Showing posts with label Mesut Ozil. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mesut Ozil. Show all posts

06 December 2015

Arsenal 3-1 Sunderland—x things we learned

There were far too many squeaky bums and clenched sphincters in the first half for anyone's likings, but there's no panning the results once we turn around and have a look at hot it turned out. On a weekend when all of our key rivals save Leicester dropped points, it was vital that we return to winning ways, all the more so when facing a Sunderland side struggling to stave off relegation. That we were far from our best is beside the point; that we found a way to fight through a dodgy first half to win is what really matters. Sometimes, after all, the mark of a contender is in its ability to slog through and still emerge victorious. It ain't pretty, but dammit, it's still three points. What are the x most-important takeaways?

26 September 2013

Of Wenger, Mourinho, and Özil: a contrast in styles

Now that we've advanced in the league cup, we'll face Chelsea in round four at the end of October as well as in late December in the Prem. Of course, most of the news out of Stamford Bridge centers around the conflict between José Mourinho and Juan Mata, a carry-over of a recent trend that has seen the manager run down players at
each club he's managed, whether it's Mata at Chelsea, Casillas at Real Madrid, or Balotelli at Inter. It seems almost to be a calling-card or a running joke: how do you know that Mourinho has managed a team? One of its best or brightest has been ground down into dust. Of course, for those players whom he favors, the sun couldn't shine brighter and the birds couldn't sing sweeter. That's all well and good for those favored few, and perhaps it's a useful motivational lever on the rest of the squad. However, the contrast between Mourinho and Wenger couldn't be more stark, as Mourinho has developed a reputation for a certain nomadism and penchant for undermining players to prove a point while Wenger has, for better or worse, now stands apart for his longevity and for his ability to support and develop players into superstars.

Setting aside my own personal, sentimental reasons, I really do hope that we deliver at least three spankings to Mourinho, if not just to progress in the league cup or climb the Prem table [editor: we're top of the table] but to send a message. That message? One can and should build success on a foundation of building players up, not on tearing them down. I'll admit that I have a soft spot for Casillas, and this might bias me a bit against Mourinho. Casillas is easily on the short-list for the world's best keepers, and he seems, by all accounts, to be a class-act as well. To see how his career withered on the vine under Mourinho is therefore an issue for me. For as well as Diego López has done, the fact that he's benefitted from the submarining (sub-mourinho-ing? too much?) of Casillas's career is too much for me to stomach.

To then see the same happen to Juan Mata, who I've heard turns in a tolerably decent shift from time to time, is more than a bit aggravating. Yes, I know that we could've had him a few years back and were even linked to him over the past summer, but that's not what I'm going on about at the moment. Long story short, I can't stand a manager who will undermine a player to prove a point. The lame excuse for Mata's dilemma is that his abilities don't suit Mourinho's preferred tactics. When you have a player of Mata's qualities, why not just explain those tactics and ask him to play to those tactics? I'm sure Mata is more than willing to give it a try. Instead of sussing that out privately between them, Mourinho seems to have opted for publicly undermining the player, apparently to send a message to the rest of the squad that he's in charge, dammit, and that reputations, achievements, or careers matter little if it all.

At the other end of the spectrum then is Arsène Wenger, who has built and staked his name on his ability to find, sign, and develop unheralded players into superstars. Again and again and again, Arsène has proven himself to be a master of actual management—at least as defined in terms of making players and squads better than they might otherwise have been. Given the talent that has surrounded Mourinho at almost every club he's managed, it's hard to assess just how good each squad might have otherwise been without him—how much of a difference, for example, did he make for a Real Madrid squad that features some of the world's best, such as Ronaldo, Casillas, Alonso, and Ramos? By contrast, how well would Arsenal have done without Arsène? With the temporary exceptions of van Persie and Fàbregas, which Gunners could we name as established, world-class players? A select few.

The point here is that, between Mourinho and Arsène, the former gets about as much as you might expect out of a squad, given its talent, and the latter gets a bit more than you might expect—even if that hasn't been quite enough to fully satisfy the Arsenal faithful.

The tie that binds, then, is one Mesut Özil. He was good at Real Madrid, no doubt, but he did so under a manager who seems to insist, nay demand, absolute fealty. As such, all of Özil's gaudy statistics, whether it's key passes or assists or chances created, might actually do the man a disservice, as he was playing within a system not necessarily tailored to his abilities. Put another way, Özil had to play Mourinho's way or get Mourinho-ed. Freed from that strait-jacket, playing in a system and philosophy and under a management style that fosters and encourages, we might actually see a version of Özil that renders the pre-Arsenal Özil absolutely obsolete. That would be exciting to see on two levels: one, it would catapult us towards the top of the Prem; and, two, it would further validate Arsène's philosophy of maximizing the potential of each player.Yes, the name on the front of the shirt matters more than the name on the back, but the two dance a delicate minuet. Under Arsène, we might just see an Özil unchained and free to explore the full range of his skills, and that would be an exciting thing indeed.

By the time these two clubs meet in the league cup's fourth round, we may have a clearer sense of what Mata's role will be. We'll almost certainly have a stronger sense of Özil's contributions to the squad as he'll have four more matches under his belt by the tame we face Chelsea. Despite our rivalry, I respect Mata and would like to see him treated better than this.

Right. I'll walk the line of rooting for Mata while rooting against Mourinho. It's a fine line, no doubt. While I do that, I hope you'll consider voting for this blog in the Football Blogging Awards. Woolwich 1886 has been nominated as a Best New Blog. You can vote via twitter by clicking here or via email by clicking here. I hope I've given you food for thought, at least enough to have earned your support. Thanks, as always, for your visit.

24 September 2013

Even before Wednesday's cup-tie, Gnabry's scored on West Brom.

That's how good he is (or can be).

Of course, I'm referring to the U21 match about two weeks back, when the young German unleashed a thunderous volley to put the Arsenal squad past West Brom 1-0. It's one thing to score against a squad of teenagers, but Gnabry has shown in his short time with the first team that he has what it takes to play with the big
boys, having tucked in nicely against Stoke on Saturday after a nervous start (understandable given the short notice, Gnabry having found that he would start only after Walcott tore muscles in his abdomen during warm-ups). Think of that jolt: getting the call-up is one thing, but he probably assumed that he would be watching comfortably at least until the 70th minute or so, at which point he might get the call if the game was safely iced way). To then find out that he would get the start, and to have that start come on the day of Mesut Özil's Emirates debut, must have electrified Gnabry. For him to have turned in such a calm, assured performance anyway signals that the 18-year old could be ready, not just to simply join the first team, but to make actual contributions.

Of course, with injuries to Walcott and the Ox, we naturally turn to Gnabry to play on the wing. Instead of discussing who might rotate in among those three, Gnabry is the last man standing. Happily, he acquitted himself quite well on Saturday, moving intelligently, making the most of his chances (save for a shot that he sent sailing into the seats), absorbing some cynical fouls (such as Huth's cold-cock shoulder-block that should have drawn a booking), dropping deep to help in the build-up, and making himself an all-around good guy to have on the pitch.

This isn't the first time that Gnabry has been totted up as a competitor with Walcott; he's even been mentioned as an out-and-out replacement. Should Walcott continue to struggle to find his form after undergoing abdominal surgery, and should Gnabry seize the moment presented him in Walcott's absence, those murmurings could grow. Rather than build up that molehill, however, let's enjoy the idea that we could see some competition on the right flank between the two, the kind that can extract some exquisite performances from each. You won't get Gnabry to engage in any such discussion, as he's widely touted as having a great attitude and ethic, the kind of player who puts his shoulder to the wheel and keeps going until the whistle blows. I'm not implying any contrasts. I'm just mentioning certain attributes.

Despite his youth, he's made first-team appearances already, having made three appearances in the 2012-13 campaign—the 6-1 victory over Coventry City (almost a year ago to the day, 26 September) the infamous 1-0 loss at Norwich , and the 2-0 loss to Schalke in the 2-0 Champions League group stage. Those experiences should serve him well, even if this is "only" the league cup. Given our recent history in this competition—crashing out to Bradford and Birmingham in successive years—some have fretted that facing recently-relegated West Brom is an ominous sign. Far better, they'd say, to face a lower-tier opponent in these early rounds. However, the spirit in this squad is such that I don't care who we face. We've won ten road-matches in a row. Heck, we haven't lost to West Brom in more than three years. Sure, they'll be throwing on a few new faces, Nicholas Anelka, Stéphane Sessègnon and Victor Anichebe among them, but this is a squad we really should have no trouble despatching. After all, if we can't get past West Brom, we have no business progressing in the cup, now, do we?

Therefore, I'm looking to Gnabry to turn in another impressive performance, this time adding a goal to his resumé as we look to advance. He's netted once against the Baggies, so here's hoping he'll repeat the performance on Wednesday.

Before we close, I'll offer a quick reminder that this site has been nominated as a Best New Blog in the Football Blogging Awards. You can vote via twitter by clicking this link or via email by clicking this link to receive the email ballot. Thanks, as always, for your visit!

22 September 2013

Arsenal 3-1 Stoke: the Prem's not ready for Özil

I guess Aaron Ramsey doesn't read my blog as often as I led myself to believe. There was apparently no reconciliation, no redemption, no Hallmark moment between he and Shawcross. Instead, Ramsey simply put the Potters on their arses with a fifth minute goal, slotting home nicely after Begovic managed to parry Özil's free-kick, the
first of a remarkable three goals from set-pieces. Indeed, at times, it seemed like the two teams had swapped kits, with Stoke nearly winning the possession game (finishing at 49% but holding the ball for long stretches) while Arsenal seemed content to park the bus after going ahead early, soaking up pressure and launching the occasional counter-attack. As such, it was hardly a vintage Arsenal win, but it's gratifying to see the lads dig in and nab three points in their third match in eight days.

Speaking of gratification, it was wonderful to see Ramsey score the opener. Afterwards, of course, he treated our visitors with great grace and dignity, shushing them ever so gently so that they could enjoy the moment. Booing, after all, is in such bad taste, especially when one finds oneself in an unfamiliar setting.

However, the story of the day is Mesut Özil. On a day when many teammates looked a bit worse for wear, especially in the second half, Özil delivered three assists (if you give him credit for one on Ramsey's goal). Some of the talk leading into this match focused on how well Özil might fare in the Prem, especially facing one of its infamously most-rugged clubs. Arsène worried that the German would need time to adapt to the "vigorous body challenges he will face". While Stoke have softened somewhat, they're still a bit more brass-knuckle than they are tiki-taka. In fact, if there's a hazing involved in coming to the Prem and adapting to the physicality, you might as well face Stoke, and Özil came through with flying colors.

At some point, well find someone to discuss other than Ramsey or Özil, but, truth be told, they're the story of the season so far. Ramsey's gone for six goals in seven matches after getting just seven goals in his previous 109 Arsenal appearances. As for Özil? In just three appearances now (Sunderland, Marseille, Stoke), he's tallied a remarkable twelve key passes—averaging four per game. Of course, that number is bolstered by the seven he had against Stoke, including three from set-pieces. That number may seem like an outlier, but he will probably be the team's #1 choice for corners and spot-kicks. We may not always see conversions like we did today, but his quality is evident. Say what you will against Shawcross or Huth, but it's not for nothing that Özil found Mertesacker and Sagna for goals, and it's not every day that you can put three past Begovic.

Özil's skill on the ball, and his ability to elevate the games of those around him, may very well do more for our prospects than Higuain or Suarez ever could have (let's not enter the debate over how well we'd fare with Özil and one of those. That ship has sailed). Of course, he hasn't faced any of the Prem's best defenders or midfielders yet, and it's only a matter of time before managers figure out some way to slow him down, whether it's by assigning someone to follow him every where he goes, parking two banks of four defenders behind the ball, or hacking at him. Then again, he's certainly come up against all of that and more before, and we'll certainly seem him adjust as he adapts. For as good as he was at Real Madrid, he's entering a phase of his career and working with a manager renowned for forging players into superstars, and we may just be seeing the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

His continued bedding-in, along with the return to fitness of men like Wilshere (still working back to full fitness), Vermaelen (an unused sub), Arteta (who came on at 80'), and the impending returns of Cazorla and the Ox, this is a club that is already at the top of the Prem and looking to get stronger. Sure, Spurs look to improve as their new signings learn to play with each other, and it's only a matter of time before Chelsea, Man U, and Man City get their acts together. It will be December, with all of its various fixtures, before we know where we really stand.

Before we look too far ahead, though, let's relish where we stand now, atop the Prem despite Spurs' best-ever start in club history and because of our own strong one. Of course, we only have a few days to catch our breath before visiting West Brom. The season is still in its early stages, but the signs all point in the right direction.

As part of the celebration, I hope you'll consider voting for Woolwich 1886 in the Football Blogging Awards. We're contending for a best #New blog; click the image above to cast your ballot through twitter. If you're not on twitter, click here to vote via email. Thanks!

19 September 2013

#Henrying and the clarity of Arsène's vision

A bit of mischief was afoot today as all over twitter were different versions of Henrying, taking Thierry Henry's latest goal celebration—coolly standing with one hand on the post, the other on the hip, and just, well, enjoying what it's like to be Thierry Henry. You can find images ranging from the silly to the sublime, whether it's Henry  hoisting the American flag at Iwo Jima, intercepting Maradona's Hand of God goal, or making contact with E.T. It's worth a good laugh or two, as some of the images do put Henry in some silly
situations, but I'll leave it to you to track down your favorites. Yours truly tossed off a few, such as the one to the left in which Henry snuffs van Persie's dive with a palm to the face. His smooth nonchalance stands in stark contrast against van Persie's awkward tumble, not that I'm trying to make any deeper points here.

Actually, come to think of it, I am. For as thrilling as it has been to secure the signing of a player like Mesut Özil, this #Henrying stuff, along with the recent performances of some of the squad's best and brightest, should serve as a reminder that our manager, more often than not, knows what he's up to. Therefore, as his contract-talks heat up, this writer ardently hopes that we'll see Arsène, puffy coat and all, prowling the sidelines for years to come.

The Özil signing, as we all know, was a breath-taking statement of intent as we brought in one of the world's best players. As we've discussed, what is perhaps more significant is less attention-arresting if how well he suits Arsène's vision of how to play football. This technically-gifted, positionally aware, and insightful midfielder possesses all of the traits needed to play the stylish, possession-based football that Arsenal has come to be known for over the last twenty years or so. Also of note? His age. At 24, he joins a core of Gunners entering the prime of their lives. For as much as we might have pined for a Gonzalo Higuain or a Luis Suarez to lead the line, their arrivals might have upset the balance of the squad, not in any dramatic way, but enough to force some adjustments. Özil, by contrast, arrives already understanding, nay, believing, in the movement, the passing, the verve of Arsène's style.

Just as important as his on-field contributions this season will be his influence on the other up-and-coming Gunners with whom he plays, whether it's the service he provides and understanding he develops with Theo Walcott (also 24) or the technique, vision, and methods he shares with Aaron Ramsey (22) and Jack Wilshere (21). Perhaps less directly but no less vital is his relationship with Kieran Gibbs (23), with whom he's already forged a solid tandem as demonstrated by Gibbs's pass to set up Özil's assist against Sunderland or by the constant exchanges between the two against Marseille. Interestingly, Özil has drifted towards the left in the last two matches, giving rise to that Özil-Gibbs partnering.

Lost, then, in all of the hub-bub of the transfer window, a disappointing loss to Aston Villa, signing Özil, and going on a fine run is how well this all jibes with Arsène's vision. We've come 'round full circle in a way. Yes, a dramatic signing is all well and good, but what's remarkable is how vital have been those players whom Arsène found and signed at a young age. As each of them rounds into form, whether it's Ramsey leading the team in scoring and tackles, Wilshere defining his role, Walcott tallying his first goal in thunderous fashion, or Gibbs turning in commanding performances, we're seeing a return to the days of making superstars. Add in Wojciech Szczęsny, age 23, and Jenkinson, age 21, and we're now talking about six starters whom Arsène has brought along, each of whom could become something special.

It's not for nothing that we started this post with Thierry Henry. Before coming to Arsenal at age 21, he had shown glimpses of his potential but erupted into full glory after arriving. Simply put, there is a history of young players flourishing under Arsène, and for as good as Özil had been for club and country before, like Henry, like Bergkamp, like Pirès, he looks set to elevate his game to another level entirely. Along the way, it seems that we're seeing a revitalization of Arsène's commitment to youth and development in the best of ways. It's probably too soon to suggest that this season will be a special one—the squad as it stands is still a bit callow, not to mention thin—but, on the whole, it's well-positioned to restore this club to its former glories. It feels good, to say the least.

Before we sign off, I'd like to invite you to cast your ballot in the Football Blogging Awards, in which this blog is nominated as a best #New blog. To vote via twitter, imply click the FBA image above to vote; enter Woolwich 1886 in the #New category, and you're done. To vote via email, click this link and receive the emailed ballot. In either case, thank you for your support!

11 September 2013

With Rosický injured, will Özil supplant him earlier than planned?

Tomáš Rosický was subbed off during the Czech Republic's match against Italy in the 38th minute, suffering a thigh strain. Details are still forthcoming, but it's unlikely that this was merely a preventative or cautionary move as the Czech sat in 4th place in its Group,
behind Italy, Bulgaria, and Denmark and needed to take at point, if not all three, to keep its hopes of World Cup qualification alive. Had Rosický stayed on the pitch for a full 90', the Czechs might have fared a bit better than losing 2-1.While he seems to be the only Gunner to have been laid low last night, it's the kind of knock that a 32-year old with a history of injuries can ill-afford, especially with a shiny, new, £42.5m attacking midfielder looking to find his place on the pitch.

I'm as excited as anyone to see Özil do for us what he's done for Germany (such as scoring and assisting, as he did on Tuesday) and for Real Madrid, but I also have some mixed emotions, as Rosický has long been one of my sentimental favorites. Maybe it's my own torn ACL talking, but I sympathize with guys who suffer injuries that sap their strength and their skill. I've talked of my respect for Rosický before, here and here, for those curious to read. In short, instead of looking back on and celebrating a glorious career, all of us—perhaps even the man himself—feel a tint of regret as we ponder what might have been. This is, however, a bit harsh as Rosický has had more than a few scintillating moments and is still more than capable of turning a game on its head. Witness, as just the most recent example, his nifty pass to Walcott that led to the assist on Giroud's goal against Tottenham last weekend. His intelligence on the pitch shows him immediately running to the far post. Even more vital from my point of view is his celebration after Giroud scored. While less epic than his celebration after scoring himself against Tottenham in February, it's clear that he's a true Gunner at heart. Instead of coming over to celebrate with Giroud, Rosický curled around in front of the Spurs fans to pump his fist in their direction a few times (a fan posted a cell-phone video of it, but I can't seem to find it). I'll repost if I can.

While Rosický may suffer a bit in comparison to Özil when it comes to passing (and he's certainly no slouch there), one area where he may outstrip our new addition is in pressing and disrupting opponents' counters. His work-rate in this area is a sight to behold, and just as important as his creativity is his willingness to go for a tackle or interception to break up an attack before it can develop. Harassing opponents' midfielders and defenders has been a calling-card of his, one that is frequently outshone by his skill and flair on the ball. As with the pass to Walcott mentioned above, his contributions go beyond the scoresheet or the stats, and I don't think there are many players who can match him for heart, not to mention skill. Between his contract situation and Özil's arrival, I worry that he may be further marginalized. I want him to end his career at Arsenal, and I won't even hedge that with a "if the price is right". If we can carry Squillaci, Chamakh, and others year after year after year, we can certainly afford to treat Rosický with the respect he deserves. By all accounts, he is a true professional and exudes nothing but class on and off the pitch.

With Özil sure to compete with him for playing time, Rosický may have to settle for a diminished role. Then again, as we look to compete across four competitions (Prem, league cup, FA Cup, Champions League), the two of them could forge a powerful rotation and make mincemeat of opposing defenses. At the risk of looking too far beyond the season that still lies ahead, I wholeheartedly hope he is re-signed (big difference-maker, that hyphen there). Further, I hope we see him at Arsenal for years to come, as a player and as a coach. I'm willing to bet that, as well as the little Maestro can orchestrate on the pitch, he'll be equally as good at it from the sideline. That, however, is a sight I'm willing to wait a few more years to see as Rosický has more than a season or two left in those legs.

10 September 2013

Fàbregas: Özil will "kill" Prem defenses

Slow, slow day ahead of today's round of World Cup qualifiers. Here in the U.S. we have a visit from Mexico, fresh off their stunning home-loss to Honduras, and we'll be without Michael Bradley (injury) and Jozy Altidore (suspension), so it could be a barn-burner—
Mexico needs to win to stay alive, we're first in the group but are missing key players, and the rivalry itself is intense enough when there's little to nothing at stake. However, that's little more than window-dressing at the moment. All I'm really hoping is that our lads come through without any injuries. There are quite a few of them who will play (click  here to see the full list at, and as long as everyone emerges hale and hearty, I'm happy. This break in the action has given us plenty of time to ponder our fortunes, which have taken a dramatic turn for the better, of course, and the signing of Özil. A lot has already been said about it, and Cesc Fàbregas put in his two cents the other day:
He is going to enjoy the Premier League an awful lot. It is a league with more space [than La Liga] and Özil is a player that, given time and space, he will kill you. As we have already seen from his time at Real Madrid, his final ball is brilliant.
Having played against Özil over the last two seasons and for Arsenal for the preceding eight, of course, Fàbregas is well-qualified to attest to Özil's abilities and how they'll translate to playing in the Prem. The prospect of him slicing defenses open, eviscerating them with that killer final ball, should make opposing defenses tremble. We've already gone for ten goals in five matches without his service, and, after a bedding-in period, we should start to see some glorious football. Just as exciting as the final product will be the method behind it; Özil may have been on of Florentino Perez's famous (or infamous) "galácticos", but he plays Arsenal's style of football. He highlights the difference between merely purchasing players and managing them and because his skills mesh so well with Arsenal's style, it's no stretch of the imagination to suggest that a manager like Arsène might actually unlock a player whose creativity might have been constricted somewhat while playing under Mourinho. More directly, playing for Arsène means that Özil will be playing in a system tailored to his skills and mindset, not to mention his stated desire for "transparency, trust, and respect"—qualities that Mourinho might have to look up in a dictionary.

As good as Özil's passing might be, he's not passing to Ronaldo anymore. How well will Giroud fare? For a quick frame of reference, my nine-year old son's only goal this season has come because a cross bounced off him and in. If that's all Giroud manages, this still might be good for a dozen goals in and of itself. A more likely scenario sees Giroud and Özil forging a more-lethal partnership as Giroud learns to anticipate Özil's through-balls and crosses—and it's not only Giroud who stands to benefit; surely, Walcott, Cazorla, and Podolski will see delicious passses to latch onto and put on frame. While the finishing will still be up to them, of course, the delivery from Özil will faciliate that finishing a great deal

For a quick comparison of how Özil compares to other passers in the Prem, look to whoscored's graphic on Frank Lampard, which identifies Leighton Baines as the player with the most key passes since 2009 with 344. In that time (again, according to, he's therefore averaged 2.35 key passes per game. By comparison, Özil has averaged 3.025 key passes per game, a rather-large contrast, made all the more stark when we see that Özil's total would be 417 key passes since 2009—67 more than Baines and 128 more than Silva's second-place total of 289. Özil will still have to adjust to some of the more rough-and-tumble aspects of Prem League play, but if he can replicate his success at Arsenal—and all of the signs suggest he will—Fàbregas's assessment may actually underestimate Özil's impact on opposition defenses.

Sunderland, whom Arsenal faces this coming Saturday, have already conceded seven goals in four matches, including, most recently, three against newly-promoted Crystal Palace. There could be a similar orgy of goals for the Gunners should Özil feature on Saturday, and this would only be the beginning.

09 September 2013

Özil banner competition: I may have missed the cut, but...

...dammit, I worked and I slaved over this and I'll be doggone if I'm gonna let a silly thing like deadlines or the fact that a winner was announced before I even submitted this stop me, so here it is. I'm rather proud of it, even if I'm not the best photoshopper out there. Then again, I've learned all I know (precious little, I'll admit) all by my pretty little self.

Among other issues, I like the idea that Özil might carry on a tradition of technically gifted passers in the mold of Brady, Pirès, or Fàbregas. If nothing else, during what is a slow news week thanks to the interlull, I hope it provides a little bit of eye-candy for you. We seem to have made it through the previous week without any players picking up silly knocks as in past interlulls, so let's hope that the upcoming week gives our lads some time to get to know each other after their matches on Tuesday.

In news as close to Arsenal-related as I can get, Mexico's shock-loss to Honduras leaves them teetering on elimination from the World Cup, which makes their match against the U.S, who lost to Costa Rica but are still in second place in the group, all the more vital. However, Jozy Altidore, who joined Sunderland this summer after scoring 31 goals across all competitions for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar last year, picked up a second yellow during the Costa Rica match and won't face Mexico on Tuesday, and this presumably means he'll be back in plenty of time to prepare for Saturday's match. So it goes.

07 September 2013

Özil, Reus, Gundogan, and the house that Wenger built

At long last, it seems, the wait is over. When we were told that we would be moving from Highbury to Ashburton Grove (the Emirates), a large part of the sales pitch for the new pitch lay in its ability to help us attract and pay world-class players. For the better part of
the last decade, however, we've had to bear the pain of seeing our best players sold to finance the new stadium, whether it was Anelka in 1999 or van Persie in 2012. Now, here it is, 2013, and the river's flow has reversed. This is the first season that begins without us losing key players in what feels like forever (does losing Gallas or Eduardo count? Enquiring minds want to know...). Instead, we're agog at the prospect of seeing one of the world's best midfielders come to the Grove. Özil has resurrected our hopes and inspired us to believe that silverware is in the offing without even having set foot on the pitch in an Arsenal kit.

Just as delicious as his arrival is on its face, this could be the beginning of something altogether new. While I would not want to see us become just another club that throws its money around like the nouveau riche that have recently bought their trophies, it's tantalizing indeed to think that signing Özil marks a new era, one in which we not only keep our best and brightest but actually add to the squad. Having signed Özil, Podolski, and Mertesacker, we now have a German contingent that makes the pursuit of players such as Marco Reus or Ilkay Gundogan all the more probably. When we consider Reus and his respect, nay, idolization of Tomáš Rosický, adding him to the squad in January even starts to sound like a certainty.

However, before we get ahead of ourselves and this becomes a drooling piece on who we'll sign come January, let's step back to take in the bigger picture—we are no longer a selling club. Cluck your tongue at paying £42.4m if you will, but that is the market. Bale sold for £96m. Southampton, a Championship squad in 2011-12 , bought not one but two players for £13m each. As for us, we've now registered the third-highest transfer fee in Prem League history and eleventh-highest ever, and we still sit on £30m or so, a sum that we'll only add to as we see tickets and kits sold and Champions League matches won. By the time we get to January, we may see ourselves looking to sign another game- and season-changing player, this time on the possibility that we're competing for advancement in the Champions League (though the player may be cup-tied) and are contending for the Prem League title, not to mention the FA and league cups. Lament if you will our failure to secure a signing earlier in the window. I'll stop just shy of endorsing Arsène's apparent policy of waiting until deadline-day to sign anyone, but it's hard to argue against the result this time around. 

We're still wafer-thin, of course, and one injury could just see us unravel. However, on paper if not on the pitch, we look likely to rattle a few cages and unlock more than a few defenses. I don't think I inflate Özil's importance when I remind us that his impact will be two-fold: one, we're going to win much more often between now and January; and two, we may just see another player or two donning the Arsenal kit in a few months' time. 

Caviar, in other words, is back on the menu.

05 September 2013

Arsène Wenger's the manager players want to play for...

With the inter-lull looming and the transfer-window shut (oh, glorious transfer-window! I just can't quit you...), we have quite a bit to feel good about. The signing of Mesut Özil, of course, vaults us into the top echelon of the Prem League. If you believe the Specious One,
"the signing of Özil makes [Arsenal] title contenders." Of course, he plays mind-games eight days a week, so we'll take it with a grain of salt. However, the larger, perhaps more-subtle conclusion to be drawn from our signing of the midfielder, widely considered to be among the best in the world, is the one that relates to the man who made it happen.

Over the years, we've come to worry that Arsène had become a once-great manager, one for whom the world's best no longer wanted to play for. The departures, the missed signings, the failure to win silverware—these and other factors pointed to an ineluctable conclusion: Arsène's star had faded to the point that he couldn't attract or keep world-class talent anymore, not with his stubborn commitment to his financial principles or "socialist" wage structure. No more. I'm not referring just to the fee we've paid for him. Signing Özil establishes Arsène as, arguably, the manager to play for in the Prem.

Yes, Ferguson's retirement is a factor, and I don't mean to give that short-shrift, but a quick glance at the other managers in the Prem suggest that it's only Arsène who offers a personal draw strong enough to convince players to leave their current club to join a new one. Of Chelsea's vaunted war-chest and Mourinho's ambition, yes, they made two big signings, but nothing on the scale that was discussed over the summer. No Rooney. No Lewandowski. No Khedira. In fact, one could argue that Chelsea did little better than treading water after losing Lukaku. Pellegrini did nice business but again failed to lure any of the world's biggest names. The big story du jour is, of course, the grumblings out of Old Trafford, a situation that ESPN has dubbed an "utter farce of a transfer window". After pursuing Alcantara, Fabregas, and Ronaldo, Moyes was only able to convince Fellaini to join him, and only at the last minute and by overpaying. For as frustrating as our summer had been up until Monday, we've emerged with arguably the best signing of the season.

After all, Özil is among one of the world's most talented players and has his best footballing years ahead of him. For him to choose Arsenal over Real Madrid (and other suitors) is a significant moment for him, for Arsène, and, most importantly,  for Arsenal. It establishes him as arguably his club's best player, thrusting him towards a mantle of leadership. It confirms Arsène's status as one of the world's most-respected managers. Lastly, it re-establishes Arsenal as a prestigious club, if not through silverware (yet) then through respect. Of course, he's only one player, but he is a game-changer, and it will be sooner rather than later that he makes his mark. His arrival also transforms perceptions of the club from "a once-great club that great players leave" to "a soon-to-be-great club that great players want to join". Some critics have suggested, for example, that Özil owes his assists-tally to having Ronaldo to pass to. There's an element of truth to that, but even Ronaldo worries, saying that Özil's departure "is really bad news for me as he was the player who knew best my movements in front of goal". In other words, the fear isn't that Özil's numbers will drop; it's that Ronaldo's will. In the striker's own estimation (and, let's face it, he's not prone to bouts of self-doubt, at least publicly), it's his greatness that depends on Özil, not the other way around. With that in mind, come
January, I doubt we'll be casting about to sign a great striker as we did this summer. Instead, we may have to fend off the suitors. Fancy that.

Look at this heat-hap of  Özil's passes in La Liga and Champions League play. Can you imagine what Giroud will do, receiving all of those passes that arrive right on or around the PK-spot? I wrote yesterday about the potential relationship betwen the two; imagine what a more-clinical finisher will do. If you're not salivating at the prospect, you must be dehydrated. Or daft.

However, before we let ourselves be seduced by the sumptuous delivery and service Özil will provide, let me return to the larger point: this signing restores much of the shine to Arsène's star. For all of the names we've missed out on, and for all of the criticism he's withstood, it's not for nothing that Özil chose Arsenal. As much as one might make of the influence of fellow Germans Podolski and Mertesacker, in the end, it seems that Özil's decision rested largely on the feeling he got from talking directly to Arsène:
I talked to [Arsène] at length over the phone, and he told me his ideas and he trusts me, and I need that as a player. I realised I would not get the full trust of the manager [at Madrid]. I am a player who needs to feel that—and I felt that with Arsenal, and that’s the reason why I’m signing for them.
In other words, one of the world's best players joined Arsenal because its manager instilled a sense of trust in him. Yes, £42.2m had their say, as did the idea of winning silverware, but if those were Özil's most-important considerations, I daresay (without disparaging our club) that he might have had better options. PSG. Real Madrid. Manchester United. Instead, what seems to have clinched the deal is his belief in and respect for Arsène and his football philosophy. Of course, success has a way of confirming the value of any philosophy, and in the signing of Özil, Arsène has taken a dramatic step in confirming the value of his. This should be a beautiful process to watch.


03 September 2013

Özil to Giroud: the makings of a world-class striker

The dust has barely settled from the slamming-shut of the transfer-window, and already the accolades are accumulating around Mesut Özil. Although he won't take the field as a Gunner until 14 September at the earliest, he's already drawing favorable comparisons to
club legend Dennis Bergkamp, if only in the sense of already having a reputation for excellent before coming to the club. One wag on twitter joked that he's first signing under Arsène whom we didn't have to look up on youtube. Adding a player of his class, achievements, and stature does more than just destroy Andrei Arshavin's status as the club's most expensive signing; it lays waste to the idea that Arsène won't spend—to the tune of 42 million pounds sterling, almost three times the amount laid out on Arshavin. To have done so on a world-class player, and one who so seems to fit Arsenal's style of way, earns Arsène that much more credit.

Of course, Özil does fit a certain Wenger-esque mold: small, crafty, creative on the ball.... While critics had been howling for a striker and defensive midfielder, it seems odd to sign yet another clever midfielder known for his passing. It's true that the signing does little to address those positions, nor does it do much to address the thinness of the squad in general. However, it's well worth considering how Özil could help Olivier Giroud score this season, repeating a pattern that the Frenchman had established at Montpellier and at Tours before that. For as much as fans may regret the failure to sign Higuain, Suarez, or another top-shelf striker, the signing of Özil might just be enough to vault Giroud towards that category (note that I say "towards" and not "into." Read on).
Consider Giroud's skill-set. According to, Giroud's strength include his strength in the air, having won seven of nine aerial duels against Tottenham (both game highs, according to Orbinho). On the season, he's won 19 of 29 aerial duels. When you combine that with Özil's strengths—set-pieces, crosses, key-passes, according to—we could see a special partnership in the making.

After all, all but one of Giroud's goals for Arsenal in 2012-13 came in the penalty area. What's more, they all came just outside the six-yard box as Giroud latched onto a cross, lob, or through-ball from a team-mate and finished from close range. While many of these goals lack the drama of a thunderous volley, those headers, flicks, and toe-pokes still found the back of the net often enough to see Giroud score 17 goals in 47 appearances across all competitions. This is clearly not enough for a squad with designs on trophies. However, as Giroud looks to settle into and define his role more clearly, he already looks like he'll score more often while also increasing his conversion-rate, a woeful 12% during the 2012-13 campaign. Then again, how many shots did he send soaring into the cheap seats because he was pressing too hard? It will be interesting to see how that conversion-rate might change under less pressure and with more frequent crosses, lobs, and through-balls from Özil, widely considered to be among the best in the world at his position.

Over the next 12 days or so, the time between now and Arsenal's trip to the Stadium of Light, Özil and Giroud should find plenty of time to work together, learning to read each other, assess each other's strengths, weaknesses, and preferences, and forge a mutual understanding that could bear fruit. At the risk of engaging in too much schadenfreude, it will be interesting to see how Gonzalo Higuaín or Karim Benzema, two other Arsenal targets, will fare without Özil's service. At various points, the bid for Higuaín had been criticized because Higuaín's skill-set was apparently too similar to Giroud's. If that is true, we might see Higuaín's stats slump while Giroud's stats surge. Arsenal's fans might have gnashed their teeth and rent garments when they saw that Napoli had signed Higuaín, but the signing of Özil, and his budding partnership with Giroud, could prove to just enough to help them forget all that they thought they had lost.

Özil seems to pick out the just-right pass, whether it's a vertical lob or through-ball that allows the striker to run under and put a shot on frame or whether it's a slanted pass that cuts across the box for a striker to intercept. He's done this time and again, whether the finisher was Ronaldo or Higuaín or Benzema, and Giroud's intelligent movement off the ball suggests that he's already queuing up to receive any variety of passes from Özil. Since he arrived at Real Madrid in 2010, he  has had 47 assists, more than any player in Europe's top-five leagues (thanks again to

Arsenal may still lack depth up-top, and Giroud may not be quite ready to lead the attack, but the partnership between him and Özil could become something remarkable. The German midfielder can pick the pass; the French striker can send it home. Against lesser opponents, securing an early lead could be enough to see the likes of Yaya Sanogo or Chuba Akpom come on to ply their wares. It's a far-fetched notion, but Gooners could fare far worse.

Looking down the road, Arsenal goes into the January transfer-window with a fair amount of money in hand; by then, the squad will have passed through the gauntlet that is December, jam-packed with difficult Prem fixtures, not to mention league cup and Champions League ties to boot. By that point, we'll have a clearer sense of the club's ambitions and achievements, and we could well see another significant signing or two, sussed out on the club's progress or struggles to that point. I daresay that messieur Giroud and Herr Özil, among others, shall have done enough to entice another player or two to come to the Emirates.

02 September 2013

Özil is Öfficial: Team Site announces that he's signed!

ÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigödÖhmigöd. It's official. Mesut Özil is a Gunner, announced officially at For those who doubt me, here's the link and a screenshot that I swear to you
is not photoshopped. Arsène has this to say about the German midfielder:
We are extremely pleased to have signed Mesut Ozil. He is a great player, with proven quality at both club and international level. We have watched and admired him for some time as he has all the attributes I look for in an Arsenal player.
The deal is said to be for £42.5m for five years and weekly wages of £150,000, along with bonuses. It's ironic that our first key signing of the transfer-window addresses one of our lower-level needs, but the addition of Özil should make a dramatic difference in our prospects. How many times have we fallen behind to an inferior opponent—heck, even to one of the three teams to finish ahead of us—and seen them park the bus for the rest of the match? I'm not saying that Özil will, by himself, magically solve that problem for us, but he'll make it dramatically easier to overcome those deficits while also making such deficits much rarer in the first place.

Talk about your dramatic turnarounds. Only a few hours ago, we are lamenting our inaction and lambasting our manager for ineptitude, tight-fistedness, and worse. With one fell-swoop, he's answered his nay-sayers. Even if this is the only signing of the season (and there's still about an hour before the window closes as of this post), we're looking like legitimate contenders. While it's true that Spurs have been active, they'll have a hard time replacing Scott Parker and that other guy who left. The clubs that finished above us have been made a few moves of their own, of course, so it's not as if we can just show up against those three and simply take all three points, but consider how close we were to doing so last year. A flubbed clearance at Old Trafford against Man U. A bizarre take-down in the box against City. An own-goal of sorts against Chelsea. We've come up just short against these squads, close enough to taste a point if not all three, and Özil's addition could be enough to make a difference in reclaiming a few points here and there while also keeping all three against the other 16 teams in the Prem. All of a sudden, that 16-point gap between us and Man U seems much less daunting, not to mention the five points that separated us from Man City and the two that separated us from Chelsea.

Arsène, I apologize for doubting you. This signing may not be enough by itself to see us finish atop the Prem this year, but it's enough to show that you do have a trick or two up your sleeve. To have out-maneuvered PSG and Man City to obtain Özil's signature takes a sleight of hand I had doubted you possessed. For that, I 'm sorry, and, of course, merci.

Özil signs; thanks to Bale for the assist!

Reports from the BBC, Telegraph, Mirror, and numerous others have stated that Mesut Özil has signed with Arsenal, apparently to a five-year deal worth £42.4m, and is set for a physical in Germany. Of course, until it's official, these are just rumors, and we've been burned before by reports suggesting that terms have been agreed and a player is ready for a physical, so let's not get ourselves all worked up into a frenzy. It is worth noting, however, that skybet has the move rated at 1/10, meaning that a £10 bet would only win you one more pound—such a low rate of return implies that the oddsmakers see this as all but a done deal. [UPDATE: odds now at 1/25. Big change in our favor]. Still, as the old saw goes, "I'll believe it when it's at the official Arsenal site." (Yes, I did go to check once I finished that sentence. Nothing as of 7:12am Chicago (CST).

Still, this would be amazing and startling news; I never imagined that a player of Özil's class would be available, believed even less that we'd make a move for him, and believed even less still that we'd make an offer attractive enough to prise him away, certainly not while clubs such as PSG with their bottomless buckets of money were also in the running. While Özil may not offer the same kind of defensive intensity as many of our current batch, and while we still might feel like we need a top-shelf striker, can you imagine the beauty that he would bring to the midfield attack? Between he and Cazorla, the chances that they can create for themselves and others could be breath-taking. With Giroud in fine form, having bagged four goals in five appearances already this season, and Walcott knocking on the door as Just wow. Özil has had 30 assists in La Liga over the last three seasons. Even in the rarefied atmosphere of the Bernabeu, that's an impressive stat. I'd long since suggested that Giroud and Walcott would have break-out seasons all by their pretty little selves, but the potential addition of Özil could propel both men skyward. Giroud, as mentioned, already looks like an entirely different player—not just through scoring, but in playing an all-around game. After his second goal-line clearance of the year, I joked on twitter that he's invented a new position: the box-to-box striker. The chances that he and Walcott could get from Özil could make both men look much more like top-shelf strikers (not that they are, just that they'd "look like").

According to, Özil "created a chance more often than any other player in Europe's top five leagues last season" and created 24 clear-cut scoring chances, again the most in Europe's top five leagues. his ability to unlock a parked defense with a key pass will be vital, as in all too many cases last year, we'd concede an early goal and struggle to get through a wall of defenders. Özil's sense of the game and his ability to pick out a pass, whether through possession or on a counter-attack, could be vital in releasing our forwards to score. Whereas we all too frequently saw our players nibble around the edges of the box in a vain attempt to create a clear-cut shot only to settle for a an ill-advised blast, Özil has shown that he can pick the lock of many such defenses through his passing as well as his intelligent movement off the ball. This signing, should it actually come to pass, could send us into contention for Prem League silverware. Speaking of such ambitions, what does it say of Arsenal that a player like Özil would leave all-but-guaranteed trophies with Real Madrid, spur such similar guarantees from PSG, and come to Arsenal, a club already well-stocked with midfielders but suffering a trophy-drought of more than a few years? We're on the march, and his signing could see another player or two ask his agent to dial up Arsène.

Yes, Isco's arrival has made Özil a bit more expendable, but the arrival of Bale makes Özil even more so. Financially, of course, even a club like Real Madrid can't just spend £86m on Bale without at least trying to balance their books. With the increased scrutiny they're under for dodgy land deals and preferential tv revenues, they've forced themselves into a position that they can only get out of through selling assets, and Özil is as fine an asset as any.

A lot has been said about how astute and aggressive Spurs have been—and it's true. Despite losing to us, they look like they'll get stronger as players bed in. However, for as much as they've spent, it's the money they'll get back that they may end up regretting. Yes, selling Bale has financed the acquisitions of Capoue, Paulinho, Soldado, and others, but it's that same sale that has forced Real to sell and, moreover, encouraged them to sell attacking midfielders. Should we actually sign Özil, Spurs will look the most foolish club in the transfer window, having parted ways with their most talismanic player since Gazza only to see their cross-town rivals nab at least one player as a direct result. We may not stop with Özil. Would we still be after Di María or Benzema (or both)? This could be a master-stroke on Arsène's part. Waiting until deadline-day to sign even one player of Özil's caliber would be sublimely brilliant. Doing so while sticking it to Spurs in the process would be delicious. If the deal is actually confirmed at the club site, Arsène will have well and truly answered his critics and in fine fashion. It would be one thing to sign a top-shelf player; giving Spurs the proverbial middle finger in the process would be the stuff of legend.

Still nothing at the Arsenal site. Fingers crossed so hard they're starting to cramp up...