Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Arsenal 1 Everton 1 -- Ugh!

Arsenal might feel happy with a point after being outplayed by Everton most of the night, but chances were there to steal all three and we didn't take them. Last season, the club won a number of games late on, maybe none more important than the final goal to win at West Brom and secure third place. This term, draws have become the norm, and it sees us falling further and further behind in the race for the title (already gone) and even fourth pace. We certainly started brightly, with a nice run by Walcott, pass to Ramsey and then shuffle leading Walcott to his tenth goal in all competitions this term -- made more impressive because he has rarely started. He was the best offensive player on the pitch for Arsenal all night, and though he disappeared for much of the second half, losing him will make our attack even more anemic. First to player grades, and then a few takeaways from the game ...

Player Grades

Szczesny (8): while he might have gotten on to the equalizer, I think he was blocked and thus got a late jump. Otherwise he was solid throughout and had a number of decent saves, including one reaction to a header hand that saved the point. Late on he made a half-hearted clearance, but it came to naught. 

Sagna (6): if Sagna hadn't given the ball away that led to the equalizer, it would have been a decent night against arguably the best left back in the league right now (Baines). But he did, and also was sloppy a few other times with the ball, breaking up good possession. He did have some nice interceptions and blocks, but couldn't seem to get a cross past Baines, who blocked every single one of them. 

Mertesacker (8): continues to be our most solid defender this year. Many criticized his play last term, including me, but his lack of pace doesn't seem to be hurting Arsenal much as he gets in front of defenders, launches defensive headers out of the box and rarely shoots out a bad pass. 

Vermaelen (6.5): a better game from our captain, but I think he could have gotten out faster to block, or at least challenge, Fellaini's shot. But had a number of important defensive stops and challenges. One issue is his forward passes, which were too long on at least three occasions I counted. Either play like Mertesacker and get it to the middle, or improve your touch. 

Gibbs (6): a decent game that included a few decent crosses, but nothing spectacular. He was solid defensively and had one key tackle. 

Arteta (6.5): played decent in getting in front of Fellaini on occasion and pushing the ball out from the back, but it is clear that he is being wasted in the defensive midfield position he is currently playing. He had some nice tackles and interceptions, as I said, but gave up the ball several times and didn't really have the sort of passing acuity that drives the team forward.

Wilshire (6.5): Wilshire gave the ball away on several occasions, but played well from the middle and had a few nice creative moves, though none came off. Still improving but needs to try to get the ball to Giroud more often.

Cazorla (6): while he created a few decent pushes forward, Cazora continues in a minor slump, giving the ball away on the dribble, missing passes and not looking quite as sharp around the box. Also created a shot for himself, which he sent far wide and got a flick on a Ramsey soft pass that  almost snuck past Howard. 

Ramsey (5): many will say this is too harsh, particularly as he had an assist early on, but he is the blockade in the Arsenal attack at the moment -- in other words, the 12th man for the other team. I watched him carefully today, as some Gooners continue to think he's a decent player, but it just wasn't good enough. Yes he played slightly better for a spell in the second half and had a couple of good runs down the left, but both were blocked for corners. He also did get in a cross and almost assisted a Cazorla goal, but I thought he was otherwise horrible. In total, I count him giving the ball away 8 times, but he also held up attacks on at least three other occasions. He just doesn't do enough for me and even as he has a good shot, he rarely hits them on target. I truly believe we are a better team without him and would like to see him go on loan and bring in someone else. I even prefer Coquelin to him.

Walcott (8): Walcott is clearly our most confident player at the moment and has really turned his game around this year (forgoing the awful performance against united). He scored the early goal, pushed us forward on many occasions, sent in some good crosses and has improved his touch and toughness to maintain possession when challenged. If we let him go, as seems increasingly likely, I think it is the beginning of the end of the Wenger era. We simply lack too much talent and creativity to challenge for titles and silverware at the moment and with a drop in form from Giroud and Cazorla the past couple of games, we see that there are no real alternatives. 

Giroud (5): disappointing game for the big man, who had trouble controlling the ball when it came to him in the air and tended to send headers he did win to Everton players. He needs to learn to keep the ball close like Fellaini and Carroll do out of the air and head back toward his own players rather than taking a chance someone will happen to be clear behind him. His pass to Gervinho near the end could have won us three important points, but he inexplicably sent it in the air rather than on the ground and it was a touch too high for the Ivorian to head into an open goal. Very disappointing, but must say that he was not given any clear chances by the other players.


Kos-->Gibbs (3rd Minute): this sub was so early that I just counted Gibbs as the starter. I just hope the injury to Kos is not too serious.
Gervinho-->Ramsey (79): too short a stint for a score to me, but had two nice runs down the left and might have scored the winner late with a better pass from Giroud, who put it to high in the air when it would have been much easier to just slot it across on the ground. I don't understand why he didn't sub in for a substandard Ramsey early.

Takeaways from Game

1. Wenger's Time Might Be Coming to an End: Wenger might well be the greatest Arsenal coach in the long history of Arsenal, advancing the game and pushing us away from the boring-old Arsenal tag, but his decisions over the past few seasons have sent this team from a first leg lead against Barcelona to pure mediocrity. I know it's not all his fault, but the well-worn critiques are there for everyone to see: a) he can't keep his best players (Fabergas, Van Persie, Clichy, Song, and maybe soon Sagna and Walcott), b) he rarely changes tactics these days and this often leads to stale performances, c) there is not sufficient squad depth, partially because we pay dead weight like Chamakh, Squillaci, Park (last year), etc. too much money, d) questionable performance in the transfer market (we might have had a shot at Hazard last year if not for the Park scalp), e) Staying with average players for too long (Eboue, Chamakh, Denilson and now Ramsey), f) he doesn't seem to motivate his players like he used to. Don't get me wrong -- I love Arsene and want him to win. But his stubbornness has seen a team that challenged for titles and silverware every year become satisfied with fourth place and a champions league birth (itself a challenge this year). If you look at Fergie or Moyes, you have coaches that seem to push their teams to win games on will alone. This is rarely the case with the Gunners, who more often give back leads (the Champions League final still stings) or fail to finish games off. The winter transfer window will probably be the most important of Wenger's Arsenal career, and if he comes up short in bringing in a few players, I think it's time to reevaluate his future.

2. We Need More Options Up Front: before today, Arsenal had scored more goals than at this point last year, but sit much further down the table with fewer points. The big problem is no one on the squad is a proven scorer we can turn to late for some magic. Walcott has certainly come good, but I am still unconvinced of him playing up front, unless it is in a 4-4-2 (which could work) -- and it is quite likely he is heading out the door. Giroud is a strong player who will only get better, but he needs better service and to firm up his first touch. Beyond this, who is there? Podolski could slot into the middle, but Wenger seems to like him on the left. I would like to see how he does there, but then what do we do with Giroud and who plays left winger? Gervinho seems a little better to me this year, but I am again unconvinced of him up front, particularly with the new Arsenal tendency to send balls to the striker in the air. Mirallas would have been a good signing, but he probably made the smart choice for more playing time at Everton. Rumors have us in for Lopez, Llorente and Huntelaar. I think we really need to splash the cash and get another quality striker. I also think we need another winger, particularly if Walcott is not going to sign a new contract.

3. Ramsey Needs to Be Loaned Out: I'm not ready to give up on Aaron, as I like the player, but he is simply not good enough at the moment. Some people point to the stats and say he is the engine of the attack (against West Ham), but we didn't score, people! It's an idiotic argument. He just has a tendency to  take too long on the ball, to pass backwards, to dribble in and lose the ball or to try a too tight pass into the box. A loan spell could increase his confidence, but right now I really do believe he is hurting the team (even as he did have an assist and created a couple of other chances today).

4. Motivation/Consistency: watching the team after the goal and in the waning minutes of the match, I saw a real lack of belief. We simply lack the confidence and fortitude to see out games when we are ahead, or come back when we are behind. In the last month or so, we have ceded two goal leads twice and the one goal lead today. Something is just not right with this club and it seems that it is the manager's job to motivate his players and give them the belief they can win. That just isn't happening at the moment and Arsenal give up the ball as much as Stoke at the moment. There is still talent and creativity on this team, but we need more discipline, cooler heads and better creativity in the final third. If one had said at the beginning of the season that we would have four clean sheets by now, I would think we were in the title race -- but instead we have ended three of those games in 0-0 ties. It's simply not good enough and a sign that change must come sooner rather than later.

5. The future: I think Arsenal are on the cusp of becoming Liverpool rivals (in other words, a mid-table team). We now have money to spend and could build on some of the talent we currently have, but will Wenger do this? He still claims he wants to build teams from the youth ranks up -- but this just isn't working, as they move on to better things the moment they become stars (Nasri, RVP, Fabergas, Song, maybe Walcott, etc.). These players have their true break out year and then they are gone. Wenger needs to splash some cash on quality players now and hope that they gel into the system quickly. What do we need? I think it is quite obvious: a) we need a solid defensive midfielder, so Arteta can play farther up the pitch (we do miss Song). b) a backup striker that is world class (Huntelaar, Llorente, or someone else). c) a creative winger/midfielder to replace Ramsey and/or Walcott (Zaha is obviously the first choice there). We could also use another left back, though that probably won't happen in the winter. We supposedly have 30 million to spend in January and need to do so. Let's hope Wenger agrees.

To finish on a slightly more positive note, the one piece of good news for the Gunners is a string of fixtures we could win (though who knows with this team --> overall record this year in all competitions: W 10 D 7 L 4). They include: Swansea City and West Brom at home (the latter an almost must-win), Reading and Wigan on the road and then West Ham and Newcastle at home. These are six winnable fixtures to end the year and we really need at least 12 points to move up the table. We also have a very winnable away match to Olympiakos (to give us a shot at topping the group) and quarterfinal away Capital one match at Bristol City. It is time for us to assert ourselves and start winning matches! Let's hope we do.               

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Suppressing the Vote

Former Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer has renewed charges that state party members engineered a new law to suppress voter turnout, falsely touting voter fraud concerns to advance their mission. Now, other former Republicans and consultants are backing Greer up, The Palm Beach Post reports. It is just the latest chapter in a saga that has been going on for years, ramped up after Obama's landslide victory in 2008. The pressure will only amplify in the coming years as the GOP struggles to remain viable with their huge losses among not only African Americans but Latinos and Asians as well. From the attempt to reestablish a poll tax in Georgia and the infamous disenfranchisement of 30,000 black voters in Florida in 2000 to the efforts to eliminate early voting, under-invest in voting equipment in inner cities and voter-ID requirements, the GOP has been engaged in a long-running attempt to undermine the ability of minority voters to cast their vote.

While it is understandable given the fading effectiveness of their Reagan strategy -- essentially playing on white male frustration with affirmative action, feminism and new immigrants -- the new reality is one in which minorities, gays and women are moving dramatically to the Democratic side. However many of them have been there for a while, the difference now is that they are a growing proportion of the overall population. In fact, Asians are currently growing at a more rapid rate than Latinos, with the recent exodus of over a million back to Mexico. Latinos are still the biggest "minority" in America, and the future of American politics resides in the ability to attract these voters. But Asians are also an important constituency and while Republicans presumed their relative wealth, family values and conservative stance would make them ripe for the picking, it turns out that they still align themselves with the more progressive side of the two-party system. 

How can the GOP win them back and start to attract more young voters who are more open to gay marriage, diversity and even the role government can play in improving our lives? There are only two answers. One is to convince them that government is the problem, not the solution. But after 30 years of increasing wage inequality, growing unemployment and less opportunity, this is not as easy to accomplish as it was in the less-than-halycon days of the second oil embargo and stagflation. The other is to hope that enough of them don't vote. And it is not surprising that the cynical party has decided the latter is the more effective strategy. Clearly it didn't work this time around and one wonders if the party will actually do the soul-searching that some advocated after the disappointing election results. While some are even thinking of breaking ranks and supporting a tax increase, the early signs from the talking heads are less than sanguine. This could be good news for democrats, who may just be heading for a new long-term majority that could control American politics for decades. The more important question in a broader sense is whether anyone should support a party that doesn't want to give everyone the right to vote.  

Monday, November 26, 2012

Movie Review: Branded (2012)

Occasionally a parable comes along to challenge the world we live in. While many films offer critiques of the corruption of corporations or governments, it is often a Manichean world of absolute good and evil, with the former generally winning out in the end. Branded provides a more ambitious, and ultimately more disappointing attempt to critique the very fabric of our society -- exemplified in the world of advertising. Written and Directed by and , it follows the exploits of ambitious young marketing genius Misha Galkin (Ed Stoppard), who rises from working at a Vodka stand in central Moscow after the fall of communism to the very heart of the world of advertising. Yet he isn't finding the happiness and satisfaction he desires, primarily because his American boss Bob Gibbons (Jeffrey Tambor) won't make him a partner. On top of this, he ends up sleeping with that American boss' daughter, Abby Gibbons (Leelee Sobieski), in an absurd sex scene in his car and is caught by the father, thus getting fired. A bizarre scene follows where Gibbons dies and Misha then goes on a voyage of discovery to the bucolic outskirts of Russia where he, among other things, slaughters a red cow. He soon returns to Moscow to rekindle his romance with Abby, discovering that they had a son together. From here he launches his plan to destroy advertising, based primarily on his "ability" to see the monsters the marketing world uses to colonize our dreams.

The central argument of the film thus revolves around the evils of the marketing world and the ways they are trying to get in our heads -- in this case by convincing us that fat is the new thin. This plan is hatched by an unnamed marketing guru played by Max von Sydow (why he got involved in this project is beyond me). We also learn more of the wonders of marketing through Misha, who likens the field to Lenin and his propaganda model. In the end, not surprisingly, Misha wins and all advertising is outlawed in Russia. But the ending is as predictable as it is welcome -- merely because the film is finally over. Branded was sold as a new collaboration between Russian and American filmmakers, shot on location there but with some middling actors and actresses from the U.S. It was also sold as a satire, weird because the only funny scenes came from the absurdity of the story. 

It is too bad though, as the film certainly highlights the ridiculous lengths marketers and advertisers are willing to go to colonize our needs, wants and desires. Bad, often wooden acting, a silly script, poor CGI and a lack of humor all sink this ironic attempt to critique the world of advertising through one of its favorite vehicles. It is bizarre how often these deeper critiques of society fall flat when pushed toward the silver screen, as the nature of their critique maybe seems too at odds with the fact they are part of the very machine they are critiquing -- marketing geniuses, a profit-driven model, selling the public dreams on the cheap and serving as the central focal point of the spectacle society. Yet where else can we turn to critique this world but in its cavity center?

The EPL This Week

Man United came from behind to win again (against the still winless QPR), Chelsea and Man City played a torpid 0-0 draw, Tottenham won, Arsenal drew and West Brom continued their impressive start to the new season. The big news this week was the firing of a Champions League winner, Roberto Di Matteo and the hiring of hated ex-Liverpool chief Rafael Benitez by the gun slinging Russian oligarch Abramovich. Why he wasn't given more time after winning the FA Cup and Champions League is hard to understand except that Abramovich is the George Steinbrenner of world football. It is also becoming clear that Chelsea will be dumping more of its senior players in short order, as Cole and Lampard are slated to go. While this will be good news to the up and comers at the club, serious questions are emerging of whether the youngsters have the experience to lead the team to trophies. Chelsea just seems to lack the leadership that shone so bright last year and with the listless Torres continuing to struggle, a new striker is clearly needed. But there is also unrest around the drop in form of the 21-year old Hazard, who took the season by storm only to come up short of form and effort since. Oscar clearly has talent as well, but it seems that teams can bully around the squad at the moment, a real change from the Blues effective negative tactics that saw them come good last May. 

The inconsistency of most of the clubs around them is the only reason Arsenal are still in the race for the top four. It has been a tough season so far and unless change is coming soon, this year is looking to be even worse than the last. We lack punch, talent in the attack and off the bench and, it seems, desire at times. Injuries have not helped, but fears that letting Song and RVP go and not getting solid backups at defensive mid and striker would hurt us. Looking at the squad from top to bottom, we have a real problem with attacking threats off the bench. The defense has solidified a little but Arteta is having to play too deep to be effective moving forward, Cazorla has seen a slight drop in form and our wing play has too often been anemic. At right back, Sagna and Jenkinson both look solid, but there are fears Sagna might follow other stars out the door. The shift of Mertesacker, Kos and Vermaelen seems pretty strong and Gibbs is improving on the left, though we could use a backup. 

Moving to the middle of the pitch, the problems start to amplify. At times, it appears we need a more defensive midfielder so we can get Arteta further up the pitch, but without Song, who is there? Maybe Diaby could play that role, but this would require him actually staying on the pitch for more than a few matches at a time. Coquelin has real talent, but needs time to develop it (as does . Wilshire could play deeper as well, but then we lose some of his punch. And Ramsey is just not good enough to me.  It seems clear we need a defensive midfielder and maybe another creative force that can switch in when Cazorla or Wilshire needs a rest. I would also like to see the impressive Eisfeld given a run out or two.

Moving to our forwards, we have some serious problems. I think Giroud is coming good and can be counted on, but who can back him up and what if we want to play a 4-4-2 against some opponents? Problems clearly emerge. Gervinho started the campaign well before an injury sidelined him, but he is heading off to the African Cup of Nations soon and didn't return the same player from that tough schedule last year. He is inconsistent and I'm not sure if he will ever be the force we hoped for. Walcott has obviously played well this year, but will he stay? And if he does, will he be willing to continue out on the wing, where I think he is more effective? Podolski could play up front, but Wenger has kept him on the left wing for most of the season. After a poor stretch, he has started to score again, but does seem to disappear for long stretches. And the Ox has clearly seen a drop in form this season. He needs to become more disciplined and learn that you don't always need to dribble past defenders -- use your speed, pass when necessary and get in some decent crosses. When Ramsey plays on the wing, we are just not good enough and though Arshavin looks okay at times, he doesn't play enough to have any real impact. Beyond this we have Chamakh, who clearly has no future at the club, as he never plays. Rumors at the moment suggest Huntelar might be bought this winter and that would be good news. If we are to sell Walcott, we clearly need a ready replacement -- and Zaha would be great (though there is serious competition for his signature).

What troubles me the most is a sense that Wenger is losing it a little the past year. First we had Ox-gate, when Wenger took Chamberlain out against Man United last year for Arshavin -- which might have contributed to RvP leaving. Then the bizarre decision to take out Giroud and put in Coquelin at the end of a 0-0 game against Villa. He is losing his best players, has many disgruntled others that may follow (Sagna is complaining about selling Song, Pod and Walcott want to play up front, Coquelin wants more time, etc.) and makes some strange tactical decisions, particularly against lesser clubs. Why wasn't Wilshire brought on for 20 or 30 minutes against Villa to spark the offense? Why didn't the Gunners wake up offensively until the last few minutes of the contest, whereas if they played that way the entire game they would have probably won handily? Why can't he get the squad to show up against lesser competition? And where is the real commitment to silverware? Arsenal apparently has money to spend at the moment and one hopes Wenger finally makes some worthwhile purchases, but if he continues with his stingy ways I really do think it's time to wrap up his career with the Gunners. 

Whether that will happen even if we finish in sixth or seventh remains to be seen, but at the moment that's about how good we look. Just as a reminder, we have drawn against Stoke, Sunderland, Fulham and now Aston Villa. We have lost to Man United (of course), Chelsea (in a game we easily could have won) and Norwich (who have improved). Our wins came against Liverpool, Southhampton, QPR, a 10-men Tottenham and West Ham. And we have the second fewest points at this time in the season in our EPL history. There will certainly be opportunities for points coming up, but can we actually win more than two games in a row? We have only done it twice all season, a three-game run early and the latest short two game streak. Next up is Everton and, I believe, a must-win game if we are to push our way back into the top four. Let's hope the team is up for the test. 

As to the title chase, it appears to be a two-horse race for the second year running, with City looking a little stronger than United to me at the moment. The Red Devils are coming back strongly in game after game, but I feel their luck will run out if they keep this up, particularly on the road. City hasn't lost all season, except for their terrible form in the Champions League, and seem to be squaring up the defensive difficulties that were plaguing them early. They too have had a number of come-from-behind victories this year (after the stunning way they won the title last year) and certainly have the talent to push past United. The upcoming game between the two will probably play a huge role in the buildup to the busy holiday schedule and City have the advantage of not having to worry about Champions League football in the business end of the season. Chelsea just doesn't seem strong enough to me at present to challenge, after an impressive start, and appear about to let one of their best defenders leave in January. Other than that, unless a team goes on a huge winning streak, I believe West Brom, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and Everton will compete for those final two spots -- and I believe West Brom and Everton will start and continue to fade a bit, particularly if Fellani quits David Moyes' side for $greener$ pastures. Just hoping Arsenal wake up and start making their claim for one of those spots. We shall know more Wednesday ...