28 September 2013

Arsenal 2-1 Swansea: Ramsey. Again. Yawn.

This is getting a bit ridiculous, to be honest. Ramsey has scored yet again (eight goals on fourteen total shots) added an assist, and again led the team in tackles (7). He turned in a rather pedestrian 80% pass accuracy, so I'm sure that the Piers Morgans of the world will point out that they don't understand what people see in him. Everyone's entitled to having their opinions, of course, but not every opinion is entitled to being
had. However, tempting as it is to gush yet again over Ramsey's form, let's not neglect the man of the hour, Serge Gnabry, player of 271 minutes of competitive football in the last seven days, and, more importantly, scorer of his first Prem League goal.

In a gutsy performance that follows closely on the heels of an uncertain one against West Brom, highlighted by his PK being saved, the 18-year old German turned in a stellar all-around performance. In fact, were it not for some poor finishing from some more-seasoned teammates (who shall remain nameless), we might have seen Gnabry turn in an assist or two as well, such was the quality of his play today. It's of course too early to anoint him with anything, but he has announced his intentions and should become something special in due time. Without stoking the fire any further, at 18 years, 76 days old, he's now the second-youngest player to score a Prem goal for Arsenal, behind Cesc Fabregas, who scored at 17 years, 113 days. The goal was smartly taken after some clever passing around the edge of Swansea's box, with Gnabry slotting home coolly to the far post, out of reach of the sprawling Vorm. Just as impressive as the shot itself is Gnabry's jump back to both stay onside and to square up for the shot. You can see a gif here, thanks to arsenalist.com.

On a day that saw Spurs draw with Chelsea, Man U lose at home to West Brom, and Man City lose away to Aston Villa, it was all the more vital that we take all three points. We now sit alone in first place, two points above Spurs, four points clear of Chelsea, and five above Man City. In a situation that is bound to change, Man U languish in 12th place behind newly promoted Cardiff and Hull City. While there are still questions for us to answer, especially regarding squad depth and rotation, we offer a rosy picture of stability and intent compared to our rivals. Additionally, we should see the issue of squad depth actually improve with the impending returns to fitness of Santi Cazorla and Tomáš Rosický next week, and of Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski, both scheduled to return on or around 19 October. We're on a run of form that has seen us win nine games in a row, including all six away-matches on the season. It's therefore a bit astonishing to think that, in spite of our apparent thinness and injuries, we're looking to get even stronger.

It's still early days, of course, and a lot can happen between now and 11 May. We can and should celebrate this win and our position the table without getting presumptuous about what these mean for the long haul. As hard as it is to resist unbridled optimism, let's remember that we've played just six of 38 matches, face a tricky league-cup visit from Chelsea, and are only one match into the Champions League group phase. As vital as today's win was, then, it was similarly important to see the growth of another young player who can slot in and contribute. Gnabry may be only eighteen, but he looks to be the real deal. The squad as a whole, with its mix of youth and experience, is starting to look much the same, real enough to be touted as contenders for the Prem title or other silverware.

Heady days, indeed, but headaches could still come up. October sees us host Napoli to start and Dortmund to finish, matches that could prove our quality or expose our flaws. Rather than looking too far ahead, though, let's savor another solid victory for what it is: three points, three points that none of our rivals can match on this day. Yes, Liverpool visits Sunderland on Sunday and could climb to second with a win, but they, like everyone else, are trying to keep up with us. That's a nice change of pace, and one I hope we can sustain over the long run.

That's all for now. You can check my player-ratings here. If you have a minute before you go, I hope you'll consider casting a vote for Woolwich 1886 in the Football Blogging Awards' Best New Blog category. You can click here to vote through twitter or here to receive an email ballot. Whether you vote or not, thank you for your visit, and I invite you to weigh in in the comments section below. Thanks!

27 September 2013

Against Swansea, look to Giroud. He's easy on the eyes and on the prowl...

Don't let Swansea's uneven start to the season or its crashing out of the league cup against Championship side Birmingham fool you—for as strong a start as we're on, it is one after all that is enabled in part by whom we've faced. Fulham, Sunderland, and Stoke can hang tough enough to claim a point or even nick all three on their day, but Swansea has drawn with in-form Liverpool,  lost narrowly at White Hart Lane, and come away with a nifty away-win against Valencia. They've now won three of their last five, and one can easily chalk up the loss to Birmingham to squad selection, as new signing Jonjo Shelvey was the only regular to have played significant minutes. For as much as we fretted the squad selection for our own third-round match against West Brom, we at least came through. One wonders, then, if Laudrup underestimated Birmingham or overestimated his own squad. In either case, both clubs will go on fielding relatively rested, full-strength squads. For Swansea, there are injury doubts for Ashley Williams and Pablo Hernandez, and we'll go in without Podolski, Cazorla, Ox, Diaby, Sanogo, or Walcott. However, Arteta and Vermaelen will be available, but having played on Wednesday, will probably ride the bench.

At the risk of picking at scabs before they've fully healed, Carl Jenkinson played the full match against West Brom, which implies that he might be rested on Saturday, good news considering how he was undressed against Swansea in that infamous 2-0 loss last December. Mertesacker and Vermaelen also played the full match, which poses some interesting questions. Should we see Koscielny and Sagna as center-backs with Jenkinson on the right, or should we see some combination of Koscielny-Mertesacker-Vermaelen in the center with Sagna on the right? I might opt for the latter option, starting with Kos and Per flanked by Gibbs and Sagna. In front of them, we should see Ramsey and Flamini. The leadership and command that Flamini has established already has been a minor revelation of sorts, and Ramsey, well, what more can be said about the form he's currently in? In front of those two, we should see Wilshere, Özil, and Gnabry. Before you slap your forehead over Gnabry, ruing his performance against West Brom, remember a few factors: one, he played 73 minutes against Stoke the previous Saturday; two, the squad was a mish-mash of Academy and first-teamers that lacked continuity; and three, his spot-kick was actually decent although blocked. Of course, his fitness could be a concern, playing his third match in seven days, but we can hope that youth is an advantage in that regard. With Özil adjusting nicely to life in the Prem, Gnabry, Giroud, and Wilshere should see plenty of chances, especially if Swansea's defense is a bit unsettled by the potential absence of Williams, not to mention the dispiriting effect of having lost mid-week to abruptly end Swansea's title-defense.

As we consider positions and players, having Gnabry and Wilshere in the attacking midfield suggests that Giroud's role in the striker-position will be vital. Özil's first Prem assist did come, after all, with Giroud on the other end, and with Giroud's emerging penchant for going near-post to score, look to Özil to find Giroud a number of times in or around the box. After a strong start to the season saw Giroud score five goals in six matches, he's been quiet in his last two appearances but may again find the scoring touch as he roams the penalty area, from which all eleven of our Prem goals have come. Özil has already created more clear-cut chances (10) than any other player in the Prem, and he should find plenty of space to add to that number against Swansea, who play an attacking style similar to ours albeit with less technical ability. With questions about their defense, the Özil-Giroud axis could prove to be the difference in this match.

For as much as we may have underestimated Swansea last December, we've since won twice and drawn once against them and look ready to improve on that account on Saturday. I'm going out on a limb to predict two goals for Giroud, one of them assisted by Giroud, in yet another 3-1 win for Arsenal. Make your own prediction in the comments section below—thanks!

26 September 2013

Of Wenger, Mourinho, and Özil: a contrast in styles

Now that we've advanced in the league cup, we'll face Chelsea in round four at the end of October as well as in late December in the Prem. Of course, most of the news out of Stamford Bridge centers around the conflict between José Mourinho and Juan Mata, a carry-over of a recent trend that has seen the manager run down players at
each club he's managed, whether it's Mata at Chelsea, Casillas at Real Madrid, or Balotelli at Inter. It seems almost to be a calling-card or a running joke: how do you know that Mourinho has managed a team? One of its best or brightest has been ground down into dust. Of course, for those players whom he favors, the sun couldn't shine brighter and the birds couldn't sing sweeter. That's all well and good for those favored few, and perhaps it's a useful motivational lever on the rest of the squad. However, the contrast between Mourinho and Wenger couldn't be more stark, as Mourinho has developed a reputation for a certain nomadism and penchant for undermining players to prove a point while Wenger has, for better or worse, now stands apart for his longevity and for his ability to support and develop players into superstars.

Setting aside my own personal, sentimental reasons, I really do hope that we deliver at least three spankings to Mourinho, if not just to progress in the league cup or climb the Prem table [editor: we're top of the table] but to send a message. That message? One can and should build success on a foundation of building players up, not on tearing them down. I'll admit that I have a soft spot for Casillas, and this might bias me a bit against Mourinho. Casillas is easily on the short-list for the world's best keepers, and he seems, by all accounts, to be a class-act as well. To see how his career withered on the vine under Mourinho is therefore an issue for me. For as well as Diego López has done, the fact that he's benefitted from the submarining (sub-mourinho-ing? too much?) of Casillas's career is too much for me to stomach.

To then see the same happen to Juan Mata, who I've heard turns in a tolerably decent shift from time to time, is more than a bit aggravating. Yes, I know that we could've had him a few years back and were even linked to him over the past summer, but that's not what I'm going on about at the moment. Long story short, I can't stand a manager who will undermine a player to prove a point. The lame excuse for Mata's dilemma is that his abilities don't suit Mourinho's preferred tactics. When you have a player of Mata's qualities, why not just explain those tactics and ask him to play to those tactics? I'm sure Mata is more than willing to give it a try. Instead of sussing that out privately between them, Mourinho seems to have opted for publicly undermining the player, apparently to send a message to the rest of the squad that he's in charge, dammit, and that reputations, achievements, or careers matter little if it all.

At the other end of the spectrum then is Arsène Wenger, who has built and staked his name on his ability to find, sign, and develop unheralded players into superstars. Again and again and again, Arsène has proven himself to be a master of actual management—at least as defined in terms of making players and squads better than they might otherwise have been. Given the talent that has surrounded Mourinho at almost every club he's managed, it's hard to assess just how good each squad might have otherwise been without him—how much of a difference, for example, did he make for a Real Madrid squad that features some of the world's best, such as Ronaldo, Casillas, Alonso, and Ramos? By contrast, how well would Arsenal have done without Arsène? With the temporary exceptions of van Persie and Fàbregas, which Gunners could we name as established, world-class players? A select few.

The point here is that, between Mourinho and Arsène, the former gets about as much as you might expect out of a squad, given its talent, and the latter gets a bit more than you might expect—even if that hasn't been quite enough to fully satisfy the Arsenal faithful.

The tie that binds, then, is one Mesut Özil. He was good at Real Madrid, no doubt, but he did so under a manager who seems to insist, nay demand, absolute fealty. As such, all of Özil's gaudy statistics, whether it's key passes or assists or chances created, might actually do the man a disservice, as he was playing within a system not necessarily tailored to his abilities. Put another way, Özil had to play Mourinho's way or get Mourinho-ed. Freed from that strait-jacket, playing in a system and philosophy and under a management style that fosters and encourages, we might actually see a version of Özil that renders the pre-Arsenal Özil absolutely obsolete. That would be exciting to see on two levels: one, it would catapult us towards the top of the Prem; and, two, it would further validate Arsène's philosophy of maximizing the potential of each player.Yes, the name on the front of the shirt matters more than the name on the back, but the two dance a delicate minuet. Under Arsène, we might just see an Özil unchained and free to explore the full range of his skills, and that would be an exciting thing indeed.

By the time these two clubs meet in the league cup's fourth round, we may have a clearer sense of what Mata's role will be. We'll almost certainly have a stronger sense of Özil's contributions to the squad as he'll have four more matches under his belt by the tame we face Chelsea. Despite our rivalry, I respect Mata and would like to see him treated better than this.

Right. I'll walk the line of rooting for Mata while rooting against Mourinho. It's a fine line, no doubt. While I do that, I hope you'll consider voting for this blog in the Football Blogging Awards. Woolwich 1886 has been nominated as a Best New Blog. You can vote via twitter by clicking here or via email by clicking here. I hope I've given you food for thought, at least enough to have earned your support. Thanks, as always, for your visit.

Arsenal 4-3 West Brom (pen); undeserved, but, well...

It wasn't pretty, but we managed to pull off the win, and that's really all that counts. I do regret that West Brom came so close only to come away with nothing, for the league cup offers clubs the rare opportunity to do something famous. It's similar to the movie Hoosiers, in which any club, no matter how small, has a chance to knock any club, no matter how large. We saw a dose of this last spring when Wigan knocked off Man City to claim the FA Cup. For the first sixty minutes and again for most of the rest of regulation and into overtime, West Brom simply outplayed Arsenal and arguably deserved the win more than we. That we came out with a win anyway proves only that outcome and effort are sometimes miles apart, for we were certainly not the better squad on the evening.

That said, there are few moral victories in sport, and so I doubt that there are many Baggies trudging home thinking, "well, at least we hung tough". To those who are, it's cold consolation, if any at all. I've been on the other side of such losses, and I'd almost prefer to have been roundly thrashed. Once Gnabry missed his spot-kick, I thought, "well, that's it." I can't imagine (and don't want to, either) what it must have felt like to be on the other end, thinking, "we're going to pull this off" only to see not one but two misses slam shut the door. To have come so close only to see victory slip through their fingers must be agonizing, and I hope it doesn't provide West Brom with too much motivation against us going forward.

Back to Arsenal. Back to Gnabry. For as much as we might bemoan the saved kick, let's be honest. Penalties are a lottery. The shooter picks one of three basic options: left, center, right. The keeper chooses from the same. Even if the keeper matches the shooter, there's placement, pace, timing. On the whole, Gnabry's shot was among the better-taken of the ten. He just had the bad luck of being the only one whose shot was saved. Here, then, is a quick review:
  1. Reid: 8/10—well-taken, top-right corner and out of reach despite Fabiański guessing right.
  2. Bendtner: 6/10—decent but only midway between the center of goal and the right post. Good thing Daniels guessed wrong.
  3. Rosenberg: 4/10—very nearly down the middle, almost saved by Fabiański who dove to his left but almost deflected anyway.
  4. Gnabry: 5/10—similar to Bendtner's but towards the left post. Daniels guessed correctly and parried.
  5. Morrison: 9/10—nearly perfect, top-left corner shot. The only element missing would be to have it glance in off the post.
  6. Olsson: 6/10—good shot, beating Daniels who guessed right. Extra point given for responding well to the pressure of the moment.
  7. Dawson: 1/10—plain and simple, you must make the keeper save, at a minimum. Putting it that far wide is inexcusable, especially given how a goal would have all but sealed the victory.
  8. Akpom: 5/10—again, another decent shot but only midway between the center and the post, benefitting more from the keeper guessing wrong than from the quality of the shot.
  9. Amalfitano: 1/10—as with Dawson, one must put it on-frame. Knowing that the squads were now level, it was all the more crucial to do so.
  10. Monreal: 6/10—similarly, the shot was midway between center and post and went in because the keeper guessed wrong.
That was enough to seal it. It may not be fair or just, but we advance and will host Chelsea in the next round, set for October 29 or 30. West Brom will nurse its wounds while we savor the win. I'd like to offer up a platitude along the lines of "that's the way the ball bounces", but it might be more-true to point out that we escaped by the skin of our teeth. On to a few other individual performances...

The Squad
Ah, to be Arsène Wenger. On one hand, you're lambasted for rotating Academy players in. On the other, you're lampooned for the injuries to first-team players. The critics can't have it both ways. If Arsène plays Giroud, Ramsey, or Özil, he'll be criticized for over-playing them. When he plays Gnabry, Akpom, or Miyaichi, he's criticized for throwing in the towel. Sure, there's a middle ground, a magical fairy-tale land in which every single signing works out exactly as planned (or in which a club can simply buy any available player), but that is, after all, a fantasy. Last season, we threw on a full-strength squad against Bradford and were humiliated. On this night, we threw on a squad of second-choices, the recently-injured, and the youth of today, and it worked out (barely). Whenever you throw together a bunch of players who are unfamiliar (and far from fitness—Nicklas Bendtner, I'm looking at you...), there's bound to be some disjointedness and sloppiness. We got through despite that. On to a few players...

Nicklas Bendtner
Look, the man hadn't played competitive football for club or country since May 2013. Between the width of his waist and the breadth of his beard, his aerodynamics were understandably off. For him to have played 120 minutes of football is therefore astounding. Well, "astounding" might be overstating it, but still. He delivered an assist on our only goal of the game, a well-weighted pass, and had a few chances that he might have delivered on had he been more in-form. His spot-kick may have been his first Arsenal goal since 2011, but it came at just the right time and with the appropriate amount of celebration.

Lukas Fabiański
Mr. Flappyhandski actually turned in a decent performance despite conceding the equalizer to Berahino. By the time the keeper has to make a save, I've always maintained, ten other guys have let him down in one way or another. To criticize Fabiański for failing to save a point-blank header misses the point. Where were our center-backs, each of whom towers over Berahino, on Berahino's header? Why didn't anyone close down on Shane Long to prevent his little chip? By the time the ball was in the net, a sequence of other failures preceded Fabiański's. Otherwise, on the whole, he acquitted himself tolerably well.

Thomas Vermaelen
While it may be too early to memorize and declare lines from Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain!", it was gratifying to see Vermaelen take to the field and perform as well as he did. According to whoscored.com, he led the team in interceptions, shots blocked, effective clearances, and passing accuracy. In the absence of a true, in-form defensive midfielder (Arteta working back from injury and Hayden being, well, 18), Vermaelen linked defense to offense quite well and looks to be regaining the form and confidence that had abandoned him a year ago. Should this hold true, a center-back rotation of Vermaelen, Koscielny, and Mertesacker could be formidable indeed.

Long story short, we may not have deserved this win, but we got it. There's a tricky visit to Liberty Stadium to face Swansea on Saturday, and we've continued a run that has seen us win 17 of our last 20 competitive matches (including eleven in a row on the road). We may have underestimated Swansea a bit last year, but we won't do so again this year. On top of that, this is a squad that wants to win and knows how, whether it's a squeaky bum like tonight or a 3-0 over Fener. In either case, we're on a nifty little run. Enjoy it while it lasts!

24 September 2013

Even before Wednesday's cup-tie, Gnabry's scored on West Brom.

That's how good he is (or can be).

Of course, I'm referring to the U21 match about two weeks back, when the young German unleashed a thunderous volley to put the Arsenal squad past West Brom 1-0. It's one thing to score against a squad of teenagers, but Gnabry has shown in his short time with the first team that he has what it takes to play with the big
boys, having tucked in nicely against Stoke on Saturday after a nervous start (understandable given the short notice, Gnabry having found that he would start only after Walcott tore muscles in his abdomen during warm-ups). Think of that jolt: getting the call-up is one thing, but he probably assumed that he would be watching comfortably at least until the 70th minute or so, at which point he might get the call if the game was safely iced way). To then find out that he would get the start, and to have that start come on the day of Mesut Özil's Emirates debut, must have electrified Gnabry. For him to have turned in such a calm, assured performance anyway signals that the 18-year old could be ready, not just to simply join the first team, but to make actual contributions.

Of course, with injuries to Walcott and the Ox, we naturally turn to Gnabry to play on the wing. Instead of discussing who might rotate in among those three, Gnabry is the last man standing. Happily, he acquitted himself quite well on Saturday, moving intelligently, making the most of his chances (save for a shot that he sent sailing into the seats), absorbing some cynical fouls (such as Huth's cold-cock shoulder-block that should have drawn a booking), dropping deep to help in the build-up, and making himself an all-around good guy to have on the pitch.

This isn't the first time that Gnabry has been totted up as a competitor with Walcott; he's even been mentioned as an out-and-out replacement. Should Walcott continue to struggle to find his form after undergoing abdominal surgery, and should Gnabry seize the moment presented him in Walcott's absence, those murmurings could grow. Rather than build up that molehill, however, let's enjoy the idea that we could see some competition on the right flank between the two, the kind that can extract some exquisite performances from each. You won't get Gnabry to engage in any such discussion, as he's widely touted as having a great attitude and ethic, the kind of player who puts his shoulder to the wheel and keeps going until the whistle blows. I'm not implying any contrasts. I'm just mentioning certain attributes.

Despite his youth, he's made first-team appearances already, having made three appearances in the 2012-13 campaign—the 6-1 victory over Coventry City (almost a year ago to the day, 26 September) the infamous 1-0 loss at Norwich , and the 2-0 loss to Schalke in the 2-0 Champions League group stage. Those experiences should serve him well, even if this is "only" the league cup. Given our recent history in this competition—crashing out to Bradford and Birmingham in successive years—some have fretted that facing recently-relegated West Brom is an ominous sign. Far better, they'd say, to face a lower-tier opponent in these early rounds. However, the spirit in this squad is such that I don't care who we face. We've won ten road-matches in a row. Heck, we haven't lost to West Brom in more than three years. Sure, they'll be throwing on a few new faces, Nicholas Anelka, Stéphane Sessègnon and Victor Anichebe among them, but this is a squad we really should have no trouble despatching. After all, if we can't get past West Brom, we have no business progressing in the cup, now, do we?

Therefore, I'm looking to Gnabry to turn in another impressive performance, this time adding a goal to his resumé as we look to advance. He's netted once against the Baggies, so here's hoping he'll repeat the performance on Wednesday.

Before we close, I'll offer a quick reminder that this site has been nominated as a Best New Blog in the Football Blogging Awards. You can vote via twitter by clicking this link or via email by clicking this link to receive the email ballot. Thanks, as always, for your visit!

Theo's slow start—a cause for concern?

Amidst all of the successes we're enjoying in the start of the 2013-14 campaign, it seems a bit churlish of me to point out that Theo Walcott is off to such a slow start that one wonders if the malaise that settled over him after signing his contract threatens to become a personality trait rather than a phase. With news out that he might be out for two weeks or more due to the injury he suffered before the Stoke match, he could miss as many as three Prem matches—at Swansea on 28 September, at West Brom on 5 October, and home against Norwich on 19 October, not to mention Wednesday's league cup clash, again at West Brom (a match he probably would have rested for anyway). Aside from the dilemmas this creates for rotation and the focus it puts on injury with him, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski, and Cazorla all working their ways through various injuries, we almost have to wonder where Walcott's been in the first place even when fit.

Ever since signing his new contract back in January, he just hasn't found anything resembling form. He had started the first half of the 2012-13 campaign very slowly with only one goal in his first five appearances, just as he has this season. However, he did go on a bit a of tear, tallying 15 goals in 21 appearances. Then, come January, he hit a drought that saw him score 7 goals in 23 appearances. Whether this was down to pressure tied to proving his worth, fatigue, niggling injuries, complacency, or some combination thereof is hard to say. Having started the current campaign as slowly as he has—one goal in seven appearances—is troubling. In those seven matches, according to whoscored.com, he's managed to take 23 shots, putting 13 on target but only converting once for a woeful conversion rate of 7.6%. When we consider that Walcott's "typical" shot comes from inside the box and rarely at a distance of more than 12 yards, it's of course natural that he should manage to put many of his shots on frame. Contrast this against Aaron Ramsey, who has scored taken 20 shots, put nine on target, and scored six goals for a conversion rate of 67%. While it's unlikely that he'll keep up that kind of finishing over the long term, consider that many of his shots have from distance and through a thicket of defenders and teammates while Walcott frequently finds himself with a clear path to goal and only the keeper to beat, albeit at a tight angle.

It wasn't so long ago that I was suggesting that Walcott would go for 20 Prem goals. I have also wrestled with doubts about his consistency. On his day, when he combines his pace with intelligent movement and deft touch, he can eviscerate defenses and even his movement off the ball can be enough to unsettle and stretch them. However, when he contents himself with merely wandering on the wing, as he too often does, he disappears. With 42% of the Arsenal attack coming down the right flank (courtesy again of whoscored.com), it is vital that the attacking winger on that side show greater finishing ability. As it currently stands, however, too many attacks fizzle out with Walcott putting a tame shot directly at the keeper or seeing that keeper beat him to the ball. Unfortunately, Arsenal's attacking options look desperately thin with Giroud the only first-team attacker still healthy at the moment. Youngster Serge Gnabry, after a tentaive start against Stoke, showed some positive signs and will probably be relied on heavily over the next few weeks as Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain work their way back from injury. Perhaps some bright performances from the German could put pressure to Walcott; seeing that there is some kind of competition for the spot might prod him from whatever torpor seems to have settled into him.

It's not too late for Walcott to find his form. After all, he did start slowly last year before hitting his stride. Arsenal can only hope he returns from injury more determined and purposeful. Ramsey will eventually slow down, just as Giroud has after his own bright start, and Arsenal is going to need someone to step up. We may have to wait two weeks for him to even make an appearance, but here's hoping he'll make it worth the wait.

Before we close, I'll offer a quick reminder that this site has been nominated as a Best New Blog in the Football Blogging Awards. You can vote via twitter by clicking this link or via email by clicking this link to receive the email ballot. Thanks for your visit!

22 September 2013

Arsenal 3-1 Stoke: the Prem's not ready for Özil

I guess Aaron Ramsey doesn't read my blog as often as I led myself to believe. There was apparently no reconciliation, no redemption, no Hallmark moment between he and Shawcross. Instead, Ramsey simply put the Potters on their arses with a fifth minute goal, slotting home nicely after Begovic managed to parry Özil's free-kick, the
first of a remarkable three goals from set-pieces. Indeed, at times, it seemed like the two teams had swapped kits, with Stoke nearly winning the possession game (finishing at 49% but holding the ball for long stretches) while Arsenal seemed content to park the bus after going ahead early, soaking up pressure and launching the occasional counter-attack. As such, it was hardly a vintage Arsenal win, but it's gratifying to see the lads dig in and nab three points in their third match in eight days.

Speaking of gratification, it was wonderful to see Ramsey score the opener. Afterwards, of course, he treated our visitors with great grace and dignity, shushing them ever so gently so that they could enjoy the moment. Booing, after all, is in such bad taste, especially when one finds oneself in an unfamiliar setting.

However, the story of the day is Mesut Özil. On a day when many teammates looked a bit worse for wear, especially in the second half, Özil delivered three assists (if you give him credit for one on Ramsey's goal). Some of the talk leading into this match focused on how well Özil might fare in the Prem, especially facing one of its infamously most-rugged clubs. Arsène worried that the German would need time to adapt to the "vigorous body challenges he will face". While Stoke have softened somewhat, they're still a bit more brass-knuckle than they are tiki-taka. In fact, if there's a hazing involved in coming to the Prem and adapting to the physicality, you might as well face Stoke, and Özil came through with flying colors.

At some point, well find someone to discuss other than Ramsey or Özil, but, truth be told, they're the story of the season so far. Ramsey's gone for six goals in seven matches after getting just seven goals in his previous 109 Arsenal appearances. As for Özil? In just three appearances now (Sunderland, Marseille, Stoke), he's tallied a remarkable twelve key passes—averaging four per game. Of course, that number is bolstered by the seven he had against Stoke, including three from set-pieces. That number may seem like an outlier, but he will probably be the team's #1 choice for corners and spot-kicks. We may not always see conversions like we did today, but his quality is evident. Say what you will against Shawcross or Huth, but it's not for nothing that Özil found Mertesacker and Sagna for goals, and it's not every day that you can put three past Begovic.

Özil's skill on the ball, and his ability to elevate the games of those around him, may very well do more for our prospects than Higuain or Suarez ever could have (let's not enter the debate over how well we'd fare with Özil and one of those. That ship has sailed). Of course, he hasn't faced any of the Prem's best defenders or midfielders yet, and it's only a matter of time before managers figure out some way to slow him down, whether it's by assigning someone to follow him every where he goes, parking two banks of four defenders behind the ball, or hacking at him. Then again, he's certainly come up against all of that and more before, and we'll certainly seem him adjust as he adapts. For as good as he was at Real Madrid, he's entering a phase of his career and working with a manager renowned for forging players into superstars, and we may just be seeing the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

His continued bedding-in, along with the return to fitness of men like Wilshere (still working back to full fitness), Vermaelen (an unused sub), Arteta (who came on at 80'), and the impending returns of Cazorla and the Ox, this is a club that is already at the top of the Prem and looking to get stronger. Sure, Spurs look to improve as their new signings learn to play with each other, and it's only a matter of time before Chelsea, Man U, and Man City get their acts together. It will be December, with all of its various fixtures, before we know where we really stand.

Before we look too far ahead, though, let's relish where we stand now, atop the Prem despite Spurs' best-ever start in club history and because of our own strong one. Of course, we only have a few days to catch our breath before visiting West Brom. The season is still in its early stages, but the signs all point in the right direction.

As part of the celebration, I hope you'll consider voting for Woolwich 1886 in the Football Blogging Awards. We're contending for a best #New blog; click the image above to cast your ballot through twitter. If you're not on twitter, click here to vote via email. Thanks!