Tag Archives: Prem League

If only World Cup squads were a better proxy for Prem performance…

We’re almost down to the quarterfinals, with just two matches remaining to round out the final eight. A quick glance at the six nations that are through reveal a strong London flavor with 21 different players hailing from various London-based clubs. Of those, more than a third play for Arsenal, a number matched by Chelsea and trailed by Man City’s six, which leaves me wondering why such numbers can’t serve as a better barometer for how we do in the Prem. After all, one indication of a player’s class and form is his inclusion in his country’s squad. On that score, we’d win the Prem—if not outright then perhaps on goal-differentials or some other tie-break. Pity that there’s more to it than that.

First, the World Cup rosters, club by club:

  • Arsenal (7): Joel Campbell, Thomas Vermaelen, Per Mertesacker, Mesut Özil, Lukas Podolski, Laurent Koscielny, Olivier Giroud.
  • Chelsea (7): Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Andre Schürrle, Oscar, Ramires, Willian.
  • Man City (6): Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, Martin Demichelis, Sergio Agüero, Bacary Sagna, Fernandinho.
The gap (such as it is) between us and Chelsea might gorw were we to dismiss those who are out on loan—Campbell for us; Courtois and Lukaku for them. A similar consideration might be made for Sagna, who only joined Man City after the World Cup had begun. Should Argentina lose to Switzerland on Tuesday, Man City would lose three players; if Belgium lose to the U.S., Chelsea would lose three while we and Man City lose one each. In other words, these other contingencies would only seem to strengthen Arsenal’s international brand.
Sadly, of course, reality rarely conforms to such whims. Looking past those who represent their country (and those whose countries haven’t made it this far) tell more of the story. With the likes of England, Spain, Italy and Portugal eliminated, each club sees a fair number of members knocked out as well—and that’s not taking into consideration smaller counties that have been eliminated or that failed to qualify but who still a player or two playing for these three Prem clubs. Add in Poland or Wales, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Croatia, Nigeria or Côte d’Ivoire, and the balance of power might shift a bit.

Setting aside such quibbles, it’s hard to resist looking at the list above and ask why our position in the Prem isn’t better-reflected by the number of Gunners still in World Cup contention. Does Campbell’s inclusion unfairly inflate our position, for example? Should we only look at who makes it to the semifinal? Perhaps there’s no connection whatsoever to be made between playing for club and country. After all, Spain, with its stable of madridistas and blaugranas, failed to advance from the group stage despite Real Madrid’s winning the Champions League and sharing dominance of La Liga with Barcelona.

If only there were more to the connection between club and country representation, we might find Arsenal atop the Prem. Sadly, the connection is tenuous at best. As such, we’re free to watch the World Cup and support other countries as we see fit. I assume we’d all agree that Costa Rica defeating the Netherlands qualifies as a Good Thing™ on many levels; denying the likes of Robben and van Persie a chance at glory while affording Campbell a shot at the same feels right. France versus Germany might be more of a toss-up, a balance between affection for Giroud and Kos and Per and Özil on one hand and desire for Schneiderlin or Pogba or Reus or Khedira on the other.

The remaining matches, Argentina-Switzerland and Belgium-USA, offer fewer such considerations unless you want to go back to spite and root against Argentina and Belgium in order to see Chelsea and Man City’s players knocked out. There are worse ways to decide one’s sympathies…

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Our rivals squeak by; we waltz. Guess who's written off?

Richard Jolly, writing for ESPN after Liverpool eked out a victory over Swansea, had this to say about the title-chase:

[Liverpool’s] is an unusual title challenge, but it is a title challenge nonetheless. Liverpool have momentum and match-winners, confidence and the invaluable asset of being the underdog when the burden of being favourites lies on the shoulders of Chelsea and Manchester City.

Nowhere does he go on to mention the second-place team, the team that has until recently held onto first place for two-thirds of the season (18 of 27 weeks, plus five other weeks in second place). To an extent, I get it. On one hand, Man City and Chelsea have each won a Prem championship recently—Chelsea in 2010 and City in 2012—and finished second the year following, while we cling to a 2004 championship almost like a toddler to his comforter. On the other hand, we have Man City (again) and Liverpool scoring goals as if it’s a pub league. Lost somewhere in the shuffle is boring, old Arsenal.

Despite having roundly thumped Sunderland, the story of the week focuses on how Chelsea (a dodgy Ramires dive from drawing with Everton), Man City (scorers of one goal in three matches), and Liverpool (who are conceding almost as fast as they’re scoring) are vying for the championship. What gives? After all, of the four of us, who’s been most wasteful in the new year? We’ve drawn at home with Man U, drawn away to Southampton, and lost away to Liverpool, it’s true, but contrast that against our rivals (opponents’ table position at time of match)

  • Chelsea: away-draw with West Brom (18th), home-draw with West Ham (18th).
  • Man City: away-draw with Norwich (15th), home-loss to Chelsea (1st)
  • Liverpool: away draw with West Brom (15th), home-draw with Aston Villa (11th), away-loss to Chelsea (3rd).
The race has tightened, certainly, but it’s hard to see that we’ve been any more wasteful than anyone else vying for the championship. So what gives? Is it that we’re the only ones to have been trounced (and twice, at that)? Is there a conspiracy against us? Do we lack something that others possess?
With apologies to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I, I say, to my fellow Gooners, we have been persuaded by some who are skeptical of our credentials to take heed how we commit ourselves to this title-chase, for fear of failure, but I assure that I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving Gunners. Let tyrants like Mourino fear, I have always believed that I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good skill of these players, and I am therefore come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my own recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to chant and cheer amongst you all, to lay down for my squad and my Arsenal and my Gooners, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and distant American, but I have the heart and stomach of a Gooner and think foul scorn on Stamford Bridge or Etihad or Anfield or any other team of Europe should dare to invade the borders of this realm; to which, rather any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms.

Let Man City and Liverpool try to outscore everyone in sloppy orgies of goals. Where will they be when the goals dry up? The losses and draws will come, mark my words. Let Chelsea try to stupefy opponents with boring, boring footballing. To them too will losses and draws will. Let the media write us off and talk us down. It’ll be all the more satisfying when we emerge, end of the season, top of the table.

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West Brom held Chelsea. Our top-of-the-table spot awaits.

Proving that one loss does not undo a season’s worth of work, West Brom managed to draw with Chelsea at the Hawthorns with Victor Anichebe scoring a late equalizer to lift the Baggies out of the drop-zone, but only on goal-differential, and to keep Chelsea only two points ahead of Arsenal at the top of the table. All of a sudden, our loss to Liverpool doesn’t seem so devastating. In fact, it’s part and parcel of a Prem season. In order to stake a legitimate claim to the title, there are three basic keys to keep in mind:

  1. keep all points from inferior opponents (those outside of the top five)
  2. keep as many points as possible while hosting top rivals.
  3. look to nick few points while visiting top rivals.
Of course, a team can always try to shoot the moon by simply never losing, going a full season undefeated, but that would be preposterous. Ahem.
Moving on, of course, that three-step formula is awfully simplistic, but it still serves its purpose. Of course, teams are going to drop points here and there. The overarching question is, “to whom will a title-contender drop points?” Whether hosting or visiting teams lower on the table, it’s essential to secure almost all of those points. Dropping all three to a relegation-threatened team, regardless of location, is inexcusable. Dropping two on the road to a mid-table team might be acceptable, given how difficult it can be to play in certain stadiums. However, the mark of a serious title-contender is its ability to avoid these dropped points because, in an almost tautological sense, title-contenders are supposed to take them because they are title-contenders and the opponent is not. There are bound to be hiccups, of course, and so the follow-up question is “how often?’
When it comes to items two and three above, things get a bit more muddled. We’ve seen how explosive Man City can be, especially at home, and how defensive Chelsea can be when playing anywhere against a serious rival (such as against Man U in matchday two, when it still seemed as if Man U might compete for a top-four spot). Unfortunately, we fared poorly in our trip to the Etihad and suffered a draw at home against Chelsea (I’m not yet willing to include Liverpool in the discussion. Chalk that up to petty spite or the four points that separate them from third place). Man City traveled to Stamford Bridge and lost, hosted us rather rudely, then hosted Chelsea and lost. Chelsea has done best in these head-to-head bouts, drawing at the Emirates and beating City in both legs.
Then again, having played one extra match overall, Chelsea is only two points ahead of us and three ahead of Arsenal. Chelsea squandered a chance to open up a temporary but psychologically significant four-point lead against a stubborn but beatable opponent (after all, we drew with West Brom as well). Had they won, we might go into Wednesday’s clash feeling a little tetchier knowing that we’d have to win just to keep pace. Their draw tamps things down just a bit. We still “have” to win, after all (see item #1 above).
The head-to-head battles involving us, Chelsea, and Man City only account for twelve points from four matches to each team. In a season that might come down to only a few points, those points are precious—but no more so than the other 102 points available from the other 34 matches each team plays. Therefore, for as symbolic and fraught with tension as the head-to-head matches can be, taking care of business in the lower-profile matches is just as vital, if not more so. Yes, we lost in horrific fashion at Anfield. Three points gone against a squad with a strong grasp of fourth place and ambitions for something higher. We drew at Southampton. Another two points dropped, this time against a squad that hopes to finish in the top ten. However, in the same span of time, Man City lost at home to Chelsea and then drew with Norwich at Carrow Road. Chelsea, either side of that vital win at the Etihad, suffered a draw at Stamford Bridge against West Ham and then drew with West Brom. 
Each of us, then, has dropped a similar number of points, but the manner of the droppage (dropitude?) differs a bit. We dropped all of our points on the road against some serious competition. Without slighting Norwich, West Ham, or West Brom, the points that Chelsea and Man City have dropped were low-hanging fruit that both clubs really were expected to seize without difficulty. The manner of our play against Southampton, coupled with the magnitude of our loss at Anfield, seems to have added a mutiplier-effect to those dropped points so that they seem bigger or more numerous than they really are. 
However, the cold, hard reality is actually quite reassuring. With a game in hand, we’re two points behind Chelsea. Despite losing to Man City, we’re a point ahead of them. This isn’t idle grasping at straws. A win on Wednesday puts all the pressure back on our rivals. Let’s do this.

Race for the Title: Can Arsenal stay top of the table?

We’ve reached the halfway point of the season, 19 matches played, 19 left, and Arsenal reached this juncture with 42 points, roughly half of what recent champions have finished with—whether this pace would be enough to stay atop the table is anyone’s guess, but it does look to be shaping up as a three-team race between us, Man City, and Chelsea, with only two points separating first from third.

Of course, other teams could surge forward to complicate the picture even further. Everton, playing attractive, engaging football under Roberto Martinez, have climbed to fourth. Man U is showing signs of recovery after an uneven first half. Liverpool, despite being so shorn of options that they had to throw on a 19-year old defender into the midfield against Chelsea, could explode or implode depending on Suarez’s response to the pressure. I refuse to rule out Spurs despite their struggles. Who knows? Maybe Tim Sherwood actually knows what he’s doing. After all, he is a self-proclaimed Arsenal fan. We’ll see.

Speaking after the win over Newcastle, Arsène was cautiously optimistic as he assessed our status:

Look, we believe in ourselves and we are determined to give our best, absolutely, and to turn back on the season at the end and think we have given our best. I hope it will be enough, of course, but it’s a long way to go. It’s too early to say [that we will finish in first place].We have come out of very difficult games—we have played Everton, we have played Manchester City, Chelsea, at West Ham and Newcastle. We have dropped some points, but I felt it was more down to the heavy schedule and the short recovery time we have had than to the difficulty of the games.

Those dropped points—two at Goodison Park, three at the Ethihad, and two at home to Chelsea—are not fatal, at least not yet. Aside from the opening-day loss to Aston Villa, we’ve done well to minimize dropped-points of the sort that title-challengers shouldn’t drop. It’s really only the draw at West Brom that stands out as a red-mark. However, the down-side to this is that other contenders have been sloppier but remain only a point or two behind. Man City’s form on the road has slowed them down considerably, and Chelsea’s recent goal-drought threatens to slow them as well.

However, we can’t rely on those factors if we’re going to claim the title. We’ve come through a difficult stretch of fixtures, but so too have Chelsea and Man City. Each of us have advanced to the Champions League and the FA Cup, and Man City continues in the Capital One Cup as well. Will Chelsea’s depth and Mourinho’s negative style be enough to see Chelsea trudge to the top? Will Man City find a way to win away from the Etihad? Will someone else among the next five clubs shoulder their way into the conversation?

For now, it looks like we have a crazy competition on our hands, and, dare I say it? Yes, I do. We look to be getting stronger. Theo and Poldi are back, Cazorla’s looking livelier, and the Ox and Sanogo (for what he’s worth will return soon. Even Abou “like a new signing” Diaby (yes, yes, I know) could rejoin the fray in March. In the meantime, there’s a lot of talk of an actual signing or two in January. I don’t see Chelsea or Man City making any moves, in part because of how stocked each of them already is. Then again, they’re bankrolled by some pretty wealthy owners, so anything’s possible.

Looking at schedules, Chelsea might have the most-favorable one going forward, hosting Man U, Everton, Spurs, and us while facing trips to the Etihad and Anfield. Man City looks to have the most-difficult schedule, especially considering their record away from home: trips to White Hart Lane, Old Trafford, the Emirates, Anfield, and Goodison Park. Their only chance to trounce other contenders at home will be Chelsea’s visit. We’re somewhere in the middle, it seems, with visits from Man U and Man City and trips to Anfield, White Hart Lane, Stamford Bridge, and Goodison Park. Of course, there’s a baker’s dozen of other fixtures to consider.

After years of scrabbling for fourth place and hoping for results elsewhere to go our way, it feels good to consider how to hold onto first place. We don’t quite control our destiny yet, but consider that, last year, we had to wait until the second week of February, 26 matches gone, to reach 44 points. With seven matches between now and then, could we reach 60 points? Home versus Cardiff, at Aston Villa, home versus Fulham, at Southampton, home versus Crystal Palace, at Anfield, home versus Man U. Let’s hope so—and let’s see if that puts some distance between us and our rivals.

Next up: that visit from Cardiff. We’ll take a closer look at that one. ‘Til next time, thanks for your visit!

Man U 3-0 Aston Villa: Sunday's fixture loses a bit of its edge

Well, they’ve gone into halftime at Old Trafford as I write, and Van Persie has a flawless hat-trick to put his club ahead 3-0. This all but clinches the Prem title for them unless Aston Villa, scorers of only 20 goals in 16 away-games, can somehow tally four in one half while conceding none. A tall order, indeed, tall enough that I’m willing to go out on a limb and predict that this is it for the Prem, not that it’s such a bold prediction to make. The other, more exciting(?) news is that this puts Van Persie ahead of Luis Suarez on goals for the season, 24-23, and with Suarez looking at a suspension likely to last several games into the 2013-14 season,  Van Persie will probably win this year’s Golden Boot. Good for him. I may resent Van Persie for leaving, but I can’t stand the thought of Suarez emerging from a season like the one he’s had with any kind of honors attached to his name. Wenger has asked for us to respect Van Persie. I’m not really willing to go quite that far. He left, he got what he wanted, and that’s that. Last year was wonderful, but it’s in the past. I’m not going to jeer him (he won’t hear me from where I am anyway), but I certainly won’t applaud him either.

We all knew that Van Persie would win things sooner rather than later, so it makes little sense to feel anything about Man U winning the Prem. It would be like getting upset at, say, gravity or magnetism. There’s nothing we can do to stop it from happening, so why feel upset? Van Persie only did what a lot of us would probably do: found a higher salary for his services (even if we might have matched the offer) with an employer that could offer more perks (trophies, visibility, etc.). So it goes.

I guess that this will now force us to consider whether or not to actually give Man U a guard of honor on Sunday. Out of respect for Aston Villa’s second-half chances, let’s pretend that it’s too early to consider the guard of honor in earnest and so on. Moving on, it’s a dicey one with Van Persie involved, to say the least. Sure, Man U gave us one in 1991, but I don’t recall there having been any touchy issues related to player movement at the time. I guess we should go ahead and do the right thing, the professional one, and give it to them. It’s polite, after all, and refusing to do so would look petty and spiteful and immature. The only reason not to offer the guard of honor, in my mind, is if Ferguson asks us not to because he wants to celebrate at Old Trafford instead of as a visiting team. It’s not up to me, though, so sorry for having wasted however much of your time you just invested in reading that.

In more significant news, it’s worth considering what, if anything, this means for our Sunday match. Will Man U throw on a bunch of call-ups? Whom will we face, and how hard will they try? With little else to play for, except perhaps trying to top Chelsea’s record for Prem points (95), Man U is likely to come in somewhat less intense than if Man City had managed to hold off Spurs on Sunday. In a way, then, Spurs’ victory may actually work in our favor. Yes, they stormed back to take three points in a stirring victory, and this might give them some momentum going into the coming weeks, but it also takes our most-difficult remaining fixture and changes the dynamics just a bit. I’ve previously said that Man U was fortunate to have beaten us at Old Trafford, needing a flubbed clearance from Vermaelen to go ahead while playing against the likes of Mannone and Santos in back. Going ahead three minutes changes a game dramaticallyjust ask Bayern.

I actually kind of regret the fact (sorry, Acorns) possibility that Man U will come in with little to play for on Sunday. Despite my earlier declamation against spite, it would have been nice to deny them the title, if only for another few days. As things now stand, we have all the more reason and opportunity to seize this game by the throat and take three points from a game many of us might have written off. Now, we just wait to see if the FA will do right by us and overturn Giroud’s red card so he’ll be available…