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.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Will Argentina Finally Beat Germany?

Argentina has faced Germany in the quarter-final stage of the last two World Cups. Jens Lehmann's penalty heroics knocked them out in 2006 and a superb German team performance led to a 4-0 victory in Cape Town four years ago.

This year, Argentina have had the good fortune of avoiding the Germans until the Final. No European team has ever won a World Cup in the Americas. Will Germany be the first?

Germany arrives on a roll, having just destroyed hosts Brazil 7-1 on Tuesday. The Germans started with an early set piece goal, and then passed the ball into the net 4 times in 6 minutes to take a 5-0 lead into halftime.

Watch the highlights of the Argentina/Germany match 4 years ago. The ease with which Germany scored their 2nd, 3rd, and 4th goals. It reminds you of the Brazilian demolition that took place on Tuesday.

Germany does well against South American opposition. They have struggled against more physical tests like Algeria and Ghana who played a direct, attacking style. The whole world knows Argentina has great forwards, but do they have a good enough defense to keep the Germans from dominating yet again?

Germany found most of their success in 2010 down their left hand side, or Argentina's right. In Cape Town, Argentina played Nicolas Otamendi, a center back, out of position on right. Lukas Podolski tore him apart. Now Argentina plays Pablo Zabaleta in that position, arguably the best right back in the world. Consider that problem fixed.

Against Brazil, most of what Germany created came down their right, where Phillip Lahm overlapped Thomas Muller, or quickly through the middle, storming forward in numbers after a midfield tackle. Argentina's left back Marcos Rojo has had a strong World Cup, and Javier Mascherano has been possibly the best player in the tournament in central midfield.

Defensively, Germany might struggle to deal with pace, especially on their left hand side, where Benedikt Howedes is playing out of position as a left back, and Mesut Ozil, who is not a natural winger, is asked to track back and help Howedes defend. Mats Hummels and Per Mertesacker lack pace--they were exposed by Algeria and have not played together for Germany since then. Jerome Boateng sometimes gets caught out of position and is prone to occasional lapses in concentration.

Thats where Messi enters in. Messi is at his best cutting in from the right hand side onto his stronger left foot. Lavezzi provides pace, and so would Aguero if he is fit. Gonzalo Higuain will stay on the shoulder of the last defender and be a threat for through balls in behind a defense that has a vulnerability to through balls. Manuel Neuer has performed admirably as a sweeper keeper, rushing out of his box to make last-ditch clearances. One mistake, however, and Argentina could score easily.

Looking at form, Germany should win this. They are on fire and have easily been the most impressive team in the tournament. They have scored 18 goals and conceded just 4. They've only gone to extra time once in knockout play. And they've never needed penalties.

But looking at the matchup, Argentina seems to have the players who could really test the Germans' weaknesses, perhaps more than any other team in the tournament. Argentina has been stronger in defense than in years' past, and the quality of their attack is unquestioned.

South American teams have done really well in the World Cup for two reasons. First, they are used to the hot, humid conditions. But more importantly, they have enjoyed fantastic support in the stadiums. It was a real shame that 4 of the South American teams got grouped together in the knockout rounds, as I would have expected Chile and Colombia to go further in the tournament against different opponents.

It's a tough match to predict, but when two teams seem to be equal on paper, I give the advantage to the team with a superior goalkeeper. Manuel Neuer is the best goalkeeper in the world. Sergio Romero is nowhere close to that.

So I'll pick Germany. 2-nil.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Arsenal Signs Alexis Sanchez

An Absolute Masterstroke.

Arsenal has bought a world class player. And with the money spent, Arsenal might just play a big role in financing the departure of the EPL's best player for the second season running.

First, Sanchez is a great addition to the team. His speed, strength, and dribbling ability helps him create his own chances. He has a good eye for a pass and can create chances for others.

According to WhoScored.com, Sanchez was Barcelona's second-best player last season, behind only Messi. The best Barcelona player not named Messi. Think about that.

Sanchez scored 19 goals in just 27 starts, the second-most on the team, despite being the 3rd or 4th attacking option behind Messi, Neymar, and sometimes Pedro.

Sanchez should compliment Giroud very nicely. Having trained at Barcelona for three years, Sanchez possesses the intelligence and movement to find Giroud for 1-2s and break open defenses even in tight spaces. But Sanchez also thrives in space. The prospect of Ozil finding passes for the Chilean to start a break is mouth-watering.

Make no mistake, Sanchez joins Arsenal and instantly becomes the team's #1 attacking option. Ozil will provide the supply. Giroud will provide the link up play and occupy the center backs. Walcott will provide spacing by threatening to get in behind the defense. Ramsey will make late runs in to the penalty area. And Sanchez will be the fulcrum of the attack.

Sanchez was forced to play the Walcott role at Barcelona. The team didn't run through him, it ran through Messi. A reduced role in a less direct style of play didn't suit Sanchez's qualities as a player. His adaptation to a very unique style of play was delayed by injuries in his first season at the Camp Nou. He was good, but not great in his lone season with Pep Guardiola.

Guardiola left and Tito Vilanova tried to keep the team playing the same way in 2012. Sanchez struggled to fit in and he began to feel the wrath of the Barcelona fans. Read this excerpt from BarcaBlaugranes.com's 2012/13 Season in Review.
"Expectations were fairly low for Alexis Sanchez going into the 2012-13 season as just about everybody expected him to fail. And at first all those critics appeared to be right as Alexis struggled to find the back of the net. It took him 15 La Liga appearances to find the back of the net for the first time - week 23 (April 10th) against Getafe. It wasn't for lack of trying though as Alexis consistently found himself in dangerous scoring positions, but just couldn't find a way past opposing goalkeepers..."
"But it was like that goal against Getafe was all that Alexis needed to break the slump he was in. Over the last three months of the season the forward made 12 league appearances, nine starts, during which he scored 7 goals and added 6 assists..."
"Alexis didn't change his game to get better production - he played the same way he did before, but once he started bagging goals the confidence returned and Alexis started playing without the constant pressure."
Remind you of anyone? You could substitute 'Alexis Sanchez' for 'Aaron Ramsey' and use the above language to describe each players' 2012/13 campaigns.

Both struggled with confidence as they were put under pressure by the fans. Both continued to work hard and never gave up. Both kept finding dangerous positions. And both worked through the tough times to come out world class players on the other side.

It's no surprise Sanchez improved further under the coaching of Gerardo Martino, who started the transition away from Guardiola's tiki-taka to a faster, more direct attack.

Sanchez had shined in this style as the main attacking option with Chile and with Udinese--where he was so good that Barcelona shelled out serious money (roughly the same transfer fee that Arsenal paid today) for the 22-year-old in 2011.

Sanchez thrives in space, and tiki-taka built up the play too slowly for Sanchez to truly showcase his ability. When Martino encouraged the team to attack more quickly, Sanchez was able to take the momentum from the spring of 2012 and keep it for an entire season.

Sanchez scored some magnificent goals for Barcelona this year, and perhaps most impressively, he saved his best work for against the biggest opponents.

His Classico goal in October was spectacular. In February, he put Barcelona ahead in the 6th minute with a chip from an impossible angle against Valencia. And in Barcelona's final match of the season, Sanchez's near-post rocket flew by Thibaut Courtois to put his team, albeit briefly, in position to win the Spanish title.

Arsenal's struggles against the big teams last season is well documented. The Gunners won just once in 8 Premier League matches against the Manchester clubs, Liverpool, and Chelsea. In Sanchez, Arsenal has secured a player who shines in the big moments. Sanchez has technical qualities that will improve the team. But I believe his mental strength, which will strengthen the team psychologically, is the best aspect of this transfer.

Arsenal needed a world class forward, and got one in Sanchez. He is a great signing for the club, just like Mesut Ozil was last September. And the parallels continue.

The purchase of Mesut Ozil helped Real Madrid raise the funds needed to purchase Gareth Bale last summer. Arsenal bought a world class midfielder with funds that were used to steal away the Premier League's best player from our biggest rival.

It seems very likely that Arsenal's transfer payment for Sanchez will be directly reinvested by Barcelona to poach Luis Suarez from Liverpool, again removing one of the world's best players from the Premier League from a club that has reasserted top-4 credentials.

Arsenal's money could now be spent luring away Liverpool's most intimidating player (in more ways than one). Just adding Sanchez would likely have been enough for Arsenal to leapfrog the Reds next season. And just losing Suarez would have likely knocked Liverpool down a few pegs. Arsenal's money just might make both happen.

THAT is money well spent!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

World Cup Ramble: Spain and England Choke

This World Cup has been amazing. One of the most entertaining tournaments I can remember. Except when Greece is playing.

Spain Out

The biggest story so far is that after 1 week, Spain has been eliminated. The cup holders and winners of the past 2 European Championships got outscored 7-1 in their first two matches against Holland adn Chile.

The Spanish players looked old, tired, and complacent. Diego Costa looked unfit and clueless and the rest of the team looked like they had no idea how to play with him. Xabi Alonso and Sergi Busquets were awful as the shield in front of a defense that suddenly looks very average without Puyol. Sergio Ramos lost his concentration frequently, Jordi Alba was awful, and Iker Casillas faces competition from the Russian Igor Akinfeev (Fabio Capello's Robert Green 2.0) for worst goalkeeper in the tournament. Spain was dreadful.

Perhaps some of that had to do with tactics. Spain played two different teams who play with 3 center backs. Mexico, Chile, Holland, Costa Rica, and Argentina all deploy 3. Their record in the tournament so far? 7 wins, 1 draw, and 0 losses.

Think back to the FA Cup Final against Hull. Olivier Giroud struggled mightily in the first half as the lone striker against Hull's 3 central defenders. Arsenal brought Sanogo on to be a second striker and finally took control of the game.

The 4-2-3-1 Spain has made famous for 6 years might have finally been found out.

England Nearly Out as Well

What formation did England play?

Two 2-1 losses means England is hanging on to the tournament by a thread. If Costa Rica can get something against Italy tomorrow, the Three Lions will be eliminated.

I don't get how this is a surprise to anyone. After not even qualifying for Euro 2008, England was extremely average in a very favorable group in 2010, only beating Slovenia, and not much better in Euro 2012.

England's best player has been Leighton Baines. That says it all really.

The team was built around 5 Liverpool players, the most ever by any one club for England at a World Cup. This was understandable, as the 5 combined to lose 0 European matches all season.

Gerrard and Henderson, the "shield" protecting Liverpool's defense all season, were asked to do the same job for England. Which made sense because Liverpool conceded 50 goals in the league this year. The 8th best defensive record in the league. Top half!

Gerrard, the captain, has been England's worst player. He's useless. He can't run, tackle, win the ball in the air, or even pass the ball well anymore. He can always find Suarez in dangerous positions, though.

I can't help but think the team missed Theo Walcott. Danny Welbeck is not a winger. Walcott (or even Oxlade-Chamberlain) would have improved this team immensely. Someone who knew how to keep spacing and make intelligent runs off the ball.

Wayne Rooney has been poor yet again. He hasn't played well for 3 years. He's the most overrated player in the world. I don't expect him to play much for Louis Van Gaal.

Rooney can't play as a lone striker or as a winger, and when in his favored #10 role he struggles to finish or create chances for his teammates like he did when he was 20. England was better against Italy, with Sterling in the middle and Rooney on the left wing, than they were today--but even in the Italy match Italy exploited England's left hand side ruthlessly because Rooney was taken to school by Torino right back Marco Darmian earning just his second cap.

Daniel Sturridge scored a lot of goals this year, goals set up by Luis Suarez. England needed Rooney to play like Suarez, too. But Rooney plays like a Greek.

Waynios Hairplugopolous.

In my opinion, England's best formation would have been a 4-3-1-2 (which Liverpool used frequently this year with great success) adding a third cental midfielder (Wilshere or Barkley) to make up for Gerrard's lack of mobility, playing Sterling in the free role behind Welbeck and Sturridge, and benching Mr. Hairplugopolous.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Arsenal's Transfer Window Deja Vu

I thought this summer was going to be different!

Remember those new commercial deals? The kit deal with Puma?

Ivan Gazidis magnificently played the major bidders (Adidas, Nike, Puma) off each other to get a new kit deal worth 150m over 5 years, or 30m per year. That alone was a 375% increase in commercial income over the old deal with Nike, which admittedly was front-loaded to finance the new stadium, but only brought in 8m per year. The new Emirates shirt/stadium sponsorship deal will also bring in 150m over the next 5 years, starting right now. Our commercial revenue has ramped up significantly. After failing to compete financially with the big boys for years, finally we had commercial firepower we needed to field a competitive team.

Not that we aren't competitive already. The Arsenal team is good enough to win trophies, proving as much on May 17th. For years, our best players wanted to leave the club because they wanted to win trophies. Now that they've won, they still want to leave!

Bacary Sagna was offered more money, more years, and a better chance of winning trophies at Man City than we could offer, so he refused to sign a new contract and moved north to Manchester. Sagna's departure is unfortunate. He has been one of our most consistent players for his 7 years in North London. He has earned the right to do make his own career choices. I just wish we had made the prospect of staying with Arsenal more appealing to him.

Reports have emerged that club captain Thomas Vermaelen has negotiated terms with Man United for a 50% increase in weekly wages. I am not very worried about the prospect of him leaving. Vermaelen is paid like a key player but the emergence of the Mertescielny partnership has diminished his role in the team to that of a squad player. Selling a player whose contract doesn't match his importance to the team makes perfect sense.

But at the same time, Vermaelen leaving would leave us extremely short of central defenders, and we would need to buy cover. I'm not sure who would play if Mertesacker or Koscielny was injured or suspended right now. Flamini? Arteta?

The most frustrating situation emerged yesterday. Santi Cazorla has made no effort to distance himself from a move to Atletico Madrid after just signing a new contract with us this spring.
"When the World Cup is over, I'll start thinking about my situation." Cazorla told reporters in Brazil. "I don't want to be thinking about it right now and I've told my agents not to tell me anything if an offer comes in."I know a few of the Atletico players -- Godin, Juanfran -- and I know the side well from when I was playing in the Spanish League. But until the tournament is over, I won't know if the rumors are true or not."

If Cazorla does leave, after declining to bring back Fabregas, all of a sudden we would be short of creative midfielders. Another injury to Ozil could have devastating ramifications.

 I have gone into detail as to why I don't understand our failure to pursue Cesc Fabregas and why I think letting him go to Chelsea was a big mistake. Reports have suggested we were less interested in bringing our former captain back to London than we were in securing the cash from our agreed-upon sell-on fee with Barcelona.

We were strongly linked with a Carlos Vela return, with Real Sociedad's president even claiming "Arsenal have informed us that Vela would be with them next season." But just a few days after that quote emerged, reports suggested we were actually negotiating a buyout of our buy-back clause with the Spanish club, choosing cash over a player who could have helped the team at a hugely-discounted price.

I expected us to sign at least one player before the World Cup began because Wenger has historically acted swiftly on the transfer market to secure his targets before a major international tournament inflates their fees. No deals came. Not for players anyway. Instead, we continue to build our cash reserves.

When the new commercial deals were announced, Gazidis proclaimed:
"What we can do is develop a really solid financial platform for the club that gives us the ability to compete for top players that we want to bring in and also top players that we want to keep. I think we will be able to be more financially competitive. We can pay bigger salaries and I think we can invest more in transfer fees. How we make those decisions will be based on a manager who judgment over the years have been shown to be be absolutely outstanding. We do have cash coming in. We want to be able to invest more in the team."
So why aren't we? There is plenty of time remaining in the transfer window, but at this point, the summer seems like deja vu all over again. It has been much more reminiscent of the painful transfer windows of 2011 and 2012 than the very encouraging 2013, when no key players left the club, many signed new contracts, and a world class player was added.

I hope that we are biding our time, choosing to be reactive over proactive, waiting to see what the other big clubs do and swooping in to secure a player like Ozil from a club who has spent a massive sum of money on a new player. That explanation is the best-case-scenario.

This strategy makes sense, but it's risky, and it seems like a risk that we don't need to take when factoring in our newfound commercial firepower.

We absolutely need a defensive midfielder, a striker, and a central defender. We might also need a right back (depending on your opinion of Carl Jenkinson's readiness and Hector Bellerin's potential) and a reserve goalkeeper (unless you think a youngster like Damian Martinez could fulfill that role). There are several major needs in the squad that need to be addressed.

Perhaps AC Milan and Barcelona wanted to put Mario Balotelli and Alexis Sanchez in the shopping window and refused to do a deal until the World Cup is over. Perhaps we are waiting until after the World Cup to ensure our targets (I really hope we have targets in mind) don't suffer major injuries.

We have the money to significantly improve the squad. We need to use it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

EPL Season Review: Arsenal. Part 2: the Squad

I spent last night basking in the glory of USA's highway robbery fortunate victory against Ghana. The US scored in the first 30 seconds, and hung on for dear life as the Ghanaian team dominated possession and out-shot the US 3 to 1. They finally found an equalizer in the 82nd minute, only to fall behind from a corner 4 minutes later. Next up, Portugal. I can't wait until Sunday.

Today my focus returns to North London, where I still have half a season review to do.

I discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the manager already. Today I'll get into the nuts and bolts of the squad.

Goalkeepers

Szczesny had an up-and-down season, which is to be expected for a player of his age and experience. He did very well against the lower teams, particularly when tested physically on set pieces. But in the biggest games, he still seems to struggle with the additional pressure. His sending off in the first half of the first leg against Bayern in the Champions League killed any hope of advancing in the tournament. He has an unfortunate habit of being at his worst when his team needs him most.

Fabianski is now a Swansea player, but he played a vital role in ending the club's trophy drought by starting every FA Cup match. His penalty heroics against Wigan and great saves against Liverpool and Everton got us to the final. And once we got there, he had one last going-away present for the fans: a heart-attack as he rushed 40 yards off his line in the 118th minute. In all seriousness, Fabianski had some awful times at the club, but was much better in his last two years. He will fight with Michel Vorm for a place in the first team at Swansea next year.

Viviano was loaned from some Italian club and never played. But I did hear he sang "Jingle Bells" beautifully at the team Christmas party.

Defenders

Mertescienly is the best defensive partnership in England. Individually, neither one is as complete a defender as Man City's Vincent Kompany, but the two players compliment each other so well that they formed the most effective central pairing in the league. Mertesacker's positional discipline and ability to read the game provides stability to the back line, while Koscielny's tackling ability and pace makes up for Mertesacker's lack of speed to recover when an attacker does get in behind the defense. The two players form an excellent base for the team to build around.

Vermaelen is captain, but no longer an important member of the team. He isn't quick enough to be a good match with Mertesacker and isn't disciplined enough to partner with Koscielny effectively. After a great start to his Arsenal career, Vermaelen has faded quickly, to the point where I'm not remotely bothered by the rumors of him agreeing to terms with Man United this week.

We had 5 wins (2 AET), 4 draws, and 5 losses when Vermaelen played over half the match this season. Our overall record in all competitions? 37 wins (3 AET), 8 draws, and 11 losses. He was involved in 50% of our draws and nearly 50% of our losses while taking part in just 14% of our victories. He's paid like a key player, but is an unreliable squad player at the moment. Surely we can get a more reliable squad player on much lower wages, so I wouldn't mind seeing Vermaelen go, even if he's joining a domestic rival.

Sagna is a player I did not want to see play in Manchester next season. He has been our most consistent player for the past few seasons, but he let his contract run down, and joined City for more money, more years, and a better chance at winning trophies than we could offer. Fair play to him. He's been a reliable player for the club for 7 years and has earned the right to do whatever he wants with his career. I won't cheer for him at City, but I won't hate him either. I know a lot of people think Sagna will sit on the bench behind Zabaleta, but I could see him partnering with Kompany in the middle. He filled in well at center back for us whenever called upon.

Gibbs continues to progress. He made some crucial tackles and clearances last season, and his pace on the left wing provides a good outlet in attack and recovery in defense. Very few players run past him. While he has been injury-prone, at least we won't have to worry about him playing for England in the near future. Young Luke Shaw has seemingly passed him in the pecking order, meaning Gibbs should get plenty of rest during international breaks next season.

Monreal has done the opposite. 18 months ago he was genuine competition for Gibbs at left back. Now he's clearly second choice. The speed and physicality of the English game is too much for him.

Jenkinson loves the club and it showed when he scored in the last match of the season. He is fast, has insane fitness levels, and has a decent cross. Yes Jenkinson is still very raw in the other parts of his game. I'd still like to see him play more. I don't really see what Serge Aurier would add that Jenkinson doesn't already offer. For me, Jenkinson should get a chance to develop as the first choice right back next year.

Midfielders

Arteta isn't a good enough defensive midfielder to win the league because he struggles to deal with pace and physicality, and often succumbs when a strong opponent puts him under pressure. But he's a great player against the lower teams because he is a reliable distributor of the ball and finds intelligent positions to receive it. Arteta is a great player when we have the ball, but a liability when we don't.

Flamini was brought back to the club for free after his contract at AC Milan wound down. He was a crucial player early in the season, when we were in our best form, because he provided the steel in defense that Arteta lacks. He didn't play as often in the second half of the season, which was largely his own fault. He missed the 1-5 loss at Anfield and 0-3 loss at Goodison on two separate suspensions. Flamini is an aggressive player, and will most likely run into more disciplinary issues next year. All the more reason to strengthen in the defensive midfield position this summer.

Ramsey was our player of the season. What else can be said that hasn't been said already? He was magnificent when healthy and sorely missed when injured. Ramsey is a player we will build around in the seasons to come.

Ozil came on the deadline and showed his class right away against Sunderland. Afterward, he struggled with injuries and had an up-and-down season. The penalty miss against Bayern was certainly the low point, but he did show his class in flashes. Sometimes it can take a full season for a player to adapt to the English style of play, so hopefully we see a more consistent Ozil next season.

Cazorla was actually better in his first season in London than he was in his second, but I think this was largely due to his position. After being used centrally in a free role two years ago, the addition of Ozil pushed Cazorla out the wings, where he sometimes struggled with the additional tactical responsibility. He often was out of position when his fullback needed an outlet pass down the wing, and failed to track the opposing fullback on defense. But he did show his class as well, scoring great goals against Liverpool at home and against Hull in the cup final.

Wilshere was often played "out of position" on the wings this year, where I thought he did really well. He doesn't have the pace of a true winger, but is a very decent wide midfielder because he is a composed passer, he takes intelligent positions when we have the ball, and he had a great season in front of goal. Wilshere scored 5 goals from 30 shots this season, by far his best as a scorer. I wouldn't mind seeing him play outside more next season. Ramsey was used as a right midfielder two years ago, and Wenger suggested it aided his development because he learned how to create space for himself despite having limited room next to the sideline. Wenger explained that once Ramsey moved back to the middle, he flourished with more room, being able to create space for himself in all directions. Perhaps Wilshere can make the same transition.

Rosicky has seemingly put his injury problems behind him (unlike Diaby) and he was a great squad player for us this season. He scored some fantastic goals against Sp*rs, and was a dependable player off the bench all season. Only Diaby and Walcott have been with the team longer.

Zelalem tore up the preseason tour of Asia just one year after playing for Olney Rangers in the Washington DC area. Injuries kept him from the Capital One Cup team, and he only made one appearance all year. I expect big things from Zelalem in the future, both with Arsenal and with the US national team, as he declined an opportunity to play for the Germany youth team and reportedly applied for a US passport last month. 

Kallstrom joined on loan in January despite failing his medical, and he was injured for the first 3 months of a 5 month loan. Kallstrom has the best agent in the history of agents.

Forwards/Wingers

Giroud is a good player with some clear limits to his game. He isn't going to run past anyone, and he isn't the most consistent finisher in the world. But his link-up play is top notch. I've never seen a player his size be so good at one-touch passes. He's a 1-2 machine. Our midfielders can play the ball to Giroud and keep their run going, knowing Giroud will find them with a pass immediately. His clever backheel to Ramsey won us the FA Cup.

But we relied on him too heavily. Giroud started 44 matches, and appeared in 7 more as a substitute. As the season went on, he wore down. His movement at the beginning of the season was great, he made lots of runs into dangerous positions. But as he wore down, he made less runs, and failed to make as much of an impact on matches as he did early in the year. Unfortunately he will spend the summer in Brazil and won't get the summer to rest. We need another center forward to compete and rotate with Giroud next season to help share the load up front.

Podolski was the first choice left winger for most of the season, where he scored some great goals. Podolski doesn't help much on defense and can sometimes struggle when he drops into the midfield and tries to contribute to the short-passing play. He isn't a tici-taca sort of player. But when he can find space in dangerous positions, Podolski is a clinical finisher and a great crosser who can provide the quality needed to score goals. I also think he is important to team chemistry because he has a laid-back personality and a good sense of humor. The other players really seem to like him. There are rumors that he might leave the club this summer, but I hope he stays. There's no reason he can't be a great sub to have off the bench when we need a goal when Walcott returns from his injury.

Walcott had stomach surgery in September. He came back in late November. We played him for 5 full matches in 16 days in December/January, and he tore his ACL making a cut. Fatigue causes muscle injuries, and it's clear Walcott's fitness was not strong enough to play so much so soon after he came back from the stomach surgery. He played so much because he's the most important player in the team, though. His speed creates a constant threat to get in behind the defense, forcing the opposing back line to play more conservatively, which gives our stable of creative midfielders more room to create. Hopefully Walcott's recovery goes well and he can make a big impact next season.

Oxlade-Chamberlain battled a few injuries but continued to show flashes of quality. He is fast, strong on the ball, and has a good shot on him. Sometimes his first touch lets him down, but in general, the Ox looks to have all the makings of a great player in the future. Whether he does so on the wing or in the middle is the question. Ox has all the attributes required of good winger. He is quick, can cross it well, and makes good runs for his teammates. But Wenger has said he thinks the Ox's position is more central, where he could be a box-to-box midfielder in the Ramsey mold. I don't think he's ready yet. I'd like to see him on the wing--where losing possession isn't as costly (see Chelsea, away)--until his first touch and distribution is more reliable.

Gnabry was a very important player for us in the middle of the season, scoring a great goal at Swansea and putting forth a man-of-the-match performance in the FA Cup victory against Sp*rs. A teenage former sprinter who is strong on the ball and confident using both feet, Gnabry is a dark horse to take Podolski's place as soon as next season.

Sanogo was bought from Auxerre and got injured at the U-21 World Cup as the lone striker for the victorious French team. He is an extremely raw player, but his athletic ability is clear to see. Big, fast, and strong--Sanogo imposes himself on every match, with extremely little end product. Sanogo will need time to develop into a player who can create chances for himself or others, but at the moment he is certainly a handful for any defender to mark. I'd like to see him loaned out next season to gain first team experience.

Miyaichi was picked to be on the bench at Munich, only to realize we hadn't registered him to play in the Champions League. Whoops!

Bendtner rubbed his junk against a taxi in Copenhagen. Adios Nicklas!