25 May 2013

Please don't waste time or money on Ashley Williams

In fact, I feel like I'm wasting my own time addressing the issue. We are perfectly fine without the man, or at least strong enough that signing him should not be a high priority. We finished the season as the second-stingiest defense in the Prem despite conceding more goals through errors than any other team but Wigan. Once we cut down on that problem, we finished the season in fine form, taking 87% of the points from our last ten games, including five clean sheets. Such a rate sustained over the entire season would see us take nearly 100 points. Why, then, with the re-emergence of Koscielny and his pairing with Mertesacker, would we target the likes of Williams? He's had a strong season to be sure, but he doesn't stand out as being head and shoulders above our current lot.

We are all familiar with how well the Kos-Per partnership has worked. I may have some doubts about the BFG's pace, but he does seem to make up for it, more or less, with positional awareness. However,  any pursuit of Williams begs the question: what does this mean for Vermaelen? He hasn't seen meaningful playing time since the 3-1 win over Norwich back in April and has in fact had to swallow his pride to come on as a last-minute (literally) sub against Fulham, QPR, and Wigan. His fall from grace has been stunning, and he probably has doubts about his future with Arsenal, not to mention with the Belgian national team. Vertonghen's emergence with Spurs further complicates that issue. While we shouldn't worry excessively about the ins and outs of the Rote Teufeln, it is worth remembering that Vermaelen most certainly wants to represent his country, a desire that is harder to fulfill if he's stuck on our bench.

It's not as if Williams represents a significant upgrade from Vermaelen. According to whoscored.com, Williams has finished a strong season with a 7.04 rating. By contrast, Vermaelen has finished a season that was so abysmal that he finished with a rating of--wait for it--6.85. If van Persie hadn't sent home that squibbed clearance, or if Vermaelen had drawn one less yellow card, we wouldn't be wasting our time with Williams even if he was begging to come to Arsenal. Why should we take a chance on a decent 28 year-old player who's only played two years in the Prem when we have a equally good 27 year-old with four years in the Prem? I may not be completely sold on Mertesacker, but I trust the Kos-Per partnership far more than I might any partnership Williams might have to forge with any of our three center-backs at the start of the upcoming season. One of the last problems we want to create for ourselves is having to re-introduce defenders to each other. During the 2012-13 campaign, we only took 15 of 30 points from our first ten matches, including points dropped in a draw with Man City and in losses to Chelsea, Norwich, and Man U (goal-less draws with Stoke and Sunderland don't really register as these were clean sheets anyway). Such a rate would see us finish with 57 points on the season, good enough for 8th place or thereabouts.

Two more points, one that concerns us and one that concerns Swansea. Let's deal with Swansea's concerns first. I respect them, despite them beating us once upon a time. In fact, as a result, I respect them all the more. They're Arsenal Junior, finding young talent and playing attractive football on a tight budget. In fact, I would even go so far as to dub them my second-favorite team in the Prem. I'm thrilled that they'll play in the Europa League next year, and even happier that they won the league cup. Therefore, I don't want us to poach any of their players (well, maybe Michu...). Let's back-track, then, to us. I don't want us spending what the reports suggest we might spend to sign Williams. Depending on whom you ask, we're offering something in the range of £10-12m for the man. Considering our needs and his value, this might overvalue him two times over. Transfermrkt values him at something closer to £5-6m. I understand that you have to overbid in a sense, but doubling down hardly seems sensible, at least in May. Maybe in August. Maybe if our defensive woes were severe. Maybe if the player in question was stellar. If one of these issues was pressing, I could be convinced. However, none of these conditions exist.

Let the lad remain at Swansea, and good luck to them next year in the Prem and Europa League. We have other priorities. A striker might be nice. Can we get Lewandowski on the line?

Just don't look; Jovetic, Higuain, and inverse-relationships

I'd like to introduce or at lay claim to a new theory that, after more rigorous testing, could become a law that possesses the same force, authority, and consistency as, say, gravity or evolution, and that is this: there is an inverse relationship between the frequency of articles linking us to a new transfer and the likelihood of us signing him. The power of this proposed theory grows when we add in the factor of time--the earlier such stories emerge, the stronger the theory's power. Consider that many of our signings in recent years have occurred close to the very end of the transfer window. Going by the announcements listed at the team-site, key-signings like Monreal signed 31 January (the deadline), Giroud signed 26 June, Cazorla signed 7 August, and Arteta signed 31 August 2012 (as with Monreal, dead-line day). Only Podolski seems to have agreed to terms any earlier than that. The team-site doesn't specify, but the BBC runs an article dated 30 April 2012 in which Wenger and Podolski both confirm that he has joined the club. It's still May, and stories linking us to Jovetic and Higuain, among others, date as far back as February, if not earlier. If you believe the likes of CaughtOffside, we actually signed  Jovetic in late-March.

Arsène is hardly a manager who does his business publicly. After all, for a man who built his reputation and this team through his ability to discover hidden talent, diamonds in the rough, needles in the haystack, and the like, it hardly makes sense that he'd tolerate, encourage, or engage in speculation. Therefore, I've adopted the mindset that I'm shaping into a capital "T" Theory, soon to be known as Wenger's Law. More rumors, less likelihood. Under it, I've learned to all but ignore transfer stories until the team-site confirms it. A quick search of "jovetic arsenal" yields almost 7,000,000 results, "higuain arsenal" provides almost 6,000,000, and "rooney arsenal" 45,000,000. Under Wenger's Law, then, we're almost seven times more likely to sign Higuain or Jovetic than Rooney. Heck, we're 75 times more likely to sign Michu than to sign Rooney (and I think I'd prefer Michu over Rooney anyway).

The list of players we've been linked to in previous transfer windows is probably longer than the list of players who've actually played for Arsenal. If I'm exaggerating, it's not by much. Transfermrkt.co.uk suggests that we have a 51% chance of signing Jovetic, up three points from a week ago, and a 22% of signing Higuain, unchanged from a week ago. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I do resent the existence of these stories and do feel a little like I need a shower after dirtying my own hands  in dealing with this kind of rubbish. I'm excited for what we can accomplish in the upcoming season, and, sure, bringing in a player or two can boost our prospects. However, as crazy as it sounds, we do have a strong squad, and I'll go so far as to predict a break-out season for at least one of our young men, the kind that sees him make a jump from "yeah, he's pretty good but..." to "wow. I knew he was good but I hardly imagined..." There's no guarantee there, but I'd love to see that happen more just as much as a key signing--maybe even more.

In the meantime, I'm content to sit back and let the transfer rumors do what they're going to do. I won't be reading past the headlines, though. Clicking them only encourages them to spawn, after all.

24 May 2013

I ♥ Carl Jenkinson, Volume II

I hate most improved player awards. Talk about a slap in the face, or at least a back-handed compliment: "you were so terrible last year that marginal improvements have earned you this little trophy. We'll applaud politely for a moment before passing out the awards that actually matter"[smattering of applause]. However, as I was wrestling with a "player of the year" award, I found myself on the horns of a different dilemma--an award like that insults every other member of the squad, who performances do after all make that indvidual's performance possible. Football is, after all, a team sport, and for as skilled as any one player is, his success depends immensely on how well his teammates perform. I'll save you the graduate thesis and get back to the order of the day.

Hold still, Mikel; I may nutmeg thee. Cole, I shall dispatch you forthwith.
Most of the attention has gone to the headline-stealers like Cazorla who did dazzle us week in and week out, whether it was a goal or a dribble or a tackle, or the quiet, consistent ones like Arteta who seem to play at the same level of consistency week after week after week. While I'm not going to go out on a limb to proclaim anyone as "player of the year" or "most improved", and I'm not going to use the term "break-out season", I do want to hail a player who has quietly emerged and is starting to come into his own right as it seems we're going to need him now more than ever: one Carl Jenkinson. With Sagna struggling to regain his form after twice breaking his leg and with rumors of an imminent exit swirling, Carl may become our first-choice right-back sooner rather than later. Absent a move for another right-back over the summer, he may claim the position if only by default. Thankfully, then, the deer in the headlights who was so out of depth in his first season has morphed into a more confident and more capable player. He may not inspire fear in opposing forwards just yet, but he has come far enough to stop them from salivating as they so often did last season.

According to whoscored.com's statistics, after all, his overall rating has grown from 6.16 to 6.71, the largest increase of anyone on the squad (yes, I know that having a low rating makes it easier to grow). He's done so by doubling up on almost every positive statistic while halving the negative ones. Tackles up 1.7 to 2.3 per game. Interceptions up 0.3 to 0.6. Clearances up from 1.4 to 2.4. While these are solid improvements, the raw numbers are still modest enough not to get anyone very excited. However, after a first season that was positively slap-stick at times, Jenkinson seems to have decided that he can make it in the Prem and what's more, he can make it in the Prem with Arsenal. What might his numbers look like if he had featured more over the last three months when the Koscielny-Mertesacker pairing strengthened the defense? Would Jenkinson be pushing closer to a rating of seven? It's entirely possible.

It's going to be a while yet before he can fully and thoroughly assert himself with authority. Due to his youth and boyishness, he just doesn't seem very intimidating. Maybe he should leave behind the clean quiff, avoid the barber altogether over the summer, and return in August with more of a Neanderthal shag.

extolled his emergence earlier in the season, ironically just days after his last appearance. Sagna seems to have reclaimed his starting role at Jenkinson's expense. Whether is an attempt on Arsène's part to placate the man or boost his value going into the summer is something to explore at another time. For now, let's raise a toast to Mr. Jenkinson, who is growing into a right-back whom we can trust and who seems to love this club as much as we do. I know that players say things without meaning it all the time, but the lad has seen fit to say, "my ambition for my whole career is to play for this football club. I want to be good enough and make my mark here." I'm willing to take that at face value, and if he continues the trajectory that he's on, he will make that mark sooner rather than later.

23 May 2013

Arsenal's less than a point behind Man U...

...and we're about to kick that blasted door right off its hinges.

That's right. According to whoscored.com, Arsenal rates just barely below Man U and comes in ahead of Chelsea and Man City. If we were to use those ratings to determine Prem League standings, Arsenal would finish in second place just behind Man U with a margin so narrow that it would be like losing on goal-differential (Man City, version 2012, you may take your bow). Man U comes in at 7.01; Arsenal comes in at 6.99. An imprecise gauge, to be sure, but it does suggest that we do not lack for quality, and we do measure up quite well with the Prem's best while also keeping pace with the best in Europe. This does not mean that we can afford to rest easy and assume that we'll continue to keep pace. If we expect to contend in the Prem and make progress in the Champions League, we'll have to do more than rely on break-out seasons from Walcott, Ramsey, Koscielny, Gibbs, or Sczcęsny, among others. As much as I believe that two or more of them will in fact break through in 2013-14, we'll still need to introduce one, if not two, new members to the squad. I'm not sold on Jovetic. I would much prefer we pursue Higuain, Benzema, or Lewandowski. However, that's not what I'm here to discuss today.

Today is all about acknowledging quality, and despite ups and downs that lasted until somewhere around March 3rd, we do seem to have quite a bit of it--maybe not quite as much as we would like or had grown accustomed to, but quality all the same. I contacted the good people at whoscored.com to discuss what these numbers mean and how much particular categories count for and so on. Despite my persistence, I'm sad to say that I couldn't unearth any deeper insights into their formulas and calculations. I did get a nifty restraining order out of it, though, so I'll always have that to remember.

I've dived into the statistics to see what more I can ascertain, but there's just not a lot more to unearth. What is striking is to see how well we match up with Man U across the board. Again, not knowing the impact that goals have on a team's rating, it's worth noting that Man U scored 24 more goals than we did but are still just barely rated ahead of us on overall quality. Shots per game? We had 597 to Man U's 562, besting them at 15.7 to 14.8 per game. Possession? Again we win out, 58.2% to 56.2%. Shots conceded? Yes. 10.6 to 12.9. We out-tackle, 19.7 to 19.2. We intercept more, 16.7 to 13.6. We're better dribblers, 10.7 to 6.4. Everything else is essentially equal, a tenth of a point here, three tenths of a point there.

Of course, the only statistic that truly matters is the number of goals a team scored against the number conceded, and that's clearly why Man U nudges us out, whatever whoscored.com's formulas. We can find comfort in seeing that we play football better than Man City or Chelsea or Man U, but if we don't outscore our opponents more often than they do, style doesn't really matter. We can point to passing accuracy or possession, but those in and of themselves do not win silverware.

That's part and parcel of what makes the last three months of football so rewarding. Yes, we won a few games thanks to that Arsenal style, but we've won just as many, if not more, by simply outworking our opponents, churning out win after win after win (and, um, a draw here and there). Among the top five finishers, we alone can claim to have gone undefeated over our last ten matches. Yes, it's a small sample size, but such a rate of return would have brought home 99 points on the season.

My point is this: we have had to wait until the very last minutes of the season to know where we'd finish, but we finished strong and look set to start the next campaign in similar fashion. Our current squad has shown more mettle, grit, and tenacity than our reputation previously suggested. Standing pat, we'd probably still finish fourth or higher next year as our younger lads mature and realize their potential. A summer of insightful spending--one, maybe two key signings--might just be the difference between a Manchester club and a certain North London club lifting a trophy or two by the end of the season.

No RVP? So what? Arsenal was still the 3rd-highest scoring team in the Prem.

Suck an egg, van Persie. Without you, we still scored 72 goals, only two less than last year. You're like heroin. The rush is incredibly euphoric but ultimately short-lived, and it ravages you from within as each hit delivers less and less pleasure. This year, we've concocted a pretty-damned effective methadone clinic as four players reached double-digits in goals. However, this is not meant to be a vindictive post. I don't really want to wallow in that. Who knows what could've happened this year had RVP remained? On one hand, he might've replicated the form he showed in 2011-12. However, this would have prevented Walcott, Cazorla, Podolski, or Giroud from scoring at the same rate that they did. On the other, he may have reverted to his previous, injury-prone form and played in about half of our matches as he had done in just about every year before last, in which case, Walcott, Cazorla, Podolski, and Giroud might all have scored in the double-figures anyway. In other words, a wash.

Instead of thinking about what might've been or what could've been, let's just celebrate what actually was. 72 goals in 38 games. Not bad. Not bad at all. Here, then, is a nifty little recap of all of those goals, thanks to SlimSwaidy, whom you can find on twitter and on facebook.

Sit back, relax, and enjoy a bevvie or two. It's a solid half-hour of glory.
This doesn't mean our offense is fully-sorted, of course. A deeper look at that is coming up here soon.

22 May 2013

Koscielny, ninja from Lorient

Koscielny's goal against Newcastle was a nifty little ninja-kick, but it's hardly the first time the man has unleashed his martial-arts mastery. We saw him wield the Right Foot of Destiny against Wigan, denying Arouna Koné in the 28th minute with a flying kick that saw him lift his foot up above Koné's head to clear what looked to be a sure goal. Koné looked like he had a clear header or at least muff it enough that it would squirt in as Szczęsny had charged out to punch the ball clear but might have missed. Such is the power of Koscielny that neither Szczęsny nor Koné could do anything to anticipate, react, or transcend him. Therefore, to commemorate his ninja prowess, I've tried my hand at a little imagery. Let me know what you think. It's my first project, so I'm sure I have a lot to learn...
Sorry about the watermark.
His performance against Newcastle, even without the goal, was masterful. Whoscored.com credited him with two tackles, two interceptions, four clearances, and two effective clearances, but I don't think that does him justice. He was simply everywhere. If he continues to perform like that, and as he has over the last few months of the season, he will shoulder his way into the debate over the Prem's best center-backs. I scoured the stats to start building a case for him, but he's just not there quite yet. Next year, I believe, will be a different story.

21 May 2013

Almost nothing here on Higuain, Jovetic, Sanogo, Fabregas--almost.

First, let me say that you find no updates on how close we are to signing anyone here. There. I just don't want there to be any misconceptions about what you're about to read. I'm just here to address the frenzy of rumors after seeing that my earlier post, in which I looked long and hard at something that actually happened (namely, our losses to Bradford and Blackburn) seemed to be the only story out there wtihout the wordtransfer or Higuain or Jovetic in its title.  Naturally, I felt lonely, so here I am to join the fray.

Fans? The fish. Rumors? The bait. No fish, no fishing.
I've said it before and I'll say it again and again. Rumors are rumors, and this means that they are not yet true. "News" refers to things that have happened and have been confirmed by some outside source. The same news source that "confirms" that we have signed Gonzalo Higuain, sport.es, is running a newer story claiming that Juventus has launched a bid for the same man. They can't both be true. If we've signed the man, is Juventus approaching us with an offer? Here, if you care to look, is what you'll see at sport.es if you enter a search for "Higuain." Newest headline: "La Juventus inicia su ofensiva por Higuain" or "Juventus begins its offensive for Higuain." Preceding, earlier headline: "Higuain está a un paso de fichar por el Arsenal," or "Higuain is one step away from signing for Arsenal." Technically, they are both true. The man might be one step away from signing while Juventus tries to pry him away before he takes that last step. However, it's pretty clear that we, along with Juve's fans, are being hustled. Neither story is more true or more false than the other, which is to say, they're both equally neither. They exist in the limbo, and, like a horoscope, are just vague enough for any reader to pin hopes and dreams on to make it seem true: "Hey, look--my horoscope says I will go on a difficult journey. I do have to take the train to work today..."

I understand the seductiveness and the lure. We all want to know who's joining the club as soon as possible. However, there's little point to reading story after story that follows the same formula: an unconfirmed source says that a player's agent or brother or chlidhood coach has confirmed that the player has agreed to terms or is close to signing , and then peters out with a brief run-down of the player's exploits and how he'll enhance his new club's prospects while being the best _________ since the previous bloke to play the position.

Of course, I slum around a bit as well. I'm excited for what our squad will look like. However, I don't really want to reward the sites that entice us with these recycled stories (and yes, I'm aware of the irony of commenting on transfer-talk in order to decry it, so don't bother to point it out). Here's what I recommend.  Limit your time to a site like transfermrkt.co.uk, who offer odds on who will go where. First, I owe them after mocking them for mis-spelling "mrkt". I didn't realize it was German, okay? Second, they offer such excellent stats on just about every single team that exists that they deserve the attention. When it comes to the transfer-talk, they simply suggest that there's a 52% chance that Higuain will join Juve and a 22% chance he'll join Arsenal. There's a 53% chance that Jovetic will join us, 47% he'll join Juve. That's all I really care to know at this point. Everything else that we're going to hear is just part of the negotiation process as everyone's agents and entourages look for leverage, players pitting teams against each other, teams pitting players against each other, all of them seeking the best deal. There's nothing wrong with them doing that, but it seems silly to pay it so much attention.

Of course, having said all of this, my most-popular posts to this point have all addressed transfer talk, so I should mind my manners until I figure out if I'm a hypocrite or the last angry man. Just do me a favor and don't try to do the figuring for me...

What was Arsenal's worst loss of the season?

I hope it's not too much of a buzzkill to dredge this subject up, but I thought I might maybe sneak this in while we're still celebrating Champions League qualification, St. Totteringham's Day, and all the rest. A spoonful of sugar, perhaps. Last year, we had to deal with the 8-2 debacle at Old Trafford, a humiliating destruction that hung over us for most of the rest of the season. This year, thankfully, we never conceded more than five goals (to Reading? at least we won...) or lost by more than two. Improvements, to be sure, but more to be done. In the absence of such a shocking scoreline this year, what, then, sticks out as the worst loss, either symbolically or strategically?

At first, I was drawn to the 3-1 loss to Bayern. It was a home-loss, it all but ended our European adventure, and it was the first time a German team won in England. It echoed last year's 4-0 loss at AC Milan in many ways. However, as soon as we drew Bayern, we all but knew that it spelled our demise. After all,  Bayern had terrorized the Bundesliga and are hell-bent on winning the Champions League after falling short last year and in 2010. In fact, because we answered so famously in the second leg, the sting of that loss is all but forgotten. The long-shot nature of progressing here or beyond inure us against feeling too much lingering bitterness.

No, instead, there are two losses from the year that are going to chafe at the taint for a while, and both of them ended our best chances at actual silverware this year, extending The Drought for yet another year. By now, I'm sure you're thinking along with me: the quarter-final loss to Bradford in the Capital One Cup and the 5th round loss to Blackburn in the FA Cup. Both were embarrassing at both levels (symbolic and strategic). We lost to far-inferior teams despite fielding full-strength squads, crashing out of competitions in stunning fashion. Which one is worse, though?

At first blush, the Bradford loss stands out. We must have a dozen players who each out-earn the entire side. We sent out Szczesny, Sagna, Per, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla, Coquelin, Podolski, and Gervinho against a League Two club and lost. By contrast, in the previous round, we featured Martinez, Djourou, Miquel, Frimpong, Gnabry, and Chamakh and won 6-1. If we had hoped to intimidate Bradford, it seems only to have backfired. That we needed a last-gasp goal from Vermaelen to even get to extra time, much less penalties, is ridiculous (no disrespect to the Bantams). Lastly, heaping even more misery on ourselves, Chamakh and Vermaelen missed, and Cazorla had his shot saved to concede the game infamously to Bradford. Had we won, assuming that the next-round draw had remained the same, we would have faced Aston Villa and would have gone on to face Swansea in the final. Both of these would have been eminently winnable games.

Our other option is the Blackburn loss. The gap between the two of us is not nearly as considerable as it is between us and Bradford, but it's still quite large. They were relegated to the Championship this year after ten in the Prem, and they'd even won the league championship in 1995. However, this was another game we really should have won with ease. Even if we did have one eye on the Bayern match three days later, we again sent out a squad full of first-team regulars with Szczesny, Monreal, Koscielny, Vermaelen,, Diaby, Rosicky Arteta, Ox, Coquelin, Giroud, and Gervinho. The fact that we went on to lose to Bayern seems to have deflected attention away from this one somewhat as it became "just" the first of two losses in a row, and there was barely enough time to feel its sting before we had to prepare for Bayern. However, we had to go in knowing it was our best last-chance at a trophy. Had we won, all other things staying the same, we would have faced Millwall, then Wigan, and then Man City in the final. Perhaps not quite as winnable as Swansea in the Capital One final, but still well within reach.

We might have simply written off the Capital One Cup as beneath us, and even winning it might not have offered us much consolation even if it would have ended The Drought. Even if some among might sneer at the Capital One Cup, a trophy is a trophy. Winning it might have been nice, if only to get the monkey off our backs and allow us to relax just a little. It's more than a shame to have let it slip through our fingers when it could have been so easy. It should have been. We could have exacted some revenge on Swansea for the earlier 2-0 defeat. We simply underestimated Bradford and the Cup, thinking that the name "Arsenal" should be enough to win games for us. Lesson learned.

Or it should have been. Instead, we went into the Blackburn match knowing that the FA Cup was the only silverware within reach. We were 21 points behind Man U in the Prem and would have to beat Bayern, then Dortmund, Real, or Barca in the UCL. In one of my first-ever posts,  I lamented this loss bitterly. This, even more than the loss to Bradford, cut me to the quick. It seemed to slam shut a coffin-lid whereas the Bradford loss merely slammed shut a door. I'm not ashamed to admit that I wept--but it was "manly" stuff: a tear or two rolled down my cheek, jaw clenched, etc. I didn't even care how we would  do against Bayern. My mood darkened anyway, as that loss rolled into the 2-1 loss at White Hart Lane. 

However, we all know how the story unfolds. Yeah, we've gone another year without a trophy, but we finished famously. For as depressed as I got back there, I'm going to savor the celebration at the end of the season more than I'll rue the maelstrom in the middle.

20 May 2013

Happy St. Totteringham's Day to you all!

Wow. I can't say enough about the rollercoaster-ride this season has been, and to have it end as it has is nothing short of wonderful. Anyone still dwelling on the idea that we've fallen on hard times if we're celebrating a 4th-place finish because "we're Arsenal Invincibles blah blah blah"  can take a flying leap, for all I'm concerned. 4th place may not be caviar, but it sure as hell ain't sausage. Ask 34 other Prem League teams if they'd trade places with us--heck, it could've been 35 if Chelsea had  stumbled. Check with Gary Neville, who rightly points out that we've spent less than £10 million net in the last ten years as we've paid down the debt on a new stadium that raised capacity from 38,419 at Highbury to 60,362 at the Emirates.  Under Arsène, we have never finished lower than Spurs, never finished lower than fourth, and have always played in the Champions League. Sure, we've gone from finishing first or second to finishing third or fourth but have done so without the resources of any of the clubs who have been finishing above us. To anyone who feels that this isn't good enough, maybe you should consider rooting for the likes of Man City or Chelsea or Man U. I mean, seriously. Come to grips with reality, and, by all means, see where we are a year from now and ten years from now.

Neville hit it on the head when he said the following:
They've built a football stadium, they're paying off their debt, and they're nearly there. If they move up now, it will look like one of the most magnificent managerial performances when you look back in history. Half the Arsenal fans are annoyed because they think they should be doing more and should be doing better, but of all the madness and debt that surrounds football, what they have done is absolutely the right thing.
He goes on to mention a few cautionary tales, such as Portsmouth and Leeds, as examples of what can happen when a team mismanages finances. I'm always suspicious of how "great" a manager can be if he can manage the best players in the world. Yes, it's a challenge to sort those egos and all, but what Wenger has done with the players he's had and with his long-range plan is nothing short of visionary. Of course, he does put out a rather large "if", as in "if they move up". We'll come back around to that in moment.

First, though, let's remind ourselves of what we've done because it is significant and wonderful. We've climbed back from 10th place, taken 26 of our last 30 points, conceded less than a goal per game, and finished in 4th place, behind three of the freest-spending teams in the world, and have done so while having to see some of our best players leave. Just about the only improvement I could suggest on the season (aside from finishing first) would be to switch the Wigan and Newcastle games. How amazing it would have been to finish on a delirious high note instead of having to settle for a stomach-churning grinder whose outcome never seemed secure until the whistle blew! Up until Webb called it, I think most of us got more satisfaction from the fake "Newcastle equalized" tweet than we did from the actual game. Even Koscielny's goal, as fantastic as it was, wasn't enough to produce more than a moment of ecstasy before we settled back into worrying.

That's all in the past, thank god. We can hash and rehash what could've been and what should've been in a few days, but for now, just bask in the glory of yet another St. Totteringham's Day. I do actually pity Spurs even if it's not sufficiently Goonerish of me. They've achieved a lot, and it does say something that they can hang with the big boys as well as they do every year. I don't know if 5th place will convince Bale pack up and leave. I hope not. He's good for Spurs, of course, but he's been good for us. We needed a rabbit to chase, especially with the Manchesters pulling away from the rest of the pack for the last couple of years. Without him, Spurs will all but fade into obscurity, and we might start to feel complacent. We can't have that.

St. Totteringham's Day came about as late as it could this year, and there were moments when we doubted it would come at all, but it's here. Even now, nearly 24 hours after the fact, a smile spreads across my face and beams so brightly that colleagues worry about my mental state. For the first time  in a while (at least as far as it concerns this lovely team), I'm quite good. Happy. Relieved. Excited.

And that brings me back to Neville's "if". Qualifying for the Champions League gives us that much more leverage and, yes, lucre to woo a few new signings. I'd said it before and I'll say it again, not that anyone pays much attention to what I have to say: we've fought and scrabbled for ten years to arrive at almost precisely the point we are right now, in a new stadium, still in the Champions League, and with the financial stability and flexibility to dress up the squad a bit. We're therefore poised to make some moves over the summer, not that we need to overhaul this squad. I believe that the squad as it's currently made up, is on the verge of stepping up very well on its own, and could very well reel in if not overtake the clubs that finished ahead of us this year. Now that the season is over, the rumors will start to fly like an unholy Biblical plague. Do your best to ignore them, at least for a few days, and celebrate what and who we do have. Wilshere. Cazorla. Walcott. Koscielny. Gibbs. Ramsey. I won't list 'em all here, but you catch my drift. These are players (and yes, there are others) who might emerge next year with break-through performances. After all, we don't buy superstars. We make them.

19 May 2013

Arsenal 1-0 Newcastle: Koscielny rules the roost

May the gods and all other mysterious forces that govern the universe be praised for delivering Laurent Koscielny to us on this day. The Frenchman almost single-handedly made sure that Arsenal secured all three points in a tense contest that saw Newcastle threaten but never deliver on far too many chances. Were it not for Koscielny, we'd almost certainly have finished with a draw and might even have suffered a far-worse fate. Securing these three points became vital once Spurs went ahead of Sunderland, and, thanks to Koscielny's goal and all-around performance, we claimed them.

Fifteen minutes after Sunderland went down to ten men after a bad tackle from David Vaughan, and one minute before the end of regulation, Bale scored yet another last minute goal in all-too-familiar fashion: sweeping from right to left, just yards from the 18', he tapped the ball ahead and blasted one to  just inside the post. Everyone knew what was coming, but such is his quality that no one seemed able to stop it. That it wasn't enough to see them through actually makes me feel just a little bad for Spurs. Nah. Just kidding! I'll be celebrating this St. Totteringham's Day especially loudly. What's this now? Eighteen years in a row?

His goal made Koscielny's goal earlier in the day all the more vital. Without it, we'd have dropped to 5th place. In the 52nd minute, Walcott chipped a spot-kick into the box which Podolski looks to have headed forward, and Koscielny made a nifty little half-bicycle, beating Coloccini and glancing it off of a frozen Harper's head for the only goal of the afternoon.

It wasn't for lack of trying or chances, though. Walcott, for example, was one part unlucky, one part overdoing it when he flicked past Harper and hit the woodwork. After dribbling through three Toon defenders, I thought to myself, "he should've shot by now. Too many touches!" Then, when he did shoot, I thought, "ooh, one more touch would have put him past Harper". Truth be told, flicking right while moving left is a tricky one; he might have done better to go to the near post. Despite that, we really only put two shots on goal. In a game in which we knew we would need three points, either to stay ahead of Spurs or to overtake Chelsea, we looked strangely listless and ineffectual.

Of particular concern to me for most of the match was Per Mertesacker. Papiss Cissé regularly had his way with the big German, whether it was claiming loose balls, making runs, passing, shooting, whatever the case may have been. We have some poor finishing from him and the at-times dangerous Ben Arfa to thank for saving Mertesacker on more than one occasion. There were too many times when he got beat and seemed to jog far too casually to try to track down the player or the ball. I know that speed is not his forté, but even a slow man can be seen looking like he's running hard. Mertesacker absolutely trotted as if he was retrieving a frisbee in the park instead of chasing an opponent with the ball at his feet. Of course, were it not for Mertesacker's struggles, Koscielny would have found much less on his plate, and I do hope that Per treats Kos to something nice to thank him.

The scoreline shows Koscielny with two tackles, two interceptions, four clearances (two effective), and two aerial duels won. None of this seems to effectively capture the man's impact on the game. He simply dominated from end to end. In fact, he seemed to be the only player for either side who understood the importance of the match. I've written previously of Koscielny's importance to our success and have even wondered if he's ready to claim a spot among the Prem's best center-backs. It might still be a little early for that, even after today and after a string of strong performances to lock down our defense since mid-March. Thanks in part to his play and leadership, not to mention his partnership with, yes, Mertesacker, Sagna, Gibbs, Monreal, and Szczesny, our defense has emerged as the second-stingiest in the Prem, behind only Man City for goals-allowed. So improved has our defense been, in fact, that we conceded 12 fewer goals this season than last for an average of 0.98 goals per game. Not bad. Not bad at all.

The win means we finished the season having taken 26 of our final 30 points, climbing from as low as 10th place in December to claim 4th on the final day of the season. A fantastic finish, no doubt, and one that I hope propels us into next season with greater momentum, purpose, and consistency than this year. Qualifying for the Champions League was vital as it gives us that much more leverage in signing a few players to sharpen up the attack.

I think all of us were hoping for a match more similar to Wigan, one that would allow us to celebrate and shout and sing earlier and more often. This was a tense slog, but one that once again shows that we can win with flair or with grit. It may not have been pretty to watch, but it's a joyous outcome all the same. Let's sit back and savor it on that level, at least for a day or two. We can dissect it and the rest of the season in a few days' time. All season long, we've worried and wondered, and that's all over for now. Congrats, lads, on a well-fought season and a finish that all too many doubted would ever happen. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant!

Arsenal 0-0 Newcastle: Halftime Player Ratings

We're looking sluggish and disinterested while Newcastle look lively and determined. We haven't musted a shot on goal yet and are probably fortunate to go in to halftime with a scoreless draw. It's not that Newcastle have been all that incisive, but we seem to be lacking purpose, which is odd considering our needs and the stakes. Chelsea is tied with Everton at the half, and the same is true of Spurs and Sunderland. Sure, we can match Spurs for points, but they win, we must win. Here's hoping Wenger lays into the lads as he apparently did last week. Here, then, is a brief rundown of our boys' efforts so far:
  • Szczesny: 6/10. Not tested really but has doen well, such as on Cabaye's tricky shot.
  • Sagan: 6/10. Decent efforts moving forward but is having to do too much in back (see Mertesacker below).
  • Mertesacker: 3/10. Looks slow and lacks urgency as Cisse is beating him to loose balls and getting past him more often than not. Even when he gets beat, he seems to jog back, leaving others exposed.
  • Koscielny: 8/10. All over the place on the back line with several sharp headers and clearances. Very nearly scored from a corner early on. MOTM so far.
  • Gibbs: 6/10. Not yet delivering on my boast from the previous post but looking sharp. Might have had an assist if Cazorla hadn't wasted a decent chance from about 25 yards.
  • Ramsey: 6/10. Looks a little slow and tired but continues to work and press around the pitch well. Has to do more with Arteta off.
  • Arteta: NA. Subbed off after about 25' after re-aggravating the calf.
  • Oxlade-Chamberlain: 5/10. Hasn't made much of a mark yet. It will be interesting to see what he does in the second half.
  • Rosicky: 6/10. Lively and alert and harassing Newcastle well but to little effect so far.
  • Cazorla: 5/10. Decent but a bit wasteful, shooting poorly and getting a little too cute on the ball, taking touches when a pass would be better.
  • Podolski: 6/10. Has threatened at times. The offside call was tough as he looked onside, but he wasted the shot anyway (perhaps distracted by the whistle).
  • Walcott: 5/10. Getting too predictable on the wing, always looking to speed past on the outside after 1-2 feints. He'll have to mix it up there as well as on his crosses, which are all chips to the far post. A cut-back to the middle might give him better shots or chances to lay off to the top of the box.
All in all, we haven't looked like a team that needs three points. Here's to them coming out for the second half like crazed, rabid wolves and eat Newcastle alive as they did against Wigan...