18 January 2014

Arsenal 2-0 Fulham: Cazorla's beautiful brace

Two beautiful second-half goals from a scintillating Santi Cazorla despatched Fulham, and the score might have even flattered the Cottagers a bit as there were goal-line clearances, brilliant saves, and dented woodwork as Arsenal peppered Stekelenburg all game. It was a stellar performance and one that comfortable keeps us in first for another few weeks (with FA Cup matches next weekend).

We'd been knocking on the door for most of the first half but couldn't quite knock it down until the 57th minute, when a nifty sequence saw Cazorla tip-toe along the top of the box, pass in to Giroud who flicked deeper into to Wilshere, whose cut-back pass found Cazorla curling in. He drilled shot from the penalty-spot into the top corner, with defenders and Stekelenburg helpelessly watching the ball ping around the box. It wasn't quite Norwich, but it was a thing of beauty all the same.

Five minutes later, it was Cazorla again, latching onto a poorly headed clearance and fizzing a shot from the top of the box, through Sidwell's legs (that tosser) and catching Stekelenburg moving right. It was a fine perfromance from the diminutive Spaniard, a welcome return to form after slogging through recent matches, and a suggestion that, with Walcott out and some uncertainty about that right flank, the left-flank will be an area to look to.

And it wasn't just Cazorla. When Podolski came on, he looked dangerously hungry and was unfortunate not to come away with a brace of his own. Coming on in the 70th minute for Gnabry, he almost immediately netted, drilling a pass from Wilshere, but an alert Stekelenburg managed to deflect it. Minutes later, Stekelenburg just barely got fingers to a thunderous shot, and Podolsk's shot hammered the post. It was a vital signal of Podolski's potential. Just as I was wondering if Cazorla's performance might further push Podolski further down the bench and away from the action, he announced that he wasn't going anywhere just, yet, thank you very much. He may not ever be a regular starter, but if he could content himself with a "super-sub" role, coming on in the 60th or 70th minute, be it for Cazorla or for Giroud, he might carve out an invaluable niche for himself.

Back to the match, it's not as if Fulham were without their moments. Darren Bent came on and nearly added to his tally of of five goals in his four appearances against Arsenal, running onto a cross in the box only for Szczesny to attempt the save, knocking into Bent who then chased it down but couldn't slot home into the empty net, due in part to Kos's last-ditch tackle. Kasami took a well-struck spot-kick just outside the box on our left-side, and Szczesny let it squirm through his hands only to collect just before the on-rushing Clint Dempsey slid in.

An that's all she wrote. Man City defeated Cardiff 4-1 to stay within a point, and we'll see what Chelsea does tomorrow when Man U, still without Rooney or van Persie.

'Til next time, thanks for your visit!

17 January 2014

Arsenal v. Fulham: Podolski's Complaint

Ahead of Fulham's visit to the Emirates Saturday, it's high time that we decide on who's most likely to take this match my the scruff and make damn-well sure that all three points stay just where they bloody well belong—right here at the Emirates. All three. Fulham's last two trips have seen them snatch a point. Fulham. As in "we're proud to be mid-table, thrilled to take on aging, past-their-prime Spuds" Fulham.

The Hammer of Mjölnir. It does make evening strolls a bit dicey.
Two years ago, we went from a Vermaelen own-goal to a Vermaelen equalizer to salvage a precious point. Last year, it was a Keystone Kops affair, a 3-3 draw that could have and perhaps should have ended 4-3 had Arteta done better with a last-minute penalty-kick. These offer two different facets of a multi-faceted problem over the previous several seasons when our own weaknesses, just as much if not more than our opponents' strengths, have been our own undoing. At various points, we have been among the most generous of teams when it came to errors leading to an opponent's goal, and one of the areas in which we've shown the most improvement, after all, has been in reducing such errors.

Sadly, Vermaelen and Arteta, mares of those previous matches (if only in those key moments), won't be available on Saturday in order to avenge themselves on the Cottagers. I would love nothing more than to call for each man to bag a brace, each assisting the other, while at the other end turning away any attack Berbatov & Co, LLC could muster on our way to a 4-0 win. It's not to be, not tomorrow at least. So it goes. In their stead, then, someone else will have to step up, but who? Will it be Podolski, scorer or two goals in the 3-1 win at Fulham back in September before his injury? After all, he leads the current squad in goals against Fulham (three goals, three appearances). However, he's been so thoroughly marginalized even after his return that he can barely seem to find any time on the pitch, and the rumors around other left-wing targets, be they Draxler or Ntep or others, suggest that he's running out of time to prove himself.

However, there's no guarantee that he'll even appear, much less start. Then again, with Cazorla also struggling to rediscover the form that made him Arsenal's Player of the Year, and with his hiccup leading to Aston Villa's goal on Monday, it might be time to wield once again the Hammer of Mjölnir—that lethal left-foot of Podolski, unleashing concussive thunderbolts at goalies and woodwork alike, while Poldi exclaims, exultantly "AHA! to be a center-forward, a center-forwardand nothing more!"

After all, perhaps alone among the midfielders, Poldi does not flit or dance or pirouette on the ball; that is not his game, no. Give him the ball and let him turn and shoot. Play him centrally with Cazorla and Gnabry flanking him and with Özil behind him, and let him pummel the Cottagers into submission, hammering them with shot after thunderous shot. They, as well as the woodwork and the net it holds up, will succumb, and we will have back the Poldi we have come to know and love, and he will deliver. Therefore, with these ramblings in mind, I'm amending my own match preview, in which I called on Wilshere to be anointed as Man of the Match. Please, Arsène, play Podolski through the middle, and let him lay waste to the Cottagers' defense.

Arsenal-Fulham Preview

With apologies to those who may have stopped by before, an alert reader pointed out a mistake I had made in my graphic; I had mistakenly displayed Arsenal's away-goals instead of home-goals tally. Here is the updated and correct (I hope) graphic:

I'm trying something new here with an infographic that lays out a few key statistics. It's my first go at it, so I'm keeping it simple and straightforward: Arsenal's home-record and goals scored/conceded, and Fulham's away-record with goals scored/conceded. I've chosen Jack Wilshere as my man of the match; I hope he'll deliver with a fine performance that includes a goal and assist, reprising his role from last week. Final scoreline: Arsenal 4-1 Fulham. You read it first (I hope). Make your predictions in the comments-section below Thanks!

16 January 2014

Wingers in the wings: Draxler and Ntep's odds of joining Arsenal surge...

The transfer-window is up to its usual antics, with recent reports claiming that we had agreed to terms with Auxerre's 21-year old Paul-Georges Ntep: a five-year deal at 10m, but this was quickly scuppered by Auxerre's president. So it goes. Auxerre has a been good to us in recent years, selling us Sagna, for example. Oh. And Sanogo. It's hardly the kind of move that quickens the blood, though, as the idea of Ntep making a meaningful leap from Ligue 2 to the heat of a Prem title-chase is a bit far-fetched. Nonetheless, the move looks to be the kind that has its eye further into the future.

Of more immediate interest, of course, is potential movement around Schalke's Julian Draxler, also plying his trade along the wing (mostly). The buzz has faded somewhat after news of a potentially ruptured tendon might rule him out of action until late February or even into March. I don't know if this actually rules out the move, but it certainly seems to pull the rug out for seeing him join in January.

Probabilities as rated by transfermarkt.co.uk
In these situations, then, I turn to two sources that seem to deal more in odds and facts, such as they are—certainly more than I would ever turn to twitter, various tabloids, and blogs that seem to devote more screen-space to adds than content. With that in mind, I was intrigued to see that transfermarkt.co.uk had upgraded the probability of Ntep's move to Arsenal to 30%, a huge leap from the previous rating of question mark (a designation that seems to apply to just about anyone else who plays European football. The rumors around him joining Arsenal do borrow a bit of legitimacy from that surge. On Saturday, he did admit that he was on his way to London, but it was presumed that he was there to talk to QPR. However, Auxerre's president Guy Cotret tried to quash rumors that Ntep had ended up speaking with Arsenal: "I have had no contact with an English club. There is a French club [Rennes] of which I have spoken, and who has made ​​an offer. After that, maybe the player and his agent have had other contacts." Not much of a denial, to be honest.

Regarding Draxler, the player to whom we've been most heavily linked, the news is a little more intriguing than that reported injury suggests. Transfermarkt.co.uk's rating of his move to Arsenal has continued to creep up steadily—from the low teens last week to a probability of 27%, picking up a point or two each day, even in the face of the injury report. Similarly, gambling sites seem to see a January move as increasingly likely; the fractional odds have dropped from 10/2 last week to 5/6 today. In other words, last week, a £2 bet would win you £10. This week, a £6 bet would only win you £5. Triple your stake, halve your winnings? For those who make their money off of predicting these events, it's starting to look like they see Draxler joining Arsenal in January as increasingly likely.

Of course, the transfer-window is a cagey beast, and we could wake up to find that we've signed, say, Mario Mandzukic out of nowhere, and that Draxler has signed with Dortmund or Bayern while Ntep has completed a move to Reading. It's anyone's guess. Good thing we have a match coming up. Things that actually happen are inherently more interesting than things that might. After all, they do, you know, happen.

The loneliness of the overseas Gooner

One of the inevitable pissing contests that arise around supporting a club is who's real and who's, as the epithet goes, "plastic." The good news is that Arsenal's form over the last 16 months or so has given this little debate a new urgency as fans around the world, thanks also to the spread of internet access, social media, and the rest of that lot, have flocked to the Arsenal. The void created by the creaky crumble of Man U, arguably the world's highest-profile franchise, has left otherwise new or fickle fans looking around for other options, and, let's be honest, they usually don't look past the two or three teams at the top of the table. Presto! Gooners.

Their loyalty and devotion, though, are an open question. After all, can they name the full squad? Do they know who's in the Academy (or that there is one)? Can they name former players beyond Henry, Bergkamp, Pires? Before we go too far, I feel that I have to establish my own credentials as there will always be that faction that asserts that I, having not grown up in or around Highbury, am not a real Gooner. Here, then, for what it's worth, is my curriculum vitae:
  • discovered Arsenal at age six (I'm guessing spring of '81 because the kits had no sponsor, which would make me seven—the match highlights I saw must have been near the end of the 1980-81 season and before my seventh birthday in late May).
  • had no idea how good they were. Loved the name, loved the kit, loved the fact that a few Irishmen were in the squad at the time (Devine, Gorman, Stapleton, O'Leary).
  • have followed them then, for roughly 84% of my life.
  • have followed them for 100% of the time I have known that professional football even existed.
That's about it, I guess. Admittedly thin, but I can't be blamed for being born outside of London, and to have my loyalty or authenticity doubted or mocked just doesn't make sense to me on the whole. Okay, so there are elements that do. I'll freely admit, for example, that I don't fully feel in my gut the hatred of Tottenham that seems to define a true Gooner. I've only met two or three Spuds in my life—one being among my best mates—and the visceral hatred just isn't there for me. Then again, I don't have to put up with them on a daily basis, so I don't know how I might feel having gotten into it with Spuds over the years. Knowing myself as a teen, blows would have been exchanged and comeuppances delivered (suffice it to say, your correspondent can make himself understood with bare-knuckles). I know the history between the clubs, of course, and can explain the rivalry. Sadly, though, there's a glaring gap in my "true Gooner" application there, and if this disqualifies me in any way, so be it. I follow the club not to earn the approval of other fans but because watching them play does inspire me in a visceral response. In fact, the relative isolation and privacy of my fandom is something I rather cherish. I don't need people to see that I'm an Arsenal fan; I know in my heart that I am. 

I understand the resentment some of the lifelong Londoners might feel towards the more-recent bandwagoner-types. After all, those who have grown up in or around Highbury do lay claim to a special-status. They've helped to build a culture around the club. More than likely, they've been the ones attending matches, paying those ticket-prices each week or membership fees every year, and that loyalty, not to mention that financial support, has helped to build the club. That matters, and I'm not trying to diminish it in the least. Quite the opposite. I wish I could have grown up close enough to attend matches. It breaks my heart that I'll never see a match at Highbury. I envy those who have seen even one. I haven't had my loyalties tested by an extended stretch of mediocrity. For the first 25 years of my fandom, I could only get shreds of information about how Arsenal were doing, such was the coverage of British football in the United States. As such—if you can believe this—I didn't know of the Invincibles' season until well after it happened. As a result, then, my loyalties, though never tested, have likewise never been truly rewarded, either. The highest I've seen Arsenal finish with my own eyes—on t.v., as close as I've ever come, is third. The first goal I saw Thierry Henry score with my own eyes—again, on t.v.—was against Leeds two years ago. I cried.

When Cesc left, I hung my head. When van Persie left, I wore out my store of insults, epithets, and rage. When we beat Newcastle to claim fourth, I celebrated like a madman, not just because we stayed in the Champions League but because it was St. Totteringham's Day. When I'm out and about and glimpse a certain shade of red on a stranger, I maneuver to see if he or she is a Gooner. It's a bit pathetic, I'll admit. However, in the absence of having had the good fortune of being born in London or being raised in a proper Gooner household, I've had to make do with the few resources I've had available. I feel like I've done well to overcome my shortcomings. I may not yet qualify as a true Gooner as the dyed-in-the-wool types, but I can live with that, thanks.

In the meantime, let's look at the flood of new if superficial fans as a good problem to have. It's a symptom, but it need not be a problem. It's a sign of times, both of the club's recent form and of the times in which we live. It is now easier than ever for a fan in Indonesia or Nigeria or Vietnam or Kenya to follow a British club. Many of them, undoubtedly, will shift their allegiances year to year or month to month, even week to weak. So be it. Those who know and understand will stick around for the longer term, and those who see past the table or the trophies will be the ones who feel it. 

Maybe it was better when each club only drew its support from a certain local fanbase. If so, then, what's the radius for what counts as local? How far does circle extend? My day-job is as an English teacher, and so I'll invoke John Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning""
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
like gold to aery thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
to move, but doth, if th' other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
and grows erect as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
and makes me end where I begun.
In other words, all that fancy talk amounts to this: the club is one foot of a compass. I, the fan, am the other. Do not measure my devotion by how close I am; measure it by how deep and how firm the devotion is. The further away I am, the more I am drawn to it. At some point, the club will draw me to it; the legs of the compass will close. I can feel the pull in my bones. I might be more than 6,000 kilometers away, but Arsenal is much, much closer than that. Some day, I'll find a seat at Ashburton Grove, if only for that one time, and it will be a moment I remember forever, whether it's a Champions League final or a play-off to determines whether we're promoted to the Championship. In either case, I'll be singing and shouting and, yeah, probably shedding a few tears to be there.

Just in case anyone doubted me.

15 January 2014

サヨナラ, Ryo. Sayonara. A sign of Draxlers to come?

Reports suggest that Arsenal are open to the possibility of Ryo Miyaichi leaving the club on a permanent basis. Having failed to crack the starting lineup, having made only five appearances this season for a total of 217 minutes. Given how crowded the midfield is—then again, even in the absences of players like Podolski, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Cazorla for extended periods, and the more-recent loss of Walcott—it's apparently been too difficult for Miyaichi to impress Arsène enough to be entrusted with anything but mop-up duty or lesser competitions such as the league cup.

The Smirk, Part Deux?
Last season saw Miyaichi loaned out to Wigan for the season, where he made seven appearances, six of them as substitutions, again failing to make much headway in then-manager Roberto Martinez's squad. Perhaps his brighest stretch came in a 2011-12 loan to Bolton; while playing largely as a right wing, he made 16 appearances, four as substitutions and four times playing a full 90', notching two assists. However, the sparse playing time he's had over the last three years since coming to Arsenal in 2011 suggest that it's time to move on.

The competition in the midfield is just too fierce at the moment, especially for a player as unproven and raw as Miyaichi. Even Lukas Podolski, fresh from injury and deliverer of 16 goals and 13 assists last season, finds himself firmly rooted to the bench despite returning, presumably fresh and well-rested, from a long injury-spell. Apparently, Arsène's concerns over his fitness and training, among other concerns, extend to the point that there are persistent rumors about him leaving the club as well.

Without putting the cart before the horse, it's enough to make me wonder. If we are moving Miyaichi on (and good luck to him, a young player who did his level-best bt simply came at a time when the position was already filled), and if we are looking to ship Podolski out (a more-puzzling one if not entirely new given his poor fitness—regularly subbed off after 70' last year, longer-running questions about dedication), could we be clearing space for a January signing? If it were just Miyaichi, we could attribute it to a simple parting of ways. However, Podolski was an integral part of last season's squad, and to suggest that he might be leave sooner rather than later is enough to wag tongues and raise eyebrows—well, one of them, at least.

He was visibly irked, muttering and shaking his head, when it was Oxlade-Chamberlain and not he who was called on to replace Rosický against Aston Villa, even for as much sense as the move made tactically. Despite his outgoing personality and undeniable bond with Mertesacker and Giroud, as well as his apparent popularity in the dressing room, the uncomfortable fact is that he'll be 29 soon. While this is hardly the twilight of his career, the sun is setting, and unless he gets a chance to change minds and fast, this may be it for the man, at least at Arsenal. By contrast with Miyaichi, he's had his chances and, at times, acquitted himself very well. However, there's writing on the wall. The ship is trimming its sails. His star is fading.

At the risk of letting myself get too easily distracted by brighter, shinier objects, it's enough to make me wonder if in fact a move for Draxler is in the offing. After all, even if Arsène is looking to sign Draxler and convert him to a striker (something he's done with Henry and van Persie), this would take time, and it's unlikely that Draxler could blithely arrive and just slot in to the position. New position, new team, new league. That's one too many variables, even for a player of Draxler's apparent quality and potential. On the other hand, clearing space on the wings to give Draxler a chance to adjust to the Prem and to Arsenal makes a great deal of sense, as it would allow him to adjust to the Prem and to Arsenal while making the occasional cameo at striker—say, against lower-tier opponents? This would keep Giroud fresh for the Champions League (Draxler's cup-tied anyway) and against our rivals for the Prem title.

Balancing this short-term with the longer term, Giroud is 27, and grooming a replacement is a vital priority. Should Draxler come in, whether now or over the summer, he'd likely start training up to be a striker, one who could play off of Giroud in something closer to a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1. Then, when the time is right, Draxler could step in as the number-one striker. It's exciting to consider, but at this point it's still all rumor and hearsay. Dare to dream, though. No harm in that, now, is there?

14 January 2014

Julian Draxler: Stats, strengths, and weaknesses

It's January, and surely, the silly-season is in full effect. Stories abound about the possibility that we might prise Julian Draxler from Schalke 04 for a hefty buy-out clause of something close to £37.8million. While this at first might seem a hefty tag to attach to a 20-year old, he's already made more than 100 appearances for Schalke and he's drawing rave-reviews for his performance on the pitch and studiousness off of it. Further fueling the fires of speculation, Schalke manager Horst Heldt admitted that the club may be powerless to prevent his departure, saying that "We continue to hope that Julian remains, but there are factors that we cannot influence.” While that stops a bit short of putting him up for sale, it is tantalizing news as we look for options to strengthen the attack.

Thinking about the move might prompt questions of why we might move for yet another midfielder when we already seem to have quite a stable. However, while Draxler has plied his trade as a winger for much of his career, he has done well  playing more centrally as a #10, a position that puts him in a position that can maximize his strengths, namely, dribbling, aerial duels, and finishing. It's not as if he's yet another crafty little playmaker, either. He stands at 1.87m, just a touch short of Giroud's 1.92m, and there have rumors that, should Arsène be able to bring him to Arsenal, Draxler could be converted into an out-an-out striker, a conversion that Arsène has pulled off with more than one winger/attacking midfielder in the past, namely Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie.

Because of Draxler's youth, he has quite a lot to learn, and this could make such a plan even more feasible. Arsène has suggested that players frequently don't settle into a "permanent" position until they are 23-24 years old, which would give Draxler several years to grow into the striker's role. Already, though, he's developed a reputation for strength on the ball and at bringing others into the game. While this may not quite match the hold-up play that Giroud is known for, Draxler is a big-enough and skilled-enough target to make himself available for that role, and his apparent skill with the ball at his feet, whether on the dribble, pass, or shot, could add a very different and valued dimension to our attack.

Draxler himself has spoken warmly of a move to Arsenal, saying that  "I sometimes speak to Mesut or Per about the team, about the club, and they always have good words and they tell me nice things...Arsenal is a very, very nice team. They always have very young players, they play attractive football and that's what I like." Take that for what it's worth, for he went to say that "I better not speak too much about it because tomorrow I can read that I like to play for Arsenal. I think the people at Schalke would not like to hear that.”  This is hardly a full-throated promise to stay with Schalke, and it's enough to set tongues wagging.

There are a lot of other puzzle-pieces that seem on the verge of clicking into place. Theo's injury. Our German contingent. Heldt's comments. A possible loan back to Schalke for Tottenham's Lewis Holtby, who has not played a minute at all in Tottenham's last three matches, could make room for Draxler to leave. Wouldn't that be something? Tottenham sell Bale, which in turn clears the way for Real Madrid to sell us Ozil. Tottenham then loan out Holtby, which then clears the way for Schalke to sell us Draxler? It's almost too much to contemplate. Well, until it happens or the transfer-window closes, that's all we're left to do—contemplate. And, well, salivate.

Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal: 85 minutes of dominance, one minute glory, 25 minutes of nerve

Far be it from me to criticize three points, especially when claimed on the road, but this one showed two sides to the squad: one, our impressive ability to boss a match; and two, just how easy it is to let that dominance slip away. After all, for about 85 minutes, we simply owned the game, showing our superiority over a dispirited and out-classed side. Inside of one minute of those 85, we actually delivered, scoring two goals. With a bit more incisiveness on the offensive end, a third or fourth goal should have been in the offing. Indeed, at the 75' mark, Christian Benteke finally remembered that his job is to score goals, and scored just his third goal of the season since bagging that brace against us on opening day. For the next 15 minutes, then, we had to scramble to preserve a lead with all hands on deck.

A match that included a minor concussion, a likely broken nose, a possible broken metatarsal, four yellows, two errors that led to goals (one for each side), and more than 15 minutes of stoppage time are not ingredients in an attractive match. Indeed, a dispirited Villa side could offer little resistance as we confidently if diffidently controlled most of the first half, ending it (I believe) with 71% possession. However, aside from two sharp exchanges, we seemed to lack the intent or desire to drive a dagger home, looking content to control the tempo and tenor of the match on the assumption that toothless Villa would, eventually, roll over for us. 

In that 34th minute, when Özil found Monreal with a superb through-ball, which Monreal curled across the top of the box, past Giroud, to Wilshere, we finally sliced them open. However, it was a bit fortunate as Wilshere scuffed his shot, getting just enough on it to slip past Guzan. Then, on the ensuing kick-off, Wilshere dispossessed Delph, lofted a cross into the box, and Giroud, who benefitted from a generous bounce of his own knee, put a sharper shot back across goal through the defender's leg and past the outstretched fingers of Guzan. From there, it looked like the rout was on—two goals in 60 seconds seemed to have crushed what remained of Villa's spirit, and the way we've played defense this season should have been enough to suggest that we'd not only keep a clean-sheet but perhaps find a third or fourth goal.  However, neither would come to pass, and we're a bit fortunate to have escaped with three points.

However, we only mustered eight shots, four on target, and were actually outshot by Villa, who took eleven shots with five on target—a number of which could just as easily gone in. Whereas we dominated that first half to the tune of two goals and 71% possession, the second half was another story. Our possession for the half actually dropped to about 55%as Guzan and others simply kicked the ball as far as they could, hoping something would stick. Our defenders ended the night with 54 clearances between them, an indication of how often those long balls went in vain. It's ironic then that Villa's goal came, not through such hump-and-hope tactics so much as through an individual error from someone usually quite adept with the ball at his feet. Santi Cazorla, under a bit of pressure on the sideline, gave the ball away carelessly, leading to a cross that Benteke, with a superb diving header, scored his first goal since September. 

That once-unassailable lead and vaunted defense suddenly looked brittle. Ironically, despite my suggestion that we concede possession to draw Villa forward, rather than pinning them back, we became the ones who looked to be pinned back for long stretches after that, as the threat of Benteke latching onto another long-ball proved too real to ignore. Indeed, he had a few headed-shots in but did little else to trouble Szczesny. We were perhaps guilty of dropping back a bit too much to defend, a strategy that often backfires as it lets the air out of the team's momentum and concedes the initiative to the opponent. You take your foot off the gas and, of course, slow down mentally and physically. It's possible that the manner of our scoring twice in such quick succession convinced us that our opponents would die a slow death and we could sit back to watch it happen.

Instead, it was just a flesh-wound, and the damned Villans kept coming back. We gifted them an opening and were fortunate to stanch the bleeding at our end.

Speaking of blood, Monreal had to come off with what may be a broken metatarsal (middle of the foot) and Rosický had to come off after having his nose bent sideways, courtesy of a wild elbow from Agbonlahor. Monreal's might be the more urgent, given our relative thinness at left-back and the nature of the injury. Our midfield is rather crowded, so much so that Podolski seemed visibly irritated that Oxlade-Chamberlain subbed in for Rosický, but it was a move that makes sense—we needed who could help with possession and play comfortably on the right. Podolski is more of an attacker on the left, but his dissatisfaction reinforces rumors that Arsène's confidence in or patience with him is thinning. We'll have to keep an eye on that situation to see what develops. 

It's a bit of an awkward situation, but winning helps to gloss such issues over, at least a little better than does losing, and so too does sitting top of the table, which is where we find ourselves for another week or so. We may even have a chance to pull away from the pack over the next few weeks if we can take advantage of our softer schedule while those rivals slip a bit. We'll have to check on Monreal's foot, Rosický's nose, and Podolski's pride, of course, as we prepare for Fulham on Saturday, but we'll have a few players coming back as well.

Still top of the table. 

12 January 2014

Will Arsenal tour the US this summer?

According to a report in The Daily Mail (click here to view the article), it is possible that Arsenal could tour the US this coming summer. It would be a departure of sorts from the wildly successful 2013 Asia Tour, which saw fans throng the streets and pack stadiums in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Japan to watch the Gunners romp through a few friendly matches, including one against Nagoya Grampus Eight, the club Arsène managed before taking the reins at Arsenal.

Toyota Park, home to the Chicago Fire
There has been talk of a US tour in the past, but it's been a move that Arsène has resisted—in fact, Arsenal is one of the last major Premier League clubs to go on a summer tour; its first-ever was in 2011, as Arsène has preferred to keep the club closer to home to train for the upcoming Prem season. However, with owner Stan Kroenke exerting more influence and pressure, it seems that the financial rewards of the tour finally trumped Arsène's concerns about fitness and fatigue. After three summer trips to Asia, it's possible that the club could look across the pond to tour the United States, a move that would make a good deal of sense coming on the heels of NBC's $250 million deal to get the broadcast-rights to air all Premier matches for the next three years.

Should the club commit to the trip, it presents perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Americans to see the Gunners first-hand without making a trip to London. Which cities would the club visit? They'd certainly stop in New York City, home to the Red Bulls and Thierry Henry. While there, they'd almost certainly make a swing up to Boston. It would be a cute way to tweak the nose of Boston-based John Henry (principal owner of Liverpool), if nothing else. However, beyond that, what happens next? They could hardly afford to ignore Chicago, the third-largest media market in the US.

Of course, this is all predicated on the idea that Arsenal will actually come to the US in the first place. It's a World Cup year, of course, and players will be wary of anything that might distract them from their commitments to their respective national teams. Arsène himself, speaking before the 2010 World Cup, was dead-set against the idea of a US tour, saying, that such a tour "doesn't prepare the players properly, it's not possible to take players who are just back from World Cups or European Championships, and the Champions League qualifiers might be vital to the season." That's a valid point, even if an American tour is just a hop, skip, and jump from Brazil. Take, for example, how much slower Santi Cazorla has been after his 2013 summer tour with the Spanish national team. Given that France, England, Spain, and Germany have all qualified, any Arsenal tour would likely not include key players—shorn of the likes of Gibbs, Monreal, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Sagna, Cazorla, Wilshere, Özil, Podolski, Giroud, Ox, and Walcott, would it be worth the price of admission? Sure, we could still see Szczesny, Rosicky, Gnabry (maybe), and Arteta, among others, along with youngsters such as Akpom, Zelalem, Jenkinson, Bellerin, and Eisfeld, but they don't quite inspire the same goose-bumps or heart-flutters—yet.

While such a squad might suffer for marquee-names, seeing Gunners of almost any vintage grace Soldier Field or Toyota Park would be a glorious experience indeed, especially for those of us who may never get a chance to visit Ashburton Grove.  Even if we don't get to see Wilshere or Ramsey or Özil in the flesh, who knows? We could just see the emergence of the next club legend bathing himself in glory against the Chicago Fire or an American "Dream Team". I don't know how things are going at Small Bar on Chicago's West Side , but, judging by the attendance and enthusiasm for matches at The Globe on Chicago's North Side, Arsenal would do well to make an appearance here in Chicago. I just pray that Arsène and Kroenke see it the same way I do...

Aston Villa-Arsenal Match Preview: Parking the Bus vs. Getting Pinned Back

Revenge. Justice. Karma. Call it what you will. Our trip to Villa Park gives us a chance to get back at the Villans for spoiling the party. Before that infamous loss on opening day, we had gone unbeaten since 23 February, a run of thirteen matches that saw us overtake Tottenham to reclaim a place in this year's Champions League. Since losing to Aston Villa, we've been on an almost-as-impressive run, ending fourteen of twenty match-days in first place. We currently sit third thanks in part to having to wait until Monday to play, but our chances of reclaiming that position look good.

What? I should spend a little bit more?
We certainly shouldn't underestimate Villa, but the facts make it hard to resist—they've scored only seven goals at home while conceding twice that number, winning just twice from ten matches. Along the way, they've conceded first in seven of their last ten home-matches. They suffered a bit of a shock-loss in the FA Cup on Wednesday, losing to League One's Sheffield United, who themselves are struggling to stay out of the drop-zone.

With facts like these in mind, it would tempting to look forward to running away with the game. However, between Aston Villa's need to keep a point and an injury-sheet almost as long as our own, I'd imagine we'll see a lot of deep defending as Villa simply park that bus and hope to withstand our pressure. The trap that we might then set for ourselves is to apply non-stop pressure, trying to pick apart a defense that might look to keep ten men behind the ball. We saw it with Chelsea, and we saw it again with Cardiff. The trap that we'd set would be to pin Villa back through constant pressure, dominating possession and forcing Villa to defend with ten men. This would play right into their hands. Even if they do attempt the occasional counter-attack, it would likely be with Benteke and perhaps Agbonlahor (if he's available) while the rest hang back and hope for the best.

Therefore, it might be in our interests to concede possession from time to time to draw the Villans forward—why not give them the ball in their defensive third? Instead of pressing up the pitch right away, giving them a chance to explore would lure them out, giving us more room to work in behind. It worked to devastating effect against Tottenham (not that anyone is accusing them of setting up to defend) when Sagna found Gnabry on a counter, and he sluiced through a disorganized defense to find Cazorla wide open for that first goal. Similarly, once we did manage to score against Cardiff (87 minutes in, mind you), the second goal came in part because Cardiff were forced into moving up the pitch to find an equalizer.

After all, what's the point of possession if it's not generating chances? Yes, keeping the ball away from the opponent is a form of defending, but we've played plenty of matches in which we've dominated possession but ended up with fewer shots on goal than our opponents. Instead of playing into Villa's hands by passing around while nine or ten defenders shuffle-step side to side to clog the box, gift them the ball and drop back to see if they'll take the bait. Once we have them on the hook, we can pour forward and punish them. It is, after all, how Giroud scored five minutes into the opener—Rosický found the Ox sprinting down the wing, and Ox crossed to Giroud. Those last two are back from injury, although Ox may not make an appearance after playing for the U21s midweek.

At any rate, I do think we'll set things right with a win today, whether Arsène sees fit to follow my advice or go his own way. I rather suspect the latter, but we'll see.

My call: Aston Villa 0-2 Arsenal, with goals from Giroud and Ramsey.