Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports


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Emirates Cup Day 1 Recap – The Gunners Aren’t Messing Around

After trips to Wimbledon and The Open in recent weeks, the Emirates Cup felt like something straight from Mars yesterday. Seated firmly in among the hooligans behind the goal, my friend and I got the flip side of the British sporting experience. Preseason or not, the Emirates crowd and the team on the pitch turned the welcome-back outing into an absolute party.

This was my second ever trip to the Emirates, so for me, the magic of being there was still fresh. Walking into the stadium and getting a look at the immaculate grass still gave me the rush of a newcomer. And where last time my dad and I were comfortably on the club level, this time I ended up in the thick of the crazed fans. I certainly prefer the former experience in most ways, but I’m glad I can now understand what it’s like behind the goal. I don’t think I’ll be able to get “What do you think of Tottenham?” out of my head before Christmas. The kid in front of me who looked stunningly like Syndrome from The Incredibles made sure I had every vulgar chant imprinted before halftime.

Given an entire warmup game between Wolfsburg and Villareal to get ahead on drinking, the crowd was in a great mood when Arsenal finally took the field. But what got everyone so energized was the return of Nicklaus Bendtner, the self-proclaimed greatest player in the world and former Arsenal talent at the end of the opening game. Maybe in jest more than in sincere admiration, Bendtner was loudly greeted upon his entrance, and got loud shouts every time he touched the ball.  It was wonderfully entertaining.

With the exception of seeing that Petr Cech wasn’t going to play, I was pleased with the team yesterday. From where I was sitting, twenty rows up behind the goal in the North End, we had a spectacular view of the action on our end. And thankfully, in the first half, Arsenal headed towards us. What immediately stood out to me was the movement of Mesut Özil. Normally, when somebody is described as floating on a sports field, that is a bad thing. But the ease and fluidity with which Özil moved up and about the pitch was stunning. I’m certainly an Özil lover, but seeing him in person and up close made me appreciate how good of a player he is on another level.

The first twenty-five minutes went by uneventfully. Arsenal seemed to be going through the motions, and Lyon somehow had the best chance. Alex Iwobi was impressive on the left flank, but he looked indecisive in the final third and afraid to shoot. Then, after Özil broke free and saw a shot blocked from close-range, things really got going. The first goal from Olivier Giroud was typical. A straight-forward set-piece ended up in the back of the net after Giroud missed the ball with his head, as his shoulder did the work instead, looping it into the top corner. Say what you want about the man, but he’s going to get his fifteen to twenty goals. I’m certainly not opposed to upgrading, but he’s pretty reliable when it comes down to it. Also, I’m glad I finally know na-na-na Giroud is sung to the tune of Hey Jude. It makes so much sense now.

Minutes later, a brilliantly worked counter-attack led by Aaron Ramsey and held up perfectly by Giroud saw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain sent through on goal. Blowing by defenders all game, the Ox calmly slotted the ball into the far corner with his right boot. The celebrations in our end hadn’t yet ended when but a minute later, Ramsey threaded a ball through to Iwobi, who powered it into the goal. Where most players had muted celebrations in this preseason friendly, Iwobi boosted the atmosphere with a jubilant slide in front of the corner flag. His teammates might give him a hard time, but that endeared him to me all right. Suddenly, the crowd was only interested in celebrating. Our Arsenal were back.

And before we could settle down, Özil set up another with a perfect ball into Ramsey’s path, with a deft flick off the outside of his foot nestling into the net. 4-0. I couldn’t have asked for more excitement on our end as the goals flooded in right in front of us. Arsene Wenger is going to have tough choices to make in the midfield all season. But one thing that is entirely clear is that Özil and Ramsey need to be on the field together. They seem to have a second-sense for where the other is going to be. And the Ox is going to have a special season if he stays healthy.

Once the action went to the other end and the substitutions came in droves, the game was a bit harder to follow, especially as the drunkards around us were all turned around trying to think of the next song to sing. My friend, a D-1 cross-country and track runner, was particularly interested in watching Per Mertesacker’s dinosaur-like movements. She had asked in the first half whether everybody out there could run a sub-5 mile, and I guessed yes with one exception. After watching him intently for a while, I don’t know if he could break 6. But none of that distracted from the magnificence of Özil, which continued with the fifth goal. And by the time Santi Cazorla cheekily went under the wall with his “weak” left foot for the sixth goal, we’d all come to the conclusion for the day that our team is a good one.

Of course, that assessment could change rather quickly. Next Sunday’s date with Chelsea looms as a potential bubble-burster for all the optimism, but for the moment, it’s quite nice dreaming of a title-winning side. I’d have more to say on personnel and their performances, but from where I was, it was hard to judge a player fully, though I suspect most would be rated quite highly.

Before the match, I ended up going with a gold Francis Coquelin jersey, much to the kit personalizer’s dismay. Somehow Coquelin isn’t on file in the Arsenal store yet – nor is Hector Bellerin – so the attendant had to carefully cut out and measure each letter individually before carefully placing them on the shirt and heat-pressing them on. Coquelin might seem an odd choice, but I am confident he will remain firmly in the side and I like that he wears Boston’s number of choice, 34. Plus I always like to be different with my favorite players and jerseys, and Coquelin certainly fits along with the middle relievers and second-unit Celtics I’ve adored. With Wilshere, Özil and Coquelin shirts now at my disposal, I should be ready for any match-day.

All in all, the return to the Emirates proved to be a grand celebration of what’s to come. If Özil can stay healthy, there is enough talent around him to make this team extremely competitive. It may just have been preseason, but 6-0 against a decent Lyon side is a statement of intent. The Gunners aren’t messing around this year.


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What I’m Watching at the Emirates Cup

Now back from a memorable five day trip to Scotland, I’m getting fully pumped up for the Arsenal season to start. Tomorrow will be the first of three straight weekends I’ll see the Gunners play before I head back to the states. While the Emirates Cup may only be a preseason match, that hasn’t tempered my excitement for my second ever trip to the Emirates. Getting to see Wolfsburg take on Villareal beforehand is a welcomed bonus for what should be a fun day. (Can we also note how weird the marketing for the event is this year? Those robot eyes are downright creepy.)

There’s been relatively little in the last few days about the squad for the tournament, so anything about who the team will be is merely guesswork at this point. The starting XI I’d like to see would be Cech, Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Wilshere, Ramsey, Özil, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott, but I suspect it’ll be a mixture of presumed starters and squad players. But given that this isn’t my only chance to see the team this summer, I’ll be happy with whoever is out there.

The depth across the board right now is truly ridiculous, as Arsene Wenger could field two legitimate XIs without having to dip into the academy. We could just as easily see Ospina, Debuchy, Gabriel, Chambers, Gibbs, Arteta, Flamini, Welbeck, Cazorla, Rosicky and Giroud. And that’s before factoring in the likes of Serge Gnabry, Gedion Zelalem and Chuba Akpom, who probably will feature in some role this weekend. I haven’t even mentioned Alexis Sanchez, who will be returning from his post-Copa America holiday at the start of August. That depth is a large reason why I’m so optimistic about the season right now.

While Manchester United and Liverpool have been throwing around the cash, Arsenal has quietly built a very strong squad around their marquee signings of the last few years. Liverpool and United both still have obvious holes in defense, but the Gunners squad has none. Even at forward and in the defensive midfield role, Arsenal have two or three legitimate options. I’m not saying Wenger couldn’t add an even better player in the coming month, but any other business in the transfer window would augment an already strong squad. Even Chelsea is looking a little thin in midfield right now.

As far as this weekend, it’ll be a vital last bit of a rushed preseason before the FA Community Shield next weekend, which while many call it a glorified friendly, I doubt Wenger will want to lose to Jose Mourinho again. He will have his team ready. So this weekend then offers the final chances to many to impress. The name being thrown around the media this week as needing a strong Emirates Cup is Chuba Akpom. While I agree, I don’t think he will start a game given how close we are to meaningful games. If he isn’t loaned out, he will be required consistently to make immediate impact off the bench if he wants to contribute. So perhaps bringing him on late would be better preparation. I just don’t see a scenario in which he is starting Premier League games this campaign.

For me, the player with the most to prove is Mathieu Debuchy. With Debuchy being Wally Pipp’d last year by Hector Bellerin, he never got a chance to show his worth. Everybody seems to want Bellerin back in the side straightaway given how much promise he showed, but I wouldn’t bet against the French international Debuchy. If he shows he’s the same player he was at Newcastle in the early going, the right-back spot might be his to lose. I think we’ll see a lot of rotation between the two of them this season, but it will ultimately come down to form. Making a good impression in the final preseason games wouldn’t hurt.

I’m also quite interested in how Wenger sets up the midfield. Will he push Jack Wilshere wide again? Will he pair him with Aaron Ramsey in the middle? Where will Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott start? These are all crucial questions in the buildup to the season. Remember that last year Wenger deployed Tomas Rosicky as a false-9 in the first preseason games, so I’m not convinced he’ll stick with Wilshere out wide. However, one of he or Ramsey needs to play wide if they hope to start, because I don’t see Santi Cazorla being dropped next to Francis Coquelin. And up front, I’d stick with the Ox out wide and give Walcott another few chances through the middle. Altogether, we’ll learn a lot about Wenger’s thinking this weekend.

On another note, I’m thinking about getting a new jersey tomorrow to mark seeing Arsenal play a few times in person. I’m not especially in love with either the home or away though, so I’m going to wait to see them in person to make that choice. The next choice of which player to get though is even tougher. With Walcott’s contract status up in the air and Alexis likely sitting the three games I’m attending, I am now picking between Coquelin, Ramsey, Bellerin, and the Ox. I was given an Özil shirt from last year, so he’s out of the equation for this one. I’d go with Coquelin, but I’m afraid he won’t stick with the number 34 for long. I used to say Ramsey was my favorite player but I’m not so sure anymore. He’d be the safe choice. However, I might still be leaning Coquelin’s way. I might have to flip a coin between those two. If you have any advice, put it in the comments.

Anyway, this is a great time to be in England. Away from the miserable Red Sox and still able to follow all the NBA drama, I’m in the heart of soccer country as the season gets going. And by the time I get back it’ll be nearly football season. I get more excited about Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks every day. It’s always this time every year where I start watching Youtube videos of great Razorback games and listening to the networks’ college football theme songs. For the record, I think putting the offensive line on the media guide is extremely cool.

I can’t believe the news about the three Arkansas basketball arrested for forgery. Beyond being stunned by the impact to the program, I’m astounded by the stupidity of their actions. The evidence sounds pretty convincing to me, so I suspect they won’t play for the Hogs again and will spend the next few years in prison. What a shame.

Lastly, to end on a happier note, I want to congratulate former Davidson basketball star Tyler Kalinoski on signing with Elan Chalon in France. I can’t say I know much about that team, but they’ve got themselves a real winner and a heck of a basketball player.

I hope to write again this weekend about my day at the Emirates Cup tomorrow. Thanks for reading.


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Day 2 of The Emirates Cup and Some Red Sox Thoughts

After a spectacular day at The Emirates Cup yesterday (see my recap here if you missed it), Arsenal are back at it today against Monaco. The unconventional scoring system of the two-day competition sees Arsenal in the lead by a large margin after the 5-1 rout of Benfica yesterday, so there might be a trophy (albeit not a real one) raised by the Gunners later today. With a real trophy up for grabs next weekend, another strong performance today could set the club up for a wonderful start to the 2014/2015 campaign.

This is essentially the last preseason game of the summer, and while we are all ready for the season to begin, I’m sure Arsene Wenger would have liked another game or at least a little more time with the late World Cup arrivals. The German contingent won’t see a single minute of preseason action, and Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny will only have today’s game. Many of the players look ready, but some are still a ways off fitness-wise.

Today’s match will be all about Alexis Sanchez, who will start and play the first half alongside Giroud up top. Given only a short time to form any sort of connection on the field, it will be pivotal that they learn how to play with one another quickly. The match will also be big for Jack Wilshere in the midfield, who will look to build on last week’s positive showing against the Red Bulls in his deeper role on the pitch.

It will also be the unofficial debut of Mathieu Debuchy at right back, who will have a hard time surpassing the performance of young Hector Bellerin yesterday. The defense in general has not looked particularly sound this preseason, but it’s hard to criticize when players are out of position and haven’t played with one another. Getting Koscielny and Debuchy on the same page today will be a start, but it will be down to work on the training ground once Per Mertesacker returns to get this defense ready to go.

The lineup I expect to see today at the start of the match is as follows: Wojciech Szczesny, Nacho Monreal, Laurent Koscielny, Ignasi Miquel, Mathieu Debuchy, Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud. There will be some cameos from players who started yesterday, and one of Monreal or Kieran Gibbs will start again at left back. I think it would only be fair to let Monreal play a game at his natural position, so I’d give him the nod. Expect Chuba Akpom to take over for Sanchez at the half.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to watch today’s match. With a spotty internet connection and only Spanish commentary to listen to, I think this is one I can miss. Had yesterday’s match not been so satisfying, I might have felt worse about missing it, but instead, I’ll be out on the links with my brother and a couple of his friends. I’ll have something to say after watching match highlights, but I won’t be able to do player ratings for this one. Best of luck to the team today.

Now to the Red Sox. For the first time in forever, I’ve been excited to turn on the games this series. While the team will be out of contention for the last two months, a mixture of new players and youth will make the Red Sox watchable the rest of the way. The lineup now contains players capable of getting hits, and while we might lose games 8-5, we’ll still score more runs than the team did when A.J. Pierzynski was batting sixth. At least this style of bad baseball will be more enjoyable. And an outfield with both Yoenis Cespedes and Jackie Bradley Jr. will be fun to watch every time out.

Allen Webster was on the mound yesterday and once again he failed to impress. In my eyes, he’s a poor man’s Daisuke Matsuzaka right now – a player who doesn’t want to challenge hitters in the strike zone. Webster has the stuff of a major league pitcher, but he looks like he’s afraid to throw strikes this year. The memories of throwing too many strikes and getting destroyed on the mound last year must be clear as day in his mind, because it’s evident that he’s shying away from contact. When a pitcher hasn’t established himself, pitches off the strike zone are always going to be called balls. The walks will quickly pile up like they did yesterday. Even if you don’t get hit hard, walking the bases loaded will lead to disaster more often than not.

I think Webster needs to try attacking hitters again at the major league level. He’s a better pitcher now than he was a year ago, and he can’t shy away from hitters any longer. If he wants to keep his spot in the starting rotation for the rest of the season, he’ll need to prove his stuff can translate to this level. Otherwise, Anthony Renaudo showed himself to be more than capable on Friday.

 

 

 

 


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A Magnificent Display From Arsenal – Player Ratings From the Emirates Cup

The pitch was perfect, the new Puma kits looked surprisingly good and Arsenal was back at home for the seventh installment of The Emirates Cup. While many in attendance would have been disappointed when they saw Alexis Sanchez wasn’t starting, they were treated to a dazzling offensive display from a host of others. It ended 5-1 to the Arsenal, but it could have been even more.

If the first half of today’s game against Benfica was any indication, this is going to be a really fun year. The starting lineup wasn’t your typical Arsenal side, but it was full of hadr-working, pacey players full of drive to get forward. Unlike many Arsenal teams from years past, they were ruthless in the final third as well. The flicks and turns were gorgeous all day, and they came from just about everyone on the pitch. It felt like someone was finding acres of space every minute.

Arsene Wenger will sleep very well tonight knowing how much offensive talent he has at his disposal this year. Yaya Sanogo and Joel Campbell showed themselves to be more than capable of contributing this year, and of course Aaron Ramsey was back at his best. Even young right back Hector Bellerin put on a show going forward.

The inexperienced defense still looks far from in mid-season form, and it’s worrying that there still aren’t enough center backs to form a true back four with only a week before meaningful games. But the makeshift defense held firm when it mattered for the most part, and they did magnificently when they joined in attack.

My internet connection was rather poor, so I thought I was going to miss the game, but at the last second, I got things working. And I was sure glad I did, as this display has made me giddy with optimism going into the season. Even though the commentary on the feed I was watching was in Spanish, the play on the field did all the talking I needed to hear.

Player Ratings (1-10)

Yaya Sanogo – 10/10 – Four goals in front of the home crowd before the 50th minute was exactly what Sanogo needed going into the season. All game, he showed off what a talent he can be, picking up the ball in deep areas, holding up play excellently, making pacey runs in behind and then cleverly finishing anything that fell his way. None of the goals were from any great distance, but few will care. What an amazing performance. Let’s hope we see a lot more of that wonderful celebratory dance.

Joel Campbell – 8.5/10 – Much like Sanogo, Campbell did exactly what he needed to do today, scoring a well taken volley and contributing all over the field. He did well in possession in his own half, and combined excellently with Bellerin and Ramsey throughout the match in the final third, looking to take on defenders with skill and pace. While he squibbed his two easiest shots, his composed volley into the back of the net showed everyone his quality. This performance should earn him a place in the squad going forward.

Tomas Rosicky – 7/10 – Playing a little deeper than he normally does, Rosicky picked out a number of wonderful passes. He wasn’t directly involved in many of the goals, but he did quite well on the day in an hour of action.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – 7/10 – In only a half of action, the Ox created a number of chances with a variety of passes in the final third. Whether releasing Sanogo on a long through ball, or delicately flicking the ball to Ramsey on the edge of the box, he showed how effective he is in possession.

Aaron Ramsey – 8.5/10 – Ramsey looks ready for the new season, picking up right where he left off. With clever turns and imaginative chips, Ramsey set up a couple of the goals, and easily could have assisted one or two more. He popped up everywhere on the pitch, and was always in the right position. It’s scary to think he could get even better this year.

Mathieu Flamini – 6.5/10 – Flamini covered the inexperienced defense behind him with aplomb in his hour on the field. He was comfortable on the ball and made a couple of key tackles. He is showing no signs of aging.

Kieran Gibbs – 6.5/10 – As always, Gibbs was a menace when he got forward, and he helped set up one of Sanogo’s goals. But defensively, Gibbs wasn’t at his best today, as he could have done better on the Benfica’s goal. He also lost possession cheaply in his own half once which could have proven costly.

Nacho Monreal – 5.5/10 – The left back filled in again at center back and looked very uncomfortable. Composure is a vital part of being a center back and Monreal had little of that in the early going. He left large spaces at the top of the box and was trying to do too much when he got on the ball. He improved as the match went on, but he is a long way from being Premeir League ready at the new position.

Calum Chambers – 6.5/10 – In his unofficial Arsenal debut, Chambers didn’t have too much to do defensively. His positioning was solid, and certainly compared to Monreal, he looked a natural at center back. He also played a couple of nice balls from the back, and seemed eager to bring the ball forward when he got the chance.

Hector Bellerin – 8/10 – Bellerin was magnificent going forward today, combining with the midfielders time after time to get into space down the right. He also had one sensational run through multiple defenders that showcased his skill on the ball. Defensively, he has a little ways to go, as he was caught napping on the goal, but he played a starring role in Arsenal’s offensive clinic today. The young Spaniard may have earned himself a place in the squad with this performance.

Damian Martinez – 7.5/10 – Martinez wasn’t able to keep a clean sheet, but overall, he had a good game between the post. He was called upon to make a couple of saves throughout the match, and he was up to the task. His shot-stopping has gotten a lot better in the last year or so.

Substitutes

Santi Cazorla – 7/10 – Cazorla showed off some skill in the final minutes, and in general looked quite good off the bench. He was all over the field and showed off his two-footedness with a wonderful left-footed corner that nearly resulted in a goal.

Jack Wilshere – 6/10 – Wilshere didn’t make much of an impact in his half an hour on the field, but I’m sure he will be ready to go tomorrow. It was notable though that he was used in a deeper role than Coquelin.

Mikel Arteta – 6/10 – Arteta was quiet in his half-hour cameo, but he looks ready for the season. Expect him in the lineup tomorrow.

Francis Coquelin – 7/10 – Playing a role higher up the field than he normally does, Coquelin put in his best display of the preseason. He was quick to the ball, and picked out a couple of nice passes. He was quite unlucky to hit the post in the final minutes.

Ignasi Miquel – 6.5/10 – Miquel did next to nothing defensively, but he hit the bar with a header off of a Cazorla corner late on. He and Koscielny will partner in defense tomorrow.

Chuba Akpom – 6.5/10 – The young striker was deployed on the right in a brief substitute appearance, but he still was able to showcase his pace by getting onto a couple of through balls.

Alexis Sanchez – 6.5/10 – Taking the field to thunderous applause late on, Sanchez’s appearance was more notable for where he played than how. That Wenger chose to play him in the central striker role instead of out wide could say a lot about the manager’s plans for the new signing. Sanchez was pretty quiet in his brief cameo, but it was wonderful to see him in action.