21 September 2013

The Redemption of Ryan Shawcross

Apparently, it's all up to Aaron. It's been three years since Shawcross broke his ankle in two places with a horrific tackle. Ever since then, Stoke has loomed as a particularly evil, if inept, enemy of ours, what with their adherence to a knuckle-dragging style of football that might do better in American football than in the Prem. With the departure of Pulis,we seem to be seeing a softer side to Stoke, but hard feelings certainly define this rivalry.

I don't blame Shawcross for the actual tackle. Much. I do blame him, however, for how he's apparently handled it ever since. One can tell that, after he realized what he had done, he felt something close to remorse. However, for as much as I can tell, he has never apologized to Aaron Ramsey, not properly, at least. The closest I can come to finding an apology is a report from August 2012 that has Ramsey saying, "I'm over what happened in the past, I've moved on. I had a text off him straight after I done my leg but that was it." One does not break another's leg and then simply send a text or two.

With Stoke fans booing Ramsey whenever we travel to Brittania, the context is clear: there is very little class to be found among them. I know that not all Stoke fans are such cretins. There's at least one whom I've met face-to-face who, upon learning that I was a Gooner, apologized for the tackle and even said he wished Shawcross would've been sold on. So that's one. However, the only Potter who matters here is Shawcross, and if he can't do the right thing and apologize for something that could have ended Ramsey's career or maimed him for life, he falls far lower off of the moral ladder.

I don't think Shawcross meant to break his leg or even injure him. He was following orders to play "tough" football and took it too far. Let's remember that, at the time, he and Ramsey were fellow Welshmen, a strong enough connection that Shawcross was considered for the Welsh national team as recently as July 2012. That this possibility was scotched by Ramsey renders the point moot now, of course. His conversation with Welsh national team manager Chris Coleman suggests that Ramsey hasn't forgiven Shawcross, and why should he? The burden rests at Shawcross's feet.

However, I've come 'round to thinking that Ramsey should go over to Shawcross tomorrow, extend his hand, and say to him, "I forgive you." Force the man to do what he apparently can't or won't do on his own. I'm not invoking any spiritual, moral, or religious platitudes. I'm not looking for a tearful embrace followed by both squads linking arms and signing kumbaya. I just want this sorry saga laid to rest. If Shawcross can look Ramsey in the eye, shake his hand, and apologize, great. We'll still go out and thrash them anyway, hopefully highlighted by a Ramsey goal or two and a few figurative broken ankles—I'm borrowing from basketball here, when one fakes a defender so thoroughly that he trips over his own feet.

If Shawcross snubs him, fine. We'll know what we've long suspected and should show no mercy to Stoke for as long as Shawcross features for them. Neanderthals who play that way can evolve, but until they develop some level of respect for the game, they're not worth the time or energy we might invest in hating them. We'll know who he is and what he's made of but should regard him with the same mix of scorn, disgust, and pity we might show to a garden slug. We can then direct our hate and vitriol at people who see fit to drop chemical weapons or show up at shopping malls and open fire.

In either case, let's hope the lads go into tomorrow's match with fire in their bellies and put Stoke on their collective arses so fast they won't know what hit them. Southampton's win over Liverpool means we could go top of the table with a win. Özil is set to make his Emirates appearance tomorrow, which should be momentous, and we'll have Arteta and Sanogo both available as well. We've weathered a fair number of early-season injuries and look set to strengthen. Stoke has had some strong showings, drawing with Man City last week, winning three, and losing narrowly to Liverpool in week one, but they've only scored three goals in four Prem matches. Even under new manager Mark Hughes, we pretty much know what to expect: rugged football, a stingy keeper, and a fair amount of hoofing it forward whenever they do get the ball. Özil's ability to unlock tight defenses will be put to the test, and he'll get his first real taste of Prem football, such as it's played by the likes of Stoke, but in the end, it's hard to resist the form we're in. Emotions will be at a fever pitch between the history and Özil's debut, and I see us tearing into Stoke to score at least twice.

Mr. Shawcross, you're on notice. 

19 September 2013

#Henrying and the clarity of Arsène's vision

A bit of mischief was afoot today as all over twitter were different versions of Henrying, taking Thierry Henry's latest goal celebration—coolly standing with one hand on the post, the other on the hip, and just, well, enjoying what it's like to be Thierry Henry. You can find images ranging from the silly to the sublime, whether it's Henry  hoisting the American flag at Iwo Jima, intercepting Maradona's Hand of God goal, or making contact with E.T. It's worth a good laugh or two, as some of the images do put Henry in some silly
situations, but I'll leave it to you to track down your favorites. Yours truly tossed off a few, such as the one to the left in which Henry snuffs van Persie's dive with a palm to the face. His smooth nonchalance stands in stark contrast against van Persie's awkward tumble, not that I'm trying to make any deeper points here.

Actually, come to think of it, I am. For as thrilling as it has been to secure the signing of a player like Mesut Özil, this #Henrying stuff, along with the recent performances of some of the squad's best and brightest, should serve as a reminder that our manager, more often than not, knows what he's up to. Therefore, as his contract-talks heat up, this writer ardently hopes that we'll see Arsène, puffy coat and all, prowling the sidelines for years to come.

The Özil signing, as we all know, was a breath-taking statement of intent as we brought in one of the world's best players. As we've discussed, what is perhaps more significant is less attention-arresting if how well he suits Arsène's vision of how to play football. This technically-gifted, positionally aware, and insightful midfielder possesses all of the traits needed to play the stylish, possession-based football that Arsenal has come to be known for over the last twenty years or so. Also of note? His age. At 24, he joins a core of Gunners entering the prime of their lives. For as much as we might have pined for a Gonzalo Higuain or a Luis Suarez to lead the line, their arrivals might have upset the balance of the squad, not in any dramatic way, but enough to force some adjustments. Özil, by contrast, arrives already understanding, nay, believing, in the movement, the passing, the verve of Arsène's style.

Just as important as his on-field contributions this season will be his influence on the other up-and-coming Gunners with whom he plays, whether it's the service he provides and understanding he develops with Theo Walcott (also 24) or the technique, vision, and methods he shares with Aaron Ramsey (22) and Jack Wilshere (21). Perhaps less directly but no less vital is his relationship with Kieran Gibbs (23), with whom he's already forged a solid tandem as demonstrated by Gibbs's pass to set up Özil's assist against Sunderland or by the constant exchanges between the two against Marseille. Interestingly, Özil has drifted towards the left in the last two matches, giving rise to that Özil-Gibbs partnering.

Lost, then, in all of the hub-bub of the transfer window, a disappointing loss to Aston Villa, signing Özil, and going on a fine run is how well this all jibes with Arsène's vision. We've come 'round full circle in a way. Yes, a dramatic signing is all well and good, but what's remarkable is how vital have been those players whom Arsène found and signed at a young age. As each of them rounds into form, whether it's Ramsey leading the team in scoring and tackles, Wilshere defining his role, Walcott tallying his first goal in thunderous fashion, or Gibbs turning in commanding performances, we're seeing a return to the days of making superstars. Add in Wojciech Szczęsny, age 23, and Jenkinson, age 21, and we're now talking about six starters whom Arsène has brought along, each of whom could become something special.

It's not for nothing that we started this post with Thierry Henry. Before coming to Arsenal at age 21, he had shown glimpses of his potential but erupted into full glory after arriving. Simply put, there is a history of young players flourishing under Arsène, and for as good as Özil had been for club and country before, like Henry, like Bergkamp, like Pirès, he looks set to elevate his game to another level entirely. Along the way, it seems that we're seeing a revitalization of Arsène's commitment to youth and development in the best of ways. It's probably too soon to suggest that this season will be a special one—the squad as it stands is still a bit callow, not to mention thin—but, on the whole, it's well-positioned to restore this club to its former glories. It feels good, to say the least.

Before we sign off, I'd like to invite you to cast your ballot in the Football Blogging Awards, in which this blog is nominated as a best #New blog. To vote via twitter, imply click the FBA image above to vote; enter Woolwich 1886 in the #New category, and you're done. To vote via email, click this link and receive the emailed ballot. In either case, thank you for your support!

18 September 2013

Arsenal 2-1 Marseille: again, Ramsey runs this team

It was the result we wanted and the result we needed. Although it wasn't the prettiest—outshot 17-9, near-even possession, a bit of sloppy defending and luck on the line—we come away with the away-win and the three points. Along the way, a few getting-to-be-familiar performances were joined by a few, new, and welcome ones: Walcott finally scored his first goal of the season, Szczęsny turned in a MotM-worthy performance, Gibbs provided an assist and a goal-line save, and Flamini bossed his way around midfield. With Napoli turning away Dortmund by the same 2-1 scoreline, it was vital that we took all three in what is probably one of the easier legs of the group-stage. Of course, it's not without its downsides: Ramsey picked up a yellow-card early in the second half, and we lost a clean-sheet in the waning moments on a questionable penalty-kick. So it goes. Three points earned.

Had it not been for the yellow-card and the penalty in the 90th minute, we'd be talking about Ramsey yet again as the man of the match. He turned in another trademark display, harassing Marseille all over the pitch, pinging passes around, and, for the sixth time in seven matches, scoring. Instead, we'll be left to fret a bit about that yellow-card, which carries over to the next match. However, rather than fret over the negatives, let's indulge a bit in the positives.

First, as already mentioned, Walcott finally tallied. Coming on the heels of the Sunderland match, one in which he could have and should have gotten a hat-trick, it comes as a tremendous relief to see him score at long last. That it wasn't a typical Walcott-goal is beside the point. After Marseille's Jeremy Morel flubbed a headed clearance in the box, Walcott sized it up and blasted home. Let this be the goal that breaks the seal on Walcott's season—pressing to score, he's wound himself up too tightly and spurned chances that he might otherwise put in the back of the net (let's not forget that a few fine saves have also played a role). Having scored his first goal of the 2013-14 campaign should relieve a bit of the pressure borne of high expectations.

At the other end of the pitch, Wojciech Szczęsny turned in another fine performance, including a number of vital saves on some very difficult shots, and he very nearly came up with a save on the game-ending penalty, accurately predicting the direction of the shot and almost getting fingertips to a nearly-perfect shot. Had he come up with a deflection, or an outright save, we'd have a keeper who'd gone two for two on PK's (even if Benteke managed to gather the rebound in week one). Not bad. Not bad at all.

Of course, he had some help, most notably when Kieran Gibbs came up with a header to clear the line after a bit of scrabble saw Szczęsny come off his line only to see Per scuff the clearance. As the ball went skyward and towards the goal, Gibbs ran in and managed to head the ball backwards and out of goal for Szczęsny to gather. Tense moments, to be sure. and one that leaves us thankful that Gibbs hadn't been to the barber before the game.

If there's any disappointment to be had, perhaps it lies in the possibility that we hoped to see more from Giroud or Özil. Giroud was a non-factor at least in the direct sense, turning in only one shot (although his movement in and around the box was notable). Similarly, Özil was decent but not dominant. Let's hope that each is still shrugging off the lingering effects of their respective injuries (Giroud's knee or ankle, Özil's illness) and will return to form sooner rather than later.

All in all, not much to quibble with; a fine result that bags us three points of the ten Arsène suggests we need to advance. Dortmund traveled to Napoli and lost 2-1, not that this is a shocker, but it does ratchet up the tension around Dortmund's remaining fixtures just a bit. Before we square off with them, we'll host Napoli on 2 October, sandwiched between trips to face Swansea (28 September) and West Brom (5 October). Tricky stuff, that.  However, with the run we're on, fifteen wins from eighteen matches, I reserve the right to feel confident moving forward. We have a few days to catch our collective breath before hosting Stoke on Sunday.

Right. In other news, this blog is up for an award in the Football Blogging Awards as a best #new blog. I hope you'll take a moment to cast your via twitter-ballot by clicking here. You can also click the Football Blogging Award image above to vote via email. Thanks for your visit and support!

17 September 2013

Giroud, Marseille, and the power of homecomings

The last time that Olivier Giroud travelled to the State Vélodrome to face Marseille was in April 2012 when he still led the line for Montpellier, and he tallied a goal and an assist in a 3-1 victory. This was the season that saw him score 26 goals in 51 matches across all competitions, good enough to encourage us to pony up for him by June 2012. Without making too much of something that occurred almost 18 months ago, I'm picking Giroud to deliver one goal, if not two, in what should be one of the easier matches in a tricky Group of Death.
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Wielding a significant height advantage over Marseille's first-choice keeper and defenders, and on a fine run of form that has seen him score in four of five matches to start the season, Giroud looks well-positioned to seize the initiative in his second visit to France since joining Arsenal in June 2012. He has looked bright, confident, and, may I say, clinical. His touch has seemed sharp, and we have yet to any wasteful ways. Of his 22 shots so far, seven have been on frame, and four have found their way home. If we look at conversion-rate as a ratio of shots on target and goals, Giroud has an unheard-of conversion-rate of 57%. Taken as a ratio of shots to goals, he still manages a sparkly 18.2%. By any metric, then, Giroud has found a rather comfortable rhythm to start the season, the kind of run that bodes well for Wednesday as well as for the season as a whole. I've tabbed him to go for twenty goals in the Prem (and did so before Özil joined the squad). Özil's first touches saw him collect a Gibbs lob and thread a cross into the box for Giroud to send home, an exquisite display that certainly bodes well for their partnership. For as much as we might bemoan Theo Walcott's profligacy this past Saturday, Giroud made good on his chance, and it's there that we should focus. Walcott's finishing will improve in time. If anything, he might be suffering from an embarrassment of riches, hardly believing the service he's getting. There's hope in that, myopic though it may be. With Giroud, there seems less need for such hope as he's currently the Prem's leading scorer (tied with Benteke and Sturridge for those interested in full disclosure) and looks to build on that through a growing relationship with Özil.

As for Marseille, they've started well enough but have done so against a fair number of minnows, beating Evian, Valenciennes and newly-promoted Guingamp, winners of four of fifteen matches between them; and drawing with winless Toulouse and losing to newly-promoted Monaco. This is an uneven start, to say the least, and not one that should inspire fear. It should certainly not, on the other hand,  inspire complacency. Arsène has targeted ten points (from 18 available) as the threshold for qualification. Taking all three from Marseille on Wednesday and again in November would put us in fine shape for advancement, then. Even with a couple of tricky fixtures coming up—home vs. Stoke, at West Brom, at Swansea—on the horizon, here's hoping that Arsène fields something close to a full-strength squad. Mertesacker and Vermaelen are both available, the latter returning from long-term injury. Some rotation in the back-line might be appropriate as a result. The midfield looks stable, if only because of a dearth of options, with Ramsey and Flamini in the pivot with Özil, Walcott, and Wilshere patrolling the midfield behind Giroud up-top. Truth be told, Marseille is a team we really should be able to manage, if not dominate, if we expect to make any progress. I don't mean to underestimate Marseille, of course, but taking all three points is a vital goal. Taking all three points against an inferior opponent (no disrespect) is key—and I think our boys know this and will go out like berserkers to do that.

In other news (in case you didnt' notice the invitation above), this blog is up for a best new blog in the Football Blogging Awards. You can vote by clicking here. This will ask you to submit your email address in order to receive the email-ballot. Clicking that link will invite you to submit your chosen site, and I hope you'll enter woolwich1886.blogspot.com in the #new category. If you're on twitter, you can copy and tweet this: I am voting in @TheFBAs for @woolwich_1886 as the Best #New Football Blog. In either case, I hope you'll take a moment to cast your ballot. Thanks!

16 September 2013

Ramsey, Wilshere, Özil, and the danger of myopic nostalgia

As we prepare for the first of our group-stage matches against Marseille, we've found ourselves caught up in a wave of historic comparisons that I feel does our current squad a disservice. In its short version, we're constantly and remorselessly searching for the next Fàbregas, the next Henry, the next Bergkamp; we're impatiently awaiting the next
Invincible season; we're demanding the arrival of the club's next great hope. By those standards, any squad will suffer. After all, for as glorious as those players were, and as delirious as our celebrations were, they've been burnished also by the passing of time. The moments of glory have of course overshadowed some of the growing pains and clumsy stumbles of those very same names, few though they may have been, but the larger issue is how the glory of that era have spoiled us.

We're all familiar with Arsène's comments on caviar and sausage, and we have had to make do with more than few lean years, but the reality-check should be this question: have we punched above our weight? When you look at the players we've lost and how we've done, the answer is a strong yes—not an unqualified or resounding one, but a yes all the same. The only squads to have finished above us in the last eight years or so have done so by outspending us, by poaching our players on the cusp of superstardom, by flagrantly and gleefully flouting the philosophy that our manager, for all of his flaws, had held true to. How many other squads can lose their best players year after year after year, and to league rivals to boot, while still finishing as high as we do?  This is no argument for the status quo, mind you; it's simply a reminder that, for as much as we bemoan this trophy-drought, we've still had it better than most, and we've done so without selling our collective souls. Players who will play for club over money are few and far between, but we've done pretty well over the last few years. I don't know how I'd feel about seeing Nasri, Cole, and van Persie hoist a trophy for us. The emotions would be mixed, to say the least.

As I turn away from that and to our current squad, I harbor no such misgivings. Özil is a season-changing signing, make no mistake. His declaration that he would have signed for free comes £42.5m or so too late, of course, but we had the money and had to spend something to placate the torch-and-pitchfork brigade. Given the choice between signing him and signing, say, Suarez or Higuain (because we probably could not have signed him and another top-shelf player), I'd have to plump for Özil. As fascinating as those other targets may have been, only Özil matches up with how we play under Arsène, and only Özil stands to make those around him better. That second point should reverberate. Give it a moment. As capable as our lads have been (and, let's face it, "capable" is about-right), each of them stands to benefit. By any stretch of the imagination, he opens up a host of possibilities, whether it be the direct service he provides to the likes of Giroud, Walcott, Cazorla, or Podolski, or whether it be through other, more subtle means, such as his movement off the ball or the link-ups he offers to Wilshere, Rosický, Flamini, or Ramsey (to name just a few).

I don't want to make too much of one man, but as we go into Tuesday's group-stage match against Marseille, Özil sharpens this squad up just a bit. I'm not terribly concerned with whether he's the next Bergkamp or Pires. I don't worry about whether Ramsey or Flamini can be Vieira's heir. Between Vermaelen, Koscielny, and Mertesacker, who is the second arrival of Adams? Will Walcott eventually remind us of Henry? I don't know, and, frankly, I don't care. As trite as it may sound, I just want each of them to be the best they can be. Whether they do it in homage or imitation of some illustrious predecessor or in their own style should be up to them.

Whatever the case may be, we look to be in damned-good shape (pardon my French). Giroud and Ramsey, among others, are off to flying starts. Having conceded only two goals from open play and at full-strength in our last six matches, and only eight goals of any kind in our last 17 competitive matches, we'll arrive in Marseille on Tuesday in fine form. I'm not even worried about away-goals or goal-differential at the moment. We've dispatched Fener quite well, sent Spurs back home, and have won our last six away-matches dating back to last season. None of that guarantees anything for the match itself, of course, but it makes for some interesting possibilities. That's all I have to say about that.

In other news, this blog is again up for an award, nominated this time in the Football Blogging Awards. I'm gunning for a Best New Blog award, but I guess I'm also eligible for a Best Male Blog and Best Club Blog. If nothing else, I'm the only Arsenal blog in contention. I do hope you'll click on this link to get the emailed ballot and enter Woolwich 1886 in the "New" category. Thanks!

15 September 2013

Özil who? Ramsey pummels Sunderland into submission

It was brilliant and even breath-taking at times to see Mesut Özil on the pitch. Merely seeing him in the Arsenal kit was an inspiration, and the fact that his first two touches produced an assist on the game's first goal is an exciting glimpse of things to come. Just as important as his touch and skill on the ball is his influence on the game even when he
doesn't have the ball. So intelligent is his movement, and so threatening he is, defenders simply must be aware of his position at all times, and the disorder and nervousness that infects our opponents is going to create even more openings and chances. Into that breach steps one Aaron Ramsey, far and away the best player on the pitch. On a day when his new teammate's name was splashed across the marquee, Ramsey dominated the match and made sure we came away with all three points, good enough to see us at the top of the table, at least until the outcome of Liverpool's trip to Swansea on Monday.

In Arteta's absence, and as Flamini continues to acquaint himself, Ramsey's emergence as a generator and field-marshal has become all the more important. It should come as no surprise that, in addition to scoring twice, Ramsey led the team in tackles (7) and passes (88) and displayed his trademark work-rate and all-around play that we're coming to take for granted.

And so on a day when we saw the debut of the club's biggest-ever signing, in pounds if not in stature, the symbolism of Ramsey's display should not be overlooked. In fact, if Arsène himself could have scripted this any better:
  1. Sign young, promising British player (okay, Welsh, but still...).
  2. Endure questions and doubts about his quality as form falters.
  3. See his potential thwarted and perhaps sidetracked forever by injury.
  4. See him struggle to recover semblance of form. 
  5. Endure torrent of abuse around fielding a player of such questionable skills.
  6. See home-grown rediscover skill and confidence.
  7. Vindicate philosophy of making superstars.
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Now, of course, it's a bit early to be anointing Ramsey as a superstar, so let's just leave it at "he's enjoying a fine run of form". Three MotM ratings from whoscored.com in six appearances. Five goals and an assist to lead the team. A confidence on the ball that must be off the charts. Above all, and at the risk of drawing overly large conclusions from an admittedly small sample size (1/3 of last season plus six games this season), I do believe we're seeing Arsène's philosophy bearing fruit. It may be just one fruit, but I'm wondering how soon we'll see a bumper-crop including the likes of Wilshere, Walcott, and Gibbs, to name just a few. Each man has shown more than a glimmer of what's possible when he's in form, but Ramsey, week after week after week, has simply led the team to one victory after another. He's been a revelation, one good enough to help see the team to victories in 14 of our last 17 competitive matches (and draws in two of those other three).

Against Sunderland, his first goal was a wonderful volley, made all the more difficult because he was leaning back. Volleys are tough enough to time, let alone put on frame, and to do so with his body in that position shows that Ramsey has entered the vaunted zone, that Zen-like state in which one knows what is happening and what to do without thinking. The second goal, though it lacked for the highlight-reel quality that a volley offers, showed sublime movement off the ball (something we'll examine in more depth tomorrow) as Ramsey laid off the ball at the top of the box and darted in behind the Sunderland defense (beating four defenders along the way) to collect the pass from Giroud and finish coolly under Westwood.

Goals from Ramsey are gravy. Icing on the cake. The bee's knees. While it won't solve our striker-dilemma (Giroud, good as he's been so far, is only one man), a certain French manager can't be blamed for taking it all in and reading it, rightly in my opinion, as proof once again that he knows what he's up to. Blame him if you will for transfer-market failings (and you'd be right), but he's not the one who has distorted the market with oil-tycoon money. He's been slow to react to that, to be sure, but seeing Ramsey flourish shows that there's still something to the "we don't buy superstars; we make them" adage. Should Ramsey continue to show this kind of form—not goals, necessarily, but hallmarks like hustle and tackling and passing—we may look back, years from now, on the end of the 2012-13 campaign as the birth of a superstar. We could do a lot worse than rooting for that.

Between Ramsey, Wilshere, and Özil, the depth of talent and range of skill should leave you alternately breathless, hyper, and on the edge of your seat. Not one of them is even 25 yet, and they're each under contract until 2018. Sure, Özil stands apart a bit as the record-setting transfer, but what we seem to be on the cusp of a renaissance. It's a renaissance of method just as much as of outcome; the goals and the victories are sure to come, but it's through how they'll come that should deliver some satisfaction to Arsène, who might be humming just a few bars of Sinatra's "My Way":
Yes, there were times, I'm sure you knew
when I bit off more than I could chew,
but through it all, when there was doubt,
I ate it up and spit it out.
I faced it all and I stood tall
and did it my way.

I've loved; I've laughed and cried.
I've had my fill, my share of losing,
and now, as the tears subside,
I find it all so amusing

to think I did all that,
and may I say, not in a shy way,
"oh no, oh no, not me,
I did it my way!"