deserves our respect. Good on ya, Łukasz.

Without reducing Fabiański to a bit part, Szczęsny seems to need someone behind him to prod him on so that he doesn't revert to his previous, complacent form.  If Fabiański is willing to play that role, coming on for three- to four-game spells to re-light a fire under Szczęsny, so much the better. I don't think Fabiański has what it takes to be a #1 keeper at the level at which we expect to perform, but he might be just good enough to keep Szczęsny sharp and on his toes. This arrangement need not preclude the search for keeper in the summer, but it might be enough to put to rest the rumors that we're going to sign the likes of Iker Casillas, for example (with Mourinho likely to leave, I don't see Casillas leaving as well, for what that's worth).

Since his return, Szczęsny has done pretty well. Everton only tested him twice and Fulham three times (thrice? emmm..), it's true, but he did his job and did it well. It was against Man U, ironically the only match in which he allowed a goal, that he seemed be truly on, denying van Persie's point-blank header with his face, very-nearly saving van Persie's PK, and handling Rooney's header in the box, among others. In short, he was peppered by a Man U that has scored an eye-popping 79 goals (and nine in its preceding four matches) and held them to just one, and that came on a spot-kick.

We face three bottom-of-the-table teams as we close out the season: an already-relegated QPR, a could-be relegated Wigan, and Newcastle, losers of three of their last five, including that 6-0 dressing-down at home against Suarez-less Liverpool. Having a confident, capable, and in-form Szczęsny will go a long way towards ensuring that we keep maximum points as we try to consolidate a 4th-place finish and continue to chase a 3rd-place one. Welcome back, Woj; we missed ya.

Oi, Zlatan! Arsene's on his way to PSG!

I don't know how hard to laugh at rumors that have Arsène moving to PSG in the summer. I'm not referring to its implausibility, although it is far-fetched. We at Arsenal have long since learned that, during any given transfer window, anyone is available if the price and timing are right, so to reject any transfer outright is too much of a knee-jerk reaction. However, to hear that Wenger might break his contract to go to nouveau-riche PSG this summer is a bridge too far. It doesn't beggar belief, necessarily. He's French, they're French; he's had a fair amount of ungrateful critics heaping abuse on him (well, they have gone strangely quiet lately), so maybe a change of pace would do him good. However, I'm not really worried too much about all of that.

What amuses me the most about this latest rumor is the Ibrahimovic connection. The last time we had to worry about Ibrahimovic was when we faced AC Milan in the Champions League last season. It was then that the stories came out that Arsène was close to signing him in 2000 and was told, after asking Ibrahimovic to go through a brief training session, that "Zlatan doesn't do trials". Or so the story goes. The way it's been reported makes it seem that Ibrahimovic was so arrogant that he told Arsène off with a witty one-liner. However, I suspect that this is a classic fish story. Sure, I'll accept that Ibrahimovic refused to go through the trial, but I'll only accept on the grounds that he's burnished that story to make it seem like he had one over on the manager. It's far more likely that he was petulant or whiny about it. He was only 16 at the time, and even as sarcastic and brash as teenagers can be, I still don't fully believe the version of the story on offer. I could see him saying that kind of stuff now, but not back then before he had proven his talent. It's only through the passage of time that Ibrahimovic remembers himself saying it like that. Schmuck.

This makes the Wenger-to-PSG rumors that much more delicious to me. How would it go down between them after Ibrahimovic's juvenile quip, whether he actually issued it to Arsène's face back then or in the relative comfort of wherever he was when he shared the story with The fish 'n chips wrapper Sun back in November 2012? Would they kiss and make up? Would Arsène just bench him, or would he give Ibrahimovic one of his "funny Wenger looks" (Ibrahimovic's words, not mine)? Maybe he could just ship Ibrahimovic out on a loan to some back-water club to help the Swede continue his quest of winning championships in as many leagues as possible. I'm sure he'd do well in with Süper Lig's Akhisar Belediye.  He's won with Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, and, soon, PSG. Strange that he's never tried to ply his trade in jolly old England. Or is it? As talented and as breath-taking as his play can be at times, maybe he lacks certain qualities needed to thrive in the Prem. I don't know.

I do know this. PSG has been voraciously snapping up the best talent that money can buy and continue to be linked with players like Rooney, Ronaldo, and others. It's not for nothing that they'd be nosing around to see if Arsène is interested. He's still among the world's best football managers. Say what you will about our dip in fortunes recently. Criticize him all you want about transfers (but be careful until you have actual evidence to prove that players leaving and a lack of signings are Arsène's fault). What he's achieved in his time with Arsenal has been remarkable and glorious, which only makes the dry patch feel all the more inexorable. I see us returning to glory under him sooner than under any other available manager. Stay put, Arsène; the ingrates will come around eventually...

29 April 2013

In Defense of Bacary Sagna

There's been an interesting dichotomy in the analysis of our 1-1 draw with Man U. On one hand, most of us are satisfied with the draw. On the other, there's been a fair amount of abuse heaped on Bacary Sagna for the sequence that led to van Persie's goal.  Let's be honestit was god-awful and gruesome from start to finish. However, I think Sagna's critics are being too harsh on the man. He has, after all, been quite hard on himself, in public and almost certainly in private. Whatever invective has rained down on his shoulders since the 43rd minute of Sunday's game is no match for the torrent of self-vituperation Sagna has since subjected himself to. I've come to Sagna's aid in the past, not that he's asked for it or needed it from the likes of me, and I'll gladly do it again.

Via whoscored.com, "no significant weaknesses." Just sayin'.
First, some numbers: according to whoscored.com, Sagna has been one of our most consistent performers of the last few years, earning an overall score of 6.89 in 2009-10, 7.04 in 2010-11, 6.99 in 2011-12, and a 7.01 so far in 2012-13. Beyond these numbers, though, he embodies to me a lot of Arsenal's personality and, yes, that Arsenal DNA. Ever since coming over in 2003, he's impressed me with his determination, toughness, and skill, not to mention the charisma-upgrade (if not skill, I know...) he brought with him in taking the #3, Ashley Cole's old number. The man takes to the pitch and presses forward and tracks back with the best of him, and if he lacks the attacking of Glen Johnson or the tackling of Pablo Zabaleta, I still count him among the best right-backs in the Prem. You might think me crazy, and you might just be right.

As to that horrific sequence on Sunday, it's not as if Sagna was playing one-on-one with van Persie. After the bad pass, Mertesacker was slow to respond (or maybe just slow, period), tracking back into the box while van Persie collected the ball at the corner of the box. Whatever Sagna was up to, letting a striker of van Persie's quality charge forward unescorted is inexcusable. Someone should be on his hip at all times. If Mertesacker determined that he could not beat van Persie to the ball itself, he should have at least considered moving over to cut off van Persie's angle. Even from 10 feet away, he'd force van Persie to take a much-trickier shot. I realize that a lot of this is hindsight, but it still matters. Without another teammate tracking van Persie's every move, Sagna was forced to chase him down from a stand-still into the box. The fact that he got there in time to even be capable of a foul is impressive.

Next, in the absence of an alternate-reality device of some kind, we're left blaming Sagna for allowing Man U to score its only goal. However, the second half saw Man U create plenty of chances. Maybe they were energized after leveling the score; maybe we were deflated. In either case, we should have come out of halftime like crazed madmen hell-bent on scoring. Instead, we failed to do much except watch Man U barrel down our left side time and again only to fling crosses harmlessly across the mouth of the goal. If just one of these had been finished, or if one of van Persie's other countless chances had gone in, or if Giggs had done better on his one glorious chance, Sagna's gaffe wouldn't have mattered. That's quite a few if's to toss off, I know. My point is this: for a home-team scrambling for three points to score only once signals a lack of purpose. To therefore single out Sagna for conceding a goal without likewise condemning others for failing to generate chances, if not goals, is a bit myopic.

The man has come back from breaking the same leg twice inside of eight months without dramatically losing form. To see him then thrown under the bus for a few seconds of madness is distressing. I do like Carl Jenkinson and believe he has a bright future with us, but I'm not quite ready to bid Sagna farewell. PSG and Monaco want him? Huh. This can only mean that he's still held in high esteem. He's no Arshavin (sorry, Andrei). Let's make them wait one more year. I pray that he stays at least one more year to get 200 appearances with the club (he's at 174 at the moment). He deserves to join those ranks, and he deserves a chance to go out with more of a bang then a whimper, I'll say that much.

28 April 2013

8 more points to go and (almost) nothing about van Persie here.

I take grim satisfaction in having denied Man U the chance to get 96 points on the season. There. I said it. I'm not ashamed of being petty.

After preparing myself for worse, I can't help but feel a touch disappointed. Going ahead inside of two minutes will do that to man. We dominated most of the first half, and it was good to see Walcott score for the first time since January. As halftime approached, things were looking quite good. Man U, despite fielding a strong XI, didn't look all that aggressive or interested, and it wasn't until Sagna's foul that they could equalize. It really is a bit of a shame, then, to have dropped points. However, I don't understand the analysis at ESPN under the headline "Will Gunners blow race for Champions League?" I know that writers enjoy an eye-catching headline, but this one stretches a bit too far. Last I checked, I and almost everyone else were penciling this one in as a win for Man U. Yes, we've dropped two points at home, but it's not as if we needed two Keystone Kop goals against a team facing relegation to earn our draw as Spurs did on Sunday.  We're the team that has climbed up as high as 3rd place while those above us have stumbled, so I'd kindly encourage to those who suggested that we've just blown it that they take a long walk of a short pier.

I've said it before and I'll say it again--any team seeking to win the Prem or qualify for the Champions League cannot afford to drop points to teams at the bottom of the table. Dropping points to the leaders, while damaging, is not nearly as big a problem. It's therefore puzzling to see Spurs hailed for pulling back twice to "earn" a point at Wigan (18th on the table, facing relegation) while we're mocked for "dropping" a two points against Man U (league champions by fourteen points and winners of 27 games).  Sure, it would have been nice to keep all three, but I'll take the one without too much complaining. We went into this match arguably as underdogs even if Man U did look to be on cruise control for the rest of the season. At the start of the day, we needed nine points from four games, and the odds we'd have to take all nine from the last three were maybe 50-50. Instead, we've kept one point and now only need eight from three. With QPR officially relegated, next week's trip to Loftus Road got that much easier, unless they play more freely without the Damoclean sword of relegation dangling above them. Even then, I like our chances. After that, we'll host Wigan, who could be a bit tricky as they strive to escape relegation, and then a Newcastle team that may have just gone into free-fall without Krul between the sticks, if Saturday's 6-0 drubbing by a Suarez-less Liverpool is any indication (if I come across any stories saying that they "won it for Suarez" I may just vomit).

I could care less that it was van Persie who scored. So what? He needed a penalty-kick to do it. There's no symbolism in it to me, no message to be read into it. Well, maybe there is: maybe it marks the moment that Wayne Rooney officially decided to seek a summer move. Yes, he missed his against us in November, and I'm sure Ferguson saw a chance to tweak Arsène by giving the nod to van Persie, but I gotta think that Rooney sees the writing on the wall, and it's telling him to try the market.

At any rate, we stay in 4th place, one point behind Chelsea and two ahead of Spurs. I'll take that.

Mind the gap--and that lineup!

Thanks to Spurs' draw with Wigan, the fourth-place formula has distilled quite nicely. We now have the inside track on 4th place. If we can take 9 of our remaining 12 points, we reach 72, and Spurs have to keep 11 of their remaining 12 to get to 73. If we keep 10 of twelve, 4th is ours no matter what Spurs do. Chelsea is set to host Swansea as I write, and they have to take 11 of their 15 points to stay above us. While Swansea might feel complacent after having won the Capital One Cup, they did draw with Chelsea in the Prem and defeat them in the Capital One Cup semi-final. Whether this motivates Chelsea or proves that Swansea has their number could be determined today. They could be done by half-time of our match, not that I want any of our boys checking the scoreboard, but their result should infuse us with more intensity no matter how it turns out for them. A win for us today, coupled with Spurs' draw and a Chelsea loss (a boy can dream, can't he?) clears the path for us as Chelsea would then be in a situation identical to Spurs': stranded on 62 points, level on games played, and facing each other on May 8. Come on, Michu!

As for us today, we need aggressivness and experience across the board regardless of who takes the field for Man U. Here, then, is my submission for the starting XI:

  • Keeper: Szczęsny. Has one tolerably well since his return.
  • Defense: Gibbs, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Sagna. Consistency and stability are key, with apologies to Vermaelen, Monreal, and Jenkinson. For what it's worth, Gibbs and Sagna are more familiar with van Persie, should he play.
  • Defensive midfield: Arteta and Ramsey continue their competition for best passing accuracy and most touches.
  • Attacking midfield: Cazorla, Podolski, Rosický. As much as I love Wilshere, I worry that he gets too amped up in these situations, and his injury could use the rest--if only for the first 60 minutes. Throw him on if someone needs to come off. As previously suggested, I'm looking to Poldi contend for a MOTM-type performance, and Cazorla? Cazorla needs no introduction.
  • Forward: Walcott. Between him and Gervinho, he's the lesser of two evils. And he's "due", if that means anything.
Right. Put 'em on their heels, boys, and don't let up 'til the final whistle blows!