30 November 2013

Cardiff Preview: Ramsey and Rice bookend a match

Ahead of our trip to Cardiff City Stadium, the main storylines couldn't be further apart. On one hand, we have the feel-good homecoming for Aaron Ramsey. On the other, we have the saddening news of a cancer-diagnosis for club legend Pat Rice. Uniting the two players are a number of characteristics that impel the two men to success. While it may still be early days for anointing Aaron Ramsey, his form this year suggests that we might soon be lauding him in terms similar to those used for Rice—hard work, modesty, stamina, dedication, skill—and let's keep in mind that it's still early days to be writing eulogies for Pat Rice. There was early talk of a match-day t-shirt tribute to the man, since dismissed by the club, but I feel that a more-fitting tribute would be for our boys to play with the same determination and grit Rice so famously showed in his 528 appearances.

It would be too easy to make a one-for-one comparison in this regard ("Ramsey shares qualities with Rice, so it's up to Ramsey to perform on this day").  It's more accurate to say that everyone who plays today should be on their toes. This is the kind of match that, in recent seasons, we've let slip through inattention or lackluster displays. There should be no underestimating Cardiff, certainly not at home where they've beaten Man City and Swansea and drawn with Everton and Man U. This last result, grabbing an equalizer in Fergie—er, stoppage-time, excuse me—should boost the Bluebirds' confidence and belief that they can get results against the bigger clubs. Scratch "belief". Knowledge. They know they can get results because they have. Say what you will about Man City's road-woes or Man U's uneven form; Cardiff earned those points through determination, concentration, even possession.

They defend well and in numbers with a 4-5-1, which suggests that we'll struggle to find openings through the thicket that this presents. We might be able to dominate possession (something Man U failed to do, for what that's worth), but getting a shot on goal might be another story. The risk this poses, then is that we press too far forward and leave ourselves exposed on a break. Aside from the threat Cardiff offers from set-pieces (Kim Bo-Kyung's goal against Man U came on one, for example), we'll have to be alert to the counters that Cardiff seems to enjoy/depend on, whether these lead directly to shots on goal or to corners. Fortunately, we've actually become solid in such situations. Against Southampton, for example, we made 35 of 35 attempted clearances, including 10 of 10 from Koscielny, and 24 of these were headed (whoscored.com). Between Kos and Mertesacker, not to mention Giroud as well, we've shown something akin to aerial dominance this year, and this will be important against Cardiff today.

At the other end of the pitch, I do hope we'll see Walcott make his return, if only as a second-half sub. His ability to get behind a defense or stretch it out of shape could be vital to unlocking such a disciplined, positionally solid defense—the kind that seems set up specifically to thwart a possession-based, passing side such as ours. That said, I see Giroud netting today, perhaps on a set-piece header, but that will be all in a taut 1-0 victory. Defense and tenacity will be the order of the day, an approach and a result that will give Mr. Rice reason to smile.

27 November 2013

A defense of Özil

In the wake of the 2-0 win over Marseille, conversation has focused on two subjects—the brilliant performance of Jack Wilshere, and the apparently abysmal failure of Mesut Özil, highlighted by two glaring miscues that have put him, rather unfairly in my opinion, under a microscope. The more infamous of the two, his missed spot-kick, has
highlighted a dip in his performance that has had some baying for him to be benched to teach him a lesson. Before we rush to judgment, let's put this all in context.

When he was at Real Madrid, he played for a high-scoring side that could, when the occasion arose, simply overwhelm opponents with its attacking options. What's more, he could linger below the radar, lurking in the shadows cast by other, larger-than-life personalities, be they players or managers. Whatever he did or didn't do would be overshadowed by the klieg-lights of Ronaldo or Mourinho or, to a lesser extent, Casillas or Benzema. He's come to Arsenal having shattered the club's transfer-fee record nearly three times over and may already be its most-famous current player. As just one barometer, he has 4.3 million followers on twitter—five times as many as the talismanic Jack Wilshere. Along the way, he's been anointed as the player who will lead the club to its first silverware in almost a decade. The transition from second-fiddle to lead-role is a monumental jump, one that lesser performers would balk at or wilt under. Özil may have faltered on Tuesday, and he may have frustrated our expectations, but, for the love of Pete, calm down. Take a breath. He'll be fine.

Despite this apparent dip in form, he's still second in the Prem in assists with four, and he's first in the club with seven overall. If anything, his early form flattered him a bit as he tallied those four assists in his first five appearances and then followed that with three goals in three matches. No one can keep up that pace. No one. To follow that with a seven-match stretch with only one assist naturally brings out the boo-birds, those who are quick to find fault and only grudgingly acknowledge success. They're the same ones who brayed their satisfaction at Wilshere's first goal against Marseille but were then, ten minutes later, carping about our failure to score a second or a third goal. Honestly. Relax.

Of course, Özil did himself few favors in the first half, such as his shinning of Ramsey's beautifully lofted cross. Instead of his customary, balletic touch to bring the ball down, Özil looked like he had one foot sunk in quicksand as he tried to control the pass, and his look of regret afterwards did little to endear him. Indeed, his first half looked like one to forget, and sooner rather than later. According to whoscored.com, players start at 6.0 and can go up or down from there, depending on their performance. At the end of the first half, Özil earned a measly 6.15 and had little to show for his efforts other than that fluffed pass from Ramsey and, of course, the missed spot-kick.

Those situations are a no-win for the shooter. Make it, and everyone more or less shrugs, assuming that this was the inevitable outcome. Miss it, and you'll be known forevermore as The Man Who Missed a Penalty Kick. In this case, Özil didn't acquit himself well, with an odd run-in and tame shot that Mandanda, with the advantage of being a country-mile off his line before the kick, parried well. Even if Özil had put more on it or placed it more precisely, Mandanda guessed right and probably would have saved anyway. The shot was no better or worse than any of the spot-kicks against West Brom. Yes, it would have been nice if he had slotted home. Last I checked, we won anyway. What's more, I'm pretty sure he's not the first high-profile Gunner to miss a spot-kick.

He's still adjusting to the Prem and to his role with Arsenal. His teammates are still figuring him out. During this feeling-out, we've built him up to be a savior, a messiah, a god. He's none of those. He's a man. He's an elusive, exquisite player, but his style is periods of low-key quiet punctuated by moments of sheer brilliance. This is bound to frustrate the faithful, especially when contrasted with the highlight-reel of Wilshere's goal as a counterpoint. Özil is more of a ghost, just as likely to disappear for certain stretches only to manifest suddenly and without warning—just as he did in the second half.

I mentioned earlier his whoscored.com rating—a mere 6.15. He finished the match at 7.53. Numbers like these, of course, only tell part of the story. Wherever he is on the pitch, he forces defenders to mind him. When they lose track, he can cause havoc. His assist on Wilshere's second goal was a vintage Arsenal moment for a man who's only been in the squad since September. He received a pass from Ramsey just outside the box and, without looking up, placed a perfect pass across the middle of the area for Wilshere to slot home. This was just one of five key passes Özil tallied on the evening.

That, more than anything, gets to the heart of Özil's conundrum. He doesn't deliver a finished product. His contribution depends heavily on his teammates' ability to finish. There have been several occasions when he delivered but a teammate failed to to finish. In time, he and his teammates will find a shared rhythm, one that takes full advantage of Özil's ability to put a ball where only a teammate can put that final, finishing touch to it. He's already offered tantalizing glimpses of what he's capable of. Given a bit more time together, those glimpses should only multiply in frequency. Instead of slagging a man for his failures, let's appreciate the man for what he's already delivered, keeping in mind that the best is yet to come.

26 November 2013

Group F Permutations: BVB's fate, and ours, is in our hands

Dortmund did their damnedest to complicate the Group F standings, and their 3-1 win over Napoli does just that. It may not be enough to keep them in the Champions League. They might just be the first club to finish with 12 points but fail to advance. They'll play Marseille, a club that looked to have thrown in the towel against Arsenal if the starting line-up on Tuesday is any indication. It included a number of second-stringers, and it was only when our 1-0 lead looked a little tenuous that they looked to throw on Valbuena and Thauvin to seek the equalizer. With absolutely nothing to play for, perhaps not even pride, they look likely to roll over for Dortmund—but it wouldn't matter how many goals Dortmund scores. They do have to win, though, to claim the points. More on that in a minute.

Goals against Marseille just don't count in determining the standings anymore. If we manage a draw or better against Napoli, we're not only through to the next round, we've won the Group. That matters a great deal in determining who we'll face. Instead of facing the likes of Real Madrid or Bayern right off the bat, we might draw Olympiakos or FC Basel. That's not something to turn one's nose up at. Yes, we very nearly upended Bayern last year and have shown that we can beat almost anyone on our day, but there's little wrong with looking for a favorable draw.

However, should we fall to Napoli, things get a little more interesting. Rule 7.06b of the UEFA Champions League Regulations stipulates that "superior goal difference from the group matches played among the teams in question" if two or more teams are equal on points. At the moment, we have a +2 goal-differential against Dortmund and Napoli. Dortmund is +1. Napoli is -3. Here, then, are a few scenarios (assuming Dortmund defeats Marseille):
  • If we lose to Napoli by three goals or more, we finish 3rd in the group and fall into the Europa League. 
  • If we lose to Napoli by two goals, we end up with a goal-differential of zero, but Napoli ends up at -1, so we would finish in 2nd place behind Dortmund's +1 (edited after being corrected in comments section below).
  • If we lose to Napoli by one goal, we're through because we'd still be at +1 and Napoli would be at -2.
Of course, I would like to see us reduce the preceding break-down to absolute rubbish by simply winning. In years past, we've had to resort to such shabby, miserly points-hoarding. I don't see the need for that this time around. I say we swagger into the Stadio San Paolo and smash them. Did you know that they refer to themselves as "I ciucciarelli"? It means "little donkeys." Where I'm from, we sometimes refer to donkeys as asses. It's enough to give new meaning to "kick their asses." Indeed.

Marseille Preview: A kiss of death to the Group of Death

Tonight offers an opportunity to apply a choke-hold to the Group of Death. Sorry to mix my metaphors from title to lead-in, but so it goes. We go in level on points with Napoli and, dare I say it, the more favorable draw as Napoli faces a tenser match at Dortmund, who are three points off and desperately need to win in order to stay alive.
Marseille, winless in the Group to this point, might come in footloose and fancy-free. Playing for nothing affords a certain freedom that might be worrisome for us. With that in mind, it's valuable to have Flamini back, as one of our finest performances of the season came with he and Arteta together—the 2-0 win over Napoli. Facing his former club might even give Flamini a bit more to play for, not that he ever lacks for intensity.

A win, after all, puts us atop the Group with 12 points, forcing Napoli to win as well to stay even. Should we both win, we both advance as Dortmund could only finish as high as 9 points. It would then come down to our final match—a trip to Napoli—to determine who wins the group. I don't much savor the idea, but I do believe, should it come to that, we can take it to Napoli. Should we win along with Dortmund, things get a little more muddled. We'd sit, of course, at 12, with Napoli and Dortmund knotted at nine. The final round would again have us travel to Napoli and Dortmund visit Marseille. It then becomes possible for all three of us to finish at 12 points (if Napoli beat us and Dortmund beat Marseille), and the tie-break, as I understand it, would come to goal-differential excluding matches against Marseille. As bizarre as it sounds, a team could finish with 12 points without advancing to the knock-out stage. So much for Arsène's "10.2 points to advance" theory, eh? Let's keep it simple by beating Marseille and letting the other chips fall where they may.

With all this in mind, here's the line-up I'd like to see. Let's be honest. There's little rotation to be done on defense or at forward, so our only real questions focus on midfield. With Wilshere having played a full 90' versus Southampton, I'd like him rested and for Rosicky to start at center. With him dictating tempo, Cazorla and Özil can roam the flanks. I particularly like Özil from the right; his partnering with Sagna was especially productive against Southampton. Had Ramsey finished that little backheel or if Özil put his own shot past Boruc, he would have put to rest the silly quibbles over his apparent drop in form. As it stands, he and Sagna exchanged 16 passes against Southampton as Sagna offered an outlet either in support or as an overlap. In other words, a productive pairing.

Of course, there's Theo Walcott to consider. He's available but probably far from fully fit, so it would be good to see him come on for Özil in the second half. After all, Theo's only goal of the current campaign did come against Marseille. We still haven't seen Cazorla at his Cazorlian best, but I'm seeing him go for a goal before coming off midway through the second half. He's due for one of his jinky runs across the edge of the box, and I'm counting on him to deliver that goal. There. That's my prediction. Arsenal 2-0 Marseille with goals from Cazorla and Walcott.

Defensively, we should throttle Marseille, who have struggled to score away in the Champions League and may struggle all the more without the injured Andre Ayew, who has scored two of the club's four goals in the competition, or Dmitri Payet, who is second in the club with four goals overall. Without them, it's difficult to see where the goals will come from, but this is no excuse to let our guard down. Setting aside the league cup loss to Chelsea, we've conceded a single goal in our last five matches, keeping four clean sheets while facing three high-octane clubs (Liverpool, Man U, Dortmund). A disciplined, organized effort from the back four will be vital. Florian Thauvin will be one to watch on Marseille's right side; Gibbs will have to be alert to his runs and to his preference for shooting with his left.

That said, though, this is a game we really should seize by the scruff of the neck, and I hope we'll see an early goal to put them on the back foot. As I write, tt's only a few hours to kick-off. What's your prediction: final score and MotM?

25 November 2013

Giroud proves we don't need another striker in January...apparently.

After bagging a brace against Southampton, in the process accounting for almost 30% of all goals scored against them, Olivier Giroud seems to have further proven his worth to the squad, so much so that Arsène pointed out that, not only do we not need to sign a striker in January, the right kind of strikers aren't even available in the first place. Speaking yesterday, Arsène had this to say:
[Pssst! Ollie--a bit more of this, please. A bit.]
If you look back to the 1960's and 70's and look at the strikers who were good in the air and English, there was one in every single club. And tell me now today: have you the same number? I’m not even talking about quality. Have you even the same number who go in for crosses, go in the air? In the 1950s [because of the pitches], you had to lift the ball and bump it forward, and you needed somebody who fights for the ball. Today, we educate players to play more on the ground. Maybe we pay a bit of a price for this: [fewer] people who are ready to go for that kind of ball. There is still a place for the No 9, for people who go behind the defenders in the air or on the ground. Are people ready to body-challenge? Players like Suarez, who use their bodies like to go for the impossible ball, you’ll not find many strikers who do that.
He makes a significant point—there just aren't many strikers out there who are physical enough to fight for the ball. More importantly, there are even fewer who are both physical enough to fight and agile enough to play Arsenal's style. Giroud's contributions to the build-up are fundamental to our attack, but it's not just that he presents a large target or can battle in the air. While he won't make anyone forget Xavi or Pirlo, he's enough of a passer that he can create chances for his teammates. As such, he presents a balance between the brawn that Arsène described as well as that ability to play on the ground, offering fight and finesse, as it were. His two goals offer a decent bookend around the concept; his first goal came by bullying Boruc off the ball, while his second was a coolly-slotted shot. Let's not overlook his overall play as well. Shortly after opening the scoring, he was all the way at the other end of the pitch to defend a set-piece threat. Who are we going to find to replicate or imitate that?

The short answer? We probably can't. I'm not claiming that Giroud is such an elite performer that he is without equal. Clearly, there are more-skilled, dynamic, complete players out there. It's just that, in Arsène's system/worldview, Giroud occupies a niche that few others could fill. The ensuing problem is this: either we go out and spend what it takes to find someone who can fill that niche, or we learn to adapt our attack to the available personnel. Given the number of matches we'll play between now and the open of the transfer-window, the second option wins by default. At some point, hopefully before injury forces the issue, we're going to have to see someone like Podolski or Walcott played centrally even if it forces others to adapt. It's far-better than seeing Giroud go down with an injury or suffer a gradual erosion through overuse, leaving us with no choice but to play without a true striker.

Arsène said before the Southampton match that he thinks "we can win the title without signing a striker" in January. That may or may not be true. He's more on-target when he suggests that it's difficult to sign a top-flight player in January, perhaps even more so in a World Cup qualifying year when players want to impress their national team coaches. With Poland knocked out, would Lewandowski be more open to a move? Perhaps, but at what price? I doubt we'll see another record-breaking transfer so soon. There are just too many moving parts to consider: who's vying for World Cup consideration, who's cup-tied in the Champions league, who wants away from their current club in the first place...

It's with obstacles such as those in mind that I worry that our only solution will be to rest Giroud whenever possible without blunting his match-fitness. For example, we can probably get past Hull or Cardiff, if not both, without the handsome Frenchman, keeping him fresh for trickier fixtures further in the future. I might even go so far as to pull him out of games once it seems like we can afford to. We've seen defensive substitutions in with Monreal coming on for Ozil, Cazorla, and Rosicky in recent weeks. Why not do the same for Giroud?

Between Arsène's own mindset regarding transfers in general, and the specific complications of the January window, we may have little choice but to continue to rely on Giroud, just as we have all season long. If there's any silver lining to be found, fixture-wise, it's that we've removed the league cup from consideration, and we're almost done with the Champions League group stage. We may know as soon as Tuesday that we've advanced to the next round, but that will only add two more fixtures, and then maybe a few more after that (fingers crossed). The FA Cup's third round will begin in January and could add as many as seven new matches (if not more), to the mix. However, the early-season clutter is almost behind us and with it the madness of playing matches every third or fourth day, week in and week out. This should afford Giroud and others precious rest, enough to help sustain our assault on three fronts.

Then again, maybe we'll wake up New Year's Day to learn that we've signed Lewandowski after all. To help bring that sort of thing about, I'm counting on Giroud to do two things:
  1. Continue his fine run of form.
  2. Fall down at least once per match, writhing in Busquettish agony while peeking over at Arsène to see if he's getting the message.
Right. Well, we host Marseille, Giroud's former club, on Tuesday. A win all but guarantees that we advance. Should we win, Napoli would have to win at Dortmund on Tuesday and beat us 3-0 or better when we visit in order reach 12 points and win the aggregate-goals tie-break. We'll have a match preview shortly. Thanks, as always, for your visit. Feel free to add your thoughts below. 'Til next time...

24 November 2013

Prem League Power Ratings: Week 12

A bit of a wild week as Arsenal stole three points despite being outplayed, Man City destroyed Tottenham, Man U dropped two points at Cardiff (karma's tough, ain't it?), and Liverpool escaped Goodison Park with a point. Were it not for a well-deserved but un-issued red-card on Rooney or Mirallas, we might just be looking at a very different table—whether it's mine or the official EPL table. That said, Arsenal emerge from the fray again atop both tables, if only for another week. Most of the clubs mentioned above have midweek European commitments (no disrespect, Southampton). Here, then, is my estimation of the Prem's top-five contenders...

Squad (Last Week)
Last Result (Last 5)
EPL Table
1.     Arsenal (1)
W 2-0 Soton WWWLW
1st (28)
A lucky result, to be sure, but the kind of result that suggests that the squad can grind it out as well as overrun or outclass an opponent.
2.     Man City (—)
W 6-0 Spurs WLWLW
4th (22)
God forbid they learn to replicate their home-form on the road; 6 wins from 6 matches, +24 GD, could be enough to win the Prem.
3.     Chelsea (5)
W 3-0 West Ham
After two lackluster outings, some signs of life from Stamford Bridge as Oscar reminds us all of the class that the squad possesses.
4.     Liverpool (4)
D 3-3 @ Everton DWLWD
2nd (24)
Sturridge’s last-gasp equalizer salvaged a point, but questions about the Scousers’ long-term prospects persist.
5.     Soton (3)
L 0-2 @ Arsenal
5th (22)
A tough away-loss, under unlucky circumstances, is not enough to undermine Pochettino’s vision.

Still conspicuously absent are Man U (6th place) and Tottenham (9th). Had Wayne Rooney seen red as he should have, Man U wouldn't be cursing two dropped points at Cardiff; they'd be apoplectic over dropping all three. Tottenham's drubbing at the hands of Man City seem an aberration until we see that they went in to the match with only a +3 goal-differential—having scored just nine while conceding six. If they can't generate more goals, we might have to focus more attention on Everton or Newcastle's ambitions...

Arsenal 2-0 Soton: Sometimes, you make your own luck

For the second time in the last month, Artur Boruc gifted his opponent in a horrendous fashion, this time clownishly trying to dribble Giroud in front of the goal only to get dispossessed. It was an altogether surprising sequence that changed the game. From then on, it seemed like we were (a) content to sit back to absorb their pressure or (b) put on the back foot as Southampton sought an equalizer. By the time Per earned a spot-kick in the 86th minute, we had conceded the possession-battle to Southampton, 51-49%, the first time we haven't owned that stat since September, away at Swansea.

It was looking at times as if this would end as one of those matches in which we'd get outworked if not outclassed and eventually find ourselves on the short end of some bad luck or a fine sequence. When Ramsey's nifty little backheel hit the post, I thought to myself, this could just that kind of match, one in which we look bright but lack the finishing that would see us through. In the end, it's not that we somehow rose above it, but, by contrast with seasons past, we found some luck (or were given it, depending on whom you ask) in the form of Boruc's ill-advised foray, which included some Chaplin-esque backheels before Giroud poked it away and tucked it in. After I celebrated like a madman—and only after, mind you—I felt bad for Boruc. He vowed after the Sunderland match that he would make up the two points that he had cost his team, but that sequence arguably means he now owes five. While it's true that the Saints dominated possession, they never really generated the kinds of chances that would allow them to equalize. When they did, by contrast with his Polish compatriot, Szczesny made a number of fine saves to earn another clean-sheet.

As for Szczesny, allow me to splits hairs for a moment: he's not just blocking shots. He's making saves. The hair I'm splitting here is that, to me, blocking shots is the relatively straight-forward task of catching a shot that has come more to less straight at the keeper. Making a save, however, is the far more difficult art of making a split-second decision, guessing or reacting just right to get fingers to, deflect, or otherwise stop a shot that, by all rights, should have gone in. On Saturday, Szczesny came up with a number of vital saves, perhaps none quite as vital as the one he came up with shortly after Giroud's goal. After a spot-kick was awarded to Southampton about 40 yards out, Giroud headed clear, but only the top of the box. Arteta squibbed his clearance something awful, and Lallana volleyed almost perfectly. It was all Szczesny could do to palm it over. Moments later, he was at it again, going full-stretch to deflect a lively shot from Rodriguez. All afternoon, I drew a calm, confident feeling whenever I saw the Saints look to shoot. I'm not claiming that Szczesny has somehow crossed a threshold of some kind, never to regress, but he's in rare form and has answered just about every question put to him, literally or figuratively.

Eight months ago, Arteta's failed clearance would have led to a goal. Heck, eight months ago, it might have been our keeper getting dispossessed and conceding a silly goal. The run of form we've been on has changed more than just results or table-position; there's belief now that we have the resilience, the resources, the ability, to manufacture wins. If it hadn't been for Boruc's gaffe, we might have found a way through anyway. Wilshere's dink off the far post, Ramsey's back-heel (again, off the post), Mesut's shot (arms and legs pinwheeling in as frantic a display from him as I've seen yet), these and more showed that we had chances and would score before long. By the end of the match, we'd claimed that second goal as Giroud, certainly in Boruc's head, sent him the wrong way and coolly sent home the the spot-kick. We now account for nearly one-third of the goals scored on Southampton this year (two of seven) and are the only team to have scored twice against them in a Prem match.

It's the end of a rough match for Southampton, one in which they looked more impressive for long stretches, and to concede in such a fashion has to sting. I know I called for us to run rough-shod over them, but not out of any kind of ill will. I wish we could have scored a "goal of the season" kind of goal so that Boruc and the others could say, "well, not much you can do to stop that one going in" instead of pointing accusingly at each other (or themselves) and feel the way they must feel. Had Wilshere or Ramsey's shots gone in, there'd at least be the comfort, cold though it may be, that it was a moment of brilliance did them in, not a silly mistake or two. However, I'll stand by my own earlier assertions that Southampton has a solid platform for sustained, consistent success over the long run. Whereas others have looked posivitely shambolic (6-0, Spurs? Really?) or inconsistent at best (Man City, yes, I'm looking at you, too), the Saints look to me like they'll continue to impress. But for a few crucial seconds on Saturday, that's just what they did. I'm pulling for them. Except 28 January.

That's when we travel there, of course. I won't say we'll still be top of the table, but we're looking pretty damned good. With Walcott making his return (and testing Boruc with a laser-beam of a shot that was just wide), and Podolski and the Ox returning soon-ish as well, we might even dream of building on this fine form we're in. Knock on wood. The only quibble I have, and it's one I may have to return to later, is that Giroud did everything to prove Arsène's suggestion that we don't need to sign another striker. Two goals. Fine defensive work. Got up from a little knock instead of staying down just a bit longer. As I said, it's a quibble. Let's set it aside and enjoy being four points clear at the top of the table. Brilliant.