22 November 2013

Let's be nice to Southampton, shall we?

What an exciting time for Southampton! Third in the Prem, only two seasons in it? Ahead of Chelsea. Man U. Man City. Tottenham. Won at Anfield. Drew at Old Trafford. League-leaders in fewest goals conceded. Gosh, it's almost enough to make me a Saints fan. I won't go quite that far, of course, but it is enough to make me wonder, maybe we should go easy on them on Saturday? You know, give 'em a little boost? I'm not saying we should roll over and let them win, but think of the surge in confidence they would feel after claming a point at The Emirates. They could quiet their critics, answer the doubters, put to rest the questions all too many have asked. "Are they for real?" some say. "They can't keep this up over the course of a full season," say others. Well, I say we lend the Saints a hand. After all, we can afford it, can't we? We haven't dropped too many points. We're in first place. Maybe we sit back a bit and settle for a 0-0 draw. Y'know, let them preserve that precious status as stingiest defense in the Prem for another week? Heck, if other fixtures go their way, they can even sit top of the table for a week or more!

They've earned it, after all, by being one of the hardest-working teams in the league. It's not like they're simply defending deep and refusing to play football (cough, cough, Pulis). They're pressing and scoring and outworking teams. It may not be attractive football, but it's getting results, and who are we to stand in their way? How long has it been since Southampton has played European football?  I'm not saying we should let them finish above us—don't get me wrong. Have they ever? They're founding members of the Premier League, for Pete's sake. Let's help them get into the Europa League, at least. They practically gifted us Theo and the Ox. We owe them, don't we? Surely, letting them take a point is a fitting way of showing our gratitude. Look at it this way, helping them stay near the top of the table makes things more crowded. Spurs will have an even tougher time catching up to us if there's another club in the mix.

I want to slum around in such ignoble thoughts, though. Far better to focus on the nobler motives. Instead of coming across as front-running bullies, we could emerge as the "bigger" team by letting the little guy claim some glory. Beating Southampton would only prove that we are bigger, wealthier, snobs. Letting Southampton draw shows that we are generous, humble, respectful. All the money in the world can't buy that kind of goodwill. Think it over before you dismiss it out of hand. That's all I ask.

Wait. What the @#$% was I thinking? Letting Southampton nick a point from us? Sweet Enola Gay. I They let Tottenham have Gareth Bale. They had the audacity to score on us last season—twice. I hope we double up their precious goals-conceded. I hope we run riotously over them like we did last season, slicing open that defense of theirs, eviscerating them, pummeling them, scoring six ways from Sunday. I want to see us get to a point that Bendtner scores. We're not in the business of doing favors or giving anyone a leg up. There's another club in London whose supporters don't seem to mind losing. Four miles north, as the capon flies. We have silverware on our mind and can take no prisoners. I want to see defenders falling left and right, helplessly tripping over their own feet as Ramsey and Cazorla and Gnabry and the rest fly around the pitch, the ball pinging back and forth like a Superball© on crack until it rockets through to the back of the net. I want Boruc to spend so much time taking the ball from the back of the net that he ends up paying rent on the space. I want Szczesny to get a chance to score only to pull the ball back off the goal-line and knock it out of bounds instead, just because he can. Last time we hosted the Saints was 14 months and a manager ago, but we put six past them then.

They've overhauled and are one of the stories of the season so far. Good on them and all. I sincerely hope they stay up and finish in the top five. However, I hope we make it a little harder for them, whether we win in a nailbiter or a rout. They'll have to find their points on another day. Come on, you Gunners—goals from Gnabry, Cazorla, and Giroud. Get 'er done!

21 November 2013

Wojciech talks up a title challenge—without putting his foot in it

Speaking ahead of Saturday's visit from Southampton, Wojciech Szczesny had quite a bit to say about Arsenal's chances at winning the Prem. More important than what he said was how he said it. That is, instead of blathering on or bragging or saying
something cringe-worthy, he spoke rather modestly and frankly about the club and its form to date:
I wouldn't say we have proved anyone wrong and passed all the tests, and I can't say that until we get our hands on a trophy in May, but what is important is what we believe in, and we believe that we are good enough with the players we have got and the work we are doing to win the Premier League. We have shown that to people over the last six months or so. We know that if we just carry on doing the same thing, we will show people that this team and these players are good enough to win a trophy without any extra additions or the extra work people are talking about. We are confident that we see the quality is there and we know that, when we play at our very best and do it consistently well, we can beat anyone, basically. If we are at our best, we will win a trophy. But we have to make sure we keep our form going and not just rest on our laurels.
I don't think anyone could object to that. He makes a number of very valid points. We haven't proven anyone wrong yet. Despite how well we've started, we're still part of a tight logjam at the top of the table. On one hand, it's difficult to know whether Southampton can keep up with the pace over the full season (I'm willing to bet that they will); on the other, it's less likely that Man City, Man U, or Chelsea will continue their own uneven form. As for our own results, we have to keep in mind that we've beaten a Spurs side that is adjusting to the loss of Gareth Bale and the additions of several new starters, beaten a Liverpool side that might have been punching above its weight, and lost to an off-kilter Man U. In other words, there are asterisks attached to our key Prem League wins. We haven't faced Chelsea (in the Prem) or Man City yet, and it may only be after that stretch of fixtures in December that we have a true sense of our prospects.

That said, we've improved in one key area—dropping points to teams below us on the table. In seasons past, we've labored to earn draws or staggered to shock losses to teams we really must beat if we're serious about a title-challenge. The home-loss to Aston Villa stands out as the only real exception thus far; last year, by contrast, we drew with Sunderland and Stoke, lost at Norwich, and drew with Fulham, not to mention non-Prem losses to Bradford and Blackburn to close out other silverware opportunities.  In a sense, then, that's one test passed. Maybe it's a quiz. Or, um, let's just leave aside the school metaphor and move on.

Woj goes on to talk of the belief in the squad, and that is certainly evident. Last year, even during the run-in, there was always a sense that the other shoe was about to drop, that it was all on the verge of falling to absolute pieces. For a few days after Aston Villa, that sense pervaded the atmosphere. Now, however, the sense of confidence, even of resilience, seems to abound. So we lost to Man U? Eh, they were lucky. We lost to Dortmund? We'll bounce back and beat them. And so on. That's not passing a test (confound you, school metaphor...), but it is a test of character. Gone, for now, are the days when a loss was also a crisis or a symbol of our fragility. It seems we're talking out of both sides of our mouths a bit when we defend Jack's cigarette-smoking or garbled "England for the English" by pointing out that he's only 21 and then talk up the deepened maturity in the squad. At the risk of splitting hairs, though, they can both hold true (if only because Jack has had trouble getting on or staying on the pitch lately!).

The club itself does seem more mature. Olivier isn't pressing so hard. Kos seems more assured. Gibbs and Jenkinson look more confident. Ramsey is, well, Ramsey. Woj seems more focused and less cocky. When he speaks of not resting on our laurels, it sounds like an entirely new man speaking. It would be all too easy to remind people that, yes, we did beat Bayern or finish above Spurs again and qualified for the Champions League for a 16th straight season or...or... Instead of hearkening to the past, we're focusing on the present, on learning from our most recent match(es) and preparing for the next. Twice, Woj couches his comments as an "if" statement, as in "if we just carry on doing the same thing" and "if we play our best, we will win a trophy." I don't think anyone could dispute that. It's a healthy balance between optimism and realism. We lost to Man U, but it carried none of the sting of previous defeats.

Instead, it seems to have tested our resolve ahead of a tricky fixture, which is itself ahead of a tricky string of fixtures. Had we drawn or won at Old Trafford, we might have then convinced ourselves that we've proven something, which we would have—to an extent. Ironically, the loss does prove something: we have quality. Instead of despairing over yet another defeat at the hands of Man U, we've come away simply disappointed, knowing that just a bit more might have seen us take a point, if not all three. That's a mindset, a belief that suggests that we are, in Woj's words, good enough to win a trophy. That's not boasting. It's a statement of fact—and of intent.

Right. It's still more than two days until Southampton. Give my match preview a look-see if you haven't already. The Saints are a tough not to crack, but we have the tools to do it. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock...

20 November 2013

Southampton Preview; Yes, I'm chomping at the bit

Now that the interlull has finally ended, we can get back to some proper football. I probably shouldn't slag it as much as I do. After all, the World Cup is something special, and they have to figure out how to sort national teams somehow. The friendlies, though? Those are another matter. If they could maybe play these under different rules—no tackling whatsoever, for example, or no running—I might see things differently. Then again, I've just described a pleasant knock-around in the park, so who'd pay to see that? So it goes.

What was I talking about? Oh, yes: Southampton. Who'd've thunk that the Saints, under administration and relegated to League One as recently as the 2009-10 season, would now sit third in the Prem? Last year, their first in the Prem since 2004-05, started a bit rough as they conceded 31 goals in their first eleven matches. At this point last season, they languished in 19th. What a difference a year makes and all that. Southampton went a on a bit a spree over this past summer, splashing some £12.5m on Victor Wanyama, breaking the club's transfer record in the process—only to break that record yet again by signing Pablo Osvaldo for a £15m fee. The most important addition, though, may be that of manager Mauricio Pochettino, who took over in January. Since that time, they've gone for 10W, 12D, 6L,including last year's wins at home over Man City, Chelsea, and Liverpool by a combined 8-3. Critics have sneered, suggesting that it's only a matter of time before they stumble and end up where they belong—whatever that means.

Average player-position vs. Swansea
However, the defensive platform on which their success is built should, if anything, provide a solid foundation for consistent success. They've only conceded five goals thus far, and a closer look at how they're doing this will be key to taking all three points. First, the bad news: Southampton frequently drops two banks of four defenders to the box, leaving precious little space to operate. An instructive example of this might come from Swansea's 2-0 loss because, of Southampton's opponents, Swansea's style is perhaps most similar to ours. Swansea kept 54% possession but just couldn't create chances. On the few occasions that they did, Polish international keeper Arthur Boruc was more than up to the task. Sound familiar? Dominating possession, struggling to create chances, failing to score? It's not a storyline we've had to see much of so far this season—yet. On Saturday, we're likely to see one of the most-disciplined defenses so far this season. When you look at the average player-positions from that match, it's only Lallana (20) and Lambert (7) who spend any significant time in their opponents' third. They are, after all, forwards. However, contrast against most Arsenal maps, which show five or six players edging into the opponent's defensive third and you see the difference in their philosophy and ours.

As we're talking about action in the opponent's defensive third, we can take a closer look at the actions of Southampton's most-forward players. Lambert and Lallana aren't just lingering around up there the way that, say, the Suarez-Sturridge duo do, waiting for the ball to come to them. They're pressing high up the pitch to put pressure on their opponent's back four, and they frequently make tackles in the last third that lead to goal-scoring opportunities. In many of our own matches, we've seen languid passing between the center-backs and Arteta or Flamini as opponents wait patiently for the ball to cross midfield. That will likely not be the case as Lambert, Lallana, and Osvaldo will be harassing as high up as they dare. It's an aggressive strategy, but it's working quite well so far.

Pochettino's strategy takes time to learn because it asks the players to make intelligent reads and decide when to drop back to defend or to press higher up. The fact is that they've had a summer to drill and get to know this system, and they've earned the position they're in. It's not flukey. If anything, Southampton started slowly as they struggled to score for themselves, netting just three times in their first five matches. Then again, they've already won at Anfield and drawn at Old Trafford. These might have been partially due to early-season underestimations, a mistake we'll have to be sure to avoid on Saturday. It's hard to believe that it's still three days away.

I mentioned way back that the bad news would be first. Fair enough. Now, the good: we should have Theo Walcott, a former Saint, back. Perhaps. Between him and Gnabry, we have some pacey wingers who can stretch defenses out of shape and find seams to run through. If they can stay wide, this should offer enough of a threat to unsettle Southampton's back line. Of course, pace and width alone are not enough. We will need a more-incisive display from the midfield, which was a bit dull and disjointed against Man U. Our passing game is likely to flounder a bit against this defense unless Ramsey, Özil, Cazorla, and others can do a better job of finding and exploiting seams. We have to go all the way back to 31 August for direct evidence of how to pick the lock; Norwich scored first after quicking switching the field and feeding Redmond on the flank. As the fullback continued his run in front of Redmond, he pulled a defender down to the endline, opening up space at the top of the box. Redmond took a touches to cut across the top of the box and shot beautifully. Indeed, by keeping their wingers wide and sending fullbacks forward to overload Southampton on the flanks, Norwich were able to find a number of chances that they were unlucky not to finish. With similarly wide play from Gnabry or Walcott on the right and Cazorla on the left (stay wide, Santi!), quick ball movement side to side could discombobulate Southampton's defense enough to see us getting more shots on goal. After all, if Norwich can do it, why can't we?

How do you think this one will turn out—can we put any past this stingy side?

19 November 2013

Gunners vs. the World: interlull player ratings

Man, does this interlull drag on. With only one country playing for anything of significance (France), we had to cross every appendage on our bodies (let's keep it safe for work, shall we?) in hopes that no one would get hurt. Thankfully, all of those contortions on our part seem to have prevented any contusions or worse on the players' parts. France pulled off a magnificent comeback on Ukraine, winning 3-0 to advance 3-2 on aggregate. Good for France. Better for Arsenal, no one seems to have been damaged. Here, then, is a quick run-down of how our lads represented their respective countries (keep in mind, players in this case earn high marks for not playing. The less they played, the higher they rated. Numbers, as a result, may feel a bit arbitary):

France (won 3-0 over Ukraine to qualify for the World Cup)
  • Bacary Sagna (78' for Debuchy)—8.31 Clearly vital to securing the clean sheet. The cameo earns the image.
  • Laurent Koscielny—10.0: Was sent off in the first leg and had no choice but to rest. It is to be assumed that he dedicated himself to this task with aplomb.
  • Olivier Giroud (82' for Benzema)—7.0: Came on even after Benzema had scored. It's almost as if Deschamps wanted to tweak Benzema just a bit. Back to Giroud himself, he did almost bag a goal for himself on a nifty little header, but it went over.
Germany (won 1-0 over England in a friendly):
  • Per Mertesacker—6.73: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know he scored the game-winning goal (and could've had a second) and had a goal-saving tackle against Lallana (foreshadowing Saturday's match?), but he played the full 90'. Silly man. Couldn't he have "pulled" a hamstring after scoring?
  • Mesut Özil—9.87: Did not play, having dedicated the previous several years of his career to tricking Joachim Löw that he is one of the more-established players. Löw said that Özil is "part of the absolute backbone of our team and for me, it is more important now to give other players a chance to prove themselves in these key positions". Well played, Mesut; well played.
England (lost 0-1 to Germany in a friendly):
  • Jack Wilshere (64' for Cleverley)—6.93: He sat. He watched. He showed Cleverley who will be captain of the Three Lions before too long. He didn't even do anything special other than being Jack Wilshere.
  • Kieran Gibbs (53' for Cole)—6.17: Not quite enough to show that he's ready to displace Cole or Baines, but not a bad showing.
  • Carl Jenkinson—7.93: Playing for the u21 squad, he scored his first-ever goal for England. Yes, it was San Marino, but a goal's a goal. Good for him.
Belgium (lost 2-3 to Japan in a friendly):
  • Thomas Vermaelen—8.11: Okay, so I'm breaking the pattern. Vermalaen played a full 90', but he needs time on the pitch, so I'm not going to quibble. Yes, Belgium lost 2-3 to Japan, but it was a friendly, so....yeah.
Spain (lost 0-1 to South Africa in a friendly):
  • Nacho Monreal—6.47: played a full 90' against South Africa. What was he thinking?
  • Santi Cazorla—7.11: came off the bench to play 45' without doing much. On one hand, good to see him (and Monreal, for that matter) get some international experience and to get some more time on the pitch as he works his way back to match-fitness. On the other, meh.
Poland (0-0 draw with Ireland in a friendly):
  • Wojciech Szczesny—7.37: played the full 90' and kept a clean sheet, making some sharp saves while serving notice to Boruc ahead of Saturday's Prem clash. Along similar lines, we may infer that Szczesny and Lewandowski chatted amiably. So there's that.
That should do it. I apologize in advance if I overlooked a few, but my focus was on the regulars. There are a bigger fish to fry. We now have a few days to prepare for the Saints of Southampton. If nothing else, our lads return to London Colney hale and hearty, and with possible reinforcements. I'm not going so far as to say that a certain former Saint will be available (cough, cough, Walcott, cough), but it's in the cards. We'll take a closer look at the match in days to come. 'Til then, thanks for your visit!

18 November 2013

Is Diego Costa the real deal—and would Atletico part with him?

As we look ahead to the January transfer window and assess our needs, it's abundantly clear that we need someone to assist (and compete with) Giroud. While it would be nice to see Bendtner or Sanogo or Akpom rise to the occasion, this is wishful thinking.
Of the names tossed about—Suarez, Lewandowksi, Benzema—there are doubts, variously, about their availability, price, character. Suarez will cost a pretty penny or two but may not last the season, given his antics. Lewandowski seems to have his heart set on joining Bayern. Benzema has been knocked as lazy and has a court-case coming up. Therefore, it's worth casting a wider net in order to ensure that we can get the kind of striker we need, one who can score, is willing to work, and who might actually be available.

By these standards, Diego Costa may not qualify, at least not 100%, but he's certainly worth a look. Scorer of thirteen goals in as many La Liga matches, he's doing his best to help Atletico fans forget the departure over the summer of Radamel Falcao. On one hand, Costa signed a new contract over the summer, ending speculation that he might join Liverpool. On the other, he recently announced that he would represent Spain and not Brazil in the World Cup, a huge statement of ambition for the Brazilian-born striker. In the first case, he may have rejected Liverpool's advances over the summer because they won't be in any European competitions. In the second, he may have seen that his best chance to play, not to mention win, in the World Cup is by playing for Spain instead of Brazil. In both cases, Costa's desire to win is clear. Spain, after all, are among the favorites to win—but they don't seem to have a striker, unless Fernando Torres can prove to del Bosque that he deserves to play.

How does this all concern us? Well, between the new contract, being cup-tied, and auditioning for Spain in the World Cup, a January move seems unlikely. Atletico will certainly progress to the knock-out stage of the Champions League on top of all that. However, there are enticements. He could conceivably come to Arsenal in January while we're still atop the league (or close to it—knock on wood) and have time enough to bed-in before a tough string of fixtures in March. By then, Atletico's La Liga prospects may have faded to the point that challenging for the title there is off the table—and with it, Champions League football next season. True, he'd be unavailable to help us this year in the Champions League, but why not unleash him against a few Prem and FA Cup opponents, keeping Giroud fresh to face whoever it is we'd face in the knock-out stage?

Style-wise, Costa has been compared to Luis Suarez, if only for skill-set and ability. His discipline record is, at first blush, a bit spotty as he's picked up silly bookings in years past (notably during some run-ins with the always courteous Sergio Ramos and Pepe), but he's been remarkably disciplined thus far with only two yellow-cards to date. He's been described as feisty, and the kind of dribbler who can carve into defenses and put defenders on their back foot, provoking them into fouling him. In short, he seems like the kind of player whom fans hate...until he plays for their club, but such feelings are based not on being dirty or divey but as a result of him tormenting defenders until they themselves resort to dirty play. He's nonetheless the kind of villain whose rugged play—and results—get under defenders' skin.

What would it take to get him? We were briefly linked with him in July for a release-clause of €25m/£21m, a figure that has certainly changed after he signed that new contract and has gone on to score a baker's dozen, but it's still well within our budget (don't let Atleti see that last bit). Could it be done? Who's to say? It feels every bit as likely as signing any other striker we've been linked with, maybe more likely than dreaming of Lewandowski, for example. On another level, the South American pipeline is one that we haven't really explored all that much lately. As much as I look forward to the return of some proper footballing, I don't mind indulging in a little bit of transfer-window wish-listing...

17 November 2013

Ox's setback means it's Gnabry's time to shine

Disappointing news out today reveals that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose return from injury was initially predicted to be three months, won't return until some point in 2014. It doesn't seem like he's re-aggravated the injury, just that recovery is taking longer. He can't even start training until mid-December, so the original prediction that he might return by the end of November now sounds hopelessly optimistic, and the earlier reports that suggested a six-month absence sound more accurate. The knee injury, originally suffered on 20 August against Aston Villa, might keep Ox out of action until February. Whether this might affect plans for the January transfer-window is subject for debate. Theo Walcott could be ready in time to face Southampton (23 November), but it's more likely that we could see Serge Gnabry at some during the match, and why not? He may be only eighteen, but he's shown confidence and maturity beyond those years, and the skill-set he brings could come in handy against a stubborn Southampton side that has conceded only five goals so far this season.

The attacking midfield against Man U included Cazorla, Ramsey, and Özil, but this trio proved unable to finally unlock Man U's defense or test de Gea even after the departure of Vidić softened them up, at least theoretically. While Cazorla, Ramsey, and Özil are tricky and creative with the ball, none of them presents the direct, aggressive pace that Gnabry can bring. While he may not be as fleet as Walcott or Ox, he adds strength to the mix. Among the three, he may just possess the most technical ability, not that he'd make anyone forget, say, Özil with the ball at his feet. However, his bag of tricks is deep, and he's not afraid to go at or around defenders. And if finesse or speed aren't quite enough, he has the strength to overpower them. Arsène pointed out that "we have some other boys who have the technical quality to play in the Premier League but are not resistant enough yet to compete physically, but Gnabry has that." At 1.73m and 73 kg, he may not have much weight to throw around, but he's solid enough to more than hold his own. While we've worried about Theo's finishing, Gnabry has shown in the past that he does possess a Podolski-esque cannon, as he showed against France's u18s (see video above).

For as much as we've fretted about depth, there's a scintillating plethora of options we have for the attacking midfield, even with Podolski, Ox, and Walcott unavailable. With Wilshere, Özil, Cazorla, and Ramsey, it can get a bit crowded in there. However, Gnabry has some tantalizing talents that should be enough to earn him some playing time, whether it's as a starter or subbing on to take advantage of weary defenses.

The early signs suggest that, when given the chance, he'll make a convincing case for featuring more regularly. If he can deliver more goals like the one against Swansea (which made him the second-youngest player to score a Prem goal for Arsenal), he could show that it's not just blockbuster German transfers who can offer exhilarating football. In 2011, aged 14, he joined the Academy after leaving Stuttgart for £84k. He signed a new contract in October, good through 2018, and had this to say :
Arsenal is a great football club and I’m so happy to be here and sign a new contract. For me, now it’s all about working hard and developing my game. I’ve had some good opportunities recently in the first team, which has given me extra confidence, and this will only improve my game. I’m looking forward to giving my best for this club in the years to come.
Having made the leap to the first team, Serge is looking to make good on his promise and potential; I hope he gets a chance when Southampton comes to the Emirates on Saturday.

'Til next time...