Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Confused Exhaultation

After watching the Arsenal vs Tottenham match on Sunday morning (Eastern time, that is), I have come to several conclusions:

1. This Arsenal season has been constructed for the sole purpose of making anyone who comments on this Arsenal season look like utter fools.
2. It's not too late to jump aboard the "Gareth Bale is the Welsh Christiano Ronaldo" bandwagon (or maybe the non-racist Luis Suarez bandwagon? - get back to me on that).
3. It was inevitable that Spurs would jump out to a 2-0 lead before giving up five unanswered goals because God enjoys making Gunners fans drink alcohol. Or Spurs fans. Either works, I suppose.
4. Everything we thought about Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott is completely wrong, until it inevitably is proven to be correct after all.
5. Sunday's Arsenal squad was secretly replaced by aliens from the foremost soccer playing planet. So... Barcelona.
6. I find it supremely difficult to dislike Scott Parker, even when he's getting sent off for hard tackles against my team. I blame Men In Blazers for drilling the "World War I fighter ace" image into my head.
7. This match was completely inexplicable, totally unexpected, and undoubtedly enjoyable.

This match was so enjoyable, in fact, that I've been having a difficult time putting my thoughts into written form. That, by itself, is a bit of a strange situation. My favorite soccer club defeated, in spectacular fashion, their hated rivals and brought light to what was a very dark time for Arsenal. I should be all over this. I should be shouting from the rooftops about this success, stopping strangers in the street for hugs, and generally acting like Arsenal had just decimated Spurs 5-2. But... I can't. It's not that I didn't enjoy the win. Trust me, I most definitely did. For quite some time afterward. Right now, just thinking about the Rosicky goal and hearing the stadium explode with emotion brings a smile to my face. But I am having difficulty putting into words my feelings about the game. I think, if we boil it down, the reason for that is: I'm confused.

The reason for this confusion is the contrast of the euphoria of this match versus Spurs and the state of Arsenal as a team directly preceding said match. If you're reading this now, odds are you read this blog regularly, which means you've seen the pessimistic attitude that I've carried over the last couple of weeks. An attitude that I stand by as being perfectly reasonable. 4-0 at Milan to essentially knock the Gunners out of the Champions League. 2-0 at Sunderland (Sunderland!!) to knock the Gunners out of the FA Cup. Pessimism was at an all time high, despite back-dooring their way into 4th place on the Premier League table due to the events of the previous match day. Going into this game, there was a feeling of dread hanging over the Arsenal fans that I was keeping up with. It was Spurs so of course people were up for the game, but there was that feeling of "we are playing like absolute gash right now, are we really going to lose to Spurs as well?" The "Arsenal is obviously better than Tottenham" bluster normally runs pretty deep, but it's hard to manufacture that type of confidence when you've just been knocked out of two competitions while those insufferable bastards are ten points ahead of you playing the most attractive soccer in the league (well, when they're not faced with the raw power of Stevenage at least). So, going into Sunday it was tough to proclaim superiority, a position that Arsenal fans are not that used to.

That is what makes the aftermath of the Spurs match so strange. It's a feeling of pure joy and success with a backdrop of things not exactly going that same way. I would compare it to the 7-1 drubbing of Blackburn amidst another bad run, but that win was easily dismissed by saying "yeah, but it's Blackburn." That's not the case here. Even if Tottenham was 18th on the table, it would still be a grand occasion, beating your arch rivals. But this year? Tottenham is sitting third and has generally impressed everyone from neutral to begrudging Arsenal fan alike. This year they are a good squad who figure to make the Champions League and at one time were seriously contending with the powerhouses from Manchester. A win over them not only fills an Arsenal fan's heart with pure ecstasy, but it has the added "benefit" of giving hope for the future. Hope that this Gunners team doesn't necessarily deserve.

It may be a strange time to a degree, but it's still a happy time. Arsenal beat Spurs 5-2. FIVE TO TWO. Enjoy the feeling because if this season turns further south, it will be one of the best moments available to look back on. And if the season improves and Arsenal roars past Tottenham into the 3rd spot on the table and a guaranteed Champions League birth, expect all the pundits to say they knew it would happen... right before they go and delete their posts from the past.

Game Notes

-Every time you think it's the right move to write Theo Walcott off, he does something like this. I guess by "writing off" I mean acknowledging that Theo isn't going to be a superstar and adjusting our expectations to fit his game. But then he turns in two clinical finishes (and these really were beauties, if you haven't seen them) and makes the case to be man of the match. He isn't going to be the next big thing for this team, or for England, but just when you want to dismiss him, he comes through with a surprise. A microcosm for this Arsenal season, perhaps.

-Though I of course want to sing Arsenal's praises and build up my hope for the future, I'm wondering how much of this 5-2 scoreline (god I can't mention that enough) was Arsenal's skill vs Tottenham's indifference. I don't know how it can happen in one of the biggest rivalries in soccer, but Spurs never really seemed like they were into this game. Scotty (better than Scottie, right?) Parker was the only Spurs player who looked like he cared and he still was a step slow, administering clumsy tackles rather than the smartly timed warnings of the past. Of course I tend to side with crediting Arsenal, but after a draw against Stevenage and now this performance, one wonders if Tottenham's stock might be falling.

-Speaking of stock, it appears that Tomas Rosicky's is on the rise at Arsenal. He played like a maniac against Spurs and had a strong showing or two before that as well. Now, I have been critical of Rosicky in the past. Some might call it "hyper critical." Though he never reached Arshavin territory, his play has struck me as less than inspired in his (mostly substitute) appearances. However, he was fantastic on Sunday, and in a season where Aaron Ramsey has been less than fantastic all around, why not ride the hot hand? Ramsey is nursing one of the 8786372 injuries that Arsenal have suffered this year, so why not let him get healthy while Rosicky hopefully continues his hot streak? If he can, it might even drive up his value so that Arsenal make a prettier penny for him come this summer. Seems like a win-win for the Gunners, and that's been rare lately, even with this fantastic victory. As Always, Go Gunners.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What To Say?

Honestly, I'm at a loss for how to start this blog post, let alone what I'm going to say to fill however many words I usually end up writing. After the embarrassing loss to Milan, there was an immediate reaction for pretty much all fans I heard from. Some chose anger while others chose the ever popular "woe is us" while still others were simply depressed. But even though this was gutting for any Arsenal fan, there was a response and that by itself shows that Arsenal fans still had something to respond to. I wrote in a post earlier this season that truly heartbreaking losses come because you believe in your team but they let you down. People were talking themselves into believing that the Gunners could get a result in Milan and the wide array of negative responses shows you that those people were expecting something more out of their team, something much more than the embarrassing display they were treated to. The response from the Sunderland match has been notably different. Either there have been nods to the Milan game (since the games were only three days apart, it's easy to lump the two together) as if to say "well, you saw that game so what did you really think would happen," or there's been almost no reaction at all. The latter should be the scary part for the people in charge at Arsenal as that is the mark of a defeated fan base.

Rooting for Arsenal has taken on a fatalistic quality, the idea that things are going to go wrong so you might as well start steeling yourself for it now. This isn't quite as bad as not caring, but it's obviously the wrong attitude for fans to have. Or rather, the wrong attitude for fans to have in the eyes of ownership. At this point, fans are more than justified in feeling that way about their team because they've done this roller coaster ride too many times, both this season and the last couple before. When your team is losing to Manchester United 8-2, going down to Tottenham in what should be a hotly contested derby, or being manhandled in Italy, the angry response is reasonable because it also comes with an unspoken "we know those are good teams, so we kind of understand, but come on!" Getting upset about those games has both a cathartic and supportive feel because it's being made clear that the fan thinks the team is better than how they've played in those notable clashes. But losses like this, being the obviously inferior team against Sunderland, a team that, while enjoying good form now and playing at home, should never be running Arsenal out of a stadium? What do you say to that? What form of support do you offer? It's not something that's even worth getting angry about beyond the throwing up of hands in the air. It's the kind of game that makes you want to give up on the season, and that's the real problem that Arsenal faces now.

So now Arsenal is out of the Carling Cup, out of the FA Cup, all but mathematically out of the Champions League, and barely in the fourth spot in the Premiership. An optimist would point out that now, save the mop-up game against AC Milan, Arsenal will only be playing Premier League matches so they can focus on earning a top four spot. An optimist would also point out that, while Arsenal have been playing so inconsistently all season, that all the teams liable to knock them out of the fourth spot have been equally appalling at times. For the sake of argument, let's take all teams within nine points of Arsenal. Does anyone really look at Chelsea, Liverpool, Newcastle, or Norwich City and think "oh, they'll definitely take the fourth spot away" at this point? Chelsea is the only squad I would call more talented than Arsenal, and even then it's not by much. None of the other teams put fear into your heart and Chelsea have dropped so many points recently that I'd almost be eager to play them. An optimist would argue that Arsenal could stay in fourth at least due to the quality of their competition.

A pessimist, however, would respond with one very similar counter argument: why? Why do we believe that Arsenal are any better than them? We as observers keep teasing ourselves with the promise of the side, of the fullbacks getting healthy, of Jack Wilshere returning, of the midfield gelling, and everything else in between. It is long past time to accept what is in front of us. Arsenal are a deeply flawed team that are far from one of the elite teams, both in Europe and in England. They may still hold onto the fourth spot above all of the other deeply flawed teams, but so what? It doesn't mean that they somehow earned it. It means only that they were a less damning version of mediocre.

Game Notes

-I have heard all kinds of cries, some for the head of Arsene Wenger, some for a shakeup in management, some for a firesale of all the players save Robin Van Persie. How about starting with the entire medical staff? Look, some teams have bad luck. It happens and you can't do anything about it. But it's temporary and it's manageable. Does anyone realize how many players have missed time with injury this year? Significant time and significant players I mean, either due to their status as starters or because they are needed replacements. I'll save the space and not list them all, but my rough count has fourteen players and they just keep dropping. Then throw in how Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie were oft injured before this season. Then add in that two more players were hurt this past week. Then add in the mismanagement of Jack Wilshere's comeback at multiple points. Does anyone believe that the medical staff is doing their job correctly at this point? It's sad to say that one of the most important offseason moves might be the hiring of some competent doctors.

-I have called for Arsene Wenger to adapt a bit and start using Theo Walcott in the middle to open up the wings for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho, and I finally got my wish against Sunderland when Arsenal was forced to go on the offensive and ended up with a midfield of Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta, Gervino, and Chamberlain while Walcott tried to combine with Robin Van Persie up top. It was... unpleasant to watch. There was no flow, Walcott never ran off of Van Persie particularly well, and all of that attacking power amounted to a fat lot of nothing. So, at least initially, I will admit being wrong. But isn't this the kind of thing that can be improved? Worked on? If these players have no experience in these positions, we can't expect them to move seamlessly into these new spots in the middle of a match. So, first round goes against me, but that doesn't mean that this team should stick with the 4-5-1 in all cases.

-Lastly, I want to briefly address the Arsenal players directly: stop bitching at the officials and just play the game. Numerous times during the Sunderland match, I saw Arsenal players go down (either too easily or due to valid contact) and immediately look to the official while pitching a hissy. Suggestion: play the fucking game. Get back up and run down the ball. Take some responsibility for what's going on rather than looking at the officials to bail you out. Get the ball taken away? Hustle back down the field and win it back. Get knocked over? File it for later and play hard against the man that got you. Don't back down. See an obvious missed call? Say maybe one thing about it and then go back to playing. You can't control the calls so just do what you can to make sure that they don't matter. I have never been so disappointed in this team for its attitude towards officials. The refs aren't losing the games. You're doing a fine job of that on your own. Leadership is needed to tell everyone to suck it up and keep playing. There aren't going to be any wins to celebrate if that attitude isn't ingrained. As Always, Go Gunners.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Slightly More Than Humbling

On Tuesday, a friend of mine asked me why, with Arsenal making a surprising move back into the top four, I hadn't bothered to update my blog to celebrate the momentous occasion. The straightforward, factual answer is that I didn't watch the match. I was down in Brooklyn over the past weekend and didn't get a chance to find a way to tune in. Then there was the annoying problem of how Arsenal vs Sunderland wasn't being shown on any television channel that we receive through our cable package, so I couldn't even DVR the game and watch it a later time, like I often will when I'm not at home to catch when everything goes live. And as I've said before on this blog, I don't feel comfortable making grandiose statements about Arsenal's quality (or lack thereof) when I don't get to experience their play personally. So, this blog was not updated after Theirry Henry saved three points in a (reportedly) boring match and Chelsea made a mess of their momentary advantage because I wasn't around to celebrate.

After Wednesday's game against AC Milan however, it seems like the fates might have conspired to make sure I didn't look like too much of an ass for relishing the victory. I think I know myself well enough to say that my tone would have fallen short of triumphant, but the Champions League debacle would have made anything remotely positive I said sound misguided at the very least and downright foolish as we near the other end of the spectrum. Anyone who watched the match live knows what I'm talking about. Arsenal was embarrassed. Plain and simple. Anyone who thought that Arsenal could walk into Milan and earn a draw, or perhaps even steal a victory, now knows exactly how pie-in-the-sky that kind of thinking truly was. It would be one thing if Arsenal was handled but only gave up a goal or two. That can happen occasionally when an opposing team just clicks on a given day, but it's salvageable. Return to London, put in a good performance, and who knows what might happen? But this? This wasn't just being thrashed out of the Champions League (barring a miraculous turnaround at the Emirates come March 6th). This was a clinical, surgical removal of hope, or a enthusiastic bludgeoning into submission, depending on your outlook on the game as well as the character of Arsenal. This was a sobering view of just exactly what Gunners fans can hope for this season.

The worst kept secret in the Premiership is that this Arsenal team just isn't that good. Now, there are reasons for that. It is tough to be consistent on defense when there are now eight different Arsenal fullbacks that have missed time due to injury. There is the absence of Jack Wilshere, a player that could markedly improve the Gunners' midfield play and help to control games. But what else is there at this point? What other excuses can there be? The reality is that the talent level is not high enough. Robin Van Persie is the only world class player on the team, compared to squads like Manchester City who boast such talents in every area of the field. The wing play has been woefully inconsistent when it should be the driving force of the attack, while the center of midfield has been underwhelming if we want to be nice about it. The return of Wilshere would certainly help and the evolution of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will shore up the quality of attacking play, but look at the straws we're grasping at. The saviors of Arsenal are two players that wouldn't be legal to drink in the US and there is no guarantee that they will come through and fix all ills. The team needs serious fixes during the offseason and they may have an even more serious gap to fill if Van Persie decides that he needs to jump ship to a team that can win trophies. Crisis is an overblown word for a team that will still finish in the top half of the table and may hold onto fourth place to make their way back into Champions League play next year, but this is a dominant power that is in serious decline and there are no easy solutions in sight. This team could be better and this team could be more than they have been, but not much better and not much more unless there is a seriously influx of talent. If you weren't sure of that before, I kindly invite you to watch the tape of Wednesday game to learn the sobering lesson that AC Milan already taught the Arsenal players.

Game Notes

-Arsene Wenger is a master of developing young talent while I am an amateur writer with a laptop and some opinions. Noted. But one still has to question how he has handled Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain this year. First "The Ox" was left off the bench for entirely too long as he supposedly got used to the level of play in the top flight. Then once he proved himself beyond what should be necessary, Wenger treated him as a player still on trial rather than someone who has earned the right to play 90 minutes every match. Of course Wenger may know things that I may not. Of course there is something to be said about the wisdom in starting an 18 year-old on the road in the San Siro for one of the biggest games of the year. But aside from Van Persie, Chamberlain is the only Arsenal player who has truly strikes fear in the hearts of opponents. It does not make sense any longer to leave him on the bench given all he can contribute to the team.

-The eternal question of "what do we do with the back line" now takes on extra importance for Arsenal. Assuming that both Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny will miss and least some game time over the next month (or, god help us, more), what on earth do the Gunners do with their fullbacks? Bacary Sagna is a starter of course, and Thomas Vermaelen will have to return to his natural position as a central defender, but who acts as his partner? Who starts on the left, or right if Sanga is to play out of position? Johan Djourou has been so bad this year that he was pulled at halftime for an 18 year-old making his first appearance in the Premier League, while Sebastien Squillaci is, well, Sebastien Squillaci. My gut says that Sagna switches to the left so that Francis Coquelin can play on the right, while Djourou does indeed get the start in the center. The problem is that even if I'm right, Arsenal looks to have it all wrong.

-I made the point several times during the week that though Arsenal was beaten badly by AC Milan, they were also incredibly unlucky. Kevin Prince-Boateng's goal was a thing of absolute beauty, Zlatan Ibrohimovic looked to be offside when he received the ball on the second goal, Robinho's goal was perfectly placed as well as perfectly timed (right before Alex Song's foot arrived on the scene) after the defender in front of him fell down, and the fourth goal was a penalty. Now, Milan might have gotten four other goals from different plays, but it is a little difficult to not shake your head as an Arsenal fan. Not in disbelief, but ruefully as if to say "of course, what else is new?" In a year where everything seems to be going wrong, it is becoming the destiny of Arsenal to suffer yet another blow at the hands of fate. But still. Fourth place with big matches looming. Things could always be worse. Unfortunately, we seem to marching inexorably in that direction. As Always, Go Gunners.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Trends or Outliers?

There is a tendency in sports to judge a team primarily by how well they played their last game. Nowhere is this more true than in football (by which I mean the American version, sorry purists) due to the weekly games, relatively short schedule, and endless talking head punditry about every facet of every game. Teams who were 8-0 suddenly become riddled with holes and doubts when they lose their first game. Teams who were 0-8 become "dangerous" and "a tough out" once they win that first game. And teams anywhere in between jump from world beaters to also-rans depending on the performance they put on last Sunday. Now there is some truth to this. Some. If a otherwise poor team played well against a strong competitor (see: Kansas City defeating Green Bay this past season) then it is worth taking a moment to reevaluate matters and try to find trends. Did they start playing better recently? Have they been dominating in one particular area and that strength happened to match up well with their opponent? Did their opponent simply not show up to play, giving the team you're analyzing a relatively cheap win? These are steps a logical person would go through, particularly after seeing a shocking result. The important thing is to not get carried away by what you just saw and instead try to consider it as part of the whole, one aspect of a story that has been building since the beginning of the season. In that context, the 7-1 win by Arsenal over Blackburn should be seen as a success, certainly, but not necessarily a harbinger of things to come.

Though it should be no surprise with a score like 7-1, there were a lot of positives for Arsenal in this match. It's not that hard to pick out what was good and bad (goals good! giving up goals bad!), but what is more indeterminate is whether or not each occurrence might continue into the future as a solid trend. Let's look at a few examples:

1. Scoring Seven Goals

Obviously the Gunners won't be scoring seven goals a game from here on out, but it's unlikely that even a small increase in production will continue into the future. First, we must keep in mind that four of these seven goals were scored while Blackburn was down to ten men. Three goals scored in even play is still quality, but it's not something that normally happens. In Arsenal's previous ten games in all competition, they scored more than two goals once: three versus Aston Villa in an FA Cup match, and two of them were off of penalties. All season, Arsenal has scored more than two goals only six other times: vs Wigan, West Bromwich Albion, Chelsea, Stoke, Bolton, and Blackburn. Three of those teams are in the relegation zone currently (Wigan, Bolton, Blackburn) and two are in the bottom half of the Premier League table (West Brom and Stoke). Arsenal does not routinely light up the scoreboard and when they do, it is usually against bad teams. This is compounded by the fact that no one besides Robin Van Persie seems able to consistently score (save Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but the sample size is very small). Scoring wouldn't be such an issue, however...

2. Only One Goal Conceded

Blackburn did only score one goal during this match, and it was from a piece of brilliance off a set play by Morten Pedersen. However, it was another foolish foul (this time by Laurent Koscielny) that set up the free kick and this is a habit that Arsenal can't seem to shake over the season. Furthermore, Blackburn was down to ten men for just over half of this match, so only scoring once isn't that surprising. The problem lies in the fact that Arsenal are currently tied for 9th in Goals Against in the Premiership, a highly problematic number when the Gunners' scoring hasn't been consistent. Arsenal plays plenty of 1-0, 1-1, 2-1 type of matches, but the goals they give up are often crippling or foolish, and the Blackburn goal in this match was indicative of that.

3. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's Performance

Here is a positive trend that seems like it might actually have some legs. In every game he's played this year (save perhaps the Bolton match), Chamberlain has been a force on the field. His pace has been dynamic, he's been an obvious playmaker, and he seems to have the support of the veterans, including his captain Van Persie (the Dutchman's reaction to Chamberlain being subbed off against Manchester United can be displayed as evidence to this point). More than that though, he fights when not everyone else is fighting and he runs hard while he's out there. In this way he reminds me a lot of Jack Wilshere during the drubbing Arsenal took at Barcelona in the Champions League last year. Never say die, continue to fight, keep running and working. Arsenal needs players like that as they have too often given up on games, or at least not shown that grit required to gut out tough wins. I hate to say it, but Arsenal doesn't come back from 3-0 down in the second half against Chelsea. Manchester United did, and it's why they're such a legendary team. If Chamberlain can help change the attitude around, he will be worth even more than he already is.

Arsenal's big breakout win against Blackburn was nice, but let's be honest... it's Blackburn. Not just Blackburn, but Blackburn Playing Down A Man For An Entire Half. Because of that, it's hard to see Arsenal carrying these kinds of results forward. However, if the players have any character at all then it should act as a confidence booster for a team that needed one after their dismal January performances. Even if they don't win all of their games by six goals from here on out, something like this might give them the belief they need to gut out the one goal games. That alone would be worth the momentary hype.

Game Notes

-Robin Van Persie. Enough has been said already, but let me add a small addendum. This game showed why he's the most in form striker in England right now because it's not just about the clinical finishing when he has the ball. In this game, Van Persie showed how intelligent his placement is, how well he gets to spots in front of goal where he is available to receive passes. Early in this year, I said that he didn't have that striker's mentality because he doesn't get goals exactly like the three he got in this match. Either I was jaded from his injury prone seasons of the past, or I was just flat out wrong. I'm happy to admit fault in either case as he is the complete package as a scorer. Now someone else just needs to step up to take some of the pressure off.

-It's hard to talk tactics too much from this match because Blackburn was being run ragged after already being down 3-1 before they had Gael Givet sent off with a straight red, but perhaps we can take away some things. Namely the wing play that appears to be slowly returning to Arsenal's game. Bacary Sagna got a day off as he's still recently back from injury, but out of position Francis Coquelin is starting to play well down the right flank and his deft through ball to Theo Walcott helped set up the Gunners' first goal. Let's be honest: Arsenal should always be dangerous on the flanks with the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gervinho, and Walcott at their disposal. But good wing play by the fullbacks makes the speedy wingers that much more dangerous because defenders can't key on just the burners. If this improvement keeps up, the Arsenal attack will surely benefit.

-Aaron Ramsey was given the game off as well and I'm beginning to wonder if that might become more routine. I am usually loathe to credit Tomas Rosicky with anything except picking up foolish yellow cards when he comes in as an ineffectual substitute, but he really has played well recently as the link-up between Mikel Arteta and the strikers. This is the role that Rosicky has played in the past so it's puzzling why things are clicking for him now, but his passing has been superb and he's actually looked dangerous pressing forward. I like Ramsey and because I hold him to a higher standard I've been critical of him this year, but that criticism has been deserved. He's not creating chances for other players and he's been very poor in front of goal himself. With Rosicky playing well, Arsene Wenger may decide to finally remove the "automatic inclusion" tag from Ramsey. Which, unfortunately, is probably not a bad idea. As Always, Go Gunners.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Cycle of Frustration

Earlier in the year, I wrote a post discussing the commitment one has for their teams and how in order for a fan to be truly disappointed or heartbroken, they have to wholeheartedly believe that their team has a chance to win it all. I mentioned at several points this year how I didn't believe in Arsenal enough to commit to them in that way and by now, the window for such trust has surely passed, for this season, at least. I still believe this assessment of the fan condition to be true, but I believe I ignored another key component to the fan experience, one that does not require the opening of the heart but rather the foolish, masochistic desire to keep watching a team that you are all but convinced can't be better than they are showing, but maybe, hopefully, at some point, really will be. This is the Cycle of Inconsistency and though it will never depress you as much as the loss of the team you fell head-over-heels for, it will madden you in ways you never thought possible.

We've all been there. Your team looks great on paper before the year starts. You begin to get your hopes up because this really could be your year. It all has to come together, of course, but a title honestly could be in the future. The season starts, and things are going ok. Not everyone seems to be firing on all cylinders, but that's all right, these things happen. Players need to get used to communicating with each other, coaches need to adjust and see what works; the engine needs to be more finely tuned. But then that imaginary date goes by in your mind, the date by which all of these things should have been worked out, and the mistrust starts to slowly creep in. Are we really as talented as we thought? Shouldn't Player X have shown more than he has? Why do we not seem to know what to do with the ball still? But these thoughts are brushed aside, at least out of the realm of certainty. Things will get better, they have to. There's So Much Potential Here. It'll come around.

This is the point when all is lost for you as a fan. You've already talked yourself into your team and try as you might, you can't get away from it. I know, I've been there before and in all kinds of varieties. There is the aforementioned "Preseason Expectations," where your team just has to be good because my god look at all that talent. There's the "Early Season Performance," where your team plays better than you thought they would early in the year and you start to get a little excited about what they might do. And then there's the always popular, always devastating "Is My Team Good Enough" season, where you aren't convinced that your players are a bunch of world beaters, but there's still something there (a superstar player, really great chemistry, electric plays) that keeps you think there's the possibility of more. All of these situations lead fans into the Cycle of Frustration, where the team is maddeningly inconsistent and refuses to let you go because the highs are too sweet and the lows are too deeply personal to ever shrug off and move on. And it stays that way for the rest of the season.

Most fans never give up watching their team, just kind of give up on expecting anything. You can only be a passionate Cleveland Browns fan for about six weeks before you go back to just being a fan. The same is true of plenty of teams in plenty of sports, even routinely good franchises who happen to suffer through a down year here and there. Fans don't disown their team or stop rooting for them, they just let other things occupy their lives and don't put any true emotion into the season. And that's not something that should be criticized either. Let's face it: if you're putting your whole self into every game during a 65-97 baseball season, you're asking for an aneurysm or a restraining order. Some seasons it's easier to put fandom on the back burner, following along with your team but never really committing to it.

But then there are some seasons when you just can't quit your team, no matter what they do. You desperately hope that there is something there when quite often there is not. Or at least not enough of that special something to justify the emotion that you're putting into each game. This doesn't lead to the disappointment or broken heart feelings like you might experience if you truly thought your team was good enough to win the championship. Instead it's like this masochist itch that you can't help but scratch. A long shot bet that you can't help but get your hopes up for even though you know your horse will pull up lame in the end. It's frustrating more than anything else. Anger would be giving it too much credit as that level of emotion doesn't really exist here. It's mechanical and dutiful like the thank you cards you were forced to write as a kid, occasionally throwing down the pencil because dammit your hand hurts and you shouldn't have to be doing this. But you do it anyway.

I, like every fan who is put in this situation, feels like my teams always do this. I can't look at the New York Giants, UConn Huskies, and Minnesota Twins without thinking of all the times they've built me up to knock me down. That 12-4 Giants team in 2008 that backed into the playoffs and then got bounced in the first round. The 2011 Twins team who followed up their 2010 Central Division title with the second worst record in the majors despite having basically the same team. This year's UConn Huskies who have all the talent in the world the year after winning the national championship and now can't even score more than 50 points in a game. And these are just the recent examples. All of these teams seem to tempt me into caring for them, then decide amongst themselves that it's time to bring hope crashing down. But ability is still there, so we follow along hoping that it turns itself around.

And that's the thing. Sometimes it does. I openly rooted for this year's Giants team to finish 6-10 so that Tom Coughlin, Kevin Gilbride, Perry Fewell, and some particularly lazy towel boys would all be fired and we could finally have the house cleaning we so desperately needed. Instead, the kindling finally caught and my team is inexplicably in the Super Bowl, roughly a month and a half after looking like a really determined Appalachian State team could run them out of the building. This is what can happen. This is why we do care, even when we know we're not supposed to, even when we know we're must more likely to have our friends say "I told you so" rather than being able to say the same to them. I don't know if they'll ever come through for me the way my other teams have, but I guess I can't say I'm surprised that Arsenal puts me in this same damn mood week in and week out.

PS. I'm well aware that this the "White People Problems" of the sports world, how fans of generally competent teams love to bemoan the trials and tribulations that they're going through. A Cleveland fan would be well within his or her rights to slap me across the face after reading this.

Game Notes

-I think I'll at least start with something good. Theo Walcott, awful decision on the breakaway aside, played a very strong game. He was pacey at the right times, picked out players well, and took full advantage of all of the space that Bolton was giving him (when he wasn't in a one-on-one in front of goal at least). Is it that surprising that his best game of the last month comes on the same day Bacary Sagna returns to the starting lineup? Sagna's attacking presence down the flank opens up much more space for Walcott, allowing him to be the danger he can be. I fully expect this going forward, and it's yet another reason I love having Sagna back and healthy.

-Inevitably, however, we come to the bad. Arsenal cannot score. I can counted six clear goal scoring opportunities at least, none of which were converted. Some of this was bad luck of course. Robin Van Persie's brilliant, sublime chip in the 80th minute was cruelly denied by the crossbar, keeping him from notching another Top Ten Goals of the Year. But Arsenal's Lord and Savior missed an open shot himself from the top of the box, though Aaron Ramsey and Walcott were worse offenders by far with their comical attempts in front of goal when all that was needed was composure and a touch to the corner. These are the kinds of games that Arsenal cannot afford to lose, despite how much Chelsea is trying to give 4th place to anyone who will take it. A win in this match would have kept the Gunners in 5th place only 3 points out of 4th. Instead, they drop to 7th and now have to make up 5 points while also holding off further competition. What a missed opportunity.

-This was the first game where I think Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's youth showed a bit. I don't think he had a particularly bad game, as he was still menacing with his pace and showed some good vision. But he did duff a few too many passes and at times looked like he was trying to press. It's almost as if he hears all the fans talking about how great he is for the team and is trying to do too much (which very well could be the case). I'm not worried about him and I still think he'll be great in the future, but it was a bit surprising to see him play uncharacteristically sloppily. Perhaps we should thank our lucky stars that that's the standard he's set for himself. As Always, Go Gunners.

Choosing Your Battles

This week has been a busy one for English soccer as the FA Cup matches were held over the weekend and the Premier League schedule continuing on Tuesday and Wednesday. A glut of games like this occurs every now and then when there is time set aside for the domestic cups, and also for some of the elite teams when the Champions League holds mid-week matches with the domestic leagues running over the weekend. As you can imagine, this can lead to some exhausted soccer players and therefore some difficult decisions for managers as they have to weigh the various competitions carefully and choose where to spend their talent. With the Carling Cup nearing the final match, the FA Cup kicking into high gear, and the Premier League entering an important stretch, I'd like to go over the various trophies that can be won and give some analysis about how Arsenal might use their players in each.

The most prestigious trophy to win is most definitely the Champions League. This is the tournament that pits all of the best teams in Europe against each other to see who will come out as champion. For the record, I prefer the World Cup due to the amazing amounts of pageantry and meaning that go into every match no matter how small and seemingly inconsequential. The World Cup isn't club against club but country against country in a tournament that comes around only once in every four years, meaning that even superstar players only have so many chances to win. It is, in my opinion, the biggest prize in all of sports and it's a fantastic event. However, the Champions League is by far the best play that you will see as it features teams that have been training together all year and are much more comfortable than the international players that get together only every so often to defend the honor of their country. I'm not going to go through the multi-step tournament system (though if you have any questions, please post them in the comments), but Arsenal are currently still alive and will be playing traditional powerhouse AC Milan in the first round of the knockout stages.

The other title that everyone dreams of winning is the domestic league title. This trophy goes to the team who comes in first in whichever league they play in (English Premier League, Italian Serie A, Spanish La Liga, etc.) and is not determined by a tournament. If you finish in first place in the regular season, you win the league title, which is why so much attention is paid to each and every game. There is no "we'll get in the playoffs and see what happens." It all comes down to the regular season. Think of it as similar to college basketball. Coupled with the various league cups (which I will get to shortly), you have an atmosphere somewhat similar to the regular season champion and the tournament champion, with the NCAA tournament acting as the Champions League. While the league cups are important, the league titles are the full year grind that everyone plays through and league standings also ultimately determine who will be relegated and promoted when all is said and done. Due to this, the domestic titles are second in prestige to the Champions League, though this isn't true for every European league and some fans of each league. Perhaps the way to say it is that the domestic titles are the second hardest to win. Currently Arsenal sits in 7th place in the Premier League with 37 points (out of 20 teams; leaders Manchester City have 54 points).

The aforementioned league cups are next on the difficulty/prestige scale, though this is a little difficult to explain. In England, there are two knockout style tournaments for multiple levels of soccer teams: the FA Cup and the Carling Cup. The difference here is one of scope. The Carling Cup includes the Premier League as well as the next three divisions of the Football League (Championship, League 1, League 2). The FA Cup includes all of those teams as well as teams from the National League System, which means that there are village squads competing at the early stages of the tournament. The Carling Cup consistently contains 72 teams due to the set nature of the Football League. Last year's FA Cup had 763 teams participate when all was said and done. You might think that due to the more elite nature of the Carling Cup it is the more prestigious tournament, but this isn't true. The FA Cup is the oldest association soccer competition in the world and the wide open, Cinderella nature of the tournament makes it fascinating to watch. The FA Cup is a tournament that teams set out to win to bring glory to their fans. The Carling Cup is somewhat of an also-ran tournament that teams often use their secondary players or young up-and-comers for rather than exhaust their true stars further. Arsenal was knocked out of the Carling Cup by Manchester City in the quarterfinals but is still alive in the FA Cup after beating Aston Villa 3-2 on Sunday. Which brings us to where we are now.

Arsenal is still alive in three out of four trophy races, but the level to which they are breathing vs gasping for air is highly debatable. Realistically, the race for the Premier League title is over for the Gunners. 17 points is a huge difference to overcome and they would have to leapfrog five other teams besides the current leaders to get there. Put more in American sports terms, they are 5.66 games out with 15 games to play and have six teams in front of them. It's technically possible, sure, but very unlikely, especially if we were to compare the relative talent levels. Therefore, the more achievable goal is 4th place, currently held by Chelsea with 42 points (5 points ahead of Arsenal). Why does 4th place matter? The top three finishers in the Premier League get automatic bids into the Champions League group stage while the fourth place finisher has to play a home-and-away playoff to reach the same level. In other words, fourth place is the last chance for a team to get into next year's Champions League and usually fourth place in England is going to be a large favorite over whoever they would face in the playoff. So, Arsenal's Premier League hopes are more about battling into fourth place (or higher of course, but that's less likely as third place is currently occupied by Tottenham with 49 points) in order to make the 2012-2013 Champions League than challenging for the title.

In this year's Champion's League, Arsenal faces a tough elimination round match against defending Italian champions AC Milan. This is a winnable tie (term for two match knockout series) for the Gunners, but definitely difficult as Milan is a dangerous team. Still, it would not be unheard of for Arsenal to go to the San Siro and play Milan close, then come back to London and close things out to advance to the quarterfinals. The problem is, then what? There are four teams still in the Champions League who are absolutely better than Arsenal (Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona) and unless they all get knocked out in the round of 16 or face each other in the quarterfinals on the opposite side of the draw from Arsenal, the Gunners will have to play one of them soon. They would be very lucky if that didn't happen until the semifinals and once it does happen, it's all over. What I said before is very true: the Champions League is the title that you want to win. It's the one you will always fight for if you're in it. But if you realistically have no chance of winning, it's not great to get your hopes up too high.

The FA Cup is a very interesting story for Arsenal mostly due to the fallout from the earlier rounds. Manchester City and Manchester United (the #1 and #2 teams in England right now) have been eliminated, leaving a wide open field for the Round of 16 and beyond. With each game being an elimination match, it would be possible for Arsenal to get lucky with their draws and advance through the next level or two easily, and the worst they could draw would be their arch-rival from Tottenham, a match you still have to like Arsenal to put up a good fight in at the very least. Because of this, Alan Davies of the excellent (but often profane and almost exclusively for Gunners fans rather than general soccer fans) podcast The Tuesday Club recommended giving up on the other competitions and making damn sure that Arsenal brought back the FA Cup as a major trophy this year. Personally... I don't know. Arsenal has the best shot for the FA Cup, that's for sure, as they aren't going to be winning the Premier League or Champions League this year. And if they saved their players for this tournament and caught some of the other teams more tired or unprepared, they would have a good chance. However, I just can't justify giving up on going for 4th place when the Gunners are only five points back, and as a matter of pride I wouldn't be able to sit stars in the Champions League, even though Real and Barca will be hoisting the trophy this year. But then, is that really an answer? Play all of your players in all of your matches and come up half-assed in everything? I don't know. The 5th round of the FA Cup doesn't start until the middle of February and by then, Arsenal will have a better idea of where they stand in the Premier League as well as how the first leg of their tie against AC Milan went, so this is most likely where Arsene Wenger will make his decision. If they are keeping pace, expect a diminished squad to show up for the FA Cup match. But if they dump Premier League games to Blackburn and Sunderland, and get run out of the San Siro 3-1, well, expect a lot of depressed Arsenal fans cheering for FA Cup success. It would be the only success we see all year.

Game Notes

-The game on Sunday vs Aston Villa had all the makings of a classic Arsenal match where they play as the better team but can't put the ball in the back of the net, then see the opponent score against the run of play to doom them in the end. Only in this case, the Gunners managed to come back once all of that happened. It was a new twist on an old classic, but it was nice to see some fight from the team. I'm not sure what Arsene Wenger said in the dressing room at halftime, but it worked. Arsenal came roaring out and showed some true heart in battling back to win the game in regulation and keep from having to go to Aston Villa for a replay match that would just tire them out further.

-Of course, Arsenal's comeback wouldn't have been possible without a few ghastly mistakes by Aston Villa. It's a shame to a degree as Villa defended well most of the game and did a good job frustrating Arsenal before turning up the heat on breakouts. Arsenal threatened consistently, but the Villans always seemed to poke the ball away at the last moment, intercept that last pass to keep the real chances from coming. However, they were undone by two poor decisions in their own penalty box that led to converted penalty kicks by Van Persie. As well as they played cohesive team defense, Aston Villa gave this game away by making terrible decisions in just a couple of big spots.

-Both Mikel Arteta and Bacary Sagna came into this match as substitutes, which is a glimmer of hope for struggling Arsenal fans. Before, I hadn't been overly impressed with the play of Arteta this year as he just seemed to be holding the ball and making easy passes. Nothing incisive and nothing that creative. But when he missed several games with injury, his value showed as the Gunners couldn't even hold possession much less control the game in midfield. Sagna's return marked a return to the time when Arsenal wasn't forced to play defenders out of position on the right and that will be incredibly important going forward as the flanks finally open up again. Great to see both players back. As Always, Go Gunners.