Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Three Charts that Conflict with the GOP Narrative for 2016

The 1% Have Now Surpassed the 99% in Wealth

Yes, that’s right. A report from Oxfam found that the top 1% of the world’s earners now has the combined wealth of the bottom 99%. Even worse, the richest 62 individuals in the world have as much wealth as half of the people on the globe combined. This trend has been ongoing since the 80s, but has accelerated dramatically in recent years. 

Free market advocates would argue that these individuals deserve the money they’ve earned and invest it in the economy to make us all better off. But that is inaccurate, as the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few tends to lead to riskier investment behavior, dramatic waste and conspicuous consumption in cars, housing, fashion and the like, which have high profit margins but where there are fewer employees. 

Ben Southland of the Adam Smith Institute is among the critics of the report, claiming: “"More meaningful measures show greater equality. Those in the middle and bottom of the world income distribution have all got pay rises of around 40% between 1988-2008. Global inequality of life expectancy and height are narrowing too—showing better nutrition and better healthcare where it matters most. What we should care about is the welfare of the poor, not the wealth of the rich.” While I agree we should care about the welfare of the poor, this is highly correlated with the share of global wealth in the hands of the few.

It’s not a complicated argument, either. The more money amassed by the few, the less there is for the rest of us. Other economic booms have involved wealth creation, but more equally distributed across the population. That is no longer the case and many in the West actually have net-negative wealth, given their outstanding debt obligations. This is the result of relatively flat wages for the average worker, higher unemployment rates, inflation that is higher than reported by the official measures and increasing debt (particularly student loan balances).

So is there a solution to this problem? Of course there is! It involves returning to more progressive tax policy, expanding the earned income tax credit, putting limits on executive compensation, breaking up the big banks and expanding the “living wage” movement across the country and then globe. Workers have been increasing productivity over the past 30 years and profits have steadily risen (except during economic downturns), but the fruits of those increases have increasingly gone into the hands of the few. At the global level, we could take inspiration from the Nordic countries that not only have a higher average standard of living with high taxes and “big government” but higher life expectancy, higher happiness rates and, surprisingly to Americans, more income mobility. Addressing global poverty in the developing and underdeveloped worlds should begin with forgiveness of foreign debt and an end to the demands of “liberating” markets for foreign capital and competition.

If you are wondering whether you are among the lucky few, it takes $68,800 in savings to hit the top 10 percent and $760,000 to make that top 1 percent.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Arsenal Lose to Chelsea Again (1-0): Title Challenge Collapsing?

Arsenal faced off against their bĂȘte noir over the last decade at the Emirates today, though without Wenger’s nemesis Mourinho even in the stadium. The recent league fixtures have been all Chelsea, with Arsenal failing to win any of the past eight and failing to score in any of the past five. The Gunners could take some confidence from having beaten Chelsea in the Community Shield to start the season for Wenger’s first, and now only, victory over the Portuguese manager now prostrating himself before United’s brass. Nonetheless, Arsenal were certainly the favorites heading in, having only lost once at home way back in the opening game shocker against West Ham. They could go back top with a win while Chelsea were mired in 14th place, their title defense in tatters and a bad run away from the relegation zone. And yet it was Chelsea who found themselves up a man and a goal after an uninspiring first 25 minutes from the home team that fit the script of so many of these matchups in the past.

Arsenal did have a decent chance within the first two minutes, when Walcott got around Ivanovic on the touchline and was able to cut it back to Campbell, free in the middle of the box. The Costa Rican scuffed his shot, however, and the chance was gone. Chelsea had a chance of their own soon after, with Mertesacker and Koscielny playing their version of a Keystone Cops routine, giving Oscar a decent shot at the near post, though it was pushed out by Cech. It was back and forth from there, until Flamini had a marginal penalty claim before 10 minutes had passed, though it was probably a good no call from Clattenburg. A minute later, Azpilicueta’s cynical foul on a charging Bellerin did earn the first yellow of the game.

In the 15th minute, Chelsea should have taken the lead when William ended up with the ball eight yards out with only Cech to beat, but his shot was weak and easily saved by the ex-Chelsea keeper. Giroud then teed up from 25 yards out on a counter that Chelsea got back quickly on. It was a rather ambitious effort but maybe justified as the Frenchman has failed to have scored in his first seven appearances against Chelsea and, in fact, only Flamini and Walcott had ever scored against the Blues among the starting 11. Before Arsenal could really get into the game, for the second time against Chelsea this season, they were down to 10 men, this time on a foul by Mertesacker trying to catch up to Diego Costa free on goal because of poor positioning from the lumbering German (18’). Unlike the first matchup, when Gabriel was goaded into a red by Costa’s antics, this one appeared to be the right call, as Koscielny was a step behind Costa’s line to goal. What Mertesacker was thinking is beyond me, as Diego Costa is not that quick and Chelsea had almost gotten behind the defense a couple of times already. To make matters worse, Giroud was taken off for Gabriel four minutes later, meaning the Gunner’s task of winning with 10 was that much more difficult without the aerial threat and holdup play of the big Frenchman. And it took mere seconds for a cross from Ivanovic to find Diego Costa at the near post and give Chelsea the lead (23’). Costa was rampant throughout, before being taken off with a second half knock, continuing his impressive revival under Hiddink, and his ability to absolutely terrorize the Gunners.

Fabergas was also arguably playing his best game of the season so far and almost doubled Chelsea’s lead in the 31st minute, with an excellent run around five Gunner defenders, before his shot was parried away by Cech. In the 34th minute, great incisive passing by Arsenal almost led to an equalizer, as Walcott got free at the far post and shot across goal, only to be rightfully adjudged marginally offsides. Even as that moment was close, it still seemed hard to justify taking out Giroud for a misfiring Walcott, particularly as Chelsea began to sit back – thus enveloping the superior pace of the English International. Walcott did get beyond Chelsea again in the 40th minute, but went seconds early for a second time, undermining the opportunity (though for the second time he also flubbed the chance – not knowing he was offsides). Costa had a chance to double Chelsea’s lead again in the 42nd minute, firing a powerful shot just saved by Cech at the near post. Monreal cleared the resultant corner off the line and Arsenal had a decent shot at a counter, though Ozil failed to link up with Walcott, swallowed up by two surrounding Blues. Right on the stroke of halftime, a great lofted pass from Ramsey found Flamini a few yards outside the mouth of the goal, but he tried to score with his off foot and skied it. Ironically, the Frenchman only in because Coquelin is just recovering from his injury, had the two best chances of the first half, though he was unable to make a good go of either.

The second half saw Chelsea earn a corner within the first minute and a half though Ramsey was able to clear. Costa was flagged offsides twice in quick succession, as Arsenal maintained a high line in search of an equalizer. Walcott was lively in the early going of the second period, but giving the ball away far too often (three times in less than two minute) to go with many more earlier in the game. The Gunners put together a good run of passes without getting the ball in the box, before Ramsey gave it up, though Flamini quickly got the ball back and lofted it to Walcott, offsides yet again. Three straight corners for Chelsea followed as the half reach 10 minutes, Arsenal able to clear each and then escape a marginal penalty call on Fabergas as Koscielny clattered into him in the box. Sanchez came on in the 57th minute for the first time since November to huge applause, taking over for Campbell, who scuffed a great early chance to give the Gunners the lead. Walcott moved to the right and Sanchez took up his position on the left, with Ozil the furthest man forward in the middle.

Sanchez’s first driving run earned a yellow for Matic as he ran right into the Chilean (59’) but his resultant free kick went harmlessly through the box and out. Arsenal started to grow in stature and earned a free kick in a dangerous position as the clock rolled toward 63 minutes. Ozil lined it up and the Gunners had three good chances in seconds to tie it up, with Sanchez flubbing his and Ramsey’s rebound slamming into a stalwart Chelsea defense. The Gunners certainly had their chances at an equalizer, but lacked the cutting edge necessary to draw even, with Ozil and Walcott both appearing below their best. Flamini and Bellerin did show real hunger in the 66th minute, earning Arsenal a corner, but it was well collected by Courtois, before he threw the ball away as Costa lay in the box injured, to be replaced by Remy. Fabergas had a shot in the 70th minute, but right at Cech, who easily collected it. Arsenal were pressing well and had the upper hand in possession, though the extra man was helping Chelsea get the ball back before any real opportunities emerged.

Mikel had a nasty foul on Sanchez in the 72nd minute as he put his arm out as Sanchez tried to round him, earning a yellow even as the fans were pining for a different color. Two minutes later, Ox came on for a largely ineffective Walcott and soon after Hazard came on for Oscar, as Chelsea tried to finally cross the line with his 50th goal for the club (having gone 30 games without one in all comps this season). Ox forced a corner on the replay, as he was able to catch up to a Sanchez pass and knock it off Azpilicueta. Arsenal built again, but Ozil gave the ball away, continuing to look off his best. The Gunners were passing the ball around with real style now, highlighted by some excellent exchanges between Sanchez and Monreal on the left, but couldn't seem to find a shot on goal as the game moved to its final 10 minutes.

Arsenal earned another corner in the 84th minute, but were beaten to it at the near post. Another free kick on 85 minutes almost fell in as Courtois dropped the ball and a cleaner hit by Koscielny would have seen the Gunners even. A minute later, Bellerin got a cross in to Ox, who pushed it further across goal and Flamini tried to backheel it, though Courtois was able to collect it. It was the third good chance for Flamini and while one doesn’t expect him to be on the score sheet, more poised finishing could have even seen the Gunners earn all three point. Moments later, Monreal had a chance himself, though he inexplicably tried to cross with his left rather than take a shot with his right, ultimately seeing the ball fly out for a goal kick. The clock rolled toward 90 with Arsenal looking suddenly a little deflated, having missed plenty of good chances to get back into the game; five minutes left to score for the first time in six matches against Chelsea. They continued to play with real verve and intent, but an errant pass from Sanchez, not his first since coming on, saw momentum fizzle with only two minutes to play. Arsenal earned a corner with one minute left and Cech made his way down the pitch, trying to score against his former side, though Remy was able to clear at the near post. Chelsea held on and it was yet another loss for Wenger against Chelsea.

When we look back on another season where an Arsenal title run fell apart in the second half, as I now believe it is likely to, there will be a few games that exemplify their continued inability to maintain the focus and form necessary to get over the line across an entire 38-game season. There will be the inexplicable 4-0 hiding from Southampton, the late goal conceded to Liverpool that cost them two valuable points, the terrible November run and then this game, a great chance to finally show up Chelsea and maintain their three-point lead over City, but instead suffering the double against their London rivals, where they had two more red cards than goals. Arsenal can take some solace in the fact they essentially outplayed Chelsea once they had conceded the goal, but without the necessary equalizer, it will be shallow solace indeed.

The Gunners next face Burnley in the FA Cup six days from now, then host Southampton before heading on the road to play Bournemouth. They will need to win these three fixtures to stop the rot and get back on track, as they then host Leicester and Barcelona before a trip to a United team that might have a new manager by then. Barring a visit to the Etihad in the penultimate game, Arsenal have a very winnable run-in in their last eight, but need to stay close enough to the top to make the possibility of a late title run viable. The rebound will have to start soon or questions about how long they can hang in with Wenger will amplify yet again. Seeing Sanchez on the pitch for the first time since November and the imminent return of Coquelin might yet give Arsenal the push they need to recover, though.

On the flip side, Chelsea remain undefeated under Hiddink and have moved up to 13th in the table, mere points from the top half. With a winnable FA Cup tie against MK Dons followed by a trip to Watford and then home games against United and Newcastle, the Blues can start to build momentum toward a run up the table. It was not a beautiful game by the visitors today, but they held firm against an Arsenal team hard to beat at the Emirates this term and earned a valuable three points that should kill the silly talk of a relegation battle for good.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Bernie Sanders the Only Candidate With a Positive Favorability Rating!

In a stunning condemnation of the slate of candidates running for office this year, Nate Silver pointed out yesterday that Bernie Sanders is the only candidate with a net favorable rating. On the Republican side, the only candidate who even draws neutrality is Ben Carson (37 percent favorable, 37 percent unfavorable). Among the rest, Trump leads the pack at -25 (33% favorable, 58% unfavorable), followed by Jeb Bush (-22), Rick Santorum (-22), Rand Paul (-16), Chris Christie (-13), Mike Huckabee (-12), Carly Fiorina (-8), John Kasich and Ted Cruz (-7) and Marco Rubio (-1). On the Democratic side, Hillary actually has a higher favorable rating than Bernie (42 to 38) and Martin O’Malley (a measly 18), but a much higher unfavorable rating (50 to 35 for Bernie and 29 for O’Malley). So with one of the biggest slates in recent memory, though one that is surprisingly small on the Democratic side, only two candidates can claim the same level of favorability as unfavorability.

After years of the American people growing increasingly frustrated with not only the President but Congress and the Senate as well, is this really the best we can do in selecting a candidate to represent us for the next four, or maybe even eight, years? Bernie Sanders does speak to the needs and concerns of the average American better than any other candidate, arguably, while the divisive tone of Trump’s campaign encapsulates the political insularity and partisan divide that has undermined our democracy (together with the power of money). But how often is a presidential campaign won or lost on the issues? One does begin to wonder if we are starting to see a repeat of 2008, though, where the anointing of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate by the mainstream media came a little early, while the Republicans beat each other up to such a high degree they had a hard time running an effective campaign after their candidate had been selected.

Hillary is certainly beatable in a general election, and one does wonder if Bernie Sander’s message can play in the heartland, but looking at the GOP race, is there really a candidate who can aptly represent the people of the nation, either domestically or abroad? Can the Republican active electorate really choose the racist, jingoistic, Islamaphobe Trump as their candidate? We shall know more in the coming weeks, as Iowa and New Hampshire give us our first glimpse of where the race is headed. Clinton has apparently put a lot of stock into Iowa and New Hampshire and is behind Sanders in state organization beyond those first two primaries, with Sanders, by the way, forging a rather commanding lead in NH. Let the games continue~!

Monday, January 18, 2016

EPL Week 22: Arsenal Stay Top; United Nip Liverpool; City Win

The weekend started with Tottenham cruising past Sunderland 4-1, after conceding the first goal. Bournemouth followed with an impressive 3-0 victory over fellow relegation threatened Norwich. Man City crushed an injury-plagued Crystal Palace, Newcastle continued their mini renaissance with a 2-1 win over West Ham, with Jonjo Shelvy impressing in his Toon debut, Southampton beat West Brom 3-0 and Aston Villa and Leicester shared the spoils as Mahrez missed his second penalty in two games. The marquis matchup Saturday was between Everton and Chelsea, with the Toffees racing to a 2-0 lead before a five-minute patch in the second half drew the Blues level. An injury time goal seemed to give the Meyerside club the victory, before a dramatic 98th minute equalizer from captain John Terry. Terry was clearly offsides, but it again showed Everton’s frailty at the back, the second time they have drawn a game with a 98th minute equalizer after taking the lead in extra time.

Sunday gave us two quality matchups, with Manchester United visiting Anfield and Arsenal trying to end a six-year winless streak at the Britannia. Liverpool dominated the first half of their matchup with United but were unable to finish any of their multiple choices and it was instead United who won it late with a Rooney rebound off a Fellaini header that came back off the woodwork. Arsenal had chances to finally end their winless streak but Stoke had their own chances to take all three points. Instead the game ended 1-1. In the final game of the slate, Swansea earned a much needed three points with a 1-0 victory over Watford.

Some thoughts on Game Week 21-22:
1. Meyerside “Mitts” Malaise: 'We want to be a brave team and win games by not running the clock down or playing with aspects that aren't what we want to be,' said Everton manager Roberto Martinez after his side had conceded a 98th-minute equalizer against Chelsea. John Terry was offsides; there is no doubt about that. But Everton were up 2-0, 2-1 and 3-2 in this game and were still only able to earn a point. They are the second highest scoring team in the league this season (39 goals), play some of the most attractive football and yet sit in 12th place. They have one of the best squads around and will be lucky to finish in the top half of the table. Is it time for Martinez to finally stop putting his faith in outscoring his opponents and actually set up his teams to defend; particularly when they have the lead? His Wigan squad back in 2012-13 won the FA Cup the same year they were relegated, with the fifth highest goal total (47) for any team to face the drop since the Premier League switched to 20 teams. That same season they conceded an astounding 73 goals to fall to the Championship.

This year, Everton have already shipped 32 goals, with three teams below them bettering that total. They have dropped 11 points from winning positions, 9 goals in the last 15 minutes of game, and would actually be in the Top 4 if they had protected all of those leads. At the center of the problems, beyond Martinez’s unwillingness to stop playing the beautiful game beautifully from the first whistle to the last, is the unfortunate decline of one of the best Americans ever to ply his trade in English football. Howard has been an exceptional lieutenant at the back for many years now, but it also appears his best years are behind him. Everton are probably stuck with him until the end of the season, but should be in the market for his replacement now, to snag a top keeper before they move on to the top clubs of Europe. That alone will not address their defensive weakness however, they need their manager to take defense seriously, rather than defending John Stone pulling Cruyff turns in his own box. The big question if he doesn’t is how long the Everton faithful, and top brass, will put up with attractive football without attractive results.

Across the city, Liverpool are suffering their own defensive liabilities. Ahead 1-0 and 2-1 against Arsenal on Wednesday, they conceded three times and were lucky to earn a point. Against Manchester United Sunday they dominated the game but their inability to finish their chances led to the late goal by Rooney that cost them all three points. While few would argue Mignolet was completely to blame for that goal, his inability to quickly adjust after Fellaini’s header hit the bar made Rooney’s shot a sure goal. He allowed a corner to sneak past him at the near corner against Arsenal (for not the first time this season) and the belief that he is a little too uncertain, a little too weak in the box and, though a quality shot stopper, a little below the quality expected at a club like Liverpool have cost the club points this season and probably a chance at the Top 4. The issue can be fixed this summer and the Liverpool brass and Klopp should finally give up on the Belgian and move on to someone that can provide more solidity at the back. Arsenal has done that this season, and Cech has probably already garnered them somewhere in the region of 10 points.

2. Chelsea Rebound or False Dawn? Chelsea are undefeated since Hiddink took over for Mourinho on December 19. The streak started with a 3-1 win over Sunderland, followed by draws with Watford (2-2) and United (0-0), an impressive 3-0 win at Crystal, a 2-0 win in the FA Cup Third Round over Scunthorpe and then draws with West Brom (2-2) and Everton (3-3). So three wins and four draws and 10 of Chelsea’s 25 points in the league this season. The Blues are now 14th in the table and absurd discussions of them facing the drop seemed to have halted, at least for the moment. They have become more solid at the back, seem to be enjoying their football again and have found some joy on the offensive end. But are they a team that can march up the table and challenge for a European place now? It seems unlikely at the moment. Hiddink has been good for Chelsea in both stops to the club, but questions remain about whether he has the talent for the sort of run it would take to get back in a European spot. At the back, Ivanovic has improved without returning to his form from last year, Terry went from heel to hero but still seems more suspect than in the past, Diego Costa is getting back on the scoreboard regularly (5 in his last 5) but still seems to be susceptible to niggling injuries, Fabergas has found some form of late, as has Oscar and Mikel has brought some solidity to the back (though the five goals in the past two games makes one wonder if that is a genuine solution to the defensive frailties with Matic in the mix). Overall, Hiddink should be congratulated for his ability to bring a team back together in short order, but I still think this might be a false dawn and Chelsea will finish no better than sixth or seventh this season, barring reinforcements coming in in the next two weeks.

3. Relegation Battle Hotting Up: Newcastle made two important additions this week and one of them played a huge role in a big victory Saturday. Jonjo Shelvey has had an up and down career since getting playing time in his teens with Liverpool. He moved on to Swansea and showed patches of excellent play, surrounded by questions about his attitude, finishing touch and consistency of performance. But if the win Saturday is any indication of his role at Newcastle, he might just help the Jordy side stay up again this season. Newcastle certainly have enough quality to move up the table now, but their inconsistency from one game to the next continues to be a concern. His old club, Swansea, might be wondering if letting the English international go was the right decision, as they slipped into the relegation zone themselves before their unexpected 1-0 victory over Watford Monday. Swansea had been on such a bad run of form, they looked like the most likely side, besides Aston Villa, to drop. Bournemouth, on the other hand, have been streaking, and have a real chance to solidfy their position in the league while they await the return of their talisman striker next season (they are currently in 15th). Sunderland, as well, have been playing better football, though whether it will be enough to stay up is still open for debate as they stand four points from safety. Norwich City is the last team in the relegation battle at the moment, and only stand two points above 18th place. My current prediction would be that Aston Villa, Norwich and Swansea ultimately fall out of the Premier League come May, though Sunderland, Newcastle and Bournemouth are certainly strong contenders for that inauspicious achievement as well.

4. The Title Race: As predicted, the goals have started to dry up for Leicester City, with only five in their last five league games after a 3-2 win at Goodison on December 19. That includes a 1-0 loss to Liverpool, two straight 0-0 draws (against City and Bournemouth), a 1-0 victory at White Hart Lane and the rather awful 1-1 draw with Aston Villa Saturday. Few thought Mahrez and Vardy could keep up their blistering pace from the first half, but Vardy has gone ice cold at the same time Mahrez has shown a penchant for missing key shots and penalties (two in two). Nonetheless, Leicester are still joint top with Arsenal, after the Gunners failed to win either of their past two games. Arsenal have dropped four points themselves this week, with the disappointing 3-3 draw at Anfield followed by a more respectable (but still damaging) 0-0 draw at the Brittania. Arsenal play the majority of their toughest games on the road in the second half and will have to do better than this week if they are to stay at the top through May. Man City have perhaps been the most impressive team over this spell, rebounding nicely after the 2-1 loss to Arsenal on December 21. Since then, they have beaten Sunderland handily, earned a respectable 0-0 draw at Leicester, beat a hot Watford 2-1 and cruised past Crystal 4-0, with only the 0-0 draw with Everton disappointing. They stand a point behind Leicester and Arsenal, with a better goal difference, and appear to have the most momentum heading into the last 16 games. Arsenal clearly have a chance, but they need to start turning one point into three, and one discounts Leicester’s long shot at their own peril.

5. Around the Horn: Real are 2-0 under Zinedine Zidane, having scored 10 goals over that stretch. The players claim to be happier and they are showing it on the pitch, though their young opponents in both of those fixtures mean we will have to wait and see if the change at the top really will alter the narrative of the season. At present, they are two points behind Barcelona, having played on more game, and four behind surprise league leaders Atletico (who have played the same number of games, winning five of their last six). After drawing three of four, Barcelona also got back to winning ways, with a comprehensive 6-0 victory over Athletic Bilboa on the heels of a 4-0 victory over Granada. Hapless Gary Neville remains without a win at Valencia, as they had to settle for another draw. In Italy, Juve continued their impressive run up the table with a 4-0 win at Udinese, AC Milan beat Fiorentina (2-0), Lazio, Inter and Roma all settled for draws and Napoli won 3-1. That means Napoli have risen to the top of the table, with Juve only two points behind, followed by Inter, Fiorentina, Roma and Milan. PSG remained 19 points above Monaco and can thus put their emphasis on the Champions League games to come, while Chelsea still has to at least consider the remote possibility of a relegation battle. Finally, Germany remained on their winter break until next weekend, with Bayern currently leading by eight points over Dortmund.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Arsenal Earn Tough Point at Stoke

Arsenal had not won at the Brittania in six years coming into their game against seventh-place Stoke City today. Make that seven years. While Stoke City no longer play the physical, ugly style of football they became infamous for under Tony Pulis, they are still a tough team to face on their home ground and continued their good form against the best of the EPL, having already scalped Manchester City, United and Chelsea this season. Arsenal were without their two biggest stars, with Sanchez adjudged to still be at least a week away from a return and Ozil out with a minor foot injury. In their absence, Arsenal’s slick passing attack was largely stymied and Stoke actually had the better chances of the game. As 0-0 games go, this was a pretty engaging game, but the Gunner’s will be disappointed to drop four points in a week. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Cech Saves Arsenal Again: Cech added to his record-breaking clean sheet tally today and clearly saved a point for Arsenal in the process. He had a number of impressive saves throughout, none more than the second half double save to parry a fierce Joselu shot and then get across goal to smother a Bojan rebound. Cech was excellent not only in saving shots but in claiming the ball in the box. Stoke will be upset they did not score from a number of quality chances, but it was Cech who made the difference, with Ramsey chipping in with a goal-line clearance late to preserve the point. Cech was a coup for Arsenal last summer and continues to show why he could well become the signing of the season; if Arsenal are able to secure the title.

On the other side of the pitch, Butland was almost as impressive, stopping two quality chances for Giroud to grab the lead. The first was after another silky pass from Campbell set Giroud free on the right side of the box. Butland came out quickly and cut off the Frenchman’s attempt to bury it. The second was a powerful free header from Giroud on a corner that Butland dove deftly to his right to deflect out for a second corner. Arsenal created substantially less chances than they do in an average game this season, with only 8 shots (3 on goal), but Butland made sure none of them counted. In the end, it was a great display by two goalkeepers at the top of their game.

2. Second Half Collapse on the Horizon or Fortitude on Display? It is hard to know what to think of the last week for the Gunners. It started with them cruising past Sunderland 3-1 in the FA Cup, after falling behind by a goal. They then fell behind twice to Liverpool, before pulling ahead 3-2, only to conceded a 90th minute equalizer. Today, they earned a point at a stop that has been giving them trouble for years. They have shown resiliency in all three of these games, are through to the next round of the FA Cup and still sit at the top of the League Table, though only by goal difference over Leicester and a point over a suddenly resurgent Manchester City. It is clear that Arsenal could be further clear at the summit of the table if they took their chances better, though draws against Liverpool and Stoke on the road are certainly respectable results. The 4-0 loss to Southampton was actually the only one since the 2-1 defeat to West Brom on November 21, with 8 wins and three draws over that stretch. However, with a visit from a Chelsea team that is undefeated under Hiddink a week away, the Gunners really need to get back to winning ways.

All Gooners are aware of our tendency to play better in one half of any given season, but it is heartening to know that our beloved Arsenal are actually undefeated since the turn of the new year. Can they take the momentum of the past 12 months and charge toward an elusive fourth title for Wenger? Only time will tell, but the imminent return of Sanchez should help build some momentum for the stretch run. This is made all the more important as Theo Walcott put in another stale performance where he appeared to give the ball away as often as he completed a pass or got by a defender. He appears well off his best at present and needs a stretch on the bench to regain some motivation (or form).

3. The Hughes Project Continues to Impress: when Stoke hired Mark Hughes two seasons ago, it was really a dual reclamation project. Stoke wanted to play a more attractive brand of football and make strides up the table. Hughes wanted to recuperate a reputation that had suffered since departing Man City. Both projects continue to move forward with impressive success. Last season, they finished in ninth place, on 54 points, their best haul since returning to the first division in 2008-09. This year, they are up to seventh, only two points outside the Europa League spot. The improvement has been from front to back, with an exciting forward line that includes Shaqiri (out in this game), Arnautovic and Afellay and a solid back comprised of veterans Johnson and Shawcross together with solid Pieters and Wollshcheid. The back line was impressive throughout this encounter, barely giving the Gunners a sniff of goal, as they played a physical brand of football combined with plenty of interceptions, crowding of the ball and cutting off the passing channels Arsenal are so good at threading the ball through. They were helped by the absence of Ozil, but that should not take away from another impressive result against a top side. And topping off the new approach is Jack Butland, who has become an able replacement for Begovich. Stoke can now pass the ball around, push forward with real danger and control games from back to front, and it is not beyond the team to push for that sixth spot.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Arsenal and Liverpool Share the Spoils

Arsenal visited Anfield on Wednesday trying to solidify their position at the top of the table. Manchester United had drawn a day earlier and both Man City and Leicester City had tough matchups, with Everton and Tottenham, respectively. Liverpool was trying to get the signature win that would show that the Kloppaissance was truly underway, even with the long list of injured players out of the starting lineup. It was the symphony-conducting philosopher versus the heavy medal gegenpresser. The oddsmakers had the Gunners as slight favorites, though others tipped the home team to take advantage of the crowd.

It was the naysayers who had the first laugh as Liverpool were energetic from the start, scoring in the 10th minute with Firmino quickest to a Cech save, blasting it past the keeper to open the scoring. Arsenal were level four minutes later, however, when an excellent pass from Campbell found Ramsey on the right side of the box. The Welshman brushed the ball past Mignolet at the near post. Liverpool were back ahead in the 19th minute when Firmino buried the ball in the upper right hand corner of the goal after two straight giveaways by the Gunners in their own half. Arsenal were level again in the 25th minute, when Giroud got the slightest of touches at the near post on a corner, beating Mignolet; who probably should have done better. And that scoreline of 2-2 was how one of the better offensive halves of football in the league this season finished.

The second half saw the Gunners in the ascendancy and they forged ahead on an excellent individual goal from Giroud, who got the ball with his back to goal, shifted it across his body, pivoted and then planted it into the far corner (55’). Arsenal then went for the kill and had at least two good chances to take the two-goal lead that probably would have sealed an important road win, but were unable to take their chances. As the game crawled toward the final 15 minutes, the Gunners again looked suspect defensively and Liverpool spurned a couple of good chances themselves. Then, in the 90th minute, a header in the box from Benteke found its way to the center where sub Joe Allen beat the Gunner defense and slotted home for the equalizer. Liverpool looked the more likely to snatch the win in extra time, but Arsenal held on for the point.

It was a missed opportunity for the Gunners and a solid display by Liverpool, though their inability to hold two leads will certainly be disappointing. Giroud scored a brace, but could have made it a hat trick and put the game away. Campbell was excellent again, even as it was his mistake that indirectly led to the second Liverpool goal. Ramsey played well in his preferred central role as well, though it is clear that the combination of he and Flamini leaves Arsenal too often exposed at the back. In fact, we could see new signing Elneny slot into the starting lineup as soon as Sunday, though it is unclear whether his defensive abilities are sufficient to stop an improved Stoke City attack. Arsenal have not won there in six years and really need to start establishing some momentum if they are to win the title this year. One player who should arguably be left out is Walcott, who seemed more intent on giving the ball away than actually taking his chances on the other end. Walcott has only 3 goals and 2 assists in 15 league appearances this season (12 starts and 3 off the bench; with another 2 goals and 1 assist in 4 UCL appearances) and has only scored one in his last 11 appearances in all competitions. After a decent start to the season, he has regressed to the player from a few seasons ago who does not show the requisite composure in front of goal, while clearly being a liability in ball retention and defending. With Sanchez coming back and Campbell much improved, one wonders if the English International might soon find himself on the bench.

For Liverpool, this might have been their best display under Klopp, and yet they still only garnered a point. It showed a young team with real potential, as Fermino finally showed off his clear talent (he would have had a hat trick if his dipping left-footed shot in the second half dipped a couple of inches lower instead of hitting the post). And yet they still conceded three goals at Anfield and continued to suffer from a goalkeeper who does not seem to be up to snuff for a team trying to compete for the Top 4 and trophies. Defensively, they have been suspect intermittently throughout the season, and it is still unclear where the goals will come from, from week to week. Benteke does not seem to be the kind of player Klopp wants, Origi is injured and Sturridge, of course, has spent more time on the training table than on the pitch in the last 12 months. The gegenpress certainly unsettled the league leaders for large spells of the game, and the Reds showed forward momentum that has often been missing during Klopp’s brief reign. On the other hand, he has established an incipient habit of getting his players to perform well in the “big games,” beating Leicester City 1-0, Chelsea 3-1 and absolutely smothering Man City 4-1 before the draw Wednesday. It is against lower opponents that his new team have been more suspect, losing to West Ham, Watford and Newcastle, among other suspect results (including the 2-2 draw with Exeter in the FA Cup, even with a heavily rotated starting 11).

For Arsenal, the draw will raise the old questions that have hounded this team since the last title way back in 2004. Can they win games against top opponents? Do they concede at too high a rate in these games, playing too open a style (even when ahead)? Do they have the mental strength necessary to maintain a title charge throughout an entire 38-game schedule? And, most saliently, can Wenger finally compile a squad and tactical approach to again raise the most coveted trophy in England? This result gave mixed signals in that regard, as the Gunners did come back twice from deficits early in the game, rather than collapsing, as has happened too often in the past. They even forged ahead and seemed poised to purloin all three points. But just like Gunner squads of the past, they lost their composure down the stretch and let those two points slip away. Now a tough trip to Stoke awaits, followed later in the second half of the season by visits to United, Tottenham, Everton and City (the second to last game of the season, one might add).

The Gunners have had chances to build a lead at the top, but slipped up in November, lost that bizarre 4-0 game to Southampton and then dropped two points Wednesday. They have a nice run of fixtures coming up following Stoke, with a home game against struggling Chelsea, a home rematch with Southampton and a trip to Bournemouth before a key battle at the Emirates with Leicester on February 13, right before the first leg of their Round of 16 tie with Barcelona. If they can maximize points over that stretch, they could certainly see their lead over a Kompany-less City expand beyond its current three points. Slip up now, though, and the best chance at a title in years might again slip through their fingers. Liverpool seem light of the talent to march all the way up the table from their current position in ninth, 12 points behind Arsenal and Leicester, but given the continued questions at United, Tottenham’s tendency for a “late fade” and the sense among many that Leicester will slip up at some point (even as they are doing a good job of making all of those doubters look foolish), the Top 4 is not completely out of the question yet and a European spot certainly within their grasps with more consistent results. The games Sunday should provide more hints as to where these two teams are heading, as Arsenal head to one of their least favorite grounds in the EPL and Liverpool host United at Anfield.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A National Championship Game to Remember

Many of the Bowl games we were excited to watch turned out to be duds this holiday season, with one team dominating the other as if two teams from different divisions were facing each other on the field. Tennessee crushed Northwestern (45-6), Ole Miss routed Oklahoma State (48-20), Ohio State cruised by Notre Dame (44-28), Stanford absolutely smothered Iowa (45-16), Michigan pummeled Florida (41-7) and the two semifinals were blowouts with Clemson cruising past Oklahoma 37-17 (after trailing 17-16 at halftime) and Alabama embarrassing Michigan State 38-0. Some of the lesser bowls had great comebacks, near misses and close games, but there was a sense that this Bowl season might end up a disappointment. While some stalwarts held out for Clemson, plenty of pundits and gamblers thought Alabama would continue the trend by obliterating Clemson.

Alabama ultimately won Monday night, but in one of the closer National Championship games in recent years. It was a back and forth affair won, ironically when we are talking about Saban’s Alabama, by special teams. In the fourth quarter of a tie game, Saban took the huge risk of kicking an onside kick. It was, of course, successful, and combined with a number of impressive kick returns and forgoing the missed field goal, allowed the Crimson Tide to overcome a Clemson team that exceeded expectations in every way but actually winning the game. Rather than recap a matchup that has already been combed over by the world of sports journalism in great detail, I thought I would explore some of the highlights of the Alabama win and the standout performances on both sides of the ball.

I’ll start with Nick Saban who now stands behind the only man who can truly challenge his claim to greatest ever, that iconic Bear known as much for his stylish fedora as the six national championships he won at Alabama. Saban is not my favorite coach in the sport, with a sense that reputation alone helped him get to the big dance in the BCS era and that he lacks the personality one likes to find in our heroes. Last year, Ohio State upset Alabama and fortified the sense that maybe some of Saban’s success was down to the premium put on any Alabama season. Those potential criticisms can no longer be levied with any seriousness. Not only did Saban win his fifth national title, with four of those coming at Alabama in the past seven years, but he did so with real verve and a number of impressive coaching decisions. The last of note was the aforementioned onside kick, but one could see the game plan working long before that. This was not the stellar performance we have become accustomed to from Alabama, as their vaulted defense allowed 40 points (and it could have easily been more). It did not come from the explosive running of Henry, who was largely held after exploding for a TD early in the game and wrapped it up with a physical run late, but was held to relatively meager numbers in the second half (even as his 158 total yards allowed him to become the all-time leader in that category at Alabama). Instead it came from a number of big plays including using a tight end named O. J. Howard, who had only 394 yards and zero touchdown during the rest of the season, as a primary long ball threat, that resulted in 5 catches for an incredible 208 yards and two touchdowns. Finally, was the ability to withstand five lead changes and three ties, by finding ways to beat a defense that has been almost as impressive as Alabama throughout the season. Again, it came on reverses, the long ball, special teams and key defensive stops, but all together showed a coach at the top of his game and, maybe now, at the top of the pantheon of “greatest ever.”

Beyond Saban, Alabama now have 11 national championships (though they officially claim 16) and have built two empires in the past 40 years, with no signs of the trend abating in the years to come. Saban might move on at some point, but as he looks at fellow college coaches that have made the journey to the NFL (Kelly anyone?), he might reconsider. College Football is a completely different animal, with recruiting and building short-term but meaningful relationships with players a coach can mentor toward greatness a mile away from the management of egos and constant injuries in a league that prides itself on parity. Dynasties are a rarity in the NFL, particularly in the past 20 years or so, and one would think there are few jobs better than sitting at the perch of the most storied program in college football lore. On the other side of the ball, Dabo Swinney further solidified his position as, arguably, the second best coach to ever walk the sidelines of Death Valley. In eight seasons with the Tigers, Swinney has accrued a record of 75-27 (.753), with a 4-3 record in bowl games, five straight 10-win seasons and was a few plays away from upsetting Saban and the heavily favored Crimson Tide. He will need to get over the hump and win a national title to match Danny Ford and maybe surpass the 30-year career of the other iconic Tiger coach Frank Howard. But he is closing in on both.

Clemson in fact appears to be a team that could challenge for the title again next year with the presumptive return of the sparkling talent that is quarterback Deshaun Watson along with much of the squad that came so close to capturing the title themselves. Watson threw for 405 yards and ran for another 73, becoming the first quarterback ever to throw for over 4,000 yards while rushing for over 1,000 in the same season. He is a unique talent that one could see going on to do incredible things in the pros. Lest us forget he did this against an Alabama defense that had just stuffed Michigan with a bagel. He threw pitch perfect pass after pitch perfect pass, not giving up at the end when all hope seemed lost and easily could have won if his receivers caught even one of the three touchdown throws that ended up as field goals because of being dropped or knocked out at the last second. The Clemson defense played tough through long stretches of the game, but were exposed to a series of big plays through the air, on the ground and on special teams (an area of concern coming in as the worst kickoff coverage team in the ACC this season) that ultimately cost them the game. Who can doubt they will again be in the conversation for a playoff spot next season?

One might also mention the last touchdown of the game, with 12 seconds left, that ultimately saw $10 million in bets switch hands in Las Vegas alone. It was a bookies dream – with the underdog losing but covering the spread. Over a million dollars was made by those Vegas bookies alone as a result of that ultimately meaningless last score and one assumes the total went into the tens of millions if we could count all the illegal betting beyond the legal sports booking sites. Those who, one would have thought cleverly, bet on the under were also subject to losses, as few could have predicted a game with 85 points scored in front of two great defenses.

Finally is College Football, who must consider itself the ultimate winners, getting a Championship Game to remember and further proof that the committee tasked with picking the participants in this year’s playoff did their job. There is no better advertisement for a sport than an excellent, hard fought and closely contested final game to end a season and one assumes the sport might have garnered more than a few new fans with this enticing affair. Along with the 85 points, the game had 1,023 yards in total offense, one quarterback who threw for over 400 yards and four TDs while the other accrued 335 and two (on only 16 completions and 25 throws), only one turnover, eight receivers who caught a pass for 20-yards or more, a walk on freshman wide receiver (Hunter Renfrow) who caught 7 passes for 88 yards and two scores, the Alabama tight end who almost doubled his total yards for the year and 196 yards and a TD in kick returns from standout Alabama specialist Kenyan Drake. It was truly a night to remember, with more impressive defensive play that the numbers would suggest and the sole turnover being a key interception of Watson. Now we can say goodnight to another season, debate the favorites to get in the playoffs next year, who will turn pro and hang around for another year, how the coaching merry-go-round will shake up and turn our attention back to the NFL and a series of kickers who will hope for a better fate than that poor fella from Minnesota whose name with go down in the infamy right alongside Saban’s, though for far less sanguine reasons.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Trump and Cruz Mired in Race to the Bottom

Donald Trump has run his presidential campaign like he treats his hair, an affront to everyone except the guy looking back at him in the mirror and those stuck in a bygone era. He has taken on women, blacks, immigrants and Muslims with equal venom, appearing unable to provide a positive vision of a future America except one stuck in the distant past. Ted Cruz, as a Princeton graduate and Senator, has been a little more circumspect, holding his own viper tongue more often than the billionaire.

That was until a few days ago, when the conservative showed his true stripes by falling on tired old anti-feminist tropes to attack Clinton. At an Iowa event, where he is closing on the lead, he made the following statement in regard to Hillary: “"You know I'll tell you, in my house, if my daughter Cather, the five-year-old, says something she knows to be false, she gets a spanking," he said. "Well, in America, the voters have a way of administering a spanking” (People.com). Others have already criticized the reference to hitting a five-year-old, and that is certainly worthy of scrutiny, but the more powerful reference here is to spanking a woman who has served as the first lady, a Senator and Secretary of State.

Apparently 15 years into the new millennium, we are still stuck with the misogynist party of the 80s, who really do dream of going back to the 50s, where gays, women, blacks, Mexicans and everyone else who did not fit the American White Protestant ideal knew their place. It is as if the past 60 years had not happened at all and their sense of injustice at having their white, male privilege challenged was completely justified.
It is clear that this message resonates with aging white, right wing and Christian conservative voters, but is it one likely to play in a general election? One hopes not, or we could see the country continue its steady tilt toward fundamentalist nativism and hatred.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Should the Peyton Manning HGH Story Be Getting More Scrutiny?

Peyton Manning is at what we might call the “pantheon” level of sports iconography. This makes almost everything he does okay and puts his reputation above the level of reproach. The fact he has only won one Super Bowl, that he is a shill for just about any product offered to him (including a pretty average pizza brand), that he so often lost to his closest rival Brady and that his skills set has been on the decline for two years seems to be ignored in exploring his overall position in the history of the sport. Sure, there has been criticism of his performance on the field this season, but never of the man himself. Don’t get be wrong, Peyton Manning is one of the greatest regular season quarterbacks in the history of the league and did solidify his legacy when he won his sole Super Bowl in 2007. He has ripped apart the record books and has a career rating of 96.5 (fourth on the all-time list), along with a 65.3% completion percentage, 539 TDs versus 251 INTs and 71,940 yards. In the nine years QBR statistics have been kept, Manning had a 78.91 average, forgoing the terrible 45 he garnered in this injury-plagued year. His overall regular season record is 186-79 and 45-12 since he moved to Denver, including a Super Bowl appearance in a record setting season two years ago. His playoff record of 11-13 is where many find the biggest hole in his CV and why talk of him as the “greatest ever” seems suspect at best.

The point is Manning has had an incredible career that could, if things go his way, end with another trip to the Super Bowl to end this troubled season. Yet that is not the biggest story about Manning. A story from Al Jazeera over the holidays claimed that he might have taken HGH to help him on the road to recovery after the neck injuries that almost derailed his career. He came back from that injury, of course, moved on from the Colts to the Broncos and went on to have one of the best, if not the best), single seasons by a quarterback in NFL history. That that year didn’t end in a Super Bowl triumph but a blowout loss to the Seahawks took some of the luster from his comeback, but might also have allayed some questions about how exactly he did make it back with such aplomb. In any case, the story from Al Jazeera was quickly dismissed by everyone from Fox News to Manning to the league itself. And then, in one of the more bizarre events in recent years, the story died completely. There was no mention of it when Manning reentered the game and led the Broncos to victory last Sunday and little mention of it on sports radio or television since.

So what gives? Is the well-respected, corporate-sponsored Manning simply being given a pass? Why, for example, has no one besides The Nation even mentioned that he hired a guy named Ari Fleischer, yeah THAT Ari Fleischer, to serve as his PR representative on the matter? Why has no one followed up on the fact that Manning did admit a “private” package did arrive for his wife from the suspect Guyer Institute? The first thing so many athletes we later found out did cheat do is deny the allegations with indignant reproach. That is exactly what Manning did, the first time anyone has seen this guy angry since Brady ripped apart his Broncos last season – and that ire was largely covered by his helmet. Manning might very well be innocent of these charges but, given the level of cheating across all professional sports from bicycling and track to football and baseball, shouldn’t this story have at least a little more life to it? Fox News and others disparaged the story because of its source, claiming Al Jazeera is a hack, leftist outlet that is doing Al Gore’s bidding. While there is a connection between the two, and Al Jazeera has been criticized for some of its biases, it also was arguably the company that gave us the best coverage of the Iraq war, of the Arab Spring and what is really going on in the Middle East.

Should more questions be asked of the story and of Manning? Is it beyond the scope of reason that an aging quarterback looking for one more Super Bowl ring might dip into the alluring world of Human Growth Hormones along the road to recovery? Why would the originator of the story have lied when he did not know he was being taped only to change his story when he discovered he was? Again, I’m not saying he ever took HGH, I just do think a double standard appears to be emerging. And I have to wonder if race, corporate and NFL interests and his reputation have anything to do with it …