28 December 2013

Newcastle-Arsenal Preview: will Walcott and Koscielny reprise their roles?

When this fixture was first announced, I doubt that many of us would have envisioned a clash as fraught with significance as it has turned out to be. After all, Newcastle finished the 2012-13 season a mere five points above the drop-zone with only Sunderland between them and relegation.

What a difference a year can make—so far. As it currently stands, Newcastle are in seventh place, eight points behind Man City (with a game in hand) and one point from next year's European competitions. They've scalped a few along the way, including a 2-0 home-win over Chelsea, a 1-0 win at White Hart Lane, and a 1-0 win at Old Trafford. Long story short, they're establishing their bona fides quite nicely.

Still, I can't quite get past the notion that their bubble is about to burst, and we're the ones holding the pin. After all, it was roughly seven months ago that we delivered an epic win at St. James's Park, with Koscielny scoring to secure a fourth-place finish, despite the ruse that had a certain North London-ish club delusionally celebrating a fourth-place finish of its own, but I digress.

Come Sunday, we might see the return of one Laurent Koscielny, scorer of that all-important goal. Perhaps just as vital will be the continued return to form of Theo Walcott who, prior to that 1-0 away-win, delivered a hat-trick and two assists in a famous 7-3 win.

I won't go so far as to predict that Walcott or Koscielny will deliver performances reminiscent of the 2012-13 season, but the omens are auspicious: it was a year to the day that saw Walcott claim his hat-trick and two assists, including the "was I tripped? No? Okay, I'll score anyway" goal. Koscielny's goal against Newcastle, the one that seized a 16th consecutive Champions League qualification, came on a set-piece that Walcott took and that Podolski headed on for Koscielny to finish.

I'm not suggesting that we'll see a similar sequence on Sunday, but the stars do align to a certain degree: each of the key-players—Walcott, Podolski, Koscielny—is back from injury. In other words, without quite committing myself to any specific predictions, I do see this trio teaming up in one way or another, the exception being that, instead of claiming a fourth-place trophy, they'll put us back atop the Prem.

Prediction? A 2-1 win, with goals coming from—you guessed it—Walcott and Podolski.

Walcott hits the ground running: three matches, four goals...

After being brought back from injury with caution, Theo Walcott has exploded with four goals in his last three appearances and is now the club's third-leading scorer with five goals across all competitions, despite making only fifteen appearances, (five as a sub). Since coming back from his abdominal injury, he's subbed in six times, quietly refinding some fitness and match-readiness. Since his return to a starting role, he's collected a brace against Man City and again against West Ham, suggesting that, yes, he can be lethal enough to look at 20 Prem goals on the season.

Of course, it's unlikely that he'll continue this pace; with 20 Prem matches to be played, he'd need 16 goals—a rate of 0.8 goals per game, down from his current 1.33 goals per game and nearly twice his rate from last year of 0.49. Then again, with other scorers, namely Giroud and Ramsey, having slowed down, we need someone to step up. Whereas Giroud and Ramsey have logged heavy minutes, Walcott comes in with fresh legs, all the more vital given his pace. Of course, the flip-side to this is that he's come back from injuries that are probably not 100% healed.  That said, he should still have an edge on defenders that is sharper than it might have been had he been playing regularly over the last two months. Now, especially, as players are weary from the Christmas fixture-clutter, we may be seeing the silver lining to being MIA since mid-September.

And we're not referring to goals themselves. He's converting shots at an impressive rate. According to @orbinho, his conversion-rate (goals divided by shots taken) is actually superior to the lethal Aguero and Suarez. I'm not putting him in their class yet, not until he can create his own chances. Still, his conversion-rate since returning to a starting role is even more eye-popping—keeping in mind that it's a small sample-size, his conversion-rate is 40%. Again, this is probably not sustainable over the long run, so let's look at what might happen if he regresses to a more-suitable rate of, say, 15%. To get 16 more goals, he'd need 106 shots. There are 20 Prem matches left, and—I'm just spit-balling here—that's five shots per game. Even if we admit that the Man City match was more slap-stick than football and that West Ham ships more than FedEx, five shots per game is not an absurd target.

Let's not forget that Walcott and Özil are still at that tender, awkward stage of their budding relationship, each blushing a bit, abashed, averting the eyes and tracing patterns with his toe. As they get to know each other better—perhaps through a chance meeting on the Tube or a singles-mixer some weekend—we could just see those buds blossom, whether it's a quick 1-2 or a through-ball that sends Walcott in on goal. I'm certainly not equating the two, but Walcott is similar to Ronaldo when it comes to pace (we'll set aside the dribbling and finishing, convenient though it may be). The salient point here is that, similar to his role at Real Madrid, Özil might find in Walcott a similarly fruitful target, one to whom he can send through-balls that unleash a pacey winger against defenses caught-out on the counter. Walcott may not get five shots per game, but, through the service he could get from Özil (and others), he might get chances handed to him on a silver platter often enough to catapult him towards that 20 Prem-goals target. We could do a lot worse than to hope for that.

Right. Well, we've got a tetchy trip to St. James's Park on Sunday, and I'd love nothing more than to see Walcott continue his run of form. In fact, I'd be thrilled to see him reprise his "oh, I fell—no, I didn't—GOAL!" performance, nearly a year ago to the day. I leave you then, with this moment of glory:

27 December 2013

Olivier, "how many ways are there to miss?"

I've been a staunch defender of Olivier Giroud since his arrival at Arsenal, but after the West Ham match, my faith is starting to wobble. Gone, it seems, is the confident scorer of goals, using all manner of dinks, flicks, and chips to put the ball past hapless keepers; he hasn't scored since his brace against Southampton in November, a span of seven matches and 611 minutes, and he's cut an increasingly forlorn, frustrated, and frustrating figure on the pitch.

If if weren't for his tireless work in the build-up, his defenders would have precious little to fall back on. In a way, he's a bit fortunate to have delivered an assist against West Ham, as it staves off the fiercest criticism, at least for a time.

However, the enduring image of the evening, as it's been for weeks now, has been that of a supplicating, pained gaze to the heavens after scuffing yet another shot wide. Adding to the repertoire, perhaps, was when Giroud had the ball on his left foot but fizzed a shot a few yards wide when he shot to the far-post. Almost immediately after striking the ball, Giroud angrily repeated the kick as he should have struck it. Of course, he should have at least put the ball on-frame, forcing a save from Adrian, but it belies a larger issue.

As with last year, Giroud seemed to struggle the most when he went for power over placement, and he seems to be at his best poaching for goals rather than forcing the issue. Against West Ham, however, he could achieve little to nothing through either approach. I'm hoping that we're merely seeing the weary legs of an overused striker, one who has been putting in full-shifts with little to no respite. Time and again at Boleyn Ground, he was a half-step short, scuffing wide or missing completely a ball put across the mouth of the goal, prompting the announce to exclaim at one point "how many ways are there to miss?" Gibbs had just put a ball across the edge of the six-yard box, and all Giroud had to do, seemingly, was to touch it—just touch it—but, instead, the ball rolled harmlessly through as both Gibbs and Giroud watched in helpless disbelief. Lament the blasted shots that went wide if you will, but those are the opportunities that a striker really must finish.

I realize, even as I lay into him, that we're seeing the culmination of a number of factors—he has his limitations, his fatigue is exacerbating those limitations, and we've been hungry for results after taking only two points from nine available going into the West Ham match. In addition, his early-season purple patch raised expectations, and coming down to Earth was perhaps inevitable. His timing, then, might be a bit fortunate as the transfer-window approaches. It will be difficult to find a quality striker in January, especially in a World Cup year, but an in-form striker would only provide more cover for Arsene to say that he's satisified with our options. Giroud's struggles highlight our threadbare cupboard, with only Bendtner as a replacment of any experience in the Prem. Yes, Sanogo is now apparently back from injury, and there's also Park, but none of the three inspires much confidence.

I'm not calling for an out-and-out replacement for Giroud, as I believe that he makes vital contributions. However, the longer he goes without scoring, the more he presses to score, and the less he contributes in other ways. We need him to score—not just to help us win, but to release the pressure that has piled up on him. 

Arsenal 3-1 West Ham: Player Ratings

After slogging through and stumbling a series of difficult matches (Chelsea, Man City, Napoli, Everton), a vital three points came through a 3-1 win over plucky but overmanned West Ham.  The returns of Walcott and Podolsk sparked the win; Walcott's brace was enough to win it, and Podolski's first goal since September put the game on ice. Here, then, is a quick run-down of each player's performance (all scores and statistics come courtesy of whoscored.com, who start each player at a 6.0 and move them up or down over the course of the match):
  • Santiago Cazorla—8.84: Though he didn't score, this was a classic Cazorla performance as he buzzed all about the field, leading the team in touches (109) and shots (8) while adding in six key passes, second only to Özil's eight. He tested keeper Adrian time and again with strong shots and looked as lively as he has all season.
  • Theo Walcott—8.84: His brace showed a few sides to him that we're not accustomed to, but so be it. His first goal saw him cut to his left through the box and sluice a low shot through a thicket of defenders; his second came through a sharply driven header from a Podolski cross. Beyond that, Walcott menaced the West Ham defense all day, repeatedly getting behind his man.
  • Bacary Sagna—7.94: Please resign this man and let him retire an Arsenal man. Sagna simply dominated. contributing ten effective clearances and three tackles while leading all players with eight aerial duels won. He may no longer merit a place among the league's top five best right backs, but a performance like this one reminds us that he's still very much a force to be reckoned with.
  • Mesut Özil—7.64: Without tallying a goal or an assist, Özil nonetheless delivered a strong performance, perhaps not quite strong enough to quiet his critics. Eight key passes is more than you can shake a stick at, though some will anyway. Give him more time on the pitch with Walcott, and the assists will come.
  • Mikel Arteta—7.46: Controlled the midfield calmly and disrupted what few threats West Ham could muster, leading the team with four tackles while chipping in six clearances and launching counters with six well-placed long balls. Maybe he could have done better on Cole's goal, but he did earn a spot-kick that should have earned a penalty-kick after Mertesacker's shot clearly struck a defender's arm.
  • Kieran Gibbs—7.31: Nine clearances and a number of goal-scoring opportunities mask the fact that Gibbs was beaten repeatedly by Cole, such as byletting his man slip through instead of staying between him and goal. It's not Gibb's fault that Szczesny spilled the rebound, but he could have done better to keep Cole away with better positioning.
  • Olivier Giroud—7.25: Another frustrating performance from Giroud, at least in terms of finishing, as he missed several clear opportunities, prompting the announcer at one point to say "how many ways are there to miss?" and "Lukas Podolski must be going 'please give me a chance like that!'" However, he did contribute very well to the build-up and connected with his BFF to claim an assist. A goal, however, would be a welcome contribution, and sooner rather than later.
  • Thomas Vermaelen—7.24: A quiet, calm performance from the man, who showed little sign of rust while leading the team with eleven clearances and six aerial duels won (second behind Sagna). He's handled his demotion while dignity and class, but performances like this one remind us that he has the skill to challenge Koscielny for more time on the pitch. The two may not pair well, but Vermaelen suggested through this match that he and Per might.
  • Per Mertesacker—7.14: wasn't bothered most of the afternoon but still found time for eight clearances and five aerial duels won. As mentioned above, he should have earned us a spot-kick when his shot clearly struck the arm of a West Ham defender in the box. Still, a comfortable display for the German. It might have been interesting to see how he'd have handled Andy Carroll. Maybe next time 'round.
  • Aaron Ramsey—6.58: A bit of a lukewarm showing from Ramsey, whose 65th minute thigh strain might come at an opportune time as he's slowed down since his scintillating start to the season. Not much to say on the day, to be honest, so we'll leave him to rest up for a match or two.
  • Wojciech Szczesny—6.03: His first real stinker of the season, if memory serves, as he coughed up several rebounds, one that Cole alertly pounced on to open the scoring. He had to make five saves but two of these offered West Ham follow-ups. Still, it's perhaps the kind of performance that gets the man to recommit himself going forward.
  • Lukas Podolski (65' for Ramsey)7.6: Welcome back, Poldi! Is it a coincidence that the scoring commenced once he took to the pitch? Perhaps. He purred like a panther down that left flank, whipping in some dangerous crosses such as the one that Walcott headed home, and chipped in two on-target shots, more in his 25 minutes than Giroud in 90. His goal iced the game and suggests that he's ready to pick up where he left off from September.
  • Matthieu Flamini (81' for Özil)—6.2: Barely on long enough to rate, to be honest, but did what he had to do without fanfare or fuss. He did manage 100% accuracy from 14 passes, so there's that.
  • Nicklas Bendter (85' for Giroud)—5.99: Truly not on long enough to rate, as the outcome was all but settled and people were picking up the prayer-books and heading for the exits. He did manage to squeeze off a shot, forcing Adrian to save, but that's about all there was time for. 
There. Some of these numbers reflect a certain gap in form between the two sides, but it's a welcome-reminder that these were sometimes that matches that would see us drop points that we couldn't afford to drop, and rebounding from that conceded goal shows that we're not as fragile as we were last year, when such an error might have seen us go to pieces. It's good enough to send us top of the table for at least a few days as we prepare for Newcastle on Saturday.

26 December 2013

3-1 West Ham: Walcott and Poldi make good

Well, it took a mild thigh-strain to Aaron Ramsey to do it, but the Walcott-Podolski axis devastated West Ham after a tentative start saw the hosts go ahead. After Szczesny coughed up a rebound just a minute into the second half, gifting a put-back goal to Carlton Cole, our freshly-back-from-injury dynamic duo unleashed a volley of sublime passes and shots that put us ahead with two goals from Walcott inside of three minutes, the first assisted by Cazorla and the second, even more impressively, on a sharp header from a Podolski cross. Barely eight minutes passed before Podolski put the match to bed, driving home a nicely laid-off ball from Giroud to settle the scoring at 3-1.

Let's get the unpleasantness out of the way first. Truth be told, Szczesny turned in his worst performance of the season, highlighted by that hiccup on Nolan's shot that led to the Cole goal. Were that all, we could dismiss it as a blip on the radar, just the kind of thing that any keeper will suffer from time to time. However, he failed to learn his lesson when, barely five minutes later, Szczesny failed to handle a similarly tame shot from Matt Jarvis, only to be bailed out by Gibbs's urgent clearance. Minutes later, Szczesny was caught in no-man's land as he came off his line to intercept a cross only to see Cole beat him to it but put the shot wide. This twelve-minute sequence suggested a lack of focus from Szczesny, perhaps borne from the fact that West Ham has struggled to generate goals all season (15 goals in 18 matches) or from the notion that these opportunities came largely against the run of play.

There. That's done and over. We can now move on the good stuff. Keep in mind that, by contrast with other results, we were not tested to the same extent as we've been tested in recent weeks. West Ham is in the drop-zone, after all, not in the mix for European competitions next year (as are Chelsea and Everton) or fighting for progress in it this year (as were Napoli). That said, it was gratifying to see a more-confident, dominant performance even if we did have to wait until the hour to see floodgates open. At the back, Vermaelen showed that he can still bring it, as evinced by his team-leading 11 successful clearances. Despite Szczesny's hiccup, he and Mertesacker showed that they can work together to lock down an opponent. Given Mertesacker's cautionary play, a Kos-Vermaelen rotation could and should become a more regular feature going forward.

Ahead of them, we'll have to look at options as Ramsey limped off in the 65th minute with a thigh-strain. As Arsene said after the match, "the Christmas period is certainly over for him." We'll await testing to see when he'll return, but with Arteta, Flamini, and perhaps even Wilshere available, Ramsey would be due a rest anyway. Arteta showed no lingering effects from Mikel's studs-up tackle on Wednesday, leading the team in passes (87) and pass-percentage (95%) among those with more than 20 passes. Oh, and he led the team in tackles with four. Vintage performance from the man. Flamini? He was there but didn't do all that much. Sorry to give the defensive midfield short-shrift, but the exciting news comes in the attacking third.

First of all, 29 shots taken, eight on target. No, West Ham is not Chelsea, but Allardyce surely took note of how we struggled to take shots during our mid-week snooze-a-thon. Despite the blueprint for "success" that Mourinho offered, West Ham were unable to even approximate a similar level of success as we took more shots in this match than we'd taken in our previous three matches combined. It should come as no surprise that the chief culprits were Cazorla (eight shots, two on target), Walcott five shots, two on target, two goals), and Podolski (four shots, two on target). Podolski, who came on in the 65th minute for Ramsey, was especially lively, adding in that sublime cross for Walcott to head home. Not to be left out, Özil chipped in with eight key passes, more than many midfielders tally all season. It was a welcome return to form for him, and for Walcott, Cazorla, and Podolski, who simply bossed the midfield while decimating the Hammers throughout the second half. Together, they offered a tantalizing glimple, albeit only about 25 minutes worth, of what they can do together. Cazorla may not have scored, but he served notice repeatedly that he can and will shoot from distance, in addition to creating chances for others. Should this kind of form carry forward, and should Arsene find room for all three on the pitch, the results could be devastating indeed. With Poldi's thunderous shots and well-weighted crosses, and with Walcott's pace and increasingly incisive finishing, we might just see an improvement on our status as third-most prolific scoring-side in the Prem.

Last but not least, le buteur du charme. No, he didn't score. However, he did deliver the assist on Poldi's goal, a goal less important to the outcome of the match as it might be to the outcome of future matches. After all, last season saw Poldi and Giroud forge a productive on-field partnership, and their sequence on that third goal suggests that they're ready to pick up where they left off. What's more, he delivered yet another yeoman-like performance, shouldering his way through a thicket of Hammers' defenders to discombobulate and disrupt their formation.

Yes, it was a dominant performance against a squad struggling to escape relegation, but it's also the kind of result that slipped through our grasp in recent seasons, and it stands in nifty contrast to Chelsea's narrow 1-0 win at home over Swansea, Man U's 3-2 win at Hull, Tottenham's 1-1 home-draw with West Brom, or Everton's 0-1 home-loss to Sunderland. Man City's 2-1 win at Anfield might flatter both, and we now have four teams within three points of first place.

We've got a tetchy affair with in-form Newcastle, whose 5-1 win over Stoke flatters them just a bit, coming as it does through two questionable first-half dismissals against the Potters. We'll take a closer look at Newcastle ahead of Saturday's match, but, in the meantime, don't draw any conclusions from their Boxing Day result. For now, sit back and relax in a solid result, one that sends us back to the top of the table.

West Ham Preview: Clobberin' Time...

We've taken two points from nine in our last three matches, and, while we may discuss the in's and out's of drawing with Everton or Chelsea at home or losing at the Etihad, it's hard to resist the urge to look to a Boxing Day trip to Upton Park as anything other than a chance to seize three points. If there are any lessons to be drawn from Monday's tepid draw with Chelsea, there are two: first, don't let the opponent's strategy frustrate; and, two, score a goal or two.

On the first, I don't think that West Ham can man the ramparts to the same degree as Chelsea did. Without slighting Jääskeläinen or his minions in any degree, I doubt that we'll face a defensive effort as strong as the one we saw from Chelsea, either in terms of tactics or personnel. On one hand, West Ham might try to draw a lesson or two from Chelsea's lock-down performance in order to nick a point from us; on the other, we might draw a few lessons of our own in order to seize all three.

To wit, we now have available Walcott, Cazorla, and Podolski. As to the first, Walcott looks to be just the kind of winger who can wreak havoc against an unsettled defender, and left-back Rasvan Rat fits that bill. Walcott has sit on the sidelines long enough, nursing that abdominal injury back to health, and he has shown that he can deliver, as he did with his brace against Man City.

From there, I'd welcome the return of Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla, even to the point of starting them along with Walcott at center instead of Giroud. Amongst the current squad, Podolski and Cazorla are perhaps the most willing and able to unleash shots from distance. Resting Giroud, then, might then allow us to see what our other attackers can deliver; will it be Walcott running behind the defense? Will it be Cazorla off the dribble, jinking across the top of the box to shoot? Will it be Podolski delivering a thunderous volley? Whoever it may be, it would be gratifying to see us score a goal or two.

We've come through a gauntlet of fixtures and emerged with a few dents and scratches. We won't have Wilshere; we may not have Koscielny. We haven't won since defeating Hull City 2-0 on December 3rd. It's high time, then, that we regained a bit of swagger, a bit of dominance. Should it come at the expense of the Hammers,  so be it.

If there's a lesson to be drawn from the Chelsea match, it's that possession alone doesn't matter, not that this is any kind of shocking revelation. However, by contrast with that result, we might do well to concede a bit of possession in order to draw West Ham forward, all the better to exploit space behind for Walcott, Cazorla, or Podolski to exploit.

At the risk of getting too optimistic, I'd like to see a bit of a run-away, with Walcott and Podolski scoring. West Ham have had trouble getting goals, and so I feel comfortable in calling for a 2-0 win. 

24 December 2013

Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea: Mourinho, you stingy, cowardly...

Scrooge. It's Christmas Eve, and so I'd like to hold my tongue in the spirit of the season, but yesterday's match was such a tepid, timid, limp affair that I'm finding it hard. I'll forego the usual "here's what happened, here's who did well" kind of stuff for now, assuming that it's been done, and skip right to my gut reaction. What a disgusting, appalling performance that was. Not so much from us, mind you, though it is a missed opportunity. We could have, and perhaps should have, done better. We had our chances.

No, the bile that rises to the back of my throat is inspired by Chelsea's—and, more specifically, by Mourinho's—game plan. I get it; it makes sense; I've even promoted it from time to time when we've gone in to face an in-form, even superior, opponen: take a point from top-four opponents and take all three from those below. However, to make it the bedrock of one's season is cynical and insulting. Having brought in Willian this summer for £35m  and Schurrle for £22m, and having brought in Hazard for £40m and Oscar for £32m last summer, not to mention Mata for £27m the summer before that, I'd think Mourinho could afford to be a little more ambitious  than to sit back, eight or nine or ten men behind the ball, launching only the occasional counter-attack. Why, the Hazard-Oscar-Mata midfield alone should be enough to generate some possession, not to mention scoring chances.

Nope. 31% possession was all that Chelsea bothered to achieve. 31% is the kind of possession-stat we might see from Sunderland or Aston Villa or Cardiff (no offense, gentlemen), not from a top-of-the-table, contending-for-the-Prem-title squad whose payroll probably exceeds the GDP or more than a few nations. What a bloody kick in the teeth to paying fans, be they Chelsea or Arsenal, to have to sit through that farce of a performance in the miserable, rainy conditions that they had to endure. It takes a "special" kind of self-serving arrogance to assemble such a stable of players, only to trot out the kind of snooze-worthy, yawn-inspiring drivel that we saw on Monday. What a waste of talent. What a waste of resources. What a slap in the face to all of the other clubs that can't afford one player of the caliber of Mata or Oscar Schurrle, who didn't even start, the latter two not even subbing in until the last 17 minutes or so of the match.

People fork over some hard-earned cash to attend these matches, and while these are not performances put on solely for the entertainment of the fans, they pay on the expectation that they'll see something a little more engaging than the tripe they were served. Chelsea-Arsenal used to be an epic fixture, delivering famous results one way or the other. Not with Mourinho at the helm, it seems. It's been pointed out that Arsène has now failed to defeat Mourinho in ten consecutive matches. We're going to have to start putting an asterisk after some of these results if Mourinho refuses to play football. That wasn't football; that was more like table-soccer, except that Mourinho, that craven, fly-bitten, canker-blossom, snuck in the night before and took all of his foosmen from the midfield and attack rows and put them on defense. It's a strategy that's bound to work; how can one score through such a thicket of arms and legs and torsos? That we came as close as we did through Giroud twice (one he should've done better on, one he did as well as any one could)  is cold comfort.

We do share some of the blame. We had to know that Chelsea would come out and offer just such a parked-bus, brass-knuckle affair. That Willian or Ivanovic weren't sent off for cleats to various body parts embodies the cynicism of the evening.  However, we had to know that Chelsea were going to sit back and defend and absorb pressure, and we just didn't do enough to unlock them. Maybe Cazorla should have started instead of Walcott, or at least replaced him once the depth of Chelsea's stubbornness came clear. Maybe Giroud should have been dropping deeper for the build-up. Maybe we should have conceded possession more often to lure Chelsea forward and catch them on counters more often. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

One thing's for sure: Mourinho is a tight-fisted, boring old Scrooge. He got his draw, but he's hoarding talent and scrounging for points like the worst of misers. It's ugly to watch, whoever you root for. I can see it from clubs that lack the wealth that Abramovich has, clubs that hope for a famous draw at the Emirates or Old Trafford, but from Chelsea, one of the wealthiest, well-oiled, and deepest clubs in the world, it's more than boring—it's a bloody black mark on the game. You waste everyone's time, Mourinho—the players, the fans, the stadium-workers—and I really hope Abramovich tires of you sooner than he did with those managers who actually use the players he's splurged on over the years. I rued the departures of Di Matteo and Benitez, even Villas-Boas, among others, but I can't wait for you to get sacked. Lumps of coal in your stocking, indeed. 

23 December 2013

The Enigma of Özil, as explained by Mourinho

This week finds your correspondent some 10,500 feet (3200m) up in the Rockie Mountains with a feeble internet connection, great views, and the threat of altitude sickness a sobering possibility—literally, as the last time I went above 10,000 feet, I got a touch of the stuff and couldn't summit the 14,000 Mt. Eolus. Apparently, one should not go from sea-level to 10,000 feet and consume whiskey at normal rates. Live and learn.

But I digress. This is not a personal diary. We're here to prepare for Monday's momentous clash against Chelsea, one that will either confirm throughout the ages that we will win the Prem or that we're absolute shite and might as well disband. These are the only two possible outcomes. Well, and drawing, but let's file that in under "absolute shite/disband" because, let's face it, there's been a bit of build-up around this one: we come in on the heels of two consecutive losses. We've fallen from the top of the table (gasp!). It's Chelsea, exhibit A in how to buy titles. Chelsea, who ended the Invinicibles' run to the 2004 Champions League. At Highbury, no less. It's Mourinho, whom Arsène has never beaten in nine tries.

However, I'm not a big fan of such historical comparisons. So many players have come and gone from each club that a reference to 2004 matters little. Even our most recent clash, a 2-0 loss in the league cup back in October, is not all that instructive as each club fielded a mixed XI. Therefore, while we can't separate the match from context completely, it's difficult to find a proper context. Had we faced off earlier in the season in the Prem, a direct comparison of form might be easier to make. We don't have that. It's not as if we go into the match completely blinded to the risks and possibilities, but the closest we might come might be to compare how we've each done against a particular opponent. There's too much algebra involved in that, not to mention, despite my opening declamations, too much whiskey. So much for living and learning.

One of the intriguing storylines is found in the Özil-Mourinho axis, as both men left Real Madrid and now find themselves pitted against each other. Speaking ahead of the match, Mourinho was effusive and warm in his praise of the playmaker:
I know his strong points. Not the weaknesses. I think I know how to try to stop him to be in the game (for) 90 minutes, with 90 minutes of direct influence. But it's impossible to stop him for 90 minutes, because these kind of players, they will have always a moment or a couple of moments where you cannot stop them and they end up showing why they are so good. To stop him completely, I don't believe we can.
I find myself surprised to be agreeing with the man. I think many of us saw the arrival of Özil as a defining moment, as Özil would slot in instantly and start delivering moment after breath-taking moment of exquisite football. The man himself fed that fire in his first appearance in Arsenal red, delivering a deft pass to Giroud against Sunderland. Many of us succumbed to the idea that we would be served a non-stop highlight-reel of similarly sublime passes, delicate dribbles, and dominating displays. That has not come to pass. Instead, there's been an apparently maddeningly string of lack-luster performances and diffident displays, punctutated only occasionally by a moment of gasp-inducing brilliance.

Such is the burden of said brilliance. We overlook, in our hunger, the notion that a player like Özil cannot come out and, for a full 90 minutes, dominate a game. Defenders swarm to Özil, sometimes two or even three at a time, when he has the ball. Without the ball, Özil is prone to disappearing, which some knock him for without realizing that this, in fact, is a strategy. Let the defense forget you, and openings appear. What's more, his game does not deliver end-products like Messi or Ronaldo; he offers service to others who finish—or don't, as is their skill or wont. Even the Messis and Ronaldos of the world offer stretches of hum-drum and then, suddenly, breathlessly, mesmerizingly, they deliver a moment of such reality-defying skill that one is left stupefied.

However, those moments come only a few times a match if they come at all. No player can deliver an historic goal or assist with each touch he gets. Come match-time, I'd be more than happy with Mourinho's suggestion that Özil will deliver "a moment or a couple of moments where you cannot stop" him. In matches such as this, Mourinho's brand of boring football has more often than not been enough to carry the day. In Özil, we may just have the kind of player who can unlock that approach, whether it's finding Walcott running in behind Azpilicueta or Cole or lofting a well-weighted set-piece cross in for Giroud or Mertesacker to nod home. Özil's been guilty of a few poor touches and, yes, he has faded late in matches. However, I'd still suggest that, on the balance, he's spruced things up just a bit since his arrival, and after a few quiet matches, might be ready to remind us all—including Mourinho—what he brings to the pitch.