Now that it looks likely that Arsenal will qualify for the Champions League next season—something that is now almost guaranteed given the gap between us and fourth-placed Tottenham—thoughts start to turn to summer transfers. Long-standing interest in 23 year old Serbian striker Dusan Vlahovic may therefore find new life, especially given Juventus’s precarious position, seventh in Serie A and reeling from Calciopoli II: The Scandal’s Sequel.Continue reading
From the funeral pyre that is our 0-2 loss to Juventus in the penultimate match of the—what’s that? I’m being told that this was not a match of record, and that the result means nothing in the grand scheme of things. In fact, its only purpose was to embarrass Vlahović and maybe spank an Italian side that’s so corrupt the Mafia are taking notes. Still, from those ashes, a phoenix rises. Make that two because we have two precocious talents on our hands in Amario Cozier-Duberry and Ethan Nwaneri, each of whom impressed against Juventus on Saturday despite the result. Arteta offered a significant vote of confidence to both teenagers, sending them each on despite us having conceded an own-goal against the run of play just before halftime and hoping for and equaliser. Am I exaggerating their performances just a little bit? To pose another rhetorical question: can anyone determine the location of ursine defecations in arboreal ecosystems? Who needs Mudryk when we have these two waiting in the—wait for it…—wings?
Whereas some managers eavesrop on other clubs and try to poach up-and-coming players, Arteta seems comfortable and confident enough to instead develop academy players. True, this wasn’t a knockout round or anything, but sending on two teenagers sends a message, all the more so when we’re chasing the game rather than killing it off. True, the two only played a combined 40 minutes or so (28 for Cozier-Duberry, 12 for Nwaneri), but they got the message loud and clear: Arteta sees a future for them in the first team even if that future isn’t immediate. Other Academy players will have seen this, and their mates’ appearances earlier in the season, as inspiration.
Seventeen year old Cozier-Duberry in particular impressed (he did have more time on the pitch after all), replacing Xhaka and pushing forward fearlessly while also tracking back, and he may get another call-up to face Oxford United in the FA Cup third round. The left-footed winger might remind you of Saka with his directness and willingness to take defenders on. Give him a gander in this highlight clip:
Fifteen year old Ethan Nwaneri, who made history as the first player to feature for the first team at the Emirates who was born after the stadium opened in July 2006, is another left-footed midfielder and was almost as impressive as Cozier-Duberry but clearly still very raw. He never looked intimidated, though, although he did get dispossessed several times. Still, he acquitted himself in the busy middle of the pitch. Check out his cameo here:
Mikel named a fairly strong side here—Ramsdale, Tierney, Holding, Gabriel, White, Xhaka, Partey, Nelson, Ødegaard, Vieira, and Nketiah as we play our last friendly before getting back to the real action against West Ham on Boxing Day. To tide us over on this cold winter morn, I’ll post highlight clips here as they occur, hopefully all going Arsenal’s way. Refresh the tab every once in a while to keep an eye on the action. #COYG!
- 23’—Nketiah pounces on a pass in the box but hits the post from a tightly angled shot. Good awareness from the lad.
- 45’+—An own-goal comes through Xhaka as he misjudges a header. Completely against the run of play.
- Well, that was an irritating first half. We dominated proceedings only to lose Reiss Nelson to an early injury, have a goal from Nketiah rightly disallowed because he was ruled offside, saw him hit the post, and then concede a silly one in stoppage time. Let’s hope the second half gives us more to cheer about…
- Second half—The second half picks up right where the first left off, with us dominating possession and peppering the Juve goal but coming away empty-handed. Still, it feels like a breakthrough will come in due time.
- 78’—Ethan Nwaneri has subbed on, making him the first player born after the Emirates Stadium to be called up.
- 90’—It’s another own-goal, this time through Rob Holding.
News that Serbian striker and one-time transfer-target Dušan Vlahović has not made the squad for Juventus’s friendly has we wondering: wow has his €70 million transfer to Juventus gone so far? I know it’s early days, but the returns seem a bit..mixed. His new club struggle in third place in Serie A, ten points from Napoli even after a six-match winning streak and finished absolutely bottom of their Champions League group. There’s also the small matter of what we’ll call Calciopoli II: The Quickening, engulfing the club. For Dušan, it’s surely been a struggle for him to replicate the kind of form that convinced Juve to splurge on the transfer, but he won’t be the first or the last to struggle to justify a massive fee.
Dušan, I don’t know if you’ve checked, but we’ve done somewhat better than your new club. Okay, so we missed out on a fourth-place finish last season, but we’re currently sitting in a stronger position this time through, possibly stronger than we could have been had you had agreed to come on over here. Maybe. In retrospect, though, maybe Fiorentina president Rocco Comisso had a point when he alleged that “it was clear to everyone that [Vlahović and his people] already had a deal with someone” months before you signed with Juve. If true, this would raise interesting questions about our courtship. Could it be that you and your handlers were simply leveraging our interest to extract a bigger fee from Juve? Now, I’m not insinuating anything uncommon or illegal, but coming as it does against the backdrop of an investigation into irregularities in Juve’s transfers, eyebrows just might get raised.
Imagine our collective surprise (say it with a French accent so that it rhymes with “cheese”) when we learned that you won’t be available for Juve’s friendly little visit to the Emirates. Don’t know what that’s about. You were fit enough to play the full Serbia-Swizterland match. Maybe you’re feeling a bit awkward after blowing us off last January. That would be understandable. You and your agent strung us along, secured a massive fee and pay rise, and are now stuck at a club that faces a points-deduction that might just drop the club out of European competition next year (which would at least spare everyone involved the embarrassment of finishing bottom of the group two years in a row).
Tell you what. If things do go (even more) sideways there in Turin, ring us up. It might go to voicemail, and the inbox might be full. Actually, I’ll spare you the trouble with stirring words of wisdom:
“It doesn’t need much convincing, and, if they do, for me, it’s not a good starting point. If I have to convince a player to stay or to join us. To Arsenal? It holds me back a little bit.
“It has to be ‘what do we have to do? I want to play for that club and represent exactly the values the style of play that I want’. That’s the kind of emotion I want to hear at the start.
That would be our head coach, Mikel Arteta. Perhaps the writing is on the wall, then. I guess Saturday would have been your last, best chance to play at the Emirates…unless Juve somehow survive the swirling stench of scandal that seems to strangely surround this club every once in a while. Well, you’ve made your bed and I’ve mixed my metaphors.
Still, you’re 22 and have a bright future ahead of you. One bad decision or even a series of bad decisions need not define us. I’m sure you’ll emerge from your current, um, uncomfortable circumstances. In the meantime, enjoy Saturday’s match. It’s just a friendly, after all, a tune-up after this Winter World Cup. Too bad you won’t be there on the pitch to show us what we’re missing…
We’re through the looking-glass, people. With a chance to win our Europa League group on Thursday against FC Zürich, we’re getting a clearer sense of just what we’ve gotten ourselves into here. Over the last five years or so, we’ve learned a lot more about Europa League and what it all entails. The more that we learn, the more that we realise that it’s all an exercise of sado-masochism, replete with its delights and its devilries. On on hand, we get a chance to batter lesser opponents. On the other, we look forward to the arrival to the knockout stage of various Champions League cast-offs, many of them quite content just to get kits with a special patch on the shoulder, some of them also-rans resentful to have slumped to this admittedly less-glorious competition. While it would be fun to continue to feast on the former, the latter group pose exquisite challenges that tiptoe the line between inflicting and incurring punishment beyond one’s wildest dreams.
While there are still a few Champions League group stage matches left to play, most of the necessaries have been sorted. We know that Ajax, Bayer Leverkusen, Barcelona, and Sporting are joining us, we’re still awaiting verdicts on groups E, F, G, and H. In group E, it’s still possible that we’ll face one of AC MIlan or RB Salzburg…maybe even Dinamo Zabreg, but that would take some doing. In group F, we await word on RB Leipzig or Shakhtar Donetsk. Group G? Dortmund or Sevilla. Finally, in group H, we might have to welcome “mighty” Juventus or merely Maccabi Haifa. Given the pick of the litter, we’d probably do just fine against almost all of these would-be opponents. However, there are two that…well, there are two.
Both of them are absolute basket-cases, just as likely to batter you 6-0 across both legs as they are to collapse and lose by the opposite aggregate. I speak, of course, of Barcelona and Juventus, two giants of their domestic leagues as well as of the Champions League. At a risk of sounding sordid, they’re just as likely to lay back and let you have your way with them as they are to ask you if you remember your safeword. Barça, after all, boast Lewandowski and do sit just one point behind Real Madrid in La Liga. They’re psychophrenic, battering one opponent 4-0 one week before ekeing past another 1-0 the next. Juve are no better, sitting seventh in Serie A, following a similar pattern. Each of them, then is akin to that crazy ex with whom anything possible, either agony or ecstasy.
Among the other Europa League opponents, there is of course Man U, who fit a profile similar to Barça or Juve. You never know which one is going to show up: the down-on-their-luck hot messes or the suddenly put-together hotties? Either is capable of anything…and that is both a threat and an invitation, a warning and a seduction.
The good news? We’re capable of beating any one of them across two legs. What’s more, it’s really just the three, and it feels somewhat better than coming up against squads that were clearly better than us (namely, Chelsea and Atletico Madrid). Then again, continuing the sado-masochistic trend, maybe some of these others are another Olympiacos or Sevilla in waiting, a sub club that nonetheless flips the power dynamic to dominate us?
Of course, although we’ve secured passage to the knockout stage, we do have to at least get a win or a draw on Thursday (unless PSV draw or lose, in which case we can just fail upwards anyway). In any case, this entire competition continues to offer that bizarre, even-intoxicating blend of punishment and pleasure. Oh, please, let if be more of the latter than the former. Please. The powers that be know that we’ve suffered enough without, um, enjoying any of it (unless that’s your thing, in which case…).
Enlighten me. Educate me. What lies ahead? Is it better than what lies behind?