Thursday, February 23, 2017

Arsenal Made to Work in 2-0 Victory over Sutton in FA Cup Fairytale

Arsenal were expected to win their FA Cup tie with the non-league side Sutton over 100 places behind them in the combined English table. Yet there was the issue of the artificial surface, the partisan crowd, the fairytale quality of the match and the reality that the Gunners had just been pummeled by Bayern to essentially end another Champions League season in the round of 16, for the seventh year in succession. But after a shaky start, Arsenal pulled ahead on a Lucas Perez goal and then sealed the victory with Walcott’s 100th goal for the club. Three quick thoughts on the game:

1. Ox Hound; Perez Rising:
Something has gone wrong with the game of Oxlade-Chamberlain, who seems to lose his cool whenever he is within 30 yards of goal. He sent one pass after another askew in the final third in the second half, after coming on for Elneny,    and had another night to forget, a mounting problem for the young Englishman. In the 76th minute, Chamberlain was meandering on the ball as he cut across to the right and was dispossessed at the halfway line, carving the Gunners open but for a last second intervention from Holding. He had two half chances to score from the edge of the box as well, sending the first meekly to the keeper and the second high and wide. He did send a nice through ball to Sanchez right before that, but the Chilean held his run for a second too long and the chance was gone. And an excellent run past two defenders on the left channel certainly impressed, though like so many Arsenal attacks in this game, it went unrewarded. The heavily-watered pitch certainly played a role, but Ox is going to have to improve if he is going to live up to his big potential.

Lucas Perez, on the other hand, must be wondering what it will take to get into the starting 11 on a more regular basis. It was his fine, if fortuitous, shot in the 27th minute that settled the Gunner’s jitters, and his general poise which contrasted the general lack of it from many of those around him. Iwobi, in particular, seems to have taken several steps backward in his development as the season has worn on, with a penchant for dribbling directly into defenders rather than passing the ball off to open teammates. Getting back to Lucas, he now has 7 goals in all competitions, in 9 starts and 9 substitute appearances, along with 3 assists and a respectable 77 percent pass completion percentage. The key point is the Arsenal attack seems substantially more dynamic when he is on the pitch and they need that dynamism to ensure they stay in the Top 4.

A quick nod should also be given to Walcott, on the occasion of his 100th goal in an Arsenal shirt, a feat only accomplished by 18 others. Walcott volleyed in a deflected cross from Nacho Monreal in the 55th minute, a goal that essentially settled the tie. Walcott continues to split opinion, though, as his sometimes-excellent finishing is combined with long periods where he becomes the invisible man, the lack of progress in his ball handling and passing and the problems he causes down the right side for his inability to track back with enough frequency or intent.

2. Defense Still Shaky:
Arsenal dominated possession for much of the match, but Sutton still had chances when they did get on the ball. In the first half, an askew pass from Ospina almost created an excellent opportunity for the home side. Two other chances came in relatively quick succession after the 60th minute - a shot off the bar and a free header from a corner that Jamie Collins just sent over, as Ospina came out but got nowhere near the ball. In the 65th minute, former Gunner youngster Deacon, sent a blistering shot into the post, as Ospina stood pasted to his position, lucky that no one was on hand to put in the rebound.

Arsenal just leave too much room on the wings and through the middle, allowing crosses and shots to come in without sufficient challenge. Compare them to Chelsea in most games and you see why the latter are almost certain to win the title. Mustafa and Holding were relatively solid, though, with Gabriel getting a little too far forward a couple of times and Montreal adequate without doing anything terribly compelling. Ospina also displayed some of the shakiness and inconsistency that has kept him from the starting lineup most of the time since Cech arrived. With rumors of the ex-Chelsea star potentially moving on this summer, Arsenal have serious questions to answer at that position once again, along with the need to shore up the center with another steady presence, to play when Mustafi or Koscielny is out. Holding is still too green and Gabriel lacks the presence, pace and positioning to be a viable backup through the middle at this point, though he has certainly shown the ability to marshal the right side in Bellerin’s absence.  

3. Sutton Comport Themselves Well, Except …
Sutton showed impressive resolve after being overrun early and had some chances to make a game of it, though their inability to take advantage of their few chances meant they ultimately fell to a 2-0 defeat. The quality at this level has improved dramatically, as Wenger noted, even with Sutton’s players plying their trade between stints as ice cream men, lumberjacks and accountants, among other vocations, alongside a manager who works for free. They defended solidly for most of the game, showed a few stretches of passing flair and had two near misses. The game was not without its ugly moments, though, as a silly local decided this was the ideal moment to drop his knickers and run across the pitch in the full month, others threw a bottle at Wenger and their 320-poung, 46-year-old backup keeper-cum-assistant coach, Wayne Shaw, apparently ate a pie in the second half as a publicity stunt and to earn a few bobs for his friends with the local bookies, resigning in tears a day later.  

--> For Sutton, they can get back toward normalcy now as Arsenal move on to face another non-league side in the quarterfinals, this time the upstarts from Lincoln. The FA cup looks like the only viable trophy on offer any longer, and victory in that competition was be a fitting end to what many believe will be Wenger’s last season in charge of his beloved Arsenal.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

We Should Have Seen It Coming …

When fake news and real news become as indiscernible as the actual composition of animal parts that make up the typical Dodger dog, we shouldn’t be terribly surprised when long established laws of the land are called into question. Of course, we shouldn’t pretend this is a trend that began with Donald Trump, as America has been on the path to radical skepticism for some time, with conservatives particularly adept at altering reality to serve their interests for several decades now. We need only look at the Pentagon Papers, the transformation of Oliver North into a hero, Reaganomics, the 2000 election battle, global warming, the case for the second Iraq War or the birther movement that started us on the path to our current, buffoon of a President.

But even those of us who pay attention to these trends with increasing consternation thought some battles were long over. Maybe we were being naïve, with even evolution still open for major debate 40 years after Inherit the Wind. Yet even I was a little surprised to hear that an argument that seemed settled a long time ago was back in the fray. What argument is that, you might ask? Is it the moon landing or the assassination of JFK? Maybe whether Marilyn Monroe was killed by the mob to warn the Kennedy's to lay off? Or that reptilian humanoid forms populate the most important leadership positions on the planet? Could it be that we were off by a few years with those greatest of sages, the Mayans, who were so good at predicting things they failed to prognosticate their own fate?

No this is a debate that goes even further back – hundreds of years, in fact. And it is the one around the very nature of earth itself. Oh, those silly folks who still think earth is the center of the universe? No, keep going – that comes later. What we are talking about here is that worldwide, centuries-long conspiracy that tells us … wait for it … that the world is round. That’s right, a basketball player from the title-winning Cleveland Cavaliers not only said he believes the earth is flat, but has backed that claim up in subsequent interviews, with many of his teammates and fellow cagers backing him up.

Kyrie Irving claimed, “'This is not even a conspiracy theory. The Earth is flat. The Earth is flat... It's right in front of our faces. I'm telling you, it's right in front of our faces. They lie to us.” That sounds about right to the age we live in, where Trump supporter Roger Stone feels comfortable openly claiming that you now have a choice, to believe the mainstream media or one of the alt-right new sources like Breitbart of Infowars, to use something crazy like facts and statistics in the search for the truth, or simply believe what someone tells you without bothering to research its veracity.

And that is increasingly becoming conventional wisdom. Draymond Green, of the Golden State Warriors who blew the 3-1 lead they had last year to allow Irving and the Cavs to end the city’s long losing streak, supported his foe on the court by saying, “It’s just his opinion. It’s hard to call someone’s opinion crazy. That’s what he thinks.” Have we really sunk that low? Sure, my opinion is that laws on public defecation are outdated and I therefore choose to drop trough in the lovely veranda of City Hall. You got a problem with that? And his teammate King James largely concurred with Green’s assessment, stating, “Kyrie is my little brother. He's my All-Star point guard, superstar point guard, and if he decides he wants to say the Earth is flat, so be it … He’s an interesting guy and he believes it.” Sound reasoning … for a Trump supporter, as least.

In other breaking news, the Russian government launched a plan of subversive attack to undermine the U.S. election, planting a figure friendly to their interests in the most powerful job in the world … and succeeded. Yeah right! Oh wait, that one might very well be true. Hmm, the oil and gas industries set out to convince the public that they are actually the great protectors of the environment and that it is a conspiracy by Nobel-Prize winning scientists to trick us into believing we are destroying our environment. Damn, no, that one appears to be accurate as well. The tobacco companies started a research institute to test the danger of their own product, finding out that, luckily, it wasn’t. No, that happened too. I’ve got it - a millionaire jackass from the 80s, known more as a playboy with a bizarre hairdo than anyone we should take seriously, makes it big in the world of reality television and then harnesses that popularity to convince enough people to vote him into the Presidency with a playbook of strategies right out of Nazi Germany, then backs that up with tools culled from the playbook of our greatest enemy in history. 

Screw it; I give up. Maybe the earth is flat. Send me any pictures that might back up this proposition. Or, actually, hold off on those for now. I expect I’ll be reading about it on the front page of the Breitbart Washington Post or Infowars New York Times next year.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Trump Continues to Defy the Odds … By Being Worse than We Could Have Imagined

It’s hard to believe, but the Presidency of Donald Trump seems to get worse with each passing day. Since my last post, an incredible amount has happened, but much of it following the same pattern – chaos in his administration, anti-labor actions, conflicts of interest, growing evidence of potential ties to the Russian election hack and lies that just keep piling on top of other lies. What is becoming clearer as one week passes into the next is that Trump is engaged in an all-out assault on the media, the main organism that can hold his flailing administration accountable for it anti-democratic, anti-American and anti-worker agenda.

In this post, I will simply highlight some of the most egregious examples of his behavior in the past 10 days. Top of the list, of course, is the ties to Russia and contacts between his campaign team and the Kremlin during the election (NYT) alongside the fastest resignation of of a Defense Secretary in history (NYT). For those who continue to doubt that the Russians helped elect Trump, they might want to look to Germany, where they are trying to interfere in the upcoming election, or Montenegro, where they are implicated in an assassination attempt. Beyond the Russia ties is the most chaotic transition in history, amplified by his Labor Secretary having to withdraw after allegations of his spousal abuse were confirmed from an old Oprah tape. That follows claims of spousal abuse for his key strategist Bannon and others in the administration. And, of course, one should note the GOP pushing through the nomination of Scott Pruitt, even as he faces legal action for failing to release emails between his office in Oklahoma and the Oil & Gas companies he served so well as Attorney General of the state (WP).  

The rally in Florida yesterday exemplified all that it is wrong with Trump, from his ceaseless attack on the media to his penchant for altering reality to serve his interests. Some in the media are already fearful that they could be hunted down like a third-world country’s media for covering the administration honestly as the witch hunt for leakers grows, the first case of self-censorship emerged and the media worries that this could be the start of a trend. And just in case we thought he didn’t mean it, Reince Priebus emerged from his near invisibility to confirm that he did. Even Fox News’ Chris Wallace felt compelled to critique the President for his dangerous attacks on the media. And this comes as his new FCC Chair seems poised to undermine another channel for dissent, by ending Net Neutrality.

There was also continued assailing of immigrants as fears swell across the country with raids appearing to be on the rise, even as he admitted defeat in his original immigration order just last week. This is in concert, with his fear mongering of increased crime in the "inner cities," ironic given the fact the numbers appear to be a blip in a downturn in crime that has been going on for over two decades and the new FBI report that provides further details of his and his father’s attempt to kick blacks out of his real estate holdings in the 70s.   

As Trump was rallying his troops near his White House South, Pence was attempting to allay the fears of a Europe that is increasingly worried about the rhetoric coming from the administration. And some are suggesting that the reason he is on the road so much is because he is already suffering from cabin fever, which one might see as a good sign if it didn’t mean Bannon could be formulating even more of the foreign and domestic policy.      

Finally, in his efforts to rein in spending, Trump is targeting a host of conservative bête noirs including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, AmeriCorps and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. These are all governmental organizations that serve the people of the country, providing public television and radio, legal services, jobs for kids and funding for the arts and humanities. The assault appears to be yet another attempt by this administration to undermine the public sphere and any organizations that might challenge his power. But the most astounding element of these cuts is how little money they will save (NYT) and some of the other programs on the chopping block including the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, which dispenses grants to reduce drug use and drug trafficking, and the Export-Import Bank, which has guaranteed loans to foreign customers of American companies since the 1930s. Do any of these 2.5 billion in cuts really make America great again? I’ll leave that up to his voters to decide, though it is unlikely they will even know, or care, about them …