23 August 2013

Fulham Preview: Walcott will lay waste

Give some credit to Laurent Koscielny, who timed his only injury for the entire season to coincide with his only red-card suspension of the entire season. We go into Saturday's match with Fulham without the squad's best defender, but at least he's not missing two
separate games. There's not much else to do but to continue playing Sagna at the center-back with Jenkinson on the right. Ironic that we've floated the idea of moving Sagna to the center as a strategic move and are now all but forced to do so, such is the thinness of our squad. Rumors continue to float around Flamini returning. Why not? He's French, he's free, and can offer a bit of cover in the midfield and defense when needed. This would be about as exciting as this morning's breakfast when I saw that I had poured just the right amount of milk over my cereal. So it goes.

As we look to Fulham, there's some concern that they beat Sunderland. Begging pardon, but they had only one shot on goal all day and it managed to go in. True, that's markedly better than taking 20 shots without scoring, but I'm hardly impressed. Yes, they feature Darren Bent, who's managed to score on us a number of times, but the same was true of Dirk Kuyt, and we handled him well enough on Wednesday. In other words, this still counts as a very winnable game—even if the necessity of winning it has grown sharply after losing to Villa last weekend. All of our key rivals won their openers, of course.

However, I see Wednesday's win as a galvanizer. Whether through complacency, low confidence, or bad luck (read: refereeing bad enough to see a man lose his job), we got off on the wrong foot Saturday. Wednesday's win is a truer reflection of what we can do, and I look to us to carry that momentum into Saturday's match. In particular, Theo Walcott looks ready to seize his moment, having delivered some tidy runs and sharp passing but yet to score since his goal against Man City two weeks ago. Nonetheless, he's finding other ways to contribute, most notably his pass to Gibbs to open the scoring against Fener. A younger, more impetuous Walcott might have put a shot on goal despite the tight angle. I'm not saying those days are done and gone, but it suggests a stronger awareness on his part. His timing and run to receive Ramsey's pass was similarly astute. He's knocked on the door himself a few times and might have found the back of the net against Fener had he not been fouled as he collected the ball (leading to Giroud's taking the penalty-kick).

With Kieran Richardson out, Fulham will send out Matt Briggs, who's been loaned out to various Championship clubs (Peterborough, Bristol City, and Watford) over the last three years and has managed only 16 appearances in those three years. His lack of experience in the Prem (12 appearances over eight seasons) should have Walcott salivating at the prospect of running him ragged. With Stekelenburg also out, we'll see journeyman David Stockdale in the net, who has 19 Prem appearances and 100-something in so many other leagues that I can't even list them here. Long story short, though: Walcott could have a field day. We'll see. I'm looking to Walcott to get a goal and an assist as we dominate possession but show much-better finishing.

We showed much greater purpose and determination against Fener in a match we knew we had to have. Going into this match, we know we are already in must-win mode and simply have to take maximum points for every inferior team we face. Fulham have made some decent additions, but without sounding too arrogant, they are still clearly inferior to us. Let's put it way early, by all means.

22 August 2013

Admiral Aaron Ramsey leads the British invasion

In the aftermath of yesterday's brilliant performance, proper recognition is due to the man who spearheaded it. Much as we have lamented our lack of activity in the transfer-window, we've overlooked one, large factor that we may have to count on unless a few
much-needed signings do arrive: in-squad improvement. Among others, Aaron Ramsey simply sparkled in a commanding performance, leading the squad through what is becoming his customary style, burnished this time by a goal and a second-assist.

While we clearly need new signings, it's well-worth remembering that the reasons for hope do abound: the returns to full fitness of Sagna, Wilshere, and Podolski, the second-year adjustments of Cazorla, Podolski, and Giroud, and the continued maturation of Wilshere, Jenkinson, Walcott, and Szczęsny. This may not be enough to see us climb the table, but it might just be enough to stay in the top four. However, pursuing that in more detail will have to wait. For now, let's content ourselves with enjoying what we do have in front of us: a squad that pounded a team into submission and is capable of some rather exciting football from time to time. After all, this isn't the first time that this bunch has thrashed an opponent, and it won't be the last.

At its core, strange as it may sound to those who have followed the club under Arsène, is a core of young Britons that is as exciting, dogged, and skilled as any we've seen in some time. I don't follow the English national team from over here (America), so I should be careful how far I push the history, but Arsenal boasts some of the finest British footballers playing at the moment. At its center, perhaps literally, is Aaron Ramsey. In addition to his goal and uncredited second-assist, he led the team in touches (99) without being dispossessed a single time, tackles (5), interceptions (3), passes (79), accurate through-balls (one), had the second-most accurate long-balls, and tied with four teammates for most long-balls attempted (all stats thanks to whoscored.com). Speaking of whoscored.com, his 8.9 rating was the highest on the team, earning him their MotM award—sure to be one of many. Particularly gratifying to this writer is that Ramsey, in addition to his tirelessness, his everywhere-ness, and his tenacity, scored. As a former defensive-minded midfielder, I always enjoy it a little more when the lunch-bucket guys get the goal. Ramsey bossed that game at both ends; perhaps he was extra-mindful of defensive responsibilities once Koscielny had to leave. Whatever the proximate cause, his performance was impressive, to put it mildly.

Let's not give short-shrift to the rest of the squad, however. Ramsey didn't win the game on his own. Of particular note is that four of the top five players in whoscored.com's player-ratings were British: Ramsey (8.9), Wilshere (8.8), Walcott (7.96), and Gibbs (7.73). Only Cazorla (7.81) was rude enough to crash the party. Jenksinson, thrown on on short notice for the injured Koscielny, managed a none-too-shabby 6.91. While I've flirted with joining the Wenger-whingers, it is a testament to the man that these young Britons joined the club in their teens (Wilshere and Gibbs having come up through the academy). The oldest of them is Gibbs at 23. It's anyone's guess how good they'll become this year and in years to come. This youth-movement, one I've discussed in this post, could be the sort that propels the club back towards its lofty, historic heights. I've talked up Gibbs, Wilshere, Walcott, Jenkinson, and Ramsey each in turn (click the links to view those posts). As they continue to grow into themselves and their roles with this club, the future looks exceedingly bright.

None of this, of course, is meant to imply that all is well and dandy and we can continue to twiddle our thumbs until September 2nd is crossed off the calendar. The downside to "young, exciting, and full of potential" is inexperience and inconsistency. Having rained on the parade, I'll close by reminding you that we've all but qualified for the Champions League, served notice that we can still be a force, and we go to Craven Cottage to face a Fulham squad that boasts of having "snapped up" Scott Parker. I'm hardly shaking in my boots. Let's do this.

21 August 2013

Arsenal 3-0 Fener: Player Ratings

After all of the hype, doubt, and build-up, it's almost a let-down of sorts to have won 3-0. I had prepared myself for a nail-biter, daring to hope only for an early goal that would earn us at most a draw. To have come away with a fairly easy 3-0 victory is exhilarating, no doubt, but after steeling myself against the worst, I'm feeling more relief than ecstasy. I will happily, happily take it. Let's give the squad a quick run-down, then, shall we? We're using a ten-point scale this time 'round...
  • Giroud: 6/10. Decent but showed his limitations as an in-the-box finisher, not capable of creating legitimate shots off the dribble. Had Fener's Demirel been less effective in coming off his line to snuff our crosses, we might have seen some more fireworks from the handsome Frenchman. Give him credit for more than once going tête-à-tête with Fener's defenders, though.
  • Walcott: 8/10. Our only live-wire in the first half, he came alive in the second, delivering an assist on the first goal and earning the penalty on the third. Throughout, he showed his trademark and added a bit of positional awareness, moving beyond just running around and finding seams.
  • Rosický: 7/10. Showed verve and energy throughout the match and had a few chances to earn a goal or an assist. Settling for a solid all-around performance is good enough for me, as he, Wilshere, and Ramsey took advantage of Fener to work on a solid balance of attack and defense.
  • Cazorla: 7/10. Despite still not being back to full-speed, the diminutive Spaniard managed to offer a solid facsimile of his savoir-faire, dribbling and passing his way through Fener's defense. It's a shame he didn't tally, but his return to full-speed will be a welcome addition, to be sure.
  • Wilshere: 8.5/10. Narrowly edged out by Ramsey. No shame there. After taking a scary knock early on, Wilshere rejoined the fray with his signature tough-as-nails approach, patrolling the midfield with an admirable balance of reckless abandon and responsible stewardship.
  • Ramsey: 9/10. Man of the match, and not just for his goal and second assist. In Arteta's absence, Ramsey led the team in tackles, interceptions, and fouls. As always, his tireless work-rate and "everywhere-ness" set the tempo for the rest of the game. To have added a highlight-reel goal is icing on the cake.
  • Gibbs: 7.5/10. Great timing on the first goal, but his all-around performance was impressive as well. He was second on the team in clearances (tied with Ramsey, actually), and his efforts went a long way towards neutralizing Kuyt, Meireles, and Gönül on Fener's right flank.
  • Koscielny: INC. Getting kicked in the face 33 minutes in makes it hard to rate a player. That said, he had two clearances by that point; the team-leader after 90' was Mertesacker with 6. He also had three accurate long-balls in that time, good for 6th-best on the day.
  • Jenkinson: 5/10. Did what he was called on to do, helping to neutralize Sow and Emre on the flank without distinguishing himself for good for bad. Very nearly added a 4th goal with a nice shot in the closing seconds.
  • Mertesacker: 7/10. Another steady, quiet performance for the German. Six clearances on the day rule the roost, and a solid stewardship of the defense after Koscielny had to leave helped to ensure the clean-sheet.
  • Sagna: 6.5/10. Did well both as the starting right-back and when moved to center. Earned four offsides calls on the day, added several strong tackles, and in general reminded us that he's still a force to be reckoned with.
  • Szczesny: 7.5/10. Literally unchallenged in the first half as Fener managed no shots at all, the Szcz came up big in the second half with four or five strong saves. He's started a nifty little streak by earning a second yellow card in as many matches; perhaps a little feistiness would be welcome from the otherwise laconic Pole...
  • Subs (Monreal at 87', Podolski at 82'). NA. They were on. They didn't do much. The whistle blew. They walked off. That's all there is to be said.
A great result that should almost certainly confirm that we'll advance to the group stage, let's hope that this also encourages a few players of a certain caliber to look more closely at joining the squad. The 30m the current lot have all but earned can go a long way towards that very goal. Onwards, then. Fulham awaits!

Arsenal 3-0 Fener: Back in the 'effin saddle

Fantastic, fantastic performance all the way around. After a up-and-down first half that saw us hold on to the ball but fail to generate any real shots on goal, the second half saw us unlock what had been a stubborn defensive effort, especially from Volkan, who snuffed
out anything we could throw in. This is a fantastic result that all but guarantees that we qualify for the Champions League group stage, restores a bit of confidence, and generates some momentum going into the weekend.

The first half was tetchy; Wilshere had to briefly leave the pitch for treatment and, worse, Koscielny leave for good for stitches. Bizarrely, Webo's high kick, which caught a fully-upright Koscielny on the forehead, warranted only a yellow-card. Fortunately, Jenkinson came on and Sagna moved to center-back, and a few minutes after half-time (51'), it mattered far less who was on our back-line as Gibbs finished a pretty sequence: Ramsey slotted a pass into the box for Walcott, who put it across the mouth of goal (surprisingly, Volkan was rooted to his line), and Gibbs, coming on to the far post, left little doubt with his finish. In the 55th, however, Webo struck again, kicking Szczesny with his heel as he bundled over our keeper. He even had the gall to look for a penalty-kick, somehow overlooking the fact that it was his heel that struck Szcz's face.

No matter. In the 64th minute, Ramsey, looking bright and lively all evening, sliced through the midfield and unleashed a beautiful rabbit-chaser to the left-post that Volkan could only get finger-tips to, and it was 2-0. In the 77th, Walcott got in the box and earned a penalty, which Giroud finished tidily, making it 3-0. By this point, the traffic was Arsenal's way. Sczcesny came up with three tough saves at close range to keep the clean sheet, and Jenkinson nearly added to the scoreline in the final seconds of injury-time, but Volkan was able to paw his shot over.

All in all, it was a strong, dominant performance that should remind us of what we're capable of when we click. This doesn't mean that the problems exposed against Aston Villa and that we've fretted about over the last few weeks are gone, by any means, but in the emotional roller-coaster that all fans ride, we are at least ascending again.

We'll return with a closer look at statistics and so on. For now, however, bask in the glory of the moment. Scoring three away-goals in such a tricky environment is a fine testament to our squad and bodes well for our fortunes going forward. Brilliant.

20 August 2013

Arsenal v Fenerbahçe: "like new signings" give us an edge (not new. "new")

Good news: for as debilitating as our loss to Aston Villa was, Fener managed to do even worse in their latest match, collapsing in the last 15 minutes of their match against  Konyaspor, conceding two late goals to lose 3-2. For as much as we lament our loss, we
can balance it a bit with theirs. Perhaps there's further consolation to be found in that idea that they lost despite making a few signings while we lost because (in part) we've made none.

Their newest additions include Emmanuel Emenike, Alper Potuk, and Bruno Alves, and of course new manager Ersun Yanal. Rather than strengthening the squad, though, there seems to have been some tumult with the new additions and leadership, as Fener have lost two matches in a row, to Konyaspor and to Galatasaray. They did beat Salzburg 3-1 (after tying 1-1 away), and their stadium, the Şükrü Saracoğlu, seems like a claustrophobic cauldron that in and of itself might prove more daunting than the players on the pitch. They were good enough to finish second in the Süper Lig and are arguably one of the tougher teams we could have drawn for the play-off. I won't even worry about the status of their appeal. Frankly, if we're looking for officials to bail us out, our short-term memory is as short as our bench. Losing their appeal might not even help all that much, as UEFA hasn't said anything about what would happen next. Would we have to play Salzburg? Beşiktaş? I don't relish the idea of more matches. Let's just win and keep it simple for all involved.

Speaking of winning, let's remember that is this the same squad that showed the grit, determination, and, yes, skill to defeat Bayern at the Allianz Arena, and we'll have the "like a new signing" returns of Sagna, Gibbs, and Monreal should give us greater stability and more options for the back-line, which will be helpful against Yanal's apparent preference for playing a more-attacking style. We as fans are prone to over-reacting to defeats. I think the spirit in the squad after Saturday is closer to rage—the kind that can be channeled into determined, even inspired performance. The last time we lost a Prem match before a Champions League match, a 2-1 loss to Spurs prompted Villas-Boas to suggest we were entering a death-spiral. I think we all remember how that turned out (an 11-game unbeaten streak for those who don't).

It would be too much of me to suggest that we'll go on a similar run starting on Wednesday, but I think that reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated. So much anger has been directed at Arsène Wenger (and rightfully so) that we're neglecting the players themselves. There's more vigor and determination there than we sometimes care to remember, and I believe, to a man, that they're going to come out on Wednesday fired up and ready to take out their frustrations on whoever's in front of them, whether it's Kuyt, Emenike, or anyone else in a Fener kit. I won't say we're going to come away victorious. I will say that we will get an early away-goal and defend it well enough to earn a draw. Then, we can come home and demolish a demoralized team well and proper. Dirk Kuyt has said "I think if they were honest with themselves, Arsenal would not have wanted to face us." After (and maybe even before) his crash with Jonathan de Guzman left him with a concussion, a black eye, and stitches, I believe he has it reversed. I don't think Fener are looking forward to us, angry and with something to prove. Let's get it done.

19 August 2013

£37.5m for Michu? Madness. £20m for Pogba? Yes, please.

I'm really beginning to wonder if Arsène has finally lost his marbles. We've gone from missing out on what would have been some great signings—Higuain and Gustavo in particular struck me as great targets, both for their abilities and their valuation—to some
outright silliness. Perhaps having missed out on each man seems to have caused something in our manager to snap. The pursuit of Suarez has been marred by ridiculous twists and turns that may have ended with Suarez's apology and return to training. Now, the latest rumors to make the rounds include us bidding £37.5m for Michu. Arsène may be confusing spending a lot of money with signing quality players.

Michu's had one season of Premier League football and did do pretty well for himself, I must admit. 18 goals in 35 appearances is nothing to sneer at. However, he completely disappeared over the last half of the season with four goals in his final 11 appearances. It seems to me that we need a striker who can do more to create his own shots, not someone with a skill-set as similar to Giroud's as Michu's seems to be. While he might be an upgrade over Giroud, he hardly strikes me as being worth £37.5m. That's Rooney-ish money. If we could sign him for something in the low-teens, great. That's enormously unlikely, though, as Swansea wouldn't part with him for anything but a huge fee. He'd be a nice addition, don't get me wrong, but spending more than 12 times what Swansea paid to get him just a year ago strikes me as some grade-A foolishness, especially from a manager vaunted for his grounding in economics.

However, consider Paul Pogba, a 20-year old Frenchman. All we'd need is for him to be playing for Auxerre or Lorient and he'd be a typical Arsène signing. He does play for Juventus, though, so Arsène can at least claim that we'd be getting a player from a big club (instead of sending a player to one, but I digress). At a reported bid of £20m, we might just be getting a player at something closer to his appropriate value—but the quoted figure might be too low to woo a player already playing in the Champions League and winning league titles. Even if Pogba doesn't address some of our more-immediate needs, he could be a fantastic addition. We'd have a midfield rotation to rival the best in the Prem, and without committing myself to having to defend the following, we might finally have a midfielder in the mold of Vieira. Speaking of the man, Vieira himself said of Pogba, "I believe that he is a better player than I was at his age." This is the kind of signing (along with a few more) that I think we could all get behind, the kind that starts to address the squad's thinness and fans' growing sense of despair.

Even a few weeks ago, there was nervousness around facing Fener, and that was when we were healthy, if not hale. Our feelings about this match and the rest of the season itself have taken a beating, and if Wednesday sees us lose again, I'm sorry to say it, but Arsène is simply going to have to sign players if only to restore some faith. The outpouring of venom at the end of the Aston Villa match represents more than just our reaction to that result or even to the bumbling ineptitude we've witnessed in the transfer market. It's about more than the trophy drought. There's a deep and deepening fear that no one in charge shares or understands our feelings. I'm sure that Arsène and Gazidis and others have invested a great deal of effort and emotion into this club, but, at the risk of sounding churlish, they're paid quite well to do so. The financial investment that we make is, after all, a rather large part of where their salaries come from. The emotional investment that we stake on this club goes deeper and lasts longer than any one man, and for as much as we might complain about ticket prices and transfer fees, it's those emotions, that belief and that faith, that are at risk here. It's starting to feel like we're in an abusive relationship, full of broken promises and passive-aggressive, manipulative head-games. We've been told over and over that new signings are coming and to just be patience. We've heard the lame excuses about who's available and only signing players who will add value, only to get sucker-punched by yet another disappointment.

Arsène might manage the club, and Gazidis might oversee it. Kroenke and Usmanov, among others, might own it, but, dammit, it's our club, our Arsenal. As grateful as I've been to Arsène for having brought us so many wonderful memories, I don't think it's ungrateful to ask "what have you done for us lately?" Little more than heartache and heartburn interrupted occasionally by moments of excitement. If they're not going to prove to us that they're serious about bolstering the squad, they should see themselves out. We're lucky enough to have finished fourth last season, but we're already at risk of squandering that good fortune. We should have gone right out and signed a number of players while the glow of victory was still fresh. Now, however, we're staggering along with a draw and two losses in the last two weeks and face very pressing questions about our ambitions and preparedness. If we don't get answers and soon, it may be time to think about making changes that go beyond who plays on the pitch. It may be time to change who decides whom to put on the pitch in the first place.

Arsène, it's up to you now. The money is there. Spend it.

18 August 2013

The Ox's knee-injury could keep him out three months ...

In what is becoming absolutely farcical news, reports out today suggest that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's injury, which was enough to prompt a half-time substitution from Santi Cazorla (despite his having returned from Ecuador on Thursday), could be severe enough to force him out of action for up to three months. With the generous inclusion of players like Bendtner and Park, we could go to Şükrü Saracoğlu on Wednesday with only 14 full-fit first team players available. We'll wait with bated breath on the Ox's injury while also hoping that the knocks suffered by Gibbs and Sagna are not serious enough to keep them out of the line-up.

I'm coming to think that we're the chorus in a Greek tragedy, and Arsène is the tragic hero. His hubris? Believing that he can continue to mold a team on the fly, on the cheap, while wealthier, bigger clubs beat us to key signings. We're bigger than Napoli and Wolfsburg; to lose out to them is an insult of a different order. It's one thing for a club to simply outspend us with their petrodollars. It's a problem of a different order when we can no longer rely on who we are or what our brand is to attract top talent. After making a mockery of ourselves on Saturday and for the entirety of the transfer-window to this point, it's only fitting that we find ourselves in the hole we're currently in.

At first, it looked like we had finally broken the shackles. We'd freed ourselves of Arshavin and Squillaci, among some 20 others, and it looked like we were serious about spending, so much so that I found myself arguing against signing the likes of Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez, two of the priciest strikers out there. Surely, it seemed that we would signing some jaw-droppers. Now, however, my jaw simply drops at just how little we've done to improve a squad that even our vice-captain and others publicly said needed some signings.

Like so many of us, I worried about Arsène's approach to transfers. He seemed either too timid or too naive to get us the kind of players we were led to believe we'd see. Now, with our current players dropping left and right, and having been beaten thoroughly at home by Aston-effin'-Villa, we seriously have to worry about how we're going to convince players that it's worth joining us. Consider the current state of our squad, who's going to sign for us before Wednesday's first leg against Fener? No one with an ounce of sense (which doesn't eliminate Suarez, for what that's worth). Nope. Players are going to sit back to see what happens to us in Istanbul. If we suffer another debilitating loss, not only will this inflict some pretty serious damage on our chances of qualifying, it will also stain our reputation to the point that a lot of players would prefer to stay home than change. Gustavo already reached a similar conclusion, preferring to stay in a familiar league than to switch, even on the prospect of possible Champions League football. If we fail to qualify, we lose a very large enticement, not to mention source of revenue, for bringing in high-quality signings.

The next outcome is almost too terrible to consider. The whispers around players like Vermaelen, Koscielny, or Cazorla leaving could grow. Who wants to stick around as a team seems to crumble? I don't even want to follow that path any further than I have to. I grumbled yesterday that it seemed like Arsène only seems to spend money—and grudgingly, at that—when there's a crisis. If this doesn't count as a crisis, I don't want to see what does.

As I rearrange the deck-chairs of the Titanic, I do want to invite you to see that I've added a new section to the top of the blog to track injuries, goals, and assists, and our position on the table. Click here for a quick view. Secondly, the fixtures/results list is updated as well.  Thanks for your visit, and let's hope for an action-packed week full of positive results and transfer signings.