Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Tempered Ray of Sunshine

On Wednesday Arsenal announced that five of its younger players had signed lengthy contract extensions, establishing the core of the club further into the future. The key to this bit of news was assuredly that Jack "Savior of Arsenal From Here to Eternity" Wilshere is one of the signees, showing his Arsenal DNA and sending a very important message to potential transfer targets that there will be real quality on the side they may be interested in joining. Of only slightly less importance was that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's name appeared in the press release. The Ox has been a fan favorite from his debut with the first team and though he is not as advanced as grizzled old veteran Wilshere, the newly minted England international is an important building block for the future of Arsenal as well. Throw in the commitment from Carl Jenkinson and most Arsenal fans will hail this as only the most positive of news.

There will, however, be some dissenters in the mix. They will say that this list is made more noteworthy by the name that was left off of it, and they will not be wrong. Theo Walcott still has yet to sign and when five other players have had their contracts extended while Walcott claims that "it's going to be a slow process," it is looking more and more like the mercurial winger-turned-kind-of-striker will be out the door. Exactly how important the loss of Walcott is to Arsenal is a topic that has already been debated ad nauseum, but it is fair to say that seeing a talented player able to force his way out the door is not usually seen as a good sign. Other commentators might debate the wisdom in extending Kieran Gibbs' contract given his history with injuries, or in keeping Aaron Ramsey around longer seeing how Ramsey has turned into the on-deck scapegoat for all non-Gervinhian (Gervinhoish? Gervinhcal?) episodes on the team. For my part I believe that all five signings were proper moves (though length and price certainly do matter and to the best of my knowledge that information has not been officially released) as Gibbs has obvious quality and likely was not such an expensive signing as to preclude bringing in another player should things go south. Ramsey is an interesting story that I may tackle in a future post, but let me say this: inside that nervous, twitchy body is a quality footballer that may simply need to get over the yips and play within himself again. This contract gives him assurance that he'll have the time to do that and it is hard to see this expenditure being a huge misstep.

The quibbling over the details of contracts and possible future outcomes for players ignores the true import of these signings. Arsenal, be it the board or Wenger or whomever, is taking steps to avoid making the same mistakes over again. With Walcott's talks dragging on and rumors swirling around Bacary Sagna, the club stepped up and made a statement about some of their most important assets. No, signing five young players (only two of whom are first choice starters) is not akin to immediately overhauling an entire roster. It is a step in the right direction though, a step that moves past prior errors and says to the fans of the club "we hear you and we are working to be better." Of course this may simply be contract economics at work that do not speak to a greater change in club signing/recruiting policy, and of course these signings do not immediately improve a team that will struggle to finish with a Champions League spot and holds next to no hope of anything above that. Still, progress is progress and it is nice to see the beginnings of improvement at the club.

This sign of movement forward in the boardroom comes at roughly the same time as an uptick in performance on the field. The Gunners were impressive in their 5-2 dismantling of Reading and it is indeed a good sign when Arsenal has essentially put an away game, er, away by halftime. There are several important caveats to be made here, however:

1. This was a Reading team that looked every bit the last place team that they are. For a home side to show almost zero heart or ambition in the opening half... it was shocking. Reading parked the bus on defense but unfortunately had parked it in a neighboring field and thus made no impact on the game whatsoever. No defenders closed the ball down, runs were left unchecked, movement was allowed freely, etc. It was a mess. Arsenal did well to take advantage and passed quite brilliantly for most of the game, but it is somewhat difficult to judge them properly because of the competition.

2. Catastrophic Individual Error is still having a hell of a season for the Gunners and these huge, glaring mistakes continue to change matches. The captain has not been immune this season with his excellent pass to notorious traitor Robin Van Persie during the Manchester United match, and this time it was Kieran Gibbs at fault, blowing a chance at a clean sheet and giving Arsenal fans heart problems usually associated with seeing Marouane Chamakh warming up. It's annoying that Arsenal can look so good over the course of a match and still leave fans feeling nervous, but that is what happens when massive mistakes can come from seemingly anywhere and anyone.

3. Arsenal was allowed to play exactly the kind of game that they wanted. This goes hand-in-hand with #1 but it is worth mentioning on its own. Mikel Arteta was given time to spread things around, back passes were never challenged, on ball pressure was virtually non-existent, opposition counters were executed poorly, Gunners attackers had time around the box, and so on and so on. If you wrote a script to see Arsenal execute the way they want to play and regain confidence going into a stretch of four very winnable games, this Reading game would have been the end result.

I do not mean to suggest that Monday's match should be thrown at as too extreme an outlier because of course that would be ridiculous. Results are results and Reading is a team that does exist within the structure of the Premier League. Hell, even that wouldn't be a necessary qualification to get Gooners' hopes up considering the Capital One Cup debacle. We should simply resist the annoying pundit habit of forgetting all previous evidence and focusing only on the latest match to determine the quality of a team.

For now though, Arsenal fans should have cause for minor celebration. Perhaps "celebration" is too strong a word, actually. Cause for slightly warmed cockles perhaps. The team put in a good performance (and two straight league wins) on the field against a team they should beat and the board did an excellent job locking up their young talent, primarily Wilshere who is looking more and more like the Jack of old with each match. The dark clouds still loom and could overtake us again certainly, but it is nice to have a reminder that not all is dull and grey in our Arsenal centered world.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Statement Game Gone Horribly Wrong

"Nobody brings a fella the size of you unless they're trying to say something without talking, right boy?"

Arsene Wenger made a statement with his choice of a starting eleven for the trip to League 2 club Bradford for Tuesday's quarterfinal match of the Capital One Cup. The message of "we are desperate to win this trophy" was received loud and clear when fans saw names like Vermaelen, Cazorla, and Wilshere on the lineup card as it appeared the manager had no interest in messing around with five full days off before meeting Reading in a league match. It was a bold statement, a declaration of intent and an obvious attempt to deny critics their all too familiar plug-in line of "no trophies in eight years." With the match already infamous among Arsenal supporters it is difficult to think of a way things could have backfired worse than the lackluster showing that ended in a loss on penalties to a team three leagues lower than the perennial Champions League qualifying Gunners.

Soccer managers needs to perform three basic tasks when running their club: assemble the best squad possible, use proper tactics to put the players in the best position to succeed, and properly motivate the players to excel when it comes to game time. Arsene Wenger has long been hailed as a master of transfer dealings who encourages a general style of play (fluid passing in possession that leads to attacking opportunities) while letting the leaders among the players handle the main thrust of the motivating in order to bring everyone together. He is not a strict x's and o's man liable to put together 30 page Powerpoint presentations on the proper strategy in a given game and neither is he a Harry Redknapp type that tells his players to just kick the ball around and have fun. Wenger uses his strength, scouting and talent assessment, to support his weaker qualities. By bringing in the proper players who can lead he takes care of motivation and as all of his purchases fit the style of soccer he wants to play, he also handles the tactics.

It does need to be said here that while Arsene is not as good at tactics and motivation as he is with club assembly, that does not mean that he is poor or harshly lacking. The amount the man has won cannot be laid solely at the feet of the way he put his team together because that would ignore all that is required to make a champion. Players cannot win with a bumbling coach who is out of touch with how to communicate and the development that numerous players have undergone while at Arsenal before moving on shows that Wenger can certainly teach and improve the (generally) young men he coaches. However, most would agree that he prefers to let players handle their own business rather than lord over them like a task master and that he isn't the type to make brilliant halftime adjustments that lead to the Gunners exposing a weakness of their opponents that slowly became apparent over the first forty-five. His strength is in the players he brings in and the value he finds while purchasing them.

Recently though, Wenger's assessments have begun to slide and his transfer and wage philosophy has not been adapted to changing times. Everyone can point to obvious transfer misses like Marouane Chamakh and Sebastien Squillaci, but that's not fair as all managers have their mistakes. The more telling sign of a fading touch is the general level of skill that exists in the side, how finding hidden gems for cheap has turned into getting what you paid for and not much more. Mikel Arteta is a fantastic player who all Arsenal fans should be happy to have in the side. However, he is a 30 year-old midfielder that the Gunners paid £10 million for. This is certainly a fair price for a useful player but it is not the world-beater kind of find that Wenger was known for earlier in his Arsenal career. Arteta is of course one of the much more defensible signings, one that if we find fault with it's more an issue of nit-picking than objective analysis. The real problems are paying £7 million for Andre Santos and £11 million for Gervinho, players that were necessary to fill particular positions but were obvious overpays to bring someone in rather than spend bigger on a premium name. The result is a squad where the starting left back is a somewhat inconsistent young player with a history of injury, the cover at left back is a center back, and the cover at striker is best off as a disgruntled wannabe striker that will most likely be sold in January, at least in part due to the fact that no one trusts the Ivorian winger that cost half of the former captain's eventual transfer fee. These are small examples and there are more to be had, but evidence is mounting that the manager has lost his magic touch when it comes to exploiting blind spots in scouting and assessment to build the team.

The erosion of Wenger's primary skill has exacerbated his deficiencies in the other coaching areas. Again, for anyone who would inaccurately label me as ungrateful or reactionary, he is not by any stretch a poor manager nor is he inept in these areas; they are just the spots he has more trouble with. The tactics have not won any matches this year, nor has the general theory behind the play guided games along any better. The team is no longer talented enough to play crisp possession soccer (or at least the midfield hasn't gelled enough yet to do so) and the adjustment to this has been unclear. The team now sits deep rather than pressing the ball but cannot spring on the counter because it lacks the pace through midfield and the finishing up top to do so. Pressing high would seem to be the solution so that the ball would be won higher up the pitch but no one other than Jack Wilshere seems to believe this. Additionally, substitutions consistently come five to ten minutes too late and miss that instinctive feel for changing the game in the proper way when it is necessary. Hindsight is of course 20/20 but when everyone following a match in progress calls for changes in the same way yet never sees them carried out, there is something more at work than bloggers looking for things to write about. The level of talent coming off the bench is also an issue, and here we see Wenger's mistakes in the transfer market affecting other areas. After all, there is no "proper" time to bring Chamakh off the bench.

Where things look the worst is in terms of man motivation. This is painful to say because I have all the respect in the world for Arsene Wenger, but at times this squad looks like one that has quit on its manager. The problem is that the ways in which points are lost are so varied that it's difficult to say that for sure, but watching the dreadful performance against Swansea and following the debacle that was Bradford shows a team that cannot seem to elevate their play when it is necessary. It is not just the result, but the way in which the result occurs. Against Swansea the play was listless and the Gunners never looked like they were going to create positive chances and truly challenge the Swans. The same was true against Aston Villa earlier in the year where Arsenal were able to possess against an inferior team but never tested them. The players are not playing to their full potential and though this is a dip in form that will most likely be evened out by a corresponding rise, that equilibrium is far from guaranteed.

This brings us back to Bradford and the statement that was made. Wenger intended to show the rest of the league, and most likely his critics, just how good his team could play and just how serious he was in taking home some hardware to stock the cupboards. Instead a selection of mostly first team players was embarrassed by a team that had yet to sell out their stadium, a team that sits 64 places below Arsenal in the English leagues. All of Wenger's mistakes were on display here. Gervinho comically missed a golden opportunity for a goal while Chamakh came off the bench to the gasps of Arsenal supporters rather than Bradford players. A strong squad for a quarterfinal League Cup match still did not have the depth to bring on game changing players when it really needed to. More than anything though, the majority of Arsenal players thought that they would win this match by showing up rather than putting in the work to put their opponent away. That is certainly on the players. The players have to be professionals and find ways to get up for games that seem like they'll be easy, situations where is seems like the full effort won't be necessary to win. But one of the primary duties of a manager is to make sure that the team is properly coached and that includes giving them the motivation to win every match that they play. Losses are painful, but are much more acceptable when you can see the effort on the field that just came up short for the result. Losses that have no business being losses are the kind that drive fans crazy and the kind that managers must avoid.

Arsene Wenger is still the Arsenal manager and this is not a post advocating for the board to fire him or for him to step down. However, fans from all walks can now see the deficiencies of this team and the boss needs to work harder than ever to shore them up and turn this team around. "And if he isn't, he fucking should be."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Fan is a Fan is a Fan

On Saturday morning I was a bundle of nerves. After dragging myself out of bed at an hour I never would have seen if left to my own lazy devices, I was soon swinging back and forth between depression and elation. Broken by the Adebayor goal, healed by his idiotic red card, redeemed by the Mertesacker goal and the 3-1 half time lead, exasperated by the Bale goal, furious at the Gunners for killing time in a 4-2 game at home against 10 men, and finally overjoyed at another 5-2 win in one of the most contentious rivalries in sports. All of this was happening on a couch in a living room in Boston and as I lay there jumping from one induced emotion to the next, I realized how invested I was in a soccer team from London: a city I had never lived in, studied in, or even visited. And I wondered how that was possible.

Some sports loyalties are easy to explain. If you grew up in the general area of a city, odds are you're a fan of teams from that city. People from Boston are Red Sox and Patriots fans, people from North Jersey are Knicks or Rangers or Mets or Yankees fans, people from Kansas who never even went to the school are still Jayhawks fans, and so on. Then there are the familial ties: even if a parent doesn't live in their hometown any more, odds are they're going to raise their kids to follow the same teams they did. My uncle grew up just outside of Milwaukee and though he now lives in Central Pennsylvania, you better believe that my cousins are diehard Packers fans. These connections make sense. They run through your home or through your veins. They are direct ties to a feeling of community or family. They are what sports are based on.

For American fans of European soccer, it's a different set of ties altogether. Though there are those among us who can claim to have lived in European City X for part of their life or have a parent who has long be a diehard of one particular club, the vast majority have none of these "automatic" connections. We have the privilege, and the burden, of choice. We can choose a club because we like a player than plays for them, or because maybe we took a vacation in a city one time, or just because we like the color of their kits. We can choose based on whatever we like and this is very freeing. However, it also comes with a scarlet letter, a badge of dishonor that can always be brought up to discredit our fandom. After all, how can I really be a true Arsenal fan? I've never been to Highbury or Emirates. I didn't grow up watching Anders Limpar or Alan Smith. I have no idea what the breakdown of neighborhoods in London is like and have that city's presence instilled in me. I'm just a longtime international soccer fan who liked the way a young Spanish kid played and started following his team. How can I count myself among those who grew up with the Gunners as their local club?

I might be the wrong person to answer that question, actually. I'm from Connecticut and I count myself a fan of the Minnesota Twins, Pittsburgh Penguins, and New York Giants. As well as the UConn Huskies, of course. I can give you good reasons for all of these associations. I can tell you how much of a sports hero Kirby Puckett was to me growing up. I can rattle off notable failures for the Giants at quarterback (well do I remember the Danny Kanell Era). I can talk with the best of them and I've been a fan of these teams for a long, long time. But the truth of the matter is that if someone from Minnesota heard me talking about the Twins and asked where I was from only to hear "Connecticut" back, he or she would be well within their rights to look down their nose at me and wonder why I was encroaching on their turf. I understand this completely, by the way. As someone who has been a hockey fan since watching the Whalers growing up, I'm sure I wrinkled my nose at a few Sully-Come-Latelys that sprung up when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. Some people can't stake as much of a claim as others, either out of participation, geography, or genetics. There will always be, to some degree, classes of fans.

I don't see this as anything to be ashamed of though. I didn't grow up in Minnesota. As a matter of fact, I didn't grow up anywhere that can reasonably claim to support one particular team over all others. Oh well. I've been a Twins fan since I was six years old and I'll continue to be a Twins fan even if they can't develop a single pitcher whose fastball tops out over 90 mph. To me, that's the baseline of being a fan, the floor of staking any kind of claim: you stay a fan. If you're jumping around from team to team always making sure that you're rooting for a winner, you're not a fan of a team, you're a fan of a sport. Which is fine in its own way, but be aware of it. When you're rooting for the same team year-in and year-out, you have friends that come along with that culture. You've got bars that you frequent or websites that you check. You build a community around a team whether you're from there or not. So while I'll be at a bar in Boston for today's Montpellier match instead of anywhere in North London, I comfortable with that. I can never be what some fans are because I wasn't born with it, but I can sure as hell still be a Gooner.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Turning It Around

When a team is struggling not only to win but to play the way they are capable of playing, it's rare that they snap out of it all of a sudden with a thumping win. Multiple goalless performances are rarely followed up with an immediate 5-0 win and this makes logical sense. If a team is playing poorly - as opposed to losing close games in which they are playing well - then it's unlikely to come back all at once. In most cases, when the breakthrough finally comes it is a narrow win in which elements of the team's play started to come around. That's exactly what happened for Arsenal against Queens Park Rangers over the weekend, yet the way many Gooners are acting you'd think the team was in full blown Titanic mode rather than a luxury liner that's sprung a small leak. Are they right, or is this a team that is slowly starting their turnaround?

Let us state a few facts first so that we are on the same page as to what we are discussing. First, this Arsenal "implosion" that we are talking about is a two game skid: the 1-0 loss at Norwich and the 2-0 loss to Schalke at Emirates. Before that they had beaten both Olympiakos and West Ham 3-1 and I think most observers would say that they've been playing quite well. That being said, the two losses have been quite horrific results especially when you consider how low the quality of Arsenal's play has been. I admit to not seeing the Norwich match due to travel but what I've seen and heard has been less that positive. Even when playing away, losing to a team in a relegation zone that is tied for second worst in the league at conceding goals... ugh. The performance against Schalke might even have been more shocking because of the circumstances. You expected the team to be angry at themselves for the performance versus Norwich and ready to come out firing on all cylinders at home against a good but not dominant German squad. Instead, the Gunners were flat, the passing was slow, the defense abysmal at times (Andre Santos you make it so hard for me to stick up for you), and the whole team was below average.

At this point, it was perfectly fair for any fan to be worried about the direction of the team. Not only had they played poorly in recent games, but it was the aimless kind of poor that really gets in a fan's head. Any team can go out, play hard, and not execute. Fans are (generally) willing to forgive that. But show me a team who sleepwalks through a game and I'll show you a group of fans who are ready to freak the fuck out. So there was some merit behind the cries of alarm. Then again, this was a team that, according to some, had been playing the best football of the two months of the Premier League season. A team that had only allowed five goals in seven league games prior to Norwich. A team that some fans and pundits were starting to claim didn't need He Who Shall Not Be Named and could challenge for the title anyway. With this base of ability established, it doesn't make much sense to start crying Arsenal Armageddon in October with the league only eight matches old, Arsenal still on six points in three Champions League games, and the FA Cup not even begun yet. So, as with all things, it seems some moderation is in order. Arsenal weren't world beaters after the West Ham game, nor were they the dregs of the league after the Schalke defeat. They are a team that is talented but still coming together. Arsene Wenger is trying to find his best lineup and what tinkering must be done when he can't field it (missing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott and Kieran Gibbs certainly has hurt them so far). Simply put, the Gunners will have ups and downs because they are still trying to reach their happy equilibrium.

Viewed in this light, the 1-0 defeat of QPR should be a good sign. Olivier Giroud is coming on stronger and stronger with the offense much better in general than the past couple matches. I've heard Arsenal's performance in this game called "listless" but I'm confused as to where someone would get that impression. The Gunners put 9 of their 22 shots on goal, controlled the ball for 66% of the game, and hit the woodwork to boot. If it wasn't for Julio Cesar going into his old "Best Goalkeeper In The World Julio Cesar," the Gunners could easily have put four more goals in. The defense still does look sloppy at times, but part of this is the domino effect from Gibbs being out and Santos being pressed into duty. Work will be done, things will get tighter, and things will get better. Besides, did you fucking see Jack Wilshere play? He came out for his first league start in over a year and not only acquitted himself well, but put in a Man of the Match performance. Arsenal are good through the middle but have obviously missed their number ten. With all of these positives from a team that is struggling, what is there to be up in arms about?

It's one of those situations where you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. For years people have complained about Arsenal not being able to find a goal when they need one, how they can't win scrappy games because they're not built for it. Well, look at this one. This was a great example of a team that isn't firing on all cylinders and isn't getting the bounces going their way, but finds a way to win regardless. Instead, we hear about how Arsenal are out of sync or struggling to find their way. Sigh. Narratives are everything these days and the sooner people stop buying into them and watch the games without a pre-planned strategy on how to react, the sooner we can all get back to a state in which logic actually matters. Come on you Gunners.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Pick Your Poison

In recent years, the criticism of Arsenal most favored by pundits was that the Gunners were one dimensional in their attack. During the heyday of Cesc Fabregas everything was supposedly too narrow while last year He Who Shall Not Be Named was a black hole of goal-scoring prowess. To a degree, this critique could be explained away; of course Fabregas used the middle of the field as he is (though Barcelona don't seem to know it) an excellent direct creative force and of course players wanted to pass the ball to the guy who was leading the league in goals and having an all-world year. But if we can set aside the kneejerk responses to those who seem to relish in coming after Arsenal, we would see that not everything said is valueless. The Gunners did have a bad habit of trying to craft a perfect goal rather than just shooting the damn ball and the second leading scorer in all competitions behind The Dark Lord was Theo Walcott with just a fourth of the goals and not even half the shots. So, perhaps things were a bit limited in their different ways. However, a new team composition brings a new plan of attack, and that plan is diversity.

It starts with the strikers as the current options give two very different looks to opposing defenses. I still firmly believe that Olivier Giroud will be the first choice striker for the majority of this campaign and what he offers is a dedicated target man and an aerial threat. Giroud's height and strength, as well as his relative lack of pace, encourages defenders to play a higher line in order to keep him away from goal, opening up space behind. The likes of Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and yes, Walcott are all adept at using this space to make runs using their pace and they can count are reliable service due to the creative influence of Santi Cazorla and others.

Though Giroud's style of play allows for all of this, it is a mistake to say that he is a target man and a target man alone. Giroud's movement is excellent and were his finishing up to snuff at the beginning of the year, we would be talking about the quality of his run to score the game winner goal against Sunderland rather than his admittedly poor attempt. The point though is that except for extreme cases of the yips (see: Fernando Torres, 2011-2012), scoring comes around for strikers. What's important is that even if Giroud is not scoring, he is still useful due to his excellent hold up play, his passing ability (look at his flick header to Aaron Ramsey against Olympiakos for a combination of the two), and his movement. He still has a goal and three assists in non Carling/Capital/League/Deargodcouldyouactuallycallitsomethingcool Cup romps so the numbers are coming along. Barring setback, he will be the go-to man up front and for good reason.

If we are going to praise Giroud for excellent play while not being in top scoring form, however, we would be remiss if we did not pay particular attention to the contributions of Gervinho. The mop-haired wonder has revitalized his image in the eyes of Arsenal fans with his five goals in all competitions and he has developed into a viable choice at striker. Because of his pace, defenses will sit deeper when playing against a Gervinho led attack and while this limits the space for runs in behind, it does leave more space for Cazorla and the other technically gifted players that the Gunners can field. In theory this leads to a more narrow attack but there are many defensive variables that can swing things one way or the other, such as man-marking Cazorla or defending the middle at the expense of the flanks, thus forcing Arsenal's attack wide. Gervinho's emergence creates another way that the team can attack and it gives Arsene Wenger additional options to choose from in order to best exploit an opponent's defense.

One problem is that this assumes that Gervinho can maintain the form he's in. I wrote already about the Gervinho paradox and while I'd like to believe that his deal with the devil in charge of inexplicable hair styles will hold up, I don't see it happening over the course of the full season. This might be ok though as Walcott is not an unreasonable option up front as well (I'm not going to dismiss everything the man says due to his contract status) and Wenger might be able to ride the striker in the better form when it is necessary to spell Giroud. Whether or not I'm right and whether or not Theo is ever given the chance up front that he wants, the speedy striker option allows Arsenal to do something different and challenge defenses that might handle Giroud's size better. In either system, the wings can do much to aid success.

Due to the rapidly improving play of Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson (England call-ups and courtships? I never would have thought it was possible at the beginning of the season), the flanks have been an area of considerable strength for the Gunners in the early season. Thus far Podolski has been used primarily on the left with a rotating cast (Chamberlain, Ramsey, Walcott, etc.) starting on the right and whoever is in there has benefited greatly from the attacking play of Gibbs and Jenkinson. Though they are still not the best crossers of the ball, the fullbacks can get downfield in a hurry, can challenge a man marking them, are not afraid to cut inside, and generally make good final decisions. Gibbs coming down the left allows Podolski to drift inside to link up with Cazorla and though Ramsey and Chamberlain haven't been as positive coming inside from the right, the combination play with Jenkinson has opened up defenses before and allowed Arsenal players to get to the endline and whip in dangerous balls. Giroud is of course a likely target but all the wing players are capable of intelligent cutback passes and their very presence creates more space in the middle due to defenders shifting to cover the vacated space. Narrow, tight passing is no longer the only way the Gunners can open up the defense and it's thanks in large part to the play of their young fullbacks.

The fact that it's taken this long for me to get to discussing Cazorla and Mikel Arteta is shocking when you consider that the Spaniards have been Arsenal's two most valuable players so far this season. Cazorla and Arteta control the midfield in two very different ways; Cazorla is the creative presence in the final third, playing just behind the striker (although he likes to drift left and link up with Podolski as well) and guiding the attack with his control and vision. Santi has two goals and two assists on the season but his influence goes beyond the basic numbers. He creates space for himself effortlessly and this leads to Arsenal holding the ball around the box more than if a less technically skilled player was put in the same position. His one-two passing is sharp, he's always looking for runs, and he showed against West Ham that he can create some magic with his shots from distance as well. Right now he is the engine driving this team and he's been one of the best players in all of the Premier League.

If Cazorla is Arsenal's engine, Arteta is more like the ABS, air bags, and crumple zones that create peace of mind. Deployed primarily in front of the defense, the former Everton player makes his living with sound tackling, clever ball pressure, and gathering possession so that the Gunners can start the attack. He has been a true defensive midfielder for much of this year, but not a brute with steel as his only positive quality (Nigel De Jong comes to mind). Arteta can put in a good tackle, but he's also technically gifted and can hold a ball he's just received - either from a teammate or off of an opponent - and then spray intelligent passes to the wings. To add to his value, due to the injury to Abou Diaby he's also been playing more in a double pivot role with players like Ramsey and Francis Coquelin. As the excellent @Gingers4Limpar points out in a recent article, this system lets Arteta move further forward and have more of a creative influence on the play, giving Arsenal yet another playmaker in the final third. The Spanish center of the midfield has been the heart of the team and there is no reason to suspect it will be any different going forward.

Perhaps this year's Arsenal team can finally put to bed that tired criticism about only having one way to play. Wenger can now choose a tall, physical striker, a forward with pace to test the defensive line, technical players that can come in from the wings to add to the attack, pure speed to overwhelm the flanks, a deep lying midfielder to control the game, two superlative creative forces working through the midfield to build the attack... the list goes on and on. There are weaknesses. There always will be. But this is now a team that can adapt to any circumstance and any opponent. More than anything, that will be their greatest strength and best chance of competing for trophies this year.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Gervinho?

A good test of a manager's eye for ability can be found in the tough decision over whether or not to give up on a rising talent. The siren song of "potential" and "upside" are always there to clutch tight, but at some point in a player's career their rise up the ranks will stop. It is only a question of where. Some players will fight through disappointment and rise to play at the highest level of the sport, such as Robin Van Persie in 2011-2012. Others will come to a team with expectations that they will grow into a permanent spot, but flame out before getting there like Carlos Vela did. The toughest kind of decision, however, is what to do with a player once he has proven himself good enough to play, but still has too many holes in his game to warrant a permanent starting spot. That seems to be the situation Arsene Wenger is in with Gervinho and it has become a full-on debate.

Going into this year, it seemed that the Gervinho issue was more or less settled in the minds of fans. He was fine as a depth winger, suitable to playing in league cup matches or spelling an established starter. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott ahead on the depth chart, plus the addition of Lukas Podolski to the left hand side of the pitch, the Ivorian international seemed to have reached his peak as a second choice winger and an impact sub. But Walcott moved into the manager's doghouse due to a contract dispute that he swears isn't about the money and Chamberlain is seeing limited playing time while being brought back very slowly from a minor injury, so Gervinho has had the chance to start both on the wing and at striker. The move up front caught most everyone by surprise, but even more shocking were the two goals that he scored against Southampton in his debut at the new position. The usual warnings were thrown out again. "He's always been inconsistent, so this is par for the course." "The opponent didn't know what to expect from him, which'll tail off with some scouting." "It was only Southampton." But even from the most jaded observers, these warnings sounded instead like the mantra of a child when something seems too good to be true, as if people were trying to convince themselves not to get too excited about the resurgence of a player they had written off. At the very least, the debate about Gervinho was reborn.

More than anything, the former Lille man brings pace to the table. He was brought into Arsenal as a winger precisely so he could receive the ball in space and run at defenders who would hopefully be too slow to adjust to his speed. This plan proved to be unreliable though for one main reason: his horrible, horrible decision making. At his best, Gervinho would burn past a man, get to the endline, and cut the ball back across to a wide open Van Persie, using his speed and ability to draw defenders to create for his teammates. The problem is that this was a Platonic ideal, once that never seemed to manifest itself in our reality. Too often we saw the incomplete version of this form: the strong touch that sent the ball out of bounds or into a waiting tackle; the "two steps behind the man" pass that wasted all previous efforts; the laughable attempt at finishing that never came near the frame. Gervinho's movement was intelligent and his natural abilities allowed him to execute the set-up for his grand designs, but his nerves or his brains or some other unknown malfunction almost always led to the rocket never getting off the launch pad.

The match against Southampton created more hope than the expected shrug and "wow, he finally put it together for once" comment because he was being used as a striker, a position he had never seen playing time at prior. When he turned in a two goal performance up front and then followed it up with a goal against Montpelier in the Champions League (while playing on the right wing, it should be noted), people began to wonder if this would lead to a reemergence. After all, it is an easy thing to talk yourself into in hindsight, especially if you are actively looking to be encouraged. He's still only 25 years old. He's only had one season to acclimate to the Premier League. He has loads of talent but was missing that final step. He might have been disheartened knowing he was down in the pecking order on the wing. The after-the-fact rationale could go on and on, but the basic idea was that this could be the start of something new.

Then there was the away match versus Manchester City, the game that sobered up any fans who were drunk on belief in their Comeback Kid. There are two quintessential Gervinho moments in this match that need to be mentioned from here on out in any analysis. One is the run in the 15th minute or so where Gervinho dashed into space to receive a perfectly weighted ball... only to give it an absurdly heavy touch and let Joe Hart scoop up the mistake without even facing a shot on goal.  The other is the chance in front of goal with less than 15 minutes left in the match that he skied and sliced to waste the best chance the Gunners would have of winning. This was Gervinho at his most Gervinhoest (Gervinhiest? Gervinhoesque?), at least as pessimistic fans have come to see him. Two golden platter chances and two complete blowups. He didn't force a save, he didn't ring it off the post, he didn't drop it to a teammate for them to miss. He never even came close.

The forgotten part of this focus on results only is that very few other Gunners could have put themselves in a position to receive that first pass in order to blunder it into the keeper. Yes, Gervinho botched that chance. But he only botched it because he got there in the first place, similar to a keeper who makes a great play to get to a nigh-unstoppable free kick but then mistimes the punch and looks like a fool. The second chance, however, probably would have been finished by any of the other attacking players who don't possess Aaron Ramsey's instinct for flubbing shots in the box. That was a made for tv moment type of goal where a player gets free, the home fans are screaming for someone to close him down, he rips the shot inside the left post past Hart at full extension, and the Gunners celebrate a gutty, impressive away win against the former champions thanks to the most natural of dramatic circumstances. Except instead, the player ended the moment in the saddest possible way. It reminded me of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, or maybe Zoidberg's slinky. Within every argument for why you have to have Gervinho on the pitch seems to be a reason for why he can never be there.

Unfortunately, we are no nearer to an answer now than when we started all of this just like we don't know Gervinho any better now than we did two weeks ago. We don't know if he's a still developing talent or a bench player. We don't know if he learned how to finish or if he got lucky over a short span. We certainly don't know whether he's true Arsenal material or if he's never going to be more than what he is now. Thankfully it's Arsene Wenger that has to make that decision, not us. Let's hope he doesn't duff it to the keeper.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The New Standard

Sport comes in many variations, both in terms of the types of sport but as well as the level of sport. Some people find college basketball more entertaining than pro basketball, others refuse to watch a sport unless it is played at the highest level, and still others consider international play to be the most important of all. When it comes to soccer, count me among the latter. That isn't to say that international soccer is the best played soccer in the world, because it isn't. Players spend more time with their clubs and the Champions League will always be of a higher quality than the World Cup. But international soccer has the pageantry that you simply don't get at the club level and the importance that cannot be matched by tournaments that are played every year rather than every four. For me, the pinnacle of sport will always be the World Cup and I am a die hard United States fan before all others. I bother with this preamble because I want anyone reading to understand that this comes from a place of love and support rather than one of kneejerk criticism or complaining for the sake of complaining. This is important because I believe that the United States will never become a force in international soccer until we begin to hold our team to a higher standard.

The United States qualifies out of CONCACAF, a region that is not the worst in the world but is still set up for the US to qualify for every World Cup in the foreseeable future. There is only one other dominant country in the confederation, Mexico, a team that is an outside candidate for one of the best eight teams in the world when speaking most charitably. After Mexico comes a bevy of potential dark horses, but no perennial challengers save Costa Rica, and the Ticos still do not compete on the same level as the powerhouses. The way qualification works for the 2014 World Cup is that the top three countries of the final group of six will play in Brazil automatically while the fourth place country must play the first place country from the OFC (note: the best country in this federation will routinely be New Zealand, which should give you an indication of quality) in a home and away series to move on to the big show.

What does all of this mean? The United States should never, ever fail to qualify for the World Cup under these rules. Even if they were to lose both matches to Mexico and then sink into fourth place below their arch rivals and two other countries that happened to get hot at the right time, they would still only have to win a playoff with New Zealand (worst case scenario) to advance. Do you see how embarrassing this would be? How just shy of mathematically impossible it is? Even with only seven points through four matches (!), the US still only needs a win over Antigua & Barbuda and (mostly likely) a draw in a home game with Guatemala to advance to the final round, which will consist of Mexico and four other teams that of course could win, but shouldn't. The US has played about as poorly as it could so far and they still need middling results in two very winnable matches to move on. This is CONCACAF.

Let me say here that I am aware this sounds dismissive towards Honduras, Panama, Canada, and a host of other countries. I mean no disrespect, and that is the honest truth, and it is also not to say that these teams couldn't beat the US or finish ahead of them in the final group. However, I would hope we could all agree that it is a stretch to think that this would be an acceptable result to a country with the United States' population and financial backing. Antigua and Barbuda has fewer residents in the entire country (shy of 82,000) than the capacity of many football stadiums in the US. The GDP per capita of the US is almost seven times that of El Salvador. These may be extreme examples, but these are countries the United States is participating against to make it into the final round of qualifying for the World Cup. Upsets happen and nothing is certain no matter how it looks on paper. But again, such failure would be unheard of for the US.

What this means for the men's national team and what it means for us as fans is that we cannot continue to be happy to pull out close, "must have" wins. We cannot continue to laud the team when they do the minimum that is required of them. This does not, of course, mean that every game must be a 4-0 blow out and that there will never be momentary setbacks, and it definitely does not mean that the fans should openly boo a team that is coming just short of putting it all together midway through a match. But we cannot be satisfied with the minimal standards that have been set for us. We need to aim higher and we need to be more. I watched this year's US team lose at Jamaica and then barely pull off a 1-0 win in the return match in Columbus, Ohio. Yes the team was missing Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan, yes they dominated the opening 45 minutes of the game in Columbus, and yes they are sitting in first place in the group (although Jamaica and Guatemala also have the same seven point as the US) even with all of this happening. But this is the "phew, glad that worked out" kind of attitude that keeps the fans happy with making the knockout stages of the World Cup and nothing more. It is what is keeping the United States from progressing to the next stage in their soccer development.

This men's team will not suddenly turn into Spain or Brazil or any other of the traditional powerhouses that dominate the major tournaments. But there is a path and it is one that the United States seems to have wandered off. Not backwards or to their violent death, but simply "off." 1998 was an embarrassment, but perhaps too much was expected too soon. 2002 was a perfect stepping stone but then 2006 was a letdown. The problem more than anything was that 2010 seemed fated. It was "fine" that the US barely qualified for the knockout stages out of a weak group and it was "understandable" that they were bested by a talented but beatable Ghana squad. At the time, you have to be grateful. Clap your players off the field and thank them for their service. They gave you something root for and they gave you at least one fantastic moment. But this respect is given with the understanding that the system is moving forward, that things are getting better and that more will be expected next time, not that we have achieved what we want to achieve and it's time to settle into a groove. We should always want more.

Jurgen Klinsmann has attempted to change the culture of United States soccer at multiple levels and I am aware that it is too soon to see the full results of what he wants to do. I understand this and I accept this. But that does not mean that he has freedom to operate forever. I still assume that the US will qualify for Brazil and I am far from crying for revolution in the system. But again, this patience comes with the assumption that things are moving forward, that we are progressing and not consolidating. If 2014 brings us another typical United States performance, we may need to find a new path.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Half of a Good Start

The Gunners have played their first two matches and naturally most of the talk is about the lack of goals scored. Were they right to sell Robin Van Persie, why isn't Olivier Giroud fitting into the side, can Santi Cazorla create good chances for his teammates, and so on and so forth. These are valid concerns of course, and going down that path of inquiry is quite reasonable for a team and fanbase that expect Champions League play again next year. However, rather than get into the questioning nature of that half of the ball after only two matches, I'd like to engage in some analysis of the defense and their play thus far.

Steve Bould is a former Arsenal (and Stoke, but let's never mention that again) center back who has worked with the youth academy for the past ten years or so in various roles. Prior to the start of the 2012-2013 season, he was named assistant manager of Arsenal, replacing Pat Rice, and the expectation was that he was brought in specifically to clean up the defense. Now, last year's Arsenal defense wasn't an old jalopy in desperate need of repair. Thomas Vermaelen is one of the Premier League's best center backs and Laurent Koscielny has been trending that way with his much improved play. When completely healthy, the Gunners can also put forward one of the best right backs in the league in Bacary Sagna, the uninteresting but mostly steady Kieran Gibbs, as well as backups like Per Mertesacker, Carl Jenkinson, and Andre Santos. The depth is lacking but the starting back line was nothing to scoff at. So why the focus on defensive improvement?

For one, Arsenal was a decent 9th in the league in goals allowed, but they lagged way behind their supposed competitors for the trophy as Manchester City and Manchester United allowed 29 and 33 goals respectively to the Gunners' 49. The defense wasn't exactly an aspect of their game worth hanging their hat on and with the far and away leading scorer leaving during the transfer window, the offense couldn't be relied upon to carry the team. More importantly, the team had a habit of giving up foolish and inopportune goals, the kind that should kill title or Champions League hopes and were simply unacceptable. Vermaelen was especially disappointing in this regard as he was caught out of position several times after pushing up into the attack, just the kind of attitude that you don't want from your supposed defensive leader. Knowing what went wrong last year, Arsenal was keen to learn from their mistakes and shore up the back.

Through two games, it is hard to argue with the success of the defense as the Gunners have held their opponents without a goal. The most important part of this transformation has been the understanding of the central defenders and their cooperation with Mikel Arteta, the deepest lying midfielder. Vermaelen is still making the occasional run forward but when he does, Arteta slides seamlessly into place to cover for him. This is a change from last year when Arteta and Alex Song were both set up deep in midfield, but Song often moved forward himself, leaving the covering responsibilities unclear. Now it is understood that Arteta is the deep man, responsible for controlling the spread of the ball, acting as the last line of defense in midfield, and providing cover when the center backs move forward. Mertesacker and Vermaelen have been an excellent pairing so far (Koscielny is currently sidelined with an injury) with Mertesacker's positional awareness playing well off of Vermaelen's pace and athleticism. Jenkinson has been starting in place of Sagna on the right side (only due to Sagna recovering from a broken femur) and while he has been less that useful going forward, he is doing a good job keeping control of his flank, especially on the quick counter. Gibbs has played both games on the left side and one thing that can always be said about him is that he's not afraid to stick a foot in. Like Jenkinson, I have problems with Gibbs' ability to provide offense but he generally is a solid defender who times his tackles well and knows how to slow a break. Altogether the defense has played well and even gave the likes of Vito Mannone a clean sheet.

The biggest problem in evaluating the defense is sample size and the challenge presented by the opposition. Sunderland and Stoke aren't teams likely to be relegated this season, but they also are known for sticking ten men behind the ball, especially against Arsenal, and relying on quick counters to score their goals rather than sustained pressure. It is positive to see that neither team managed to catch the Gunners napping on the break and even better that the defense has only allowed three shots on goal through 180 minutes of play. But again, the test has not been strong yet. Arsenal has not faced a side that attacks with pace and puts pressure on the defense in a variety of ways. This coming Sunday will be different as a match at Anfield against Liverpool looms. Vermaelen and Mertesacker will be tested by the intelligent movement of Luis Suarez and Liverpool has some speed on the flanks to put Jenkinson and Gibbs to the test. Moreover, we will see how Arteta holds up as that last line of midfield defense when he is required to continually prove himself against attackers rather than step up to stop the occasional counter or two.

Though the book isn't written on Arsenal's defense yet, the improvements are there through the first two matches. Getting Koscielny back into the rotation should help as well and we will see if Arsene Wenger can find that out-and-out defensive midfielder that he has been looking for. One thing is certain: if the offense continues to struggle to find the net and find their cohesion, Steve Bould's defense will be more important than ever.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The True Contenders

Early in the Premier League season, anything is possible. Before the ball is kicked, every fan thinks their team can win the whole thing and every worthwhile player probably does as well. A week in some may be crashing back to earth (sorry people of Norwich) but others are flying higher. After all, Swansea stands atop the table (discounting the absurd Chelsea scheduling, of course) and you never know who might probably sort of maybe join your favorite club during the rapidly narrowing transfer window. The dream has to end somewhere, however, and I may as well be the one to start things off.

Less than half the teams every year have a real chance to win the league. Everyone knows it but professional sports requires that we suspend belief to a degree because otherwise many people wouldn't bother. Of those teams, the majority are competing for Champions League spots while maintaining an outside chance of winning the title. This year I'd say that list includes Everton, Tottenham, Liverpool, Newcastle, and Arsenal. It's not that these teams can't win the title; it's that it will take an awful lot to go right (for some more than others) and some poor play at the top of the table. If Arsenal pick up another defender before the end of August, see Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud come into fine goal scoring form, have Santi Cazorla emerge as a true team-driving playmaker, and manage to stay healthy for the first time since broadband internet became a normal thing, they have a legitimate chance to win the title. But obviously this is a difficult situation to foresee and the Gunners will most likely be fighting for third place and focusing on winning their six point matches against the other teams on this short list. The reality is that, for better or for worse, the only real odds-on favorites to win the Premier League are Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United.


Alphabetical order has a funny way of working things out as Chelsea are actually my pick to finish third in the league. Cynics will point to the relative inexperience of Roberto Di Matteo as a head coach as well as the team's sixth place finish in the league last year, and rightfully so. However, it is also important to consider last year's team within the context of that very turbulent season as well as address the changes that they have made. For starters, they are playing under the same head coach from start to finish (one would think) and that should have a measurable impact in terms of consistency and expectations for the players. For example, we know that Daniel Sturridge is not in Di Matteo's plans, at least not as a starter, and therefore someone else gets to take his spot and can work with his teammates to get comfortable. It seems like basic stuff I know, but the difference can be vital when the team is in danger of dropping points against teams they should be able to beat (see: last Wednesday's match vs Reading). Having the team play under one system throughout the year could be huge when you consider that the difference between 6th and 3rd last year was just six points.

Chelsea also changed their squad through offseason additions, notably bringing in Marko Marin, Oscar, Victor Moses, and of course Eden Hazard. We've heard for years (especially last year) about how Chelsea needed to rebuild and how the old guard had to be phased out. If you look at this year's squad you have 12 potential starters under 26 years of age including important pieces such as Juan Mata, Gary Cahill, David Luiz, Ramires, Oscar, and Hazard. This is no longer a team that has to play cautious for fear of being outpaced by opponents. This is a team that can use pace and youth to their advantage to fly around the pitch and attack from many angles. The project is not over, but serious steps have been made along the way.

Chelsea are still not without problems though, and this is why I have them finishing in third place. Their finishing seems to depend heavily on Fernando Torres returning to form (which might actually be likely based on the season thus far) and the defense is good but not unbeatable, especially considering the defensive play in midfield. There is plenty of exciting, young talent but it still is young talent, and young talent can surprise both positively and negatively. This team has an excellent chance of coming together and competing for a title until the very end, but there are too many variables for me to pick them over either Manchester team.

Manchester City

Last year's champions are back in the hunt again with a mostly unchanged squad. After all, why mess with success? Well, Liverpool showed them some reasons why in Sunday's game at Anfield and the injury to Sergio Aguero should provide additional motivation. Now it is said that Roberto Mancini has roughly £60 million to spend before the transfer window closes in a couple of days, making everything right with the world since City are once again throwing money around like Martin Atkinson does yellow cards. Last year, however, City performed best when their backs were up against the wall and they were getting great performances from their star players. Is spending in the transfer market the way to get them rolling forward again?

It seems that bringing in a new addition or two in order to shore up weak spots is what this team needs the most. Even with Aguero out, City are fine up front with Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli, and Edin Dzeko. They also should be mostly comfortable in the creative part of midfield with Yaya Toure, David Silva, and Samir Nasri, and their defense isn't shabby in the least with Vincent Kompany anchoring a backline that includes Joleon Lescott, Aleksander Kolarov, Gael Clichy, and Pablo Zabaleta. More than anything, City are shopping for a strong defensive midfielder and depth at the wing position. In the Liverpool match, we saw Mancini make his classic substitution: bring on a defensive minded midfielder (Jack Rodwell) so that Toure can move further up the field. Toure is so successful from this position that it is a wonder Mancini doesn't have him play there all the time with Silva and Nasri on the wings and a holding midfielder in front of the defense. But between Nigel De Jong and Rodwell, it doesn't look like the Italian coach has someone he trusts to do the job. That's why we see him experimenting with 3-5-2 formations and looking to spend money before September 1st comes around.

When all is said and done, the manager may be the key to Manchester City's season. Though he won the league trophy last year and has a wealth of talent at his disposal, it seems Mancini still does not know what his best formation and starting eleven are. Does he play Nasri inside or outside? How does he allow Toure to go forward? Does he have enough cover at the back if he plays four across? Does he love Balotelli like a son or is he secretly involved in an elaborate kidnapping plot to take the Most Entertaining Person in Soccer off his hands once and for all? Mancini will continue to toy with his lineup and his roster, especially once he brings new players into the squad, but how much does he need to do with a team that is as loaded with talent as City is? The manager settling into a groove may be the most necessary adjustment that the champs make, but I fear it will fall just short of being enough.

Manchester United

Consider this: Manchester United's midfield was in such disarray last year after Tom Cleverley (a unproven but talented youngster) limped off injured against Bolton that Paul Scholes was called out of retirement, Michael Carrick became an important part of the team, and United was routinely tested in the possession battle in their remaining matches. Where did they finish? Second. Only two stoppage time goals away from being champions yet again. With that entire team returning, plus Cleverley recovering from injury, as well as the transfer signings of Robin Van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, it should be fairly easy to see why Man U is my pick for Premier League champions.

United are now having that good kind of problem, the one where you have to pick which incredibly talented players you put on the field. Even with the injury to Wayne Rooney in Saturday's match against Fulham, Sir Alex Ferguson can roll out Van Persie, Danny Welbeck, or Javier Hernandez at striker, a stable of which every team but City would be jealous. Kagawa has already shown great promise as an attacking midfielder playing behind the strikers, with Cleverley and Scholes providing the control in the middle. The wings are incredibly strong as well with Patrice Evra and Ashley Young working together on the left while Rafael and Antonio Valencia combine on the right. The only real problem currently is the center of defense and that is only due to injuries. Once players like Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jones come back, United is solid from the back to the front.

The biggest challenge for Man U at this point is to make it through the injuries to the backline as well as the transition period where Ferguson figures out how best to include all the talent that he has at his disposal. Rooney being out may actually help that to some degree as Welbeck and Van Persie can work on figuring out their striker pairing on a consistent basis. Teams are always a work in progress at this point in the season, but United has the core, as well as the new talent, to become champions once again.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Sky is (Not) Falling

I feel that at the start of each season I'm always preaching patience to any Arsenal fan that will listen. It's not because I think that Arsenal has started off the last two years well (they haven't) and it's not because I see something in Arsenal that everyone else doesn't (I'm a pretty average guy). I am simply understanding of the fact that a team needs time to gel and come together. A team needs to play a little first before you can make predictions for the whole year. Yes, they should still pick up wins in the short term and we are very right to be cross with the Gunners for giving up two points at home to a not terrific Sunderland squad. But running around like Chicken Little is rarely the proper reaction.

Let us start with the newest additions to the team as they are most likely to be out of sync and slow to adjust to playing with new teammates. That was mostly the case here as Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud both looked out of top form. Podolski started as the lone striker and while he was active in pursuing the ball on defense (always a good quality to have in any player), he seemed to struggle in setting himself up to receive service from his teammates. The German international never made a name for himself in the game and at times he was drifting further and further back just to get some touches on the ball and get involved. He wasn't helped out by service into the box (more on that later) and it was mostly a "meh" performance rather than a poor one. He simply didn't get involved.

Giroud had one obvious mistake: he missed an absolute sitter off of a brilliant pass from Santi Cazorla. Open ten yards from goal he has to bury that ball in the back of the net or, at the very least, make the keeper make a save. His run into the box was very clever but lead-up isn't enough and it should have been 1-0 after that chance. Other than that, he was fine but not a force upon the match. He didn't get many touches on the ball, similar to Podolski, and he didn't have much of an impact in the game. Both of these strikers need to learn how to receive the ball from their teammates if they are going to make an impact in these matches.

The main player providing them with the ball would seem to be Cazorla and he was the lone bright spot among the new additions. His touches were terrific, his dribbling simple but effective, and he was always looking to be positive and attack the goal. His shot from distance early in the first half was a solid effort and he also slipped Giroud through on the should-have-been-a-goal play. He truly does seem to be the creative midfield presence that Arsenal needs on offense and it will be very interesting to see if his connection with his teammates increases over time. With Mikel Arteta providing the control and possession coming out of the back and Cazorla acting as the link to the attack-minded players, this Arsenal team could be very talented at switching from defense to offense.

The biggest threat to the offense at the moment seems to be the play of the wing backs. Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson were absolutely dreadful going forward and they are making life much difficult on their wingers if they can't get up into the attack and create overlapping opportunities. In my mind, both Gervinho and Theo Walcott were good in this match, Gervinho almost looking like he might be making strides to move on from the Bad Decision Machine that he was last year. The problem is that they were often coming inside, either on the dribble or to receive the ball, and there was no overlapping outside run to threaten the defense. If Bacary Sagna and Andre Santos had been in this game, they would have been flying down the sideline and serving balls into the box almost at will. Jenkinson and Gibbs only started getting forward toward the end of the match and their service into the box was atrocious. If Podolski and Giroud aren't quite used to how their teammates think and move, then winning crosses is going to be a bit more simple than playing through the middle. But the crosses were shit and contributed to the disappearing act of the strikers. If ever there had been a match that was screaming for Santos, this was it. So why Arsene Wenger took off Walcott for Andrei Arshavin rather than making another more positive move that didn't require exposing Arshavin's uniform to fresh air is beyond me. That might have been the way to save the game, but we'll never know.

All of the criticism is valid, but do you know what it means? Arsenal did not play as well as they could have on Saturday. That. Is. All. This team is going to be vastly different in two weeks, let alone two months. Predicting doom and gloom at this stage of the season is fruitless because the people that do never account for things changing, which they always do. Now, it is possible that things may change for the worse, but looking at this team progression is so much more likely. Podolski and Giroud will work themselves into the offense; Cazorla will develop an even better rapport with his teammates; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will see the field, as will Jack Wilshere, as will Sagna, as will Laurent Koscielny (although the middle of the defense played pretty well). Wenger has also hinted at using the money from selling Alex Song (god bless you Song; I will miss you and your ridiculous hair) at bringing in another player or two, and they do need to do that. We will not have to suffer through this same performance week in and week out because the team will change, either in makeup or cohesion.

This is not meant as a blanket excuse for Arsenal, however. They should be better at the start of a season and they have to be better. You can't be a big team, a contender for the title, and come into each season still trying to figure out what your best lineup is and who needs to play where. If Manchester City or Manchester United came out looking as lackluster as this at the beginning of the year, fans would be absolutely right to wonder what the hell was going on. A "big club" like Arsenal should be able to still be figuring things out and win this Sunderland match 2-0. However, this does not mean that they will be dropping points to Fulham in January (again; ugh) and it does not mean that they can be written off as underachievers (or untalented or whatever other label you want to slap on them) after one match. Narrative drives sports these days, but the most honest thing to do is judge game to game and see how a team evolves. Only then will you approach something resembling the truth.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Five Players to Watch

Today is the start of the Premier League and not only is this a time of high hopes and foolish dreams, but it is the time to make wild predictions and then brag when any of them remotely come to pass. In that spirit, I present to you Five Players to Watch. This is not a list for the Wayne Rooneys and Gareth Bales of the world but it is also not a collection of no names who might not make their team. This is for the players that haven't quite made big names for themselves yet and are on the cusp of playing a major role for a contender, or having one of said contenders overpay for their signature next season. In no particular order, here are your players to watch:

Tom Cleverley - Manchester United

Cleverley looked set to play a key part in Manchester United's run at a Premier League title last season, providing the organization and link-up play that the Red Devils needed. He impressed early in the year, but we did not have much time to pass judgment as his season came to an abrupt end against Bolton in September. United's midfield was in such disarray for the next few months that they were forced to turn to recently retired Paul Scholes to fill the void that Cleverley left. Back again and looking to complete his first full season in the Premier League, Cleverley has to make a name for himself all over again. If he can play the 2012-2013 campaign as he started his last, United will be there at the end yet again.

Ryo Miyaichi - Wigan Athletic

It feels a bit strange including a Wigan player on a list like this, but Miyaichi should bring a lot to the table during his season long loan away from Arsenal. The 19 year-old Japanese international impressed in his half year loan at Bolton last year, tallying a goal and two assists in limited playing time. With the impending Robin Van Persie trade there were those who thought the Gunners would keep Miyaichi for depth at striker, but instead he was sent out to a team where he has a true chance to blossom. Wigan were the surprise of the 2012 portion of last season and Roberto Martinez has shown a knack for developing players over his years of managing. With or without Victor Moses to provide some of the offense, Miyaichi may prove to be essential to Wigan's survival.

Joe Allen - Liverpool

Am I one of the only non-Liverpool fans that thinks the team will be much, much better this year? Their defense is solid with Daniel Agger and Martin Sketel providing cover in front of Pepe "Why Did I Have to Play While Iker Casillas Exists" Reina while Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique bomb down the sides. The attacking options are interesting at the very least with the ever dangerous Luis Suarez being the focal point for Fabio Borini and toy pony (real life pony?) Andy Carroll. The midfield has talent with captain Steven Gerrard and returning defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva, so it would appear that all that is missing is getting used to Brendan Rodgers' system. Enter Joe Allen who was the fulcrum for Rodgers at Swansea and is now in a perfect position to make his mark at Anfield. If Liverpool make a real run at Champions League places, expect Allen to play a large role.

Nikica Jelavic - Everton

If you paid any attention at all to Everton last year, then you must have seen Jelavic emerge as one of the smartest signings during the January transfer window. The Croatian (smartly) traded Rangers for Everton and promptly scored nine goals in ten Premier League matches, pairing a killer instinct in front of goal with a deft touch for redirections. Much like Allen will play an important role for Liverpool, Jelavic must provide for the "other" Liverpool team as one of the main issues with David Moyes' team looks to be goal scoring. If the striker can keep up even half of last year's pace during this season, the battle for Merseyside bragging rights will be hotly contested once again.

John Ruddy - Norwich City

It's tough to call a man now seeing time as an England international an up-and-comer but not that many people are talking about Ruddy. Perhaps because he plays for Norwich, the same Norwich who let more goals in last year than any other team that wasn't relegated. But buried within that seemingly damning stat was excellent play that saved the Canaries time and time again. Though he only recorded three clean sheets through the year, Ruddy confounded teams continually, keeping his offensive minded team in games where they otherwise would have been run off the field. This year will be an even tougher test as the sophomore slumps kicks in, highlighted by manager Paul Lambert's move to Aston Villa, and if Norwich are to stay in the Premier League for a third year then Ruddy will need to play as big as he has been.

There you have it, five players that could prove essential for their clubs in this season and perhaps beyond. Regardless of whether I get to hold this over people's heads at the end of the year, the 2012-2013 Premier League season is upon us. Enjoy it one and all.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The State of the Squad

Today's news was long-coming but still disheartening: Robin Van Persie is going to sign with Manchester United, pending a medical, after the two teams agreed upon a transfer fee believed to be in the area of £23 million. I won't go on about how much of a middle finger to the heart (shut up, it's totally possible) this is to Arsenal fans because it's Manchester United that he's signing with, but instead would just like to look ahead briefly to this season and assess Arsenal's chances. Please note that this commentary is being done on the 15th of August while there are still over two weeks left in the transfer window. I reserve the right to change my mind about some things when the end of the month comes.


Wojciech Szczesny has been the subject of several of my Arsenal related off-season conversations and the main difference of opinion seems to be how good he can be vs how good he will be. My opinion of the Polish keeper is more positive: he is good with his positioning, a solid reaction shot stopper, and needs to get better with his decision making when the ball is in the air. I choose to minimize the mistakes he's made (and he's had some howlers) by pointing out that he's young (22), he's coming along, and he can only get better as he's been the starting keeper for less than two years. The more pessimistic side says that the mistakes are more of who he is than they are the outcomes of a learning curve and he doesn't have the ceiling I believe he does due to his mental errors. I don't know for sure which side is correct. What I do know is that other than Hugo Lloris, there wasn't a realistic way for Arsenal to upgrade at keeper during the transfer window and considering Szczesny's baseline as well as his potential, I didn't mind keeping from throwing £12 million or so at a position that didn't need to be fixed. I believe that he's already in the top half of keepers in the Premier League (if not higher) and he's much more likely to progress than regress, so this position seems to be well covered.


Arsenal, like many European clubs even at the elite level, has a glaring weakness: left back. Friends mocked me for being upset at Arsenal losing Gael Clichey, but Clichey was at least someone who I was comfortable with playing every week. The Gunners currently choose between the powerhouse combination of Kieran Gibbs and Andre Santos, a decision that can be tactically interesting from week to week, but is more likely to contribute to way too many white knuckled "why the FUCK would he do that?!?" moments. Gibbs is the more stabilizing force in that he's not an awful defensive player but suffers when getting forward. He's the bland "ok, we don't need any fuck ups today" choice. The problem is that even that option isn't available all the times as he appears to be constructed of glass, little toe bones, and old pieces of baseball card gum. Santos, on the other hand, is the all out offensive choice. He gets up the field very very well and has shown an ability both to cross as well as cut inside and shoot. The problem is that he is a complete liability on defense. He doesn't have the pace to recover quickly and he can easily get caught out of position. If Arsene Wenger were to spend a large portion of the RVP money on, oh, say Leighton Baines, I would be a incredibly happy man.

The right side is more set in stone with Bacary Sagna as Arsenal's obvious choice to start. The problem here is that Sagna is coming off a broken femur and who knows what his level of fitness will be like. I do think that Carl Jenkinson and Nicholas Yannaris aren't bad cover for the position, but I would only like to see them get time when Wenger wants to put them in. I would not want to rely on them. Hopefully Sagna has a full season in him and the youngsters can spell him when they can, but depth did prove itself to be an issue last year.

The center of the defense is, theoretically, where the Gunners are the strongest. Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny are talented on the ball, strong in the air, and able to work passes out of the back to relieve pressure and get Arsenal's attacking game going again. Per Mertesacker is the most positionally aware defender and his presence gives Wenger more choices to play on matchups or to provide rest. Vermaelen did show some bouts of irresponsibility last year however. Several times he was caught out making a run forward and this exposes a back line that was often cobbled together with leftover threads from disappeared buttons and scraps of cloth from old moth ridden t-shirts. This year should not (please god let it not) be as bad as last in terms of injuries, but if Vermaelen made his runs forward when the team most needed him to be a solid stay at home defender, who's to say he won't be emboldened this year?

What Arsenal need to do this most is not give up fluke, foolish goals. It happened too many times last year and it starts in the center. Vermaelen and Koscielny are very talented but need to be disciplined, lock down, no nonsense defenders whose primary focus is protecting their goal rather than getting into the attack. If they can do this reliably, then it will protect the midfielders as well as the weaker part of the defense, the backs, not to mention give confidence to a young keeper. If they can be sound, Arsenal can be dangerous.


This is the strongest part of Arsenal's lineup in almost every way. The most important member by far, in my humble opinion, is new addition Santi Cazorla, formerly of Malaga. Carzola is an incredibly versatile player who can run on the wings or drop deeper into the midfield to control possession and look for incisive passes. So far, Wenger has asked him to play high up in the midfield behind the striker and this looks to be where he is needed most, both due to his abilities and due to the talent around him. From this position he can shoot from distance (which he is quite capable at), set up passes to the striker or wingers, and make runs through the middle to open up space. I was thrilled when Arsenal were first linked to him in the press and even more excited when he was purchased for a relatively low fee (believed to be in the £12-15 million area). He truly could be the creative attacking element that makes the engine run this year.

Lying deeper in midfield will be Mikel Arteta and Alex Song. Arteta had a quietly brilliant season last year controlling the play and maintaining possession, making sure the team didn't get too jumpy or wasteful. The difference in play during his games and the games he was absent was notable and the Gunners will need him to help control the pace again. Song has been linked to Barcelona in recent weeks and he may still be signed by them, but if he stays then he will have an important role again this year. Last year he was both steel and one pass creativity, often picking out Van Persie with clever balls over the top as well as springing wingers with well placed through balls. The reason I wouldn't be inconsolable if Song was bought by Barcelona is that I would prefer Arteta's partner to be a true holding midfielder who is less creative and a more dynamic, aggressive defending force that refuses to let teams come through the middle of the field easily. Emmanuel Frimpong is still a bit too crazy to be handed the job at this point, but someone like him who is committed defensively is more my preference for this Arsenal squad. So if the price is right from the Catalans...

The winger position should create many interesting decisions for Wenger this year as Arsenal could realistically play Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, or new addition Lukas Podolski as the first choice starters on any given night. Podolski seems sure to split time with Olivier Giroud up top in the striker spot, but he's gifted on the left as well so he can still get into the lineup if the Frenchman is playing up top. Walcott is almost an automatic start on the right side so that leaves Chamberlain with a bit more of a varied role. The youngster has proven that he can play on the right, the left, attacking behind the striker, or sitting deeper to see more of the ball. Wenger could also chose to use him as a supersub due to his relative inexperience, but The Ox is so talented and has such potential to change games that it's hard to see him only being used sparingly. A rotation of these three is likely when the top players are necessary.

The great thing about this section so far? I haven't even mentioned Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky, Gervinho, Andrei Arshavin, Abou Diaby, or Francis Coquelin (and only mentioned Frimpong as a throwaway joke). That is serious depth in the midfield when last year Arsenal was often forced to start these players regularly. Rosicky can play behind the striker when Cazorla needs a rest or needs to be moved around; Gervinho can jump in and play winger when his pace is necessary and his poor decision-making might be overlooked; Ramsey is most likely to benefit in coming off the bench as he often cracked last season when he was relied upon. And we haven't gotten to perhaps the most important player for Arsenal this season, Jack Wilshere.When he comes back from injury, his skill could catapult the Gunners to a whole new level. If he's not completely ready or if he has to shake the rust off, Arsenal still has the depth to survive.


This is the saddest section to write because it means I have to mentally acknowledge that Van Persie is gone. While this is certainly a blow to Arsenal's pursuit of hardware, it isn't quite the death sentence it would have been last year if he had gone down injured instead. Giroud and Podolski will split time up top and both are European internationals who have shown that they know how to put the ball in the back of the net. Wenger appears to have caught both of them at the right time in their career arcs, but it will be important for them to adjust to the Premier League and be in consistent form. Assuming that there are no drastic losses to injury or transfers, this team won't need their new strikers to score 30 goals in a season like RVP did. They will only need to present a threat and play at an even level to make sure the attack and scoring is balanced. Ryo Miyaichi would have been welcome in this squad in my opinion, but he is out to Wigan on loan which is probably best in the long term for his career (though I really did want to see him get some time with the first team). Regardless, the new strikers will have to spread the burden between them because I do not want to look up and see the gelled visage of Marouane Chamakh spending any time whatsoever on the field.


So how good is this team? I think they're Champions League good (3rd or 4th place). If they had found a way to keep Van Persie then I honestly believe they could have contended for the title. I really do. I think Cazorla is that good of an addition and that Wilshere could make that much of a difference upon his return. But alas, it was not to be. Still, Giroud or Podolski could be a better option than we think they will be. I'm looking for consistency but if I get real talent, I wouldn't complain in the least. That really is the word of the season: consistency. Last year Arsenal gave too many points away when they didn't need to even though they won some big matches. This year they need to not let themselves slip up. They need to take care of what they should take care of and try to get up for some big wins when necessary. This year, Manchester City is still very good, Manchester United got better (at our expense, and with Shinji Kagawa who I think will prove to be an excellent addition), Chelsea got better, Liverpool got better, Newcastle didn't lose all their players like everyone thought they would, and Tottenham is still Tottenham. A Champions League spot won't be a walk in the park, but they also need to think that they are better than that. They need to believe that they can win the league and with their depth in midfield, they might have an outside shot.

I'm going to try to put up a brief post Friday night about the league in general, but if I don't get around to it (work is quite busy, sorry) then I want to at least get these predictions on record before the season starts. So, here are the seven teams I believe could legitimately challenge for a Champions League spot and what order I think they'll end up in when the year is over:

1. Manchester United
2. Manchester City
3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Liverpool
6. Newcastle
7. Tottenham

Everton is the only other team I could see cracking the top seven, but that depends on if they improve their squad and if they let any key players go. Even if they only trend upwards, I think they're a top seven spoiler at best, not a top four spoiler.

Thanks to everyone for reading and it's good to be back. Can't wait for another year to start.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Losing Our Captain

For anyone who doesn't obsessively follow the day-to-day happenings of soccer's transfer window, here's what you missed: Robin Van Persie has stated that he will not be signing a new contract at Arsenal. The Gunners' captain has one year left on his current deal but has decided that the ambitions of the club do not mirror his own and will not be staying on. Arsenal can choose to let him play out his contract, meaning that he would play the 2012-2013 season with everyone knowing it would be his last, or they can attempt to sell him now to any number of interested clubs (Manchester City, Juventus, and Real Madrid have all been mentioned) in order to receive some value for him, generally believed to be in the €25 million range. These are the options but what terrible options to have.

For those of you who aren't aware of what Van Persie means to Arsenal, this is Aaron Rodgers telling the Green Bay Packers that he doesn't think he can win a Super Bowl with them. This is Kevin Durant deciding that Oklahoma City will never get over the hump. Van Persie is the reason that Arsenal was able to make it back to the Champions League this coming season and he is the reason life after Cesc did not result in an immediate and precipitous decline. He might not ever be a most beloved figure to fans, like how I feel about Kirby Puckett or how Boston Celtics fans remember Larry Bird, because he wasn't in top form with Arsenal long enough and he wasn't the heart and soul of the team as their captain. But he is (turning into "was") the best player on the team, the only one left that all of the "big" clubs in world would want. And now one of them is actually going to get him.

Soccer, due to the history of the clubs as well as the lack of a salary cap, is a severely tiered system. There are the the big clubs, the ones that everyone grows up dreaming of playing for: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Juventus, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, and Internazionale (Inter Milan). Manchester City, Chelsea, and perhaps Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) have entered that conversation recently due to the billions of dollars that they are willing to spend, but that's about it for the big boys. Then, there's everyone else. Of course there are tiers within the "everyone else" category. You'd rather be Liverpool than Fulham, that's for sure. But the distinctions there are more for pride and notoriety than anything else. The simple fact of the matter is that if you're not one of the most important clubs in all of Europe, you're in danger of having your players bought by them.

Arsenal has spent the last 20 years or so thinking that they were in that top tier and they certainly were for a while. But we might be seeing the end of that era right now. In the past, the players who left were either on the decline (Patrick Vieira), desperate to return home (Cesc Fabregas), or general assholes that couldn't be counted on as giving a valid opinion of the club (Samir Nasri). Even last year with Fabregas, Nasri, and Gael Clichey all leaving, fans could convince themselves that Arsenal were still a big club because those guys had their reasons or they were selfish or whatever. Not this year. Van Persie was the driving force behind this team, the captain, the top goalscorer, and the best player in all of England. Now he wants to leave. Not because he demands more money or wants a different place to raise his child. Because he doesn't think he can win with Arsenal.

It is possible that Van Persie is incorrect. He may have disagreed with a very sensible plan that was laid out in front of him. Perhaps Arsene Wenger wasn't going to overpay for players like Eden Hazard because he had other excellent transfer options in mind, other professionals that weren't the hot targets for Manchester City to throw £300k per week at. Van Persie might have wanted too much money to be spent on everyone rather than building the club smartly but still aggressively. Even if that is the case (and it likely is not), the message this sends is devastating. Regardless of Arsenal's plan (and it would certainly help a lot to say something to the fans about this, especially in the wake of Van Persie's announcement), the image is that Arsenal is a feeder team now. A very good, very historic feeder team, but a feeder team nonetheless. The last stop for up and coming players before they move on to the real big clubs like City or Chelsea. The beginning of a career now that our era has ended.

My emotions are mixed right now. I don't believe that the team has slid into the role I have described. At least not fully or not yet. But in order for Arsenal to make the argument that they are still a top team, they need to do so on the field. They need Jack Wilshere to come good on his promise. They need Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud to fill the scoring void left by Van Persie. They need Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny to step up and play lockdown defense. They need to go out and challenge in the Premier League, make Emirates a place that teams dread coming to. They need to make the argument that their captain gave up on.

As for Van Persie himself: I cannot be mad. I wish he had stayed. He is a fantastic talent and our best player, one of the best in the world. So I wish that he had stayed to make Arsenal great, to show the world how good this team could be if all of the pieces were together. But even though he's chosen not to, I wish him the best. He was a Gunner and a good one and we should all, as fans, hope that he finds the success that he's looking for. Let's just also hope that Arsenal finds it first without him. As Always, Go Gunners.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

And The Winner Will Be...

...I have no idea.

It shouldn't be that shocking for someone to admit that they can't, with 100% accuracy, predict the future but these days we want more from our experts. We want concrete answers about what will happen. We want locks and guarantees, we want to "mark it down" and so on. We want to know. But I'm afraid that I don't. I'm not saying this to buck a trend or teach some kind of lesson, I just honestly don't know.

Spain is the better team. If both teams played to the utmost of their abilities, Spain would win this match. But Spain hasn't been playing to the utmost of their abilities this entire tournament. They were patient in the group stage and that was fine because they could afford to be based on their play order. The opening draw with Italy was expected, as was the defeat of the "glad to be here" Irish squad (don't mean that offensively, it's just obvious at this point that they were never going to make it out of that group). Croatia was a dangerous team, but Spain had the luxury of playing them when it would have taken a drastic series of events to keep the Spanish team from making the next round. So again caution was the mode of the day and it obviously served them well. The victory over France was a walk in the park due to the baffling lack of heart from the French, but it wasn't a decisive "Spain is back!" kind of win. The penalty shootout win over Portugal was even more troubling because the passing game was interfered with for the first time in forever and even when Spain recovered, they didn't do enough to win the game in regulation. If they pull it all together for the championship game, they're still the best team in the world. But who says they can do that?

Italy, on the other hand, is the in form team of this match. The 2-1 win (which was basically a 2-0 win except for that late penalty) was shocking in that a talented German team was dispatched, but it wasn't fluky or cheap in any way. Italy was the better team throughout and though they benefited from some poor German shooting they also defended incredibly well, controlled the ball when accepting possession, and finished beautifully. Plus they're effing hard. Going to penalties against England was worrying because the 0-0 score showed a potentially fatal lack of finishing, but they controlled the match from the half hour mark on and were very unlucky not to put it away three different times. Mario Balotelli provided the finishing edge for them in the last match, but other than that we only have one goal from the Antonios (Cassano and Di Natale) and one from Andrea Pirlo off a free kick. We can look at Spain and say that they've had similar problems and it would be true, but that doesn't change the fact that Italy hasn't been able to produce straight up wins against anyone but Ireland and Germany (a stranger disparity would be difficult to find). Which team shows up today with it all on the line?

I still don't know what's going to happen, but I will take a guess because that's the role that I am playing. I think that Italy is going to make this a fascinating game with their countering skill and unique forwards (seriously, for all the reasons you may dislike Cassano or Balotelli, they have been fascinating to watch in this tournament; Cassano's movement has been phenomenal and Balotelli is... well, Balotelli). I wrote before that Spain is only as exciting as the opponent they are playing and if that is true, we could be in for a hell of a game that will see Spain regain their form and show everyone why they are here trying to win their third straight major tournament. I won't speak confidently about the type of match we're going to get, but Italy's willingness to play their game regardless of who is on the field with them is incredibly refreshing and I do think it will be a good one. I also think that it will be one where Italy's finishing fails them and we see Spain do just enough to find the net and hold on for their record breaking win. It will not be easy and I would not be surprised to see it go another way, but it is what I'm going with. I wish the best of finals to us all and I hope you enjoy it wherever you are.

Spain 1-0