Tuesday, January 10, 2012

First Half Wrap-Up

Welcome back everyone. I took a long hiatus during the holidays, not so much because I was too lazy to write but because I simply did not have a chance to watch any of the Arsenal matches, either due to a lack of television coverage or because of travel. As it turns out, however, the matches were the kind that deserve a miss. The Gunners couldn't manage better than a 1-1 draw at home against 10-man Wolverhampton, played a tight 1-0 match home to Queens Park Rangers, and then lost to 2011-2012 arch rivals Fulham in heart-breaking fashion as the "other" London side put in two goals in the last 10 minutes when Arsenal was reduced to 10 men themselves. Though only 4 of 9 points were taken from those very winnable matches, let us wash our hands of that and turn our attention to the new year, with Arsenal only one point out of the final Champions League spot. But before we get to immensely important matches (hosting Manchester United on January 22nd!), me actually being able to watch the upcoming games (hopefully), and the second half of this exciting Premier League season, let's look back on the first half of the season and assign some halftime awards. In each category, I will be making a decision both for Arsenal and for the Premier League as a whole, in an attempt both to cater to the purpose of this blog and engage in a larger conversation about the league in which the Gunners play. Let us begin!

Best Player

Arsenal: Robin Van Persie

I use "best player" here rather than "most valuable player" due to continued debate over what the MVP award is actually supposed to represent (don't make me rehash "Tiki Barber over Sean Alexander" arguments from 2005 - I swear to God I'll do it), although in this case the distinction is irrelevant. Robin Van Persie has been as dynamic as anyone in the Premier League, leading the league in goals with 17, picking up 5 assists along the way, and being about as important to his team as anyone could possibly be. What do I mean? Van Persie has just shy of half his team's goals, with Gervinho comes in second tallying four. Van Persie has eight game winners so far this year. And all of these numbers are in the Premier League alone, not Champions League where he adds another four scores including a game winner. I am aware that the italics got a little out of control there, but they seem to be necessary to showcase the man's accomplishments. Arsenal would not be in contention without the Dutch international and I find it quite likely that they wouldn't have scored at all yet this season. Robin Van Persie is the obvious choice for Arsenal's best player so far this year. Honorable Mentions: Wojciech Szczesny, Alex Song

Premier League: Robin Van Persie

Cry homer pick all you want, but I see no way in which Van Persie wouldn't be the odds on choice for any non-Arsenal fans as well (even you, Spurs supporters). The key is that it's not that the Gunners captain is running up his stats with garbage time goals; his team has needed him and he rose to the occasion when they were at their most desperate. As I said above, just shy of half of his goals are game winners, and not just against new additions Queens Park Rangers and Norwich City, but Premier League giants like Chelsea and perennial top half teams Everton and Stoke City. I do not discount impressive campaigns from other players, but this has been Van Persie's season thus far. Honorable Mentions: David Silva, Demba Ba

Most Disappointing Player

Arsenal: Andrei Arshavin

I chose this category rather than a simple "worst player" because I think we'd rather talk about potential contributors instead of whoever is in the 18th spot on the bench. With that said, Andrei Arshavin wins a tight race because of how much Arsenal needs him to fulfill the role of the steady veteran off the bench or to spell starters, and he has been utterly miserable when called upon. When playing their full squad, Arsenal has a very competitive lineup that should be good enough to get them to that final Champions League spot, or at least remain in contention all season. But a team can't spend an entire year as a contender if they cannot afford to rest their starters. The season is too long and there are too many different titles to chase for the same eleven players to run around on the field each day for ninety minutes. Arshavin needs to provide that rest, but also that spark off the bench to add instant offense when Arsenal needs a goal from an important match. Instead, he comes onto the field and promptly disappears. It's not just his solitary goal and single assist on the year either; it's the fact that he detracts from the Gunners flow rather than add to it, often putting in poor crosses, losing control of passes, or skying ill-advised shots from distance. Arshavin is notoriously streaky in his play, but at 30 years old, this may be more than a bad run. This may be who he is now, and Arsene Wenger would do well to realize this and give other more mentally sound players a chance. Honorable Mentions: Marouane Chamakh, Tomas Rosicky

Premier League: Andy Carroll

It's become en vogue to mock Andy Carroll (especially if you are a Men in Blazers listener), but it's hard to say that it's not deserved. Carroll was one of the big signings last year for Liverpool, as he and Luis Suarez were brought in to revamp the attack in the wake of Fernando Torres' huge move to Chelsea. But while Suarez has been in exceptional form (racist verbal sparring with Patrice Evra notwithstanding) Carroll has done fuck all in his first full season in Merseyside. The £35 million signing has a total of two goals and worse, there is no sign of a turnaround. Early in the season, there was plenty of talk about "this is just a slow start, he just needs to get his feet." Now the discussion has turned to a debate about whether he should ever start again for Liverpool. While the latter talk is perhaps a bit dramatic, there is nothing to suggest that this is just a rough patch for Carroll with his "true" form just around the corner. Things could click for him. After all, he is only 23 and perhaps some confidence is all that is needed. But if that doesn't come, what are Liverpool to do? Would a club pay even £10 million for him at this point? The second half of the season will not only be about Carroll's ability to keep Liverpool in the hunt for a Champions League spot, but also his ability to preserve his image as an in-demand talent. Honorable Mentions: Charles N'Zogbia, Samir Nasri (I swear that's objective)

Most Interesting Storyline

Arsenal: The Fall, The Rise

It's a common sports cliche to describe a team's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde performance as "a tale of two seasons," but that isn't quite right for this Arsenal squad. Though they were as equally good and bad as that description might suggest, it was more about surviving the first month of the season and then the dramatic recovery that had people saying "wait, maybe Arsenal aren't dead in the water."

Let's be honest: the beginning of the season was awful. Not so much in terms of the quality of play, but in the multiple converging storms that turned into a full on Shakespearean tempest. First was the dual transfer sagas of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, clouds hanging over the head of Arsenal that not only kept quality players off the field, but also kept Arsenal from moving forward with the business of replacing them and having a full squad. Then it was the injuries, starting the season without Thomas Vermaelen and Jack Wilshere, an issue that was compounded by the suspensions to Alex Song, Gervinho, and Emmanuel Frimpong during the early games. With all of the players missing for various reasons, the first few weekends of the season were a disaster, only mitigated by the playoff win over Udinese to make it into the Champions League group stage.

But then, miraculously, the team began to rise, and for as many reasons as there were problems at the beginning of August. For one, the team actually became whole. Song and Gervinho came back after serving their three game suspensions, but the most important factor was when Arsene Wenger finally completed his transfer acquisitions, signing Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker, and Andre Santos. There were other signings like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Yossi Benayoun, but the aforementioned trio were the most important in the early stages because they solidified the starting eleven that Wenger would roll out every game. Mertesacker gave a Laurent Koscielny a legitimate defensive partner, Santos provided the attacking threat down the left flank, and Arteta supplied the creativity in midfield needed to possess the ball and direct the game. Slowly, Arsenal started winning, mostly on the foot of Robin Van Persie, and now find themselves one point out of fourth place when many pundits wrote them off at the beginning of September.

Arsenal still has their issues. They are absolutely decimated in the back, with injuries to no less than six fullbacks, but for now the line is holding. The transfer window gives them a chance to shore up that area, but they also are in desperate need of a back-up or strike partner for Robin Van Persie. The arrival of Thierry Henry has been a fairy tale thus far, but he was playing in MLS for a reason. He's not a cure-all, though he may be an acceptable placeholder, but the real issue is getting someone in for the future as well as the band aid for the present. If such a player is not available during the transfer window, then that's understandable. But if Wenger doesn't push hard to make an impact signing, it will be a failure on his part.

Will Arsenal feel the effect of dropping so many points in the early season? Most definitely. Conservatively speaking, the Gunners would be four points up on Chelsea and within striking distance of Tottenham if they had just played ok rather than miserable in August. But even with the slow start, Arsenal is in the position to make a run at the Champions League. If they can't seriously pressure the subjects of our Premier League storyline, a spot in Europe in 2012 would still be a fantastic result considering how the season started. Honorable Mentions: Van Persie's Brilliance, The Rise of Wojciech Szczesny

Premier League: Battle For Manchester

Early in the year, all anyone could talk about was how excellent Manchester United was and how the title was theirs to lose this year. There were rumblings about how Manchester City were looking good and starting to come together, but the focus was assuredly on United. That is until the massacre at Old Trafford, when City dismantled the champions-elect 6-1 and sent everyone into a tizzy about how the little brother of the city might have the talent to finish the season unbeaten. Now that the dust has settled, the pundits have taken their Xanax, and the hyperbole levels have fallen, it is generally assumed that the race for the Premier League title is a race for supremacy in Manchester itself (unless you enjoy being avant-garde and throw Tottenham in as a dark horse candidate).

The success of United shouldn't surprise anyone since they are a constant force at the top of the table and last year's champions. However, City's rise to dominance took more than a few by surprise. Most experts pegged them as too talented to not make the top four, but there was far from a consensus regarding their title hopes. This was a team that received the gift of Arsenal's collapse and snuck into third place while playing a particularly dour brand of soccer. "Boring boring City" is a popular chant for a reason. But this year the creative floodgates have opened and not only are City winning now, but they are doing it impressively and with flair. They are solid in the back and Roberto Mancini can still put Nigel de Jong in midfield for some steel, but they are best when incessantly attacking the net. David Silva has been a revelation this season and if it wasn't for the form of Robin Van Persie, he would be the odds-on favorite for player of the year (and some people still believe that he is despite Van Persie's season thus far). Though Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri haven't quite worked out as expected, City has found transfer success with Sergio Aguero, who is currently third in the league with 14 goals. With their wealth of options up front and the many different ways they can format their midfield, City look poised to be a contender to the end.

As it stands now, City has a three point lead on United, with Tottenham six points back of City but with a sneaky game in hand, making them perhaps more than just the sexy choice of the more hisptery of pundits. City has the money to make a splash in the transfer market so despite being a little thin now with injuries, they should be your favorites to stand on top in the end. However, they are not that experienced with "squeaky bum time" (thank you Sir Alex Ferguson for that one) and if they slip up on some of the easier fixtures or don't get up for the big matches, it could leave the door open for United and Spurs as well. My pick would be City, but not much would surprise me at this point. Honorable Mentions: Tottenham's Beautiful Football, Norwich City's Newcomer Success

Best Coach

Arsenal: Arsene Wenger (WHAT?!?)

These last two are categories where there are no choices for the Arsenal awards, but I'd like to use the Arsenal sections to discuss issues close to Gunners fans' hearts and then move on to the broader picture. In the case of Arsene Wenger, I find it hard to fault his coaching this year. I have my more minor complaints (don't play Andrei Arshavin or Kieran Gibbs in an important game ever again, at least have Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the bench for Christ's sake, see how Theo Walcott would do if partnered with Robin Van Persie up top, etc.), but in general Wenger's method this year has been flawless. He never panicked when the team was at their worst and he got the most of his previously uninspiring captain to pick them out of it. Then once his team was set, he did the only thing he could: field essentially the same team game after game knowing that it was the only way for them to get used to playing with each other and to make up the points that he needed to. We might be seeing the effects of that a little now with the injuries and dropped points over the holidays, but look where things stand. At the beginning of the season, people were calling for his head. Now Arsenal is into the fourth round of the FA Cup, sitting a point out of fourth place in the Premier League, and already locked up first place in their Champions League group with one game to spare. It's very hard to argue with that.

What is much easier to argue with is Wenger's spending strategy during the transfer window. I respect that Arsenal doesn't have oil money and they balance their books better than any other top tier team, I really do. But there comes a time when you simply need talent above bargains and youth. Arsenal was linked to so many quality players during the summer transfer window, from Juan Mata, to Keisuke Honda, to Chris Samba, and locked down exactly zero of those big names. Don't get me wrong, Andre Santos was a nice pick-up until he went down injured and Mikel Arteta has done a good job controlling the game from his deep position in the midfield. But I would take Samba in a second over Per Mertesacker and I salivate at the thought of Mata in the Gunners' midfield, even at the expense of Arteta. Wenger has built his team well and relatively inexpensively compared to the deep pockets of Manchester City among others, but sometimes you need to make the big move. If Arsenal can knock off AC Milan to get to the quarterfinals of Champions League and qualify for European play next year as well, critics will have to keep their mouths shut regarding Wenger. But if Arsenal falls off the pace and misses out on that Champions League glory and money, expect a lot of people to point at his inability to pull the trigger to get the players he truly wanted. Honorable Mention: Arsene Wenger, Arsene Wenger

Premier League: Harry Redknapp

I know, I know, I didn't want to give credit to anyone from Spurs, let alone the orchestrator of the whole circus. But dammit, Harry Redknapp has his team playing the most attractive brand of soccer in England and they really are a delight to watch. Moreover, he's done it without the financial resources of the super rich clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea, or the sheer drawing power of an also-rich club like Manchester United. The signing of Scott Parker has proven to be absolute genius, as is the acquisition of Emmanuel Adebayor on loan. Between the brilliant personnel moves and the tactic-less tactics (to hear Redknapp talk about it at least), this has been the Spurs' manager's year thus far, even in the face of Roberto Mancini's handling of Mario Balotelli and the style of football he has his team playing at the moment. Harry, I will always root against you, but at least in this you have my respect. Honorable Mention: Roberto Mancini, Alan Pardew

Best Team

Arsenal: Arsenal

Well, it's been a pretty crazy year so far. I hope anyone reading at the beginning of the season took my advice about making it through the bad start because it's been a good ride since then. I've gone over the ebbs and flows of the season and a lot of the main issues, but here are a couple of quick hitters to send you off on.

-Aaron Ramsey needs to play better. He didn't make my "most disappointing" nominees, but he came very close. I think it's because I have high expectations for him, but I still think they are reasonable. Consider this: when this season have you thought to yourself "Aaron Ramsey was Arsenal's best player today" after a match? Save the Marseille goal, when has he truly stepped up to the plate? Now think about how many good chances he's missed wide, or how many shots from distance have curved far away from the goal, or how many times he's dribbled all the way back to midfield rather than pass around pressure. Get what I'm saying? I feel like he should be a staple of the side by now, but in reality he's on the chopping block for when Jack Wilshere comes back. The Gunners need a better second half from him.

-The return of the injured. Last I saw, Andre Santos won't be back until March, but Jack Wilshere and Bacary Sanga could be back by early February. As these important players come back, as the depth returns a little bit (especially at fullback), we might start to see Arsenal make more of a push as they will have a chance to rest starters more and more, while still putting forward quality players. Plus the chance to see Wilshere back is worth the wait by itself, so here's hoping everyone progresses as expected.

-Gervinho for Chamberlain? Of course as players come back from injury, other players are leaving, with Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh playing for their countries in the African Cup of Nations. Now, I couldn't care less about Chamakh leaving. One of those inflatable arm flailing tube men would have more scoring instinct than the Moroccan. But losing Gervinho hurts as he brings so much speed and menace to the left side of the field. Fortunately, this will give Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain the chance to get some real big boy minutes for the Gunners and I couldn't be happier about that. Chamberlain is a real talent and he seems ready to burst onto the scene, so I only hope that this period of increased play follows the script. I mentioned earlier that Arteta, Song, and Mertesacker were the essential transfer signings in the short term because they helped to stabilize the team, but Chamberlain may be the real success story long term if he can continue his trajectory.

-The Henry Experiment. I don't know if the loan of Thierry Henry is going to be the move that gets Arsenal over the hump and into the Champions League places for next year, but it's a great story regardless. It already started in dramatic fashion when he came on as a substitute in the FA Cup match against Leeds United and scored the game-winning goal ten minutes later, so who knows how far it can go? I have my doubts about the 34 year-old's quality considering he was on his retirement tour in MLS previously, but if he can contribute, then he can contribute. Either way, it should be fun to watch.

Premier League: Manchester City

This one wasn't hard to see coming, but it doesn't make it any less true. I already broke down what I feel are the key components to Manchester City's rise back in the storylines section, but there is always more to talk about. Let me just say this: Samir Nasri. Edin Dzeko. Adam Johnson. James Milner. Nigel De Jong. These are players that have routinely come off of City's bench this year, switching out starts or just acting as tactical substitutes. This is the depth of talent that Roberto Mancini has at his disposal and that is frightening to consider, especially for all of the critics who say that City will inevitably burn out. Now, they do have injury problems right now which is why Mancini has been not so subtly discussing his squad's depth while the transfer window is open. But between the money City can raise by sending unused players out on loan and the money that seems to pour out of their pockets whenever a talented player is mentioned to be looking for a new team, they should be able to pull in some important players before the end of January. We will have to reassess things after February begins because the landscape could be quite different once all the players have landed in their new locations, but I stand by my earlier pick of City to stay in control of the league. I would rather it be Arsenal, but if I'm choosing between City, Manchester United, and Tottenham, I guess I'll have to root for powder blue.

This season has been crazy so far and is liable to get even more ridiculous going forward. As long as the television scheduling is merciful, you will see a lot more posts from me over the course of the rest of the campaign. Thank you for reading and As Always, Go Gunners.

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