Thursday, September 29, 2016

Arsenal Rising: Unbeaten in 7 Straight

As an Arsenal fan for almost 20 years, I have learned to not read too much into any streak or get too optimistic in general about our prospects of silverware. It is impossible, however, to ignore the way the Gunners have bounced back from their disappointing start to the season. Since the 4-3 loss to Liverpool on the opening weekend, Arsenal are now undefeated in their last eight, having won six and drawn two. They have secured three clean sheet in a row and have not conceded more than a goal in any of that octet of matches.

The past week, they finally turned the table on Wenger’s long-time nemesis Chelsea, flattening them comprehensively in a 3-0 victory at the Emirates that might have been even more humiliating for the Blues if the Gunners didn’t manage the game in the second half. It was their first victory over Chelsea in almost five years and the first time they have even scored in the past four matches against their crosstown rivals. Today they took on the English team killing FC Basel and left the stadium with a 2-0 victory that could have easily been five or six nil. In the process, the team has found a new balance from front to back, seen new signings shine and the renaissance of long-serving Theo Walcott.  

Five thoughts on the two victories:

1.  Walcott Hot Streak: like Wilshere and Ox, this is an important season for Walcott. After showing early promise, his career has suffered through stops and starts, injury problems and a regression in form over the past couple of seasons. While Wilshere is plying his trade for Bournemouth this season in an attempt to rejuvenate his floundering career and Ox waits for the playing time necessary to prove his worth, Walcott has again positioned himself as one of the easiest picks among the starting 11, even with stiff competition across the midfield and forward line.

Theo started with a goal against Liverpool in the opening game of the season, but otherwise looked like a player afraid to get injured again, while missing far too many simple passes, losing the ball regularly and contributing little on the defensive side. His next three games saw no goals and one assist and there were fears, at least by me, that he had regressed toward mediocrity, as so many Gunners from the past. Then he awakened in the Hull game, chipping in with a goal and wreaking havoc on the back line of a suddenly porous Hull defense. He followed that up with one of his finest performances as a Gunner, scoring and running the Chelsea defense ragged, while contributing on the defensive end, in their impressive 3-0 victory. Today, he scored both goals early in the Gunner’s 2-0 victory, while Ozil, Sanchez and others missed opportunity after opportunity for the remainder of the game. Walcott’s rejuvenated form is bad news for Ox, who will find it hard to get back in the starting lineup beyond cup competitions, but good news for Arsenal, who have too often lacked the pace on the right wing to stretch their opponents, particularly when they sit back in flanks of four. Walcott will certainly not continue to score at this rate, but if he can return to the feared figure of a few seasons ago, it adds another asset to the impressive Arsenal attack.

2.  Speaking of that Attack: Arsenal’s laser quick passing, thundering counters and slick one-two’s are finally starting to pay dividends again, with Sanchez, Ozil, Cazorla and Walcott all scoring multiple goals already, and those around them also chipping in. They were absolutely irresistible in the first 45 minutes against Chelsea, one of their finest moments since the Invincibles disbanded, and followed that up with a comprehensive victory over Basel that only missed the killer instinct to crush their opponent into full submission. The number of options now available across the front line is formidable and this increases the pressure on all to keep up the good form. New signing Perez, even after a stellar display in the League Cup, is having a hard time sniffing game time and Giroud is also finding it difficult to get back into the starting 11. On top of this, they are still awaiting the return of Welbeck and Ramsey, who add another dimension to the attack, while Iwobi continues to impress. Few teams in the world will be looking forward to facing Arsenal at the moment, and that is a dramatic change from the recent past.

3.  Defense Solidifies: Alongside the improved attack is a dramatic transformation across the back. Wenger’s stubbornness looked set to cost him the best centre back available this summer, but he finally bit the bullet and signed Mustafi, who has added meddle and pace to a backline that too foten suffered from ill-discipline or Mertesacker’s lack of pace. With Bellerin’s blistering speed to back up any ill-advised foray’s forward by the other three defenders, Arsenal are better equipped to stop counterattacks than at any time since the departure of Viera. Sure PSG got behind the back four far too often, but Arsenal have already kept an impressive four clean sheets in eight games, and conceded a solitary goal in three of the other four games. Xhaka, in particular, has shined, but there seems to be more understanding and cohesion across the side, with even Walcott and Ozil doing their part on the defensive end. The whole team will have to keep their focus going forward, especially when the level of competition rises, but the infamous lack of “spine” appears to finally have been eradicated, at least for the time being.

4.  Sanchez/Ozil Understanding: Ozil’s languid style still leaves some commentators and fans cold, but even as he has somehow gone the entire young season without a single assist, he is still the fulcrum from which the Arsenal attack hums. The assists will come, but we can take heart from the two goals he has scored and a sense that he has picked up his overall level so far this season after a slight falloff down the stretch in 2015-16. Sanchez, on the other hand, has seen his productivity closer to his breakout first season at Arsenal, with five goals and four assists to his name already. Beyond this, his high pressing and effort throughout games seems to be rubbing off on his peers, including Ozil and Walcott. Sanchez and Ozil are the clear stars on the team, but must be heartened by the three signings this summer that have improved the team from front to back.

5.  Looking Forward: Arsenal are now in the driver’s seat in the Champions League, with the opportunity to win all of their remaining matches and finally finish top of their group for the first time in five years. To do that, they will have to beat PSG at the Emirates, or draw that game and finish with a better goal difference. That is a distinct possibility, given the other two teams in the group, and would go a long way in finally pushing them past the Round of 16 in a competition where they have flattered to deceive for a decade now.

In the league, Arsenal sit in third place, a point behind their North London rivals (who they face on November 6) and five behind the seemingly indomitable Manchester City. That indomitability was certainly dented this evening, though, as Celtic finally ended an impressive winning streak to start Guardiola’s reign.  Dropped points are inevitable across a season and one wonders if old doubts might start creeping in. The five dropped points to start the season still smart, but Arsenal are clearly on the rise and the future looks bright. A victory in the League Cup, which is certainly within their reach now, would be a nice way to start a second half push, and build the confidence that has too often faltered in the money end of the season.

Next up for the Gunners are winnable fixtures against Burnley, Swansea, Ludogrets (home and away), Boro, Reading (in the League Cup) and Sunderland, before the first North London Derby of the season. Continuing the undefeated streak until then is surely within their reach, and might be necessary to keep up with a City side that still looks hard to beat. COYG!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Debate: Some Thoughts

There is certainly disagreement about who won the debate tonight, but I feel, both on the issues and on style, Clinton won hands down (see/read highlights here: NYT, CNN, IBT, WP). Trump played fast and loose with the truth, interrupted Clinton consistently (at least in the first half of the debate) and rambled on almost incoherently from one topic to the next, often failing to even engage with the question asked. Rather than addressing most of the charges leveled against him, he instead turned each one onto Clinton, whether that ad hominem was relevant or not. At one point, Clinton said that by the end of the debate she expected Trump to blame her for every problem in America, to which he replied “why not?”

Among his most outlandish comments, a few stuck out to me: 1) He essentially admitted he doesn’t pay some of his employees after they do work, as that is “allowed by the law,” 2) He claimed the Democrats have controlled the black vote for over a 100 years, 3) He sidestepped questions about his taxes, turning it onto the non-story of the email imbroglia, 4) He continues to push Reaganomics, even as that economic policy has been shown to be an abject failure, 5) Continued to claim Clinton helped form ISIS (long before it even existed), 6) Again said we should have broken international law and “taken the oil” from Iraq (ignoring the prohibitive costs and time it would have taken to accomplish), 7) Continued to lie about his support for the Iraq War, even as anyone can easily find the Howard Stern clip (claiming that Sean Hannity can attest to this through private conversations they had), and 8) Consistently told half-truths and outright lies as if they were incontrovertibly true (see the Fact Check from New York Times here).

The extraordinary reality is many Americans don’t seem to care that Trump lies consistently, acts like a child, is cavalier about international relations and most other important issues in the country, is barely articulate at times and seems to have little knowledge of issues that should be de rigeur for a Presidential candidate. He seemed like a petulant child with a bad haircut tonight, lying, chiming in with questionable claims backed by absurdly simplistic rhetorical strategies (“believe me”) unrelated to reality and using school yard retorts rather than answering questions.

Clinton looked Presidential, if occasionally robotic, failing to fall prey to Trump’s erratic behavior, bullying and overall disrespectful attitude, clearly winning the debate. The problem is that his supporters fundamentally disagree with me and it is unclear what the 20 or so percent of the voting public who are undecided will take away from the debate. It did appear he was coding a masculine mien meant to feed on male discomfort with the thought of a female president, but how far that strategy will go is unclear – particularly after the racist campaign of McCain and Romney failed to stop President Obama’s two victories. It will be interesting to see what the polls tell us tomorrow, but I am mildly optimistic this might turn the tide back toward Clinton …

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Trump Continues to Surge Even as He Refuses to Pivot

As we near the first debate and move closer and closer to election day, Trump appears to be emulating an unlikely source – the husband of the Democratic nominee. As some might remember, Clinton became known as the “Teflon President,” able to skirt issue after issue and maintain his popularity even after leaving office. His escapades generally revolved around extracurricular marital affairs, which showed a change in the country’s attitudes toward infidelity. With Trump, he appears immune to a much more troubling set of crimes and misdemeanors well beyond the racist tendencies of his campaign.

In just the past couple of weeks, Trump has continued to show himself as the embodiment of hate and fear, as well as an unethical businessman. And yet plenty of Americans don’t seem to care. Among the more egregious statements and actions perpetrated by the Reality TV star include the following:

·   While attitudes on abortion has remained relatively stable over the past 40 years (Gallup) , Trump has just hired Marjorie Dannenfelser, the head of the Susan B. Anthony List (might the long dead feminist and suffragette be rolling in her grave?) and one of the most vociferous anti-abortion lobbyists in America (Huff Post).
·   Apologized for propagating the birther movement only to then turn the blame for the entire endeavor onto his running mate, who never promoted those lies, even as her 2008 presidential bid was undermined by Obama (Salon).
·   Continues to call for mass deportation of immigrants and the building of a wall paid for by a Mexican government that has already refuted their willingness to do so, though these policies are surprisingly popular with Americans (see Rasmussen Report).
·   Advocates for spreading the now defunct and heavily criticized New York City policy of “Stop and Frisk” nationwide (Stop and Frisk).  
·   Claims we should essentially appropriate oil from Iraq to repay us for the insurgency and cost of the war that we started preemptively, even as this is clearly illegal under international law (The Guardian).
·   Finally, we have been given new insight into his business practices over the years, including using his Foundation to pay off legal problems for his for-profit companies (Salon) while also admitting he is appropriating other people’s money through the foundation for his own tax benefit (WP).

Even with most of these positions at odds with so many Americas, Trump is not only surging in the polls, he just shattered the record for small donor fundraising for a Republican (Politico). His brash, tactless, racist, sexist and xenophobic rhetoric, while horrifying most liberals and moderates alike, is resonating with many across the country who believe this attitude is what is necessary to “fix the country” and “make it great” again.

The reality as the race stands now is not, as many argue, that Americans are simply ignorant. I think it is more based on fear – the fear of the working class that the new reality is their permanent condition going forward, fear of the middle class that they are being squeezed downward (a very real fear, of course, even with the record upsurge in income last year – as 5 percent is not going to solve the long term decline in income and savings over a 30-year period), fear of terrorism and increased violence across the nation and fear of whites (particularly of the male variety) that “others” are the main reason for their declining quality of life.

As has often happened in the past, fascism rises when people are in a state of political, economic and/or social unrest, when the economy is in decline and when they feel their lives are out of their control. We saw it in the dark days of Germany after their World War I loss, in Italy around the same time, in pockets of America during the Cold War and more recently in Greece, Spain, Hungary and Great Britain. Fascism has currency and when backed by the very real currency of the power elites, it becomes a serious threat to democracy, justice and our collective futures. One can only hope that people wake up to the vacuity under the veneer of Trumpism before it is too late.

The great irony, of course, is that Trump has been part of the problem for decades now, avoiding taxes, sending jobs overseas, abusing his low income and minority tenants, skewing the political process and feeding on cruelty as entertainment. His billions, like all billionaires, come through the exploitation of others – generally those at or near the bottom of the economic ladder.