19 December 2014

Can Arsenal sink the Scousers? A preview of Sunday's clash...

One hundred and one goals. Liverpool scored 101 goals (I went with words that first time because the numerical form allows us to gloss it over a bit. I wanted to draw it out) last season, becoming one of only three teams to go more more than one hundred in the last ten years. The other two, of course, won the league—Chelsea in 2009-10 (103 goals) and in one of those historic slip-ups, Man City in 2013-14 (102). However, shorn of Suarez and Sturridge, the goal-scoring load has fallen on the somewhat more-slender shoulders of Raheem "too tired" Sterling. Between him struggling to carry that load, and Rodgers struggling to forge a cohesive squad, Liverpool stand on a precipice. It's up to us to shove them over.

We gotta rest Alexis...or see him fade as Özil faded a season ago.

Over the next two weeks, Arsenal will play no fewer than five matches. It's not that we're alone in this—after all, almost every other club in the Prem will endure the same slog, some of them perhaps being spared the FA Cup third round, just after New Year's Day. However, collectively, the Prem is alone among the major leagues in playing through the winter holiday season. The fixtures come fast and furious, with little rest between them, not to mention little to no chance for athletes to spend time with family. That problem becomes all the more acute as a club signs foreign players from ever-farther afield. Alexis, for example, will have no chance at all of returning to Chile. Perhaps it's time to reevaluate this madcap stretch of fixtures, if only with an eye to how English clubs fare in European competions?

18 December 2014

Are Liverpool a big club anymore?

There once was a time when a trip to Anfield might provoke feelings of fear, trepidation, maybe even anger, but it's hard to figure out how to feel about those Scousers these days. Are they again a key-rival against whom we're vying, or are they upstarts whom we're hoping to suppress? Either way, it's dificult to ignore how the lustre has faded from this once-momentous rivalry. At a risk of sounding churlish, it's even harder to avoid laying the blame squarely at the feet of those Scousers, who, between us and them, have failed to hold up their end of the bargain. Sunday presents us at this end of the rivalry to create even-greater distance between fable and fact. A win at Anfield might not be quite enough to drive a stake into their season, but it would certainly drive home another nail in the coffin.

Mario Balotelli, the gift that keeps on giving, banned for Sunday's clash

For those still sitting on the fence over the wisdom of not trying harder to sign Mario Balotelli over the summer, settling as it were for Danny Welbeck, it may tilt the scales a bit further to learn that Balotelli has been suspended for one game—that would be Sunday when we visit Anfield—and fined £25,000 for posting to Instagram a photo of Super Mario with the words "jumps like a black man and grabs coins like a jew [sic]".  Whether this was meant as tongue-in-cheek depends on how self-aware Balotelli is and how good he is at assessing the outcomes of his own decisions. Based on the body of evidence he's produced, it doesn't seem as if he gave it much thought. In any case, Balotelli remains a goal-less manchild more likely to self-destruct than fulfill his potential.

Grooming the King to be the Manager: could Henry succeed?

Tuesday may have delivered the most-welcome news any Gooner could have heard: the retirement of Thierry Henry from competitive football. Though he may already put himself out to pasture by playing in the MLS for the last four years, he finally made the news official, bringing to an end one of the most illustrious careers in modern football. He goes into the books as Arsenal's most-legendary player, perhaps also topping the list of the Prem's best-ever, and carries a CV that would be the envy of footballers in any league or country. His retirement should be bittersweet, as it closes the book on such a storied career. However, Gooners, always with an eye for an angle, interpret the news as just one more step towards an inexorable reunion—this time with Henry as manager.

15 December 2014

Man U's done us a solid in the Champions League draw...

After several years of tough draws—Bayern the last two years—we might be forgiven for celebrating a bit when this year's draw pits us against AS Monaco, arguably the weakest team we might have faced after Bayern, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico, and Porto. Not only are Monaco the least-intimidating of the group-winners, their group was itself one of the weakest—and the Monaco squad that earned an appearance in the group-stage is hardly the one that we'll face off against. This is not to suggest that they'll roll over and play dead, nor can we underestimate them. There's nothing wrong in admitting, however, that our chance at advancing is just a bit better than it would be against Bayern.

Arsenal have reeled in Southampton; is Man U next in line?

Glimmers of optimism peek through after what might have been our most-fluid ninety minutes of football in a long, long time. Still, we’re on the outside looking in as the top three made the most of their weekend. It looks like the bloom might be off of Southampton’s rose, though, and the right sequence of results next weekend could see us crack the top four. No sense counting eggs before they’re hatched, though. For now, let’s look at, uh, the eggs that did hatch. Or something. I'm not sure what the follow-up to that old cliche is. Onto the, um, eggs.

14 December 2014

Olivier Giroud, the linchpin to our win over Newcastle...and beyond?

There are few players in the current squad who divide opinion as much as does Olivier Giroud. Some loathe and some love, and there's very little in between, very few who are willing to say he's good enough for now—neither rubbish nor legend but serviceable. With that in mind, his performance against Newcastle offered something for everyone, based on their willingness to cherry-pick the evidence. On the whole, though, it's hard to resist the urge to point out that he was vital to our getting the win over resurgent Newcastle. Whether that's good enough going forward will be another question.

On its face, his brace—the first one opening the scoring and the second all but tucking the game away—should be enough to settle any debate. However, so divided are we that each camp will focus on its own evidence. Why, the critics, may ask, did his pass to Alexis force the Chilean to chase the ball all the way out of the box when a defter touch might have put Alexis through on goal? Giroud's defenders will point to the intelligent run into space in order to beat the defender to Alexis's cross, as well as his sharp header to beat Alnwick, as incontrovertible proof of his excellence.

Elsewhere, the critics will point to how wasteful in possession he so often was, getting dispossessed or attempting a careless pass when a smarter, more-talented player would have crafted a better-weighted pass or found an outlet instead. His defenders will point to the several times that he won balls and laid it off to quicker, more-technical players. By now, I suppose it's clear from my tone, if not the title of this post, that it's my opinion that Giroud adds something vitally important to our attack, if not our defense as well. Surrounded by pacier, tricksier players, he does add a bit of brawn; more than that, though, he offered a focal point that gave our attack some shape and intent. When he wasn't busy getting mugged by Cheick Tioté, he won balls, blunted counters, and launched attacks of our own that wore down and ultimately led to the collapse of Newcastle's defense.

No, he may not deliver as many stunning goals as other forwards who have led the line for Arsenal, but there's little shame in that, not when his immediate predecessor was once one of the most clinical finishers in the Prem and the man before that was and perhaps always will be one of the best-ever to play for the club, if not in the Prem. I certainly don't mean to make Giroud out to be cut from the same cloth, not by any stretch of the imagination. Is Giroud world-class? No. Has he been good enough to match others who play his position and to whom we've been linked enthusiastically, if not accurately? Yes.  Gonzalo Higuaín, he of the £32m move to Napoli, has done about as well as has Giroud. Edinson Cavani, once a darling of the rumour-mill, has seen the lustre fade just a bit. Karim Benzema has not fully displaced Giroud in the French national team despite the advantages of playing for one of the world's most free-scoring sides. These, among others, would likely draw transfer-fees of upwards of £60m, but how much of an upgrade would they really provide? We at Arsenal may have tired of the bean-counting that we've endured for the last decade or so, but in this case, it's well-worth asking: just what would we be paying for?

In Giroud, we've paid a £10m transfer-fee and gotten one of the hardest-working—if not the most technically-gifted—forwards in Europe. He'll win headers in the box, offensive or defensive, or at least deny the opposition a chance to do the same. He'll grapple with and negate an opponent's most-physical defender, freeing space and creating chances for teammates. He may not inspire us with rousing, end-to-end runs, but he does deliver in a pinch. That, for now, may have to do, at least until January. Then again, do remember that goal-scorers command a pretty penny, even if they're not necessarily the ones who deliver titles. Golden Boot winners have rarely led their clubs to recent glory in the Prem.

Again, this is not to suggest that Giroud is the best forward around, just that he might be good enough to help us contend, if not win, a bit of silverware.