Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports


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Arsenal 2015 – What Could Have Been & FA Cup Team Selection

With the FA Cup Final looming, Arsenal gave its fans the perfect Premier League sendoff in the 4-1 drubbing of West Brom. This looked like a title-winning side, perhaps with the exception of David Ospina, who looked particularly skittish in goal. The fluidity among Mesut Özil, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and Alexis Sanchez was what we dreamed about all summer. They had smiles on their faces as they knocked the ball across the pitch with alacrity not common in the EPL. But there was a certain sadness to the beauty of Sunday’s match. For this team never fought for the title and finished appropriately 12 points back.

This season was lost right when it began. Three successive draws to Everton, Leicester City and Manchester City spelled doom for the Gunners. A lot of that was down to injury and players coming back late from the World Cup, but ultimately, the blame must fall on the players for not performing. Per Mertesacker, Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey’s early season struggles have been forgotten, but those three were among many who did not play up to the expected level in the early going.

The defense was horrible for much of the first half of the season. No game stands out more than the 3-2 defeat to Stoke in early December when Arsenal made Bojan Krkic look like Lionel Messi. Defensive lapses were paramount and the team could never quite make up for them. That game could act as a metaphor for the season. Down 3-0 in the first half because of disorganization in defense, Arsenal made a comeback. But like against Monaco and like in the season as a whole, they could not make it all the way back.

One area that must improve next year is the team’s mental fortitude. Far too often, Arsenal let the other team grab multiple goals from spurts of momentum. Think about the end of the first Monaco match. 2-1 would have been surmountable, but carelessness made it 3-1 and suddenly, the hole was too deep. Or against Anderlecht. Arsenal must to a better job of stopping the bleeding. Every team will get punched in the mouth. But the champions don’t allow one hit to derail them completely.

I’m not saying this season was a failure. In fact, I think it was probably the team’s most promising in years. But what it frustrating is knowing what could have been had they lived up to their potential. What if Yaya Sanogo wasn’t playing so much in the opening weeks? What if Mesut Özil and Jack Wilshere stayed healthy? What if the defense wasn’t so paper thin in the early going? The what if’s abound.

After the FA Cup, I will give the squad members grades for the season and assess what can be done to improve next year. For surely, Arsene Wenger will know the time is now to challenge for the title. The squad is young and full of talent. A full season of strong play must be put together.

But before completely turning the page to next year, the focus must be on the FA Cup, which will hold massive importance for the morale of the team and the fan base. A loss to Aston Villa would be embarrassing. Let’s avoid that at all costs.

The question I want to address today is team selection. A week ago, the first team in a game of this magnitude would have seemed pretty obvious, especially given that Wenger played the same starting 11 for much of the run-in. However, dazzling displays from Theo Walcott and Wilshere on Sunday demanded attention. Those two by all means merit a spot in the team. But starting them would involve massive risk.

I don’t think I want to start Wilshere. He could come in for Santi Cazorla or Aaron Ramsey, but that would be incredibly harsh on those two, who aren’t in bad form. While Jack’s been great in recent weeks, I worry that he hasn’t played enough with Francis Coquelin to be able to do the necessary defensive duties in the middle of the park. I’d be more okay with him playing on the right, but everyone knows that isn’t his best position. The last thing I’d want to see is him starting in place of Coquelin. That could be a disaster. I say bring him on after 65 minutes for one of those three depending on the score. Even in just 25 minutes, he could be impactful.

However, I am leaning towards favoring Walcott over Olivier Giroud up top. Giroud has been in poor form the last month and his confidence has suffered, plus he has been especially predictable in his movement. Sure it’s valuable to have his physicality and hold-up play, but with Aston Villa likely to employ a counter-attacking philosophy, I think Arsenal will do much of the building through the midfield, thus negating his importance. Walcott offers something different. Something that Villa haven’t seen much of this year. Özil and Cazorla found him on runs that opened everything up on Sunday. There won’t be much space, but Arsenal has the talent in midfield to find him anyway. Starting the slighter Walcott would be a gamble given how few games he’s played up top, but it’s one worth taking.

Regardless, this duo will see plenty of the field, even if they start on the bench. They can play the roles of Tomas Rosicky and Yaya Sanogo, who changed the final a year ago with their energetic appearances.

The other two decisions involve goalkeeper and left back. Last year, I was in the camp that wanted Wojciech Szczesny to start given his form, but this year I think Wenger should go with the Pole because of his policy to start the #2 in Cup games. David Ospina simply hasn’t been good enough to merit a change. However, seeing that Szczesny didn’t start on Sunday like Lukasz Fabianski did a year ago, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ospina in net. Wenger is sending quite a message against smoking. And at left-back, Nacho Monreal better start. He’s been so consistent all year. While Kieran Gibbs has seen the field recently, it would be foolish to overlook the Spaniard.

Perhaps most interesting of all will be seeing who makes the bench. For somebody like Rosicky, being omitted from the squad could be especially insulting, even with a new contract. It will likely come down to him or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. I’d give the nod to the veteran Rosicky. The Ox didn’t look himself on Sunday, and Wilshere could offer the type of game-changing drive that the Ox normally does.

Here are my ideal lineup choices. Starters: Szczesny, Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Cazorla, Ramsey, Özil, Sanchez & Walcott. Bench: Ospina, Gabriel, Gibbs, Flamini, Rosicky, Wilshere & Giroud

 


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A Deserved Draw – Player Ratings from Arsenal-Sunderland

Aside from a profile I did on a Davidson swimmer last month, the last time I did non-academic writing was in early April. And it’s been even longer since I’ve written about Arsenal. The last time I wrote about the Gunners, Deflategate was just beginning. It was nine days before the Super Bowl. I’ve been watching most games, but haven’t had the time to write. But thankfully, summer has arrived. And with the domain name renewed for another year, I’m back at the keyboard.

I will save more general thoughts on the Arsenal season for the coming weeks, so today’s post will focus on today’s match against Sunderland. The 0-0 draw was a little dull, but deserved I felt. Arsenal lacked the level of play in midfield necessary to break the composed Sunderland defense down, and the finishing was rather poor.

The color commentator was complaining for much of the game that Arsenal weren’t penetrating enough and that they were out of ideas. I think that’s the easy way out when talking about Arsenal. What I saw was not a lack of ingenuity but rather a series of lapses on the critical touch. The players were making runs and getting in good positions, but either the return balls on the one-twos were slightly overhit, or touches were being spilled into Sunderland’s paths.

I really wish Arsene Wenger had used this occasion to rotate the squad and rest some of the key players. The way Sunderland was set up, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott could have done the job from the start. Their introductions ingested energy that the Gunners didn’t have. I’m glad he rested Francis Coquelin and Nacho Monreal, but Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla look a bit weary these days. The players are in that awkward stage where they want to avoid injury at all cost before the FA Cup yet don’t want to lose their place, so they keep things safe. And I think that’s why we’re seeing these languid displays.

Of the bottom end teams, I’ve always had the slightest admiration for the way Sunderland goes about their play at the end of every campaign. They might lack talent, but they fight together and get results. So despite my frustration with another lackluster draw, I’m happy for Sunderland. Let’s hope Newcastle goes down.

Player Ratings (1-10)

Olivier Giroud – 6.5/10 – Once again, Giroud failed to find the back of the net. He didn’t have a bad game, with some decent play in the box and a cheeky flick at the near post that demanded a smart save. But he needs goals. This series of lukewarm displays to finish the season surely won’t assure anybody that Arsenal don’t need a more prolific striker.

Alexis Sanchez – 5.5/10 – Sanchez is clearly worn down from all the games he’s played over the last 20 or so months. He isn’t moving with quite the same freedom and volition that he was months ago. And when presented with chances in front of goal, he’s hesitating and getting his shots blocked. A nice summer vacation will do him a lot of good.

Mesut Özil – 7/10 – Özil continues to wow me with how fluid he has become this year, both in his movement and his passing. Every pass looks safe not necessarily because it are easy, but because he creates passing the lanes. He had the ideas today, and on another day might have had a goal and an assist to show for it. If only that volley had fallen on his left foot instead of his right. It was good to see the home fans applaud him as he came off the pitch late.

Jack Wilshere – 6/10 – While we are beaten over the head with information such as that he hasn’t completed 90 minutes but once in the last 15 months, there is an element of truth in the fact that we can’t expect perfect performances until he sees more time on the pitch. So in that regard, getting the start today was valuable. But as far as gameplay, the ideas and drive are there but his touch is not. One particular instance in the first half said it all, as his first touch went straight at the keeper when he was in acres of space.

Aaron Ramsey – 6/10 – Ramsey was around the ball a lot and heavily involved, but he wasn’t at his best. I wonder if he couldn’t have gotten to any of those rebounds late on had his positioning been better. He does a lot of things well, but in games like this he can be frustrating.

Santi Cazorla – 6/10 – Pressed deeper today and in a more defensive role, Cazorla was solid, if unspectacular. The normally buzzing midfielder looks exhausted, and I hope he will be rested this weekend so he can be full of energy at Wembley. As he hit another low, long-range shot in the first half, it occurred to me that he isn’t hitting the stinging drives like he did in years past. And in the 89th minute, when he had a chance to hit one from the top of the box, he took a touch and the chance was gone.

Kieran Gibbs – 6.5/10 – Having spent just about all of the second half of the season on the bench, the rust was evident in a rare start for the fullback, especially when he wound up to shoot. However, the instincts are still there, and he was able to get forward down the left. And defensively, he had some timely interceptions.

Laurent Koscielny – 7.5/10 – Koscielny had little to do, but he managed a number of interceptions near the center of the pitch which kept possession for his side and halted counters.

Per Mertesacker – 7/10 – Mertesacker was assured in the air, but got found out by Fletcher’s pace on the counter attack early in the second half. However, he limited damage the rest of the way.

Hector Bellerin – 8/10 – Bellerin is a joy to watch. He made defenders look silly in the final third and clearly offered something different from the rest of his teammates. And his speed enabled him to get back on defense even after giveaways. His crossing is not quite at Bacary Sagna level, but it’s improved from where it was in the fall.

David Ospina – 7.5/10 – Ospina was untroubled in the first half but made two superb saves early in the second. The first was particularly impressive as he came out of his goal assuredly and met Fletcher at the top of the box. For me, this was one of his better games.

Substitutes

Theo Walcott (67th) – 7.5/10 – I’ve been down on Theo recently, but today he began to show the polish that has been lacking since his return from injury. He was more confident on the ball, and was woefully unlucky not to get a goal late on when he beat his defender and hit a wonderful shot across goal that Pantilimon got a hand to. Sunday’s Premier League finale would seem a great time to give Walcott a start.

Tomas Rosicky (81st) – 7/10 – He nearly won it with a left footed shot that went just wide, and got in a number of good positions in only ten minutes of action. It was the type of display that questioned why he hasn’t been playing recently given the lack of energy and drive in the midfield.


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State of Arsenal Heading Into the Festive Period

It feels like it’s been an awful long time since I’ve written anything about Arsenal. But that definitely hasn’t been because of a lack of things to write about. This season has produced intriguing match after intriguing match. And as Ian Darke would say, more than a million talking points. But by now, so many things have been written about Arsene Wenger or about the defensive frailties that nothing new can really be said. So I’ll steer clear of that for now.

There have been times this season – more than I’d care to admit – when I’ve been completely fed up with the Gunners. I’ve turned off games and I’ve stopped reading my usual slew of British tabloids to stay away from all the terrible aspects of what’s happened this season. I don’t need Michael Owen to tell me that Arsenal don’t look like a Top 4 side. I have eyes.

So considering the way Arsenal invited Liverpool on to score the late tying goal on Sunday, it might come off as odd for me to say this. But I’m really not all that worried about the season anymore. I’d even go so far as to say I’m cautiously optimistic heading into the festive period of games.

That optimism starts with the steady betterment of all of Arsenal’s ailing stars. Olivier Giroud is back and firing. The same goes for Mathieu Debuchy. Theo Walcott might be in the starting eleven on Boxing Day. Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny shouldn’t be out long. And most importantly, Mesut Özil will be back in training in no time.

There’s no way to get around the fact that Arsenal have been unproportionately hit by injuries this year. While there should have been more cover in certain areas, the simple fact of the matter is that Arsenal will be better off when these players return. Yes, Arsene Wenger messed up by not signing another defender in the summer, but that will soon be in the past.

Come January 1, the transfer market reopens and I think Wenger will be eager to open his checkbook for reinforcements. He more than anybody knows how weak Arsenal’s defensive spine is, and I’m confident he’ll spend. I don’t think he’ll bring in a superstar, but he doesn’t need to right now for Arsenal to succeed.

We’ve seen that we can’t rely on Mikel Arteta to be healthy at this stage in his career, and while Wenger might be slightly naïve in thinking Arteta is a strong enough defensive midfielder, he surely knows Mathieu Flamini must be no more than a squad player at this point in his career. Surely, he’ll buy in this area, as he won’t want to start Flamini for any prolonged period. And I think it’s a safe bet he’ll bring in another defender too.

But it isn’t just outside reinforcements that can be difference maker. I still think there is a lot of untapped potential in this side. I really want to see Lukas Podolski given a start in the next three games to see if he can start firing. Younger players like Joel Campbell and Francis Coquelin really haven’t been given a chance either, and I believe they might be more ready for primetime than Wenger thinks. Remember too that Tomas Rosicky has only played a bit part in this campaign. In recent years, he’s been Wenger’s go-to guy in the second half of the season and I don’t expect that to change.

Over the festive period, with four games crunched between now and early January, Wenger will have to rotate his team. I think that’ll ultimately be a good thing, as it will help other players like these ones find a rhythm. Arsenal can’t afford to drop too many points now, but the fixture list is relatively kind over the next couple weeks. Now is a time to begin making ground on the top four. I think Arsenal’s aim should be 10 points over the next four games, as ambitious as that sounds.

When the injuries piled up in September and October, it was always going to be a struggle to get through December. But we’re almost there. Things may not be perfect by any means, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Finishing in the top four is still realistic. And best of all, Monaco looms in the Champions League. Wouldn’t a trip to the quarterfinals or semifinals bring a nice surge of positivity to the Emirates?

As I’ve discussed with many of my fellow Arsenal fans, it’s been a rough few months to be an Arsenal fan. Aside from the brilliance of Alexis Sanchez and perhaps the emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamerlain as a reliable midfielder, there hasn’t been much worth writing home about. In fact, I’d like to forget most of it. I really don’t care for watching Cesc Fabregas celebrate with Jose Mourinho, and the image of Bojan Krkic running right through Arsenal’s defense still haunts me in my sleep.

Maybe it’s the Christmas season that’s caused me to lose my recent dose of cynicism. But I’m genuinely looking forward to watching Arsenal play in the coming weeks. To see so many old faces return from injury. To see some new defensive-minded players arrive. To see players like Rosicky being given a chance. I think 2015 will be an exciting time to be a Gooner.

A Merry Christmas to everyone, and let’s celebrate Boxing Day with a victory.

 


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Finally a Win for The Arsenal

Arsenal won 1-0 at The Hawthorns today, beating West Brom on a majestic Danny Welbeck header that came midway through the second half. While beating West Brom should never be a massive cause of celebration, it sure comes as a relief for Arsenal, who hadn’t won a Premier League game since the first day of the month.

In many ways, this was the typical Arsenal game of the current campaign. Arsenal dominated the first half, but hardly managed to get the ball anywhere near Ben Foster in net. The goal came, but soon after, Wenger’s men sat back unable to get a second, and nervily watched as the opponent took siege on the goal. The only difference this time was that Saido Berahino hit the bar, whereas most opponents have been scoring the tying goals.

But why am I complaining? Arsenal are back to their winning ways and have now won a couple in a row. A win against in-form Southampton on Wednesday would give the Gunners a wonderful boost of momentum heading into the holidays. It doesn’t seem far fetched for this team to be comfortably back on firm ground in a few weeks.

Today’s offensive stars were Santi Cazorla and Danny Welbeck, who combined wonderfully for the lone goal. The two had combined well on a few occasions in the first half, with Welbeck enjoying a little more freedom in his role on the left today. Saying he played on the left would be a misnomer though, as he was operating all across the front. Instead of pouting about Olivier Giroud starting up top, Welbeck put in a terrific shift and showed his quality.

Cazorla has been struggling this year, especially in front of goal. You can see that every time he hits a shot straight at the keeper, or when a defender dives in the way of his shots, his head falls in resignation. For a typically fun-loving little player, he looks noticeably downcast this year. Before his assist, he’d had three or four of those moments when it seemed like he couldn’t buy a goal. But to his credit, he did all the other work in midfield, and he was rewarded with an assist through a driving run down the left and a beautiful little chip. Hopefully that will get him going.

Defensively, Per Mertesacker had his best game of the season. A lot of that had to do with Laurent Koscielny returning to the lineup beside him, as Mertesacker appeared more confident. With Koscielny to cover him, he can take more risks on reading passes, which is his strength as a defender.

I’m still not sold on Calum Chambers. People talk about how he has fit into the side seamlessly, but he routinely gets beat, both on the flank and in the air. He doesn’t venture forward that often, yet at least once or twice a game, he gets caught way too far up field. I miss Bacary Sagna because I could trust him completely. Chambers on the other hand is a constant source of worry.

My other dose of criticism for today is for Aaron Ramsey. The bush has already been beaten about how he is nowhere near the player he was a year ago, that he is trying too hard for goals. But what annoys me is the selfishness of his game right now. For every touch he takes in the box, he has to have a shot, regardless of what’s happening around him. Some of them are good shots, like the one he pulled just wide. But some of them are awful. Think about the volley he tried to hit from a lofted pass over his head, or about the shot he took on the rebound with a bunch of bodies around him when he had a teammate in space to his right. He needs to stop wanting to score so much, and just play. The goals will come when he focuses on being in the right spots and making the right decisions.

I hope Tomas Rosicky gets a chance to start in midweek, if only to provide a bit of squad rotation while the fixture list ramps up. Arsene Wenger will have to be more proactive about resting players if he wants to avoid muscle injuries in the next month. He can’t stop the contact injuries like Jack Wilshere’s, but he can prevent others with squad rotation.

This afternoon, I’m getting a chance to see Thierry Henry play in what could be the final game of his illustrious career. While I’ll be rooting for my hometown Revolution in the MLS Eastern Conference Finals, I will relish this opportunity to see Henry play. I don’t know what to expect from the King today on the artificial turf, but I’m eager to pay my respects to the ultimate Gooner. With the Revs up 2-1 on aggregate, I predict another 2-1 win, with the goals coming as the Red Bulls push forward for the second away goal. Go Revs!


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Arsenal Player Ratings vs. Burnley

As I predicted yesterday, Arsene Wenger’s team selection wasn’t what I wanted. Two defensive midfielders at home against the worst team in the league? Really? So the game went about as I expected. It could have been easy had they done things differently, but they attacked the same way as always and thus had the same problems. Who would have guessed?

But in the end, the 3-0 scoreline suited Arsenal. Burnley did themselves well, and fought valiantly to keep it scoreless. 70 minutes of nerves and anguish for Arsenal turned into an absolute party in the end though. The final 20 minutes were a joy to watch, reminding me how frustrating the rest of the season has been. That is how most home games should be. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come.

Player Ratings (1-10)

Danny Welbeck – 6.5/10 – Welbeck always puts in a fantastic shift defensively. Today, there was one instance where he tracked back all the way to the corner flag to make a tackle. But offensively, he was not on the same page with the midfielders today. In a game like this, where the defense will sit behind the ball, I don’t think Welbeck is the man for the job.

Alexis Sanchez – 9.5/10 – Sanchez is a joy to watch. From the opening whistle, it was clear Sanchez was on his game. He was everywhere. He was the only one creating chances in the first half and was unlucky not to score. But he was clinical in the second half and thoroughly deserved his brace. For me, this was his best game in an Arsenal shirt and that is saying a lot.

Santi Cazorla – 6.5/10 – Cazorla is pressing for goals horribly now and it is affecting his play in other areas. He had a bunch of attempts near goal today and somehow managed not to score. He needs to stop worrying about breaking his goal drought and go back to providing for other players. Goals will come. I would drop him after this performance.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – 7.5/10 – The Ox was lively going forward all day. His runs didn’t amount to much, but he was always getting in good positions that should have amounted to more had Arsenal been getting more men into the box. I’m not convinced about his corners, but for the most part, Oxlade-Chamberlain is having a good year.

Mathieu Flamini – 7/10 – Flamini does things. He does a lot of good things. And he does a lot of bad things. He is certainly not inconspicuous on the pitch. Today, he made a bunch of tackles and got forward more than Arteta. He tracked back well and made a couple of key tackles.

Mikel Arteta – 6.5/10 – Arsenal had no need for Arteta today. Where Flamini was noticeable, Arteta was not. I honestly can’t remember him doing much other than a poorly hit left-footed shot. Playing Flamini and Arteta together might be important sometimes, but it certainly should not have happened against Burnley.

Kieran Gibbs – 7.5/10 – In somewhat of a surprise start given his hip injury, Gibbs once again looked good. He is quickly becoming Arsenal’s most reliable defender and he’s getting forward with vigor. His assist on the last goal was lovely.

Nacho Monreal – 7/10 – Monreal had very little to do, but Arsenal kept a clean sheet, so a center back has to get some credit. Burnley didn’t have a physical presence up front, so Monreal wasn’t as troubled as he has been out of his position. Please, though, start Bellerin.

Per Mertesacker – 7.5/10 – Mertesacker played well today. He didn’t have a whole lot to do, but when he was needed, he made the plays. I think this game was a step forward for the big German, who’s been poor this year.

Calum Chambers – 8/10 – Chambers seemed to lack the understanding of what to do in the final third in the first half – getting in good areas before giving the ball away or getting in someone else’s way – but in the second half, he turned it on. In the end, his assist and goal in a three minute span gave Arsenal the win. Congratulations are in order for his first goal.

Wojciech Szczesny – 7/10 – Szczesny may have gotten the clean sheet, but he made a lot of strange decisions today. A couple times he came out too far and were it not for a poor touch by a Burnley player, he would have looked foolish. He’ll need to be sharper going forward.

Subsititutes

Aaron Ramsey (63rd) – 7/10 – Ramsey made a difference. He may have given away the ball the first time he touched it, but it was his desire to push forward that got things going for Arsenal. Putting him in for Arteta was the right move. I would expect Ramsey to get the start in midweek.

Lukas Podolski (80th) – 8/10 – I know Podolski only played 10 minutes, but I’m giving him such a high grade because he single-handedly turned that game into the most fun one all year. He came on and nearly scored twice with two absurdly hard-hit volleys – one that hit the framework and another that was saved spectacularly. This performance demands attention. Podolski needs to start soon.

Theo Walcott (80th) – N/A – Wow it’s nice to see Walcott back. He looked pretty good in limited action I thought. I’m expecting big things from him this season. It may take a little while for him to get back to his old ways, but he’ll get there.

What’d you think of the match? Please comment below.