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CommentaryEnglandWorld Cup

Suárez Scores Goals, Rocks Boats, Alienates People—–Breaking News

December 6, 2013 — by Rob Kirby

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Liverpool striker Luis Suárez is in amazing form, the kind of form that makes a Big Red fan forget about the summer past. That whole lark about the Uruguayan wanting to leave the club, doing anything to leave the club, saying he had a verbal agreement with the club that he could leave, and then the manager Brendan Rodgers essentially called him a liar. None of this matters now at LFC, because he’s in the form of his life, leading the goal charts in England despite missing the first six matches of the season by dint of violent conduct (with his teeth).

Suárez’s run has displayed the sort of impeccable form you can’t help but admire, possibly with jealousy, as an opposition fan, though it doesn’t remotely trigger the Red Liverpuddlian amnesia regarding his back-to-back biting incidents at Ajax and Liverpool. Nor his alleged punch on a Chilean defender in World Cup qualifiers, unseen by the ref at the time, left to slide afterwards. The deliberate handball to block an extra-time inbound header, denying Ghana a goal and ultimately (with a missed penalty) passage to the next round of the 2010 World Cup. And lastly, the man who said that what he said to Patrice Evra wasn’t racist in Uruguay but, upon learning the English connotation of “negro” (Spanish pronunciation), still decided to blank Evra in the next Liverpool-United handshake. He intentionally dumped fuel on the fire in now-full knowledge, he refused to back down despite the fact that both club and manager ordered him to shake Evra’s hand.

Anyhow, just watching the 90 minutes in the midweek match against Norwich, 4 goals and an assist for the fifth, the first and third goals of the most insanely incredible quality, leaves you convinced. Luis Suárez has undoubtedly ripped the mantle of best striker in the league from whomever held it last (Robin van Persie has a hurt shoulder socket in addition to his ongoing groin and/or toe problem). He receives nothing like the service of Agüero, but it doesn’t matter. He ultimately scores when he wants. Despite missing the first six matches of the season through suspension, he’s the league’s high scorer, at 13. He’s scored more goals than games played.

Liverpool fans see his work rate, his final product, their place in the table, and assorted clips of him as warm and fuzzy with his young family and generally think, serenity now, summer water under the bridge. And Suárez does give a hundred percent in everything for the team. He’s just not necessarily as tied up in what that team is at the moment. The Suárez agitation in the press was first portrayed as possibly mistranslated words to the Uruguayan press. That is, until he gave an interview with the Guardian officially announcing a desire to move and a supposed reneging on a verbal promise with Brendan Rodgers and the management. Brendan Rodgers outright denied the claim, declaring Suárez would have to apologize to the team and the manager about what was presumably a bald-faced lie.

All this, of course, transpired through not only an interminable summer with bizarre £40,000,001 bids but also during his 10-game ban for unprovokedly and inexplicably biting Branislav Ivanović in the late Spring matchup against Chelsea. Which followed a November 2010 chomp on a PSV player while at Ajax. Ajax promptly sold Suárez–he had, after all, come to them after a highly-public, acrimonious departure from his former club Groningen, whom he took to an arbitration court but against whom he lost as the court found against him. Everyone recognized a genius with a trouble streak. And with the genius came the occasional Mike Tyson special.

If Suárez gets a pass for a different original cultural connotation to what began the furor with Evra/FA racism charge, he can’t claim that for directly countermanding the orders to club and manger to shake Evra’s hand–a question of interminable interest to the prematch proceedings. He served his eight-game suspension, he coughed up an £40,000 fine, but he chose not to shake Evra’s hand, despite now knowing the public opinion, which ranks as insubordinate, if nothing else. It smacks of acting bigger than the club, something Liverpool fans perennially claim the club will never tolerate, despite all present evidence to the contrary. Yet, as with Stoke and the fans’ continual booing of Ramsey for appallingly forcing Shawcross to act recklessly, break Ramsey’s leg and sideline Ramsey for over a year, club loyalty can cloud the vision, especially with regard to a far-and-away star player like Suárez. The man literally creates goals out of nothing. Who doesn’t love a magician?

Suárez and his goalie’s instincts helped Uruguay claim 4th at the 2010 World Cup. (He later said of the goalmouth handball, “I made the save of the tournament.”) After steering Uruguay to its 15th Copa América in 2011, he won player of the tournament. He’s Uruguay’s all time highest scorer and leads the Barclay’s/English Premier League in goals with 13, despite having missed the opening 6 matches thanks to his summer-spanning biting ban. Uruguay go the the 2014 World Cup in Brazil on his shoulders, and Liverpool’s top-four ambitions rely on him just as pivotally.

As a serial disciplinary case and goal muncher, however, he has no compare. But unlike John Terry, he’s not sleeping with wives and girlfriends of best friends/teammates. So, there’s always that. And he scores more goals, slips less hilariously, has a better pistolero goal celebration.

He’s a great player who acts periodically violent/dirty towards opposition players and has an on-again, off-again relationship with his club. He will almost undoubtedly turn on Liverpool again at some point. If and when that happens, we’ll see how everyone feels about the man who currently divides so much opinion. Liverpool fans may then remember a couple things that bugged them at the time, something naggingly disloyal, perhaps, which at present they can’t quite put their fingers on.

CommentaryEnglandPreviewtransfers

A CultFootball Roundtable: Demba Ba, Agents, Money Business–How Loyalty May Miss the Point

January 5, 2013 — by Rob Kirby

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Some CultFootball roundtable reactions to a Telegraph piece on Ba leaving Newcastle for the money (and why shouldn’t he?):

Tyler:

Roman and Demba, cut from similar cloth?

The Cunning Linguist:

No way!

That article reeks of the old love of the game mentality and “where are English players in the EPL” rant. Ba went to a club that may play Champs League and will get paid more money while slotting into the lone striker role in a 4-2-3-1 set up as opposed to the 4-3-3 of Newcastle.

Football’s a business, a money business. 7.5mm quid for a 13 goal scorer is good business. That said, I’d have preferred to see a recall for Lukaku as I think he can spell a clearly tired and out of confidence Torres.

Lally (aka Political Footballs):

Also, Newcastle put the release clause in the contract whilst not guaranteeing him money if he didn’t play because of his suspect knees. He didn’t engineer the move, merely agreed terms when Chelsea matched the price Newcastle had set for him.

Suman:

I agree with Cunning Linguist that football is a money business, up to a point. If we can get all Clintonian up in here, it depends on what your definition of “is” is. (This also recalls, I think, a class THC & I took together at UofC in analytic philosophy…remember that Tyler? More on that topic to come soon.)

I’d agree if you say professional club football at this moment in time (what some people call “modern football”?) is a money business. but certainly we can agree (can we?) that it’s not been true of club football at all times, and certainly not of our Saturday morning “Mario’s Incredible Liga Fabulosa” matches.

So actually I suppose it depends on what you mean by “football.”

Tyler:

Of sense and reference“,  Frege I believe. Can’t recall the course title.

No arguments against any of the above. Could have easily replaced “Roman” with Walcott/RVP/Nasri. Ba seems risky to me but I think that’s due to his poor form second half of last season. It’s certainly not a bad deal given the relatively low price for him (depending on one’s definition of “low”).

The link was in an Arsenal blog about transfers and I had only skimmed before posting it. After reading further, there seems to be a decent amount of conjecture about team dynamics at Newcastle. Not mentioned in the piece, unfortunately, was that Ba reportedly has 5 agents that will benefit from the deal, which I think was the “what the fuck” moment that made me want to send the link to begin with.

Cunning Linguist:

That’s actually a pretty fair point. The side “business” of holding shares in an individual and multiple business consortiums engineering moves to churn fees is pretty disgusting. Remember the Mascherano and Tevez deals that were churned through West Ham by Kia Joorabchian? Wasn’t Pardew boss at WH back then, or am I misremembering? That agent shit is outta control. Didn’t Big Sam’s son have some involvement with agent fees or some shit?

Tyler:

Arseblog has mentioned repeatedly that Theo is being led astray by his agent. He’s getting everything he wants, he’s been the striker and scored or assisted in each of the last four games, he’s the team’s leading scorer, and he’s paid pretty well. But still no new contract. No legit title contender (Manchesters) will sign him, he probably wouldn’t start for Chelsea, and Liverpool will barely miss out on the top four this season. So it’s not about trophies, it’s about money. He’s a decent and honest guy it seems, but he’s young and marketable, so the money-grubbing agent influence is believable.

Digress… I like the Lukaku idea, and I will be paying attention to Ba’s integration into his new team. After all, isn’t Chelsea the soccer world’s favorite science experiment?

Gu, I think the course was actually called, “Introduction to analytical philosophy”. Is the morning star the same as Venus, unicorns do and don’t exist, etc.

Rob:

The deal with the agents is that there’s not much incentive in them telling the player “you’re happy here, there’s no reason to move and generate a fee from which I’ll take a nice 10% cut.” They can’t do it so often that they run afoul of the player through particularly bad advice, but the move argument is certainly good for a couple paydays.

Then with Ba and others where there may be more than one agent (he’s the only one I’ve heard of, but I imagine there are others), one is a family member, one is the guy they brought in because what real experience does the family member have except for the ear of the player, and so on–I can see where it gets really convoluted really quickly.

Then for Arsenal players, they bring on Darren Dein (of Henry, Cesc, RvP & Song departure fame, and son of someone or other), and it’s history.

Piggybacking on what Cunning Linguist said earlier about an old view of club loyalty vs. a modern view, when it comes down to it the globalization of the Premier League in terms of audience, but especially in terms of talent pool, it means that few of these guys are playing for their boyhood clubs. They won’t be retiring after many years of service and reentering the town community, running into fans at pubs for the rest of their lives–or running the pub–as once it may have been. Ba is from Senegal, he’s probably supporting/subsidizing a huge contingent of family, he grew up neither a West Ham nor a Newcastle fan, and if his knee had detonated on him, he would have been cut loose on the spot. I get wrapped up in my hopes for what certain players will do for Arsenal, but with Adebayor, for example, I now respect the fact that he refused to lower his wage demands or fall for any sympathy plays. I think he’s delusional on some levels, but on a money level, he’s right on. I didn’t like it when he did it to us, but I understood his position more when he messed with City (which, really, was just awesome to witness). He wasn’t going to make it easy for them, because he knew he didn’t have to. He has a couple years to make cash, his country is a mess, he knew his negotiating position. Even if he’s not a grade-A humanitarian, building hospitals around Togo (although I think he did fund one), he knows where his allegiances lie: to himself, his extended family, and then far later in the list people like Wenger, Mancini etc.

I used to really dislike Drogba until I learned more about his off-the-field persona. He’s actually an awesome dude. And then I could see how awesome he was on the pitch after shedding my dislike of his diving or continual single-handed reaming of the Arsenal defense year after year.

Anyway, this is a rare moment of perspective. I’ll be fuming about how disloyal some departing player is soon enough, I’m sure.

Suman:

One quick note–the bit about “few of these guys are playing for their boyhood clubs. They won’t be retiring after many years of service and reentering the community, running into fans at pubs for the rest of their lives, as once it may have been” echoed, ironically, Jonathan Wilson’s column about the Zenit fans’ open letter.

The opening paragraphs, in case you didn’t read it before:

Let’s imagine that fans of Sunderland (and I use the example purely because that is who I support), tiring of the constant churn of the transfer market, decide that enough is enough and they want their team to do things differently. They get together and hammer out a manifesto which they then post as an open letter to the club hierarchy. Among a number of points about the need for absolute commitment and an abhorrence of cheating, they suggest they would rather the club focused on local players.

How would the world regard that? Some might argue that is not the most efficient way to run a club in the modern game but most would surely accept that, if nothing else, a strong local identity can help foster a sense of common purpose. Athletic Bilbao select only Basque players while Barcelona are proud of their Catalan core; why shouldn’t Sunderland fans dream of a team built around half a dozen Wearsiders?

Larry:

I have just one question.  Without Ba’s presence already at Newcastle, does Cisse sign there?

Edhino:

Y’all can think wishfully all you want to, hark back to the good old days of club and community loyalty, but the political economy of modern football will ensure a tiered class system of wealthy clubs amassing known talents, mid-level clubs with canny ‘value’ hunting managers (like Wenger) punching above their weight, and the rest pitifully swearing to virtues of local talent as an excuse for their empty coffers. But rather than lamenting this unequal state of football affairs, I forfeit bourgeois sympathy for the underdeveloped clubs and embrace the opportunity for beautiful football that unfettered markets create in the elite level. Who cares about Leeds role in Yorkshire talent development – I wish a rich sheikh would buy it and fill it full of Drogbas and Messis so I can watch the best football that money can buy.

Cunning Linguist:

Preach!

Political Footballs:

You guys did that. It was called the 2000/2001 season. Fat Aussie wanker.

George:

But does a class system not truly offend us at some level?  Yes, sport is not intended to celebrate mediocrity. As much as the super rich clubs have injected quality into the game by assembling an  array of talent until then only imagined in school yards (or fantasy soccer leagues), the gulf between the haves and have nots is so large that it’s a fantasy to think someone other than the big 3 will win it.  “Hey, you never know”. That tagline sells a lot of tickets–and I guess the EPL hopes so too.

I don’t know what happened/went wrong with the likes of Preston North End and Huddersfield Town. Perhaps this current crop of champions will be a memory in years to come. I can only hope.

Tyler:

Without going back through each and every post, I don’t think there has been much yearning for the good ole days in our posts. Cunning Linguist and Rob have made valid points with regard to agents and self-preservation/securing one’s and one’s family’s future.

I too used to HATE Drogba the Gunner Killer, then read about what he’d done for his country, saw him mature on the field, watched him beat Munich, and now he’s a sporting hero of mine. The only problem I have with him moving to China is that now I can’t watch him. Maybe I’d be more upset if I supported Chelsea, but I doubt it. He left at his peak.

That says something about loyalty, I suppose. I shouldn’t like him, right? But at the end of the day sport is, among other things, entertainment and glory and he provided ample amounts of both.

What is loyalty? I chose Arsenal because I discovered FSC and the first thing I saw was Henry change direction and cause two defenders to lose their footing and fall. Then I saw that year’s squad was Invincible. I rooted for France and recorded every WC game of theirs because of Henry, I had recently been to France, I watched more Arsenal the next year and loved what I saw. I know nearly nothing about North London; the most time I’ve spent in England was sleeping on the floor of Gatwick airport, but that’s my team and it always will be.

(I’ll pause and wait for the scoffing to end.)

When some of us complain about player loyalty in this era, we might feel scorned because we expect that the player knows us like we know him. We forget he’s not our buddy, we spend money and set aside our time to watch him while he makes more and more money and has so much time to enjoy a rich and famous lifestyle while never knowing us. We think he should repay our loyalty but he has his own loyalties.

So I sent the Ba link with no comment save for a comparison between him and Abramovich. At least we know where they stand as individuals who want to be successful financially and competitively no matter who gets in their way. The issue we Gooners have with Nasri is that he used the team to get where he is then trashed the team and its fans. So he’s a disrespectful juvenile who we thought was our buddy but he wasn’t, and we moved on (but we love that he was ejected last game because we thought he was once our buddy). Our problem with Adebayor is similar; he has character and temperament flaws and he really provided a reality check for sure–oops, not our buddy! We moved past it and now he just seems sad.

RVP, Theo, Wenger, Arsenal as an organization, the problem we have with them is that they say one thing and do another, but they want us to stay their buddy. Or, they actually say nothing and let us guess, pretending to hope we are their buddy while secretly not caring? Yet they give us just enough to hold on to and because we want entertainment and glory we put up with it, rationalize it, and somehow love it no matter how dysfunctional it gets. We hope!

The reason we’ll never question Cesc or have a problem with him is that we knew where he stood. He proved his loyalty by chastising Spanish press for misquoting him against Arsenal. Henry won everything he could with Arsenal and left to win that one last trophy. We understood and he proved loyalty by returning. They gave us beginning and end and were a bit clearer about it than the others.

Years ago I decided, only half-jokingly, that for fairness and entertainment’s sake, the MLB and the Olympics should offer two separate competitions, one for the purists and one for the dopers. Entertainment and glory would abound, and we would know where they, and we, stand.

A “super fantastic Blatteristic Euro league” full of the big money teams? Why not? (Ahem, next roundtable topic?) Entertainment and glory for sure, talent and competition through the roof. Just don’t expect anyone you’re watching to be your buddy.

Loyalty… I once hated Peyton Manning simply because he was THAT good, a Broncos killer. (For the same reasons as Kobe to the Nuggets but not nearly as vile. Sports heroes are villains because they’re heroes to someone.) But now Peyton is totally my buddy! He’s curious about what I’m having for breakfast and I’m pretty sure we’re going to see “Les Mis” after the Super Bowl. I’m sure of it!

CommentaryEnglandtransfers

The End of the Arsenal Is Not At Hand

December 31, 2012 — by Rob Kirby

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Calendar finale 2012 miraculously witnessed Arsenal removing the pesky “handbrake” to which manager Arsène Wenger so often refers (why would any team so repeatedly employ such an antiquated and momentum-killing device?) and the team won four successive matches in December: the crisp 2-0 v. West Brom, followed by the toyingly awesome 5-2 v. Reading, the limp but who cares 1-0 v. Wigan, finally concluding with the scoreline-busting 7-3 v. Newcastle. Suffice it to say, two of the four failed to feature historic defensive displays from either side. But no gripes with goals. No, sir. Midfield marshal Santi Cazorla could have even pushed those scorelines higher if ballhog teammates reciprocated on occasion and passed to him on his own forward runs. Theo, to your direction this last statement looks.

After all the negative press bullshit, we marched into the Boxing Day match in fourth place. Fourth! Unexpected, perhaps undeserved, but definitely level with three other teams and above on goal difference. In times like these, one takes the good when it arrives, no questions asked, without a single horse chomper inspected. Then the London subway/tube strike saw the West Ham match postponed while everyone level on points with us won and left us three points behind. Rested, on the 29th, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud then went delightfully über-nuts on Newcastle in the end-of-year goalfest extravaganza, two of those tied-for-fourth fools lost, and we now sit fifth, with a chance to overtake/draw level with Tottenham if we do manage to win the postponed game against formerly resurgent West Ham. And thanks to two certain lopsided scorelines, we continue to pack a superior goal difference.

A bit of union-dispute luck arrived for old Arsenal on December 26, in that the tube strike gave the team a welcome breather. West Ham, though not currently as good as when the Hammers roared out of the gates and back into the Premier League early season, are still good, and the game would have made for three matches in 8 days. Same as everyone else, except then it wasn’t, which can’t but have helped in delivering fresher legs and fewer squad rotations to the second match, where we happened to especially turn it on in the second half against tired Newcastlian legs. Newcastle had just lost a hard-fought 7-goaler against Manchester United three days previous while the Gunners enjoyed their gift certificates for training ground spa days. A postponement in the middle of the Christmas fixture congestion suited us just fine. Perhaps we even engineered the tube strike, and if so, well played, Arsène. I think maybe I get the handbrake thing now.

As to any potential West Ham fear factor, we can get a result against them, almost definitely. Probably. However, there’s still that fundamental uncertainty, not to mention the more certain uncertainty had we faced them in their best run of form. They’ve been above us in the league table for most of the season. As fans, we enter the match with some trepidation. As red flags go, that flaps about as one that bespeaks/be-signals neither a title-contending nor a top-four state of mind. Until we make up the postponement, people will spout off about the “game in hand” as if it’s merely a formality, which just seems asking for a reality check. I, for one, will not do so. I don’t like reality checks in the form of boxed-ear reprisals, fiscal cliffs and least of all in the form of humiliating Arsenal losses.

Even before the Newcastle demolition, the season has revolved around the fates of three people: Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott and Arsène Wenger. (Cazorla and Wilshere get the occasional shout-out.) One already departed, the other threatening and the third beset by villagers with pitchforks and short memories baying for the blood.

Gone are the days of the “Bould effect” and the initial wow factor of Cazorla (who quickly became my favorite player on the team, except maybe Wilshere, or Arteta, maybe Sagna, Szczesny for spirit, Frimpong for the thuggery). It’s all about recriminations of how we let RvP get away, the contract hell of Walcott and the scapegoat for both, the manager.

Fearing that this post would fail to eclipse my previous longest, I asked two friends to weigh in on their thoughts at year’s end. (Note: both sent words before the Newcastle match, which may have changed perspectives. A stomach flu has set me back to the proverbial eleventh hour of the year.)

Roland A. –  “I don’t really have any particularly deep thoughts about The Arse at the moment. Just that Wenger is probably near the end of his rope, he knows it, but the marriage/relationship he and the board seem to share make a divorce such a difficult, and still at this point, improbable proposition. I don’t know exactly what it is that he seemed he used to have—motivational nous?  Contagious belief? But it does appear to have deserted him, and the squad. Really just hoping at this point that 1) he signs 1 or 2 quality attacking options, and 2) he somehow manages to modify his seemingly rigid tactical beliefs to reflect what’s happening on the pitch. I realize that only the first has any decent chance at taking place.”

Sean F. – “Despite the recent results, we need to buy another striker, another defensive mid with some steel and keep Walcott. We are still in 4th place with all the dropped points and fan backlash (a whole another blog), so we just need a good run and some health fortune. Arsenal is so much better when we play with pace and directness. If you look at the tables, our defensive record is not that bad but the lack of scoring is why we end up in ties.”

Wenger, Walcott and the ever-present specter of the departed van Persie.

Let’s start with the second, taking at face value and a minimum of derisive snorts that Walcott’s stalled contract really is about him playing as central striker and not about him wanting something so grubby as the most money at the club.

Walcott is the king of consistency in patches, his words (well, not the “king of” part). Any club that gambles on him–including Arsenal–has to know this, unless he cocoons and caterpillar-transforms into something majestically different than the stop-start-backslide player of the past seven years, where he has reigned as the quintessential mindfuck for Arsenal supporters. He’s just as likely to score a back-to-back hat trick as he is to go the rest of the season scoreless. Especially as the contract situation rumbles. The inner pessimist says he’ll perform out of his skin until he signs a contract extension and no further (until the next contract extension talks begin). So, don’t extend, you say. But then you freeze up, knowing how amazingly he’ll perform elsewhere. But then you relax, remember who you’re dealing with, then tighten, relax, freak out, go full-jelly, then suffer a cardiac infarction. This isn’t a yogic stress relief exercise, it’s Arsenal fan hell.

And like Walcott in particular, Arsenal as a whole confounds and spellbinds because one never knows what team will show up and what fans will get on any given matchday. (There’s anxiety medicine out there for this condition, and yes, every Arsenal supporter should take it.) This is where the narrative comes to Arsène Wenger. (As always, there is no need to actually address van Persie directly. He is like the Ghost of Exceptional Single Season Past that shall forever haunt the present and future.)

Suman, site co-founder with Sean (different than the aforequoted Sean), suggested charting the ups and downs over the course of the year, starting with the best striker in the land Robin van Persie, then the backlash against Wenger, the backlash against the backlash, the backlash against the backlash against the backlash, etc., ad infinitum. Arsène got whiplashed something evil with backlashes all year, with the occasional reprieve in light of a mirage Bould effect or super-signing like Cazorla. Short text version: any such chart, even with all the sharp peaks and nadir valleys, goes steadily down over time like the worst stock pick ever. And then buoys back up every so often just to mess with your head and set you up with a Champions League showdown with Bayern Munich who will totally murder you.

Anyhow, Wenger and the ups and downs. To sit fifth at year’s end, after the all the “Arsène OUT!!!” signs, the post-Bould-effect meltdown and the overall freakouts in general lands somewhere between miracle and justice. As an outsider American who (rabidly) digs the team, I’m always astounded by how maliciously gleefully fans, journalists and haters alike pile on the criticism after any poor showing, regardless of their own particular allegiance. And though I generally publish posts when Arsenal’s doing poorly, as there’s usually more to talk about re: team improvement, the manager and the team deserve props right now, even as a “club in crisis.” They’re grinding out the exact species of results detractors declared impossible, as Wenger had so fully lost the plot.

That said, the argument can still be made that the team is not entirely sitting pretty. Be that as it may, better a fifth place crisis (“don’t forget the game in hand…”—shut it) than one perched further down the table.

For months the makers of facile critiques have taken easy jabs at Arsène, just like every other season since the last trophy (the FA Cup in 2005, in case it hasn’t been seared into the neural hide of your mind from the millions of times it gets incandescently referenced). After seven trophyless seasons, more than a few have taken a swipe at Arsène and his failed youth project—the one that developed Cesc Fàbregas, Alex Song, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere, Wojciech Szczesny, and no-talent ass clowns like that. The same constituents have had their easy snarky goes at Arsène’s idiocy at keeping “perma-crocks” like Robin van Persie who’d never stay fit for an entire calendar year and/or season and become the highest scorer in the league, most likely for two seasons running.

Before the youth project, he fished the seas of France and French-speaking Africa, as if there were any use in that. Nobodies from Africa like Lauren, Song, Nwankwo Kanu, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure came and went. From France, Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Petit plied their trade, but since they’re essentially nobodies they hardly  merit mention.

Also, if some of those ersatz diamonds in the rough seem distant memories, it’s because they are, although you can still visit a few in Barcelona or Manchester if the mood arises and they haven’t yet been sold off like some sub-par Hleb, Flamini or François the Used Car Salesman (if you haven’t checked out the bizarre extramarital alterego of Kolo Toure, treat yourself now).

Many of those talents—young, Francophonic or both—left for other teams, which theoretically strengthens the argument for those who wish to grumble. Before Arsène, those ass clowns were unknown, but how dare he sell off such now-household names? Whether ironically ungrateful or not, people switched the criticism from “What does Arsène see in these losers?” to “Why does Arsène so idiotically fail to tie these world-class players to lucrative long-term deals?”

A critic’s mantra: Move the goalposts and you’ve always got a job.

Fair enough. While Arsène might be the perfect early career manager for many players, it’s clear that the team has failed to keep many of those same players because they want titles and Arsenal hasn’t exactly been flush with them of late. (They could have stayed and actually helped deliver those titles, but we can all agree that at this point, it’s a moot point.) Maybe it was a board issue, maybe an egomaniacal manager pathologically opposed to spending money, but no matter the case, these players left, and in latter years the players left without titles in the cabinet.

Wenger has made some mistakes and some gambles have blown up in his face like they were Acme Goods and he, Wyle E. Coyote. Fifth place (like third last year) owes largely to a couple players majorly saving us at crucial moments. Cazorla has proven one of the best signings of the trophyless years–a recent one at that, and none too soon. Carl Jenkinson and Per Mertesacker drew heavy criticism until a season later when they emerged as integral players during a difficult spell, namely the departure of our one-man offense. Third-choice goalkeeper Vito Mannone saved the collective bacon when he manned the sticks during Szczesny’s longer-than-expected absence. The emergence of quality from unexpected places has helped compensate for the elephant-sized void where Robin van Persie pulled the whole team on his back last year (himself emerging from the void resulting from Cesc’s departure, Cesc the previous player who pulled the team seemingly single-handedly after Henry, and so on).

I just wish the commentary so often leveled at the team and its manager not be made in such snap-tackle fashion. When you consistently reach the top four with an “abysmal” squad, perhaps it’s not just dumb luck. Arsène has been a great steward for the club. Not to say we didn’t get lucky at times or that we’ll finish in the Champions League spots this year, but the league table generally tells it as it is, especially with regard to year on year. If Arsenal must always feel the brunt of fans pointing to a non-ideal standing in the table, those same fans should likewise give the team credit when they claw their way back up. However, criticism is obviously easier.

Ridiculed for losing to Norwich, the team has now seen many go down to the very same, including Manchester United. We lost to Swansea. Again, they just held off the champions to possibly be.

But though the team situation looks better now than a month ago, or during the summer when van Persie declared he was off, or last year during the fullbackless slide in January/February or the cataclysmic August after the departure of Fàbregas and Nasri, the manager and the club look more than ever like they will part ways. In many ways, this year’s Swansea and last year’s Newcastle demonstrate both the problems at the club and the changed idea of the manager who changed English football. Fortunately, the team we just faced was this year’s Newcastle, not last year’s.

Managers across the league now monitor diet, fitness and spreadsheets the way Wenger once did alone among the crowd. If Wenger arrived in England the only economist versed in Moneyball (or Soccernomics) analysis, most likely have the tomes on their bookshelves now. Wenger’s schtick was once plucking rough chunks of stone from faraway shores and transforming them into gems (Henry, Vieira, Anelka, Fàbregas, Adebayor, Nasri, Song, van Persie), but now that list reads like a who’s who of who left the club for better money or better title contenders. Arsenal scouts that once unearthed the finest Francophones in Africa seem to have been bested by Alan Pardew. Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse, Hatem Ben Arfa, Cheikh Tiote and Yohan Cabaye seemed tailor-made for Arsenal but rocketed Newcastle (near) the top instead last season. Instead of them, nowadays we get Marouane Chamakh and Gervinho.

With Swansea, the Welsh underdogs have perpetrated another episode of Wenger identity theft. Overlapping fullbacks bomb forward, names emerge from obscurity, and Laudrup (using Rodgers’ leftovers) produces soccer that’s both easy on the eyes and the managerial checkbook. Michu is the Wenger signing that wasn’t, and not because a bigger wallet came in and snatched the player away before we had a chance. As someone who can’t help but read up about any player linked to us in a transfer window, I never heard the faintest whiff of a link to Michu, who racked up an impressive 15 goals in La Liga last season and looks exactly the sort of buy Wenger once would have made—in for cheap and then a sensation in the league. Cazorla shows Wenger still hasn’t entirely lost that side of his repertoire, but their price tags stand miles apart. Arsenal still got a fantastic deal, but £2 million and £15 million don’t represent parity. More egregiously, though, Swansea passed the ball with attacking fluidity, out-Arsenaling Arsenal at Arsenal’s home ground.

Fans used to the success and genius that Wenger brought to the Premier League increasingly call for the manager to go. I didn’t see it happening, even last year. But now, more than at any other time, I see Wenger fulfilling his contract and moving on. The differences are not irreconcilable from Wenger’s perspective, but the fans make the relationship increasingly untenable whenever the team goes through a bad patch. Frankly, we no longer deserve Wenger and his loyalty. Arsenal fans are looking more and more like a pack of ingrates. Realistically, who would replace him. What top manager will swoop in and do everything right that Wenger does so horribly wrong? There are many top managers, but something tells me Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, et al, would prefer Manchester United over Arsenal.

Before I forget, getting back to Sean F.’s comment, yes, we need a defensive midfielder. We also need another striker. The specter of Robin van Persie is more than just the goal colossus himself–his absence swells to the lack of all the others who left and were not adequately replaced. It’s the unreplaced Alex Song DM, the unreplaced Nasri, Adebayor, Gilberto and other key pieces left missing when so many top players departed. Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud strengthened the depleted squad hugely, but Cazorla is the only player to come close to providing the spark and precision that Cesc provided. And the exit list still includes: Clichy, Kolo, Gallas, even Flamini and Hleb. Vieira and Henry started it off, and it just kept on going.

Meanwhile, striker-in-training Walcott throws toys out of prams and threatens to go, theoretically to be lone striker at some other Champions League club. Arsène has deployed him in his “dream position” as lone striker the past few matches, which could be seen as a concession for contract talks or an admission that anyone’s better than Gervinho, given Giroud’s illness. Either way, it has worked (so far) and perhaps may induce Walcott to sign a contract extension. Except that’s never really been the issue and isn’t really what has prevented Walcott from signing. He wants more money and his patch of consistency is surely almost up. (Prepare yourself for a bit of a diatribe. Kind of like the last one.)

He’ll sign or he won’t, he’ll stay or he’ll go. If go he must, go he should. Chase the cash, Theo, by all means. However, if he expects to play as lone striker for a Champions League club in the UK or anywhere, really, he will soon find out how much of an idiot he is, something many came to the realization of long ago. His pace makes him good to great on the right flank, but only when the defense gives him space, something they’ve learned not to do, and something they’ll certainly stamp out if he’s in the lead role. He has Henry’s number, but he’s nowhere close to Henry. To be fair, few are.

So go, Theo, go. Arsenal confounds its fans, delights its detractors when the club does poorly. He’ll be making someone happy, at the very least. And if he stays, he should stay as a backup striker. As shown at the end of the Newcastle match when he shunted off to the flank to give Giroud centrality and then put in good crosses and finalized his own hat trick. he can make it happen from the flank. Funny that, as it’s his best, if not preferred, position.

Things may get worse before they get better. Fifth at the halfway point means nothing. Inconsistency has become the Arsenal status quo, just like our mascot Theodore. The day that a player like Theo truly holds the club’s fortunes at his feet has not yet arrived, however. Giroud, for all the negativity leveled at him (until recently), is a real center forward. May he get fully well from illness soon, and may he help the club get truly fit and solid, as well.

For midterm status reports, Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud all have delivered as players midway through their first Premier League season. (Giroud took the longest to contribute, but he did just score a brace against Newcastle, where Podolski and Cazorla had a hand in nearly all the positive proceedings.) Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker have held it down in their second seasons. As new returnee Jack Wilshere can attest, the team is all new, and it’s not all bad. With Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson having all just last week signed on the dotted line, the blueprint of the club’s future is there. Keep Cazorla and the other new boys and it’s still a team in contention. Whether for “trophy” fourth or an actual trophy, we’ll see. Perhaps it will have to wait another year. One way or the other, the season, for all its ups and downs, provides optimism for the future. If others feel different, fine.

Dismiss the Arsenal and, like a departure-scenario Theo, prepare to find out that it’s not always so simple. Arsenal may no longer be a glamor team, nor Wenger the revolutionarily gifted Professor. Arsène should not go. Theo can if he chooses, but best for all if he stays. Stay, Theo, stay. Or go. But know your strengths, know your place, or see you on the Liverpool bench. Or on the right flank. You can get the money you want, if that’s all you want.

Theo provides assists and can display some classy finishing, but anyone who has seen him week in, week out, knows he’s not a Berbatov fox in the box or the second coming of either Thierry Henry or Robin van Persie, the chocolate-legged inner-child-crying-for-United boy wonder.

Anyhow, Walcott’s probably off, most likely on a Bosman at the end of the summer, though January can’t be ruled out. Or he’ll sign the deal and either will or won’t start sucking again. Regardless, his stock has risen in the past few months from the hat trick at Reading in the Capital Cup, the past three matches away to Reading and Wigan and the year-end blowout at home against Newcastle, which must rank as the match of his life. Just before the transfer window opens…

Clubs want him. Champions League clubs want him. Just not for starting striker. He could have a career as an impact sub or the speed demon on the right flank, but he’s unlikely to replace Torres, van Persie, Tevez or Aguero. If Spurs end the season in the top four and clinch qualification for the Champions League, they’d gladly forgive his Arsenal past (especially as a fuck you to Arsenal, landing one of our top players and righting the Sol Campbell wrongs), but he wouldn’t replace Jermaine Defoe or whoever else does replace Defoe. Imagine the reception Adebayor and Walcott would get at the Emirates as the two strikers. It nearly makes you want it to happen. The scenario of them being booed in tandem may come to pass, just not as the “strike partnership” part, and by then Adebayor must certainly will have burned bridges at yet another club. Scoring one goal thus far this season is the first step. That and getting sent off, leaving the 10 remaining men to get hammered 5-2 by their fiercest rivals, namely us.

A lower level team would give Walcott a striker berth, but if he’s too big for 75,000, he’s too big for anything like that. He’ll stay in England and he’ll want a Champions League club.

Okay, enough Walcott speculation, except to say finally that I hope he excels for as long as he wears the Arsenal colors. After that, as long as he keeps his mouth shut about Arsenal, come what may.

Having Wilshere back in the team is huge. He missed far too much football, but he’s getting back into the groove again and the growing understanding between Arteta, Cazorla and the English bulldog can only continue to develop and grow. Podolski and Giroud look increasingly more comfortable in the team and in the league and all signs point to that going yet further in the right direction. The team sheet has utterly changed in the time period separating Wilshere’s injury at the meaningless Emirates Cup in August 2011 and his return this season and his recent return. Cesc, Song, Nasri, van Persie and Clichy out; Arteta, Cazorla, Podolski, Giroud, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, in. The captain of the South Korean national team even came and went during that period. Park Ju-Young, we hardly knew ye.

Having Cazorla in the team is huge. Podolski, Giroud, Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Rosicky, Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arteta, Jenkinson, Szczesny. I’m not intentionally trying to list the starting XI (obviously, since there are two right backs) but these are the ones that stick out in my mind.

Henry left. Then Cesc. Then Robin. Walcott may. But if Wenger goes–and the odds no longer look so different from that of Walcott–it will be something totally and utterly different. And awful.

But for the moment the Boss is still here. And kickoff kicks off against Southampton sharpish tomorrow, our first match of 2013. Hopefully there will be more rejoicing, fewer backlashes and a nice tidy 2013 line that charts steadily onward and upward.

Come On You Gunners!

CommentaryEnglandLong Reads

Salman Rushdie & Spurs

October 1, 2012 — by Suman

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Via his twitter feed, here is Salman Rushdie on Saturday’s remarkable result at Old Trafford:

For more from Rushdie on the game, and on his history as a Spurs supporter, read this New Yorker essay from 1999: “The People’s Game.”

Part II (“First Love”) of the piece begins:

I came to London in January 1961, as a boy of thirteen and a half, on my way to boarding school, and accompanied by my father.  It was a cold month, with blue skies by day and green fogs by night. We stayed at the Cumberland, at Marble Arch, and after we settled in, my father asked if I would like to see a professional soccer game. (In Bombay, where I had grown up, there was no soccer to speak of; the local sports were cricket and field hockey.)

The first game my father took me to see was what I would later learn was a “friendly” (because the result doesn’t count toward anything) between a North London team called the Arsenal and the champions of Spain, Real Madrid. I did not know that the visitors were rated as perhaps the greatest team ever. Or that they had just won the European Cup five years running. Or that among their players were two of the game’s all-time immortals, both foreigners: a Hungarian named Ferenc Puskas, “the little general,” and an Argentine, Alfredo di Stefano.

This is the way I remember the game: in the first half, Real Madrid tore the Arsenal apart.

Take the time to read the whole essay (although doing so online does require a New Yorker subscription).

(I’ve thought at times of doing a “CultFootball LongReads” series of posts–links to longer essays on the game. Rushdie’s New Yorker essay, along with some of The Blizzard pieces, are what got me thinking about doing such a thing. So consider this the first in a series–more will appear here if/when we get around to posting any more.)

CommentaryEngland

Southampton Preview, Liverpool Postview

September 14, 2012 — by Rob Kirby

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In the 2-0 win away at Anfield almost a fortnight back, Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski scored their first goals for Arsenal. Important for them, important for us. The two goals represent our only goals post-Robin van Persie, period. In other words, we broke some ducks and flung some annoying monkeys off our backs.

So, we’ve put the dubious record of longest scoreless start to a season to bed. Now we can focus instead on the far better record–match minutes without conceding a goal. So far, three games and counting. Arsenal is the only team in the top four divisions of English soccer to have yet to concede a goal.

After the away trip to Liverpool came two weeks of international break for some World Cup qualifiers. As usual, it kind of killed the mood and players came back injured.

This time last year, we welcomed the international break. On the heels of the 8-2 mauling at Old Trafford, it came at just the right moment for licking wounds. Comparatively, this particular go-round had less to recommend it. We went into the international break having a one match “winning streak.” It was not a run. Nor did it stop a slide of calamitously bad form. It was simply what it was and mostly just got in the way. Fans had to find new, potentially worthwhile activities on Saturday and Sunday. These things happen.

To remind, then, where we left off two weeks’ back, we’ve picked up 5 points in three matches and we have an eminently winnable match at home against Southampton. At Anfield, Podolski and Cazorla notched a goal and an assist apiece (reciprocal assists to one another). Olivier Giroud came close and still looks just one small opportunity away from joining them in the Goals Scored column. It should be noted that Giroud’s movement, pulling Skrtel off Cazorla, factored largely in the first goal against Liverpool. Giroud didn’t score, but he helped it happen. He enabled Cazorla the space to deliver the ball back to Podolski for the match winner.

The defense has undergone a sea change from a year ago. New assistant coach Steve Bould seems to be having a huge effect. Perhaps the players are channeling the defensive nous of his player days. Perhaps a full year together has made everything click. Perhaps the back 4 had it in them all along. Whatever it is, it’s working. Long may it continue. Considering Sagna’s still out, Mannone filled in for Szczesny for the past two matches and Koscielny has yet to start a game this season, it’s pretty impressive.

After the match, people heaped praise on the defense, quite legitimately. The midfield also received a fair amount of plaudits, similarly legitimately. Abou Diaby had perhaps his best match in an Arsenal shirt, integral both defensively and offensively. Mikel Arteta covered whenever Diaby went forward and otherwise stifled the forward action of the Liverpool offense. The clean sheets have as much to do with Arteta’s immaculate defensive work as anyone in the back four. And Cazorla pulled off the string pulling in midfield we’ve lacked since Cesc’s last outing with us. He scored, threaded balls through the opposition and generally ran the pitch from side to side, back to front. He was fantastic. Giroud chose a good season to come to Arsenal. Cazorla will give him the chances he needs to get to scoring.

For the first time, watching Arsenal’s defense doesn’t terrify. Last season and in seasons past, one felt Arsenal could and would concede at any moment. So far this season, that feeling has retreated somewhat. Three matches is too soon to declare a defense unassailable, but for something that used to be our weakest area to now be an area of strength? This is good.

Tomorrow, Southampton at the Emirates. With a home match against a recently promoted side, one normally expects nothing less than three points. However, considering we dropped points to all the promoted teams last season, perhaps we need to rethink our approach. For several seasons we’ve sloppily dropped points against bottom table teams and eventually relegated teams, which speaks to a mental weakness against lower-rated teams that essentially equates to “show up, clock in, collect.” The team has to do something in between clock in and collect. No points are gimmes, and trite as it may sound, there are no easy matches in the Premier League.

On top of which, Southampton doesn’t seem like a pushover. They have had a hellish draw to begin the season, but they came very close to beating both Manchester clubs. In their place would we have done as well? Far from certain. Against Wigan they failed to perform, so hopefully we’ll see that team instead of the one that took the lead over both of the Manchester monsters.

Speaking of Manchester United, in the match televised directly following the Liverpool-Arsenal matchup on that day so very long ago, United looked at risk of losing to Southampton until van Persie put it into turbo and racked up a classic hat trick. RvP ‘s goals looked inevitable, with him picking up exactly where he left off last season. Antonio Valencia delivered a great across-goal cross that he slammed in. For the second, a quick-reflex poacher goal. Then the header for the hat trick.

It seemed totally natural to see him kicking ass and in fine fettle. And then the camera panned back to show the United jersey against a sea of United fans. Much less cool. And now, the Dutch return him injured, just as they did time and time again with us. I never cheer an injury to a player, and I don’t intend to do so now. I feel bad for Robin, but half the time he joins the Dutch national team, he returns carrying some new injury. He should really stop joining the national team.

As for injury news involving an actual current player, France selected Diaby on the strength of his fantastic display at Anfield and he returns to us injured, though it’s reported to be minor and short-term. (Aren’t they always, though?) One imagines this will give Francis Coquelin his first start of the season and move Arteta further forward. Wenger wouldn’t have taken it for granted that Diaby would stay fit until Jack Wilshere’s mythical return, so Saturday’s selection will reveal who he’s had in mind since the decision to sell but not replace Alex Song.

As a small subplot to the proceedings, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott face their former club. Theo missed the England versus Ukraine qualifier due to a virus, so his fitness is uncertain, but Oxlade-Chamberlain would likely get at least a substitute appearance, if not a starting berth. It’ll be interesting to see how the Southampton away support take to their former academy prodigies. The Guardian had a great article on the current Southampton academy today, incidentally.

Here’s to three points and a clean sheet tomorrow. And a goal for the front Frenchman. It can’t be fun getting likened to Chamakh all the time. Let’s let the man return back to his former club with at least one goal under his belt. (Arsenal travels to Montpellier for the Champions League on Tuesday, before a trip to the Etihad against Manchester City in the domestic league a week from Sunday. We’ve got an important stretch ahead.)

CommentaryEnglandPreview

Ducks To Shatter To Duck Dust At Anfield; Liverpool Preview, Stoke Post Mortem

August 31, 2012 — by Rob Kirby5

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Arsenal has a crunch match against Liverpool up at Anfield on Sunday (8:30 EST, Fox Soccer Channel). Both teams have yet to win a game this season, although it’s not quite crisis intervention time, as it’s only the third game in. Still, Arsenal has yet to score a goal, which is worrying since we just sold the player who scored 40% of our goals last season. Coupled with that, we sold the one who provided the most assists. Also, Liverpool nearly beat the champions last weekend in their 2-2 home draw with Manchester City. I don’t know that we could have done the same. In fact, I’m pretty sure we couldn’t. However, I don’t know that Liverpool could do so again, either.

Liverpool get Daniel Agger back from suspension, while reports have Laurent Koscielny in contention to return to the central defence, with Wojciech Szczesny facing a fitness test on Saturday. Liverpool have bolstered their ranks with the likes of the impressive Joe Allen (Brendan Rodgers’ playmaker at Swansea) and almost-Gunner Nuri Sahin, on loan from Madrid. More on Sahin to follow. They’ve also shipped out Charlie Adam to Stoke and loaned Jay Spearing to Bolton, Andy Carroll to West Ham. As a team stacked with dead wood ourselves, we could learn a thing or two there. But surely they can’t dislike Adam so much as to subject him to the knuckledraggers at Stoke.

Arsenal embark on a tough stretch of sorts. After Liverpool, we get a potential breather against Southampton at home, yet whenever we think we’ve got it in the bag, we blow it. Next we travel to the Eithad to play City and all our former players, swiftly followed by Chelsea at home. That would be the Chelsea of Hazard, Oscar, Mata and more. The team that’s been kicking ass while we’ve gone goalless. The team stacked with all the young stars we missed out on. Damn you, Chelsea and your 2012 Champions League medal and your sesquiquintillion quadrillions!

Of these four, most would expect us to get three points against Southampton, but to do that we will have to actually score. And even if we’re thinking we’ll scoreless-draw our way through the season (Invincibles Mk II), that would assume our “watertight” defense will hold up forever. We conceded 49 goals last season and have brought in no new defenders. We sold Alex Song to Barcelona. Everyone in the back 5 has another year under their belt, which is great and commendable and tentatively encouraging, but without a total rethink, the defensive coaching nous of Steve Bould can only go so far.

Anyhoo, let’s put it in perspective. Rewind a year and you’ll clearly see the comparatively kickass position in which we currently find ourselves. Not so much because now is so kickass, but this time last year we were bodyslammed into the deepest nadir in modern memory.

Favorite son Cesc Fabregas had just left, talented ugly stepchild Samir Nasri edged as close to the exit as humanly possible, essentially melding into the exit as he crammed into the tiny space at the threshold. Wilshere had injured his Achilles in the meaningless Emirates Cup. We’d drawn against Newcastle, which saw Gervinho get sent off and a three match ban for Song in light of video replay. We had then proceeded to lose 2-0 to Liverpool at home, Emmanuel Frimpong shown red and sent off. None of the transfer-deadline reinforcements had arrived. We relied on Robin van Persie, Mr. Glass, to stay fit for the season, which anyone could tell you was stupidity meets crazy talk (and yet it came to pass…). For Manchester United, like tomorrow, the third match of the season, Arsene was selecting players we’d never heard of from the academy to deputize: Nico Yennaris, Ignasi Miquel, Francis Coquelin, etc. Carl Jenkinson was playing in the Premier League for the first time. Armand Traore was one of our “experienced heads” at the back. And for good measure, Wenger threw on Oxlade-Chamberlain for an ill-timed debut, chucked onto the park for a trial by inferno fire as we were well into the the calamitous, humiliating 8-2 mega mauling at Old Trafford.

So, a year on and it’s looking a bit better, yes? We’re in the enviable position of staying on track for an undefeated season, having kept clean sheets in every game thus far. Okay, but in seriousness, the defense is looking better, especially factoring in the return of Koscielny and Szczesny. Well done to Vito Mannone at Stoke, incidentally. First time he didn’t cock it all up and make it go all pear shaped (I read too many British sites). That said, please return to the bench now, Vito.

We’ve lost two of our three best players for the second year running, except we opted not to wait until deadline day with the shadow of the executioner’s blade hovering above throughout the month of August. “Panic buy” Mikel Arteta has us rethinking how a midfield three can go about its defensive duties with precision tackling in a small form factor as opposed to brute force. Panic purchase Per Mertesacker, accused of being too slow, ponderous and clumsy, has combined with captain Thomas Vermaelen to shut down the opposition goal spree, meaning that to match last year’s total, we’ll need to ship 49 goals in the remaining 36 matches, as opposed to amortizing the lot over 38.

Last weekend, Stoke resumed booing Aaron Ramsey for intentionally inserting his leg in the exact spot where Ryan Shawcross was innocently sliding along with his feet out, breaking Ramsey’s leg all over the hills and valleys of the Brittania pitch in 2010. The ingrate got stretchered off and didn’t think twice about the mess of bone fragments and blood he’d strewn all over the grass.

As for no goals yet this season, it is easy, simplistic and relatively accurate to point to the sale of Robin van Persie. However, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud each moved closer to “breaking their duck,” “getting off the mark” and/or “opening their Arsenal account.” Insert appropriate Britishism for scoring one’s first goal. Yet you never hear of cherries popped. So prim.

The offense hasn’t yet totally clicked, but regardless the 5’6 Santi Cazorla has shined most gleamingly since season’s start. Imagine how he’ll look when all the pistons are firing. Cazorla in particular seems the best signing we’ve made in more or less forever. Both he and Mikel Arteta, only slightly less close to the ground, dealt with the physicality of Stoke excellently, proving that positioning can indeed be more important than thuggery. The only drawback is that Arteta is so dependable and consistent that we want him in more forward positions, especially if we’re looking to smash ducks.

During his Everton days, Arteta always looked technically gifted and dangerous in the final third, with several goals and excellent assists. Last season with us, he played a more restrained and disciplined role, steady midfield presence distributing forward with passing precision (completion percentage usually 90% or higher).

While the back four looked solid, if not quite ironclad watertight, Arteta may deserve the most credit for our two clean sheets. We’ve hobbled him with regard to goal-scoring possibilities, but with his tactical positioning and determination to win the ball–four interceptions against Sunderland, three against Stoke–his lack of imposing physical dominance is overcome by his smart play and well-timed challenges, he’s proving a better defensive midfielder than Song. It would be terrific if Diaby could be doing that, though, in order to free Arteta for his ball distribution talents and linkup with Cazorla. Seeing them together makes you wonder how much better we would have fared with Fabregas and Arteta together, or perhaps Fabregas and Xabi Alonso a few years earlier. Alas, roads not taken, lives not lived.

Abou Diaby killed the momentum at times, not least of which at the edge of the 6-yard box where he spurned the opportunity for a match winner. His performance reminded fans that he’s not (always) a bad player when actually playing, and two games on the trot for a man with his injury record is promising. I write this tentatively and with fingers quintuple crossed. (Single-finger typing.)

Both fullbacks did well, largely due to good cover from Arteta. Carl Jenkinson will need to continue to do so until Bacary Sagna’s fit again, barring a late transfer on that front. On the left, Kieran Gibbs has done well to solidify his place in front of that cuddly Brazilian jokester with a penchant for high-speed chases.

The team is slowly coming together. Giroud looked robust and every bit his reported 6’4 as he repelled the dirty tactics and refused to get pushed around Stoke, which was excellent to see. He looked generally much more in his element than in the opening day match against Sunderland. Podolski nearly decimated his duck, etc., until a short-range shot got blocked by a handy Stoke arm. Penalty award denied.

Giroud will score, and once he does, he’ll continue the trend. It took Thierry Henry nine games before he first scored, and things seemed to go relatively okay for him in the long run. Giroud came within inches of sailing a wonder strike over Begovic’s head and into goal from 40 yards, which would have been insane. You could point out that passing to Ramsey would have been the better choice, but that seems a bit churlish.

Despite two underwhelming 0-0 draws, a point at Stoke is not a bad result. The same can’t be said for Sunderland. Ultimately, Arsenal has two points. One could also look at it as four points dropped against mid table teams, but again, churlish.

As for the fates of Gervinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott, if Podolski locks down his spot on the left wing with Giroud central, Gervinho and Walcott will probably battle for the wide right, with the Ox more likely in the central midfield, which Wenger has previously specified as his ultimate destination. This creates a rich midfield choice of Cazorla, Arteta, Ramsey, Diaby, and Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky when again fit, as well as former academy kids Coquelin, Frimpong and potentially Yennaris, unless he’s slotted for fullback cover. Sahin might have added yet more, but such was not to be.

Which brings us to a meditation on the misleading “Liverpool beat Arsenal to Sahin” headlines. We were in pole position and we elected to not take him on loan, given his wage demands (£120,000 a week), the couple million loan fee and non-option to buy at the end of the season. Liverpool conceded on every demand and landed the player. They pay a heavy price for the ability to make him a better player for Real Madrid, at the expense of blocking in-team personnel or directing those funds on a new player who’s actually theirs. If Liverpool had succeeded in getting him for the terms we were after, that would be like for like. They did not. In reality, he chose Real Madrid over Arsenal, as would just about any player. Sahin is a great player and will improve Liverpool, no doubt. They are paying a not inconsiderable price for one season of his services, however.

After the post-match handshake Tony Pulis jogged across the pitch with a shit-eating grin on his face, clearly pleased with whatever he’d said to Wenger. He claims in the media that he is powerless to stop Stoke fans from booing Ramsey, yet he has never tried. He constantly talks about how hard it was for the player—Ryan Shawcross, not Ramsey—and praises Shawcross’ bravery in soldiering on (uninjured). While Ramsey lay in bed for a year, Shawcross drew a line under the (for him) difficult incident. Pulis rewarded him with the captainship for this bravery.

The match Sunday could be great. Let’s hope that it is, to the tune of a goal bonanza. In our favor, to clarify.

CommentaryEnglandtransfers

Late-Breaking Walcott Defection

August 29, 2012 — by Rob Kirby

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For my first Arsenal match in August 2006, covered in the 10 am yell spit and spilled beers of fellow patrons at Nevada Smith’s in New York, I saw Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott come on as subs after Thierry Henry had done something or other phenomenal. My buddy Roland, who deserves all the blame for me being a Gunner, had filled me in on the Walcott World Cup call up fiasco and considered van Persie his favorite player. I was intrigued to see RvP play, and he pulled off an incredible shot on goal within minutes. Walcott did not. But then, he was still 16 at the time.

Van Persie now seems as if he’s been off for ages, though it’s only been a couple weeks and we will face him domestically for seasons to come. Alex Song’s deal transpired in seemingly days, though the recriminations linger on from his camp. And now 48 hours before the transfer deadline, Walcott looks to be off as well, unless he gets a substantial pay packet increase. We’ve offered a deal worth £75,000 a week, he’s currently on £60,000 a week, and he wants £100,000 a week. Arsenal do not believe he yet merits 100K, relative to the levels he has so far achieved (or failed to achieve) at the club in 222 first team appearances. We’ve got 48 hours to decide. If he doesn’t sign for us or someone else before the close of the transfer window, he leaves for free in June. We paid close to £10 million in 2006. Zero compensation doesn’t sit well with the accountants and 48 hours is neither much time to arrange a deal nor much time to arrange for a suitable replacement.

Walcott has shown “consistency in patches” (his words) and flashes of genius. Rare, yes, ephemeral, but still. The pain in the ass about the Theo contract non-extension is that no one would be broken up about the current version of the player leaving. He can sprint but otherwise he has a limited number of actual soccer-related tricks up his sleeve. Primarily the exit fear comes from the possibility that he’ll finally achieve his true potential in a different uniform. But currently, no, he doesn’t deserve what he’s demanding.  He hopes to earn the highest wages at the club. It looks as if he won’t. But will we get an acceptable bid with next to no time remaining? Not looking promising, you’d have to say. Clearly, the timing of the refusal was engineered for Theo’s benefit alone. He will almost certainly leave and Arsenal will almost certainly get short-changed in the rush deal. At least RvP pitched his fake-pally public fit with enough time to deal with it.

This month, we’ve lost two of our best players to Manchester United and Barcelona, respectively. That makes two summers in a row, after two of the three best exited for Manchester City and Barcelona, respectively, last year. (We also sold Gaël Clichy to Manchester City, but no big deal there, since end-product-wise he mainly channeled ex-Gunner Alex Hleb, except Hleb could put in a better cross.) The summer before that, our for-one-season-only top scorer Emmanuel Adebayor pimped himself out to City. The summer before that, the stalwart (and alone of them all, non-money-grubbing) centerback Kolo Toure got free of William Gallas by heading to City. And before that, our all-time leading scorer Thierry Henry floated over to Barcelona. But at least we later suckered Barcelona with Hleb. Ha-ha.

When we want to see former players, whether in away fixtures or simply for social calls, luckily we can just visit two principal cities. Manchester and Barcelona. Early reports peg Walcott for City, naturally, since they’ve got more than enough money, despite the fact that they’ve got far better personnel in his position. But that, as they say, is not our problem. Perhaps someone just forgot to update the Arsenal to City multiple-use media template. The other main mooted destination, Liverpool, makes more sense, because their wingers need help. Chelsea’s name pops up, as well, but that seems unlikely. Why would they downgrade? Hazard, Oscar, Mata and … the headless sprinting chicken. But a clean-cut, very marketable because English-born, speedy headless chicken.

We can either go with the hysteria cue or take a more measured approach. Let’s do the latter.

In the past 14 months, we’ve lost two world class players, Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas. The next level down, Samir Nasri. Another level down, Alex Song. Level down again, Walcott and Clichy.

In the meantime, we’ve strengthened with Santi Cazorla, who’s definitely world class. Next level down, Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Mikel Arteta. We’ve brought in future bright lights in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and possibly Ryo Miyaichi. Andre Santos, Per Mertesacker and Gervinho can each put in a solid shift on their day. And from the academy, Ignasi Miquel, Francis Coquelin, Nico Yennaris and Emmanuel Frimpong. Meanwhile, Kieran Gibbs is at least as good as Clichy, whose main strength was resistance to injury, so perhaps we’re even there. And one day, our young savior Jack Wilshere may reenter the mix matrix.

Much could happen in the next 48 hours, even though reinforcements may not be forthcoming. At the very least, one would hope the “exodus” will include the dead weight we’ve been trying to unload all summer: Nicklas Bendtner, Park Ju Yung, Marouane Chamakh, Andrey Arshavin, Denilson and so on.

Back to Theo. He has long divided opinion, but the contract rejection couldn’t come at a worse time, not least from an “Arsenal are a selling club” PR point of view. To avoid losing him on a free, we have a grand total of two days to move him on before the close of the transfer window. Deja vu in everyday life can sometimes be interesting, but in Arsenal transfer dealings it’s a horrible, horrible thing.