Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Rusty Arsenal Keeps Clean Sheet at Besiktas

Arsenal looked out of sorts in Istanbul yesterday in the first leg of their Champions League qualifier against Besiktas. The Turkish side was supremely motivated to put on a good display in front of the home supporters, and the atmosphere was loud and intimidating all match.

Arsene Wenger commented in the pre-match buildup that the two-legged series against Besiktas is the club's most important fixture until January, but his team lacked the quality to step up and play the way they are capable yesterday.

Demba Ba nearly caught Wojciech Szczesny off his line at the kickoff and Besiktas bossed large portions of the match, creating several good chances to score. The Arsenal defense held up well under the pressure, however, with Callum Chambers impressing in particular. Chambers was assured and confident for most of the match. He has been better than advertised; seamlessly filling in for Per Mertesacker in defense and stepping up to the challenge of playing in such a raucous atmosphere at such a young age. It was all well and good, but Chambers will hope that he won't be relied on so heavily in the home leg as Arsenal will hope to keep better possession.

The pitch, which was in very poor condition, had a significant impact on the Gunners' typical short-passing style. The Gunners lost possession frequently before they could reach the Besiktas box, constantly putting their defense under pressure.

Arsenal was at their best when they abandoned their principles and attacked quickly and directly after winning possession. The speed and dribbling ability of Alexis Sanchez was on full display. The Chilean was Arsenal's best player on the night, driving the team forward as well as working hard to reclaim the ball. Sanchez set up both Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla in the opening 15 minutes, but neither player was able to convert.

The lethargic Giroud, and to a lesser extent Cazorla, really struggled. Giroud is normally great with his first touch and link-up play--undeniably his best attribute as a player--but he was very poor last night. Attack after attack ended with the Frenchman's poor first touch.

Wenger has said he is happy with his striking options, and that he doesn't anticipate making any additions in this area. Therefore Giroud will likely be the team's only proven center forward for a second consecutive season.

I refuse to believe Wenger's intention is to play him in 50 matches again this year. Giroud visibly wore down in the second half of last season, and after playing for France in in the World Cup this summer, he still looks tired and in need of rest.

If Wenger does intend to play Sanchez as a center forward, the time to do it might be sooner rather than later. Personally I think we could see Walcott given a run of games in the middle when he returns from injury, with Sanchez staying in his more natural position on the right, at least until the Chilean adapts to the physicality of English play. But some sort of rotation in the middle is imperative. Last night showed that a tired Giroud is a liability to the whole team. He cannot be relied on so heavily again.

While never possessing the speed to get in behind defenses, Giroud is at his best when he is an energetic front-man, constantly making runs into intelligent positions where he can link up with the midfield or get on the end of crosses. Last night there was no movement, no energy.

Cazorla wasn't much better.

The Spaniard was outstanding in his first season in London, but regressed last year when the addition of Ozil pushed Cazorla out of his favored position and onto the left wing. When in the middle, Cazorla thrived in the pocket of space between midfield and defense. He has struggled since being shifted outside.

It seems he has been given the freedom to try and find that same space in his new position, but it hasn't been as effective. As the left winger, Cazorla is normally man-marked by the opposing right fullback. At 29, he does not have the pace to get in behind his marker. As a result, the defender can normally play very close to Cazorla and deny space when he checks back to receive the ball. He consequently drifts further and further toward the middle, killing the width and spacing of the Arsenal attack.

Personally I would rather see Cazorla back in the middle, at least until Ozil returns to the side. The attack lacks cutting edge without a #10. And even when Ozil gets back, I would rather not see Cazorla on the wing anymore.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should take his place. Despite playing only 20 minutes, the Ox made a big impact last night. He created Arsenal's best chance, a shot that hit the far post after creating space for himself with some incisive dribbling. The Ox has the pace to play the on the wing more effectively than Cazorla, especially in a more direct game. And after only playing 10 minutes against Crystal Palace Saturday, he had fresh legs. Which brings me to my next point...

I thought the squad should have been rotated more for last night's match. No one is fully fit as its still so early in the season. And unlike in years' past, we have an abundance of players who can rotate in at midweek. The defense is lacking numbers, and therefore Wenger had little choice in that area, but other areas of the team have enough depth to rotate.

Tomas Rosicky had a long summer and is ready to play. The Ox and Joel Campbell looked much more fit than Cazorla or Giroud in their preseason appearances.

Wenger surely must have been able to inspect the state of the pitch before naming his team. He must have known the rough surface would negatively affect his favored short-passing style of play. A little more pace might have made Arsenal much more dangerous on the counter if he had set up his team to play more directly--a style of play that better fit the field conditions. Instead he picked Cazorla and Giroud, specialists in the slower style.

Its always easy to see in hindsight, and I don't mean to be so negative. A draw is a good result away from home in a loud, intimidating atmosphere like that. The defense played well, Szczesny kept the clean sheet, and the midfield created lots of good opportunities for Giroud. Aaron Ramsey was harshly sent off late for two yellow cards, both of which were very soft. But even after losing a player Arsenal remained in control and saw the game out.

I don't mind that Ramsey will be suspended for the home leg, either. Ramsey's importance to the team means he won't get many games off this season. Forced rest won't be so bad if it helps him stay fit. I think the team can still beat Besiktas without him.

In all, like the opener against Palace last weekend, the result is what matters most. Having not conceded, Arsenal will like their chances of winning at home next week. But the performance needs to improve for the trip to Everton on Saturday.

Monday, August 18, 2014

EPL Week 1 Review

It was great to have the Premier League back this weekend. With 26 goals scored in the 10 matches, there was plenty of entertainment to go around. But how often do you get to watch bird poop fly directly into Ashley Young's open mouth? 

The Champions Man City did just enough to win their opener at Newcastle. Sp*rs enjoyed a last-minute win at West Ham, keeping a clean sheet despite conceding a penalty and losing Kyle Naughton after his hand-ball in the first half. Sunderland's Seb Larsson equalized at West Brom, the Baggies conceding late from a winning position like they did so many times last season. Leicester rescued a draw against Everton in their first match back in the Premier League. Aston Villa won at the Brittania Stadium--one of the more difficult places to win last season. And QPR had a penalty saved late to lose to Hull City. 

I covered Arsenal's victory over Crystal Palace in full detail on Saturday. Here's a look back at 3 more of the weekend's best matches.

Manchester United 1 - Swansea City 2

The Louis Van Gaal era started with a thud as United lost to Swansea at Old Trafford for the first time in club history. United was missing 8 first team players but that is no excuse for a club of their stature. Everything about the home performance was unconvincing. Van Gaal has a lot of work to do with this average group of players.

Credit Swansea, who utilized their numerical advantage on the wings against United's 3-5-2 formation to create both of their goals. Gylfi Sigurdsson created one goal and scored the other in a man-of-the-match performance. 

When Swansea had the ball on the wing the United midfield didn't give the defense enough help. Swansea could easily cut the ball back to the top of the box and find their players unmarked. Ander Herrera looks like he will need quite some time adjusting a more defensive role in physical England, and Darren Fletcher was equally poor, failing to track back on several occasions. Neither is the bulldog ball-winner Nigel De Jong was for Van Gaal's Dutch World Cup team. 

The other major thing I noticed watching this version of Van Gaal's 3-5-2 was that the outside midfielders, Young and Adnan Januzaj (who came on for Jesse Lingard after the young player was injured on his debut), played much higher up the pitch than in the Dutch version. 

At the World Cup, Holland's formation often looked more like a 5-3-2 than a 3-5-2. These players' positioning was the root of United's problems. Too often Wayne Routledge, Nathan Dyer, and Sigurdsson were able to get in behind Young and Januzaj, stretching Jones and young Tyler Blackett out to the sideline, making the entire defense outnumbered and under pressure. 

I would not be at all surprised if Ajax's Daley Blind, who played in Young's left wing role so well for Holland, is brought to Old Trafford this week. His father, Danny Blind, is one of Van Gaal's assistant coaches. 

In addition, I think United will try to target more central defenders, such as Sporting's Marcos Rojo or Mehdi Benatia of Roma, who are more familiar with playing in this type of system as it is more common in Italy and South America. There simply aren't enough quality defenders at Old Trafford right now, and the ones that are there have played with 4 at the back their entire careers.

The 3-5-2 was so ineffective that Van Gaal scrapped it at half-time, taking Chicharito off for Nani and switching to a 4-3-3. But the home side weren't much better in the new formation.

Wayne Rooney did score the equalizer, and he nearly took the lead with a free kick that hit the upright, but other than that I felt he was very poor. Many of his passes were played too late and intercepted. Far too often the United attack ended with him. Juan Mata was largely invisible, and it said a lot that United perhaps looked their most dangerous when Marouane Fellaini was brought on late as a target man in a desperate effort to equalize the scoreline.

Swansea played well and deserved the 3 points, but United looked extremely poor. With David Moyes no longer around to play the scapegoat, finally attention is being given to the lackluster squad Sir Alex Ferguson passed on to his successor. 

I would highly recommend reading the Mail's exclusive interview with Moyes, published Saturday, in which Moyes claims he wasn't given enough time to succeed or fail at Old Trafford, as he had planned to run the club through a multiple-season rebuild. If you can read between the lines, Moyes clearly feels he was thrown under the bus by another man who was struggling in his new role at the club--Ed Woodward.

Woodward, who took over for David Gill as chief executive last June, has been in charge of negotiating transfers for 3 windows now. He has spent over 110m on Fellaini, Mata, Herrera, and Luke Shaw. What a waste of money!

The clock is ticking. This window will be closed at the end of the month, and United need several more players if they are going to get back into the Champions League, let alone challenge for the title. United can't afford to fail to bring in these players if they want to reach their former glory, but they also literally can't afford for Woodward to overpay for any more of their targets. 

Needless to say, the next few weeks will be very anxious ones for Manchester United supporters across the globe.

Liverpool 2 - Southampton 1

The post-Suarez era began at Anfield on Sunday and the Reds looked boring without him. A moment of brilliance opened the scoring, as Jordan Henderson played a fantastic through-ball with his weak foot to Raheem Sterling, who timed his run perfectly to score with ease. But the Reds didn't create much after that, and Southampton were unlucky not to score from a fantastic James Ward-Prowse whipped free kick that got caught in the wind and was heading for the upper 90. Simon Mignolet did really well to save but he paid a price, crashing into his far post in the process.

In the second half the Saints grew into the match, creating more chances than the hosts. New signing Dusan Tadic was the best player on the pitch. His first touch was always great, and his creativity was first-rate. The Serbian created an absurd 133 chances at Twente last season, and it was easy to see why. He combined really well with fellow newcomer Ryan Bertrand on the left wing, befuddling Liverpool's Javi Manquillo, and his back-heeled flick to Nathaniel Clyne led to Southampton's equalizer.

Minutes later Tadic was at it again, cutting a pass back to the excellent Ward-Prowse inside the penalty area. Ward-Prowse passed it square to an unmarked Steven Davis when he might have shot, and Davis's effort was too close to Mignolet.

When Southampton manager Ronald Koeman withdrew Tadic in the 77th minute, the Saints lost a bit of momentum. Liverpool took advantage. They got the lead again when Daniel Sturridge flicked Sterling's header in at the far post after Southampton struggled to clear the ball from multiple crosses. It was a poacher's goal by Sturridge, but a fortunate one. Southampton's 6'4 center-half Florin Gardos was not yet fit after his recent arrival from Bucharest, but he almost certainly would have done better to clear the ball than the vertically-challenged Maya Yoshida. Also, the referee missed a fairly blatant handball by Rickie Lambert early in the build-up.

Southampton was able to create another great chance before the match was over. New signing Graziano Pelle had struggled to deal with the physicality of Martin Skrtel in the first half but he grew into the game, and imposed himself strongly in the second. His chest-down to Morgan Schneiderlin set up the Frenchman with a golden chance inside the box. Schneiderlin's rocketed a half-volley toward goal, and Mignolet somehow got a fingertip to it to push the ball onto the crossbar. The rebound fell to Shane Long, but the Saints' most expensive signing of the summer somehow pushed his header wide of the empty net. 

Liverpool escaped with the three points yesterday. The Reds were the worse side on the day, failing to create much and allowing Southampton to get chances in dangerous positions. Due to the scoreline, many parallels will be drawn with Arsenal's 2-1 win at home against Palace, but in truth the two matches were entirely different. While Palace struggled to complete passes and only had 2 shots on goal, Southampton bossed large portions of the match at Anfield and often looked like the better attacking team.

It was just the first day, but my first impression of Liverpool is that they will have a lot to worry about this year. After spending nearly 50m luring away 3 of Southampton's best players in the summer, this was a match they were supposed to dominate. This version of Liverpool was slow, lacking creativity. 

And Southampton, who some picked to be relegated this year, looked like they will have nothing to worry about. I could easily see them replicating last year's 8th place finish. 

Burnley 1 - Chelsea 3

Newcomers Burnley scored the opener and then were absolutely torn apart by Chelsea, whose 3 goals came in 20 minutes after Scott Arfield's goal.

Nemanja Matic bossed the game, Bratislav Ivanovic was outstanding and Diego Costa marked his debut with a goal, but it was the performance of Cesc Fabregas which shined brightest. His assist to Andre Schurrle for Chelsea's second goal was incredible, as he softly cushioned a half-volley perfectly into the path of the German for an easy finish. Watching him make such a great pass in Chelsea blue nearly made me vomit. 

Chelsea looks like they'll have the creativity to open up defenses much easier this year. They sometimes struggled against the lower sides last year, especially away from home, but the additional quality of Costa and Fabregas (and a full season with the excellent Matic) should be enough to overcome some of last year's issues. And when Mourinho wants to break out his famous bus against the bigger clubs, he still has Mikel and Ramires to jam the midfield. Of all of the EPL's clubs on display this weekend, Chelsea clearly looked like the most improved.

But in all fairness, Burnley were absolutely dreadful. Chelsea passed in circles around Burnley's 4-4-2, Burnley failing to put any serious pressure on the ball even when Chelsea had it in their defensive third. And on the rare occasions when the home side won possession, they could hardly string 3 passes together before gifting the ball back to the Blues.

While watching I got the feeling that lots of goals are going to be scored at Turf Moor this year, and not by the Clarets either.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Arsenal Leaves It Late Against Crystal Palace

Arsenal were the only home team to win today as the Premier League kicked off with some very close matches.

It was by no means an easy win for the Gunners, as Crystal Palace played with the defensive discipline and physicality you'd expect from a Tony Pulis side, despite the manager resigning less than 48 hours before the match.

Arsenal started well, especially down the right hand side, where new signings Alexis Sanchez and Mathieu Debuchy combined to give Palace left-back Joel Ward a lot of problems. Sanchez in particular looked good, despite not having a great understanding with his teammates at this early stage. His individual ability was clear to see. Alexis's first touch, dribbling ability, and creativity was Arsenal's most consistent attacking threat today.

As time went on, Palace settled into the game and stopped most Arsenal attacks before they could reach dangerous positions. The first match of the season is always difficult, but no one struggled more in the first half than young striker Yaya Sanogo. The Frenchman earned his spot in the starting lineup in the Emirates Cup and the Community Shield, where he was excellent on the counter attack and constantly found dangerous positions behind the defense. Unlike Benfica and Man City, Palace sat back, content to take a point, and Sanogo struggled to find space for himself against such a deep line. When he tried to check to the ball, his first touch was often poor, and he was shrugged off by the likes of Mile Jedinak and Brede Hangeland.

With the focal point of Arsenal's attack neutralized, the Gunners struggled to find a Plan B. Arsenal's methodical buildup often gave Palace time to park their bus in front of goal. Palace's physicality gave Arsenal many chances via free kicks and corners, but Santi Cazorla was very poor with his delivery all match. But Palace was getting no players forward and they never looked like a serious threat to break the deadlock. If anyone was going to score, it was going to be Arsenal.

Or so it seemed. In the 33rd minute, Callum Chambers poorly gave the ball away, trying to find Sanogo in a crowded area. With 3 defenders in front of him, Jason Puncheon attempted to get in behind, and Jedinak obliged with a through ball.

Laurent Koscielny quickly had the situation under control and was yards ahead of Puncheon as soon as the ball was played. He never got the chance to take control.

Wojciech Szczesny, perhaps inspired by the World Cup performances of Germany sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer, rushed 30 yards off his line to clear the ball, bizarrely beating Koscielny to it. Szczesny's woeful clearance went straight to a Palace player, who proceeded to shoot from the half-line. With the shot looking on target and Szczesny still well off his line, Koscielny lunged to save a goal.

It was a piece of pathetically poor play from Szczesny, putting his team in danger when under no pressure to do so.

Frazier Campbell retrieved the ball in the Arsenal penalty area with Szczesny racing back to his line. Koscielny recovered very quickly to miraculously tackle the ball cleanly and avoid a penalty and red card, but Palace did win their first corner of the match from the situation.

Arsenal's defensive setup on the set piece was very poor. The zonal marking system on corner kicks worked well last year, but largely due to the ability of Olivier Giroud and Per Mertesacker to win aerial duels at the near post. Sanogo's positioning was poor as the ball sailed over his head, and Koscielny was unable to match the leap of the much taller Hangeland. Curiously, no players were on either post as Hangeland's header fired straight into the bottom corner on his Crystal Palace debut.

It was an extremely frustrating goal to concede for two reasons. First, the corner kick itself was the result of Szczesny's baffling decision to come out of his box and his poor execution when attempting to clear the ball to the middle of the field rather than out of play. Second, the defense should have been better organized to stop the corner kick.

The visitors were unable to hold onto the lead until half-time, however, as Alexis's tricky dribbling won a free kick in a dangerous area in first half stoppage time. This time Alexis took the free kick, rather than Cazorla, and he took it marvelously. Alexis dropped the ball perfectly between the penalty spot and the six-yard-box. Koscielny, held onside by Hangeland, finished coolly from a difficult position. It was a great goal, scored by a man who so often steps up when the club needs him most. The accuracy of both Alexis's delivery and Koscielny's header was truly first-rate. The Arsenal players must have been relieved to score so late in the half after gifting Palace such an avoidable goal just 10 minutes earlier.

Palace set out to take their point in the second half, dropping even deeper behind the ball and getting more and more physical with their tackling. Marouane Chamakh in particular committed over 10 fouls (finally getting booked on his 11th) and no player suffered more fouls than Jack Wilshere. Wilshere wasn't at his best today, he held on to the ball too long at times and tried to beat his man with a dribble too frequently. Yes he won his team a number of free kicks, but it is easy to see why Wilshere is susceptible to injury when you watch him play. If he is going to stay fit this season, he will need to learn that sometimes he should take the quick easy pass. He needs to pick and choose his opportunities to take men off the dribble. Otherwise he will suffer contact injuries, the type of knocks new fitness coach Shad Forsythe can do nothing about.

Arsenal lacked width in their attack as the second half went on. The passing was too slow, too short, and too inaccurate to break down Palace's two lines of defenders. Jedinak and Scott Dann were excellent breaking up attack after attack. Chamakh did well to set up Puncheon early in the half, but the winger's shot was soft and directly at Szczesny--the Arsenal keeper's only save of the match.

Arsenal slowly began to wear down their opponents. The introductions of Giroud and Nacho Monreal helped a lot, as Giroud was able to stand up the physicality of the Palace center-halves and Monreal's intelligent runs forward were very well-timed.

Chamakh handled the ball in his box shortly after Giroud came on, and Palace were lucky not to concede a penalty. Arsenal controlled the match more and more as time went on, but continued to struggle to find the final ball and create good chances to score.  Giroud played a dangerous ball across the goal in the last 10 minutes, but no one was able to meet it. Palace wasted more and more time, trying to escape with a point.

Awarded a corner kick in the 90th minute, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's initial delivery failed to beat the front man, Chamakh. The former Arsenal player's clearance was poor, however, and Arsenal was able to work the ball back out to the Ox for another attempt. This time the cross went to the far post, where the ever-present Koscielny was waiting. His header was played across goal to Giroud, who headed the ball to Mathieu Debuchy in a very dangerous position. Julian Speroni was able to save Debuchy's shot from point-blank range, but Aaron Ramsey was perfectly positioned to score the winner on the rebound.

It was a relief for the home fans in a match where Arsenal dominated possession, if not creating many good chances from open play. After defending Palace's first set piece so poorly, Arsenal was somehow able to score twice from dead ball situations to win the match. It was a far from convincing victory, but the first match of the season is always difficult, and 3 points are 3 points at the end of the day.

Arsenal now will need to step up for their Tuesday trip to Istanbul in the first leg of the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas. If the Turkish team employs similarly defensive tactics, Arsenal could find themselves needing to grind out another difficult result.

Crystal Palace Takeaway: The Eagles will be disappointed not to get a point, as they organized well enough to stop Arsenal from creating chances in open play. However, their lack of attacking firepower might be a major problem this year. Arsenal often pushed both full-backs forward in attack, but the Eagles were completely unable to counter-attack despite the numbers being in their favor. Only Cardiff and Norwich, both relegated, scored less goals than Crystal Palace last season. They will need to develop a stronger attack if they want to keep their Premier League dreams alive.

Arsenal Takeaway: In years past, many teams have been able to get out of the Emirates Stadium with a point by employing similar defensive tactics. Arsenal will be relieved to earn 3 points from what was a very physical and difficult test. Koscielny and Chambers played well in defense, but Arsenal's attacking options really struggled today. They will need to improve quickly, as the Arsenal schedule gets much tougher quickly with matches against Besiktas and some of the league's best clubs coming up in the next month.

Man of the Match: Koscielny. The French defender came up huge for Arsenal in the biggest moments of the match, playing a crucial role in both defense and attack. His goal was taken perfectly, and he mopped up well in defense when he was often alone in the back with Chambers. Koscielny was immense for the entire match, and was the best player on the pitch by a mile. In my opinion he deserves serious consideration for the title of best defender in England.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Ramblin' EPL Preview/Predictions

The EPL season starts on Saturday. Last year, the league had one of its biggest-ever gaps between the top and bottom teams. 8 teams finished with 40 points (the traditional safe zone) or fewer. Man City and Liverpool both eclipsed over 100 league goals scored.

It looks as though the rich will get richer. Most of the top teams strengthened this summer, and some of the teams in the bottom half 1) struggled to keep their best players or 2) failed to strengthen enough to take a step forward. This is how I see this year's league playing out.

Predictions

1. Man City - The Citizens were the dominant team in the Premier League last year, scoring more goals than Liverpool and conceding fewer goals than every team except Chelsea. City added a very expensive, if inexperienced, center half in Mangala and a very experienced, if inexpensive, right back in Sagna. Both will add depth and quality to their defense. Fernando was added to replace Javi Garcia. And Lampard was curiously "loaned" from Man City's subsidiary club--New York City FC. The two midfield additions should help City manage when their talisman, Yaya Toure, is at the African Nations Cup. City have the same attacking firepower they showcased last season, and they have improved at the back. They are the favorites to keep league title.

2. Chelsea - The league's best defense got a whole lot better this summer. First it was a case of addition by subtraction - selling David Luiz to PSG made Chelsea more disciplined defensively. Then Chelsea brought in quality players. Courtois might be the best goalkeeper in the Premier League right now. Diego Costa and Fabregas are upgrades on Eto'o and Lampard in the attack. Filipe Luis will shift Azpilicueta over to his more natural right back position, which will improve the Chelsea defense and attack. My main question with Chelsea is a philosophical one. Hazard was vocal in his frustration about playing Mourinho's preferred conservative tactics last season. Will Mourinho be able to keep his players happy? Or will there be a mutiny on his hands when the Chelsea players get tired of parking the bus?

3. Arsenal - The Gunners opened the checkbook this summer and bought Alexis Sanchez. He immediately adds directness and pace to the Arsenal attack, but he also will need time to develop an understanding with Arsenal's other attacking options. We might not see the best of him until the spring. Debuchy is an upgrade on Sagna at right back, Chambers looks like a real gem of a prospect who can play multiple positions, and Joel Campbell will get his chance as another fast, direct attacking option. Arsenal already possessed the best group of young attacking midfielders in the league, but as of yet have not addressed their two weakest areas - holding midfield and a lack of depth in defense. Ideally they can address both areas with one signing before the window closes. A player who can play both in defensive midfield and central defense would be a perfect fit. Until then, I do not think Arsenal has enough depth to win the league, but more than enough quality to improve on last year's 4th place finish.

4. Manchester United - A new chapter begins at Old Trafford with new manager Louis Van Gaal. Rooney will partner van Persie in a 3-5-2 - a formation that gives both players freedom to roam to the wings without getting in each other's way, something the two have struggled with in their first two years together. Mata will pull the strings in his preferred central role. On paper, the 3-5-2 is a perfect fit for United's 3 best attacking players. But there are still problems in other areas. New signing Ander Herrera will need to carry a group of below average central midfielders (Fletcher, Fellaini, Carrick, and Cleverly). I can see why Van Gaal pursued Vidal so aggressively, his midfield options are far worse than his competitors'. And United's weakest area for the last two seasons has been central defense. Van Gaal's tactics address this weakness by adding a third central defender to the back line. This strategy worked wonders for Holland in a 7-game tournament, but the problem is, if Smalling, Jones, or Evans gets injured or suspended, there are zero experienced options to replace them. Van Gaal has actively pursued left-footed center backs this summer. First he missed out on Vermaelen and now Sporting has pursued legal action to keep Marcos Rojo from forcing a move to Old Trafford. I do think United will add Rojo before the deadline, and in the end, I think United will squeak into the top 4. The additional rest and preparation they will be afforded by virtue of avoiding European competition will be enough to get United back into the top 4.

5. Liverpool - Liverpool knows how nice it is to avoid European play. They won't have that luxury this year. They also won't have the league's best player anymore, as Suarez was sold to Barcelona. In Sterling, Coutinho, Lallana, and Henderson Liverpool has a good group of talented young midfielders. Daniel Sturridge was perhaps the single-biggest beneficiary of playing with Suarez last year. I don't see him holding up as the Reds' main man while also playing in more matches. Sturridge's injury record is troublesome. His new backup, Lambert, is a shorter version of Grant Holt. Lots of money was paid for Alberto Moreno and Dejan Lovren to fix Liverpool's leaky defense, when in my opinion the root of Liverpool's defensive problems lie further up the pitch. Steven Gerrard can pass the ball, but his ability to be the "shield" in front of the defense is pathetic. Lovren, who played behind the excellent Schneiderlin at Southampton last year, is going to need to cover a lot more ground in Liverpool's setup. The added fatigue of Europe, the loss of Suarez, and the lack of defensive protection from midfield will expose Liverpool this year. I see them finishing closer to sixth than fourth.

6. Tottenham - New manager Mauricio Pocchetino will take over and immediately improve Spurs after suffering under the tactically inept Tim Sherwood for half a year. The squad will need to take a step forward in Pocchetino's system. After a full year getting adjusted to England, it will be a make-or-break season for the several players bought with the Gareth Bale money a year ago. While I doubt Erik Lamela will ever live up to his transfer fee, I do think Pocchetino will have Spurs playing better than they did last season. Unlike other teams, Spurs have an abundance of first team players, 32 to be exact, and should be able to adequately handle Europa League commitments. In all Spurs will have the quantity to stay in the top 7 and stay in the Europa League, but not the quality to crack the top 4 and secure Champions League.

7. Everton - The Toffees are the opposite of Spurs. They have quality in their team, but not quantity. Last year's 5th place finish will add Europa League matches to their schedule. Lukaku and Barry were brought in on permanent contracts after impressing on loan last year, but consequently most of Everton's resources were spent keeping the status quo, rather than adding players they'll need to push on and build on last year's finish. Roberto Martinez is one of the league's best managers, but with an aging defense and a lack of depth throughout the squad, Everton will struggle to replicate last year's great form.

8. Stoke - Stoke is one of the league's best teams at home. The Potters are decent defensively but a bit toothless in attack. Mark Hughes attempted to address the problem by bringing in two new forwards: Man U and Barcelona castoffs Mame Biram Diouf and Bojan Krkic. Hughes has had his struggles at either ends of the League with Man City and QPR, but he seems at his best with mid-table clubs like Stoke. Can he build Stoke into a dark horse for Europe like his old teams at Blackburn?

9. Southampton - Southampton may have lost more assets than any club this summer. Their manager and 5 starters stepped up to bigger clubs. While many are fearing the worst (some even picking the Saints to finish in the bottom 3) I actually really like the moves Southampton made to replace what they lost this summer. The defense will be weaker and might concede more shots, so Southampton bought Fraser Forster. Forster is a big upgrade over Boruc in goal. Ronald Koeman is an experienced manager and he has bought two of the best attackers from the Dutch league in Tadic and Pelle. They will replace Lallana and Lambert. Tadic was the best player in Holland last season according to whoscored.com, and he has impressed in preseason. Only time will tell if Pelle can transition into a better striker than Lambert. Eredivisie forwards can be unpredictable in the Premier League. You never know if you're paying for Bony or Alfonso Alves. Saints' recent acquisition of Shane Long, who has scored goals wherever he's played in England, seems like a wise insurance policy. If Southampton can keep Schneiderlin, I think they are a safe pick to finish mid-table.

10. Swansea - Like Man United, Swansea will have the weight of European play lifted off their shoulders this season. Fabianski (like Mannone at Sunderland last year) could shine as the replacement for Vorm in a first team role. Argentine international Federico Fernandez is a big upgrade on the departed Chico Flores in defense. Sigurdsson returns to the club where he was at his best. And even if Swansea cannot keep their star striker Wilfried Bony, experienced Frenchman Bafetimbi Gomis could fill in and do well. Swansea had the 8th best goal difference in the league last season, they were better than their league position often reflected. Without the distraction of Europa League football, I see the Swans as a safe bet for a mid-table finish.

11. Crystal Palace - Tony Pulis worked wonders after being hired last winter, adding several crucial players in January and leading Crystal Palace on a rampant run of form in the second half of the season, securing unlikely safety from relegation with ease. Pulis is not the neutral's manager. His teams are often extremely conservative and pragmatic, but also effective. I can't say I particularly like him or his preferred style of play. But I can admit that it works. The Eagles failed to strengthen with new players this summer, and still have a somewhat weak squad, and they really struggle to score goals, but Pulis keeps teams in the Premier League. He'll do so again with Crystal Palace this season.

EDIT: According to reports, Pulis has resigned. Suddenly Crystal Palace's Premier League future doesn't seem so secure.

12. Newcastle United - Newcastle was one of the league's biggest surprises in the first half of the season. Then they sold Yohan Cabeye. The wheels fell off as Alan Pardew headbutted an opposing player and the Newcastle players simply stopped caring about winning and losing. In the second half of the year, Newcastle was one of the league's worst teams. Cabeye and Remy, their two best players from last year, are gone. Hatem Ben Arfa, probably Newcastle's most talented player, has been frozen out by Pardew for an "unprofessional attitude" (which is rich, coming from Pardew). New players have been added to steer the ship back on course, but most are not from England, and therefore Cabella, De Jong, Janmaat, Riviere, and Ferreyra will all need time to adapt. Newcastle should still have enough talent to stay up, but not enough to put together a genuine threat for a European place.

13. West Ham - Big Sam gets his teams to be solid defensively and direct in attack. That's what he does. And the West Ham fans aren't happy. They want attractive, attacking football. New signings Enner Valencia and Mauro Zarate will need to add flair and creativity to the West Ham attack in order to keep the Hammers' fans off Big Sam's back. All I can say to the West Ham fans is: be careful what you wish for. While sacking Big Sam might move the parked bus away from The Boleyn Ground, it might take the club right back to the Championship. Allardyce has an average, aging squad playing about as well as can be expected. It took multiple loaned players to keep West Ham from the drop zone last year. Anyone replacing Big Sam would not have an easy job changing the club's philosophy and keeping them in the Premier League.

14. Leicester City - One of the 3 new teams in the league this year, Leicester City is an unknown quantity. They haven't spent money on proven players this summer, and could struggle to stay up. The last two Championship winners, Reading and Cardiff, have gone straight back down the following year. Leicester will want to reverse that trend, and I think they will. The Foxes took 102 points last year. 2 other teams have ever eclipsed the 100 point mark in the Championship's history: 05-06 Reading and 09-10 Newcastle. Both clubs enjoyed long stays in the Premier League while relying mostly on the players who got them up. I think Leicester could do the same. It won't be easy, Leicester faces Everton, Chelsea, Arsenal, Stoke, and Man U in their first 5 matches. But I think the Foxes will have what it takes to stay in the Premier League.

15. QPR - 'Arry is back! I can't wait to see him give transfer updates from his car window on deadline day. Unlike Leicester and Burnley, QPR is very much a known quantity. They only spent one year in the second division, and rely on lots of players with plenty of top-level experience. And they've followed the safest formula to stay in the EPL: augmenting the team with proven top-level players, both young and old. The additions of Ferdinand, Caulker, Mutch, and Isla should be enough to keep QPR up.

16. Aston Villa - Their owner is actively trying to sell the club but no buyers have emerged. The chief executive quit and no one really knows why. Their manager has done well on a shoestring budget but now has deal with Roy Keane breathing down his neck. Things don't look good behind the scenes at Villa Park. Because the owner is eager to sell the club, very little funds have been made available for Paul Lambert to strengthen the squad. As a result, Aston Villa will need to avoid injuries at all costs this year, because their squad is extremely weak. The first 11, when Benteke, Weimann, Delph, and Vlaar are fit, is very good. But the replacements aren't. Villa could really struggle to stay up if the injuries pile up.

17. Hull City - Like Everton and Liverpool, I don't think Hull will be able to cope with the additional load of European play this year. I see them having a season like Swansea did last year - struggling to get away from the relegation zone and finally pulling into safety when they get knocked out of the Europa League. The 12 million pounds made from the sale of Shane Long will need to be reinvested in multiple players. To be fair, Hull has spent well so far this summer. Ince, Snodgrass, and Robertson all look like great prospects for the Tigers. Perhaps Steve Bruce will find a few more players to add the depth Hull will need to compete on 2 fronts. But Bruce will want to avoid his dreaded second-season-syndrome, too. After impressive first seasons at Wigan and Sunderland, he has been sacked in his second season at both clubs. Bruce will hope the third time will be the charm.

18. West Brom - Who hires the managers at West Brom? Time to fire that guy! Pepe Mel barely kept the club up, and he was sacked. Next up: Allan Irvine. Seriously, who is Allan Irvine? A Qualified Insurance Broker of course! (He was also David Moyes's former youth team coach.) Irvine has his work cut out for him. West Brom has no quality strikers and an old back line (somehow made older with the new acquisition of Lescott). I see the Baggies finally getting relegated this season.

19. Sunderland - Unable to bring back Borini and desperately trying to keep hold of Wickham, Sunderland doesn't look like they will be good enough to stay up this term. After miraculously pulling out of the relegation places last year, this version of Sunderland is weaker, less talented and more injury prone. Their two best attackers, Borini and Scocco, are gone. Jack Colback was one of their better players for a few years, and he joined rivals Newcastle. The dependable Korean Ki has been replaced by Jack Rodwell, who misses more games injured than he plays. I honestly don't know what Poyet is doing with the Black Cats. I don't see him in this job at Christmas, and I don't see Sunderland staying in the Premier League.

20. Burnley - This is what I know about Burnley: their best player is a right back who doesn't defend and their manager, Paul Dyche, is nicknamed "the Ginger Mourinho." Their biggest purchase of the summer has been Michael Kightly. I read one Burnley supporter's preview of the season ahead, which proclaimed: "I predicted Burnley would finish mid-table last season, and I won't underestimate Dyche again." I didn't have the author's intended reaction to this assertion. Instead of believing in the "Ginger Mourinho's" ability to overachieve, I'm thinking a squad that was picked to finish mid-table in the Championship a year ago will be completely out of place in the Premier League. Burnley is going right back down, to the disappointment of red-heads everywhere.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Ramblin' Gooner Transfer Review

The Premier League starts just 2 weeks from now. The Community Shield is next week. And the Emirates Cup is upon us. Summer is over. And a lot has happened.

Since the signing of Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal has signed 3 more first team players and sent one out on loan elsewhere.

Mathieu Debuchy was bought from Newcastle to replace Bacary Sagna. Debuchy has been ahead of Sagna in the pecking order for the French National Team for many years. Debuchy should slot straight in to the first team.

David Ospina was bought from Nice to replace Lukas Fabianski. The Colombian goalkeeper was excellent at the World Cup. Ospina provides much more serious competition for the goalkeeper position than Fabianski ever did. 

Ospina was bought from Colombia to replace Hugo Lloris when Lyon bought Lloris from Nice. Ospina filled in very well for one of the world's best keepers. His save percentages were among the best in France before he signed for Arsenal. In the end, I think Ospina could be a very significant signing for the future success of the club. He could either take Szczesny's place in the first team or push the Polekeeper to greater heights. 

Perhaps most excitingly, this week Arsenal confirmed the signing of Callum Chambers from Southampton for more money than Debuchy and Ospina combined. Chambers is just 19, but put together extremely comparable stats to Luke Shaw last season as a right back. 

Chambers cost less than half as much as Shaw, and he's far more versatile. Arsene Wenger and the player himself have been quite vocal in their interviews that the club's view for Chambers is to fill in wherever needed, at multiple positions. Chambers played as a box-to-box midfielder for Southampton's youth team. In his initial interviews with the club, Chambers has said Wenger projects to play him as a holding midfielder or a center half. Bacary Sagna somewhat provided that versatility in the past (although not even Sagna could play in midfield). Debuchy, while stepping in at right back, does not provide the needed cover at other positions. Chambers will.

Carl Jenkinson was loaned out to West Ham, one of the better defensive teams in the league. In fact, defending is all West Ham does.

Jenkinson's loan makes room for Arsenal's two new right backs, Debuchy and Chambers. 

I still believe Jenkinson has a future at Arsenal, and I think a season at West Ham will help refine his defensive ability. Jenkinson has always been very useful going forward. He can run all day and he can cross the ball well. But his defensive skillset needs refining. If he can get consistent playing time at West Ham (which seems likely, considering Joey O'Brien and Guy Demel are his only real competition at the Hammers) I think Jenko can get the playing time he needs to significantly refine his defensive ability.

Personally, I think Callum Chambers's future is in a more central role than at right back. Simply, I doubt Arsenal would have spent so much for a player who would face significant competition at that position (see i.e. Cesc Fabregas). Arsenal needs center backs, not right backs. And right backs simply aren't worth as much as Arsenal paid for Chambers. Even Sagna cost less than 8 million pounds when Arsenal bought him from Auxerre. And if Chambers has a future at center half, perhaps Jenkinson can still be seen as the eventual replacement for 29-year-old Debuchy on the right. Jenkinson or Hector Bellerin, who also is expected to go out on loan.

I genuinely like Jenkinson. I thought he filled in really well every time he was called upon with a Sagna injury (which were pretty frequent). He even played well enough to get called up to the England team. I won't give up on him yet. Playing for a defensive team like West Ham might help him learn the skills he needs to be a fully reliable defender.

Overall, Arsenal's preseason has been hit-and-miss. Chuka Akpom has looked good. No one else really has. I'm looking forward to seeing the players who didn't suck at the World Cup. Sorry Cazorla and the Englishmen, but your teams sucked (maybe because you were on the bench most of the time...)

The Emirates Cup begins tomorrow with a match against Benfica. I'm looking forward to seeing a more complete team in action than the team that traveled to New York last week.

Simply put, the "Tomas Rosicky as a False 9" project should be put in a paper bag and lit on fire in front of Steven Gerrard's front door. I expect a better showing against Benfica.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What About Messi?

The entire German team is getting credit for their victory, and one player from Argentina is getting all the blame.

Not Gonzalo Higuain or Rodrigo Palacio, who missed golden chances to take the lead.

Not Martin Demichelis, who lost his mark and allowed Mario Gotze to score.

All the blame is landing on Lionel Messi.

People are saying three things after the final: 1) Messi couldn't win the world cup, therefore he isn't the world's best player. 2) Messi in no way was the best player in the tournament and didn't deserve his award. And 3) Messi didn't win, killing his chances of being remembered as one of the best players of all time. I'll address all three arguments.

To be fair, Messi didn't have his best match in the Final. He really struggled to impose himself, and he missed a great chance to score in the second half when his shot dragged wide of the far post. As time wound down, Germany man-marked him and never let him get the ball.

It's too simplistic to say Messi failed to make an impact in the world's biggest match and therefore he isn't the world's best player. The fact is Messi DID have an impact on the match. He drew the constant attention of multiple German players with every run he made. Messi opened up spaces for Higuain and Palacio and Aguero and Lavezzi. That they couldn't take advantage of the extra space is not Messi's fault.

1) Does this loss mean Messi is no longer the world's best player?

This really shouldn't take much thought. Messi's main competition for the title of "best player in the world" is Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal. Ronaldo didn't get out of the group stage.

If World Cup success/failure is the deciding factor, Messi certainly has a better case than Ronaldo.

If you believe Ronaldo to be the best player in the world, go ahead and make the argument, but don't use this World Cup as evidence in your favor.

I'll be happy to point out the man who won 3 consecutive Ballon d'Ors, the man who became Barcelona's all-time leading goalscorer at 24 years old, the man who scored 200 La Liga goals faster than any player in history, and the man who is just 8 goals short of becoming La Liga's all-time leading goalscorer, a record he will break before he turns 28.

Leo Messi is the best player in the world.

2) Did Messi have the best World Cup?

Again, this shouldn't take much thought. Messi wasn't even the best player on his own team in this tournament. That would go to Javier Mascherano, who provided constant protection as the shield in front of the Argentina defense. Pablo Zabaleta also could make a case that he had a better tournament than Messi. The fact is Argentina's defense shined all tournament. They only trailed in a match for the 8 final minutes of their World Cup. The attack only scored 8 goals.

Messi himself played well in the group stage (against some light competition), but failed to score in the knockout rounds. He simply didn't have as good a tournament as his peers, if you weigh the elimination games appropriately.

I wouldn't even put him in the Top 10. In addition to Mascherano and Zabaleta, Colombia's James Rodriguez, Germany's Phillip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mats Hummels, and Manuel Neuer, the Netherlands' Arjen Robben, Costa Rica's Keylor Navas, and Chile's Alexis Sanchez all could make a real case to say they had better tournaments than Messi.

Messi is still the best player in the world, but he didn't put together the best 7 matches in this tournament. He did not deserve the award he received (and by the look on his face, he didn't want it either).

3) Has Messi missed his chance to be known as the best player of all time?

I think there are two ways to look at this argument. One is, who would be better player if both were in their prime, on the pitch, at the same time? The second, perhaps more appropriate way to view the argument, is comparing players' careers.

There is strong evidence that advancements in fitness methods, nutrition, and technical coaching have significantly impacted the modern game. Basically, the entire pool of players is much better than they were 30 years ago.

One reason Maradona could run circles around players is because the players were easier to run around back then. They treated their bodies poorly and weren't as athletic as they are today. And they weren't coached to tackle as well.

Simply put, the players of today are more athletic, more fit, and coached better than the generations before them. Soccer has evolved. It is much more difficult to stand out as a superstar in the modern era than it was a generation ago.

The very fact that Messi is mentioned in the same breath as Pele or Maradona while playing in this era suggests that if they were able to face off against each other, Messi would be the best player on the pitch. And in that sense, yes, Messi is the best player of all time.

But will Messi have the best career in world soccer history?

This is a tougher argument. Messi already has the best La Liga career of all time, and I believe Messi will have best club career of all time when he hangs up his boots.

For those who view soccer as an Olympic-style event that only happens every four years (looking at you, US media) they might very well think only World Cup champions can be considered in the "greatest of all time" discussion.

This is obviously flawed logic, but it is clear he has not had as great an international career as the likes of Pele, Maradona, or Zidane.

Messi hasn't won a thing at senior international level. He won the U-21 World Cup, and the 2008 Olympics, but has never won the World Cup or the Copa America.

The question therefore becomes how much should international success weigh into the discussion?

Messi's success year-after-year at the club level is unparalleled. His failures at the international level are difficult to ignore (ironically, the woeful coaching of the Argentina team by Maradona 4 years ago has significantly hurt Messi's case in this regard).

Therefore, Messi's legacy will struggle to stand with the likes of Maradona, Pele, and Zidane when it's all said and done. Messi will be classified with the likes of Johann Cruyff, Paolo Maldini, Ferenc Puskas, Michel Platini, and Zico as one of the best players to never win a World Cup. Not a bad group to be in, but not in the top level either.

He does need a major trophy on the international level to cement his legacy. A great first step could happen next year in Chile at the Copa America.  Then again at the Super Copa America in the US in 2016, which will combine 16 teams from North and South America. If Messi can lead Argentina to victories in these tournaments, perhaps he can take momentum into Russia 2018 and win the World Cup.

Messi will be 31 years old in that tournament, which will likely be his last real chance to add a World Cup to his resume. It won't be easy, as South American teams normally struggle in European tournaments.

In all likelihood, by failing to win on Sunday, Messi has missed his chance. Messi probably will not have the best soccer career of all time.

But that doesn't mean Messi isn't the best player the world has ever seen. He just won't have the best resume.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Germans Win, Dynasty in the Making?

In a match where Argentina had by far the best chances to score, Germany ended on top with a goal from substitute Mario Gotze in the second half of extra time.

It was a fitting finish to a great World Cup, a tournament where 32 goals were scored by substitutes, the most in World Cup history.

10 years ago, Germany was knocked out of their group in Euro 2004. Placed in a group with the Netherlands, Czech Republic, and Latvia--Germany failed to win a single match in the tournament, drawing twice (failing to score against Latvia) and losing to the Czechs.

Rudi Voller was the German coach for that tournament. His team played very conservatively, an approach that had worked for Germany in the past. Germany fought all the way to the World Cup Finals in 2002 by parking the bus. Goalkeeper Oliver Kahn was the player of the tournament in 2002, suggesting Germany was perhaps fortunate to get as far as they did. But failing to score against Latvia was undeniably a low point for German football, and Voller was sacked. Jurgen Klinsmann and Jogi Loew were brought in to overhaul the entire national setup and leave the parked bus behind.

They decided to nurture a new generation of players who could play fast, attacking football. They wanted to create a specific style, focusing on passing on the ground from defense to attack as quickly as possible to create what they called "dynamic football."

Klinsmann and Loew got a lot of help from the Bundesliga. The German federation put a lot of pressure on all the German clubs in both the first and second divisions to fund youth academies. Klinsmann and Loew held workshops with all of the Bundesliga clubs to outline their principles and encouraged the Bundesliga clubs to play this style.

Attacking football requires fitter players who can run further and faster, so Klinsmann and Loew asked to monitor the fitness of the German players every three months. This was unpopular among the Bundesliga clubs. No club wanted Klinsmann pointing the finger saying this club's players have been trained properly and this club's players haven't. No club wanted to subject themselves to that kind of oversight. But for the good of German football, they bought in to Klinsmann and Loew's vision and agreed to their requests.

Klinsmann's first and only German World Cup squad included his new breed of young players who had been trained to play his style from a young age. Phillip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Per Mertesacker, and Lukas Podolski (average age 21 in 2006) played in every match for the Germans all the way to the semi-finals. It was an impressive performance for the Germans as many in the country feared a repeat of the embarrassment of Euro 2004.

From that point on the Germans have reached at least the semi finals of every major international competition: finalists in Euro 2008, and semifinalists in the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. Now they are finally champions.

Besides Miroslav Klose and backup goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller; Lahm, Podolski, Schweinsteiger, and Mertesacker are now the experienced veterans in the German squad. Klinsmann and Loew's revolution has worked. Germany has cultivated a golden generation of talented players just hitting their prime.

Manuel Neuer is 28. Sami Khedira is 27. Leading scorer Thomas Muller is just 24. Playmakers Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos are 25 and 24, respectively. Defenders Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng are both just 25. Final hero Mario Gotze is 22. Dortmund left back Erik Durm is also just 22.

Marco Reus was injured before the tournament and missed the World Cup, but he might just be the best player Germany has, and he is only 25. The Bender twins, who also missed trips to Brazil due to injury, are also 25.

And there are more young Germans fighting to break into the team. Marc-Andre ter Stegen is just 22 and has already secured a move to Barcelona. Julian Draxler and Matthias Ginter, both just 20, were in the squad in Brazil and are tipped for big things in the future. Schalke teenagers Max Meyer and Leon Goretzka have great potential as well. And don't forget 19-year-old attacking midfielder Serge Gnabry, who took a real step forward for Arsenal last season.

More great young players will follow. And Germany will continue to be a real force. The question therefore is, will anyone catch them? With Spain and Italy in decline, Germany is the clear favorite to win Euro 2016 in France and the Russian World Cup in 2018.

Yesterday could just be the first of many achievements enjoyed by the Germans in the coming years with this group of young, excellent players. Germany has the makings of a dynasty that could enjoy the same 6-year period of success that Spain just did.

And for this embarrassment of riches, all credit should go to to Klinsmann and Loew--the masterminds of German's football revolution a decade ago.