01 February 2014

Signing the already-injured Källström: a cosmic theory posited

Upon learning that new signee Kim Källström injured his back at some point during Spartak's tour of Abu Dhabi, the reactions were all too predictable, ranging from a dejected shrug of the shoulders to muttered curses and even the stray calls of "Wenger out!"

It was only after pondering the last dribbles of his fifth pint (or was it his sixth?) that long-time Gooner John Manning made a stunning discovery, the kind that threatened to upend the footballing world, not to mention the nature of space, time, and matter as well.

"He's...a...new...signing..." muttered John Manning. "He's injured?  Källström...is...injured...out six matches..." Others watched Manning, as he seemed to lose himself in thought. Just as their attention turned back to the wide-screen behind the bar, the sudden sound of shattering glass seized their attentions anew. Turning back to Manning, they were taken aback to see a man, once slumped dejectedly at the end of the bar, leaping up, disregarding the shards of glass that lay or the puddle of beer at his feet.

"Arsene's unlocked it! He finally unlocked the secret!" raved Manning.

"What are you on about, mate?" asked a bemused Sally as she wiped down the bar. "'Ave I given you one too many?"

"Ssh! Listen. I need a minute." Manning rubbed his forehead, searching for the words. "This Källström guy, he's injured, right?"

"Yeah, so what else is new? Sally retorted.

"So, he'll miss a few matches, then, won't he?"

"Pfft. A right genius, this one is, eh, Sal?" Darren snorted.

"Easy, Darren, dear. Give 'im a minute," said Sally, accustomed to defusing a scrum before it began.

"Right," Manning continued. "It's like this, see? He's a new signing. He's injured. When he comes back from injury—presto!—it's exponential, this Källström guy."

"Um, what? Fella, you really are arseholed."

"Darren, just—just hear me out on this, okay? I think I'm onto something big here."

"That's what she said."

"Classy, Sally. Seriously. Listen. Källström is a new Gunner. He's injured, which makes him perfect for the squad. So, when he comes back, he'll be a new signing who's like a new signing. It's, like, a new signing squared!"

"What the 'ell are you talking about?" demanded Darren.

"Easy there, luv, give 'im time."

"Thanks, Sally. Hear me out here. This is big. I—"

"That's what she—"

"That's enough out of you, moppet. Listen, now. This is some kind of like, fusion energy we're looking at. Arsene's found a new player who's injured, see, and when he comes back, right, he's both a new signing and 'like a new signing,' dontcha see? He's unleashing some new kind of cosmic force on the Prem! He's the best of both worlds!"

"Riiiiiiight. Just like a shot of whiskey and a beer-chaser are the best—whoa." Sally steadied herself by planting her palms to the bar. "Do you mean to tell me that this Kallstrom guy—"

"Källström. It's Swedish, so you say it 'SHALL-strum.' See, the umlauts, they—"

"Shut it, Darren. 'Round here, it ain't Ca-Th-orla, it's Ca-zzz-orla. Not OH-zeel. Ur-zel. So you can take your shall-strum and put it up yer bum. Call-strom. Say it with me. Callll—"

"You can cram it with walnuts, the both of ya. Mark my words. When this Källström finally gets to the pitch, he's gonna help us lay waste to other teams. Have you seen his assists for Sweden? Have you? I'm telling you, this is some Stephen Hawkings level shite I'm trying to explain to you! You do know that the Nobel Prize is from Sweden, don't you? Källström's Swedish. All the pieces fit. Swedish. New signing returns from injury equals 'like a new signing.' Boom!"

With that final outburst, Manning slumped back down to the bar, apparently exhausted by the weight and depth of his intellectual discovery—that, or the half-dozen pints that had inspired the discovery in the first place.

Darren turned back to the telly and Sally poured him another pint.

Thanks to @arsenalcorner and @sallybroome for their participation in this little charade. If you're the twittering type, give each of them a follow. 'Til next time...

Crystal Palace Preview: A chance for Bendtner to score against all three promoted clubs

Despite the despair many of us probably feel at a transfer-window that was, again and as always, more sound and fury, more motion and less action, we emerge arguably a bit stronger than we were. For all of the fuss around Draxler, it was highly unlikely that he’d be the season’s savior. If anything, he’s a target for the long-term. In the here and now, it’s worth reminding ourselves that he’s 20, full of potential, and, at the moment, another midfielder. As such, he’d join the most-crowded section of our squad rather than bolster an area we really wanted to address more urgently.

Still, I can’t help but wonder why Arsene left it so late when a lower-profile move earlier in the window, though less-scintillating than a Draxleresque signing, might have made more of a difference going forward. Dimitir Berbatov, for example, completed a loan-move to Monaco, which shows that such a move might have been possible for us had we desired it. Even Arsene has to realize that Giroud can’t continue to go it alone—and that the support he gets, such as it is, from Bendtner and Sanogo (cough)—is not enough to inspire much confidence. Still, the title-race is all but unchanged as neither Man City, Chelsea, or Liverpool completed significant moves of their own.

A club that did make a number of moves would be Crystal Palace, whom we’ll host Sunday. We may not see winger Tom Ince (loaned from Blackpool) or midfielder Joe Ledley (signed from Celtic), but Tony Pulis, whom I’m sure all Gooners hold close to their hearts, has already revived the Eagles’ fortunes, dragging them up from the drop-zone thanks to five wins in their last ten Prem matches. Say what you will about Pulis’s Neanderthalian approach to football. The man keeps teams from relegation, and he might just the first manager in living memory to keep Palace in the Prem two years in a row. Whereas Palace flirted with different formations throughout the first half of the season, they seem to have more or less settled on a standard 4-4-2 that allows their defensive midfield pivot to shield the defense more effectively while also creating a somewhat more unified link from defense to offense, and it’s starting
to show in the results.

We might therefore look to this as a visit from Stoke as we look to the match. Of course, Palace can throw on a Shawcross, nor is their keeper quite on a level with Begovic, but the players Pulis does have are starting to show the kind of stubborn, if not stalwart, defense that is his stock in trade. As such, it could be a frustrating affair as we dominate possession against a side that will likely defend deep and in numbers. I’m thinking of the Cardiff match as a proxy for this one, although our attack was also off-kilter because Podolski had to play through the middle. They’ll be a tough nut to crack, but it might also be our last best chance to rest a player like Giroud ahead of the string of fixtures that loom. Bendtner, then, might get the start, with Cazorla, Ozil, and Gnabry behind him. In the defensive midfield, without Ramsey or Flamini available, I hope we’ll see Rosicky play alongside Arteta—Rosicky’s ability to press up the pitch and drive the ball upfield would be a welcome change from the more-static pairing of Arteta and Flamini against Southampton. We could see a run-out for Kim Källström, but that seems unlikely. Behind them would be Gibbs, Koscielny, Mertesacker, and Jenkinson with Szczesny between the sticks.

It looks like it will be a bit ragged as we probe for openings, but I think the draw with Southampton lends us deeper urgency as this is the last fixture in a while from which we should definitely grab all three points. We can hope for a tie between Chelsea and City—please, Mou-mou, play not to lose! Whatever happens there, however, we simply have to take care of our own business at home. I see goals from Bendtner (to complete a trifecta of goals against promoted clubs) and from Cazorla as he continues his fine run of scoring in a 2-0 win.

Make your predictions in the comments below—who scores, scoreline, Man of the Match?

And so we come full circle...

I started this blog a year ago to the day, that is, to the close of the 2013 winter transfer-window. At the time, I was so outraged at the deadline-day signing of Nacho Monreal, a move planned for the following summer but desperately fast-tracked due to an injury to Kieran Gibbs, that I started this blog. I've followed Arsenal for the better part of the last 32 years, but it never occurred to me to share my feelings or opinions with anyone else until that day.

I might despair, but I'm not as bad as this wanker.
On 1 February 2013, this post got me started. Now, 364 days and 506 blog-posts later, how much has changed? Well, for one, we're left with a less-than-satisfying transfer-window. Kim Källström looks to be by all accounts a fine, even inspiring man off the pitch even if he isn't the kind of player who inspires fans to swoon at his on-field exploits. Don't get me wrong. He looks to be a shrewd addition to the squad. However, I am probably preaching to the choir when I wonder why our only move of the window was for yet another midfielder—even if, in the short term, we're a bit short-handed after Ramsey's injury and Flamini's three-game suspension. As with that first, year-old diatribe, I'm left wondering if we would have made any moves had Ramsey's injury, like Gibbs's, hadn't forced Arsène's hand, or if Flamini hadn't gone gonzo enough to see red.

Like many of you, I'd imagine, I'm frustrated. We have a few needs, among them another striker, center-back, perhaps even right-back. On paper, our starting can win the Prem. We've been top of the table after 17 of 23 matches, 17 of the last 19 matches. Among the title-contenders, we still sport best away-record, far and away. Even if our home-record suffers a bit for the comparison, we're a model of consistency, and our chief rivals suffer from flaws of their own. Man City, for example, might blitz opponents at the Etihad, and that goal-differential could come in handy mid-May. However, send them anywhere else, and they're merely pretty good. That, more than goal-differential, will matter a great deal going forward. Chelsea, for all of their depth, struggle to generate goals. Yes, I know that they've scored 45 goals, just two less than we have, but total goals isn't the issue. Seven times, Chelsea has failed to score more than one goal, with five of those ending in clean sheets. At the other end, they've scored three or more goals four times, meaning that 17 of those 45 goals have come in those four games. It's a bit of feast or famine for them, something that the Specious One failed to address and may just have exacerbated by sending Juan Mata to Old Trafford.

Therefore, as we take stock, let's remind ourselves that the expectations we built up were a bit unrealistic. I, for one, have been guilty of succumbing to the Draxler-mania, beguiled by his talent, although it's largely unproven. He's 20. He may become something special, but it's unlikely that he'd become the club's talisman. In fact, for as tepid as the Källström signing might feel by comparison, his experience might be more vital to the run-in than Draxler's more-mercurial elements. Anyone else we might have signed or brought in via loan, whether it was Berbatov or Vucinic or Kalou, would have helped. Certainly. How much is another question. Bendtner can deputize here and there, such as Sunday against Crystal Palace, and—dare I breathe his name?—Sanogo could make a cameo here and there to relieve Giroud of the Atlas-sized burden he's shouldered since the beginning of this campaign.

It's easy to get pessimistic. After all, we signed Özil and expectations soared. We've sat top of the table for so long, but now, symbolically if not strategically, we're not. Talk of the Draxler signing has droned on and on for weeks. The Puma deal stoked our expectations even further. To then see the transfer-window close so anti-climactally (with apologies to Källström) is bound to feel, well, deflating. However, that doesn't equal defeating.

Look. This same squad—without Flamini or Özil—went on a famous run to close out the 2012-13 campaign. Just when everyone had written us off after the defeats to Tottenham and Bayern, the lads showed their mettle time and time again, refusing to lose, finding goals and claiming points no matter the venue or the stakes. No, we haven't made any dramatic signings. That's bound to feel a bit dispiriting, especially after we had let our hopes soar so high.

Despite the contrast between those hopes and the reality, though, the reality still looks pretty damned good. It may not glitter quite as bright as it would through the signing of a player or two, but it's still a pretty damned-good squad with more spirit it than we sometimes acknowledge. Say what you will about buying individual players; at Arsenal, players are asked to buy into a system and a philosophy. Those who aren't quite willing to pay the price, be they Marouane or Sebastien or Robin, move on. When putting together a squad, a manager must ask himself, "will the sum be greater than the parts?" In this case, we have little choice but to hope that the answer will be "yes."

31 January 2014

A familiar, sinking feeling...

No offense to Kim Kallstrom, who appears to be on his way to join Arsenal, but it's hard to resist a certain, sinking feeling as the transfer-news trickles in. Apparently, even Osvaldo's apparent move from Southampton to Juventus is not enough to prompt Mirko Juvinic to consider leaving for Arsenal, despite the fact that Osvaldo's move means there are now five strikers contending for two spots in a lineup that Juvinic was struggling to break into before Osvaldo arrived. In other dispiriting news, it looks as if a deal for Draxler is all but dead in the water with Arsene himself reportedly refusing to agree to the £37m transfer fee in the player's contract, believing this to be too much for an (admittedly) unproven player who is vast in talent but short in experience.

Be that as it may, most of the opprobrium heaped on Arsene has focused on his spendthrift ways, which in many ways is penny-wise and pound-foolish. If we aren't all in for Draxler and hesitate to spend £37m on him now, yes, this reflects a certain amount of economic wisdom. Simply put, we can't lavish that kind of cash on a player with the same kind of abandon that Chelsea, City, and even Man U can. However, refusing to pay what he's worth now is only likely to backfire as other clubs, circling like sharks in the water, will sense the blood that's left from wounds we've inflicted on ourselves through our apparent failure to secure Draxler's services now. Come summer, his stock will almost certainly rise, and what was once £37m will seem like a pittance compared to what he might command in a more-open market.

However, rather than nickel and dime ourselves to here, worrying about the finances, I'm worried about the larger issue—an apparent lack of faith in one's own philosophy. Here we have just the kind of player Arsene loves to sign—young, crafty, gifted on the ball and capable of playing almost anywhere in the midfield, ready and eager to expand his game under the manager's guidance—and, Arsene, renowned or reviled for his ability to find young talent and make them into superstars, is balking at the finish line rather than sealing the deal. Of course, it comes down to the economics again, but this time around, Arsene seems simply unwilling to put his money where his mouth is, and this suggests a lack of confidence in his own ability. Gone, by and large, are the days when he could pluck some undiscovered talent from some backwater, third-tier league and convert the starlet into the world's next superstar. Every other team in Europe has legions of scouts; each up-and-coming player has his highlights all over youtube. Ten years ago, before Abramovich and others got involved, a player like Draxler could be signed for—£8? £10?—but the spiraling salaries and the inflated demand created by Abramovich and others means that the price has risen many times over.

Being philosophically opposed to competing in that market is all well and good—but why, then, announce the Puma deal five days before the transfer-window is to shut? What message does Schalke or any other club read into that other than "Arsenal now have £150m more than they had last week"? Why should they negotiate themselves down with a club whose entire market value is only slightly larger than that sponsorship? Nope. We've made that bed, and now we have to lie in it.

Just as worrisome is that we're now casting about without apparent aim or direction. As much as I hope that we're seeing Wenger's Law of Inverse Relationships at work, we're all of a sudden making inquiries and bids left and right. Kallstrom came from out of nowhere, we're now apparently after Salomon Kalou, back in for Berbatov, continue to chase Tello, and...and...I don't know.

Of course, there are several hours left to go—two as I write. I just hope they bring me ample reason to apologize and eat my words.

[parody] Arsenal sign Draxler, Benzema, Pogba, Rooney, Casillas, and everyone else linked to the club

LONDON—In a shock-move that just might add Arsenal to a list of clubs vying for the Prem title, manager Arsène Wenger stunned assembled reporters by announcing that the club had once again smashed its transfer-fee record, not once, not twice, but a whopping thirteen times. That's not thirteen times £42m, the fee paid for midfielder Mesut Özil, but thirteen separate times as Arsenal have managed to sign just about every player linked with a move to the London club over the last few months.

Speaking to the press, Wenger suggested that "it was a little bit difficult to make all the, uh, necessary arrangements because you have all the three sides who have to agree, the club who wish to buy, the player, and the club he plays for at the moment. Are we pleased? Yes, each player bring a little bit of quality to the club."

Of which players does he speak? First and foremost, perhaps the most-stunning swoop brings none other than Manchester United's Wayne Rooney to London for a fee of £617m, a stunning number even in comparison to some of the fees commanded over the summer for the likes of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid, Neymar to Barcelona, and seven stiffs combined to Tottenham.

However, the news did not end there, as the signings continued—next was Karim Benzema for £471m. Then it was Paul Pogba for £523m. Papadopoulos for £381m. And on and on. Eventually, reporters gave up on trying to keep track of which players had been signed at what amounts and simply watched in slack-jawed amazement.

Seeing that there were no questions forthcoming, Wenger proceeded to interview himself."Have I been active in the transfer market? Yes. Are we now contenders? Maybe. I don't rule it out. We will have to see how these new players fit with Arsenal football, how they adjust." He continued. "Will there be more signings? I don't want to comment on speculation. You bring me wrong informations, I think I deserve a little bit more credit than this."

Wenger went on to announce a total of 13 signings for a grand total of £5,460,000,000, eclipsing the club's previous transfer fee-record of £42,000,000. By a factor of of 130. Seeing or hearing no questions from the press corps, Wenger continued the self-interview. "Have I gone a little bit overboard. I cannot disclose this information. Am I pleased at these new signings? I don't know. It is too early for that."

Finally, one reporter found his wits long enough to ask, "are you worried about where these new players will fit into the squad?" Wenger smirked and replied, "each of them brings exceptional quality, but we will have to wait and see."

"Do these signings make us title contenders? I don't know. I believe it is too early to talk of these things. First we must play Crystal Palace. Then we will see."

At that, Wenger took the mic in his hand, said "Wenger out", dropped the mic to the ground, and with arms outstretched departed the stage. Reporters glanced and gaped at each other. Within hours, The Sun, The Mirror, The Telegraph, and The Independent were running virtually the same headline: "Arsenal make signings, but are they contenders?"

30 January 2014

Chelsea's vaunted catenaccio claims another point!

Some call it boring football.

Still others deride it as "parking the bus."

However, after yet another gritty, defensive display, even the critics will have to concede a point—and that's more than what Chelsea's defense will be conceding any time soon. Zing! Now, where were we? Ah, yes, Chelsea's critics. They wring their hands and knit their brows, worrying that this stout, impregnable fortress that is Chelsea's backline, is bad for football. Football already suffers from a dearth of goals, they say. We need goals galore, they whinge.

While I, for one, say, enough of such whimpering. After the tenacious, bend-but-not-break display that Chelsea put on against their previously indomitable foes on Wednesday, refusing to concede despite a facing relentless, voracious onslaught from the Hammers—why, it was like the Battle of Helm's Deep, what with Sam Allardyce as the debased, power-mad Saruman goading his Uruk-Haimmers onto war, proclaiming, "A new power is rising; its victory is at hand. This night the land will be stained with the blood of Rohan Blues. March to Helm's deep Stamford Bridge. Leave none alive. To war! There will be no dawn for man Mou." Yes, as wave upon wave of blood-crazed Hammers poured forward, they crashed vainly against the resolute wall of outmanned, outspent (?), and overmatched Chelsea, who repelled each attack with vigor, courage, and pride, until the dispirited rabble, gormless and clapper-clawed, sulked back to their lair.

Triumphantly then did the proud Blues, battered but unbowed, defend their realm, proudly denying their ill-bred nemeses any more than a point. It was a stirring display, one that will be handed down through the ages as a tremendous moral and strategic victory. Soon will the names Mourinho and Terry and Ramires tickle the tongues of the land's greatest bards, and, when lo the years have passed will we feel a tremor in our hearts at the sounding of those names.

Yes, verily, the Blues may have been outgunned by their more illustrious counterparts. They may even have been outnumbered. In the fog of war, such details elude the grasp. More important than such trivial details, though, beyond what can be fathomed or measured through mere numbers, is the heart of a side that refused to go down to ignoble victory. Nay, says Mourinho, for, in his own words, "[i]t's very difficult to play a football match when only one team wants to play. A football match is about two teams playing". Truer words were never spoken. Call it boring, if you will, when one team decides to resist overwhelming odds in order to defend its castle. Call it that if you will, for you would be sore mistaken. This was a stirring display of defensive integrity—nothing more, nothing less.

"The Stalemate at Stamford," they'll anoint it, and such a name it is. Its hallowed memories shall be venerated along with other battles of old—Tilbury, 1588. The Somme, 1916. Waterloo, 1815. Salamanca, 1812. And now, Stamford, 2014.

Oh—wait. Did I say "West Ham"?

29 January 2014

Could we sign Draxler—and get Vucinic and Tello on loan?

As the transfer-window rushes headlong to a close, the rumors are flying in all directions faster than a blind short-order cook with ADHD on crack can fling burgers. Everywhere one turns, it seems, there's a new story out about who's linked with who. Even as we adopt an attitude of healthy skepticism, it's hard to resist the pervasiveness of one rumor and the more-recent appearance of two new ones—all three of them tantalizing, even if only one of them directly addresses our needs up top. To wit then, and in apparent order of interest, I submit to you a round-up of the three musketeers...

Cristian Tello, Barcelona

  • Age: 22
  • Height: 178cm
  • Weight: 65kg
  • Position(s): forward (left/right); attacking midfield (left/right).
  • Strengths: holding on to the ball, through balls, key passes, dribbling.
  • Weaknesses: aerial duels, defensive contributions
  • Odds: betvictor puts us at 4/1, behind Liverpool's 1/5.
The case for him: Simply put him, he's fighting for playing time in a crowded area, with only two starts to his name. Ahead of him in the pecking order at Barcelona are no fewer than six other players, depending on how Barca lines up: Messi, Pedro, Sanchez, Iniesta, Neymar, and Fabregas. He's clearly become extraneous to manager Gerardo Martino despite doing quite well when given a chance. His best appearances have come in the Copa del Rey, where he's had three starts, played all 90', and notched a hat-trick and an assist in each of the other two matches. Not too shabby. He's young enough to probably want more playing time; he's been with the club long enough to have won silverware from the bench, and his familiarity with Barca's style would help him adjust to Arsenal's similarly fluid attacking style.

The case against him: he's essentially another crafty midfielder, standing similar in height to Wilshere or Walcott, and, while it's interesting to ponder the idea of a starting XI that consists of crafty little midfielders who can dart around, passing and dribbling and whatnot, at some point, we're arguably in fine shape in that area even with various knocks and niggles. This is not to say that I oppose a loan. As the only move of the window, I'd be sorely disappointed. The attacking midfield is easily among the lowest priorities that we have to address, after (in my opinion) striker, right-back, defensive midfield, and perhaps center-back. He's cup-tied, for what that's worth, having played (and scored) against in the second leg against Celtic back in the Champions League group-stage.

Long story short: Why not? A loan would cost next to nothing and would add some reinforcements over the course of the season. And, hey, if it turned into a longer-term arrangement, that's fine with me as well. We've been after him for a few years now and could probably sign him for £10m or so.

Mirko Vucinic, Juventus
  • Age: 30
  • Height: 186cm
  • Weight: 76kg
  • Position(s): attacking midfield (left), forward
  • Strengths: through balls, key passes.
  • Weaknesses: holding on to the ball.
  • Odds: no betting odds. transfermarkt.co.uk rates a move to Arsenal at 39%.
The case for him: Like Tello, we'd be looking at loaning him in, so the financials are minimal to nonexistent. When he's on his game, he can be a prolific scorer, a man with a nose for goal. Like Tello, he's been marginalized by other, higher-priced and perhaps more-consistent and prolific scorers. In Vucinic's case, this would include Llorente, Tevez, and Quagliarella. Even in a 3-5-2 system (two forwards), Vucinic has struggled to find time on the pitch and would welcome a move that would give him more playing time. He brings a bit more height to the pitch and could therefore fill in as needed as a striker for Giroud. That's an attractive possibility as it does more-directly address one of our pressing short-term needs.

The case against him: He strikes me, at best, as a short-term stop-gap. Whereas a loan for Tello—young, hungry, talented—feels forward-thinking, even aggressive, a loan for Vucinic feels a bit flimsy or paltry. I feel like we'd be better-off grooming Podolski for a striker's role. Vucinic is cup-tied, having played a grand total of 35 minutes in the Champions League. He's apparently a bit of a loose cannon, prone to occasional lapses of concentration or temper. While he's earned a reputation for scoring vital goals, he's also been criticized for failing to score as often as he could or should, disappearing or fading when his club might otherwise look to him for a goal. That, and the fact that he can't seem to crack the lineup at Juventus, despite being one of four forwards in a two-forward lineup, suggests that his best days might be behind him. 

Long story short: Meh. Who am I to oppose a loan that might help us to address a pressing need? He might just go on to prove me wrong, reclaiming the form that drew Juventus's interest in the first place. He's had a few seasons of 12-15 goals; maybe a move would do him good. For all I know, the loan's already gone through. 

Julian Draxler
  • Age: 20
  • Height: 1865cm
  • Weight: 74kg
  • Position(s): attacking midfield (center/left)
  • Strengths: dribbling, aerial duels, long shots, finishing, through balls.
  • Weaknesses: none.
  • Odds: Betfred offers 1/5; Betvictor offers 1/10. transfermarkt.co.uk rates a move to Arsenal at 38%.
The case for him: Do I really have to state the facts? A quick run-down. Versatile. Dazzling. Already pressing for more international caps in a crowded German midfield. The rumors around Draxler coming to Arsenal have made for one of the hottest stories of the winter window. It's even been rumored that we were more after him than we were for Özil. There have been comparisons to Bergkamp and to Henry, not in the sense of legends of course but in the sense of players whom Arsène might convert from a wide position to a more-central one. We've been salivating over him for some time now, and rightly so. In the short term, he could add depth and attacking verve to a midfield that is sometimes long on clever passes but too often short on finishing, whether in the air, from distance, or off the dribble. In the long term, he could become the kind of versatile striker who can both contribute to the build-up as Giroud does while also shifting more fluidly with the attacking midfielders.

The case against him: Hard to conjure, really, unless one is worried about spending big in two consecutive windows. His ruptured tendon is a concern, of course, but it's been suggested that he might return in a week or two. This update might make a move for him even more urgent when we consider the various injuries to players like Ramsey, Wilshere, and Rosicky. It appears that I've run out of points to raise against him and am now transitioning back to the case for him. So it goes.

Long story short: Yes, please. He ticks a number of boxes, and the only legitimate complaint I could summon is the cost. However, he's said himself that he's keen on a move to Arsenal, and if we wait until summer, that £37m fee would only balloon as other clubs get interested. There's been talk of packaging Podolski or Fabianski along with the fee, but it's hard to get too worked up about funding in the week that we announced a record-setting deal with Puma (even though that money's not officially available until summer).

We go into a fiendishly difficult stretch of matches once we get past Crystal Palace on Saturday. I don't want to look past Crystal Palace. We saw how Chelsea—try to keep the schadenfreude under wraps—stumbled a draw. At home. To West Ham. West Ham. In other words, we can't risk underestimating or looking past anyone to assess future fixtures. In the meantime, then, we'll just have to see how the next few days pan out.

'Til next time...

Southampton 2-2 Arsenal: Point taken

If you had told me at the end of the first half that we'd keep a point from our trip to St. Mary's Stadium, I'd have taken it.

If you had told me 21 minutes into the first half that we'd keep a point, I'd have gladly taken it.

Hell, if you had told me 11 minutes into the first half that we'd keep a point, I might have leapt at it even then.

That's how thoroughly we were outplayed for those first 45 minutes. Part of this reflects how poor we were, but it also reminds us of how good Southampton is—or can be, at least. They're not nearly as bad as their position on the table suggests, and 9th, up from 14th a year ago, up from the Championship the year before that, is impressive. Are they as good as 3rd, where they say five weeks in and just before their trip to the Emirates? No, but this is a club that has, after all, drawn Man City, won at Anfield, and drawn at Old Trafford. They're no shrinking violets, and the points dropped, for as tragic as they may feel given that Man City and Chelsea most likely will in on Wednesday, are still not enough to cripple our title hopes. Things get a bit more challenging, for sure, but the firmament hasn't yet crumbled, nor have Chelsea or City actually won—yet.

They may. Most likely, they will. However, let's continue to look on the bright side, shall we? We played one of the worst 45 minutes of football in almost 12 months and still very nearly came away with three points from one of the Prem's most-dangerous sides. Thanks to injuries, we were forced to play one of our least-aggressive and most static defensive midfields with Arteta and Flamini, neither of whom is comfortable with (or good at) pressing forward, and this left a gap between them and the attacking midfield. Worse, Monreal had a stinker of a game, perhaps because Rodriguez had space to pour forward past Cazorla. Sagna fared little better, as Lallana ran riot down the opposite flank because Gnabry wasn't tracking back effectively either. Were it not for Szczesny making vital saves, and were it not for a seven-minute stretch after halftime during which we managed to score, we might have come away on the wrong end of a clean sheet, maybe even a drubbing.

There were times in that first half when it looked and felt like we might go down two or even three goals. We barely brought the ball past midfield until the 12-minute mark, during which time Southampton had a number of strong chances. That we emerged down 1-0 is a bit of a miracle, to be honest, and to have actually pulled ahead through goals from Giroud and Cazorla  felt even more miraculous.

However, I worry that most of the talk will focus on how we really should have won. Well, "should have" is putting it strongly. "Really wanted to" is probably more accurate, but the same can be said on Southampton's side. Should Chelsea and City go on to win Wednesday evening, yes, we'll fall to third. However, these are the first points against a lower-side since drawing with West Brom in October. I would still maintain that Southampton are far better than their position suggests. They may not finish in the top five, but I could see them climbing a few spots higher.

A draw, then, is not the tragedy some are making it out to be. Draws rarely feel very inspiring, especially when it might give our rivals an edge. More damaging to our hopes, in my opinion, is the red-card and four-game suspension for Flamini coupled with the 4-6 week injury-loss of Ramsey. It makes us dangerously thin in the defensive midfield going into a tough, tough stretch of fixtures, a stretch in which we might gladly accept a draw or two.

Before we look too much further ahead, though, let's set our sights on Crystal Palace's visit on Saturday (while hoping, however vainly, that this minor setback, along with the absences of Flamini, Ramsey, and Walcott, inspire Arsene to pull another rabbit out of his hat by Friday.

'Til next time, thanks for your visit.

Five European Top Youth Academies Worth a Visit

I'd like to introduce you to Mary Mitchell, a guest-writer for the week who brings wide-rangingexperience in online journalism. She is a freelance editor and writes for national and international websites. She likes football, international cuisine, reading and travelling. Today, she brings to us an overview of youth academies across Europe. Take it way, Mary!

Five European Top Youth Academies Worth a Visit
Youth academies are often the first stop for any player wishing to reach the top of their professional game. These academies tend to take on young players, sometimes as young as seven years old and train them up to become world-class champions. Top players, including Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerard, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, all famously progressed through youth academies before playing for their respective countries. Without any doubt, youth academies are key to the success of the national and international game, continually ensuring that more and more skilled young players succeed professionally and become positive role models within the sporting world.

For football fans, visiting an academy can be very interesting, as you may see the stars of tomorrow beginning to shine. In fact, some of these academies also offer tours, just like some stadiums. With this in mind, here is a list of 5 European clubs with excellent youth academies which we think are worth for all real football fans to visit.

Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masia, is undoubtedly one of the best-equipped in Europe sporting enviable facilities. The academy aims not only to train and improve the physical skills of young players, but also to educate and support them intellectually throughout their time there. Former pupils include the likes of Puyol, Xavi, Reina and Messi.

Recommended lodging while in Barcelona: weekly rented flats (many available in the central area for a cheap price).

Akpom by Kieran Clarke (CC BY 2.0)
The Arsenal Football Club Academy trains talented young players from around the world and helps them to reach their full potential both on and off the pitch. Celebrated graduates include England’s Ashley Cole and Jack Wilshere as well as Spain’s Cesc Fàbregas. Many former pupils go on to play for Arsenal professionally.

Recommended lodging in London is most often not needed if you are reading this blog.

Ajax Amsterdam
Ajax’s youth academy is renowned worldwide for its excellence and top levels of achievement. Considered to be the “breeding ground” of Dutch football, players learn to play with skill, flair, and intelligence. Successful club graduates include top Dutch stars Dennis Bergkamp and Marco Van Basten.

Recommended lodging: cheaphotels in Amsterdam (not as pricey as in London and higher standards).

Man City
The Man City Academy was founded in 1998 and strives to provide young talent with the necessary physical and mental training to enable them to grow and develop into top football players. England’s Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joey Barton are both renowned academy graduates who have gone on to achieve great sporting success.

Recommended lodging: camping, if you are up for it (Manchester is surrounded by beautiful open countryside with a plenty of valleys and parks, did you know it? The city itself has many gorgeous parks like the Heaton Park.)

Sporting Lisbon
The Sporting Academy is home to Sporting Lisbon’s youth squad. The academy was founded in 2002 and since then, through a programme of rigorous training and preparation, has produced a number of world-class players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo, and Manchester United’s Nani. 

Recommended lodging while in Lisbon: hostels or guesthouses (hotels are quite expensive).

Youth academies can be extremely important when it comes to building the squad. Ajax, for example, aims bringing through every two years three or more players from its academy to the first team. Why is it so? If youth academies bring up talented players, the club avoids incredibly high tranfer rates for players coming from other teams. And this spared money can be used to continue raising young talents each year. Developing players from a young age also creates strong club commitment and a better integration with the club vision. Also, playing together for a long time, helps teammates to understand each other better. That is why youth-development is fundemantal for team mentality and club loyalty.

28 January 2014

Southampton Aftermath; it's my fault, y'all.

This was all my fault.

I'll take the blame.

Lay off of Arsène or Nacho or Flamini. They did their best, especially when such cosmic forces were arrayed against them. It was me who mucked it up. I should have known better than to tempt the cruel winds of fate. See, I jinxed us. The jersey you see there to the left? That's my lucky jersey. It's a 2004-05 third kit, and every time I've ever worn it, we've won. Every single time. However, for the Southampton match, I decided to wear the yellow kit, thinking I'd match up with the lads and all. To be frank, the lucky one was getting a little gamey, and I figured it was due for a wash after Friday's match.

Little did I know that I'd cost us two points. I'm not even superstitious. Heck, I cross under ladders on purpose. I spill salt without tossing a bit over my shoulder. It's just the kind of guy I am. I live life on the edge. Escalators? I don't use the handrail. Milk? Straight from the carton, no questions asked. Expiration dates are a conspiracy to make us buy more than we really need. Besides, what's the difference between "too old" milk and "just right" yogurt? I mean, when you really get down to it.

It was with that attitude in mind that I thought I could safely launder the jersey. After all, I would still be wearing an away-kit. It's not that I underestimated Southampton. Not in the least. Sure, I predicted a 2-1 win, and, for a few minutes there, I was feeling like the smartest guy in the room (we won't go into how being alone in a room boosts one's chances of being the smartest one in it). Yep, for a solid two minutes there, I was feeling like a genius.

More to the point, I was starting to feel like I had a new lucky jersey. Ah, sweet hubris, I know you all too well. Just as I was caressing ever so gently this lustrous, yellow kit—not unlike gold, now that I think of it—along came Lallana, that ne'er-do-well, to ruin things. He is my Tiresias, the one who sees without seeing. In one blinding moment, he showed me that, to quote Tom Waits, "the higher that the monkey can climb/ the more he shows his tail." I had climbed too high, friends, and exposed myself for the fool that I am.

I've cost us two points and for what? To don a fresh, clean, jersey instead of the sodden, fraying, odorific one that, for all I know, is more responsible than Giroud or Ramsey or Koscielny or Szczesny for delivering us to the top of the table lo these many weeks. Was it a golden fleece? No, it seems not.

I've been laid low, and I've learned my lesson. I just pray that Gooners will forgive me. From this day forward, the blue third kit will be my hair-shirt. I will wear it with humility until I am forgiven. Even then, I shall continue to wear it, despite the winces and cringing of those who besmell it. It is only when I am forgiven that I may wash it, perhaps in the Thames, and only after that will I wear any other on match-day.

Bless me, Gooners, for I have sinned. I am ready for my penance.

27 January 2014

Southampton Preview: Q&A with George Weah's Cousin

Ahead of our Tuesday trip to St. Mary's Stadium, I reached out to Chris Rann, a self-described football-obsessed Southampton fan who runs the blog georgeweahscousin.com while also featuring at ESPN Southampton. He was kind enough to offer some insights into Southampton's season as well as Tuesday's clash. You can follow him on twitter at @crstig.

At any rate, I pitched him a few questions, and here's what he had to say.

  1. Southampton got off to such a strong start but seem to have faded lately. Does this seem as if the squad was overachieving and have now returned to "normal" or is there another explanation?
    RANN: I think that that is true to a certain extent, but a collection of injuries to our key defensive players coincided with a run of very difficult fixtures too, which made it tough. We have a very good first choice eleven, but often the players that come in to cover aren't quite as good. We lost that defensive stability that had us up there with the best defences in Europe and that meant a run of poor form.

  2. Arsenal may owe a debt or apology of sorts to Southampton. How might you describe the general feeling towards Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain for having left the club? I ask in part because Arsenal has similarly lost key players, with fan-reactions ranging from venomous to despairing.
    RANN: I'm not sure an apology is in order, but some gratitude would be nice. Only joking, football is cut-throat and being able to sell players like Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain kept us going while we rebuilt the club after relegation and financial meltdown. I think the general feeling to both players is good, and they will get a decent reception. We are proud of the young players that come through our academy and go on to play for England. Hopefully now we are in a position where they achieve it in a Saints shirt. Perhaps the miracle really is that we still have Lallana.

  3. Along similar lines, the January window will close at the end of the week. Do you see Southampton signing or losing anyone?
    RANN: This morning I would have said no, but with the recent Osvaldo incident, the manager has hinted that we might bring somebody in. I don't think we will lose anyone, or at least anyone that plays regularly. The club keep reiterating that nobody is for sale, but it won't stop the rumours. Decisions in football can change in an instant, so I would never say never, but unless someone offers crazy money I can't see anyone going.

  4. Southampton has been quite good at home, but Arsenal have the Prem's best away-record. How will Southampton set up—play to win or draw? (Don't worry. Arsène doesn't seem to come around here much).
    RANN: We always play to win. We have nothing to fear at home. We gave Man City a good game, and were even a little disappointed not to win. We will press from the front and put you under pressure. I think we will take some comfort from the game at the Emirates, where, although we didn't deserve anything, we weren't outplayed by any stretch. Only one team have outclassed us this season, Chelsea, sadly they did it twice.

  5. What seems to be Southampton's bigger priority--making a push for a top-five finish and European competition or winning the FA Cup?
    RANN: I can't see a top-five finish to be honest. I think we would be delighted with 9th, perhaps with some good form, make it to 8th. The FA Cup has opened up nicely with the top 4 all playing each other, and this presents a good opportunity for a club like us to make the final. I'm sure we are taking it seriously, and it would be some way to end a good season.
Some interesting food for thought there, especially playing to win. We may have beaten the Saints 2-0 in November, but I highly doubt that we can count on a Boruc howler to put them on the back-foot again. Look to Southampton to come out, as Rann has suggested, pressing up the pitch and playing an attractive, aggressive style. Even with the departure of chairman Nicola Cortese and resulting uncertainty over Pocchetino's future, I'd suggest that a 9th-place is a bit modest, and, if anything, there might be a certain circling of the wagons as players rally to support Pocchetino. 

While rumors swirl around Lallana or Shaw, they look likely to stay, and Southampton therefore can boast of a vital core of young players, including also Rodriguez and Clyne. Victor Wanyama may make a return after a seven-week lay-off due to injury, as should Boruc, but Lambert may miss out with injury-woes of his own. At our end, there are some doubts around both Wilshere and Ramsey, but we otherwise come in at close to full strength and with a full day's rest on the Saints.

Given Southampton's willingness to play a high line with an offsides-trap, along with a willingness to press up the pitch, I'd like to see Gnabry on the right-flank in order to use his pace to get in behind the defense, much as Walcott might were he available. This is far and away our toughest match of the month, and it's vital that we come out knowing that we were rather lucky to win at home against the Saints but may have to grind it out against a determined, well-drilled team.

That said, it looks to be a tense affair, but I think we can get three points with a 2-1 win. 

Odds of Draxler to Arsenal drop to 1/7; only Paddy Power taking bets

Or is it rise? Anyway, a quick scan of more than twenty betting sites shows that only Paddy Power is accepting bets on Julian Draxler moving to Arsenal with odds at 1/7, meaning that a £7 bet wins you £1—a significant change from the odds just two days ago, which stood at 1/5. This is still a far-cry from proving that Draxler is about to sign, but the tea-leaves we're reading are starting to show signs of legibility.

Maybe it's better if you just don't look.
Of course, Monday looked to have been a promising day for an announcement—we did after all know that there would be a press conference, which announced the Puma deal, a record £150m, five-year contract, and Gazidis confirming via twitter that Arsène "will be extending (his contract) with us and at right time we will make that announcement." And the good times don't stop there, as Mertesacker and Rosický have extended their contracts as well, with Mertesacker's rumored to be a three-year deal and Rosický's a rolling one-year contract. An announcement to confirm these should come in the next few days.

Still, though, no word on Draxler. I can see a few reasons for that. One, there was quite enough to announce today. Contract renewels and a new-kit sponsor (and a record-breaking one at that) is enough fodder for one day. Two, the announcement of a new contract for a player as hyped as Draxler has been might upstage that new sponsor. I tossed it over, pretending I was Puma CEO Bjoern Gulden: would I want Draxler wearing the new kit, the better to play on the euphoria, or would this detract from the branding effort? It seems to me that the headlines would focus on Draxler and mention Puma. It's enough to have shared the stage with talk of Arsène; trying to compete with a Draxler announcement could have completely stolen the show from Puma. Third, we have a match to concentrate on—a tough trip to Southampton, who will be looking for some revenge after losing in such a disappointing way back in November. Announcing that we've signed Draxler would create a flurry of distracting questions, not to mention pressure: "will he make an appearance against Southampton?" "Why isn't he playing against Southampton?" "Does this mean Podolski is on his way out?" and so on.

If there is to be a Draxler-related announcement, far better to make it separate from the Puma announcement and after the Southampton match when there will be three days before the transfer-window closes and four before facing Crystal Palace. Arsène also has a long-established habit of waiting until the last days of the transfer-window to announce signings.

As discussed a few days ago, betting sites work on a principle nearly opposite that of tabloids. Tabloids make their money by breathlessly and repeatedly announcing any rumors they can dream up (something you can have fun with here) whereas betting sites make their money by doing their best to assess the likelihood of such rumors. If they provide more-generous odds on Draxler coming to Arsenal, and that move comes through, they're taking a bath. The bigger that number on the right gets, the more likely the event becomes, and the less the sites want to pay out. Again, it's still speculation, not confirmation, but it's a far-better proxy for prediction than are the headlines on offer from The Sun or tweets from Tancredi.

As we learned today through the Puma-deal, after all, money makes the world go 'round. Rather than being driven crazy by the splashy headlines, it's a bit better to take a cold, hard look at things through the cynical eye of the bookie. They may not get it right in the long run, but they're at least putting their money where their mouths are. Here's hoping we can do the same for Draxler in the next few days.

Right. I mentioned a match against Southampton. I'll have more on that in a while. 'Til next time, thanks for your visit.

Now, you too can report on transfer-rumors!

In the final days of the transfer-window, wild stories are going explode, linking every imaginable player with just about every imaginable club. It's enough to drive a fan crazy!. Well, friend, instead of keeping track of which players are going where, why not join the fun? It's never been easier, thanks to this handy, easy-to-use "'write' your own transfer rumor" kit. 

It’s fun! It’s easy! Watch the page-views roll up—all you have to do is fill in a few blanks, and—presto!—you’ve invented-slash-reported on the latest transfer, no matter how outlandish. Don’t let “facts” stand in your way. Heck—you don’t even need “research.” In fact, don’t waste your time looking anything. No history, no stats, no financials. They’ll just slow you down and let some other reporter scoop you. All you need is this easy form, a few names, and some good ol’ fashioned gumption

1.     Optional—choose a hook. Please note—while the choice of a hook is optional, the use of    
capital letters is strictly observed. However, exclamation-points are considered poor form.
b.     BREAKING:
c.     UPDATE:

2.     Choose your headline:
a.      [Club name] agree fee for [adjective] [player’s nationality]
b.     [Club name] plan shock move for want-away [rival club name]’s  [player’s position].
c.      Could this £[number] [player’s nationality or position] be the key to [club name]’s title-challenge?
d.     [Club name] join [rival club name]’s race to sign  £[number] [player’s nationality or position].
e.      [Club name] star ready to make move to [rival club name].

3.     Compose your article. All you have to do is fill in the blanks!

________ newspaper _______ has revealed that _______ have launched a/an _________

bid for ____________’s young _____________, as _____________ has been tracking the

player’s development for some time now. ________ was seen at _____________’s

training ground, prompting speculation on twitter, facebook, and other social media. It

was uncertain as to ___________’s true intentions, but sources familiar with the story

revealed that he was scouting ___________ ahead of a bid said to be £______________. 

The want-away player, said to be worth worth £_____________  is said to be unhappy

with his limited chances in the first team and would welcome a switch to _____________

for a chance at more playing time. He as superb __________, strong __________, and

exceptional ____________, all qualities especially prized by ____________.

That's all there is to it! Let your imagination run wild. Amaze your friends: Troll your enemies! Who knows? Maybe one of your concoctions will turn out, and all of a sudden, you're famous! The more of these babies you churn out, the more likely you are to strike it rich. Act now—you're working under a deadline, after all!

[note: I know that I've commented on transfers, mostly in the context of analyzing whether I think such-and-such a player is worth it, and so I hope it doesn't feel as if I'm trying to have it both ways by writing about the odds of Draxler coming to Arsenal one day and mocking transfer-talk another].

26 January 2014

FA Cup fifth-round draw: Liverpool? Really?

It's not as if there are many non-Prem sides left in the FA Cup to this point, but the draws we've gotten thus far are starting to feel, well, a bit conspiratorial, if you ask me. The Champions League's Group of Death. Chelsea in the league cup. Tottenham in the FA Cup's fourth round. Bayern in the Champions League round of 16. And now Liverpool. I'll say this, though. At least the domestic draws have kept us at home. It might have been nice to have drawn Sheffield Wednesday or Charlton, for example, but one does not have the FA Cup simply handed to them.

Here's a look at the entire draw:
  • Manchester City v Chelsea 
  • Sheffield United or Fulham v Nottingham Forest or Preston 
  • Arsenal v Liverpool 
  • Brighton v Hull 
  • Cardiff v Wigan 
  • Sheffield Wednesday v Charlton 
  • Sunderland v Southampton 
  • Everton v Swansea
Geographic considerations might have given us a more-favorable draw with Fulham or Charlton Athletic; then again, the same consideration might have given us Chelsea. So it goes. An already-brutal stretch of matches in February just got a touch more difficult. Over the course of twelve days, we'll visit Anfield, host Man U, then Liverpool, and then Bayern. Again, by and large, we'll have the advantage of playing three of these at the Emirates (although it's our away-record that should sinpire fear in our opponents).

I don't buy into the talk of conspiracy, although I will say, if there is one against Arsenal, it doesn't seem to matter all that much. Aside from the league cup, after all, we've shown that we can and will rise no matter what dark forces seem to agitate against us. We advanced from the Champions League group stage, and Bayern have to feel as if they've gotten the toughest draw they could have gotten. We're first in the Prem and doing quite well in the FA Cup so far. We came through the December crucible just fine, thankyouverymuch, and I believe we can emerge the other side of February in much the same way, if a bit worse for wear. And March. Heck and April and May. We've picked up each guantlet that's been thrown down and used it to smack across the cheek those who threw it down in the first place. The FA Cup draw has simply given us another chance to do so.