Showing posts with label derby. Show all posts
Showing posts with label derby. Show all posts

31 August 2013

North London Derby: Walcott wins it from wide

As we go into the North London Derby, a great deal of talk will focus, rightly, on the differences in each squad's actions in the transfer window. We all know our own sob-story, having only brought in Flamini and Sanogo on free transfers and having unloaded almost 30
players (including a great number of Academy players in their teens). Spurs, though, have been intensively active, signing seven players in anticipation of selling Gareth Bale. With his price-tag looking to be somewhere in the £90m range, Spurs have spent about £84m on transfer-fees. Bale hasn't played a minute for Spurs so far this season, with explanations ranging from he was given a "rest" to his being fined for missing training. However, Spurs don't seem to have missed him so far, having won all four of their matches to this point (including two in the Europa) without conceding once and scoring ten.

And that brings me to the focus of today's column: Theo. I've called on Theo to have a break-out season with 20 league goals. After scoring 21 across all competitions last season, it looked like he would vault himself  to the next level this season. I compared him favorably to his former teammate Bale here, for what that's worth. However, he's off to a bit of a slow start so far, with no goals to show for himself in our first four matches. He did look sharp in the preseason, with a goal against Man City and against Galatasaray, each of them the match's opening score. Despite his slow start to the official season, I'm certain that Theo will revive the form that he's shown against Spurs over the last few seasons, a form good enough for him to tally four goals in our last five derbies.

Of course, he'll be lining up opposite Vertonghen and Rose, who on paper are no slouches. However, Vertonghen frequently presses forward to join the attack, at times playing almost as if he's a box-to-box midfielder, and this can expose him on counter-attacks (sounds a bit like Vermaelen, come to think of it). Rose is a fine player on his day, but he's a perpetual loanee, most recently to Sunderland last season. Given Vertonghen's eagerness to join the attack and Rose's relative inexperience, especially in an atmosphere as pitched as the North London Derby, I see Theo getting lots of opportunities. The service he's gotten from Ramsey, Rosický, and Cazorla so far have been strong; all he's lacked is the final touch. While I don't see another 5-2 win in the offing, I wouldn't put it past the man to bag a brace.

If there's a downside to Spurs' signings, it's that they may not fully understand what this match means. Soldado had some nice words about it earlier this week, calling it "beautiful". However, listening to teammates explain it differs immensely from experiencing it directly. Their new signings have done well for themselves so far, but the stiffest competition they've faced is arguably Swansea, and they have yet to score a Prem goal from open play, relying on spot-kicks from Soldado to defeat Swansea at White Hart Lane and to defeat newly promoted Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.

For all of the hand-wringing over our failure to bring in new players, we still field a strong XI on Sunday. There's little use in speculating on who will start where, as this suggests that there is a great deal of competition in the squad. Cazorla will almost certainly slot in on the left, and the middle of the pitch will be patrolled by Wilshere, Ramsey, and Rosický, hopefully reprising the rotating midfield that so befuddled Fulham. Flamini may make his debut, what with Arteta out and Ramsey nursing a sore groin (does one get those massaged? One wonders...). It'll be a tense one, that's for sure, but I have a good feeling about this one. Theo, make me look like I know what I'm talking about.

The clock is ticking...

18 June 2013

Why Arsenal can't afford to lose Gareth Bale

Amid all of the hype over who we're bringing in, whether it be Higuain or Jovetic or Sanogo or whoever, one player, one who is perhaps just as key to our perennial Champions League qualification run, may be lost: Gareth Bale. We might just lose him to Real Madrid, and that should be enough to give us pause.

The Monreal headline froze me. Date: December 2012.
As far as Bale's concerns, I worry that he'd crumble under the pressure of replacing Ronaldo (if that's what he's being brought in to do). Sure, he's been described as "the next Ronaldo", but it's easy to say and harder to do. He'd be leaving the world's 11th-largest club to join its biggest. That's quite a leap even without having to replace one of the world's most-prolific scorers. Put in context, his 2012-13 season was so remarkable that it very nearly accounts for half of all the goals he's ever scored (26 out of 60). On the basis of this one season, then, he's being touted as a replacement for Ronaldo, who has three times scored more than 50 goals in a single campaign. Real is said to be preparing a bid of £100m. No pressure. Bale could rise to the occasion or just as easily fall off the cliff. I pray, then, that he stays.

Hear me out. As it stands, the top three Prem teams qualify automatically for the Champions League. Under the current hierarchy, that's Man U, Man City, and Chelsea. Assuming that nothing else changes other than managers, that hierarchy is unlikely to change. We're therefore looking at the fourth, qualifying spot, which we earned on the last day of the season (thanks, Kos). Would we have done it without Bale to inspire use? Without a time-machine and alternate-universe replicator, we'll never know. I'll say this, though: one factor that drove us to 4th place this year, and it's by no means a small one, was our knowledge that, at any given moment, Bale would score. It was therefore beyond vital that we outscore each of our opponents to nullify him. I worry that, if he leaves, we will lose some of the urgency that impelled us over the last ten weeks of the 2012-13 season. Imagine it: how often, before a game or after a lackluster first half, did the whispered name "Bale" bring our players' edge back? For some, it was fear. For some, determination. For others, anger? Sure. Whatever it was, some unquantifiable percentage of our players' motivation and achievement came from knowing that they had to top Bale week in and week out.

Think of the contrast: how threatening would Spurs have felt to us without Bale? Without him, they're Newcastle (sorry, Toon) or Aston Villa (no offense). Without that bogeyman, I worried that we might never have regained the sense of purpose and intensity that saw us win ten of our last eleven matches. We might have lolly-gagged a bit more, letting Everton or even Liverpool close the gap. The biggest favor Bale may have done for us this year is to score on us at White Hart Lane (word has it that he'll try to trademark that dopey heart-hand sign. I'm pretty sure tween girls everywhere will file a class-action lawsuit to stop him). It was dispiriting at the time, sure, but look at how we responded.

And that leads into my next line of reasoning. Without Bale, our entire co-dependent relationship with Spurs crumbles. Sure, we have rivalries with other clubs, but there's nothing quite as sumptuous and as textured as ours with Spurs. We know each other; we understand how to push each other's buttons and read each other's little tics of exasperation and depression far better than we know ourselves. Should Bale leave, he'll be replaced by someone, but it just won't be the same. It'll be like when that decades-long marriage tends, and the rebound-girl looks like and reminds you of the ex in so many ways, and yet...More seriously, though, we do define ourselves against the other. If Spurs tumble, so to do we. I'm not about to whip out John Donne's Meditation XVII on you, so don't worry about that. I will say this, though: with a lesser, weakened Spurs team, we risk losing the villain against whom we define ourselves. Superman has Lex Luthor. Spider-man has Doc Ock. You see the trend. Arsenal has Spurs. Without them, we'd have to start a new rivalry from scratch, casting aside more than 100 years of tension, animosity, and outright hatred (from some). Among the other London clubs, I dislike Chelsea utterly and thoroughly, but the feeling there doesn't carry the same savory flavor.

Last but not least, should Bale leave, we face the unthinkable: commiseration. We'd see ourselves in them, and they'd see themselves in us. They lost Bale, we lost van Persie. Two heartbreaks--in consecutive years, no less--might just be enough to bring us together in a heart-salving embrace. Spurs fans and Arsenal fans would trade scarves instead of salvos. Adebayor and Gallas and Campbell, among others, would be accepted on both sides of the divide, and the UN would declare both clubs as ambassadors for peace. Now that I think of it, it could in usher a golden age of brotherhood and harmony and---

Bollocks. Let him leave.

02 March 2013

Spurs-Arsenal: T-minus 22 hours...21.5...

Rosický makes the founds after scoring last February. Adebayor watches and wonders what could've been...
This game just cannot arrive soon enough. I'm pacing, drumming my fingers, checking my watch. It's worse than that syndrome when you're hungry and check the fridge, then the pantry, and then the fridge hoping that something has magically changed. Such is the magic of expectation. I had to try to sate myself on today's matches, but nothing all that great happened from an Arsenal point of view. Everton defeated Reading handily, Liverpool looks ready to defeat Wigan (up 2-0 30 minutes in), and Chelsea, despite their increasingly shambolic situation, eked out a win over West Brom thanks to a goal from some chap we barely deigned to bid for in January. So it goes.

How to stop Bale? That is the question on everyone's minds. Like many, I'll admit to worrying about Bale's form. With Sagna out, our right flank is that much more vulnerable. There's an outside chance that Koscielny will be available. However, the player who fills in at right back is not the Alpha or the Omega of the plan to stop Bale. Instead, the key (in my mind) is midfield, and the key to that key is Tomas Rosický -not that he's some kind of defensive dynamo, but his pace, motion, and doggedness might be just enough to disrupt Spurs' midfield and push them further back on their heels so that he, Wilshere, Cazorla, and Arteta can control possession. The longer it takes for attacks to develop, the more impatient Spurs' fans will get, and the more the pressure on them will grow.

For all of the talk of the form Bale is in, the flip-side to this coin is that it intensifies the pressure he will face to deliver on the talk. It's not at a level of Joe Dimaggio's hitting streak, or the Invincible's undefeated streak (always worth a quick mention), but each time Bale takes the field, everyone expects a goal. If he doesn't score, talk takes a turn--maybe he's not as great as his recent form suggests and so on. Therefore, we should deter him and harass Parker and the rest. The more ragged and impatient they start to feel, the more their nerves may start to fray, and they will press and end up doing something reckless or irresponsible, hopefully creating openings that we can exploit. At the risk of sounding crazy, if we can pilfer a goal before Spurs can...well, a boy can dream, can't he?

It may be 'beneath' our position in this derby to point out that we come in as underdogs, but this reflects the fact that all of the pressure is on them to perform. They're at home, they're undefeated in the Prem since December, they apparently possess a Ronaldo-esque scorer, and we're stumbling from fixture to fixture, mere shadows of our former selves. In the words of Gimli, "certainty of death? Small chance of success? what we are waiting for?" Oh yeah--Spurs are the Orcs. We're the guardians of goodness and nobility and all of that. Sure, it feels like there are a lot of factors working against us. Maybe that's an unfamiliar position to be in, especially against Tottenham. However, I like this. There are few things I enjoy more than to waltz into a rival's house, elbow him to the ground, and take what's mine. I certainly be on the field on Sunday, but I'll be channeling each ounce of determination and passion and love of this game towards our boys, and I know full-well that each of you will as well. Game on.

01 March 2013

Arsenal Goes to White Hart Lane: A History

Here's a quick breakdown of how we've fared on our trips to White Hart over the years. It's always been a very-pitched battle, even in our more-glorious years. Our record there is somewhat weaker than our road-record overall this year, having won five, drawn five, and lost three while scoring 17 and conceding 11.

Spurs are pretty rude hosts, with the second-best goals-conceded at home with 12, and this unfortunately does not dovetail well with our away-scoring--of 52 goals, only 17 have come on the road.

However, statistics do little to capture the nature of a fixture like this one. It reminds me of some of the great rivalries when, no matter how good one team is and how poor the other is, the games are fueled by such passion and history that mere numbers are washed away in the flood. Last year saw us simply thrash Spurs in a game that may have marked a turning point for both teams, inspiring us to a 3rd-place finish and dropping Spurs to 4th and out of Champions League play, and November's clash was similarly thrilling (for us) even if it provided less momentum. It's a shame that the last goal-fest has to come with an asterisk--having an opponent sent off inside of 20 minutes isn't a strategy we can count on--but we will come into White Hart Lane on Sunday knowing what's at stake and ready to seize what's ours.  Spurs might make for poor hosts, but we don't mind breaking a few house rules and stealing away with the fine china and silverware.

Of Derbies, Revenge, and Right-Backs

One of the few Spurs players we'd actually wanted (with apologies again to Scott Parker) seems to have missed the memo in the lead-up to Sunday's match. Jan Vertonghen, to whom we were linked over the summer (again, sorry, Scott) has made the utterly sensible statement that they "want to win this game not because of revenge but because we want to beat Arsenal anyway, we want to stay in third position and to keep our good run going."  Sorry, Jan, but that kind of level-headedness has no place going into this kind of game. We want you and your teammates so amped up that you do something silly, like getting sent off as Parker did last year and Adebayor did in November. You want revenge, so come in unhinged. No less an authority on the subject than Gareth Bale has apparently talked in such terms, so please buy into the mindset that the only reason we've hung ten goals on you in two matches is due to silly, unjust red cards.

Very good, Gareth! Soon, we'll start on the letter "B"
In all seriousness, though, the truth lies somewhere in the middle between the calm and the craze. It's kind and decent of Jan to speak so calmly, but beneath that lies a deeper urgency--or maybe not, and that's why we didn't sign him. Heck, when I played and we got scored on, I wanted revenge. Imagine how you'd feel if you got scored on five times. Any player who doesn't feel a little rage at that isn't worth his salt. The key, though, is in channeling that. We saw how Adebayor lost his concentration in November because of how worked up he was. Here's hoping that the atmosphere in White Hart Lane is cranked to a fever-pitch such that various Spurs players do something silly enough to get booked. It's at this point that I should probably try to make a joke of books and low literacy rates among Spurs players and fans, but I feel as if the moment has already passed. So it goes.

In more serious news, we go in to the match without Sagna, and the apparent default is Jenkinson. I think Carl will become a fine player in his time, but I doubt that Sunday's game is that time. He'll go in as the weakest link and will line up opposite Bale (truth be told, Bale would probably shift to whichever side Jenkinson starts on). If we're going left to right, we throw on Monreal, Vermaelen, and Mertesacker, but injuries rule out Gibbs, Sagna, and probably Koscielny. I've asked for it before and will repeat it now--I have more faith in Ramsey playing on the back-line than I do in Jenkinson. However, before too much is made of Mr. Bale, he is not Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo combines pace with actual footwork and can make mincemeat of defenders by getting them off-balance with about 87 scissor-steps and maybe one other move. Bale, for all of his pace, lacks that weapon. As long as Jenkinson doesn't get caught out of position, and as long as teammates make themselves available (instead of hanging him out to dry as happened against Michu earlier in the season), Jenkinson can probably hold his own. Whatever happens on Sunday, it does seem like signing an established defender somewhere between Sagna and Jenkinson's experience would be helpful. As long as we're on the topic of irrelevant requests, I'd like a Triumph Scrambler, please.

At the other end of the pitch, I'm salivating. I see Walcott eager to dispel the comparisons with his former roommate, Cazorla back in form, and Giroud ready to make life miserable for a 35-year old Gallas, among others. With Arteta, Wilshere, and Rosicky joining Cazorla in the midfield, I think we can control enough of the action to neutralize Bale. I won't go so far as to call Spurs a one-man team, but as Bale goes, so go the Spurs. Neutralize him, and it's hard to find who will step up. The longer the game goes, the more the pressure on Spurs builds.The more the pressure builds, the more their nerves may fray.

Speaking of fraying nerves, I don't know if I can wait until Sunday. It's an extra 24 hours that my constitution just can't handle. It's a good thing--not shaking like a leaf, more like butterflies in the stomach and ants in the pants, that sort of thing. I'l just picture Lloris picking the ball up from the back of the net. In a way, it's like counting sheep....

And, before you go, weigh in--Jenkinson or Ramsey at right-back?