11 January 2014

Why we must re-sign Rosický and Sagna

Let's face it. They're getting old. They've lost a step. They're not players they once were. However, their relevance to the club, both symbolic and strategic, transcend those concerns. Each man, in his own way, has come to embody Arsenal. To see them be ushered out—or feel like it's time to leave—would sadden me. I'm going to wax rhapsodic, but this is more than mere sentimental romanticizing.

Let's be clear: even at their advanced ages (Rosický is 33; Sagna 30), they have a lot to contribute, on the pitch and off. Despite the injuries each player has suffered, they are still vital players in the squad, both through their play and through their leadership, whether on in the pitch, on the training ground, or in locker-room. However, we know how the footballing world works. A club must by necessity always have one eye on the present and another future. Checking my maths, this leaves a club without an eye on the past. Even moreso now than in the past, it's rare for a player to see out his career at one club. Since the Prem was founded, only seven men can lay claim to the honor: Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Paul Scholes, Tony Hibbert, Ledley King, and Gary Neville. The last man to do so for Arsenal was Tony Adams. Looking beyond the formation of the Prem, the list of one-club men expands too far to list here. I certainly can't claim that Sagna or Rosický are on that list, but they're close to it.

So what am I banging on about? Each man has been with this club for a while now, an eternity, it seems, in the modern age of Bosmans and transfers and sugar-daddy owners. Rosický has been with the club for seven years, six months, and ten days (as of this post), and Sagna has been here for six years, six months. Only the Nicklas Bendtner (eight years, six months, ten days), Kieran Gibbs (six years, six months, ten days), and Lukas Fabiański (six years, six months, ten days) claim seniority over them. Take the five men together, and it becomes clear how vital Rosický and Sagna have been. Bendtner and Fabianski have had their ups and downs, and I doubt anyone will shed many tears when they move on. Gibbs is a different story, as he's maturing into one of the Prem's best left-backs. At 24, he still has his best years ahead of him.

As to Rosický and Sagna, their best years are arguably behind them. However, without getting overly sentimental, there's something to be said for longevity, if not loyalty. Each man has had chances to leave, but each has chosen to stay. However, with each passing year, they must both be looking around, wondering when the door slams shut on their chance to win a trophy. Rosický did claim one with Dortmund in 2002, but that's a drought longer than Arsenal's.

There were rumors last season that Sagna might leave, and those rumors have come back to life thanks to an apparent four-year, £4 million offer from Galatasaray. With his contract in June, he might be wondering if this is his last best chance at a large contract. Gala's offer would almost certainly secure his career right through to his retirement. Last year, he did dismiss a one-year extension of his current contract and seems reluctant to sign a two-year deal on the same terms. Could we—should we—sweeten the offer with more money, years, or both?

While there appear to be no such rumors around Rosický leaving, his future at the club seems similarly cloudy because his contract also ends in June 2014. Given his age, this might be his final season unless he resigns with Arsenal. On a positive note, Arsène did address his status during the Aston Villa pre-match press-conference, saying that Rosický "will stay here. He's a marvellous player—a typical Arsenal player." This hits home. Not only is he technically gifted and a joy to watch, he seems to bleed Arsenal red. Go find highlights of him scoring, especially against Tottenham. Is there a more primal, visceral, joyful response than the ones this man has? He seems to truly love this club.

Between the two, they embody the heart and soul of the club, and in their hands they hold not just a link to the past, but a bridge to the future. How much could Jenkinson or Gibbs learn from Sagna? How much could Wilshere or Ramsey, Ox or Gnabry, learn from Rosický? And that's just a in direct, "we play the same/similar position" kind of strategizing. What more can others learn about the club and its philosophy, how to win in the Prem or Champions League, regardless of age or position on the pitch?

The age of the one-club player may have gone the way of the dodo, and some players and clubs are all-too-willing to cast the other aside in pursuit of glory. In these two men, Arsenal have found true gems who continue to shine well past their salad days. I sincerely hope we sign them and soon, all the better to let them see out their careers here and to become mentors if not actual coaches here as well. After all, this is a club as rich in history as it is in glory. If we can find room on the bench for the Squillacis and Chamakhs of the world, well, then, we can certainly find room on the wage-bill for Rosický and Sagna.

10 January 2014

Thierry sits down with Theo, Ox, and Gnabry [fiction]

     "Serge, Theo, Alex, thank you for meeting me here."
     "Any time, Mr. Henry!"
     "Easy, Alex, you can call me Thierry."
     "I already do!"
     "Yes, yes, Theo, I know. We share a jersey number as well. This is all very good. But listen. We need to talk, and this is why I have brought the three of you here."
     "Where are we sir?"
     "Serge, I'm glad you asked. I—"
     "Dude! Serge! He called you Serge! You're already, like buddies!"
     "Hm? Ah, yes, Alex, we are all friends here. I may have started at Arsenal before any of you were even shaving your chins, but we are all Gunners. This is why we must talk."
     "What about, sir?"  
     "Pffffft! 'sir'? Serge, you muppet, he just said we're friends. I call him Thierry, you call him Thierry."
     "Easy, Theo. He is younger than you; Unlike you and Alex, he and I have never been on the pitch together. It is perhaps natural for him in this moment to be more courteous, is it not?"
     "I guess."
     "Good enough. As I say, we are all friends here, and I believe that part of this comes from the love we feel for this club, does it not?"
     "Yes, sir!—I mean, Thierry!"
     "Hm? Oh, yes! Sorry."
     "This is okay. I want to speak to each of you in turn, but the others must listen, for what I say matters to you all in different ways."
     "Got it."
     "Serge, I will start with you because you are the youngest and newest of the three to play for Arsenal. Calm down, Serge. Exhale."
     "I'm sorry sir—er, Thierry—it's just that, well, you're him. Thierry Henry. You're a legend around these parts, and I—"
     "No, this is not how to think of it. I am like you, a man who loves football and wants to do his best for his club. Is this not true?"
     "Oh, yes!"
     "Very good. Now, you are 18, is it?"
     "And a half!"
     "Yes. Here is what I want you to remember. People are saying many thing good and great things about you. They are saying you could be the next this, the next that. Have you heard these things?"
     "Yes, of course. But I know it is just talk."
     "Good. Do not listen. The best way to become good, which is necessary before achieving greatness, is to ignore what they are saying—do not think about rumors, do not think about the other players they compare you to. These are traps. When I came to Arsenal, I struggled, and they said I wasn't good enough for the Premier League. If I listened, I might have believed. Then, when I proved them wrong, the same people, they said I was the best to ever play. If I believed them, I would have lost my focus, my passion. I would have believed that I was already great. Do you understand?"
     "Yes, but it is hard. I want feedback, support, advice, yes, even criticism. I want—"
     "It is for these things that you must go to Arsène."
     "You mean Mr. Weng—oh. Yes. Arsène. Thank you, Thierry."
     "You will thank me through how you play. Show me that you have listened. You may go. Alex? Alex, where are you?"
     "Here! Here I am, T!"
     "Um, yes, very good. Alex, stay calm. How long have you been with Arsenal?"
     "Two years, five months, three days, 13—"
     "Okay, okay, settle down, now. Your passion for the club is clear. However, you must understand how to balance this passion, this panache, with also élan. Do you follow?"
     "No. What do you mean?"
     "It is one thing to charge in aggressively. I have seen how well you change pace, how you cut inside and go at and blow past defenders. But there is more."
     "What? What more? Tell me!"
     "Yes. You must learn the smoothness, the cunning. Learn when it is to show a je ne sais quoi, as if you are tired or bored so as to lull the defender to sleep. There is sometimes about you a sense of urgency, a sense of NOW! that you wield always when it is better to conceal this so as to seize the moment."
     "How will I know this?"
     "This, my friend, it may only come with time, time on the pitch, time in your life, time with the club. You will learn it when the time is right, and when it is, you will seize it. The words to put it in are hard to find. It comes from loving the game. From loving the club. When you feel it, you will know."
     "I think I see."
     "Do not think. Sense it. Let it flow through you."
     "Got it."
     "Make sure that you do."
     "You may go. Where, now is Theo—ah. Theo?"
     "Theo, you're fast."
     "You noticed."
     "Sorry, mate."
     "As it always is with you, speed is your first choice, but there is more to this. There is a time to run, a time to pause. Too often, you try to simply outrun your mark, but in this you also outrun your own touch. How often have you poked the ball forward only to see the keeper—or the endline—foil you?"
     "A few times, I'll admit, but it's just that these through-balls, sometimes, they're—"
     "It is you whom I have waited the longest to speak, and it is for me you must now wait to hear from. You have been anointed as my heir, but, now, sadly, you must wait. Cruelly, I must say, for you have shown that you know and love this club moreso than others who pretended to. You will come back when the time is right."
     "Again with the time. I sat through this when you lectured Ox. I get it. I—"
     "I'm not so sure that you do. I expect great things from you. So too does Arsène. He sees it in you, as do I. However, do you see it in yourself?"
     "Of course, I do. Player of the Month for December, right?"
     "True, but ask yourself why you play. Is it for these monthly, personal honors, or do you crave something bigger?"
     "What, like a Golen Boot? Absolutely."
     "No. Theo. Please listen to me. If you want Golden Boots and Player of the Month, there are other clubs to play for. Here, at Arsenal, there is a team. It has a story, a culture, a tradition. If all you want are personal honors, you may have to go elsewhere. However, if you want actual glory and honor, you must look deeper within yourself to ask, 'why do I play this game? what gives me joy?' The answer, Theo, must be larger than yourself. Look around you. Bergkamp. Rice. Pires. Brady. Adams. Wright. Vieira. Seaman. Jennings. You played alongside or watched them and others. They taught you."
     "I know these things, Thierry, I do. But—"
     "I understand. There is a balance to strike between personal and shared glories. I know that this unfortunate setback will make you stronger, both on the pitch and inside yourself. For myself, I will see you in August, in September, not as the next Henry, but as you, yourself. As Theo. You have been blessed with great talent, Theo. Blessed. This is a blessing, but also a curse. You have a chance to balance these forces. Use the time you have been gifted. In time, if you use it well, it will both glorify and humble you. Use it well."
     "I will—but, Thierry, I—Thierry? Where did you—Serge? Alex? Did you see where he—man. Heavy..."

09 January 2014

Two years ago to the day, Henry scored against Leeds. I cried.

At first, that headline may not mean much. After all, it was his 227th goal for the club, was it not? How many times had he delivered a similar goal—slicing in from the wing, running onto a through-ball, and curling one to the far-post just past the keeper's out-stretched fingertips—against tougher competitors in higher-stakes matches? A goal against Leeds United in the FA Cup may lack the historic significance of a goal at the Bernabeu in the Champions League or at White Hart Lane to win the Prem, but to me, having never seen the man in his prime, that goal was every bit as exquisite and sublime and memorable as any other he ever scored, and it was all the more poignant to see him celebrate with such unbridled joy. It was the kind of homecoming a Hollywood producer might draw up, but there was nothing smarmy or scripted or trite about it. Watch Henry celebrate that goal. Tell me he isn't feeling the same ecstasy so many of us were feeling.
There's nothing but joy there, pouring from a man who has scored hundreds of goals, won league titles in three countries, not to mention the Champions League and the World Cup and countless individual honors, and look at him. Pure, unadulterated joy from a man whose love for and contributions to this club cannot be questioned, even when he decided to leave. It's rare that a player plays for one club anymore, even if he wants to, but it's still a testament to the man and the relationship he formed with the club that this goal, one of hundreds he has scored, could inspire such a celebration from him and from the fans in attendance.

For myself, I'd never seen Henry score for Arsenal. Not live, at least. I missed the Invincibles as well. In those days, football didn't get any airtime in America, and the internet, at least as far as I knew, hadn't yet offered ways for us to watch online. I had to rely on newspaper reports, a poor substitute for seeing the action unfold in the moment. More recently, thanks largely to the internet, I've seen some spectacular goals that required greater skill or technique, that were scored under greater duress, that came against stiffer competition, but none that provoked in me such a response as the one I've have for this goal. For other goals, I've leapt from my seat; I've shouted to the heavens; I've hugged absolute strangers and spilled expensive bevies. I've sung. I've chanted. Hell, I've pulled muscles and thrown out my back. Not for this goal. Nope.

All I could do, a grown man, was sit there and let tears roll down my cheek, chin in my hand, and watch. I didn't want to miss a single glorious second. It was, in a way, like losing my virginity. Like being initiated or baptized. Remember—this was the very first time I had seen Henry score in real time. I've seen highlights. I've watched replays and documentaries. I'd seen him score for Barca and Red Bulls live, but these barely rate the mention. There's a long list of things I'll never get to do, such as seeing a match at Highbury, and seeing Henry score for Arsenal was on that list until this day last year.

Yes, the goal came at a time when we were worried about the club's direction, ambition, and future, but I don't think my response was borne from some misbegotten desperation for Henry to resurrect the club and impel it to past glories. His hey-day is in the past; his pantherine form has acquired a bit more heft, and his hairline has receded a bit more. Any time that talks turns to the legends and the glories of the first eight or nine years under Arsene, there's bound to be some myopic wishes made all the more irresistible when one of those legends returns and scores. Would he stay? Could he inspire the club to reclaim its status, to end its trophy drought?

No, there was none of that for me. Even then, I knew it was more curtain-call than encore from one of the finest players this club has ever seen and, instead of tarnishing the myth by asking him to try to lead the line, I'm just thankful that he came back and showed us that he still has the touch—that touch on the ball and, at the risk of getting melodramatic, that touch to our hearts.

The problem with spending too much time in the past, though, is that it takes our eyes off the present and future. Who among the current squad will we be hailing? Which moments, splendid as they will have been in the moment, will become burnished by time, bronzed in our memories as Henry's form is bronzed outside the stadium? This is where legends come from—moments of brilliance, ripened by memory. Henry's goal against Leeds may not be his most striking, his most stunning, or his most significant, but to me, it will always be his most memorable. Firsts always are.

08 January 2014

The Ox returns to training, ready to fill the Theo-shaped void

For those despairing after Theo Walcott was ruled out for the rest of the 2013-14 season, and the World Cup to boot, fear not, for waiting in the wings, back in training for the first time since injuring his own knee in week one against Aston Villa, is one Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. While it's too much to hope that he might embrace the symbolism of climbing from the ashes, phoenix-like, against the very club that witnessed his fall, he is one the verge of making his return, predicted tentatively for 18 January, perhaps in time to face Fulham.

I have too much respect for the recently fallen to engage in direct comparisons, and I'm sure we're all well-aware of the Theo-to-Ox comparisons that have been made, so I'll leave that element of the discussion to your memories. Instead, I'll dare to stoke your imaginations. There's another player who once wore the number 14 and who electrified the Emirates with his dazzling pace. More than out-and-out speed, though, Ox reminds me of Henry with his changes of pace and audacious forays on goal, slaloming—or attempting to—just as well as outrunning defender to get his shot or find a teammate for his.

Of course, I don't want to let the hype run away from me. He's 20 and has made only 42 appearances for Arsenal over three years, and so I'm insinuating the comparison, rather than making it outright, because it's based on potential rather than performance. That said, he's delivered some delicious moments already, whether it was his assist to Giroud in that opening-day match with Aston Villa, his sizzling goal against Coventry, or his movement and finish for England against Brazil. Hell, it was only six months ago that Ray Parlour compared the Ox to one of  England's best midfielders, Paul Gascoigne.

Why not? The Ox with the ball at his feet can take the ball directly at, through, and around almost any defender, not just to create his own shot but to find and create chances for others. As his nickname points out, he brings directness, tenacity, and strength to the attack, qualities that are frequently lacking as we look for more balletic, symphonic maneuvers. The Ox's willingness and ability to thrust himself right up the defense's gut could become a game-changing feature as he continues to grow and to explore his potential.

I'm not the first to make such heady comparisons for the man, likening him to Gazza for England or Henry for Arsenal, and I'm sure I won't be the last. However, as trite as it sounds, we don't need him to be Henry. As scintillating as some of his moments have been, the Ox is still learning the game. His return to the training ground, though, is about as welcome as they come. Sure, it might have been nice to have him ready for Aston Villa, but the wisdom being shown in his cautious return should reap handsome rewards in years to come. 

Power Rankings: Match 20

It was a wild and woolly December with clubs playing a flurry of matches in such quick succession that trying to juggle the power rankings between each one was all but impossible. By the time we had digested one match, it seemed another one had arrived, and so we arrive in January, 20 matches gone and 18 to play, and we have what looks more and more like a three-team competition for the Prem title. Competition for the remaining European spots might become a squabble involving as many as six other teams, assuming Southampton can halt its slide in order to close the six-point gap between them and Newcastle. Arsenal, for what it's worth, have a bit of a softer January schedule, at least compared to Chelsea and Man City, each of whom have tough fixtures against other top-of-the-table competitors. This could provide us a chance to create a bit of space between us, Man City, and Chelsea on the official table. For now, though, let's look at each team's momentum ahead of the weekend. Remember, this only reflects Prem results, and FA Cup or League Cup results are not included.

Power  (previous)

1.     Man City (1)

Swansea 2-3
2nd: 44
A couple of road-wins might show that City is starting to solve its away-form. Then again, they’ll be without Aguero for a few weeks, including a tough trip to play Newcastle this weekend
@ Newcastle 1/12
2.     Arsenal (2)
2-0 Cardiff
1st: 45
We emerged from that 6-3 drubbing at the Etihad in fine form, reeling off three wins in a row to stay atop the Prem. The talk of the moment is reinforcements, especially at center-forward where we have no one healthy.
@ Aston Villa 1/13
3.     Chelsea (4)
Soton 0-3
3rd: 43
Chelsea look to be picking up momentum. After struggling to score, they’ve gone seven in three matches (including three at stubborn if fading Southampton). Like City, though, they have a stiffer schedule than we do.
@ Hull 1/11
4.     Liverpool (3)
2-0 Hull
4th: 39
Still looking a bit like flat-track bullies, happy to crush inferior opponents but unable to take a point from those near, at, or above them in quality (yes, I’m aware of their win over Man U).
@ Stoke 1/12
5.     Everton (5)

Stoke 1-1
5th: 38
They had a golden opportunity to overtake Liverpool but couldn’t manage to make the post of some easier fixtures. They’ll have to show more of a killer’s instinct to finish of inferior opponents, but their will to avoid losses could provide stability.
Norwich 1/11

Nibbling around the edges, just off the pace and on the outside looking in are Spurs (37 points), Man U (34), Newcastle (33), and Southampton (27). The Saints are going to have to right their ship and soon if they hope to close the gap; Spurs look to be energized if only temporarily under Sherwood, and Man U are at risk of becoming a running-joke with three consecutive losses (two at home). Newcastle seem to have faded in similar fashion, with three consecutive losses of their own.

Of course, with the transfer-window open, things could change. Rumors are already flying, and player-movement, in and out, can have just as much impact on a team's momentum as a string of results. I daresay, however, that few teams look as interesting to play for, and even fewer can offer the chance for silverware, as Arsenal can. Top of the table. Still contending in the FA Cup and Champions League A transfer-kitty that might be as high as £75 million. The coming weeks could be interesting ones, indeed.

07 January 2014

Sizing up Álvaro Morata for a loan-deal

For as much as we'll miss Theo over the course of the season, his absence may hurt us far less than would a long-term Giroud absence. After all, behind Theo, nipping at his heels in many ways, is Serge Gnabry, who has turned in a number of strong stints so far this season; behind Serge is the Ox, who has impressed in previous years and is due back from injury perhaps in time to make an appearance against Fulham on the 18th. Should they struggle or falter, we have other options as well—Özil can play on the right, for example, as can Ramsey or Wilshere in a pinch.

Instead of letting the shock of Theo's injury skew priorities, then, I hope Arsène and the rest set as their highest priority the signing of a center-forward who can relieve Giroud from time to time. Not that I oppose the pursuit of Draxler or Reus, but our best bet in the short-term appears to be a loan-deal for Real Madrid's Álvaro Morata. At 21, he's young, but his lack of playing time has apparently become a concern, not just for him but for the managers, who would like to see him get more playing time. To date, he's had to content himself with late-game cameos rarely lasting more than 15-18 minutes. Given his potential, then, a short-term loan might just make enough sense to Real Madrid as to encourage them to let it happen. Other clubs linked to a move for Morata, such as Tottenham, are likely looking for something in the longer term, but given Morata's youth, his status as a home-grown talent, and the waning stature of Karim Benzema, an out-and-out transfer strikes me as highly unlikely. Given the stick that Florentino Perez took for selling us Özil, he might be that much more cautious about letting another popular player leave permanently.

So who is he? He's 6'2" (1.9m) and strong in the air, but he doesn't seem to fit the mold of the big but ponderous forward. He's been described as quick on his feet, not that he'd make anyone forget Theo, but Morata's combination of size and pace is rare to merit a mention. He can play well with his back to goal, contributing to the build-up and letting teammates flow around him. To along with those attributes, he's a strong finisher. Despite only amassing 213 minutes of first-team action, and getting it in chunks of 12 minutes here, eight minutes there, he's managed to score twice, but it's really with the u21's that he's shone, netting eight times in just six starts.

Given how unlikely and expensive the signings of such players as Diego Costa or Jackson Martinez might be, a Morata makes a quite a lot of sense. He's cup-tied, unfortunately, having played a grand total of 29 minutes in two group-stage matches, but, given our relatively soft January schedule (at Aston Villa, home matches with Fulham and Coventry, a tougher trip to Southampton) bringing him soon could give him a chance to bed in before we might need him to face the much-sterner February/March gauntlet.

For what it's worth, a £10 bet on Morata coming to Arsenal wins you a measly £20 from betvictor, far less than the £90 you might win should Morata end up at Tottenham, his next-most likely destination. Put in other terms, the legitimate-businessmen's community sees a move to Arsenal as much more likely than a move anywhere else—more than four times more likely. It's been rumored that Arsène has made a £2million loan-fee to entice Real Madrid to make Morata available. Why not? It could be a win-win for both clubs, not to mention the player, as he'd get much more playing time (presumably) and can hone his skills without exposing Perez to further criticism, we'd get support for a position is currently bereft of players to fill it (sorry, Yaya and Park, but it's true). Make it happen, Arsène. Please?

06 January 2014

Post-Theo, the goals haven't changed—the spirit remains!

At the risk of sounding callous, Theo's injury doesn't change the calculus surrounding our title-aspirations. For as bright as he was during his all-too-brief return from his previous injury, we managed to climb to the top of the table without him, for the most part. As much as he impressed during his five-game cameo, we simply don't need another winger to replace him. I'm as gutted as anyone; I had pegged Theo to have a break-out, 20 Prem goals season even after he missed seven matches from September to November and worked his way back to match-fitness.

He was so blithe and care-free while being stretchered off, I suspect that many of us assumed he had suffered an innocuous knock, a minor strain of the sort that would see him miss a few matches. To then learn that he would miss the rest of the campaign—and the World Cup to boot—is a bitter pill, indeed. However, the spirit of this squad, one that we've extolled before, one that has helped it overcome other injuries and setbacks, should see it through yet again.

In fact, I think it will have a galvanizing effect. Players will rally, taking up the banner on Theo's behalf. I don't refer solely to Serge or Ox, the players to whom the burden of replacing him most directly falls. They're young, feckless, perhaps enough so not to fully grasp the enormity of the challenge, and more power to them. No, others will have to seize the moment as well, players a bit more wizened if not grizzled, to the ways of the world.

The felling of Theo may force the likes of Ramsey or Özil or Wilshere or Podolski, among others, to play out of their preferred positions, and I say, as I hope they will, too—so be it. At other, free-spending clubs, some other dilettante can simply slot in, looking askance at the man he's displaced. Here, though, actual teammates, brothers who will go to war for each other, can pick up the banner and soldier on. Let it be so.

In the meantime, our previous priorities remain the same: find support for Giroud. Find someone who, like him, has slogged and humped and trudged so that others could float, flit, and fly around the pitch. Maybe, the urgency around Costa or Mandžukić has grown a bit; maybe, the utility of Berbatov or Klose has shrunk. Tim Payton of the Arsenal Supporters' Trust suggests that we could safely spend £50m during the January transfer-window. What that means—it's January, it's a World Cup year, etc.—is anyone's guess.

One thing, however, is clear—players will have to rally 'round the flag, whether it be for Theo or Giroud or Diaby or any of the others who have put the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears into this and into previous campaigns. In previous campaigns, similar injuries were viewed through a prism of impending catastrophe. This time through, though, the sentiment differs quite a bit. Instead of lamenting what might have been or could have been had the cookie not crumbled, I suspect that our lads will circle the wagons, as the saying goes, and defy those who dare-say that we've been knee-capped.

With apologies to Aston Villa (who incurred our wrath on opening day), Fulham, Southampton, and other upcoming fixtures, yippie ki-yay!

Theo ruptured his ACL—out for six months

Here is a devastating announcement posted at the team-site. In brief, Theo has ruptured his ACL, an injury that will require surgery and keep him out of action for six months. He won't be back in Arsenal red for the remainder of the 2013-14 campaign and will also miss the World Cup in Brazil.

This is the same kind of injury that derailed Abou Diaby's comeback and used to be the kind of injury that ended careers. For what it's worth, it ended mine, not that I was ever any good. I tore my ACL, MCL, and meniscus playing football back in April 2013 and may never play football again. Then again, I'm a bush-leaguer about to enter my fourth decade on this planet.

For a player like Theo, young, quite good, and making a career of the game, the generic prognosis is much better than it ever was. I remember when the American basketballer blew out his knee in 1985. He had surgery and came back for a few years of decent basketball, but it was clear that he had lost his speed and leaping abilities. He was never quite the player he was, and he retired in 1991. Fast-forward almost thirty years, and the progress made in repairing and rehabilitating such injuries has grown, if you'll pardon the pun, by leaps and bounds. Instead of a torn ACL symbolizing the impending close to a once-promising career, there are plenty of success-stories to suggest that Theo will be back, just as good as he was before the injury. In fact, some players claim, with evidence, that they are faster, stronger, better than before.

For example, American football's Adrian Peterson, who tore his ACL in 2011 but came back for the 2012-13 to win the league's Most Valuable Player award. He improved his yards-per-carry average from 4.8 over the previous five seasons to 6.5 while rushing for more than 2,000 yards for the first time in his career. Other examples abound. The point is that, as devastating as this injury is for Walcott in the short term, it need not spell the end of his career.

And this is where my experience having torn my ACL comes into play, not that I'm any kind of expert. The ACL cannot heal itself and, once torn, must be replaced entirely. High-profile athletes frequently get a patellar graft, meaning that surgeons borrow a bit of the patellar tendon from the other knee. It's more-aggressive than other options but leads to greater strength and resilience in the long run. Schlubs like yours truly usually get a graft from their own hamstring ligament or—gasp—a cadaver, methods that promise a quicker recovery by somewhat diminished performance. The surgeon who worked on my knee said that, in the early 1980s, they didn't even know what the ACL was or how to detect a rupture, much less treat it. Treatment back then consisted, in his words, of a bottle of aspirin, a pair of crutches, and stern advice to rest it until the pain stopped. They've made a lot of progress since then. It's sad to see Theo go down after such a promising return from the earlier injuries, but it's likely we'll see him come back for the 2014-15 campaign fresh, vigorous, free of the various other niggling injuries that accumulate, and perhaps even a step or two quicker than he already is.

In the meantime, I now regret my tongue-in-cheek piece from yesterday in which I suggested that Theo, Giroud, and Bendtner feign injury in order to convince Arsene to bring in a new player or two. That suggestion, now shorn of its humor, takes on added significance, if not urgency. In the meantime, let's wish Theo a speedy recovery!

05 January 2014

Theo and Olivier discuss the transfer-window

     "Hey, Theo—s'up?"
     "Huh? Oh, hey, Ollie. How's it hanging?"
     "Low and lazy. Hey, I hear you'll be center-forward against Tottenham in the FA Cup match."
     "Yep. Do you think Arsène will be impressed? Because if he is, maybe he could play me there more. I mean, after all, maybe I could play through the center more often. Now that you're injured and all, we're gonna need a center-forward. Am I right?"
     "Well—yes, I suppose, but that's not really what I'm—"
     "Remember that time against Newcastle last year when I was the center-forward? Wasn't I awesome?"
     "Um...yeah. You were pretty good, but what I wanted to say was that—"
     "'Pretty good?' Dude, I had a hat-trick and two assists. I'd say that's better than 'pretty good.' When's the last time you did that well? Huh?"
     "Okay, Theo; okay. You have a point. I do not think I have ever done so well. Listen, though. Just—settle down a minute. We need to talk."
     "I thought we already were. I mean—boom!—goal. Zing! Assist. Kapow! Another goal. I'm telling you, Ollie, play me at center-forward more often, and that's you'll see. All's I need is my chance. Say—you're French, aren't you? Maybe you could put in the good word for me with the big guy? You know, butter him up a bit? That's your nickname, right? The butter of charm? Well, lay on the charm, wont'cha?"
     "I will see what I can do, but Theo, listen. I mean, really listen."
     "Okay. I'm listening. Shoot. Haha! Did you see what I did there? We're guys who score goals, right, so I said 'shoot'. Clever. Eh? Eh?"
     "Yes, yes, quite good. But listen, Theo. It's January."
     "The transfer-window is now open."
     "I can't do this anymore."
     "What!? You're leaving?
     "No, no. Just calm down. I just—I'm tired."
     "[aside] This is Theo's big chance. With the Frenchman gone, the center-forward's position can be mine. Only that out-of-favor Dane stands in the way. Well, we know just how to handle him, don't we? Yes..."
     "Beg pardon?"
     "What? Oh—um, nothing. Nothing at all. You were saying?"
     "I can't do it anymore, Theo. Week after week, match after match, I feel like I'm running in quicksand. I need relief. Someone to take over, if only once in a while."
     "I, uh, feel  your pain."
     "Merci. As I was saying, the transfer-window is open, and, well, I thought it would be good timing for me to get, you know, um, injured?"
     "Yes, yes, I know, and I hope you recover soon and all."
     "You misunderstand. I'm not actually injured. It's a ruse."
     "A what?"
     "A ruse. I'm trying to convince Arsène that we need another center-forward. I thought, well, if I'm injured, and you're injured, well, he'd have no choice but to sign someone."
     "But wait—I want to play center-forward."
     "Yes, Theo, I know. I have to level with you, though."
     "Okay. Shoot. C'mon, buddy. That's funny. Admit it!"
     "Er, um, yes. Anyway, I was thinking, it would be helpful if you could, um, get 'injured' as well, if you know what I mean?"
     "But then I can't play center-forward."
     "Yes. True. There's that. But think of it this way. If we can get Arsène to sign another center-forward—no one glitzy, mind you, just some kind of back-up—well, then, you can prove that you can play center-forward by beating that guy in practice. Right?"
     "I...guess so..."
     "That's the spirit! So go out there against Tottenham, help us win, but get stretchered off once it looks like we have the game in hand. With you and I injured, Arsène will have no choice but to sign another center-forward, won't he?"
     "Umm, yeah...but what about Nick?"
     "Already spoke with him. He's been on board since before the Cardiff match. Didn't you see him turn his ankle?"
     "Not really."
     "That's okay. It's all part of a master-plan. Ask Kieran about it—we did it last winter and got Nacho. Not bad, eh?"
     "Now that you mention it, I do remember Kieran walking around just fine after his, um, 'injury.'"
     "Right. Just keep it under your hat, will you? We don't want le Prof catching on, do we?"
     "Dude, have you seen him run? The guy's like, 80. There's no way he's catching me."
     "Uhhh...yeah. Well, good talk. Thanks, Theo."
     "Don't forget to put in the good word for me, butter!"

Arsenal 2-0 Tottenham: Rosický and Gnabry seize the day

Talk about a May-December pairing. Serge Gnabry, all of 18 years old, and Tomáš Rosický, long of tooth at 33, teamed up to dominate the midfield and deliver superb goals to see us through to the FA Cup's fourth round. We'll find out who our opponent is from the draw on Monday. For now, let's enjoy the match that was—a cracking North London derby with a fitting result.

At first, I think we could all admit to feeling a bit tetchy at the squad-selection. Fabianski in goal. A Vermaelen-Koscielny pairing. Walcott at striker. Park on the bench. On the other hand, Spurs had selection-trouble of their own, but so it goes. 

It was a tense opening that saw Spurs find but fritter away a number of gilt-edged chances, whether it was Sagna having to block a Dembele shot Fabianski snuffing Eriksen on a break. However, Spurs didn't really look too threatening, and, through Wilshere, Gnabry, Cazorla, and Rosický, we controlled the midfield and created a number of fine chances of our own. 

It was in the 31st minute that Gnabry collected a pass from Sagna and sliced towards the top of the 18. Walcott made a decent run to the right, pulling defenders from Gnabry and forcing Walker to commit to Gnabry. Cool as a cucumber, he found Cazorla unmarked at the corner, and all the Spaniard had to do was size it up and blast it home. Brilliant. It was just one sequence, but Gnabry was vital. His pace, creativity, power, and savvy belie his age. Indeed, that assist was one of six key-passes on the day as he repeatedly got around or past defenders to find teammates with well-timed passes, and had those teammates been a bit more clinical, he could have had two or three assists. As it stands, Gnabry's performance was impressive all day, although he did start to fade towards the end. It seems that each time the 18-year old is given a chance, he takes it, and no more so than today.

At the other end of the spectrum, 33-year old Tomáš Rosický showed yet again why he's a Gunner to the core. I'll admit, early on, I worried that he was pressing too hard and getting too ambitious with his passing as, several times, he'd spray a pass too far ahead of a teammate. It was almost as if he was too wound up for the derby. However, he settled in and buzzed around with greater purpose if not restraint, harassing Spurs players and distributing his passes to greater effect. When he found Danny Rose dilly-dallying with the ball at midfield, he made no mistake, stealing the ball and charging down on the helpless Hugo Lloris. Just when I thought he had taken one touch and one step too many, he chipped Lloris perfectly. To me, the sequence encapsulates Rosický perfectly: pressing to win the ball, artful, perfect touches, and a sublime goal followed by a celebration so full of passion and enthusiasm that prove through and through where Rosický should retire—not that I'm suggesting he retire any time soon.

There were strong performances all around, but it struck me as fitting indeed that the youngest and oldest players on the pitch for either side—embodying Arsenal's past, present, and future—played such definitive roles in the outcome. There was a touching moment towards the end of the match as we set up to defend a Spurs corner when Rosický found Gnabry, wh was perhaps feeling fatigued or nervous, and gave him a reassuring nod and comment and put an arm around him briefly. Nothing maudlin or melodramatic, mind you, just a seasoned veteran checking in on the new kid.

It came shortly after Walcott was stretchered off and we had to play with ten men, but such is the spirit and grit of this squad that it almost didn't matter. By then, we had shown, once again, why North London is red.