22 June 2013

Odds: Higuain at 71%, Cesar 54%, Fellaini 43%

As if we all weren't already in a bit of a tizzy over the chances of signing Gonzalo Higuain, the rumor-mill, apparently sated on a steady diet of such stories, seems to be treating that one as a done-deal or at least "no longer news." In its place, then, steps a story that claims that Everton's Marouane Fellaini has said that he hopes to join Arsenal. Fine. He'd be a wonderful addition, in my opinion. Even if it turns out (as it already has) that the "I hope so" quote is, at best, second-hand information and not direct from the Afro-Belgian's mouth, it's again a promising sign of our ambitions.

Before we go too much further, I want to make sure you know what you're about to read. I'm not going to assess how much closer we've gotten to signing anyone or what the latest, breaking news in the transfer-market is. I've posted the odds from transfermrkt, but we'll leave it at that. I'm not going to go into a detailed analysis of how each player might make his mark, mesh with, or compete against current squad-members for playing time, or the like. Instead, I'd like to take a step back to encompass the broader view, setting aside the trees in order to view the forest.

Over the course of Arsene Wenger's tenure, we've come to expect (dread?) a certain predictable approach to the transfer market, characterized by dithering, thumb-twiddling, heel-dragging, lolly-gagging, and a certain indifference to the kinds of club-transforming signatures of which we so often seem on the short end of the stick. All too often, we've had to convince ourselves that the latest obscure Francophone (not always...) starlet  would magically morph under Arsene's tutelage into a superstar or something close to it. After all, it has happened often enough to be believable: Koscielny. Nasri. Fabregas. Van Persie. Wilshere. Walcott. Vieira. Cole. Ljungberg. Toure. Each of these players joined Arsenal at a tender age and turned (or is just steps away from turning) into a world-beater.

Instead of worrying too much about how many more steps are left in the Higuain ordeal or whether we'll go on to bring in the likes of Cesar or Fellaini, it's worth taking stock. It seems we have left behind the January transfer-window, when the most-frequently cited rumors had us signing a 31-year David Villa, who is far from washed up but certainly past his prime. As superficially ambitious as it was to see us linked to signing a player, any player, from Barcelona, signing him would have been at best a stop-gap, not a signaling of intent.

By contrast, the current rumor-mongers have shifted from linking us to a starry-eyed Montengrin from Serie A's 4th place team to instead linking us to the 3rd-most prolific scorer in La Liga over the last seven years, a dramatic surge in our own stature and momentum. For what it's worth, the Euroclub Index ranks Arsenal, 4th in the Prem, several clicks above Juventus, Serie A's champion. Fiorentina is nowhere to be found on this list. In other words, we've moved from snagging a minnow from a small pond to potentially landing a big fish from a much, much larger pond. The idea that we might then also poach Marouane Fellaini is further confirmation of our ambitions.

We're not shopping the bargain-bin, rummaging for players who might be, could be, or once were. I don't think this means we're turning our backs on the idea of making superstars--Yaya Sanogo might be the next superstar two or three years down the road. It's more that we're coming to terms with the reality of the situation: one, we're emerging from a period of remarkable financial restraint; two, we're coming to terms with the power of money in the market; and three; we're flexing a little bit of muscle in that market.  Not enough to look gauche or nouveau-riche, but enough to declare our intentions. As far as weather-vanes go, then, things seem to be pointing in the right direction.

Of course, until all of the i's are dotted and the t's crossed, this could all be spit in the wind. Let's cross our fingers and say a little prayer that Arsene can seal the deal with Higuain and perhaps Cesar and/or Fellaini. I've called for two signings but certainly wouldn't turn my nose up at three.

21 June 2013

What Higuain's arrival would mean for Theo

We're all suffering from feverish anticipation as rumors continue to swirl around Higuain. I think we'll hear something important today, something more substantial than the stories peddled by The Mirror, Sun, Marca or other tabloid-ish sources. Without going so far as to jinx it, I think the club has been waiting to get past the anniversary of signing Dennis Bergkamp to avoid risking the "anointing" effect. If the signing had been confirmed yesterday, 18 years to the day after Bergkamp had signed, Higuain would then carry the heavy mantle of replicating Bergkamp's feats, style, and glories, and that's just too much to ask of anyone. Look at how Ramsey struggled to "be" Cesc, or how Theo has labored under the "next Henry" burden (something I'm guilty of pushing). Instead of expecting new players to imitate the legends, we'd all be better served by letting them develop their own identities and their own games.

Speaking of Theo, I look forward to signing the likes of Higuain or some other center-forward (I'm going to continue to hedge because I don't want to queer the deal) because how it disabuses Theo of the notion that he should play more centrally. I've long pushed the concept that he should play on the wing--it suits his abilities so much more than playing centrally. He's incredibly fast, largely one-footed, and small. He's at his best running onto a through-ball to finish or to fly down the wing to create chances for others. Put him in the middle, and he all but disappears. His ball-handling is not strong enough to allow him to take a ball from the air or to receive a pass with his back to goal and then dribble through a thicket of defenders.

However, in his defense, the aura of the center-forward position is not to be underestimated. When you think  of the players who have played there in the last decade, you can understand why Theo would want to: Henry. Bergkamp. Van Persie. Wright. It's arguably the most-glamorous position on the field, the one that demands the most attention and that receives the most opportunities. It's like the lead guitar in a rock-band. Theo wants to be that man, but it's just not meant to be (in my opinion). You could almost see him this year craving that role after it was vacated, even more so after each time Giroud or Gervinho squibbed or fluffed or sent one into the cheap-seats. Theo's mind probably raged, "I would have put that home! That should be meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"  Makes sense. I remember a few times screaming at the set that I could have finished better than Gervinho did, and I'm a 39-year old with a torn ACL.

If we can bring in someone like Higuain, the knock-on effect will benefit Theo in the long run. No longer will he have so much inspiration to crave the center-position as it will finally be filled by someone who knows what to do and how to do it (I'm sure Giroud will improve on this year's performance, but he'd still need time to change perceptions). Like a lot of us, I've written extensively on Higuain's virtues, but one neglected quality is how he'd mesh with the team. His willingness and ability to share time with Benzema and to defer to Ronaldo suggest that he doesn't have so much of the "me-first" quality that players like Rooney carry. Maybe that's a personality flaw that drives excellence--maybe a dominant finisher needs a certain dickishness as part of the skill-set. Then again, Messi. Moving on. Higuain seems like he can come in without stifling Theo's development, and the two could then form a powerful 1-2 punch. Not hero and sidekick, necessarily, but a working relationship that gives both the space and the touches they will need to score.

Freed from always hoping to play centrally, no longer tempted to drift in to "prove" his superiority over Gervinho or Giroud, could encourage Theo to accept his position as a destiny rather than a fate and would allow Theo to focus on redefining the position. It's not for nothing that he scored so many of his 21 goals from the wing (17, I believe). There are few sights more breath-taking than seeing him bolt down the wing past hapless defenders and curl in through the corner of the box. I've argued that this looks to be a break-out season for the lad, and I believe that pairing with a more-dominant center-forward will help that prediction to bear fruit.

20 June 2013

Time to bet the farm on Higuain. Anyone have 130k?

If you were looking to retire a few years early by betting on Higuain joining Arsenal, you may have just missed your window. In a move that means almost nothing, Skybet and others have suspended betting on it. Now, unless Gazidis, Wenger, or Higuain have liquidated all of their assets and bet on Higuain becoming a Gunner, there's not much in it. All that it means is that the legitimate businessmen's community have taken so many bets that the odds have shifted to the point that it no longer makes sense to accept new bets.

The same business happened with Julio Cesar almost three weeks ago. We certainly haven't signed him, despite my plea. In other words, then, keep calm. Basing our emotional health and mental stability on these portents is like seeing clouds and announcing that it's definitely going to rain. You'll end up being right once in a while--but not nearly often enough to seem sane. As tantalizing as it may be to see headlines that include the words "Higuain", "agrees", "to", "personal", "terms", "with", and "Arsenal", please do yourself and your loved ones a favor by ignoring those headlines until the club's site announces it.

While favors are on offer, I do hope Arsene does us and the club one before too long: announce a signing. A real one. I'm sure Yaya Sanogo will go out of his way to help us forget Chamakh and Bendtner, but the announcement of a high-profile signing is an important moment. Since the close of the transfer-window in January, we've heard report after report on the glowing condition of our revenues and our growing ambitions in the summer transfer-window. Maybe we've painted ourselves into a bit of a corner with all of that talk. I'm not saying we should sign someone just to prove that we're not all talk, but this is not a time for business as usual, by which I mean that we announce a few decent signings at the end of August. The longer that time drags on, the less momentum we'll have, and the more we risk losing out on players. Other clubs start to circle, players and agents bask in the attention, and the whole situation gets flimsy.

If we can announce a key signing--it doesn't have to be Higuain, to cite one example--it could set off a nifty domino-effect. Other players to whom we'd been only casually linked might perk up a bit  and say, "Hey, Arsenal just signed _________. They seem really ambitious. I should have my agent ring them up..." To that end, would signing the likes of Cesar grease the wheels just a bit more for someone like Fellaini? Would signing Fellaini entice Lewandowski to give us a closer look? It's no guarantee, nor is it far-fetched either.

The alternative is far more certain and worse for us. The longer we wait to announce such a signing, the fewer players there are who are available, interested, or talented enough to help us get to the next level. Arsene has made some good, late signings in the last few transfer-windows--Arteta (8/31/11), Monreal (1/31/13), Cazorla (8/7/12), Mertesacker (8/31/11)--but if we're to be aggressive, we have to seize the initiative more forcefully.

It does seem that we've managed to stave off Juventus in our pursuit of Higuain, so that would be progress of a sort. No offense to The Old Lady, but that's not quite dramatic enough. I don't see anything happening before the end of the day Friday, but I'd love to be wrong. It seems a bit silly to sound so demanding a full ten days before the transfer-window officially opens. However, with a fixture-list that should have us off and running, I really do hope that we have a new new players chomping at the bit in their new Arsenal kits by July 1st. Who will it be? Who should it be?

19 June 2013

Time to sign Julio Cesar

In a highly scientific and rigorous poll conducted at this very site, Julio Cesar has firmly vanquished all other candidates for the role of #1 keeper for the 2013-14 year. Over the course of a grueling two-day election, thousands dozens of votes were cast, delivering Cesar a resounding victory as he gathered 55% of votes cast. In a crowded, four-candidate contest run on American-style "winner takes all" election rules, the only logical outcome is that Cesar will be the keeper for all of our matches next year. Had this been more of a proportional representation-type system used by just about every other democracy in existence, we could keep Szczesny while also signing Mignolet and allotting games to them based on the proportion of the vote they had received. Results of the poll are here, if you still want to cast your vote and change the outcome.

all stats courtesy of whoscored.com
Alas, this is only one winner, and according to those who voted, Cesar will have no choice but to be our keeper next year.

But should we really go for him? Is he still capable of the form he showed with playing for Inter a few years ago? After all, he's 33, hardly ancient by keeper standards but getting awfully long in the tooth. He's no Brad Friedel or Jens Lehmann, playing into their 40s (and more power to them). As far as I can tell, he was released after refusing to lower his salary. This appears to be the same problem that Wesley Sneijder ran into as he left Inter in January to join Galatasaray. As Cesar says here:
Inter suggested that I reduce my salary. No player in my situation would have done thatI am not a hypocrite, and I can talk openly about this. It became a tough situation for both parties.I then spoke to my representative and I thought this was a good choice.I'll terminate my contract with Inter Milan and thank the president, Massimo Moratti, for the seven wonderful years we have had together.
Straight talk. I like that. Unfortunately for him, his market-value has plummeted from a high of around £20m in 2010 to a current £3.5m or so. Is he worth it, even at that price? He's several seasons removed from his best performances with Inter, and a quick glance at his stats this year are hardly enough to set one's heart on fire. However, he did play for QPR, a team so woeful that it only won four games and was outscored by 30 goals on the season. With that as a backdrop, then, we'd be fools not to sign him. Compare his whoscored.com numbers to those of Szczesny's. Nearly identical whoscored.com ratings. Yes, he has fewer clean sheets and gave up more goals than did Szczesny, but look at how much more he had to do. He had to make more than four saves per game, on average, while Szczesny had to make less than three per game. He conceded far more frequently than Szczesny did, but he faced a veritable firing squad each week, worrying about 16 shots per game (a figure that includes teammates' blocks, rebounds off the woodwork, and misses) while being the last man standing on a team that only held the ball for 45% of the time and spent 32% of games in its own defensive third. It must have been hard to get motivated at times, going from an Inter squad that won scudettos and the Champions League to a Queens Park Ranger squad that had to fight tooth and nail to escape relegation. But he did it.

What really stands out to me is that, despite the onslaught he faced every week, he still managed to all but match Szczesny in overall effectiveness, separated by two-hundredths of a point. Most impressive to me is how often he was a game-changer as indicated by his two MotM awards and four games with ratings above an 8, including an 8.12 against us back in October when he held us scoreless for 84 minutes before conceding. We've rarely come out of a game saying to each other, "man, what a game Szczesny had. He saved our hash tonight".  For all of QPR's notable failures, it seems that there have been at least a few occasions when they kept a point or stole all three thanks to Cesar.

I'm not saying I actually do want him as our first-choice keeper, but he would prove an strong addition to the squad. Whereas Mannone and Fabianski had to more or less wait for Szczesny to foul up or get injured, Cesar is certainly still skilled enough to challenge Szczesny for playing time in his own right. No one would ask "what does this mean for Szczesny's future with the club?" when Cesar gets the nod. A second benefit, one that Mignolet (or other keepers close to Szczesny in age or experience), is that Cesar has been around the block a few times. He's faced Barcelona and Bayern and Chelsea, stopping shots from the likes of Drogba, Ibrahimovic, Robben, Messi, and Henry, among others. Mignolet might have more skill in him, but I'd bet dollars to donuts that Cesar possesses far more secrets, tricks, wisdom, and insights of the kind that more than make up for being a step slower and more than a few hairs grayer than younger keepers.  Bringing in a younger keeper might push Szczesny to try harder, but he'd still be fumbling around in the dimliy-lit recesses of his own imagination and experiences. Cesar could illuminate so many aspects to Szczesny, bolstered by real-time demonstrations, that the callow Pole could become a world-class keeper in short order.

He might not be as glamorous a signing as some of the other names we've been linked with, but his impact could be far greater, both on the upcoming season and for years after. What do you say? How much do we bid for the Brazilian? 

Breaking free from the pack: a glance at our 2013-14 fixture-list

Our official 2013-14 is now out, so it's worth a quick look even while we remind ourselves that a lot can happen between now and when the actual games are played: transfers, injuries, and loans, to name a few. Last year's hero could become this year's goat and vice-versa. New signees might need bedding-in time, or they might not. New managers have to establish their reigns, and there is of course the x-factor of European and league cup competitions to add into the mix.

You can find my version of our fixture-list here, where, for each game, I'll provide each team's current position on the table as well as the results of its previous five games.

On to the fixture-list itself. At the risk of making bold, sweeping statements, if we're not at or near the top of the table at the end of October, we'll really only have ourselves to blame.  Aside from the North London derby  on 31 August, we face a cabal of teams we should really take maximum points from: Aston Villa, at Fulham, at Sunderland, Stoke, at Swansea, at West Brom, Norwich, and at Crystal Palace. By the time we host Liverpool on 2 November, I don't think it's too much to expect us to have 20 points. For those looking for a bit of context, we took 15 points from our first nine matches last year (although we did face Man City, Chelsea, and Man U), dropping points we really should have kept against Sunderland, Stoke, and Norwich. A quick and strong start, made eminently possible by the comparable ease of this fixture-list, is therefore vital. It's a drum I beat continually: we can tolerate dropping a point or two against top-of-the-table teams once in a while, but it is vital to take maximum points from anyone below us.

Looking further down the road, going to Old Trafford (as we do on 9 November) is never easy, but it's not quite as tough was what we'll see for the month of December when we have six matches (not including Champions League or league cup matches), three against likely top-five teams: Everton, at Man City, and Chelsea. That stretch might tell us more about what we're made of than than any prior stretch. We'll know, for example, where we stand on the table in a meaningful sense, we'll know if we'd progressed to the Champions League knock-out stage, and we'll know if we're still contending in the league cup.

After that, it's another pedestrian stretch until late March, when we travel to White Hart Lane followed by a trip to Stamford Bridge, then host Man City. In other words, many of our toughest matches are clustered together again, which is tricky, but if we're looking to schedule-makers to do us favors, we have no business calling ourselves contenders.  The upside, though, is that we look set to close the season strong with a visit from West Ham,  a trip to Hull City, visits from West Brom and Newcastle, and a close-out trip to face Norwich. Those are fifteen points that, like last year, we should be able to seize. Let's hope that this year it's to solidify something more meaningful and lofty than a fourth-place finish.

After all, if we can do anything to avoid the shaky inconsistency from the first half of last year, and do anything to replicate our form in the second half, I won't have to make any more dopey "Race for 4th" posts as I did last year.

It all starts with a quick start--not just for points, not just for position, but to establish an identity and impose ourselves on teams further down the road. If we can break from the gates early, we send an intimidating signal that we couldn't send last year when we stumbled and sputtered: We are Arsenal.

18 June 2013

Why Arsenal can't afford to lose Gareth Bale

Amid all of the hype over who we're bringing in, whether it be Higuain or Jovetic or Sanogo or whoever, one player, one who is perhaps just as key to our perennial Champions League qualification run, may be lost: Gareth Bale. We might just lose him to Real Madrid, and that should be enough to give us pause.

The Monreal headline froze me. Date: December 2012.
As far as Bale's concerns, I worry that he'd crumble under the pressure of replacing Ronaldo (if that's what he's being brought in to do). Sure, he's been described as "the next Ronaldo", but it's easy to say and harder to do. He'd be leaving the world's 11th-largest club to join its biggest. That's quite a leap even without having to replace one of the world's most-prolific scorers. Put in context, his 2012-13 season was so remarkable that it very nearly accounts for half of all the goals he's ever scored (26 out of 60). On the basis of this one season, then, he's being touted as a replacement for Ronaldo, who has three times scored more than 50 goals in a single campaign. Real is said to be preparing a bid of £100m. No pressure. Bale could rise to the occasion or just as easily fall off the cliff. I pray, then, that he stays.

Hear me out. As it stands, the top three Prem teams qualify automatically for the Champions League. Under the current hierarchy, that's Man U, Man City, and Chelsea. Assuming that nothing else changes other than managers, that hierarchy is unlikely to change. We're therefore looking at the fourth, qualifying spot, which we earned on the last day of the season (thanks, Kos). Would we have done it without Bale to inspire use? Without a time-machine and alternate-universe replicator, we'll never know. I'll say this, though: one factor that drove us to 4th place this year, and it's by no means a small one, was our knowledge that, at any given moment, Bale would score. It was therefore beyond vital that we outscore each of our opponents to nullify him. I worry that, if he leaves, we will lose some of the urgency that impelled us over the last ten weeks of the 2012-13 season. Imagine it: how often, before a game or after a lackluster first half, did the whispered name "Bale" bring our players' edge back? For some, it was fear. For some, determination. For others, anger? Sure. Whatever it was, some unquantifiable percentage of our players' motivation and achievement came from knowing that they had to top Bale week in and week out.

Think of the contrast: how threatening would Spurs have felt to us without Bale? Without him, they're Newcastle (sorry, Toon) or Aston Villa (no offense). Without that bogeyman, I worried that we might never have regained the sense of purpose and intensity that saw us win ten of our last eleven matches. We might have lolly-gagged a bit more, letting Everton or even Liverpool close the gap. The biggest favor Bale may have done for us this year is to score on us at White Hart Lane (word has it that he'll try to trademark that dopey heart-hand sign. I'm pretty sure tween girls everywhere will file a class-action lawsuit to stop him). It was dispiriting at the time, sure, but look at how we responded.

And that leads into my next line of reasoning. Without Bale, our entire co-dependent relationship with Spurs crumbles. Sure, we have rivalries with other clubs, but there's nothing quite as sumptuous and as textured as ours with Spurs. We know each other; we understand how to push each other's buttons and read each other's little tics of exasperation and depression far better than we know ourselves. Should Bale leave, he'll be replaced by someone, but it just won't be the same. It'll be like when that decades-long marriage tends, and the rebound-girl looks like and reminds you of the ex in so many ways, and yet...More seriously, though, we do define ourselves against the other. If Spurs tumble, so to do we. I'm not about to whip out John Donne's Meditation XVII on you, so don't worry about that. I will say this, though: with a lesser, weakened Spurs team, we risk losing the villain against whom we define ourselves. Superman has Lex Luthor. Spider-man has Doc Ock. You see the trend. Arsenal has Spurs. Without them, we'd have to start a new rivalry from scratch, casting aside more than 100 years of tension, animosity, and outright hatred (from some). Among the other London clubs, I dislike Chelsea utterly and thoroughly, but the feeling there doesn't carry the same savory flavor.

Last but not least, should Bale leave, we face the unthinkable: commiseration. We'd see ourselves in them, and they'd see themselves in us. They lost Bale, we lost van Persie. Two heartbreaks--in consecutive years, no less--might just be enough to bring us together in a heart-salving embrace. Spurs fans and Arsenal fans would trade scarves instead of salvos. Adebayor and Gallas and Campbell, among others, would be accepted on both sides of the divide, and the UN would declare both clubs as ambassadors for peace. Now that I think of it, it could in usher a golden age of brotherhood and harmony and---

Bollocks. Let him leave.

17 June 2013

Goalkeeper Review (or "how badly do we need Cesar or Mignolet?")

After slumming around a bit in the dark corners of the transfer-universe, I thought it might be a grounding experience to discuss stuff that has actually happened, rather than what merely might happen. With that then, let's take a look at one area that caused a fair amount of hand-wringing during the season (resisting urge to make pun on hand-wringing and goalies using their hands...must...resist...).

UPDATE, 6/18/13: I was using whoscored.com's stats earlier but forgot that they don't include league cup stats.  For full disclosure, I've crossed out the original stats and have added the complete stats instead. Sorry for any confusion.

Lukas Fabianski: C+
  • Record: 5 wins, no draws, no losses. (no change)
  • Avg. goals conceded: 0.75 0.6
Across five appearances, Fabianski did very well for himself and sports some gaudy numbers. It's a shame that he now finds himself out of contract with no prospective suitors at the moment. Would he swallow his pride and accept a return to the Arsenal bench? That's a lot to ask for a man who helped to deliver a famous 2-0 win over Bayern and who earned a 7.02 rating from whoscored.com. Granted, other than Bayern, he faced Swansea, Norwich, Reading, and West Brom, teams that troubled us a bit more than they should have earlier in the season but whom we beat as we climbed back towards to fourth place. He had one advantage over the others: the defense in front of him was at its best for all of his appearances. He did keep two clean sheets, the other being Swansea, but otherwise didn't do much to distinguish other than avoiding any howlers. It was only a rib-injury that knocked him out and allowed Szczesny to reclaim his starting role. At 28 years old, he'd appear to be at a difficult age for the role we'd need him to play, that of sage elder who can impart his years of wisdom to the at-times impetuous and inconsistent Szczesny. This role depends, of course, on having that wisdom at hand, and Szczesny needs more than "Don't do what I just did" if he's going to improve significantly. It's difficult, then, to find a role for him, which is an awkward problem resolved by the fact that he's out of contract. This might be the first time the following sentence: this undefeated goalie just isn't good enough. He did the job well but not enough to distinguish himself. I hope he lands on his feet somewhere.

Vito Mannone: D
  • Record: 3 wins, 3 draws, 4 losses 5W, 4D, 4L
  • Avg. goals conceded: 1.11 1.23
Vito had ten games in which to prove his worth as Szczesny worked his way back from injury incurred over the summer with the Polish national team, and he just didn't do it. He managed a 6.53 rating at whoscored.com. Conceding 1.23 goals per game, however, just isn't good enough. Some of those goals were clearly not his fault, as many came through defensive errors as our team as a whole struggled to establish itself early in the season. Too often, though, he was caught out of position or made mincemeat of what could have been a crucial save. Exhibit A would be his muff of a save against Norwich. The initial shot, while spicy, was one he should have smothered if not deflected out of bounds. Instead, he deflected back across an open goal for Holt to finish. Whereas Fabianski at least showed some degree of consistency, I couldn't look at Mannone after seven or eight games and feel settled or secure. It's not that Mannone ever did anything horrifically bad, but he too often seemed caught off-guard and too rarely was in the right place at the right time. He'd be better off moving to a smaller club where the pressure is not quite as high. He's only 25, young enough as a keeper to offer another club a decent keeper. If he stays at Arsenal, he'll have to settle for occasional appearances when Szczesny needs a rest or is injured. If he's ever going to develop into a stronger keeper, it won't be on Arsenal's bench. Maybe a loan would give him a chance at first-team action. Then again, with a contract set to expire in June 2014, harder questions will need answers sooner rather than later.

Wojciech Szczesny: C-
  • Record: 15 wins, 7 draws, 7 losses. 17W, 8D, 8L
  • Avg. Goals conceded: 0.96 0.94
There's a moment from The Simpsons when Homer learns that he's defeated Barney Gumble to become an astronaut. After Barney somehow gets drunk on non-alcoholic wine, the head of NASA says, "well, Homer, I guess that makes you winner by default." So it stands with Szczesny: winner by default. After a tumultuous year that saw his father lash out at Arsene for rushing boyo back from injury too soon, our first-choice keeper did come back to mind the sticks well enough to help us win our final six games. He handled being dropped after the 2-1 loss to Spurs with dignity and grace, but it's still hard to see a dramatic improvement in his performance--not that players can suddenly go from good to great. He's only 23, a veritable babe in the woods, especially for keepers. Then again, he's made 108 appearances in three seasons, and at some point, we do need to see some improvement. Like Mannone, his contract runs out in June 2014, so the upcoming season is a make-or-break one for him. His whoscored.com rating of 6.79 feels a bit generous, although he did claim 11 clean sheets on the season. Where would he be without the improved defensive organization in front of him over the last six games of the season?

If he's serious about laying claim to the starting spot, we need to see more desire, more focus, more performance. We need a keeper who will demand organization and tenacity from the players in front of him and who will lay into them when he gets hung out to dry, whether it's a PK, a missed assignment, a botched clearance. I'd even go so far as to say he needs to piss a few people off. When he does concede a goal, I want him to be too busy pointing out who did what wrong to bother fishing the ball out of the net. We need a keeper who demands perfection or something pretty darned close to it, someone whom everyone else is afraid to let down, and I'm not sure Szczesny is ready to claim that mantle. Maybe it's from his age or callowness. Maybe it's just not in him, period.

Who should be our #1 GK?

I started out thinking I'd end by recommending we try to bring in QPR's Julio Cesar as someone aged and skilled enough to accept more of a mentor's role to help bring Szczesny along. He'd perhaps be grateful to have been saved from the Champions League that he'd accept a lesser role on the pitch. Now, however, I wonder if we need a more-direct challenge to Szczesny, someone like Mignolet who can come in and do more than just jostle Woj from his complacent stupor (if that's what it is...) and do one of two things: force/inspire the lanky Pole to become the keeper we've all been waiting for or replace him as that keeper.

I want to believe in Woj; I want him to be our keeper, but I want to go on more than faith and loyalty when I do this. Am I being harsh? Would we be better off with someone entirely new, or someone who can prod and support Woj? Cast your vote and weigh in below the fold.

16 June 2013

Barcelona makes a shock move for Koscielny...

...and it was enough to make me spit out my coffee. Apparently, Vilanova is so desperate to shore up his defense that he's willing to have Barca pony up a whopping £12.7m for Koscielny. Really, Tito? Is that the best your lot can do? Listen, I thought I put y'all in your place back when Pep was after Wilshere. Apparently, he didn't pass the message along to you before he left.

Pity. I used to respect Barcelona, having perfected the tiki-taka and playing such beautiful footy and so on. I didn't even mind much when Fabregas left, nor when Song did. Now, however, it's getting a little sad. What happened to La Masia? Who has it produced of late? Alba, maybe. Dos Santos. After that, the pickings get a little slim. So Barcelona is reduced to scrounging around, hoping to prise our players away on the slim rationale that we're Barca-lite? Well, they'll have to do better than an offer of £12.7m for Koscielny. Sure, it may be in line with his market value, but that doesn't do the man justice.

I get it, though. It was only a few days ago that Kos said the following:
If the club has the means to compete with the best, I have no reason to leave. But if it fights every year for Champions League [qualification], it’s hard psychologically to be under such constant pressure. I do not want to go anywhere. Of course, I want to know another championship, but it’s complicated. I want to lift trophies and to have a winning record. I hope the club will give me the means. If this weren’t the case, I’d look elsewhere.
So I could see where Barcelona would take encouragement from that. It's like when you have a crush on a girl who doesn't even know your name, but you hear from a friend of a friend that she'd kiss you if you were the last man on earth. It stirs the heart and quickens the pulse, of course. Once the flood flood of hormones subsides, you realize how hollow and empty you've left yourself.

However, you've gotta do better than £12.7m to turn Wenger's head (I'm pretending like Vilanova is my reader now, just so the rest of you know). Look at the broader situation. Do you really think he's going to let yet another beloved player leave after the last two seasons of acrimonious summer transfer windows? You do know how much we've come to enjoy Koscielny, right? You do know he's under contract until 2017?

Look. I get were you're coming from. You have Lionel Messi, but the rest of your starting lineup averages, what, 43 years of age? I kid, I kid. Your lineup does need some sprucing up, but it's not going to come at our expense. You want Gervinho or Chamakh? Maybe Bendtner? Sure. If it's defenders you want, I'm not sure where Djourou is at the moment, but we can get him on the line for you.

Let's face facts. You're talking about offering face value for a beloved player with four years left on his contract, one who averaged a 7.56 rating from whoscored.com over our last eleven games. Nope. Face value just ain't gonna do it. We see you for what you've become, Barca, and we're not going to enable bad habits anymore. Arsenal players are like crack to you, and you crave just one more hit, don't cha, baby? It's hard to find players and make them into superstars. We know. It's what we do. With that in mind, we have to administer a bit of tough love. We're putting our foot down. No Kos for you!

If you're just desperate for a cheap thrill, I hear John Terry might be available...

Gonzalo Higuain, £25m, and the Goldilocks zone

When it comes to buying a world-class striker, how much do you bid? Bid too much, and it's happily accepted, but you've over-bid, wasting money and perhaps putting too much pressure on the player to live up to the fee (See Torres, Fernando or Carroll, Andy). Bid too little, and it's scornfully rejected, and you risk coming away empty-handed. Hence the "Goldilocks" reference. As we're bidding for the likes of Higuain, we have to find that "just-right" bid: not too big, not too small; not too hot, not too cold.

While we're on using a children's story, we might as well throw in the "not too big, not too small" reference as it relates to players. In my opinion, we don't want a "too-big" player à la Ronaldo or Rooney. First, each would command such a large transfer-fee that we'd have little left for a second quality signing. Second, so many of our players would find themselves kow-towing to these prima-donnas on the field and off that the entire squad might regress. I don't particularly like the idea that Walcott or Wilshere would have to be a water-carrier for the likes of them. I think we have more than a few younger players on the verge of break-out seasons, and I would not want to see their development suffer under the klieg-lights of Ronaldo's glare. Were he the kind of player to take younger  players under his wing and nurture them, that's one thing. But he's not. This is an issue to remember, especially as we've just re-signed a core of young players. If a new signing comes in as the highest-paid player on the club, we'd do well to make sure that he's both earned that status through his play on the field and that he'll mesh with existing players in the locker room.

Anyway, back to the story at hand. Ronaldo, Rooney: too big. Benteke, Jovetic: too little. There. That's sorted. Whether this leaves Higuain as our "just-right" target remains to be seen, but on the current list of names, he emerges in that zone. How, then, do we strike the right offer that is itself not too big, not too small? Real Madrid's Fiorentina Perez has warned Juventus by saying "If Juventus are thinking about offering €30m for him, then it would be better if they don't even turn up." €30m comes out to about £25m. If this is in response to an offer that we have already made and that Juventus has to beat, wonderful. If we can land the man at £25m, that's fine with me.

Sure, it smashes our record of £15m for Arshavin, but for those who offer that as some kind of warning or threat, Arshavin had stolen our hearts through his performance in European competitions and, in retrospect, might have been a bit of a one-hit wonder. He never scored more than 15 goals in any season. On the other hand, he did collect assists at an astounding rate. On the other, other, hand, it was in the Russian Premier League that he did this. However, we're looking for a center-forward, not a second-striker or distributor. As such, Higuain does not compare directly with Arshavin. As far as scoring goes, Higuain has scored 20 league goals or more three times, so there's less doubt about his ability to deliver. He has shown that he's willing to defer in order to fit in, whether it's letting Ronaldo hog the spotlight or sharing a spot with Benzema, and this suggests that he'd join Arsenal without acting too much of a diva.

What, then, is the just-right offer for this apparently just-right player? Transfermrkt suggests that he's worth about £33.5m, but market values frequently exceed actual transfer fees. We've been mentioned as having made an offer in the realm of £22.5m and perhaps as high as £25m. If Real's Perez wants £25m from Juventus, he might be trying to drive up the price either from a higher Juventus bid or by prodding us to sweeten our offer.  Juventus signed Fernando Llorente to a four-year deal that starts July 1st, and they've taken Nicholas Anelka and Nicklas Bendtner on free loans over the last two seasons, so it doesn't seem that they're all that ambitious in the market, nor do they seem to need a high-profile signing.

It would be a shame, though, to let them pip us over a few million quid, especially when we have a few to spare. How high do we do to secure the likes of Higuain before our bid is too big?