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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!

EnglandPreviewtransfers

New Arsenal Attack for 2012/2013

August 16, 2012 — by Rob Kirby2

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If you’ve hardly seen Arsenal’s new signings in action, let alone live up to the hype on a frequent basis, you may be at high risk for getting carried away. But you’re excited, because they’re names you recognize, they’re each coming off great seasons, stats-wise, and your best player has just signed for Manchester United, so you really need this right now. Speaking for myself, I’ve really only seen these guys in highlights clips or in international tournaments since 2006. One 90-minute preseason match against FC Cologne dominates perception of how these players fit, because it represents the sum total of captured footage of the new signings together in action. From this background of minimal familiarity with our new saviors comes this perspective. 

Robin has finally made his move, so we can now focus on players who are actually on the team. The new players have had one collective preseason runout with the rest of the team against Lukas Podolski’s previous club. Of the three new signings, I’m most familiar with Podolski, who I think more or less rules. Left winger and central striker; adaptable, ball aware and experienced. The brace on Sunday against Cologne reinforced that belief. And for this season’s annual Ligue Un signing, Arsene seemingly has done us right by landing tall central striker Olivier Giroud, who did Montellier right last season with 31 goals and a fairytale surprise league title. Third, Wenger singled out a man now destined for years of Fabregas comparisons. Newest signing Santi Cazorla could conceivably become the best player on the Arsenal squad. (Overhype alert.) Soon, even, which would prove to be fortuitous timing. But if you’ve seen only the occasional Malaga or Villareal match, it’s hard to shout “oil!” with much certainty.

Then there’s the nagging voice of sensible caution talking about adjustment to the league, complete with level-headed exhortations to manage expectations. But inevitably you find yourself incapable of resisting the hope, which then fuels the slackjaw mentality that leads one to temptation and hope and hype get unwisely intertwined.

The preseason match against Cologne best showed the new look of the attack. Van Persie played a nominal 20-minute stint, which didn’t serve much purpose beyond proving, albeit briefly, that he was still an Arsenal player. Only Podolski played more than 45 minutes, so match fitness teamwide remains uncertain. That issue aside, Podolski and Giroud look guaranteed starters once they’ve been eased into the Premier League. Wenger has said they won’t start the first match of the campaign. We’ll see. They just played a match this week. At any rate, hopefully they can integrate into the team well and soon. 

Cazorla looks set to orchestrate from the middle, rather than take Theo’s place on the right wing, where Cazorla has often played. Good for us he’s got skills in the fulcrum, and a spot of luck for Theo. Ramsey’s not fully right for the job yet, and Wilshere and Rosicky are out injured. When everyone’s fit, there may be selection problems, but for now Cazorla is arriving much in an hour of need. For me, he’s the most exciting signing of the summer not because he’s one of most exciting new players in the Premier League but because from his billing he’s the player we need, the missing creativity and striker service from the middle, the cornerstone of the outfit whose last incarnation relocated to Catalonia about a year ago. If the real Arsenal Cazorla emulates the imagined Arsenal Cazorla, we may finally have restored the team to a fast, fluid side with a multi-headed attack. No pressure.

At the risk of overhyping and forgetting to wait to see how their performance actually defines our current state of the squad, things look a lot less negative than you’d have thought considering the vivid post-van Persie Apocalypse nightmares of recent times. Maybe that still hinges on Barca’s interest in Alex Song a bit, though.

Particularly given the limited time playing with one another, Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla clicked with remarkable ease in the preseason over Cologne. As each new signing played his first match in the Arsenal shirt. Giroud pulled defenders away from other attackers and Podolski scored a brace, with Cazorla delivering the corner that led to Vermaelen’s header.

Gervinho continued his good run of form in the preseason matches, confusing opponents with his unorthodox jerky dribbles and runs. He scored the fourth of the four goals against Cologne and with vP gone, Gervinho certainly has a better shot at getting in the starting team. Perhaps in his second season he’ll have this whole Premier League thing figured out. As long as we don’t ask him to do any penalty shootouts ever, we could soon see the best of the Ivorian body twitcher. He often just holds onto the ball just one second too long. Decide to pass or shoot sooner, and he could get a few goals and assists this season.

The final preseason runout showed a prototype of a possible Arsenal Attack Plan A. Perhaps conceived as a Plan B if van Persie stayed, the formation rapidly upgraded to A status when the Dutch escape artist made it clear he didn’t want to be in the plans.

Having lost one player we definitely wanted to keep, we have another whom Barcelona would like to poach, Alex Song. He was one of our best players last season, justifying Wenger’s once-confounding belief in the player. And now he could be off to the familiar bidding terrain of Barcelona. And if anyone had forgotten, Theo Walcott has only one year on his contract and presumably wants more of whatever he can get. He’s already on more than he deserves, but the possibility always exists that he’ll master the finisher role and weld it to his cheetah speed, and you’d like to be the one holding his contract if he ever puts it all together.

This was not the expected clear out. Carlos Vela has completed his switch to Real Sociedad, but with the other wantaways, supply seems out of sync with demand. Nicklas Bendtner wants to leave but has yet to see the right red carpet, Andrey Arshavin wants to play again, by running less, if at all possible. Squillaci, Park and Chamakh consider the prospect of actually playing quite novel and appealing, even if it does involve running.

As for the departure crew, futures remain firmly, precariously up in the air. We want them to go, and quickly, but we’re probably losing a couple that’ll turn good eventually. For all his arrogance-you-love-to-hate, Bendtner may one day live up to half of his self-hype. In Bendtner we lose a pretty good striker that just didn’t really work within the team. For the past couple years, aside mostly from performances for Denmark, he hasn’t produced. He may really earn the decentest-striker-ever tag, but not at Arsenal and for now, his shoving off works best for everyone. He’s better than the other hopefully departing strikers, but that probably says more about them than about Bendtner.

Andrey Arshavin yet has some goals and assists in him, but it looks like it’ll have to materialize elsewhere. You still harbor belief he could conjure an out-of-nowhere flash of genius at any moment, but the rest of the time he contributes hardly anything, least of which with regard to defensive cover. Who knows how much it weighs on him to confront the idea of losing the Russia captaincy. Capello picked him this most recent international friendly days before the season start, but it remains a question mark nonetheless. He did pretty well at the Euros but he’s also being held to blame for Russia failing to get past the group stage. He has still got the ability, but under a new-look Arsenal, he looks like the odd man out. The sooner it gets sorted, the better.

Chamakh, Park, Squillaci–there’s no debate, the only question is how to offload them int the most expedient manner. They would probably have to take pay cuts. We may get hardly anything for transfer fee. But considering the 25-man rule, they are dead weight, so “get off our books, you ne’er-do-wells!” On the re-loan side, Denilson spends his last Arsenal season on another loan to Sao Paulo. We seem to unable to give these dudes away. With the Brazilian, we’re probably still on the hook for a chunk of his current wages.

It will/would be sad to see Alex Song go, and the possibility is not seeming particularly remote. He was definitely not on the “ship out” list, but Barcelona exerts a dream-team magnetism to which better men than he have succumbed. Nominally a defensive midfielder, he pulled out some incredible assists for van Persie last season in clutch situations and provided a creative spark at key moments. On the downside, he is way too slow in tracking back and he subscribes far too much to the Hollywood pass. Hopefully Barcelona can be repelled this time around. He’s got three seasons left on his contract and he will be useful in the season ahead. Also, we’d definitely need a ready replacement, which one would hope Wenger’s tracking in the transfer market. Possibly that’s the explanation for the Nuri Sahin loan/lease-to-buy talks with Real Madrid. But Sahin is more of a creative midfielder than defensive general.

If Song leaves, you’d have to see it as another stab in Wenger’s back with regard to his youth project visions, fresh off the double Fabregas and Nasri knife plunges of last season, but that’s how it goes. Of principal importance, who will take charge of the defensive midfielder position? Francis Coquelin? It would be a huge step up, but one he may be able to make. Emmanuel Frimpong is injured, aside from lacking readiness to take that role full time, anyway. Wilshere, same. Perhaps there’s a pipe dream that Diaby could hold down the position and manage to enforce without getting enforced upon. That in mind, hopefully someone’s on the case.

Walcott’s stalling for whatever reason, whether for more money or some longer-for transfer. Walcott divides opinions. Within a game, even. He’s fantastic for a stretch before repeatedly running the ball out. Admittedly, the boy did hook up van Persie with some good assists. Walcott self-admits, in a manner meant to emphasize the positive, that he’s “consistent in patches.” Arsenal fans see him pull off some great moves, then follow it up with abysmal all around play. He’s either a great player about to explode, or he has already reached his peak, meaning he shouldn’t necessarily play the transfer threat card too brazenly. The top teams that can pay high wages and have Champions League this season have better right wingers than Walcott. Would they pay for him to be on the bench? Would he happily accept the bench for higher earnings? We’ll know before long.

For another from the comparatively old guard, Johann Djourou understandably doesn’t love being mired in fourth-place certerback. Arsenal fans pray he never gets drafted to rightback ever again, but I hope he stays as a backup centerback. For whatever reason, we’ve been repeatedly driven to rely on third and fourth centerbacks in recent seasons, so we want good, experienced cover. Two seasons ago, he rose to the task. Last season, he didn’t blow any minds (in a good way, at least), but he can still probably do the job for Arsenal if called upon in his natural position. As fourth choice centerbacks go, Djourou can more than hold his own. It’s not his fault all the right and left backs went out injured last winter.

While the forwardmost element of attack is all-new, the defense moves into its second full season together. Per Mertesacker has proponents and detractors, but until his injury he put in a good shift. Vermaelen returned from the wilds of the medic zone, Andre Santos and Kieran Gibbs offer different strengths in the marauding leftback role, Koscielny made his sophomore season a breakout one, as did Wojciech Szczesny, who can improve even more this season with better decision making. Jenkinson is the rawest, but he can put in a damn precise cross when he’s downfield, so that’s better than nothing, certainly. He looks able to improve, but we won’t be fully solid until Sagna resumes at right back.

The current defense, with the current personnel, can sort it out and make it work. With a starting four of Gibbs, Vermaelen, Koscielny and Sagna (Jenkinson if Sagna’s leg is still in rehab mode), they could enforce a real defensive solidly at the back even by just cutting out some of the rookie mistakes. Szczesny is still learning, but he’s the man in goal and he instills confidence. Granted he makes mistakes, not least at Euro 2012, but he pulled off many crucial, excellent saves during the most horrendous parts of last season: the abysmal beginning, the bleak month of fullbackless January, the end of season inability to kill off the race for third, through the firestorm periods, Szczesny held it together when the defense repeatedly collapsed around him.

As for betting the on farm on any one prediction of where we end up in the table? No idea. Manchester United has re-lethalized. Manchester City the Bionic Superteam probably has a big buy or two in them, Chelsea have snapped up some players with deafening buzz, Tottenham have kept Bale, may keep Modric, or may suddenly have the money to buy £30 million in a few new players. And Arsenal rebuilds from the loss of captain/previous go-to and look to make it work with possibly all three new starters from the off, although a promising three. The team could go any direction. If the team gels quickly, we’re looking at a bright future. If the attack doesn’t click in the early matches, or if the defense turns out to be the bugaboo, we could be looking at a grim opening to the season. How grim, may we never know.

Sunderland at home. Stoke away, which usually turns out poorly for us. Ramsey could elaborate. Then Liverpool at Anfield, Southhampton at home, first Champions league match, and Manchester City in Manchester not long after. The game in Germany helped make sense of the new side with time running out but friendlies are just warm-up games. But with the whole squad finally (possibly) operational again, we could make a strong first push right from the gates. Or totally mediocre. Or one that makes us long for the days of 8-2. We’ll see how it pans out. Except hopefully the first scenario.

Arsenal travel to Sunderland on Saturday. We have to power to cause Martin O’Neill to go apoplectic as his team gets pummeled on the scoreboard. To go with a prediction, I may live to regret, I definitely see Podolski and Giroud to each get 15 goals this season. Walcott and Gervinho, either side of the 10 mark. Cazorla, Arteta and Vermaelen will each contribute, and hopefully Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wilshere can get in on the action. Van Persie’s goals can be replaced.

May Arsenal finally win a trophy this year. The words “nothing since 2005” need never be spoken again. Cazorla in particular seems like he could really get Arsenal firing again. Losing Cesc was brutal is that regard. Nasri, even.

Right wing is the big question mark, even with Cazorla in the middle. When Walcott’s not fending off Oxlade-Chamberlain, and maybe Gervinho, he’ll need to forge a new working relationship with the target men. If he can learn to cross to Giroud’s head with any sort of consistent, he could lock up the position as his. And maybe Chamberlain will play in the middle more often, playing alongside Cazorla, Arteta and Song. Hopefully, Wilshere and Rosicky will heal and rejoin that pool of midfield options soon.

Mikel Arteta sat out the friendly in Germany because of knock picked up in training. Oxlade-Chamberlain exited the Cologne stadium with an ankle injury that has ruled him out of this week’s strangely timed international friendly. Laurent Koscielny also has withdrawn from the France squad with a calf problem. Wilshere, Rosicky and the medics will have some company in the short term. (But perhaps never again van Persie. If Robin writes a book one day, hopefully a few at least from the medical staff will land in the acknowledgments.) Abou Diaby seems to have survived his runout against Cologne, which is tentatively positive. Having pulled out of England training with a bruised thigh, one would think Walcott would still get picked for the Sunderland match on Saturday.

May Diaby have a remarkable fitness run, with the least injured season of all time. May Cesc consider returning and inaugurate a new tradition of attracting the best players from Barcelona and Manchester City for dirt-cheap prices. May weeks and weeks of incredible Arsenal victories await, each better than the last until you almost wish the team wouldn’t humiliate the opponents so much, but figure “end of the season, goal difference may carry the day…” and then it never need come down to goal difference. Our play being so vastly superior and all.

Farewell to van Persie. He made his move, and while the move may be distasteful, he played amazingly the last season and a half, and when possible during the injured periods. Thanks to him, we had Champions League soccer with which to attract a new strikeforce. In the total drag of his departure, we remain a team in contention for another season yet. Let’s see how far we can take it.

CommentaryEnglandEuro 2012EuropeGermanyPhotography

State of the Union: Arsenal, Polkraine

June 15, 2012 — by Rob Kirby3

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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.

EnglandEuropePhotography

Three Is the Magic Number (The Arsenal Represent, Represent Remix)

April 26, 2012 — by Rob Kirby2

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Three matches remain, and in light of Chelsea’s spot in the Champions League final, third place has now become crucial for ensuring a spot for Arsenal in next year’s competition. If the Blues win the European Cup, third will no longer guarantee an automatic group stage spot, but if the qualifying round is what’s available, we need to grab the opportunity with both hands. Considering the season the team have had, it’s still a tremendous achievement.

Newcastle’s breathing down Arsenal’s neck in a run of supremely good form, a rejuvenated Chelsea still has an outside chance of getting into the top 4 on league merits (imagine that) and though Tottenham has been tailspinning out of control, they are more than capable of righting that ship/plane and ending strong.

If Arsenal should fail in the pursuit of third but still get fourth, the wait between the league finale on May 13 and the Champions League final in Munich on May 19 will be excruciating. For once, let’s not put ourselves through that particular ringer. One would hope Chelsea loses anyways, but I would hate for them to control our chances for being in the competition.

Speaking of the evil not-those-kind-of-players moneybags, it seems forever ago but there was the small matter of a London derby with Chelsea a week ago. The 0-0 draw may have been a bit of a snoozefest, but a point against Chelsea is never a bad result, even if they essentially put out their second string. And they obviously made the correct tactical decision, one that set themselves up for the dreaded but impressive aggregate victory over Barcelona. Perhaps we should have done better against their second string, but no use crying about it now.

At the end of the day, Arsenal controls its own destiny. Win all three matches and third goes to the Gunners, end of story. Fail to do so and we must rely on Tottenham to slip up again and for Newcastle to drop points against one or more of Manchester City, Chelsea, Everton and Wigan. If we can’t do the business and our rivals can win all their matches then, well, they deserve it. As would Chelsea if they best Bayern Munich in the Champions League finals. But I really don’t want us to have to be gracious losers.

On paper, matchups against Stoke, West Brom and Norwich do not present insurmountable feats, but then again we have an abysmal record against bottom-of-the-table teams. And Stoke is not a lowly team, although their mouth-breathing knuckledraggingness sometimes fools one into assuming so.

PFA Footballer of the Year, Robin van Persie, the only forward in the top-flight to have featured in every league game this season, is exhausted. Hopefully, however, he can marshal his not inconsiderable fight and skill to push us over the line. And then he’ll want to stay and we’ll sign some incredible support players and the future will be so bright we’ll want to blind ourselves because we can’t handle the truth of that future and the unbridled happiness it brings.

First step: Stoke away. Sure, it hasn’t in recent times worked out so well for the London boys but no time like the present to start a new trend of relentless domination. Recommendation for the day: Shawcross the Shawcrossers and let’s kick some Pulisian ass. Simple, really. (To clarify, I don’t want us to break any legs. Simply to destroy them, set the pitch ablaze and then apply a liberal layer of salt on top, Carthage-style.)

Come on you Gunners!

CommentaryEnglandPhotography

Arsenal to Consolidate Third?

March 23, 2012 — by Rob Kirby1

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On Wednesday against Everton, Arsenal entered the last quarter of the season. The victory and results elsewhere meant that after the first game of the final fourth of the season, we occupy third place, six points separating us from the mega-rich but fifth-placed Blues and one point ahead of the Lilywhites. And with Tottenham and Chelsea to play in the early match Saturday, if we can get three points against Aston Villa, we have a chance to consolidate or extend that lead. (Obviously, we could also blow it, but let’s not go there right now.)

Things are looking pretty decent for the Arsenal, you’d have to say. That statement would have seemed patently absurd in August and the 8-2 at Old Trafford (or the September 4-3 loss to Blackburn, where we scored five of the goals). It might have sounded slightly more reasonable in later fall after a good run of form. Then absurd again after the debacles of January, the FA Cup exit and the annihilation at the San Siro. Now eminently reasonable again. It has been a crazy, roller-coastery season, with Robin van Persie almost singlehandedly pulling the whole team along. When we had an all-centerback back 4, fourth seemed a pipe dream. And now to be in third? What’s a level up from a pipe dream? An industrial-strength morphine-drip dream?

Aside from the recent (awesome) habit of coming from behind to snatch crucial victories, one of the most encouraging pieces of data is in the area of Arsenal’s former shame—goal difference. It took a while to shake off the -6 from Old Trafford, added to other negative takes from Liverpool and other early-season opposition. Still miles behind the Manchester clubs (United, 46; City, 50), Arsenal at 19 leads Tottenham (18) and Chelsea (15). This is good. Robin still scores nearly all the goals, but the defense has stanched the flow of goals against us.

Yet there are still 9 games to go and 27 points to play for. Everything may yet change. To not expect some wrench in the works after the wrenchliness of this season would be naive. Spurs may no longer seem a lock for 3rd, but they can still pull it together to retake 3rd or fight for 4th. Likewise, Arsenal are not a lock for a Champions League spot, but in light of Wednesday’s results, top 4 is now looking more realistic than not.

Arsenal host Villa on Saturday at 11am EST, directly after Chelsea and Spurs face off at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal now have their fate in their own hands. They can focus on their own matches. Win matches, take points and 3rd or 4th is theirs. They don’t need anyone to drop points other than the immediate opponents on the pitch on any given day. Of course, if Chelsea and Spurs can both see fit to drop points and Arsenal can grab another three points tomorrow against the Villans, it may be possible to begin breathing full breaths again. Right now, it’s still too close. Heart in throat is still the order of the day.

Perhaps Liverpool or Newcastle will go on a tear, but at the moment, it seems like the trio of Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea are the contenders for the two non-Manchester Champions League spots. And while any of the three teams would gladly take 4th, nabbing the automatic CL group-stage position (3rd) could be huge. Arsenal very nearly could have missed out on the CL this year, rubber-duckily squeaking past Udinese when our squad was in major transition mode. Loss to the Italian side would almost certainly have meant one or more of the deadline-day incoming players would have stayed put at their former clubs. (Think: no Arteta, no Mertesacker. And say what you want, Benayoun and Santos have put in good shifts on their days. Park…I wish I could include you here. I’ve honestly barely seen you play. Sorry that you got bamboozled, but congratulations on your military service reprieve!)

Of the top ten teams, Arsenal have only City (4/8) and Chelsea (4/21) ahead, both at home. The Chelsea match in particular could prove very important in the fight for fourth. A tricky tie away at Stoke (4/28) could also prove a clutch match, with the bad blood of recent times (and the fact that Stoke can pull out some good results).

So, do we hope Chelsea takes all 3 points against Spurs, to better our chances for third, or hope for the draw that sends both a little further back if Arsenal takes the full three? A Chelsea win would make things too congested. The prime directive for Arsenal is to keep going forward and to keep ahead of 5th place at all costs. Spurs may be the more traditional enemy, but Chelsea is further back and finishing in the top four is crucial. Third is nice but not essential. Fourth is essential. And knocking a mega-rich club out of the top four is preferable to my eyes than the Spurs bragging rights. Spurs is a good team, and they have imploded just as the Gunners would have wanted, which was really quite neighborly of them. If we take fourth, no more, personally I’d prefer we kept Chelsea out. Roman may lose interest, send the club spiraling into administration and we’d finally have one fewer superpower in the Premier League.

It’s too early to call corners turned, bends bended or anything remotely inside of any bag. But for those wondering, “what changed?” here are some partial comments, if not an all-encompassing Unified Theory.

RVP—He never stopped performing, but fortunately he maintained his incredible shotmaking with such consistency that when the rest of the team got it together it all went firing ahead together. He has led as a captain throughout, added hat-tricks to his personal arsenal and drove Tim Krul to frothy near-fisticuffs with a simple phrase to the extent of, “Not so eager to time-waste now, are you?” Twenty pages could be written about van Persie, and in fact they have already been written elsewhere. He’s broken the calendar-year scoring record for the club, second behind Shearer for league record. Single season records await. Will he stay with the team? More than at other point this season, it seems possible. If we make the top four, and especially if it’s third of four with talk of incoming big names, it may just happen.

Thierry Henry—Some have said that Henry’s return and goal against Leeds in the FA Cup showed the players first-hand the kind of adulation a club legend gets. Henry’s return did that, and in addition to the Leeds winner he scored another crucial late goal against Sunderland that won us the match. He was there for the drubbing at Milan, though, and a bit of a low period to boot, so the turnaround is not due to the Thierry Henry Show alone. But it was great having Titi back in the fold, and as mentioned two of his three goals proved the matchwinners.

Theo Walcott—The current day 14 has been a target of the boo-boys all season. He’s got pace, which works wonders when the opposition gives him space. Except they know this as well, so they’ve stopped giving him space. One could have played a game of Most Unpopular Player a while back and it would have been between Theo and Andrey Arshavin. Now Arshavin’s off to Russia with Zenit and Walcott is playing well. He played out of his skin against Spurs and has been putting in good shifts of late. Whether it’s inspired by Ox envy or whatever, who cares. Theo is playing well. And if we don’t tie him down to a contract there now really are many who would. (And not just Liverpool, who love blowing wads of cash on iffy English lads.)

Wojciech Szczesny—Another for the “good all season” files, the ‘keeper kept the goals-conceded tally as low as he could in the early season and of late has been adding more clean sheets to the mix. The Everton game was won by a team-wide defense. Time was, Szczesny would have had to repel wave after wave of attacks, but in the second half, he was essentially coasting, because the rest of the team didn’t let the threats get close to him. (That said, bad luck to Drenthe for the disallowed goal in the first half.)

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain—What a breakout season for the teen winger (and occasional attacking midfielder). The “Theo with brains” is also the Theo with brawn. He’s tough, quick, humble and badass. Perhaps he’s really the un-Theo. The substitution of Arshavin for him against Man United in January provoked a response so unbelievably poisonous and vitriolic, it seemed that Wenger’s time at the club had to be over. And yet here we are, with supporters mumbling apologies to the Professor and one of the brightest talents in soccer happily bedded into the team. And of course, since he’s British, he’s got all that slobber to deal with, too. Good on you, Ox. (And good luck to you re: the UK media hype machine.) Looking forward to seeing you and Theo weave side to side with the quickness that causes defensive heads to explode. For years to come.

Tomas Rosicky—Tomas already had a contract extension in the works, but the timing of his revival coincided almost perfectly with its announcement. No goals in two years, and suddenly he’s scoring, assisting and showing the young’uns how it’s done. Perhaps he and Robin used the time spent on adjoining injury tables to mastermind this stage of the proceedings.

Thomas Vermaelen—After a long, long spell on the sidelines, Vermaelen returned and provided some more solidity to the central pairing, except that he got conscripted to left back during the fullback crisis. He did well enough, but it’s clearly not his best position. In a CultFootball dispute a while back in the Fall, it was mooted, “How many Arsenal players could get into the Spurs starting XI?” The questioner thought “maybe Sagna, maybe van Persie in his current run of form.” The maybes were of course absurd, but a main source of contention arrived in the topic of Vermaelen. To me, Vermaelen is a better defender than any Spurs centerback. And he scores! Vermaelen has scored 5 this season, despite all the months on the sidelines. Vermaelen rules.

Alex Song—Going back to the T-ham argument, Scott Parker was deemed better than Song. I still don’t believe it. When I remember some of the perfect passes to van Persie, his versatility on the park, switching to centerback, if needed, there’s no comparison. Parker was a coup of a buy for Spurs—inexpensive, experienced, talented—but he does not measure up to Song who, like van Persie, maintained his form throughout the season and was similarly waiting for the rest of the team to play out of their funk.

Fullbacks—For a long stretch of time, all the fullbacks were out and an unusual Arsenal surplus of centerbacks (and Coquelin) filled in. Djourou flailed, Miquel and Vermaelen did better but not remarkably, Coquelin did well. But now with Bacary Sagna and Kieren Gibbs back in the midst, we have the old system of marauding, overlapping full backs with pace and wingerish attack-mindedness to go with their core defensive work. If any one thing is the “reason” for the comeback, I’d say it’s the return of the specialized fullbacks. Why so far down the list? Fair question. Allow me to attempt to remedy by singling out how awesomely Sagna played against Everton on Wednesday. He won nearly every header and asserted his command in every way possible. Theo is a better Theo when Sagna has his back. With Djourou, not so much.

Centerbacks—After all the hullaballoo about needing quality central defenders in the past few years, this time we had surplus to requirements at the exact right time to plug the fullback holes. Per Mertesacker was a great signing. Some will say he’s too slow. They can say it as much as it pleases them. I don’t think he’s good because of speed, I think he’s good because of the way he reads players and positions himself. Laurent Koscielny has asserted himself as the main man in Vermaelen’s absence and the main main to pair Vermaelen when he’s fit. Excellent season for the French Pole. And Vermaelen…oh right, already waxed present-tense nostalgic about the Belgian.

Midfield—This year was to be Wilshere’s year, until it wasn’t. Fortunately, Ramsey has put leg-break fears behind him and formed a good partnership with Arteta and Song. Arteta has provided goals and a cool head–he probably deserves his own standalone entry, in fact. One wonders how things could have been different if Arteta had played alongside Fabregas for the latter’s final seasons in the red and white. Although Frimpong and Coquelin did not really play a part in the “turnaround,” per se, they most definitely broke out this season and helped maintain focus during the dark months, helping hugely in the resurgence of the fall. Without those points then, there wouldn’t be the points total of now.

Final thoughts:

Think about this team, plus players like Podolski, Vertoengen, a creative midfielder/playmaker and no exits aside from those we want (Bendtner, Denilson, Almunia, possibly Vela and Djourou). Wilshere returns eventually. Santos re-enters the matrix soon. Jenkinson looked promising until his injury troubles. Presumably Diaby has a role to play yet. Coquelin, Frimpong, Yennaris and Miquel all made the most of their first-team shots and should be seeing plenty more playing time in the season ahead. (Get well soon, Frimpster and Le Coq.)

The final 9 games will decide much with regard to our pulling power with newcomers and our retention rate with the best performers we have currently.

May all the games that remain be filled with Arsenalian brilliance. And good day to you.

 

League games that remain this season:

Mar 24    Arsenal v Aston Villa

Mar 31    Queens Park Rangers v Arsenal

Apr 8    Arsenal v Manchester City

Apr 11    Wolverhampton Wanderers v Arsenal

Apr 16    Arsenal v Wigan Athletic

Apr 21    Arsenal v Chelsea

Apr 28    Stoke City v Arsenal

May 5    Arsenal v Norwich City

May 13    West Bromwich Albion v Arsenal

CommentaryEnglandSchedule

Matchfixing Not Yet Suspected in “Arsenal 7”

February 4, 2012 — by Rob Kirby

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Arsene Wenger was allegedly seen loading briefcase after briefcase of unmarked bills into each of the Blackburn players’ cars at precisely noon today in every time zone.

The 7-1 home exhibition match between Arsenal and Blackburn in the early kickoff Saturday contained everything anyone could ask for in a match. (In that sentence, “anyone” should probably read, “any Arsenal supporter.”) If only we could play Blackburn every match. Scratch that. The first meeting this past fall was one of the lowest moments of the season. Perhaps some cosmic invoice has finally been paid. Who knows, but it really was like a give-‘em-what-they-want-type performance. We needed it. But there’s a long way to go yet before we’re exactly sitting pretty.

To backtrack, the checklist for the most enjoyable viewing experience:

  • Attacking play
  • Total Domination in Possession, and not just lame side-passes, either
  • Hatrick from an Arsenal striker considered one of the world’s best: Robin van Persie
  • First Premier League goal by Arsenal teen rising talent, subsequently doubled by said Arsenal teen rising talent: Alex Oxlade Chamberlain
  • Outside goal from experienced, cool-headed midfielder and solid summer transfer signing: Mikel Arteta
  • First Premier League goal in five years for Arsenal’s all-time highest goal scorer: Thierr–OK, the point has been made

And yet, it’s not as if the month of January didn’t happen. Or August and September at the beginning of the campaign.

Essentially Arsenal finds itself back at the beginning of the season. Granted, being on the right end of a 7-1 demolition will definitely lift spirits, but corners get turned over a period of time, a several-game arc—not just one match. I don’t think anyone’s going to let anyone off the hook quite yet. Not Wenger, not Walcott (who provided some excellent assists), not Arshavin. If wondering, Arshavin helped his cause by not playing today.

Tomorrow’s results and those of Monday will put today’s in context, to see if we did actually make up any ground with regard to Chelsea, Liverpool and/or Newcastle. We are tenuously in fifth again, but could easily be right back in seventh.

Anyhow, up next: matches in the FA Cup, Arsenal’s best chance at a trophy, as well as the two legs against AC Milan in the Champions League and then Tottenham, Liverpool and Newcastle in the league. The month span between February 11 and March 12 could go so many different directions. A return to form makes one cautiously optimistic, but the track ahead could be roller-coastery, so we’ll see how the twists turn.

But it was awesome to see, wasn’t it? Especially at home. (Meaning the home stadium, of course. Not simply the comfort of my couch.)

Excellent for Oxlade-Chamberlain. What a way to start his scoring career in the Premier League.

Final Stats

Arsenal                           Blackburn
87%        Pass Accuracy      73%
68%        Possession             32%
19            Shots                       5
8              On Target               2

Arsenal fixtures ahead:

February 11  Sunderland   v   Arsenal       Premier League
February 15  AC Milan   v   Arsenal      Champions League (Round of 16)
February 18 Sunderland/Middlesbrough   v   Arsenal      FA Cup (Round 5)
February 26 Arsenal   v   Tottenham Hotspur       Premier League
March 3  Liverpool   v   Arsenal     Premier League
March 6  Arsenal   v   AC Milan     Champions League (Round of 16)
March 12  Arsenal   v   Newcastle United       Premier League

CommentaryEnglandEuropeSpaintransfers

The Inevitable Van Persie to Barcelona Endless Speculation Transfer Story

February 2, 2012 — by Rob Kirby

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With Arsenal currently sitting 7th in the Premier League table, it’s now truly inevitable that Robin van Persie will choose a new club come summertime, barring some miracle. But because it seems so predestined, the notion doesn’t trigger anxiety levels of Fabregas-ian proportions from summers past, where you just really didn’t know what was going to happen. Even with Samir Nasri, one thought Arsenal might just take the financial hit and force the Frenchman to stick around, because surely Wenger wouldn’t let two of his three/four best players go at the last possible moment, would he?

Anyhow, just as Robin’s departure seems inevitable, so too does speculation of the destination club. Cue the inevitable stories of van Persie to Barcelona.

Van Persie currently ranks among the most in-form strikers in the world. It’s only natural that he be linked to the best clubs in the world. Money is not the motivating factor. What Robin wants is to win trophies and play with other players of his caliber. Even the most ardent Arsenal supporter will admit that van Persie is in his own league. Wilshere could get there, but certainly not while he’s out for the season.

With talk of Barcelona being the best team of this generation, obviously lazy journalists make “Van Persie to Barcelona” their go-to. They’ve already got the templates, having been through the whole business before with Henry, who left for similar reasons. And they can naturally cut-and-paste parts from the Fabregas template. (Hell, even Alex Hleb!) Despite not currently topping their own league, Barcelona is the best team is the world at present. So, even without a shred of supporting evidence, the link makes sense.

Why player, club and every onlooker might think it’s a good fit is too obvious to really go into any further.

The real question (to me) is: Would van Persie do well at Barcelona? Would he be the preferred starter?

If not, if he knows he will only provide cover for the main striker, utilized mostly as an impact sub, would he choose Barça? (Impact subs get CL winner’s medals, too…)

Van Persie comes from a system not entirely different from the Catalan way, but so did Henry, and that wasn’t exactly an unqualified success. David Villa had played with the midfield maestros on the national team, which made him less of a risk, but Ibrahimovic never had and didn’t mesh especially well, whereas Eto’o did.

Individual chemistry with the team is the unknown and unknowable but crucial factor towards determining an import striker’s success at Barcelona.

Any thoughts would be appreciated. Honestly, I really don’t know how it would pan out. Van Persie would certainly kill to play with Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas (again), but I find it hard to believe he’d settle for a spot on the bench.

I also find it unlikely he’d move to another club in England, so who else does it leave? AC Milan? Perhaps next year’s coach at Real Madrid can come up with a new hunter-animal analogy for him?

To be fair to both Henry and van Persie, the comparison with Henry is not entirely like-to-like. Many often cite age as a factor with Barcelona-era Henry, but Henry was only a year older than van Persie will be in the summer. (Henry turned 30 in mid-August 2007; van Persie turns 29 this August.) It really was more that Henry was not at his peak, whereas van Persie is most definitely enjoying his peak and may stay there for a few years to come. (He could even get better with excellent through-pass service, however there was no mistaking the gray hairs in Wednesday’s match against Bolton.) With Robin, it has always come down to his injury status. He’s never lacked the finish, simply the fitness.

Henry in his peak combined with the current-day Barcelona squad would have been incredible to behold. God, I wish that had happened. Except that they were all wearing the Red and White. (And except for the whingeing, whining, diving Dani Alves—Barcelona can keep him. Hmm, I just realized that if you take the “an” out of Dani and “Al” out of Alves, you’re left with “Dives.” Sounds about right.)

CommentaryEngland

A Few Random Arsenal Thoughts At Year’s End

December 31, 2011 — by Rob Kirby1

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A few quick comments as the minutes tick closer to midnight.

Robin rules. It would be impossible to heap too many superlatives on his form this season. He finally got to show what he could do when he remained injury-free. Long may it continue. He’s shown himself to be a great captain so far and hopefully he sees his future with the Arsenal going forward.

Welcome back, Henry! But this does not mean we don’t need another striker… Repeat, this does not mean we don’t need another striker.

Park is the invisible man. Can someone please un-invisibility-cloak the poor guy? When Wenger finally plays him in the league, it really will seem “like a new signing.”

And the award for first-class jackass goes to Bendtner! The Greatest Player To Have Ever Lived proved he is far better at smashing up cars than smashing in goals. He burned his bridges back to Arsenal and meanwhile Sunderland probably wouldn’t quite mind returning him. Let’s hope the team can recoup some cash from some sucker somewhere (who reads only Niklas’s quotes and doesn’t actually watch the Premier League).

It was sad to see Fabregas go, but it’s great to see him flourishing alongside the likes of Xavi, Messi and his other La Masia buddies, even if they’re a bit smug for their own good (not Messi). The fact is that he deserved to leave and play with the Barca dream team. But yet Arteta, Ramsey and Rosicky have managed to keep up the creativity. No one could ever really replace Cesc, but after an adjustment period the boys are making it work. The expected February return of Wilshere will be huge. If anyone is Cesc’s replacement, it’s him. (Cesc said it himself.) If the midfielders can start getting a few more goals in, the team will become much more balanced and dangerous.

Song has become such a huge part of the squad, and with Frimpong and Coquelin as his understudies, we now have serious depth in the midfield enforcer role that we lacked so glaringly before. (Frimpong perhaps needs a loan spell–update, apparently he’s off to Wolves.)

Szczesny has kicked so much ass since emerging from fourth choice ‘keeper purgatory last season. His cockiness is awesome, because he backs it up. And along with Wilshere and Frimpong, he truly seems a red-blooded Gooner. The clip of him leading the away crowd in an Arsenal chant is simply awesome.

Gervinho has such a strange, jerky style. He seems one tactical improvement away from really being able to make it click. Until then, though, you can’t fault his workrate even if his consistency leaves a bit to be desired. When you get back from Africa, more goals, please…

Arshavin and to a lesser extent Chamakh can come good again, I really believe that. However, aside from Arshavin’s goal against Barcelona in the Champions League, 2011 was most definitely a year for both to forget. Hopefully the numerology of 2012 suits them better. The voodoo hex just needs to be lifted. Otherwise, all parties involved should probably call it a day at season’s end. (With Chamakh away at the African Cup of Nations tournament, I don’t see him leaving the club this January.) It will be unlikely, but I think either one of them could turn it around. They just need to do it, already! Arshavin provides some assists. He still has moments of magic in him. And Chamakh does work hard. You have to give him that. But as to Chamakh, especially, a striker who doesn’t score is not someone who should be playing for Arsenal. We send such people to Sunderland…

Walcott—so frustrating. He’s racked up the assists to van Persie, but he blows so many of his own chances. His defensive work has improved significantly, but with his pace, he should be getting at least double digit goals per season. As it stands, Walcott is okay but doesn’t deserve a permanent position in the starting XI. Just for example, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is raw, but he’s the better player. Wenger is wise to blood him slowly, but what to do about Walcott? Keep hoping for the best and keep watching him race down the flanks and finish with nothing to show for it? Theo needs goals to keep his place. A while back, the Southampton coach said Theo had not progressed under Wenger as he might have if he’d stayed at Southampton. It’s impossible to know, but after all these years, he defintely hasn’t exploded into new terrain. The defensive hustle is appreciated, though.

Benayoun = good loan signing. A hard-working squad player who will likely get some more games while Gervinho’s off with the Ivory Coast. The match-winning header at Aston Villa alone justifies his signing. And the anti-Chelsea congratulations tweet to Arsenal after the awesome victory over his “home” club ingratiated him into the hearts of many. Well, maybe not in West London.

The centerbacks are manning the entire back line with the unprecedented loss of both left backs and both right backs. Broken legs are no fun, and losing the ever-solid Sagna was a huge loss. Jenkinson, too. Not a stellar right back, but the English Finn crosses as well as anyone on the team. On the left, Santos shed the pounds and was starting to exhibit the Brazilian flair before his regrettable injury. And Gibbs…he’s good, but like Diaby he is always injured. He’s caught in a vicious cycle of injuries begetting injuries because he can’t get a string of games under his belt. Diaby’s ankle break against Sunderland years back did him in, which is a real shame, because he too can be good. Not sure why Gibbs is so brittle. May they all heal soon and stay healthy.

The return of Vermaelen was timely and excellent. He’s been getting goals, he’s added solidity and leadership to the back 4 and he just all-around kicks ass. His stare alone can make opponents cower. Apparently, he’s now out for two weeks. Let’s hope that’s all it is. Miquel should be getting some January runouts now. (Again, a centerback as left back. Remember when we had no fit centerbacks?)

Mertesacker gets some flack, but he’s done really well in my opinion. He is most definitely a white man who can’t jump, however, so it’s good he’s 6’6. Great addition to the team who will continue to improve as the season goes on.

Koscielny had a bit of a rough first year (visions of Carling Cup final…shudder) but he has done spectacularly well this season and got his first cap for the French national team. Compare to Djourou. Or don’t, really. Djourou doesn’t come off looking too hot, and we need his confidence up. At least a fit Djourou is fortuitous for right back during this fullback epidemic, even if he’s not much on the attack. To be fair, he’s getting better, after his horrible first game in the position.

And as for newbies coming up from the reserves, Miquel has done incredibly well. We’ve seen less of Yennaris, but he impressed, too. And one hardly even thinks about Coquelin and Frimpong as recent reservists. They are first-team material (as is Miquel).

Almunia, Fabianski, Mannone and Squillaci, what to say about the forgotten men? If only Fabianski and Mannone hadn’t reminded us how screwed we’ll be if Szczesny ever gets injured when they clowned it up against Olympiacos. Absence was almost making the heart grown more kindly disposed. You can’t help but feel bad for Almunia, though. May he find first team action somewhere. Good guy, terrible goalie. 

Anyhow, who would have thought after the 8-2 disaster at Old Trafford that we’d ring in the new year fourth in the table? The comeback has been hard-fought and well-earned. Robin got the goals and the last-minute signings helped shore up the defense and add experienced heads in midfield.

The departures of Nasri and Fabregas dealt the team two big blows (less so, the former), but each of the summer signings have come through in the clinch at one point or another. Gervinho and his spasmodic style have scored some goals and added a new jerky attack that confuses opponents (at least those that he doesn’t dribble directly into). Mertesacker has settled in and has massive experience. Benayoun scored a key header in the clash with Aston Villa and truly never gives up. Santos started to really come into his own before the injury in Greece. And Arteta knows how to create in midfield but also how to drop back and calm things down. His presence and example will make Ramsey and Wilshere better players, and it’s great that he gets to play in the Champions League at long last. Hopefully he’ll get many more games in Europe this season (meaning the Gunners survive a few knockout rounds) and help us qualify for next.

Yes, we are far too reliant on van Persie right now, but the team is shaping up. On the wish list for January, a quality striker and a loan deal for a decent left back. The rumor mill has Arshavin and Chamakh as possible departures, but I doubt it. Please, Arsene, sign a striker that can fill in for Robin and possibly partner him upfront. As for the constant talkk of Goetze, Hazard, Gourcuff et al, I’ll believe it when I see it. Not likely to happen, but I can guarantee I will do the first backflip of my life (or attempt to do so) if any of those deals materialize. Top fourness at least helps in attracting new talent, though, so thank Jeebus for that.

Lastly, an open letter to Juan Mata: it’s not too late, you can still join the team. Chelsea ain’t even in the top four these days, and John Terry will only drag you down.

Happy New Year.