Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Arsenal Fight Back to Beat Leicester 4-3 in Season Opener

Arsenal came back from a goal down for the second week in a row, continuing a trend from last season of pulling out victory from the jaws of defeat. After taking an early lead through new striker Alexandre Lacazette (2’), Arsenal gave back two goals over the next half hour, to Okazaki and Vardy. Right before halftime, Welbeck equalized for the Gunners, only for the side to fall behind again as Vardy put in a corner at the near post in the 56th minute. Wenger brought on Giroud and Ramsey in the 67th minute and both scored, in the 83rd and 85th minutes, to complete the comeback for a 4-3 victory.  

Three thoughts on the game:

1.    Defensive Mistakes Almost Cost Arsenal Dearly
Besides a two-month stretch that cost Arsenal their place in the knockout stage of the Champions League and, ultimately, a spot in the top 4, Arsenal cut down on the defensive errors that had beset them for the previous few seasons. With Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gabriel and Mustafi all sidelined, the makeshift back three of Holding, Kolasinac and Monreal, with Ox and Bellerin as wingbacks, and Xhaka and Elneny in the midfield, committed three mistakes in the game, all leading to goals. In fact, those were the only three shots on target for Leicester, among six shots in total across the 90 plus minutes. Arsenal can be forgiven for a few mistakes in the opening game of the season, shaking off the cobwebs and trying to end a stretch of only two wins in the past six openers, but need to limit those mistakes moving forward, as they face Chelsea and Liverpool in two of their next three fixtures, sandwiched by a trip to Stoke and visits from Bournemouth and West Brom.

Their offensive potency saved them in this game, but the aforementioned troubling stretch from January 31 through March 18 earlier this year, saw them conceding at least two goals in 7 of 10 games (with two of the three where they didn’t in the FA Cup against sides from lower divisions) and three or more in six of those games (including 10 over two legs with Bayern in the UCL). Starting with their 2-1 victory over Boro on April 17, the Gunners registered five clean sheets in their last 10 fixtures of the season, conceding one goal in their other five. We should not read too much from the makeshift defense that faced a Leicester side that reminded of the champions of two seasons ago, ceding 70 percent of possession while launching their deadly counter strategically throughout. But getting their starters healthy and back in the lineup quickly will play a big role in taking full advantage of an opening schedule that only features two teams that finished above them among their next eight matches.

2.    Xhaka Continues to Impress
While Xhaka’s errant pass across the pitch in his own half led to Leicester’s opener, he was otherwise excellent, assisting Ramsey’s equalizer with a perfectly lofted pass over the flanked Leicester defense and the corner kick put in by Giroud for the winner two minutes later. Xhaka does not have the range of passes or dribbling ability of Cazorla, but is more solid defensively and has improved his troubling tendency to get into disciplinary troubles. With no slated return for the diminutive Spaniard, Xhaka could play a key role in propelling Arsenal to a title tilt. He has improved his poise and passing range, provides a decent shot from distance that will keep deep-lying defenses honest and is now the leading passer for the team in most games.

The key will be deciding who plays besides him. Ramsey, when healthy, is the obvious choice, and it was his introduction in the second half that took the Gunner offense to the next level, including scoring the equalizer in the 83rd minute. If Ramsey can approach his form of a few seasons ago, Arsenal could well become the most potent attack in the league, only rivaled by a healthy Tottenham and a stacked City. When unavailable or if Arsenal want to play more defensively, either Coquelin (very defensive) or Elneny (a decent option, though his passing is far more erratic than the other options) are both available. If Wilshere stays, he provides another possibility, as does Ox, though he has thrived more on the wings last season and throughout the preseason and last two matches. Whatever the case, Xhaka has certainly silenced his critics throughout last term – sometimes exaggerating his shortcomings – and emerged as a key cog in the first team machine.

3.  Strength in Depth
While Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool are all worried about squad depth, with fans rankling for additional signings, Arsenal’s problem appears to be of the opposite sort – a bloated corps that needs to be culled. While players like Gibbs, Debuchy, Campbell, Perez and Jenkinson will hopefully be sold before the window closes, Arsenal would still have the second best bench in the league, only behind the absurd riches on offer at Man City. Giroud now has the most goals off the bench in the league since the beginning of last season (7), after deciding to stay and fight for a starting spot, rather than move on to a team with more first team opportunities on offer. Walcott is just coming off his best scoring season in a decade with the Gunners (10 goals in the league, four in the Champions League and 5 in the FA Cup). Welbeck is health again, Reiss Nelson is a youngster with big upside after an excellent preseason, Iwobi seems to be returning near to his best form from last season (though he still needs more poise in front of goal) and Lacazette appears to provide a new option for the Gunners with his speed, close control and impressive dribbling abilities.

This, of course, ignored Sanchez, coming off his impressive season of 30 goals and 15 assists in all comps (assuming we keep him before the window shuts in about two-week’s time) and Ozil, who finished with 12 goals and 13 assists after a slow start in the latter category. I’ve already outlined the options in central midfield and then, for the first time in recent memory, Wenger might end up with a selection headache at the back based on performance – with Koscielny, Mustafi, Mertesacker, Gabriel and Holding all vying for three slots through the middle (or two if he returns to a 4-3-2-1) and Bellerin, Monreal, Kolasinac, Gabriel and Ox fighting it out for the wingback spots. Across the lineup, Wenger has viable options at each position on the pitch and a number of impact subs that can change the shape of a game, as was the case Friday night.

It is far too early to raise the prospect of Arsenal finally getting off the 13-year snide and lifting the Premier League trophy once again, but early signs are promising for the Gunners, even as most pundits have them falling outside the Top 4 for the second year running.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Arsenal Win Community Shield to Launch New Season

Arsenal came back from a goal down in the second half to beat Chelsea 1-1 on penalties (4-1) for the third time on the bounce with a trophy on the line and the third time in the past four competitive matches. Some like to discount the value of the curtain raiser for the season, but besides allowing their goalkeeper to take the second penalty shot, which he appeared to mistake for a goal kick, this was a game with teeth and midseason intensity. Arsenal started the brighter of the two sides in the first half, but Chelsea grew into the game as halftime approached. The best opportunity of the half fell to new Arsenal signing Lacazette, who sent a curling shot onto the post. Chelsea sniffed a couple of half chances of their own, but Cech was solid as was the supporting cast.

That all changed right after halftime, as a poor clearance from the otherwise excellent Granit Xhaka fell to Cahill, who headed it goalward. Holding lost his man and Moses stormed forward, taking an excellent touch before rifling the ball past the outstretched Cech. It would have been sweet respite for the man who saw red in the FA Cup Final 10 weeks ago, ultimately costing Chelsea the double, but for the equalizer that came 36 minutes later. Arsenal kept their cool, though, and seemed to be finding another gear, though without the finished product. Giroud and Walcott replaced Lacazette and Iwobi and Walcott had a couple of chances, following a howling cannonball from Xhaka that Courtois just tipped wide. In the 82nd minute, the pressure paid off, as Xhaka sent in a perfect dipping free kick that Kolasinac deftly headed across goal with panache.

The game ultimately went to penalties, in the new ABBA format and, after Cahill coolly slashed in the opener, Walcott and Monreal responded with successful kicks. Then, in one of the more bizarre moments you are likely to see, Chelsea’s keeper Courtois took to the spot, sending his effort high over the bar. Morata was up next and kicked wide of the far post, with Cech looking to have his shot covered even if it was on target. Ox stepped up and confidently slotted his chance in before Giroud sent Courtois the wrong way and sealed the penalty shootout 4-1, and the Community Shield for the third time in the past four seasons.

Three thoughts on the game:

1.    Wembley’s Been Good to Wenger
Arsenal have won the FA Cup three of the past four seasons and followed that up with the Community Shield each August. All told, it was their ninth straight victory at Wembley and the sixth “trophy” in just over four seasons. Sure, we would like to win the league or get past the first ask in the Champions League knockout stage, but for fans like me that went nine long years without a solitary trophy, things could certainly be worse … take, for example, being a Spurs fan. Of course, Chelsea have bigger fish to fry this season and have two league crowns over that span and Champions League and Europa League titles if we add another season to the equation. But this must be satisfying for Wenger, who has beaten Conti in three of the four competitive matches they’ve played – though that one loss would have pushed Arsenal over the hump and into the Champions League this season (ceteris paribus).

Arsenal dominated stretches of the game and seem to have Chelsea’s number at the moment, but for two sloppily conceded goals in the last two competitive matches. Arsenal ultimately bossed possession to the tune of 54 percent and outshot Chelsea 11 to 7, with 5 corners to the Blues 4. They carved out more chances throughout the match and will likely feel aggrieved to have allowed the opener, after the poor clearance from Xhaka. However, as has become a pattern since the disastrous stretch last winter/early spring, Arsenal have shown a renewed vigor and will to win that they could very well carry into an important season for them.

In fact, for the first time in a long time, Arsenal seem to have a bloated squad that actually needs culling. Up front, they have Lacazette, Giroud, Welbeck, Sanchez and even Walcott to choose from as the center of attack, Ox, Walcott, Sanchez and Iwobi to play on the wings, Ramsey, Xhaka, Elneny, Ox, Coquelin and, maybe someday, Cazorla to choose from in the midfield, and in their new three-man back, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Mustafi, Holding, Gabriel, Monreal and Kolasinac can all deputize, with two of Monreal, Kolasinac and Bellerin playing wingback (and Ox or Gabriel other options on the corners). Who can go of this gang? Well, rumours abound that one of Welbeck or Giroud might head out of town (I would choose the former), that Walcott could be a casualty if the right bidder came knocking, that Wilshere might be best served by leaving (even as he wants to kick on) and that Gibbs, Debuchy, Perez and a few others are clearly surplus to requirements.

On top of all these names, some youngsters might just be blooded in the Europa League and Cups, including the exciting Reiss Nelson, developing Akpom and two who impressed in limited work last season – Maitland-Niles and Reine-Adelaide. And there is still the possibility that Arsenal can come to an agreement with Monaco on the exciting winger Thomas Lemar.

2.    Players Ratings
Lacazette was solid without being exceptional, though he was probably starved of the service one expects Ozil, Ramsey and Sanchez (fingers crossed) will provide once the season begins. All three were missing for different reasons, with Sanchez still lacking fitness, Ozil out with a knock to his ankle he suffered in training and Ramsey hobbled by a thigh injury, though it is not thought to be terribly serious (even as we’ve heard that one before). In their absence, others shined, including the rejuvenated Xhaka, who has bedded in after a rough start to life in England. His range of passing was on display throughout, providing the free kick that assisted the equalizer. Ox also looked solid, though he lost the ball a few times in dangerous positions that could have easily led to dangerous counters. The backline did its job ably, with Holding again displaying his potential as a future leader and the others largely keeping Chelsea at bay.

The equalizing goal was scored by one of the more astute signings of a summer of transfer excess that would leave a reborn Louis XIV envious. While PSG try to figure out how to recoup the half a billion pounds that Neymar will ultimately cost them and Man City sweat over coming good with their humongous summer outlay, Sead Kolasinac was gotten on the cheap earlier this summer. And by cheap, I mean free! The Bosnian defender has the perfect physique for the rigors of the League and appears to have an eye for goal as well. He was excellent throughout his 60 plus minutes on the pitch and looks like a great signing that can play in the back three or on the left wing. Bellerin looked back near full speed, but still lacks the sharpness of the first half of last season and must improve if he is to stave off Ox for the right wingback spot.

On the Chelsea side, it is hard to make a fair assessment of Morata in such a short stint on the pitch, but the moment and tension did seem to get to him, as he fumbled the ball a few times before the poor penalty miss. Rudiger seemed fine and the rest of Chelsea’s back line were solid throughout, but for the moment they abandoned the far post at the most inopportune of moments. Pedro made some storming runs before being sent off (maybe rather harshly) and Fabergas continues to impress with his range of passes. Moses scored for the first time in 27 games and Willian looked lively, if a little off his best. Finally, as one would expect, Konte was solid, if quiet, missing some of the outlets he is used to relying on on the counter. One clear concern for Conte moving forward, is what to do without Hazard on the pitch and how long it will take Morata to adapt to his new home.

3.  Don’t Read Too Much into this One
While I would love to prognosticate the beginning of an epic campaign for the Gunners and another collapse on the backend of a title for Chelsea, one should not take too many augurs from this match, as both sides were depleted of some of their biggest stars. For Arsenal, Koscielny, Sanchez, Ozil, Mustafi and Ramsey were all missing and Mertesacker had to leave after a, seemingly inadvertent, elbow to the face from Cahill in the 30th minute. On the losing side, Hazard, Bakayoko and, of course, Diego Costa were all missing, though the former has played his last game with the Champions. The other two new signings, Rudiger and Morata did come on later in the game, though neither acquitted themselves particularly well, as mentioned above.

Potentially informative is the fact only Manchester United have repeated as Champions in the Premier League era and most recent champions have fared rather poorly the following season, including Chelsea just a couple of seasons ago. With the increased competition of the league, one does wonder if they have the tools necessary to repeat, along with the requisite will and hunger. Morata is an exceptional player, but Diego Costa’s fiery side arguably helped them over the line both times they won the title and he might be sorely missed in the end. They might also rue the loss of the experience and winning mentality now playing in the Championship with Aston Villa.

For Arsenal, we won’t know much until we get to the money end of the season, as false hopes have been extinguished far too often over the past decade plus, including two seasons ago, when they really should have beaten Cinderella Leicester to the crown. The run of form since last April is certainly something to build on, along with a further taste of trophy glory that should leave the youngsters and more seasoned stars hungry for more. It also appears that Sanchez has resigned himself to staying this season, particularly given that PSG’s outlay on Neymar seems to end any foreign bidders worthy of consideration (Bayern balked at his salary demands of around 400,000 pounds a week earlier in the summer window). Of course, we shouldn’t count out Barcelona showing up at our doorstep with a mouthwatering bid, but Wenger seems set on retaining his best player. City might just be a year away for Sanchez, but with the World Cup on the horizon, one expects the diminutive Chilean who can to give it his best throughout the season. We’re only five days away from its commencement. Here we go again!

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The Absurdity of Our Insularity

One of the biggest problems facing America today is the insularity that appears to spread across the political spectrum, or at least outward from the center with increasing magnitude as it nears the dual poles. There are arguably many reasons to explain this insularity from the echo chamber offered on digital and traditional media platforms that allow one to only receive news and perspectives that reinforce what you already believe to the increasing segregation in society in general. Both conservatives and liberals are both guilty of abiding this new paradigm, existing in blissful ignorance of arguments that might differ with their own.

The costs of this insularity are profound, from the inability to engage in political discussion and debate across ideological lines to the very real and deleterious ways it has created an uber-partisan environment in DC that undermines compromise and forward movement on issues that affect our lives. It has led to increased violence, though predominantly from the right-leaning end of the political continuum, and an inability to even consider confounding evidence or arguments. Maybe most troubling to our long-term prospects, is the ways it has cut off the critical thinking facilities essential to the effective functioning of democracy.

One way in which we see this new political insularity is exposed is, of course, through those who continue to support President Trump, and those who blindly reject everything conservatives do from one day to the next (though one has to admit that has become more reasonable in recent years). Another way is the reactionary fervor that seems to sprout out from every corner of our cultural landscape, often more fervent and fiery than an Evangelical sermon.

The latest example emerged just yesterday, on the heals of the absurd imbroglio started by Trump himself, as he tweeted a video of him body slamming and punching CNN, followed by claims that CNN blackmailed the adult reddit user that made that video. The latest event to cause an Internet uproar? Well, that most offensive of American documents, The Declaration of Independence.

That’s right. A group of Trump supporters thought that NPR was tweeting propaganda, as it used 113 consecutive posts over a 20-minute period to convey the entire 1776 document to its followers, a tradition, one might mention, that has been going on for 29 years now. Some just thought it was spam, but others figured lines like “He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary power” and “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people” were a reference to our current Commander in Thief. And they were not going to take those remarks from the very media outlet they are hoping to defund as soon as possible.

While this is a minor example, and some even took the time to apologize for the reactionary posts, it does show how quick many are to apoplectic frenzy any time anyone writes, says or posts something they disagree with. It is a troubling trend that only seems to worsen with each passing year. On the left, activists seek to silence anyone who says anything offensive to their social justice agenda, which I do largely ascribe to I should admit, while on the right confounding perspectives are attacked like the words of Beelzebub himself.

I don’t believe the answer is simply more civility in the public sphere, as many have argued, as there is nothing wrong with being impassioned about your positions and arguing for them vigorously. In fact, one could argue the Democrats tendency to try to stand above the fray of political disagreement has cost them dearly, maybe none as clearly as Hillary Clinton. Others call for increased tolerance, but as Zizek so cleverly points out it too has its limits. Maybe the answer instead resides in finding ways to cross ideological boundaries, to talk to one another without the generally held notion that whatever your beliefs, those who disagree with you are just less intelligent, and to seek to stem the inflamed passions that have stoked the insularity toward silos of identity that are immune to all outside influence.

More than anything, we need to return to public spaces that are diverse, whether in our schools, our media or our daily interactions with others. We need to learn to actively listen, rather than simply wait for our turn to talk. We need content producers to stop feeding the flame of partisanship and violence. Ultimately, we need to find ways for those with different values, beliefs and cultural traditions to live harmoniously together. Easier said than done, one must admit, when one of the two founding documents of our country sends those who claim to love it most into a fury, on the very day we are celebrating its birth …