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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.


Arsenal Squeak Past Swansea; Tough Germans Await

September 13, 2011 — by Rob Kirby

Arsenal travel to Borussia Dortmund to kick off the Champions League group stage tonight. Facing the German champions after a challenging start to the season and a crucial if somewhat underwhelming 1-0 win at the Emirates against Swansea City on Saturday is a tough task, but that’s the scenario. Of principle importance, the team quadrupled its points total in the league. No use wishing what else might have been.

It's always good to have your own giant German. And a pocket Russian.

The positives:

On Saturday, Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta made their first starts at the Emirates and put in solid performances for players who have had close to zero playing time with their teammates. Yossi Benayoun came on as a sub for his first performance in an Arsenal shirt as well. All put in solid shifts and with Ju-Young Park and Andre Santos warming up on the sidelines at various points, the new boys were in full effect.

(Meaningless to the team, but tremendously meaningful to me, it was my first visit to the Emirates, as well. The third row seat, right next to the Arsenal bench, pretty much ruled. More on which later.)

For the goal, Arshavin pounced on a freak goalkeeper error and slotted in a great goal from a tough angle. People will point to Vorm’s mistake, but the mercurial Russian came through before half-time with a great strike, one which proved to be the match winner. Arshavin has always had the talent, and on Saturday he came through when Arsenal needed him. It’s a good a time as any for a return to form, Andrey….

Meanwhile, Arteta showed poise under tough circumstances in his capacity as playmaker. Obviously Swansea does not have the reputation of a big name team, but they put up a fight with not inconsiderable pace. Keep in mind that Arteta was anticipating runs and weighting passes to players he can’t have trained with more than two or three times, as all the forwards had been on international duty since his deadline day signing. Mertesacker’s 6-foot 6 presence seemed massive, Koscielny played well and Szczęsny took total control of his area, with a few clinch saves. He truly seems like the man to keep the first ‘keeper place for years to come. He has all the self-confidence of pseudo-Gunner Bendtner but with the performances to back up the braggadocio. Chamakh came on and played well for the first time since nearly 10 months ago, and Coquelin also acquitted himself well.

As to the negatives, the second half was nervy and the crowd was jumpier than a virgin at a rodeo. (Sadly, I think I just stole that line from a long-ago episode of the Golden Girls. In fact, I know I did.) Like it or not, the Arsenal knows better than almost anyone how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. One never felt the game was locked up, and were it not for Szczęsny’s fantastic save 6 minutes from full time, it could easily have been a draw. Swansea doesn’t have the big name players, but they counterattacked with the quickness on several occasions. With a lesser man than Scszney in goal, they could very well have left the Emirates with a point. I, for one, am incredibly relieved they did not.

Van Persie had a less than stellar game. I had bet £10 on him to score first and £10 to score anytime in the match–it seemed like easy money, like taking candy from a baby–but such was not to be the case. He comported himself like a leader, though. With Walcott also having an off match, he looked isolated and squandered a few chances, but knowing his quality, knowing that he and Arteta will continue to form an understanding and knowing that Gervinho will soon (as in tonight) return in all his forward-bombing speediness augurs well. Frimpong looked tough–he’s a bruiser–but he too often gave away the ball carelessly, erasing all the hard work. The Ghanaian Mr. T will continue to improve, though.

Will Arsenal win tonight, or manage to take a point? Tough to call, as Dortmund are no chumps. A point, to my mind, would be more than acceptable, as Dortmund will very likely earn one of the top two spots and advance to the knockout rounds. Clubs encircled 19-year-old attacking midfielder Mario Götze like a pack of hyenas over the transfer window, but Dortmund was loathe to lose one of the top prospects in world football. The team has some dangerous players. Remember, these are the German champions, with one of the most solid home records and defenses around, having conceded only 8 goals last season. Not to belabor painful recent memories, but Arsenal conceded 8 in one game just over 2 weeks ago. This bears no further repeating, as it’s fully in the mind of the players and supporters. Time to replace it with fresh memories of winning ways.

Interesting factoid, a certain Tomáš Rosický (out with injury) scored two for Dortmund against Arsenal in the home 2-1 match in 2002 when they last met, surely a deciding factor on Wenger’s choice to snap him up in 2006.

Now is about looking forward. Now is about rebuilding and rediscovering the culture of winning and scrapping it out every single game, whether against mammoths or minnows. Ultimately, the Swansea match was about three points, and the points were secured. Arsenal no longer languish at the bottom of the league table. Should it have been 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1, 4-0, 7-0? Sure would have been nice (since I had £1 bets on the first five of those scorelines), but 3 points, even if a bit ugly, is all you can ask, especially in light August’s craptacular start.

If you want a sure win every time, with goals aplenty, support Barcelona (or one of the Manchesters). I am happy that Fabregas has returned to his wily ways and electric displays, but I support the Arsenal, so that is not a choice. And I despise all three of those teams, despite some of the incredible players on the payrolls. Of the 4 teams, only one is actually more than a club. (Hint: not the one that calls itself such as it nickles and dimes clubs into submission, yapping on and on about Barcelona DNA, perceived player grief and avenging the “kidnapping” of one of La Masia’s finest. Then, when they finally get their way, making the player himself pay part of his way, they brag about the great deal they got on said player, say Francesc Fabregas Soler, and how, no doubt about it, he was totally worth the asking price. More, even. They knowingly took money out of Cesc’s pocket. Keep it classy, Barcelona!)

Arsenal need to qualify for the knockout stages on merit. Putting in a solid performance against Dortmund would be a huge step towards that goal and a huge step towards cementing the team as a fully operational Death Star (I mean, “team”), new players fully integrated and folded into the mix. Gervinho and Song will be back. Arteta will make his first Champions League performance since his youth years at PSG and Rangers, and I imagine the 29-year old will work his ass off. It’s always good to have your own German giant when facing off against a team of such, so Mertesacker will provide a huge amount of presence and experience, and perhaps Santos or Park will make their Arsenal debuts. Seeing Mertesacker from close-up was sobering. He is a truly massive player. I have much faith he will become an equally enormous component to set pieces, both in defense and in headers in at the other end of the pitch.

Wenger misses out (nonsense UEFA ban), as do Wilshere, Rosický, Diaby, Ramsey and Vermaelen, but Arsenal have the firepower and the growing defensive solidity to compete. They just need the confidence, the mental focus and just maybe a pinch of luck. At the end of the day, the best team will win. Hopefully, the win over Swansea was the beginning of the much-vaunted turnaround, the “real” beginning to the season. But one game does not a season make. And even a victory against Dortmund will not put all the demons to rest, with a tough away fixture at Blackburn this weekend. As they say, though, you can only play the team in front of you, and though that team is no slouch, neither is Arsenal. Come on you Gunners. May tonight see the Arsenal rise to the occasion and Arteta taste the first of many future Champions League victories with his new team.

Expected starting XI:


Sagna Mertesacker Koscielny Gibbs

Arteta Song Benayoun

Walcott van Persie Gervinho

(Young guns Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Francis Coquelin, Ryo Myaichi and Carl Jenkinson did not travel to Germany this time around, but all the experienced new signings made the 18-man squad.)