Monday, August 29, 2011

Excuses Only Go So Far

If you're reading this blog, you know what happened this weekend. Arsenal went to Old Trafford and were thoroughly embarrassed by a dynamic Manchester United squad 8-2. Arsenal can explain away a lot of this loss. Three out of their starting four fullbacks were out. Eight players total for the squad were unavailable. How could any team, Arsenal or otherwise, be expected to compete with the defending champions with so many players unavailable? And this is very valid. It is absolutely valid to say that this half-strength squad had no chance against Man U and it is no shock that Arsenal came out of the match with no points won. However. There is a limit to what fans will tolerate and what excuses like this can do for a team. A 3-0 loss would be reasonable given the circumstances. Hell, a 4-2 loss or something along those lines would even be acceptable as long as you could point to promising parts of Arsenal's play. But what this match did more than anything else was underline the issue I described in my previous post, that Arsenal is a big boy that does not act like a big boy in the least. A "top four" team should never, ever be beaten 8-2, regardless of circumstance, opponent, location, or anything else that was going on. This was a wake-up call, and I only hope that Arsene Wenger and the Arsenal management got it.

Let's be clear, this would have been a different match if Jack Wilshere, Alex Song, Emmanuel Frimpong, Thomas Vermaelen, Bacary Sagna, Gervinho, etc. had been available (notice that I don't mention Kieran Gibbs because the options at left back for Arsenal are utter shit). That is a devastating amount of injuries and unavailables. But Arsenal's inability to shore up the weaknesses in their squad is what doomed them in this match. My friend Jeff said to me last weekend that Manchester United would never be this thin on the field because they would have tons of young talent coming off the bench to make their squad airtight. I initially said that any team would be in trouble with as many missing starters as Arsenal had, but this match has me thinking otherwise. Danny Welbeck was having a fantastic match (and season so far in general) but he pulled up lame in the 35th minute or so. Who came on to replace him? Javier Fucking Hernandez! "Oh shit, what do we do, we just lost our starting striker to injury? I know, let's use a natural fucking scorer who had 13 goals in his first year in the EPL. Maybe he'll be ok." They put in two subs in the 68th minute and the "downgrade" was for Park Ji-Sung and Ryan Giggs, two incredibly experienced international players who have produced for years at Manchester. That is their bench. And they weren't even playing Fabio or Dimitar Berbatov. It's an embarrassment of riches and while Arsenal has some promising young talent, it doesn't come close to matching what Man U has their disposal.

The real worry from all of this is that Arsenal's recruitment strategy is doomed to the cycle that we saw play out this summer. Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas were two players that Arsenal recruited young, developed, and then were forced to let go of when the stars wanted to move on to greener pastures. If this image of Arsenal remains, what's to stop Jack Wilshere from heading to Man U when his contract is up? Why should Theo Walcott or Aaron Ramsey stick around if Arsenal is too busy with their youth movement to make the Champions League or reasonably challenge for a Premier League title? When every big club in Europe is constantly in predator mode, looking to scoop up the best and brightest talent from anywhere in the world, how is Arsenal going to manage to keep a core of winners together for long enough to build their reputation as a big club back up? Now granted, the prior part of this paragraph is all doom and gloom and very little reality. Players still want to play for Arsenal, that much is obvious. Three weeks of turmoil is not going to doom a franchise that is celebrating its 125 year anniversary this season. But Wenger and the Arsenal front office do need to understand the image of their club that is out there now, an image associated with young kids and a lack of spending to make the squad whole. Image isn't everything, but it is something. Chelsea was nothing 10 years ago and now they're a perennial title contender that plays UEFA games on the reg. That kind of turnaround can go both ways, especially when the name and history don't mean quite as much as they used to. Still something, but not everything. There's no guarantee that Arsenal will always be good, just like there is no guarantee that Manchester United will always be good. But Manchester United have done something concrete about that uncertainty while Arsenal is still twiddling their thumbs and waiting for their "real" squad to come back. I'm just worried that by the time that happens, we'll be in the Liverpool zone from last year. As always, Go Gunners.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Momentary Vindication

At least for one night, the incessant hounding of the 2011-2012 Arsenal team (and specifically the hounding of manager Arsene Wenger) will slow down or perhaps stop altogether. With a team full of young players, with no major new transfer signings, and most importantly without its two best players from last year (Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri), Arsenal went to Udinese and came away with a 2-1 win to advance to the Champions League group stage. Especially significant is the fact that Udinese was piling on the pressure and looked to have a realistic chance of scoring not just one but two goals before the halftime robbed them of the momentum, yet Arsenal regained their composure in the second half and came back to win the match. Last year's team completely fell apart down the stretch. First there was the Carling Cup collapse. Then the resigned way they played through the last twenty minutes against a Barcelona team that was suddenly light years beyond where Arsenal hoped to be. Finally there was the Premiere League debacle, where a team that was challenging for the title suddenly turned up in fourth place and needed to qualify for European play that seemed like a sure thing just a month before. Did this year's Arsenal team already put those ghosts to bed by not just gutting this victory out, but coming back to earn it decisively?

One indication that this might be the case is the play of Wojciech Szczesny. The young goalkeeper's progress has been most impressive and he has surely been Arsenal's MVP in this short season. Today, he stepped up at the biggest time, on a penalty kick by Antonio Di Natale, making a reaction save with his left hand to tip the shot up and over the bar. Rather than deflating an Arsenal team that had just scored and built up a two goal cushion on aggregate, Szczesny brought them roaring back into the match, saying that things weren't going to fall apart this time. He made several other superb saves during the match and his heroics have started to inspire confidence among fans, and hopefully among his teammates as well.

There was also the play of Gervinho to build on, a wonder because just last week I could have sworn that he left his finishing game behind in France, so unable was he to provide a final ball or shot on goal. Yet here he was today smartly taking a poor angled shot on goal in an attempt to generate a rebound, there he was laying the ball off to wide open players twelve yards from goal (sidebar: Walcott, you have to bury that shot), and ultimately he made a brilliant run to the touchline and then cut a pitch perfect pass to a waiting Robin Van Persie would could not possibly duff such an opportunity. Gervinho today was the menace that his talent hinted at and while it will certainly be a shame for him to miss the next two Premiere League matches, I am already waiting for his return.

What about the steady play of Thomas Vermaelen in the back? Or the clever passing of Bacary Sagna, whichever side of the field he is playing on? How about the clever possession of Aaron Ramsey that has been keeping Arsenal in control of the ball so that he has longer to pick out the perfect pass to get things moving forward again? Aren't all of these indications that this Arsenal team is better than most people expected and primed to put the pieces together so that they can make a run for the title? I mean, Jack Wilshere isn't even back yet and he was supposed to be the biggest fix for the transfer woes of the squad! Why shouldn't Gunners fans be optimistic about the direction of their squad?

Because Arsenal did not just win the Champions League, or even make the final game. They stayed alive in an elimination game to make the group stage. While I am very excited to see Arsenal moving on, this is what should be expected of a club like Arsenal, a club that has every advantage going for it and has a history of success. This would have been akin to the Lakers or Red Wings barely making it into the playoffs as an eight seed, or the Yankees winning a one game playoff against the Indians to get in as the wild card. Of course you're happy that your team is in, but you also wonder how on earth it got to this point. With all due respect (and I really do mean this because I loved the way that Udinese played in these matches), Arsenal is not playing to beat Udinese. Arsenal is playing to beat Manchester United and Chelsea and Inter Milan and Barcelona and all of the best teams in the world. They're not supposed to get psyched over making it to the show. They're supposed to already be in the show looking at what teams they're going to dismantle and take down. That's the swagger that has been lost from the Gunners and while a win over Udinese helps, it's not all the way back yet.

This is the problem for Wenger and Arsenal this year. They are not a middle of the table squad trying to turn in a good performance in a down year. They are a perennial contender, a club that will not and should not expect anything outside of a top four finish in England and European play to follow. Such clubs do not have down years because they have players waiting on the sidelines to burst onto the scene and players lined up all over the world waiting to get a chance to play for them. These are the expectations and while it is perhaps unreasonable to assume that a club will succeed 100% of the time, it is reasonable to assume that such a club will not shoot itself in the foot and fail to make use of its name and image. This is the heart of the criticism that Wenger has had to deal with all year because it looks to some as if he is treating Arsenal as a mid-table club rather than a dominant franchise. Dominant franchises don't just sign 17 year-olds that they can develop. They also sign big names to fill any gaps they have, or just improve their side and battle the other top teams for the premiere signings in the world. Perhaps that's what people truly want from Wenger: him to throw his weight around and act like a big boy, even if his strategy of buying young and developing players has worked for many years now. There's no confident arrogance or flexing of muscle. It's all cold calculation and when things start to drift astray, quiet dignity does not have the stabilizing effect that some fans want.

Do not take this exposition as a 180 from the "give it time" stance that I've kept over the past two weeks. I am sticking to my guns on this team. However, those guns have belonged to Wenger and Arsenal because they have my trust from years of management excellent management of this team. That trust will be tested if they do not make moves in the last week of the transfer window as this team obviously still needs depth and can do with standout players at several positions. If Arsene fails to bring anyone in, relying on promotion from within, then he won't get free passes over draws to inferior competition, or home losses no matter who the competition is. Remember, Arsenal is playing to win a title. That's how they should feel every single year. And while an away win at Udinese to move on to the Champions League group stage is absolutely a victory to celebrate, it is only a moment in time of this season. Here's hoping Arsenal's time in the sun continues. As always, Go Gunners.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Honesty in Commentary

The most popular way to write about Arsenal's 2011-2012 season thus far is to over-dramatize every aspect of the team. Everything has been used, from "Wenger is on the hot seat" to "Arsenal transfer woes" to talk about they won't be playing in Europe at all next year. The idea is to sensationalize what's going on at Arsenal so as to make the story as dramatic as possible in order to draw as many eyes to the page as can be managed. This is such a dishonest way of writing and commenting that I have a hard time believing that it is a strategy that actually works. But if you look around, the general opinion of Arsenal at the moment is that the team is slipping, desperately grabbing onto any object around them to keep them from plunging into the abyss, and one more draw or loss will certainly seal its fate.

Reading write-ups from today's match, you would swear that Arsenal limped their way through this match with no skill, no effort, and no chance to ever win. Not only that, but you would also come away with the impression that Arsenal was doomed, fundamentally flawed as a matter of fact, and that their season may in fact be over before it was ever able to get started. Look, I'm not happy about how the Arsenal season has started. Getting one point out of a possible six is not the way anyone wants to start things off. But at least some attention has to be paid to mitigating circumstances or you are producing contextless criticism of the team and not offering any real insight. You're being lazy, as a matter of fact. Consider:

  • 8(!) of the players that started the game for Arsenal were 25 years or younger. The three subs they brought on were 18, 20, and 23.
  • At the start of this match, Arsenal had 2 players ineligible due to suspension and 5 players unable to go due to injury. Another player was injured during the match as well (Laurent Koscielny, the fourth fullback injury for Arsenal).
  • Arsenal played the last 20 minutes of the match with 10 men due to the double yellow to Emmanuel Frimpong and was forced to use one of their substitutions early when Koscielny pulled up lame in the 14th minute.

People will call details like this excuses for why Arsenal didn't win the match. Of course they're fucking excuses for why Arsenal didn't win the match! Two players had their first Premier League start today and a third saw his first action ever in the EPL! Against a team that 40% of Soccernet's staff predict to finish in the top four this year! And Arsenal still didn't concede until the 78th minute on a terribly unlucky bounce that led to an own goal! At the beginning of the match, the commentators were saying that Arsenal would be happy to get out of Emirates with a draw and that was before one of their center backs went out with an injury and their defensive middie was sent off. Yet all of the talk after the match wasn't about how this was a tough loss for a spirited Arsenal side playing with less than half of their ideal starters. It was about how misery is being heaped on the Gunners, how one point out of a possible six simply isn't good enough, and how things have never looked worse under Wenger.

Look, I'm an Arsenal fan. I understand that I will be accused of being a homer and that I don't see how bad Arsenal is because I want to see them through these rose colored glasses. But that isn't true or fair for a number of reasons. I'm not misleading myself about this team, I actually see them for what they are: a collection of kids who are short at several positions due to injury, suspension, and transfer activity. The current squad is around half power and, again, there is still a week and a half left in the transfer window to bring in new impact players with some of that Fabregas money. Not to mention, people will come back from suspension. People will heal. I will feel a lot better about this team when they can actually roll out a full lineup instead of a list filled in by young players who would usually be subs at best, practice field impression makers at worst.

The real problem with the homer accusation is that it has become a crutch that people lean on in order to dismiss any real debate in sports. It's an ad hominem attack, one that is constantly abused by writers and pundits (or just fans) who want to "win" an argument without actually debating anything, and unfortunately there is no easier, more effective tool right now that to loudly complain "oh you're such a homer" no matter how intelligently another person is composing their arguments. A homer is a delusional fan. That definition is accurate and such people absolutely exist. But the application of this term is what is so maddening and damaging. To give an example that people who know me think I would be on the other side of, it's not a "homer" argument to say that Jacoby Ellsbury deserves consideration for American League MVP this year. I'm sure many people who hate the Red Sox (something I am assuredly guilty of) would toss the homer flag on that because it's ridiculous, or it's absurd, or how could someone think that. But the reality is that dude is batting .313 with 22 home runs, 79 RBI, 33 stolen bases, and an .887 OPS from the leadoff position. Even if you don't believe that he actually should be the MVP, it is a very reasonable argument to make regardless of where you're from or who your team is. It's something that should not be dismissed out of hand because you have a connection to the team you're arguing about. Fandom does not automatically make you illogical.

So what's my point with all of this? It's a matter of intellectual honesty in sports reporting, be it from fans or from professionals. Sports are supposed to be fun. Their purpose is to remove violence (real violence mind you, the kind that is used to kill) from competition and give the people something to root for, give them something to be happy about. There is nothing fun about trying to talk about this shared experience with someone who only wants to show you how right they are and doesn't give a fuck about what you have to say. There's nothing fun about reading material that is full of blatant lies, or at least a manipulation of actual events for the sake of selling copies or increasing hits. And there is certainly nothing fun about seeing all of this happening and then being made to feel like you are the one at fault because you're sticking up for a team or player that you like. Arsenal lost to Liverpool. It was a tough loss to take because it was a defeat at home to a major competitor for the title. But let's not try to make it more than that. Let's not try to make it a referendum on Arsene Wenger's job, or something that is indicative of the direction that Arsenal is taking early in this decade. Put the rhetoric away and find an avenue of reporting that doesn't use controversy as a substitute for not having anything interesting to say. As always, go Gunners.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

An Ode to Cesc (And Another)

I have previously mentioned in this blog that I am an unabashed Cesc Fabregas fan and that still holds true after Arsenal has sold him to Barcelona, allowing him a chance to return to his home team. Though I hold this antiquated notion that players should have team loyalty, I also have a shoulder-shrug type of understanding for players that want to maximize their money or their opportunity to win titles because, let's face it, players have relatively short careers. They aren't sticking around for 30+ years at the same job to make it big. If they're very lucky, they have 10 years to do everything that they want to do in their sport as well as make as much money as possible, which is a fairly tall task. So I actually do understand when players jump around or leave the team they came up with or make career moves solely around preserving their legacy. The funny thing about the Fabregas saga was that both Arsenal and Barcelona fulfill the fairy tale aspect of the story. On the one hand, Arsenal is the team that Cesc made his name with, the team he played with for 7+ years and was the captain of when he left. On the other hand, Barcelona was where he played his youth soccer and is the team he has supported essentially since birth. He wasn't shopping his talents all over the place, looking to drive up his price tag and jump to whoever paid him the most. He simply wanted to go home, and that is something I can respect.

How I feel towards Cesc Fabregas as a player and as a person is irrelevant to how I feel about this situation though, as I am more concerned with him as a symbol. Cesc is the reason I am an Arsenal fan and he always will be. He could be doing his farewell tour with the New York Red Bulls fifteen years from now and he will still be the reason I watch the Gunners, regardless of what he's done since then. When I was starting to expand my soccer horizons from high profile international match-ups to the highest levels of club soccer in Europe, I was drawn to the way Cesc played the game, with his exceptional technique, his vision on the field, and the creativity he brought to the most mundane situation. I have seen him one-time forty yard through balls, chip passes over the back line of a defense, pick out a teammate with a pinpoint cross, and nearly every other distributive technique you can think of on the soccer field. Watching him play the game made me want to watch him play more, made me want to root for him and for the people that played with him. Ultimately, that is what made me a Gunners fan and I will always have him to thank for that. In that way as well as some other ways (ways that perhaps less obvious than the surface comparison), Cesc reminds me of my childhood hero, Kirby Puckett.

I grew up in northwestern Connecticut to parents that were both born in the Midwest, though my Dad was really from all over being a Navy brat. While my Dad knew how to play sports and loved to play with me, neither of my parents were what you would call die hard sports fans, so I never had that familial obligation to root for teams X, Y, and Z. Additionally, Connecticut has a very interesting breakdown of rooting interests for sports teams, a constant tug-of-war between allegiance to New York City and to Boston. The area of Connecticut I'm from is roughly split down the middle, probably falling to Boston slightly but not enough to make any kind of real difference. I remember getting both NESN and MSG growing up, with baseball games from all over to watch (including the Braves on TBS) but none of the local teams really spoke to me. Sure they were on a lot, but there was no compulsion. I didn't have to like a team because that's who my parents liked, I didn't have to like a team because they were the only local team, and I didn't have to like a team because they were all I could see. I had no reason to support one team over the other, so I did what came naturally: I chose the coolest player in the league and rooted for his team. And when I was young, there was no one cooler to me than this man who was small of stature, yet larger than life in how he played the game.

Kirby Puckett was everything a baseball player should be to me. He was a brilliant hitter who played the game incredibly hard, not just on offense but roaming centerfield as a multiple Gold Glove winner. I will always remember watching him in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series when he robbed Ron Gant up against the plexiglass in the old Metrodome, then hit the game-winning home run, pumping his fist wildly as he ran the bases. He was a great player, but he was also a great competitor, and he did everything that you would want your favorite player to do. He was the reason I became a baseball fan generally and he was the reason I became a Twins fan in particular.

That's what I'll always remember. Of course I remember his sudden retirement due to glaucoma. Hell, I remember asking my optometrist if he thought Kirby would ever play again. I remember his off the field problems once he retired, the allegations of infidelity and the charges of abuse. I remember his disturbing rapid weight gain and ultimately, his death. All of these things make you reevaluate the man and who he was as a whole human being, but it never changed who he was to me. I don't mean to say that I keep my head in the sand and refuse to admit that he was anything less than perfect. I mean that who Kirby Puckett is to me is immutable, something that can't be changed by personal revelations or the passing of time. He is the baseball player that made me a Minnesota Twins fan and, 20+ years later with never having seen more than eight full games in a single season, I am still a Twins fan. He made a part of me who I am today and that will always be.

I can't put Cesc on the same level as Kirby. When you're 25 years-old, it's almost impossible to develop a new "hero" in your life, let alone one that is five years younger than you. But what Kirby did for me and baseball, Cesc did for me and soccer. No matter what he does afterward, where he moves, how many goals he scores, how many titles he wins (even none at all), he will always be the player that made me an Arsenal fan. For that, if for no other reason, I stand and applaud him as he walks out the door and I wish him the best of luck with Barcelona. Now we just have to go about the messy business of replacing him. As a man, I mean. Because he cannot be replaced as the symbol. At least not for me.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Panic After a Win

Forgive me being confused here, but since when did winning a UEFA Champions League match mean that a team was doomed to failure? The way the articles I've read sound, you would think that Arsenal lost 2-0 or worse to Udinese rather than gut out an admittedly ugly 1-0 victory with their three best players missing. I am of course open to reasonable criticism but this seems to be reaching the point of absurdity. I am aware that Arsenal hasn't won a single title in SIX YEARS and I'm aware that Arsene Wenger's player development strategy seems to have somehow disabled the part of his brain that sees talent in players over the age of 13, but the doom and gloom reporting that's coming out of the two Arsenal matches so far this year are just absurd. Let me break it down for everyone in a way that makes some sense:

Newcastle vs Arsenal: Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri were still embroiled in the uncertainty with their potential transfers, Jack Wilshere couldn't play due to injury, Theo Wolcott wasn't fit enough to start, and no players had been bought to replace any of the players in limbo because, well, they were in limbo. To summarize, Arsenal went to Newcastle without three of their four best players (four of their best five if you want to make the argument for Wolcott, though I wouldn't necessarily) and drew 0-0. Disappointing, but what did you really expect from a team that was missing all of that talent and had not yet found a way to replace it.

Arsenal vs Udinese: Nasri's future with Arsenal was still uncertain, Wilshere still couldn't play due to injury, Robin Van Persie couldn't play due to that ludicrous red card from the Barcelona match, Wenger was banned from the touchline for saying mean (read: true) things about said red card, and no players had been bought on the transfer market. To summarize again, Arsenal's three best players didn't play, the coach was banned from coaching, and Arsenal won the first leg of their UEFA Champions League series with Udinese, the toughest opponent they could have drawn in their situation.

Look, I want Arsenal to score 15 goals per game as much as the next guy. I want Aaron Ramsey to immediately become an international superstar. I want Alex Song to stop stomping on people and play good, physical defense that doesn't lead to stupid fouls (perhaps this last wish is more reasonable). But that's not going to happen, at least not in the first two weeks of a brand new season after Arsenal lost their midfield maestro and their most explosive offensive player (most likely). It's not feasible. So please stop writing all of these articles about how Arsenal is on the fast track to imploding like the rest of London (too soon?) and give some time for things to fall into place. Wilshere will be back soon. Players will get match fit and more familiar with each other. The transfer market is open for another two weeks and players will be bought (please god Arsene, prove me right on this). Five days into the season isn't the time for this nonsense.

As for today's match, the criticism isn't incorrect, it's just overblown. Arsenal did look suspect defensively at times, not being able to match the pace that Udinese was bringing. That said, Thomas Vermaelen made several fantastic plays to save quality chances on goal and Bacary Sagna was dynamite on the right side as usual. Let me take this chance to underscore the importance of Vermaelen to this defense again: Arsenal's defense can actually be good with Vermaelen in the back. Arsenal will never be a lock down, defensive team (no matter what stupidity you read about how posting two clean sheets so far proves that's how they're going to play this year), not with their gameplan and aggressive tendencies. But they can still be a solid defensive team if Vermaelen is healthy and his partner in crime isn't making stupid runs halfway up the field, losing the ball, and then picking up silly yellow cards (you know who you are Laurent Koscielny). Take this opportunity to pick up one of the five center backs that you're linked to and put together a truly beastly pair that might save games rather than put us all on heart attack watch. While you're at it, buy a left back because today did some damage to that position.

Arsenal also let Udinese take control of the game too much. Aside from the goal in the first half, it was fairly sloppy with lots of turnovers by each side and some chances, but no sustained dominant team. Udinese was that team in the second half, running hard at Arsenal and keeping possession while exploiting the openings they saw. That did change around the 75th minute or so, when Udinese started to slow and look tired. Then Arsenal pressed the play more, dominated possession, and had excellent chances like the Gervinho/Wolcott combination in stoppage time. They took Udinese's best punch and then came back at them. That being said, it would have been nice if they hadn't been ducking that punch so frantically, or if they landed a punch of their own when Udinese overexposed itself.

The bottom line is that this wasn't a pretty game. Arsenal still does not have the midfield flow they need to (with Fabregas gone and Wilshere out, that's just shocking), they still haven't developed that killer instinct, and they need to get tighter defensively. But it's early. I know that's not what people want to hear when their team could be bounced from the Champions League next week, but it's the truth. This team will need some time to find their stars and truly come together. I hope it happens tomorrow, but that is just not the case. In the meantime, let's look for some bright spots (like the goalkeeping of Wojciech Szczesny) and build upon them instead of tearing down the foundation before it has a chance to set. As always, Go Gunners.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Out With the Old, In With... Who?

Perhaps it is a cliched and predictable way to start a season-long blog, but it was very hard to watch the Newcastle vs Arsenal match without wondering how this year's team would compare to last year's team after losing such key members as Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri (for this match at least, most likely for much more), as well as the sneaky important Gael Clichy. Perhaps this isn't a completely fair comparison as today's squad was also missing new midfield superstar (hopefully) Jack Wilshere and had Theo Wolcott available but not 100% match fit. Fairness aside however, these are the things that you must be willing to judge: is this Arsenal team good enough to challenge for the title, or at least for Champions League play? I'm unhappy to report that my knee-jerk reaction to this game reminded me of how my roommate felt at various points throughout last season. He is a Liverpool fan.

Gervinho was the "big" move for Arsenal in the off-season and he is supposed to be able to provide some of the pace and playmaking ability on the wing in the 4-5-1 that Arsenal will so desperately need, especially with Nasri gone. The reviews for him in this game were decidedly mixed. On the one hand, he has great pace and is entirely unafraid to run at defenders, which is a quality I really like. Several times in the game he made excellent runs into the box from the left or right side and looked to really threaten the back line or keeper for Newcastle. The other shoe seems to have consistently dropped between Gervinho's own feet however, as he seemed physically and mentally incapable of putting shots on goal or providing respectable service to another player in the attack. In my notes from this match, I counted seven(!) times I thought it important enough to furiously type that Gervinho was bungling an attempt. Unfortunately for Arsenal, this was a theme which ran throughout. He has fantastic pace and puts himself in great spots, but he simply cannot get the ball out from between his feet and find the open man on the break. He's like that kid you get frustrated playing with because no matter what you do or what run you make, you know that the ball will end up five feet behind you, duffed into the keeper's hands, or being taken back in the other direction by the opposing team. Now I'm certainly not giving up on him for the season or anything ludicrous like that. He showed flashes today and he needs to get on the same page with his teammates. That will come with time and from game situations, although he will need to wait a little to get into those game situations, as I will discuss later.

The replacement for Clichy, Kieran Gibbs, was even more disappointing in my mind. To be fair, I never found him to be at risk defensively (though Newcastle never really threaten up his side). He might have been beaten on a pass or two, but he never looked out of place or lost. Going forward though was a whole different story. I'm used to seeing Clichy make these great runs down the left flank with speed, pick out a target, and rip a cross that puts the entire defense under pressure. Or, he would smartly recognize that nothing is there, pull the ball back and begin working it around. I saw absolutely none of that aptitude from Gibbs today. He routinely would get down the side in decent position and then unleash a ball that wouldn't end up anywhere near something resembling a target in the middle. There was one sequence in the 82nd minute where Wolcott floated a nice ball to the back post and it was all Gibbs could do to get on the end of it and lightly float it to the patiently waiting Newcastle keeper. The worrisome part of this is, I don't know if he's going to get better. With Gervinho, it was his first EPL match with his new teammates. He wasn't aware of how all of them were going to make runs, wasn't sure where he should set himself up, things like that. With Gibbs, he was giving poor service to targets in the 18 from the wing he plays on all the time. That's something he's been doing for the last 15 years and he seemed nowhere near the mark. Again, I'm not going to give up on a player after one game, especially on a 21 year-old with some obviously good instincts on how to get forward. But after watching something like that, you ask yourself if Arsene Wenger really thinks Gibbs can step up to fill the role of Clichy, or if he thinks Gibbs is just good enough to justify not spending any money.

The unenviable task of replacing Fabregas fell, in this match, to Aaron Ramsey. Now, this is obviously an unfair comparison. Not just because Fabregas sees the field like few players in the world, but because I don't think this is a position that Ramsey is best suited to. Ramsey also has excellent vision, but he's better pushed up high rather than in a "pulling the strings" kind of role. To his credit, Ramsey had a nice game and made some nice passes, but he's obviously not a long-term solution. Thankfully he won't have to be as Wilshere will come back and assume that role and Ramsey can push forward more where we'll be happier to see him play. Even though I know this, I still can't help but think that this is the downside of the "Cesc is unhappy, let him play somewhere else and we'll find a fill-in" argument. I don't necessarily disagree with that. If Nasri and Fabregas are going to be distractions to the team if they stay, I understand the good in getting a lot of money out of them that can be reinvested. But especially in the case of Cesc, he's still Cesc Fabregas. That's the guy you want to leave? That's the guy you're hoping hurries up and gets out of town? Arsenal was a completely different team last year when he was on the bench and they're a completely different team this year when he's on his way out the door. Let's hope that Wilshere's return (or some players bought with the proceeds of the Fabregas and Nasri sales) can reassure us a bit.

On the brighter side of things, the defense and goal-keeping looked sensational today. A good amount of that is due to a Newcastle side that didn't have a ton of pace up front and wasn't terribly creative in their attacks. That can't be said enough. But Wojciech Sczcesny looked confident and authoritative in the back, coming off his line several times to make well timed punches and once coming out to head a dangerous pass outside the 18 away. My worry is that he takes this confidence and becomes reckless. It's something we've seen from him in the past. If he can walk that line, though, he'll have a great season. Staying pat at keeper was something I had no problem with and today Sczcesny showed why he deserves that consideration. The central defense was also good, and it is just so nice to have Thomas Vermaelen back on the squad. He was always calm and composed today, never looked out of sorts and also never had to do anything truly spectacular. Accompanying him was excellent play out of Laurent Koscielny, which is both surprising and expected. Yesterday I typed that Arsenal couldn't challenge for the championship if Koscielny was their second center back. I stand by that comment due to the depth of talent on the transfer market at center back since Arsenal could so obviously upgrade, but Koscielny has me second guessing myself a bit. If he can play as solid as he did today and not make mistakes, then maybe Arsenal can do better than I thought. This is somewhat of a moot point though because Arsenal needs to get another center back to safeguard against injury. If Koscielny goes down, Johan Djourou can come in and not much will be lost. If Vermaelen goes out however... that's something I don't even want to think about.

I've said enough for now, but I want to speak a little to Joey Barton before I go. Joey, you make it so hard for me to stand up for you. When you were taking heat from every angle for lambasting Newcastle through Twitter, I stood up for you because it's incredibly frustrating to see teams sell off their best players and do nothing to improve the squad with those proceeds. There are fans from many American cities that can relate to this and I thought that you having the balls to call them out on it was fine in my book. But then we get into this game and I'm at least ok with you until you fall off a cliff. Being irate over Alex Song stomping on your calf? Completely agree, you could have punched him in the face and I wouldn't have cared (foreshadowing!!). Hauling Gervinho up off the ground because you think he took a dive in the box? You're losing me a little, but you're a hard-nosed player so I understand that you hate divers who are trying to draw cards. Going down like a sack of shit after Gervinho's hand happened to graze the side of your face? We're done here. If you want to yank someone to their feet by their collar for going down easy, how on earth do you justify crumpling to the ground from a slap that would have made Justin Bieber proud? You are at odds with yourself sir, and I'm having trouble keeping you in the good book. And Gervinho... you're just dumb for doing that. You're right to complain that you got sent off and he didn't but come on, you slapped a grown man on national television. Be glad he gave you a red card instead of taking away your man card.

That's all for now I think. I'll have some reaction to the Fabregas and Nasri sales when/if they happen, so check back for that. If you have any suggestions about the blog, be it writing style, layout, anything at all, I'd love to hear them. One last thing: if you find me online to talk to me about something I wrote here, you will be ignored. Use the comments section, for the love of god. If it's good enough to talk to me about, then talk to me through here so that others can join in. Until next time, Go Gunners.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Welcome Everyone, Arsenal Fans or Otherwise

First of all, let me do my best to assure anyone who has stumbled across this blog that it is not the ramblings of a radical militia man hiding somewhere in the Rocky Mountains who is incensed over the number of illegal Canadians that stream across our borders every day. Rather, this is a blog dedicated to the Arsenal Gunners of the English Premier League and will contain observations made by a random American fan. If anyone followed my World Cup 2010 blog (and I'm sure there will be precious few), this blog will be more aimed at telling an overall story rather than the blocks of summary I typed out during the World Cup. While I don't regret that as it has given me a fantastic record of the event and all the occurred, it seemed to me when all was said and done that I didn't do any actual writing, just retelling of a kind. So, this blog is an effort to change things up. Will it get snarky? If the 2010-2011 Gunners season is any indication of this season, then it absolutely will get snarky. Will I also try to mix in some genuine analysis and patient reflection as opposed to the knee-jerk reactionary fly-off-the-handle punditry that seems to be so popular these days? That intends entirely on my levels of bitterness and alcohol consumption. By all means, read on during the year to find out how things turn out.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not been an Arsenal fan for very long at all. I have watched every World Cup since 1994 and a decent amount of random international soccer to boot, but club soccer has always been hard for me to follow. I had familiarity with some players from all the international action, but it was so much of a hassle to loyally follow teams from other countries who I could never actually watch. I mean, I've been a Minnesota Twins fan since I was five despite living on the East Coast my whole life, but this is different. With the Twins, I latched onto them at an early age and had the sports section of the Hartford Courant to fill my head with box scores every single day. And if I caught an actual televised game versus the Red Sox or Yankees, that was just an added bonus. It was already easy to follow and it was already built into my sports routine.

Following soccer has always been a different story for me. I played it starting at a very young age, but it wasn't until the 1994 World Cup in the United States that I ever followed it at a professional level, and even that was just in passing due to the event. The debut in 1996 of Major League Soccer helped but while I liked to watch Jaime Moreno and Mario Etcheverry build that first DC United powerhouse, it wasn't something I kept up with. Too many players to learn, too many teams to get used to, too much history to try to make sense of. Growing up in the US, you learn the history of baseball, football, basketball, even hockey (depending on your upbringing) almost automatically. I mean, I read a book of "Decade's Greatest Baseball Teams" religiously as a kid. I owned a Super Bowl history book. I talked baseball with my grandpa, football with my uncles, and hockey with whoever else was foolish enough to be a Whalers fan. This was in me from the beginning so allegiances and referential knowledge were just a part of the package. Soccer was so difficult to access because of this. I might have thought that Romario was amazing for the Brazilians in 1994, but I didn't know who he was, who he played for, who he could be compared to (besides Pele, who I knew by name only and had never watched), or anything like that. Trying to frame his brilliance by telling me of his exploits at Barcelona would have been similar to a teenager nowadays referencing Twilight to police officers when giving a description of a suspect. There was never any frame of reference. That wouldn't change with the 1998 or 2002 World Cups either, even though I relished those events and watched nearly every match of each.

Things began to change with the 2006 World Cup as I had been through enough international soccer over the years that I was actually starting to pick up more names than I thought I would. Besides, I had a sincere rooting interest in the US National Team and was always trying to find out where their players played, who their opponents were, who were the stars of the teams in their group, etc. With a little more information and prolonged exposure, I was set to make the leap to actually trying to follow European soccer for the first time, even after the heart-breaking experience at this World Cup for the US. During that Cup and through Euro'08, I noticed the play of Cesc Fabregas of the Spanish national team and fell in love with his style of play. The quick turns, the superb control of the ball, the deft touches, but most important the insightful through balls and chips to pick out perfectly timed runs or send players on their way. The passing was amazing, reminding me of a point guard who sees all angles on the court and sets up play after play just by reading the timing correctly. Granted, I could have had this revelation with any member of the Spanish team and plenty of other teams, but for whatever reason, it was Cesc. That was when I become an Arsenal fan.

Which brings us to the sad state of affairs that is the lead-up to this season. As I write this, Fabregas and Samir Nasri have both been ruled out of tomorrow's opener against Newcastle, most likely because they're being dealt to Barcelona and Manchester City respectively. It's somewhat difficult for me as Fabregas is the man who led me to Arsenal, the team I've adopted as "my" team. Things have changed since even 2008. I finally had Fox Soccer Channel in my cable package in 2009 for the first time ever. I could actually see some games, even the majority if I planned my time wisely. I devoured the 2010 World Cup, staying up until 5am at times to write absurdly long blog posts (kind of like this one) about the three matches I just watched on DVR after returning home from work. I suffered through the 2010-2011 Arsenal season that was filled was so much promise on so many fronts, only to see it fall apart at every single level, including the personal. I remember the second leg of the Champions League match and how disappointed I was at every single member of the team except Jack Wilshire. After the red card to Robin Van Persie (the site of that in my memory still forces my lower jaw to hang in disbelief) and the resulting Barcelona onslaught, no one looked like they wanted to stay in the game, Fabregas least of all. Perhaps that's an unfair assessment. Perhaps he was the focal point here because he was the captain and you want that fight and grit out of your captain when almost all hope is lost. Instead, I saw that kind of determination and never-say-die attitude from a 19 year-old boy throwing himself into every tackle, trying to do something to get the ball back from the maddeningly skillful Barcelona side. For me, that moment was when the team truly became bigger than the man, and that's where it stands today.

Arsenal may have not made many moves this offseason. They may still desperately need a strong center back no matter what Arsene Wenger says. They may still have to turn their money from Fabregas and Nasri (assuming these sales go through as they seem to be) into potent midfielders with enough skill and grit to challenge in a wide open Premier League race this year. They may still need to prove that they can play their sublime possession soccer and not get thrown off by the smallest bit of adversity or hard play. But regardless of their faults and flaws, I'm with them all the way this year and I can't wait to see how it unfolds. Go Gunners.