Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Arsenal Turn Corner with 3-1 Win and Transfer Business?

Arsenal started the season with a 4-3 home defeat to Liverpool after taking an early lead and then played out a relatively stale 0-0 draw at Leicester. And so, heading into last weekend, a victory at Watford was as close to a necessity as one could find so early in the season. The team responded with their best performance of the young season, storming out to a 3-0 halftime lead before finishing the job with a more defensive-oriented second half.

The scoring for the Gunners started early, as Sanchez was clattered in the box as he sought to head an excellent cross from Ozil. Santi Cazorla stepped up and scored his first league goal in 40 long games (9’). The Gunners were rampant, exchanging passes with ease and creating chances, though it took until the 40th minute for the second, when a perfectly placed Walcott cross found Sanchez at the far corner, his clever chip from close in just crossing the line over the goalkeeper’s head. In the minute of extra time in the first half, they made it three as Sanchez turned from scorer to provider, sending in an excellent cross from the left that found a charging Ozil beat Watford’s defenders to the ball and head it powerfully across goal. Up three at halftime, it was not surprising that the Gunners put the brakes on a little in the second half, though a relentless Watford attack did provide several opportunities to get back in the game. Their sole goal of the afternoon came in the 57th minute, when Roberto Pereyra finally got some payoff for an excellent performance by glomming on to a ball ping ponging around the box and slotting it calmly to the left corner of the goal. Watford tried to pull closer, but Arsenal gained some poise and passed the ball around without much forward momentum to slow things down and see out the victory.

Overall, the Gunners bossed 55 percent possession for the game, though Watford’s spirited second half display saw them outshoot Arsenal 14 to 10, with the Gunners both more clinical and on target scoring their three goals on seven shots on target to one in six for Watford. Sanchez, Ozil and new signing Xhaka were particularly impressive for Arsenal, with Koscielny solid at the back and Holding his own. However, Monreal seemed off his best form, Bellerin was beaten down the right side a little too often and Arsenal were lucky only to conceded one goal after a rather lackluster defensive display in the second half.

The signing of central defender Mustafi from Valencia might be just the remedy to some suspect defending in two of their first three league games, and the impressive performance of Xhaka will give Gooners hope that Arsenal have finally solved their defensive woes over the past several years. Mustafi and Koscielny should create a formidable core to the back line, backed by Monreal (one of the most consistent performers for the Gunners last season) and the speedy Bellerin. Xhaka should provide more cover for that back line, and they now have Coquelin and Elneny to create more stability from back to front. A hot streak from Ozil and Sanchez would help as well, particularly until some of the injured starters get back. On top of this, the cheap 2 million pound price for the promising young CB Holding could turn out to be money well spent a few seasons down the road, after two decent performances in succession.

The big disappointment was the failure to sign a world class forward, though they are harder to come by than they used to be. Perez could add some speed, guile and goals to the side, but he is certainly a step below targets like Lewandowski, Morata and Higuian (or even Vardy, though one does wonder how well he would have fit into the side). There is no question that Walcott is behind his best form from a few season back, but another option on the right is Ox, who appeared to be playing better before his latest injury. The season might ultimately again come down to the performance of Giroud, however, and one wonders if he can be expected to throw in the 20+ league goals necessary to a title winning side.

Wenger has spent over 90 million pounds this summer, plugging the three holes that have plagued the Gunners for a few years now. Whether Xhaka, Mustafi and Perez will solve problems of past seasons is still to be determined, but Arsenal are now a team that can certainly compete at the top. The fact he took longer to complete the latter two deals does see the Gunners already five points behind after only three games to their biggest competitors for the crown – the newly invigorated Manchester United, the Guardiola led City and the new-old Chelsea of Conte. Two weeks until we see how those pieces fit together.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Trump Nailing His Own Coffin Shut

As Donald Trump’s numbers plummet, we could bask in the sense that America has finally woken up to what they were supporting. On the other hand, we could ask: “what took you so long?” The reality, however, is that this election is far from over and that he happens to be running against another incredibly unpopular candidate, possibly combining for the worst presidential election in memory (maybe ever). Never before have the American people had to choose between two candidates they liked less. Sure, there was Bush vs. Gore, which pitted a misfiring Vice President against an abject buffoon, but their positivity ratings were never near the depths we are currently experiencing.

Nonetheless, it does look like a second Clinton presidency is becoming increasingly popular with each passing day. And this could be good for our democracy, at least putting a puncture in the right-wing talking heads that have had far too much influence on American democracy since the first Clinton entered office 24 years ago. Unfazed by his slumping figures, with even stalwart red states currently in play, Trump has decided to go all the way with his bellicose, largely unhinged campaign strategy, going as far as to hire a Breitbart executive as his campaign manager (NYT).

In just the past few weeks of a meltdown that seemed to immediately follow his rise to a marginal lead in the polls after the GOP Convention, here are some of the outlandish things the Republican nominee for our highest office has said:

-  - “In many respects you know they honor President Obama. ISIS is honoring President Obama! He is the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS, O.K.! He’s the founder, he founded ISIS and I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton. Co-founder, crooked Hillary Clinton. And that’s what it’s about.” As the crowd erupted into cheers and chants of “Lock her up,” Mr. Trump then smiled and basked in the crowd’s applause. (NYT)
  - Speaking about Pennsylvania, a state he is currently trailing in, “Pennsylvania is a little further, but I think we’ll win Pennsylvania because of the miners,” he said, adding of Mrs. Clinton: “She wants the miners out of business. She wants steel out of business.” (NYT)
  -  While this might be good news for the hardliners, GOP leaders were apoplectic where he told WKBT-TV in Wisconsin, “I am who I am. It's me. I don't want to change. Everyone talks about 'oh are you gonna pivot?' I don't want to pivot. I mean you have to be you. If you start pivoting, you are not being honest with people." His honesty, of course, includes the aforementioned charges, building a wall that Mexico will pay for, kicking out Muslims, telling Second Amendment advocates to take up arms to stop Clinton from appointing Supreme Court justices they might not like, ending our NATO alliance, spending more while cutting taxes dramatically and, somehow, cutting the deficit in the process, and a host of other absurd claims that defy history, logic and any sense of reality.
  -  And in one of the strangest claims in history, Trump is arguing the only way he can lose is if the election is stolen from him: “If the election is rigged, I would not be surprised. The voter ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development. We may have people vote 10 times.” (WP) He made similar claims in Ohio, saying, “the election is going to be rigged.” That same day, in an interview with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, he beseeched Republicans to start “watching closely” or the election will be “taken away from us” through fraud. Many people cry foul after losing, but to do so before is a new take on preemptive strikes that actually seems in line with Trump’s worldview.

And so all Hillary Clinton needs to do, at the moment, is do damage control on the many “scandals” that surround her and look as sane as possible. Even among her most vociferous critics, it is hard to find many who would argue she is not that …

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

New Season, Same Old Article About Same Old Arsenal (Arsenal 3 Liverpool 4)

Whoops, Wenger did it again … and again … and again once more. It seems to be a perennial occurrence at this point. An early signing to give fans hope Wenger is finally changing his ways and then dawdling for the rest of the summer. One or two stinging losses, like 2-0 to West Ham, 8-2 to United or 4-3 at home to Liverpool and the checkbook will finally emerge from its dusty vault. Last year, it didn’t and one wonders if Wenger will still eschew the two signings he clearly needs to compete with enemies old and new that seem to be strengthening from week to week. This is particularly true of his archrival Mourinho, who, with the exception of last summer after a title tilt, seems to get his business done early and effectively each summer. Sure there was the protracted negotiations to bring in the most expensive signing ever, but unless you bite a player for the third time at a World Cup, those moves always take time. And the new United boss might still be in the market, with rumors he might steal teen sensation Barbosa from under the noses of some of the biggest clubs in the world.

Back to Arsenal, though. Having controlled the vast majority of the first half and led even after Walcott inexplicably took the penalty he garnered and missed it, they again conceded right on the cusp of halftime. Heading into the locker 1-1, they must have sensed they could still squeak out three points at home. However, an offensive explosion and some questionable defending across the backline and Arsenal were suddenly in a 4-1 hole. They made the game interesting with two goals to draw to 4-3 but seemed to run out of fizz for the last 23 minutes and ultimately lost for the third time in four years in their home opener. Even with that shambolic defending, Wenger is haggling over the price of the best central defender available – Shoran Mustafi of Valencia. Arsenal have bid 20 million pounds but El Che want closer to 30. Given the long term absence of the aging Mertesacker, the suspect defending of injured Gabriel and the Championship level quality of Holding, just splash the cash! But Wenger is stubborn and might again believe he can prove the pundits wrong.

That might also be the case at striker, continuing to rely on a guy that will never deliver the title to North London. Giroud has moments of brilliance and adds an aerial threat to a side that hasn’t had one since at least Van Persie left, but he is not the right striker for this team any longer. He doesn’t have the pace to beat EPL defenders and has long patches where he goes wanting in front of goal. He, Walcott and the oft-injured Welbeck are wasting the talent of the most creative player in England, Ozil, and one wonders how much longer he will sit back and watch those around him fumble away chance after chance. Sanchez too has shown consistently that he is a much better player on the left wing than through the middle, hamstrung by having to play with his back to the goal. And so the need that has gone unfilled for over four years now continues to be an issue for a team that might be the most creative in the entire league. There was the failed attempt to bring in James Vardy, but one always wondered if he was the right player for the system. Lacazette seems among the best options available, but as has become his habit, Wenger appears unwilling to spend the money to complete the deal. He’s already missed out on Higuain and a host of others and time is running short. There is still the possibility of bringing in Morata, but is Wenger really willing to spend the necessary funds, and are Real really tempted to sell (particularly after letting Jesse go)?

In the end, we Gooners find ourselves where we do every season, wondering if Wenger will ever learn from past mistakes. The signings of Ozil, Sanchez and Cech showed a new resolve to change his ways, but they were never followed up with the necessary reinforcements to make the team complete. Last season might have been the biggest slap in the face yet, as the Gunners missed out on their best chance to win the league in 11 years by failing to complete the two signings – a defensive midfielder and striker – needed to keep up their title charge throughout the season. Looking back, after beating Leicester with a last second Welbeck goal, the future looked bright. But Giroud continued his scoring slump and the opportunity was lost. Wenger has admitted to feeling guilty about letting Leicester pip us to the crown, but admission of guilt only goes so far after over a decade in decline. The early signing of Xhaka this summer seemed to indicate Wenger learned from his mistake last summer, as the only team in the top five European leagues not to sign an outfield player, but the summer has worn on, the injury crisis at the back has deepened and nothing has been done to resolve it. How much more can we take?

Wenger will make excuses, as he is so apt to do, but maybe, just maybe, he will finally come good with the two signings that can allow us to compete with the improved City, Chelsea, United and Liverpool sides. I wouldn’t be willing to bet on it, but a Gooner can dream …