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State of the Union: Arsenal, Polkraine

June 15, 2012 — by Rob Kirby3


The Arsenal won’t play a competitive match until August, but that’s no reason to cease obsessing and expounding upon the team. With two of our strikers, a few top wingers and midfielders, a couple central defenders and a goalkeeper in Polkraine, we’re fielding a mostly full team. No fit right back or left back, but then that was the month of January. This is familiar territory.

As internationals enter the final round of the group stage matches of Euro 2012 on different teams, some have excelled in Poland and Ukraine, while others hide their heads as they make their way to the exit.

In Group A, Russia captain Andrey Arshavin, Czech Republic captain Tomas Rosicky and Poland first-choice goalie Wojciech Szczesny have been facing off in a tightly competitive, if comparatively weak, group.

Current Zenit St. Petersburg loanee Arshavin has had a great Euro comeback, putting in some of his best performances since Euro 2008, with three assists thus far. Whether it derives from finally playing in his preferred position behind the striker or whether he simply feels happier and more comfortable captaining a side of his countrymen is unknowable, but Russia currently sit atop Group A and look poised to go through to the knockouts. A victory or draw against Greece would seal it, but a late game counterattack from the notoriously difficult, itinerantly attacking  Hellenic defense could scupper Russian hopes. Arshavin can help ensure that does not happen. He still has moments of listless apathy, such as the second half against Poland, and would never dream of tracking back, but the mercurial Little Tsar still shows the moments of genius that made Arsenal fans so excited to sign him in January 2009.

Finally fit and in form again after so long, Rosicky unfortunately suffered an Achilles issue in the second match of the group stage and looks out for the count no matter what happens in the final match against Poland. Hopefully he can recover in time for the new season, but few players shake off Achilles problems without long layoffs. But having spent abundant time at adjoining physio tables with fellow rehab regular Thomas Vermaelen, he probably already knows this all too well. Sadly for Tomas, his tournament is likely over.

Wojciech Szczesny got sent off in the opening match of the tournament for a clumsy penalty but returns for the winner-takes-all match against the Czech Republic, in a bid to salvage his rep on home soil and help Poland progress to the quarterfinals, after missing the draw against Russia from suspension. From a purely selfish, club-centric point of view, hopefully he can put in a good showing even if cohost Poland ultimately fails, so that no psychological hangover haunts the big keeper in the Arsenal campaign ahead. Sadly for club and country backup Lukasz Fabianski, even with Szczesny out of the picture an injury keeps him from getting his big moment on the home stage, especially as he actively seeks pastures new and desperately needs the visibility. You can’t help but feel a bit bad for the guy. Until you remember why he got bumped down to number two and get your blood pressure up all over again. And bay wolfishly for his blood.

In the Group B group of death, Arsenal captain Robin van Persie, Arsenal headache Nicklas Bendtner and new signing Lukas Podolski have been facing off, while the recovering Per Mertesacker (ankle) has looked on from his seat on the uncomfortable Teutonic bench.

Nicklas Bendtner, a.k.a. the Great Dane, a.k.a. the best striker in the history of scoring goals, had a mostly anonymous match in the surprise victory over Holland but then clawed and headed Denmark even with Portugal on Wednesday with a handy brace before the Portuguese snatched the crucial late goal. If last year’s Sunderland loanee can put in an impressive shift against Germany in the final match of the group, all while resisting the urge to drop trou for illicit underwear advertising, the ultra-arrogant wantaway forward will have made good use of his time in the shop window. Furthermore, Denmark may just eke through to the knockout stages. But then Lukas, Per and the rest of the German horde won’t make it easy for them, unless Die Mannschaft willingly and shadily go for a draw to shaft the Dutch and ensure their bitter rivals’ exit. Murky sportsmanship terrain. Of course, revisiting the issue of Bendtner and the shop window, buyer beware. His Royal Car Crashingness plays outstandingly well for country (20 goals in 50 appearances), less so for club (22 in 99 league matches).

By contrast, Robin van Persie had been on fire for for both club and country in 2011 and 2012, although new eyes watching the Oranje going into what might be the country’s final match of this Euros could be forgiven for not knowing it. That said, van Persie managed a fantastic right-footed, chocolate-legged consolation goal in the crunch match against Germany, but not enough for the Netherlands to take any points from the encounter. With Holland sitting bottom of the table in the Quartet of Death with zero points, the future doesn’t look especially rosy. Perhaps the national team’s collapse could be Arsenal’s gain, though. In an ideal world, RvP returns to preseason well rested and ready to sign on the dotted line of contract extension. A backlash from the Dutch (and world) media may just make him appreciate the loyalty Arsene Wenger and the club have showed him over his many injury-plagued seasons. One can hope.

Arsenal new boy Podolski has played well for Germany, even if he has not scored. The former Cologne striker has put in excellent performances for Germany the last two World Cups and in the 2008 installment of the Euros, so with Germany unlikely to exit anytime soon, he’s got time. Perhaps he’s just pacing himself. He has scored 43 goals in 99 appearances for Germany, so a betting man would say he’s got goals in him, yet.

National teammate Mertesacker won the fitness race for the bench, but has yet to feature in either of the German victories in the group. As disappointing as benchwarming may be, one must remember he went off at Sunderland with an ankle ligament injury last February, an injury that kept him out for the remainder of the season. The fact that he has not suffered any new niggles or problems in training bodes well for the new season, and the veteran center half may yet have a role to play, as many expect the Germans to go the distance this summer.

Group C features no current Arsenal players–only the ones that got away, like former captain Cesc Fabregas (the hurt, it still hurts so much…) and Eduardo, the awesome but tragically leg-shattered Croazilian.

And in Group D, we’re back in traditional Arsenal territory. The group does, after all, include France (and England). But as opposed to past years where the French contingent drew from an overabundance of Arsenal riches, Laurent Koscielny alone keeps the flames alive for injured compatriots Bacary Sagna (leg) and Abou Diaby (bones on self-destruct)–and only from the bench, at that. Meanwhile, England flanking speedsters Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain pace it up on the English attack, though the elder young’un came on only as a super sub against France.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, in particular, has made huge strides in his adaptation to international competition, especially in his tournament debut against France at the Shakhtar Donetsk home stadium. He seemed unfazed by the moment and never got pushed around by the French. Late sub Theo, however, never even touched the ball in his one-minute cameo on the pitch. Hodgson clearly rated the teen higher than his precursor.

But then came Friday and the England/Sweden match. England went up after Andy Carroll shocked the world and forgot to blow it. Then England went down 2-1, Hodgson signaled for a substitutio,n and who should pull them level but fresh supersub Walcott, his first goal for England since the hat trick against Croatia in 2008? And then who would dribble, charge deep into the box and deliver the powerful cross to the flukey rebounding backheel of Danny Welbeck that killed off the game and looks to have sent England to the quarters? None other than the original Speedy 1.0 himself. Oxlade-Chamberlain (the 2.0) came on in the 90th minute, but Theo authoritatively made his case for both club and country with his second half display, all the more important as the race for Arsenal wing positions heats up between the two Southampton graduates, especially if Podolski lines up on the left wing at season’s start, as expected. (Obviously all depends on the $64.44 million dollar question of RvP’s presence/absence.)

As for possible Arsenal recruits, Yann M’Vila and Oliver Giroud of France seem good prospects, even if neither has really had a chance to fully shine at the tournament, though for different reasons (knee, former; Karim Benzema, latter). Each played about 20 minutes in the match against Ukraine on Friday. And Samir Nasri showed that he’s still good, if still despicable and utterly devoid of any gratitude to his former team or coach. Open letter to Emmanuel Frimpong: at your earliest convenience, please tweet, “If hating weak chins is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” Or just hand that punk a pimpslap beatdown. Word, Dench.

Wayne Rooney is now eligible to rejoin the starting XI of the English squad, but Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain have deputized well in the meantime and kept the English firmly in the competition under Roy Hodgson’s tightly structured defensive regiment. Rooney could catapult the team to the knockouts, but that is far from the point here. The Euros is a way to see Arsenal players in new and different rescramblings, not about hyping players from Manchester United, no matter how hair-transplanted or talented. Any such trains of thought are hugely and boringly off-topic. And to the extent that they do register, hugely irritating.

Stay tuned for the next installment of The State of the Union: Arsenal, Polkraine. May an Arsenal player be hoisting the trophy two weeks hence.


Checking in with the Arsenal Loan Diaspora

November 10, 2011 — by Rob Kirby

Jack Wilshere’s successful loan spell at Bolton proved the final piece of his development. More please…

Even before the quarterfinal draw for the Carling Cup paired Arsenal with Manchester City (a.k.a., the Death Squad), many speculated that the reserve teamers logging time on the big stage would soon cede their places to first team players in a push for the silverware. The best then would seek loan opportunies at smaller clubs in the Premier League, in lower leagues or, less ideally, on the continent.

Arsenal has not yet faced the Death Squad in the league, but if they can annihilate the team that annihilated us 8-2, it’s hard to be too confident of much more of a Carling Cup run for any Arsenal player. Manchester City could rest Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli and David Silva and continue to perma-rest Tevez and STILL expect to win at the Emirates, no matter which team Arsenal fields.

The youth players need playing time, and Arsenal can’t necessarily afford to have them ramp up to Premier League speed on its watch. The team concedes enough goals from errors as it is. The lesson of Jack Wilshere is the model. His successful loan spell at Bolton provided the final piece of his development, playing week in, week out. Academy players graduate to the reserves and while reserve fixtures are vital to their development and match fitness, eventually they have to show what they can do when the stakes are higher and the opposition fiercer. At a certain point they have to play and prove they have what it takes. Only at such point can Wenger decide if they’re ready to graduate to the first team.

Ignasi Miquel and Nico Yennaris lead the list. The team’s official site still lists them as reserve teamers, although both seem closer to the first team than the frozen-out veteran Sebastian Squillaci. Miquel and Yennaris both started the Carling Cup victory over Bolton and played very well. Both are expected to seek loan deals in search of match play, although Wenger may decide to keep them in the squad to blood them himself, depending on the injury situation. Bolton substitutes Oguzhan Ozyakup and Daniel Boateng will likely also seek temporary pastures new, as will Chuks Aneke and Sanchez Watt, who sat on the bench at Bolton. No word yet on expected destinations.

But what of the current loanees? The hodge podge of players Wenger couldn’t offload during the summer (Bendtner, Vela, Denilson), secure work visas for (Joel Campbell, Pedro Botelho, Wellington, Samuel Galindo), and near first-teamers (Henri Lansbury, Kyle Bartley, James Shea) have been proving their mettle on the field, domestically and abroad. Some have impressed and some have not. The Offload Three, in particular, have done little of note. In fact, Denilson and Vela have failed to score a goal between them. No shocker, there.

But without further ado:

Nicklas Bendtner, The Greatest Player of All Time, has scored two goals in seven for the Black Cats. Against Manchester United, he failed to connect with a late Sebastian Larsson cross that could have equalized the match instead of losing 1-0. Bendtner needs to have a stellar season at Sunderland, as he’s burned the bridges home with anti-Arsenal sentiments in the press, fueled as ever by his overactive ego. One hopes he does do well, if only to cash in on him at the first opportunity. He’s better than Marouane Chamakh, but you don’t get a medal for standards that low. Sunderland currently finds itself 15th in Premier League.

Out-of-favor Denilson the outcast has zero goals in 10 appearances for Sao Paulo. Sounds pretty much right. Arsenal will continue to have trouble unloading him at this rate. Sao Paulo is in 8th in the Brazilian Serie A, with 5 games remaining.

Former golden boy Carlos Vela has scored no goals for Real Sociedad in his 7 appearances. As with Denilson, not much changed there. The scoreless striker will continue to be difficult to offload. And Real Sociedad desperately needs the goals. Rayo Vallecano just thrashed them 4-0 to send them tumbling to last in La Liga. Unsurprisingly, Mexico chose not to call Vela up for the upcoming match against Serbia due to his abysmal form. Arsenal supporters had high hopes for Vela, as with Denilson. Now they just want to see them off the club roster.

Henri Lansbury has one goal in five appearances for West Ham United. He missed out on the 2-0 defeat of Hull, but the Hammers currently occupy 2nd in the Championship. With possible promotion to the Premier League, though it’s far too soon to make any predictions, Lansbury may be learning to enjoy the taste of success and will probably be ready for the first team.

Central defender and former reserve team captain Kyle Bartley returned from a lengthy injury to log his second appearance for Rangers, who top the Scottish Premier League. Rangers employed the center back in midfield in the 3-1 defeat Dundee at Ibrox. If Bartley gets more playing time, he could also make a strong case for the first team.

The Costa Rican teen Joel Campbell has scored two in nine for FC Lorient in Ligue 1. Arsene’s go-to French loan club is in 7th place. Impressively, Campbell has been shortlisted in Tuttosport’s annual “Golden Boy” award (think poor man’s Youth Player of the Year). However, he competes with Arsenal’s own Jack Wilshere, who took second last year, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, not to mention ultra-heavyweights Eden Hazard, Mario Gotze, Xherdan Shaqiri, Thiago, and Phil Jones. Once he plays more matches with the national team, he’ll be eligible for a work visa. Fortunately, he’s been called up for the upcoming matches against Panama (Nov. 11) and Spain (Nov. 15), so he’s on the right track.

The Bolivian Samuel Galindo has no goals in four matches with Gimnastic De Tarragona. Even after a 5-0 home victory over CD Sabadell, the team languishes in 21st in the Spanish Segunda Division, but the victory did see them claw its way from the bottom of the table.

Wellington picked the right or the wrong year to get loaned out to Levante. The Cinderella story topped La Liga and now sits 4th. However, the Brazilian hasn’t seen a second of playing time, hardly ideal for a loan spell.

James Shea has made three appearances in goal for Dagenham and Redbridge, who sit at a pitiful 22nd in League Two.

Currently injured, Pedro Botelho has scored one in eight appearances for Rayo Vallecano in La Liga. The team occupies eighth in the table.

In related news, Manuel Almunia returned from his emergency month-long loan spell at West Ham, where he reportedly played well. With Robert Green healthy again, he has returned to London to hope against hope he can get back into at least a backup goalkeeper role. And most of the Arsenal fan base will hope those wishes do not come true.


10 Men Arsenal Advance to FA Cup 5th Round

January 31, 2011 — by Tyler1

A nail-biter at the Emirates yesterday left our resident Gunners enthusiast in a giddy state. If Nasri hadn’t gone down (he looks unlikely for the clash with Barça mid-month), this would’ve been an almost perfect day for our friend from the Rockies.

Arsenal snatched a win at the death, but Nasri was sacrificed to the hamstring gods.

What a struggle, what a game.

Facing Huddersfield at home in Sunday’s 4th-round FA Cup tie, Arsenal showed that when healthy, they can field a tourney-worthy team comprised mostly of subs.

Arsenal are often so pretty, but Sunday they showed that a win is a win, no matter how ugly.

An aside: Arsenal really have nearly enough quality players to play 2 in every position. I honestly don’t think any team in the EPL, other than ManU and Tottenham, are that deep. Okay, okay, ManCity might be the deepest… but aren’t they still a work-in progress? (I think Arsenal has a deeper bench than ManU, but ManU maintains the mystique, the ‘killer instinct’.)

Arsenal still need help at center-back, and they could use some ‘pure’ wingers. Nasri, Walcott, Arshavin, Bendtner aren’t wingers… they are best-suited for and would prefer to play in the middle. The Gunners’ best wingers continue to be their starting fullbacks, Clichy and Sagna.

Arsenal played with 10 men for the entire 2nd half, thanks to what I believe was center-back Squillaci’s 3rd red card of the season. (Sebastian is proving to be quite the problem child!) Huddersfield came on strong in the 2nd half, negating Bendtner’s 1st-half deflected goal. But late in the game, Cesc arrived on the scene. Fabregas changed the game with just a couple effortless, efficient passes, and he won it with his late penalty.

Unsung heroes: I can boo-hoo Arshavin and Bendtner as much as anyone. But they’re both better players than we give them credit for, and they had pivotal roles in today’s game.

Bendtner scored the first goal of the match, and he even tracked back to defend once in a while!

Arshavin impressed me with his effort and desire, but his finishing continues to go missing. So many wasted chances in the box… Still, I can’t be mad at the diminutive opera-goer; a favorite moment for me today was when the Russian sprinted back to break up play inside the Gunners’ penalty box, throwing himself in front of the ball.

(Arshavin better be ready to shine for the next few games, as Nasri is most certainly out of action for 2-4 weeks. Just when the team was nearing full-fitness for the first time in so long… Why Samir, why???)

I was happy to see Rosicky’s leadership on the pitch, subbed after Nasri pulled his hammy. Tomas was brought down too easily, so many times, but he was vocal and inspiring, and he showed that he still has some creativity in him yet.

All in all it was a scrappy win. The Gunners’ “second team” obviously hasn’t had too many chances to play together as starters. They misplaced their passes, they had defensive lapses, they eeked out a win when they should have cruised.

2-1 is what matters. On to the 5th round…

Arsenal note-worthies:

• GK Almunia (aluminum?) returned from injury and made a crucial save. Thanks Manuel, but I still don’t trust you as the number one #1.
• Denilson and Gibbs’ lack of playing time hurt the squad today.
• Welcome back, Abou Diaby!!! (One of France’s 2010 WC standouts holds the ball like it’s a magnet; he can defend and attack and give Song a run for his money.)
• Alex Song, what an anchor. He came on in the 2nd half, in the role of center-back, and he was just as composed as ever.