Thursday, July 31, 2008

We can do this the easy way, or the hard way

I've been thinking about scratching out my own thoughts on Gerrard's mental approach and happiness with his role for some time, but Mark Ballard over at This is Anfield sums it up better than I can get together right now.

What'll it be, Stevie?

Let me clear my throat

Footballers, just like us!

Aston, we have a problem (Really?)

So, this is still going on.

In late spring(!), when the Gareth Barry stuff started, I thought Rafa was making a huge mistake, especially when it was revealed Alonso would be going to Juve as part of the deal. Then, as is my wont, I talked myself into thinking it was a good move (he gets along with Stevie, they like playing with each other, Alonso was hurt last year and hasn't quite been as good as we all thought after that night in Turin) because I want to see Liverpool put it all together somehow. For the most part, I believe in Rafa completely, though where he plays Keane could end up testing my patience.

But after awhile, it just became too much. Alonso still can bring it, as he showed in spurts during Euro 2008, and I can't dismiss him anymore. He's a creative passer and plays with more control in trying to feed Torres or any other attacker than Stevie does. When things are going against Liverpool, he can sit on the ball a bit and just calm everyone down, change the tempo more to his liking and help weather the rough patches. Xabi is just a damn good player.

It comes down to, you can't convince me Gareth Barry is in any significant way a better player than Alonso. If Alonso is on the team, as it appears he will be this season, how do you maximize both his presence and Barry's? I'm not seeing it, because Mascherano has to be out there, if healthy, in every league match and in Europe. He has to be there. That makes it a numbers game, then.

4-1-3-2? Barry, Alonso, Gerrard across the middle; Torres and Keane up front? Barry on the left wing? That's a stretch. 4-4-2? Babel, Barry, Alonso, Gerrard, from left to right, in that order? How does Mascherano not fit into the team and it's a waste of Stevie. 4-2-3-1? Alonso and Masch in the back; Barry, Stevie, Keane, from left to right and Torres up front? Doesn't make a lot of sense. Poor use of Barry and kind of wastes Keane, I'd say.

Just what is Rafa going for with this Barry pursuit now that Alonso is (probably) staying? I can't figure it out. Why sit a talent like Alonso in the majority of matches for the sake of having Gareth Barry? It's been more than two months now of pursuing this guy, the price is way too high, and there's no logical place for him.

But it continues, endlessly. This latest resurfacing is dampening my season-anticipation buzz.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Nasri Debuts, Vela and Bendtner on the Mark Again

Lots to cover today.

First and foremost, the Arsenal pre-season got well and truly underway today with a friendly between Arsenal and Stuttgart. And fancy that, old friend Jens Lehmann was in goal for Stuttgart. Nice to see him again. Ol' Jens was really something in his time with Arsenal. In particular, being the man for the unbeaten team during their 49 game run. (Remind me to tell you a story about that, by the way.) The last couple of seasons saw Jens turn in wonky performance after wonky performance. We always knew how easy it was to get him wound up, and indeed throw him off of his game, but to be booked as much as he was for a goalkeeper at times just got to be too funny. Sure it was upsetting for the supporters to see someone making mistakes that affected the team negatively time again, but really, you gotta admit, ol' Jens was good for a laugh every game. The finger wag, reminiscent of Dikembe Mutumbo in the NBA, the flopping and overreactions anytime the opposition got close to him. He was a gas. Enough to lead me to look past a lot of his faults as a footballer, and enough to make me doubly-embrace his ability as a shot-stopper. (that was one of the best moments of my life, surely one of the most out-of-control celebratory freak outs I've ever had)

Down the pub for the matches, at The Highbury, we'd laugh about "pushing the Jens Lehmann button on your remote" to get exclusive access to the "Lehmann Cam." We'd belt out, without any true understanding of German, "das est verboten!" whenever he wagged his finger. And then, honestly, was there anything more uproariously funny than his season-long temper tantrum in '07 - '08 when he finally lost his place to Manuel Almunia?

That was too long of a sidebar. I'm not intending to trot out a Lehmann post-mortum, rather, we're taking a peek at the 3-1 Arsenal win over Stuttgart. (Click for match highlights)

This one saw the debut for Samir Nasri. I rate the boy, I do, but Tottenham can shove their Luka Modric. They'll likely be looked at in much the same way through the upcoming year. Sammy's turning heads, folks. Sure, he hasn't played enough yet to get heads turning, but he will. Because I say so. Balance. Balance. Balance. It won't be long until David Pleat puts down his SAF talking points long enough to say, "you know, this boy's got the best balance in the Premier League, what an addition he is."

Carlos Vela and Nikolas Bendtner were on the mark again in the second half, as was 16 year old Jack Wilshire with his third in two games. The lad is 16. I'm not even going to bother hyping him, but it's another reflection of the quality of football Arsene has developed that a boy so slight and inexperienced can slot in and turn up the excitement as much as he has. Let me put it this way ... how many other sides can name their 16 or 17 year olds, eliciting envious grins from the opposition, while still maintaining their perch as one of Europe's top sides? Eh?

Didn't think so.

Looking forward to the Carling Cup when Liverpool's Damion Plessis (do I win for the first Plessis reference?) gives it away in midfield with his jackhammer first touch and Wilshire and Ramsey nick one on the break.

What else....Plenty.... As the day rushed on, we had reports of Barry's imminent arrival in Liverpool, and then reports that he'd indeed stay at Villa. Word has it that Bentley's move to Spurs is just about done and dusted. No worries there. By the end of the day Arshavin's agent had begun running his mouth again, saying that his boy could well be off to Spurs in the next five days.

An agent. Running his mouth. Again. Yawn.

And finally, Super Kolo Toure should be able to fully shake off the affects of his bout of malaria by the start of the season. Terrific. (editor's note: I'm making this my first global plea to get a Kolo chat spreading across the Atlantic. Think "Marco. Polo.")

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

van Persie's Strike Rate

Seriously. Say what you will, but a healthy Robin van Persie is as good as a new signing. A massive new signing.

For one, he's arguably the only true set-piece threat the Gunners have at the moment. And next? Check out the article from today ... A strike rate of 22 goals over 45 games in the last two injury-plagued seasons.

He can score from anywhere, generally with a pulsing ferocity on his shots. Worringly though, so much hinges on the "what if" this season. Much like last year. It's maddening really.

Someone said to me recently, while I was off to watch a match, "have fun!" I replied simply, "fun? It's not fun, the last thing it is is fun. It's not even fun when they win. At that point it's just a relief. It's only fun if they win a championship. Otherwise it's just desperate."


As an American who has driven long distances to attend games and concerts, I'm familiar with some traffic struggles for huge events. Usually it's nothing more than looking for a bunch of cars moving less than 5 mph in one lane, getting in line, and then waiting for the caravan to wind its way into the parking lot. Often there's a state trooper or three along the way to wave you in the right direction.

However, Liverpool supporters heading by bus to Glasgow this weekend for the friendly with Rangers have a whole 'nuther experience waiting for them. Granted, the northwest of England and Scotland weren't carved out with widespread driving in mind, but this made my head hurt thinking about the logistics:

"Liverpool supporters' buses and minibuses travelling west on the M8 Motorway towards the stadium should leave the Motorway at Junction 23; turn right at the slip road traffic lights onto Dumbreck Road; ahead through the traffic light junction onto Broomloan Road; ahead through the roundabout junction; and turn left into the dedicated 'AWAY' bus / minibus park which is situated about 100 yards on your left."

Oof. The description for driving by private car sounded a little less daunting, but then there's this:

"MAJOR ROADWORKS are ongoing on the M8 Motorway near to Junctions 25 and 25A and extensive congestion and delays are expected. Leave plenty of extra time to complete your journey."

Using all caps really means business. Must be rough.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Hola, Vela!

Mark it down, Dude. Carlos Vela will be the talk of town before long.

Pre-season runabouts are always fun. We all know, hopefully, that it's just a training exercise, but it's not to say it doesn't get you salivating when your team ships 10 goals. Carlos Vela is back from loan at Osasuna in Spain and, really, I'm expecting the lad to make an impact. I first saw him in a friendly with Mexico against USA earlier this year. He showed pace and composure every time he was on the ball, not to mention inch perfect crossing. Arsene has said that he'll slot him in as a striker. He'll definitely have the opportunity to make an impact with Eduardo still sidelined for the foreseeable future.

As Arsenal welcome back Fabregas this week and roll out the welcome mat for Samir Nasri, the team is shaping up. Most of us, I'd reckon, are holding our breath now for a big midfield addition. There was talk a week ago of hijacking the Liverpool flirtations with Gareth Barry. It's quieted down, but that'd be typical Arsene to nab someone just when we least expect it. It's been quite a bit of time since he's pulled the trigger on a truly big signing and, looking at the scale of the team over the last couple of years, it's easy to argue that the time would be right to fork out for experience. We shall see.

Learning about Robbie Keane

Liverpool's team site has some personal information about Robbie Keane to help fans learn a bit more about the "real" person behind the creative striker who they hope scores a bunch of goals alongside Torres. This little nugget just made that whole "Six Degrees" game a lot more interesting:

"Robbie was born on July 8, 1980 and shares his birthday with Wonder Years actor Fred Savage, American artist Beck and actor Kevin Bacon."

You can now connect John Belushi to Lee Dong-Gook in two moves. Hell, that's one of the easier ones!

Also, there's this:

"When he's not leading the line on the football pitch Keane likes to relax with a good film and picks out Braveheart, The Shawshank Redemption, Shrek, Saw 2 and Liar Liar as some of his favourites."

"Liar, Liar," really? Really, Robbie? Middling Jim Carrey vehicles help you wind down after another thrilling afternoon on the pitch? Really?

Keane to Liverpool for £19 million; Spurs pissed

The Robbie Keane signing today was expected for some time, but the headscratcher is Spurs Chairman Daniel Levy calling it an "enforced sale" while also refusing to officially register a complaint with the Premier League. Instead, there's this peace deal in the process:

"... Spurs have agreed not to pursue their official complaint to the Premier League regarding the transfer, and in particular comments made by the Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, after Liverpool acknowledged that the comments were inappropriate and agreed to make a donation to the club's main charity, the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation."

Sure, yeah, whatever you say, Danny. We'll send over some kits, boots and £50,000 to help that disadvantaged youth charity you guys have. Got it. Yeah, we'll have a private plane down to pick up Robbie at 6 o'clock. Hey, nice doing business with you.

Levy should see that an attempt at an "enforced sale" was made when Liverpool and Gareth Barry started making out in a public park – after inviting Sky down to get some great footage of the hot action – in hopes of driving Gareth's old lady O'Neill into a jealous rage that would produce a breakup. Martin O'Neill held firm, and then Liverpool, that ol' scamp, looked over at Robbie Keane. It's a messy little affair, yeah, but Keane is an upgrade on where things stand at Anfield now, and Liverpool overpaid for him. It'll be interesting to see what can happen with him and Torres up front – Lord knows how Rafa might play him, though – and Levy would be better off saving his sanctimonious excuses for the next time Spurs fail to take even a point from Arsenal.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Reviewing The Arsenal

(Editor's Note: I love this. I'm busy rehashing the "shortcomings" and the "hey, we're not all that bad offs" of last season, while Liverpool are celebrating a massive signing.)

Interesting thoughts, then, at the start of last season. So much was in flux, yet I think I really only missed out on predicting the effectiveness of Hleb and Eboue. I thought that Hleb really did hold a major key to the season, in whatever position he was slotted into. Turns out he did. He just never used that key. While a majority of the press over the summer has flagged the loss of ol' Alex as yet another defection, I think you'd be hard pressed to actually stumble across an Arsenal supporter who was sad to see him go. General consensus ... great on the ball, disastrous in the box and equipped with the decision making skills of a 20 year old on the receiving end of a three-story beer bong of onrushing Steel Reserve. I also think it's fair to say that for all of the clamoring we had from supporters screaming out "SHOOT!" most of it could be pinned on ol' Alex.

Farewell to him. You can't wish ill on the boy, but surely we won't miss him.

And then the other glaring miss in my pre-assessment of the season ... Emmanuel Eboue. Yikes. Could I have been more off-base? When he came in as a right back I kept thinking he'd be brilliant if unleashed on the wing. Little did I know he was worthless. Little did I know he'd become an embarrassment to whatever level of goodwill the team had accumulated in the face of the scandalous behavior exhibited by Chelsea, and the non-stop mouth-running of Sir Alex Ferguson at the top of the division. To be fair, Eboue turned in more fluid performances toward the very tail end of the year, but the rolling, diving, complaining and gesticulating isn't The Arsenal Way and it had most of us shuddering. He place could well and truly be in doubt, but the right side of the midfielder will definitely need addressing. (Could Theo be stuck out there? It does seem the place he can most immediately make an impact in the side.)

In the end, while the tumble they took in the last four months of the year left a bitter taste with victory so close, I think most supporters can agree that they performed above themselves with their fluency. Comparisons to the Invincible side were wrong and unfair, if for nothing else the current side doesn't have anyone close to the talent of Dennis Bergkamp.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Last year, just about this time of the summer.

Time was, a newsletter circulated around Milwaukee called The Highbury Times. Time was, some used that as outlet to share thoughts about the football. About the Arsenal. Right around this time of year last season, I used that space to lay out some thoughts for the upcoming campaign for the Arsenal. It was a time when so much was uncertain. Predominantly because Arsenal had just sold their all-time scorer Thierry Henry (a man, notably, who has just been named as Arsenal's all-time number one in a vote of the 50 greatest players by their fans on the Arsenal Web site). So let's pause and take a deep breath. A breath to look back and see just where our heads were at the start of last year as we plow ahead into a new campaign. On to it then...

Right. Well then, let’s start from the top. We’re going to be alright. In fact, we might even be better than alright. Rest assured, heads will be turned, eyebrows will be raised, imperceptibly polite nods will be offered and more than a few drinks will be spilled.

Who’s we? Come down on a Saturday morning, or better yet, come down at 5:55 a.m. on Sunday, August 12 to find out. Readers of this space in years gone by (hey, look at that, we talk in years now!) will know fully well. We (my ego and I) support The Arsenal. We support Singing In The Name Of. We support Mates and we support the conduit to a higher existence that is The Football.

Last season was disappointing for Arsenal and their supporters. The season before? Right, disappointing as well. A fabulous run to Paris and the Champions League final did provide a wonderful distraction from domestic woes but losing a final comes with consequences. We start now a new campaign with an interesting level of hope. The press, throughout the summer called for crisis: turmoil in the board, the loss of transfer lothario David Dein, questions over Arsene Wenger’s perceived hesitance to put pen to paper on a new deal and, most importantly, the dramatic sale of captain, talisman and all-time goal-scorer, Thierry Henry. But you know what? We’re gonna be alright.

The talk of last season centered on the Young Guns. Arsenal’s crop of could-be stars who displayed a remarkable amount of poise and skill, if not inexperience in spades. A lack of true grit was their undoing as they barely climbed into fourth in the table. Entering this new season, they are not now just a team with another year’s experience, they are a team that is finding themselves. And a large chunk of that falls to the absence of Henry. He was a gentleman in his approach in the game, until last year. I’m not going to slander a man who is one of my favourites and still holds the key to France’s Euro 2008 hopes but it’s important to recognize the difficult presence he came to hold for the younger stars. They waited for him to perform, cowered after poor delivery and looked for his approval above all. It was time for Henry to move on and it’s time for the new Arsenal to accept itself.

No longer will they trot out a 4-4-2 with a striker traditionally drifting left to act as a wing. This year we’ll see something more in the vain of a 4-4-1-1. Similar to the formation they’ve used in the Champions League. Preferred line-up? Sagna, Toure, Gallas, Clichy across the back. New boy Bacary Sagna will be a mainstay for years. He’s strong, pacey and has a carrot on stick in front of him – Wily Sagnol, France’s right-back, can’t play forever. Sagna is next up for that spot. Toure, while not as tall as you’d like a center-back to be, is the lynchpin for the back-four. A surprisingly powerful shot, composure, experience, fitness, Kolo is the man and we’ll likely see him grab the captain’s armband a few times this year. Gallas can be sublime but he’s a head case. His comments throughout the summer were destructive and we can only hope that he channels his experience into leadership. Clichy is a precocious talent and can potentially offer more than Ashley Cole did in that spot.

The middle of the park provides the most interesting problems for Arsene. Cesc Fabregas will be there. That much is sure. Gilberto should feature but will be pushed hard by Abu Diaby who looks more and more like Vieira. The right flank gives us the biggest question, Emmanuel Eboue. Last year’s right back, Eboue’s utter speed and endurance could destroy opposing teams this year. Pushing play up the right through Sagna and Eboue will be eye-opening – the friendly against Inter Milan gave a nice preview. On the left, Tomas Rosicky needs to maintain a higher level of fitness to make an impact but as we saw, he has a knack at drilling goals from outside the area.

Time for the glamour, the strikeforce. Robin van Persie continuous to show us his genius and wizard-like skills. Losing Robin to a broken foot last year had a huge impact at the end of the year. He’s the kind of player that you’ll need to set the alarm and rush down to The Highbury to see all season.

An interesting twist this year will be the position floating just behind van Persie – and when he features, Adebayor. Alex Hleb will be freed from the trap that Arsene had him in on the wing and should feature most of the year in his preferred position, linking the midfield and the strikers. New signing, expensive new signing, the relatively unknown Eduardo da Silva – The Crozillian – will also slot into that role. He reportedly brings bags of goals with him but we’ll see what happens when he adapts to the new and much more difficult Premier League.

In the end, Arsenal supporters are looking and are ready for a new hero. So come on then you Gunners, let’s see what you’ve got against Fulham!
"Match Pricks" now under development.