The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

The Habs just might be OK…

So, I missed the Habs’ 3-0 win over Vancouver as I was busy suffering terribly bad beats in online poker (I have rediscovered my desire lately to become a better player, and to do that I must play). I also have half-kiddingly told people that I was scared to because they only seem to win when I don’t record the games!

Seriously though, it once again was a game in which the team was outplayed horribly for long stretches at a time, in fact recording their lowest shot output of the season with just 17. However, Tomas Plekanec had a great game with a goal and an assist, and Jaro Halak is the man of the moment having made 35+ saves to earn the shutout. It doesn’t bode that well for the future as there hasn’t been a performance to call “acceptable” against a quality opponent in ages now.

However, I have seen the Habs’ schedule for the rest of the season, and to call it favorable is an understatement. They are currently in 5th place with 79 points out of 61 games…and while everyone on Earth has games in hand against them, this is who they’ve got the rest of the way:

Boston, NJ, Philly…well, OK…those are all likely humiliating defeats. However, the rest goes: Rangers (twice), Buffalo (twice), Toronto (twice), Pittsburgh, Ottawa (twice), Atlanta (twice), Tampa, Islanders (twice), and four against the West (home to San Jose, away to Dallas, home to Edmonton, home to Chicago).

If this team can’t win 8-9 from that collection in the East and 2 of the 4 from the West (Dallas and Edmonton specifically), then fuck this team…they don’t deserve to make the playoffs anyway.

February 26, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Oh No! Who Could Have Forseen This!

Three examples of a larger point today, about injuries and outcomes:

Let’s start with Arsenal. Fans have been saying this entire season that Arsenal have been hobbled badly by injuries, and just wait until all of our hurt players come back- we’ll be a force then. An example from today at Arseblog: “…imagine this formation with Arshavin and Walcott in place of Eboue and Bendtner and with Cesc in the centre of midfield.” I don’t mean to pick on Arseblog here, this is simply the most recent example of this I’ve seen.

I don’t buy it, and never have. The premise is that Arsenal’s injury woes are somehow uncommon or unexpected, a freak occurrence which is unlikely to be repeated and thus has little predictive value for the future performance of the team. There’s two major problems with this line of reasoning. The first is that while this year’s team have had a few freak injuries which were largely unpredictable in that they happened to usually durable players (like Cesc, or Kolo’s malaria), there have also been players like Robin van Persie with very long histories of frequent injury who have been almost totally healthy all year long. The uncommon and possibly unrepeatable outcomes have been on both sides of the ledger, so it’s difficult to say that Arsenal’s luck has been exceptionally bad from the standpoint of reasonable expectations of player health.

The second major problem is the assumption that injuries are usually non-predictive events. Arsenal are, in fact, a team full of fragile players: Diaby is rarely good for more than 2 or 3 games at a stretch, Eduardo, sadly, has suffered minor issues after the majority of games in his comeback after a year away, Rosicky’s problems are well known, RVP is usually injured for substantial stretches, Gallas has suffered his share of pulls and muscle problems and such (and is now over 30), Walcott has natural issues with his shoulders which have put him out more than once for extended periods- the list here is substantial and no doubt you can add to it. In all of these cases, there’s a track record of repeated injuries of a similar character which arise from the normal conduct of play, the sort of things which a player is simply going to have to do in order to perform. A non-predictive injury would be one like Cesc’s, where there’s no history of similar injury, or one like the tackle which put Eduardo out for a year which was exceptionally vicious. When Diaby, for example, misses several weeks with a muscle strain, that’s simply to be expected based on prior performance; if that sort of thing was in fact not repeated next year, THAT would be a freak occurrence because of how far it would depart from reasonable expectations.  Assuming that next year’s Arsenal will have a better track record of health than this year’s is an expression of hope, not reason.

So what, you may ask? That’s our second example. Take this article as an example of what happens when people fail to take into account the overall team-wrecking effects of having star players with major injury histories which are ignored.

(Aside: I just wiki’ed Eric Lindros, whose page as of right now has been edited to read “Eric “Biggest Waste of a Hockey Player Ever” Lindros (born 28 February 1973 in London, Ontario, Canada) is a retired professional ice hockey player.” Lol, as the kids say.)

The article attempts to defend the acquisition of Lindros on the grounds that what was traded for him ended up being no big deal, and that Lindros was ok. This is foolish analysis on the face of things, since Pavel Brendl’s eventual flameout was not known at the time, and therefore his perceived value could have been used to acquire many other players than Lindros; the trade shouldn’t be evaluated just on the basis of what each player did, but on the potential value of what each asset in the deal could have been used for at the time.

That niggle aside, the real problem with Lindros wasn’t the trade, but what Lindros did when he was with the Rangers. Wiki has the stats; you’ll note a good first year, healthy, followed by a healthy second year with a major statistical collapse, and then a third injury ravaged year before he left the team. If you’d been watching regularly (I had season tickets at the time), you’d have seen a player who was playing in a totally different fashion than he had previously in order to shield himself from further injury (Lindros had a history of concussions which ended his career, for those who don’t know), who had given up his physical style of play and was avoiding certain positions in order to minimize his risk.

The problem for the Rangers then was twofold: firstly they had ended up trading for a player who, even when healthy, was not at all the player he had been before his injuries became a constant risk, and the similarities for Arsenal fans to the situations with Eduardo, Risicky, etc. should be obvious; the second was a much more insidious cost, which is usually still not recognized. Read that article again, and focus on this sentence: “Losing puck-mover Kim Johnsson was somewhat more painful, though not the franchise-magnitude sacrifice Bondy would have you believe compared to the potential upside of Big E. “

That’s everything wrong with this mentality in one line. By the time he reached the Rangers, Lindros had suffered seven reported major concussions. SEVEN. Each concussion suffered predisposes the sufferer to a greater risk of another- was it at all reasonable to assume that a player who had suffered 7 major concussions in 8 NHL seasons was unlikely to suffer any more? But because Lindros was big and strong and had a good touch, people continued to fall in love with his “upside”- even the author of this article, 5 years after Lindros washed out of New York due to…a concussion.

Lindros was at all successful with the Rangers because he changed styles to minimize his risk, becoming less effective but more durable; this was entirely predictable based on his history, because the only other option for him was to continue to suffer debilitating injuries which were likely to be career-enders. While he was still somewhat effective, the unjustifiable assumptions (which were not his fault) that any day now he would play just like he did in Philadelphia ended up hamstringing the team for years on end, as they budgeted and made player moves around the idea that big number 88 was going to give them far more than he was physically able to do. The result was three years of failure in which the team finished 11th, 9th, and 13th in the conference, with no playoff appearances. The implications for Arsenal here should again be fairly obvious.

A final example to illustrate probability and outcomes. Take the fighting world, where these distinctions are usually clearest: at UFC 95 recently, Paulo Thiago fought Josh Koscheck. Kosckeck, a striker and wrestler who had previously fought the current champion, was a heavy favorite in that fight and considered a top-5 welterweight in the world; Thiago was considered a less experienced and less well-known UFC debutante reliant on his jiu jitsu. So of course Thiago knocked Koscheck clean out in the first round with a two punch combo.

And yet, anyone who gave the matter much thought would realize that if these two were to rematch, the smart money would all be on Koscheck. He has a far greater skill level, a stronger track record, more options in a fight; that Thiago knocked him out despite a demonstrably lesser skill level is what is colloquially called a lucky punch, but should be understood more specifically as an unlikely but possible outcome. Let’s say you could get those guys to fight 100 times under identical conditions- odds are, Thiago knocks Koscheck out, say, 8-10 times out of a 100; maybe he submits him another few times, ekes out a few decisions, etc. Kosckeck still probably wins 60-80% of those fights based on greater demonstrated ability. That doesn’t make Thiago’s victory hollow, or unimportant; it makes it an uncommon outcome which was always possible, but which it would be foolish to bet on happening more than a small fraction of the time.

An even better if less recent example would be the two Georges St. Pierre vs. Matt Serra fights. GSP, clearly the more talented of the two, got knocked out in the first round in their initial encounter; in their second, he humbled Serra badly and destroyed him in the second round, and not once since then has there been any talk of a third meeting- for many reasons, one of the biggest of which is that UFC matchmakers and most fans instinctively understand the concept of possible but unlikely outcomes, which because they’re so infrequent, have little predictive value for the future.

To summerize: Arsenal have been badly hit by injuries this year, it’s true; but they have not been more badly hit than might have been expected given the histories of their players, and if you’re banking on them being substantially more healthy next year, you’re either assuming they’ll have substantially different personnel, or else you’re counting on a miracle.

February 25, 2009 Posted by | MMA, The Arsenal, The NY Rangers | , , , , , | Leave a comment

This World Can’t Stand Long

No, I’m not dead, Dell computers is just giving me an awesome run around about my new computer. “Here,” I say, “have $1800 in a down economy. Enjoy my money!” and yet, and yet, nothing so far- literally, no buys. Hopefully it should be worked out by early next week. Otherwise at the very least you’ll get the mother of all OT and OTT rants on here. Speaking of, there’s an article out there which just cannot go past without comment, so thanks to Sean for letting me borrow his computer for this.

Oh, those quotes. What to say? Where to begin? This is a man who, 5 years ago, was respected for his ability as a football manager at least by probably every single person who understood enough about the game to have an opinion worth noting. Now he’s reduced to being openly mocked in the Guardian in an article which isn’t even a blog or editorial by an author who uses the clever stratagem of facts to confound Wenger’s premise. How can a man renowned for his intelligence and erudition be reduced to not just lying continuously, but to telling such risible and unconvincing lies at that?

Let’s look at the factual issues here:

– United’s golden generation were hardly the only important elements of their great run; my historical knowledge is imperfect, but Sean sent me an email today pointing out that of the 13 most notable players who figured in United’s 1999 cup final with Bayern (a reasonable assumption of the peak of that team), only 4 were really homegrown locals. Not conclusive, but not a great stat to look back on if you’re insisting on that as the framework of your team going forward.

– As the article points out, a huge number of “home grown” players at Arsenal were in fact bought with filthy filthy Anglo-Saxon money from other clubs, almost all at ages in which the vast majority of their technical development was complete and after some of them had already begun to compete and even captain their respective side at junior international levels. This isn’t exactly pulling urchins out of the North London streets and training them to cup finals.

-As the article points out, this is a bit rich after buying Andrei (Andrey? Andre? Andrej? Andrew?) Arshavin at 27 for 10+ million, which was absolutely the right move and absolutely the sort of thing Wenger castigates other clubs for.

– “…we are the only club that has gone for a different policy because we wanted to build our stadium and get this team to maturity.””

As always, one month Wenger has money to spend and total autonomy, the next he’s poormouthing and claiming that the need to build the stadium has constrained him and dictated his policy; the month after that he’s, well, buying Arshavin when the actual effects of that policy turned out to be 5th place. He’s too smart to be this incoherent; these are just bad lies.

The crux of all this is the bit about keeping the youngsters together. As Wenger notes, it was “disappointing” to lose Flamini last summer; but he fails at least publicly to seriously draw the lesson from the departure of Flamini and Hleb which is that, rather than something to be noted in passing or hidden in a parenthetical, their departure and that of Lassana Diarra before them illustrates the fundamental and probably insurmountable problem with this philosophy: players won’t wait. They don’t wait at Ajax or Marseilles or any of the other 2nd and 3rd rate feeder clubs in European football, and there’s a long line of reasons for that.

Partly, as Wenger the economist surely knows and alludes to but doesn’t explicitly state, they’re caught in something like the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Many Arsenal players have more to gain financially and professionally in the present by departing for Barca or AC Milan or wherever, that while they might be able if they stayed together to make Arsenal the best and biggest club in the world and eventually reap the individual rewards thereof, for each individual player that decision makes little sense as it would require sacrificing prime earning and competitive years in order to achieve a collective result. The analogy isn’t exact of course since players can talk and collude and the prisoners cannot, but given the backstabbing and lack of trust in world football, the practical situation is nearly the same: Hleb left, Flamini left, Diarra left, Adebayor tried to leave, RVP has talked of leaving, Gallas’s raging in the press- does it sound as though this lot is developing the esprit d’corps required to cooperate? And with each passing year in which Arsenal win nothing and insist on their wage structure, the pressure grows- those players who have broken through to excellence become visibly less and less willing to carry their less adept teammates and wait 3 years or however long until they mature- if they ever do. This isn’t watching fruit ripen so much as fruit rot.

Wenger must know this, on some level; the question is why, if he does, he insists on failing to act on it. Because his public words are almost always somewhere between calculated for effect and outright dishonest these days, it’s difficult to perceive his motives; and so we fans are left with a profusion of theories: that he’s a romantic, devoted to an ideal of attacking football played by tight-knit and inseparable teammates who play for love of the game (possible, judging from these most recent quotes); that he would like to buy and compete, but is hamstrung by stadium costs (possible but unlikely, since Arshavin proves that there is some money); that he would like to buy and compete, but the board is cheap and skimping to pocket some revenues (unlikely- Wenger is many things, but no one’s dupe, patsy or stooge); that Wenger has simply lost much of his ability to judge talent (unlikely but possible- Eboue plays on); that Wenger and the board anticipate that the worldwide economic issues will eventually hamstring many or all of the other major European sides, damaging their model and enhancing the competitiveness of Arsenal’s (who can say, but likely based on some of Wenger’s comments over the years).

The point of all this is, absolutely no one outside of Wenger and the current board and possibly some other major shareholders has any idea just what Arsenal are up to at the moment. What they’re trying to achieve and why are unclear; the methods which they’re using as the backbone of their attempt are theoretically highly flawed and practically being refuted by events so badly that probably 80% of the fanbase is fed up and the media is full of open mockery. The impression is of secrets and agendas unspoken at the club, of a divided board which has seen the expulsion of David Dein and Lady Nina, first the rejection and then the co-opting of Stan Kroenke, long periods of time without a proper CEO, the dismissal of other notable figures at the club like Keith Edelman, and now the ever-lengthening shadow of Usmanov. The last 5 years of club history have been a soap opera, and there’s little chance of that changing it appears.

Cards on the table time. I’m a newish fan and an American at that, and so I’ve tried to be circumspect in expressing my opinion and have tried to rely on Sean- a generally much more positive fan of longer standing- for historical perspective to avoid overreacting. But at this point, I am absolutely certain that something has gone profoundly wrong at Arsenal either at the planning and strategic level, or the tactical and execution level, or both. Arsenal still have many talented players, and will have more in the future, and in a sports environment with multiple single-elimination cups to compete for they may yet win something this year or in the near future; but until there are some serious changes at the club or the majority of other major clubs self-destruct, Arsenal will not be able to consistently compete for honors in any serious manner.

I have this advantage as a newer, American fan: having followed so many teams in so many sports, and having seen several of them go profoundly rotten, I’ve learned to see the signs- the ways in which performance increasingly means less to decision makers than holding the course and being vindicated, the way practicality becomes devalued in favor of theory, the way money concerns overtake competitive concerns, the way dissenting voices are slowly weeded out. All of this happened locally with the Knicks, as the team lost useful decision makers with track records like Checketts and Grunfeld and Van Gundy and replaced them with Isiah Thomas- another man with a track record of success who had a plan he was sure going to stick to, regardless. That team lost years and years to an insistence on holding to Isiah’s plan combined with a desperate need to just eke into the playoffs for revenue purposes; I can’t help but draw the parallel to Arsenal’s trophy-less years and frantic scraping to get into the revenue-rich Champions League. The parallel again isn’t exact and the similarities are clouded somewhat since Arsene is vastly better at his job than Thomas was at his, and Arsenal have structural advantages which the Knicks do not in a salary capped sport, but at this point I’d be straining to avoid a sense of deja vu if I didn’t note the similarities.

Isiah lasted from October of 2003 until April of 2008, about 4 1/2 years. In some of his last comments before being shitcanned, he said: “I want to leave something that’s going to stand for a long time. I want to leave a legacy. I want to leave a tradition. I want to leave an imprint, a blueprint in terms of how people play and how they coach and how they respond when they put on a Knick uniform…. I want to leave a championship legacy.” Compare and contrast to some of Wenger’s recent public comments, and all the talk of the “Arsenal Way.” Arsenal’s trophy gap is coming up on 4 years now.

I will freely state that I have no idea what changes exactly are needed or possible. Usmanov is in no way a positive and I don’t want him at the club; I’m almost ready to want Wenger out, but have no idea who else would want this job or what strictures they would be working under; it’s tempting to want the current board out, but who other than Usmanov is a likely buyer? With the difficulties stated however it has to be understood that at any comparable club, the current situation at Arsenal would be considered untenable. As the biggest club in perhaps the richest and best city in Europe, Arsenal should be the jewel in the crown of world football; instead they’re slowly sinking into irrelevance, their vaunted manager a figure of sport and mockery, their board troubles the stuff of tabloid gossip. Maybe the stadium debt will be paid down and unleash this team financially; maybe Wenger will reevaluate his plans and change course; maybe some of these players will, against the odds and their own best interests, stay and build what Wenger has in mind; we can’t yet rule out change from within, I suppose, though I would not bet on it right now. But from within or without change must come, because what’s happening now is unacceptable.

February 24, 2009 Posted by | The Arsenal, The NY Knicks | , | Leave a comment

Sinking? No, friends…this ship be sunk.

While I can’t read Brendan’s mind as to why he came up with the title of this blog (The Knicks? The Nets? The Rangers? Boxing’s popularity? Arsenal earlier this season?), he inadvertently came up with the perfect way to describe this absolute shambles of a season for the Montreal Canadiens. While there will always be a level of volatility from one season to the next in terms of how a given team performs (unless you’re the Red Wings, who will of course be world-beaters until the end of time), I have never come across a club who so quickly went from Stanley Cup aspirations to…well…whatever this collection of jokers can call themselves now.

 

Of course, the latest attraction under the bleu, blanc et rouge big top is the story about the Kostitsyns and the Hammer hanging around a known gangster: http://sports.espn.go.com/nhl/news/story?id=3921050. We don’t know a lot right now, and I refuse to speculate as to what this actually means. However, who hangs around with mobsters to nosh on milk and cookies? I suppose it’s theoretically possible that HammerTits have collectively done nothing wrong, but I suppose it’s also theoretically possible that Scarlett Johanssen will give me a hummer in the next 48 hours.

 

If nothing else, the resulting media crush has taken an already-gaping hole in the battlements and rent it further asunder. In other words, this was the last thing our Habs needed right now to get out of the mire they’re in. What mire, you say? I’m glad you asked! How about a 3-11-1 record in their last 15 games? How about telling Alex Kovalev to stay home for the last leg of this current road trip? Oh, and there’s the three-game stretch where they Habs lost 5-2, 6-2 and then 7-2 to awful opponents. Don’t forget the franchise goalie of the future turning into a quivering mess overnight. Robert Lang (defensive issues aside), is out of the season. Well gee, when does the bad news start?

 

It’s gotten to the point where you can’t see Bob Gainey finding a way to stop the bleeding because there are multiple wounds here. On one hand, I admire the fact that he is standing behind his coach in times of crisis. Most GMs take the easy way out in these cases, even though I believe most coaches are largely fungible and outside of great ones like Scotty Bowman or crap ones like Mike Milbury, you’re not going to see too much difference between Guy A and Guy B. The Guy Carbonneau situation though is interesting. You have a team that is largely unchanged from last season (out: D-man to play the point on the PP.  in: Alex Tanguay) coached by the same guy who led them to the Eastern Conference championship last year. Sure, you can bitch about his constant line-juggling and his questionable decisions late in games. However, he did the same thing last season! Is it that the players just grew tired of him in record time? Did last season have nothing to do with Carbo after all? It’s hard to say.

 

What is easier to say though is that the Habs have not been the same team defensively and on special teams as they were last season. Through 59 games, they have scored 179 and conceded 181, which would put them on pace for 248-251. Last season, that ratio was 262-222…a 43-goal swing in the wrong direction. The lower goals-scored amount is easily traced to the fact that the power play has been dildos for most of the season – which in turn is traced to the departure of Mark Streit as a UFA last season.  It sucks, but it’s also defensible based on the inflated price that the Islanders opted to pay for his services.

 

The goals-against stat is far more worrying, though. As effective as Streit was on the PP, he wasn’t exactly Nick Lidstrom tracking back. However, you don’t have to be a tactical expert to see the problem if you watch enough of the Canadiens’ games this season. I’ve been bitching about it all year – guys get caught pinching, Hamrlik has spent the season impersonating a pylon, O’Byrne was probably called up too early (or he’s just not good enough, one of the two), coverages are blown at an alarming rate, and on it goes. It’s not just the D-men…the forwards have been lazy on the backcheck as well as the forecheck. Mike Boone has been asking over at Habs Inside/Out whether this team has a system, or if it’s just a matter of the players refusing to play it. It’s hard to tell, but it being the former would largely settle the question as to how much damage Carbo is doing to this team.

 

That domino has resulted (I believe) in the collapse of Carey Price’s confidence and form. He hasn’t been great when you take it in a vacuum, but you could put Terry Sawchuk or Patrick Roy behind this defense and they wouldn’t do appreciably better. Hell, leave a guy open in the slot or on the back post often enough, and Superman wouldn’t save it that often, either. I can see why Gainey figured that Cristobal Huet was expendable given his price tag relative to his comparatively modest abilities – and the decent play of Jaroslav Halak when called upon. That doesn’t change the fact that ideally, Price would still be playing about half the games in a 1A-1B situation with an experienced vet. Sorry, Marc Denis doesn’t cut it on that front. Further, given that they are building around a young goalie, I would rather that Gainey had passed on Lang and Tanguay in the offseason and instead concentrated on shoring up a shaky defense and perhaps adding size at the forward positions.

 

At the end of the day, the playoffs last year showed that even when they were playing up to the best of their abilities, an entire team of little quick dudes has a ceiling as to how far they can go…especially when matched up against a bunch of behemoths on skates. Seriously, the Philly-Montreal series was like the old NES version of Ice Hockey where a team of fat dudes annihilated a team of little skinny ones.  Whisper it, but maybe Gainey is going about it all wrong? I understand that Montreal demands a certain kind of hockey on the ice, but would it be that difficult to sell the natives on a more physical style of play when we’re not that far removed from the Patrick Traverse No-Stars? I am loath to even type these words, especially given how stoked I was about the team after last season. But, I look up at the Boston Bruins and I am FUCKING JEALOUS.

 

In short, the upshot of all of this is that there are a metric fuckton of questions with little-to-nothing in the way of answers. I almost wonder if a spectacular collapse will work out for the Habs in the long run. I’d rather finish 9th this season and see Kovalev and Lang and Hamrlik and the rest of the deadwood bounce rather than finish 6th and get skull-fucked by Philadelphia or Jersey for the umpteenth time. There is a wonderful core of players here in Pacioretty and D’Agostini and Komisarek and the rest (assuming they don’t pull a Kostitsyn on us, of course), so one year of being back in the playoff wilderness may be the best way of curing what ails this team.

February 20, 2009 Posted by | Montreal Canadiens | 1 Comment

Tottenham 0-0 Arsenal

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while somehow expecting a different result. It is now safe to mark playing Emmanuel Eboue as certifiably insane.

Let’s get to the positives first – this was a committed defensive performance, and playing over 50 minutes with 10 men against an adept offensive unit is no mean feat. Alex Song was arguably our man of the match…not for his passing or shanking the chance from the corner, but with his stellar play as a midfield stopper. Time and time again, Song strongly intervened to break up a Sperz attack. His contributions may have been more effective on the counter if he weren’t paired with the horrid Denilson in the middle of the park.

The downside is that Arsenal created nothing against a relegation-threatened side with a leaky defense and a largely toothless midfield. I say “largely” because as good as Song was, Wilson Palacios was even better. Palacios’ harrying tactics and strong tackling kept us pinned in our half for long stretches. Overall, he was the Man of the Match. That said, with 11 men and  Cesc in the center partnering Song, that would have been largely counteracted.

Many Gooners will wish awful things on referee Mike Dean today, and they’d be half-right. Before the red card, Eboue was our best player…and he had a perfectly good goal disallowed. Carlo Cudicini made a decent initial save, but was all at sea on the rebound. Verdan Corluka tripped over Emmanuel Adebayor, while Eboue got to the center and slotted home the rebound. Dean idiotically called a foul on Ade, which likely cost us two points. Also, Dean’s awful positioning did a better job of breaking up several Arsenal attacks than the Tottenham players did.

However, you can’t fault Dean for showing Eboue the red card. There’s only so much verbal abuse a ref should take, and Dean saying “three times!” after the first yellow (for a foul that Eboue himself didn’t even commit) makes it the stupidest and most selfish yellow of the season. Sadly, that was to be followed by the stupidest and most selfish red of the season (even moreso than Robin Van Persie’s against Stoke). Luka Modric pushed over Eboue, and was rightly booked for it. Eboue decided to do a Cobra Kai “sweep the leg” act in retaliation. That could have been a straight red, so a second yellow shouldn’t have been too surprising.

Arsenal were creatively bankrupt before that, and they wouldn’t do much better with ten men. Luckily, Sperz only intermittently utilized the extra space. Even when they did, the Arsenal defense was up to the task – especially with Gael Clichy’s saving tackle from behind on Modric (that moment of quality aside, Clichy was remarkably poor once again).

In the interim, Ade suffered an apparent torn hamstring while chasing a ball, and was replaced by Nicky Bendtner. In fairness, Nicky did well tracking back and either winning the ball or receiving a pass and laying off to a teammate. However, he failed to then get into the box for the return, resulting in hopeless long balls that Van Persie valiantly tried and failed to win.

For the other mob, Roman Pavlyuchenko was spectacularly hopeless, having shanked several chances in his 60-odd minutes on the pitch. He was replaced by Darren Bent, who proceeded to contribute even less. Robbie Keane was a further non-factor, though mainly due to the lack of service from the Sperz midfield. Modric was their most dangerous attacker, but the wonderful play of Manuel Almunia kept him out on no less than three occasions.

Speaking of which, Almunia showed a serious V-sign to his detractors today. Not only did he rescue a point when he got down low to block Modric’s breakaway effort at the death, but he was alert off his line and decisive on corners and crosses. If Song wasn’t our MotM, then Almunia has the strongest shout.

Cudicini had little to do in the opposition net. Other than the previously-mentioned save, his only action was to make a hash out of collecting a loose ball twice. With 11 men, we may have made more of his cavalier handling.

The red card may have been a blessing the more that I think about it, though. Tottenham were all over the Gunners in the early going, and the sending-off may have galvanized Arsenal’s defense. Given Song’s hashed shot and a turn-and-shoot from RvP that damn near found the top corner, our boys may have won it on another day. 11-on-11 though, I wonder if Sperz would have maintained their momentum and gone on to win it. Thankfully, we’ll never know.

Brendan can attest that since the halfway mark of the season, I’ve said that Aston Villa aren’t the side we should worry about catching. With Liverpool so reliant on Fernando Torres and Chelsea unable to score in a brothel, I don’t think it’s completely insane to see a final table that goes:

Manchester United
Aston Villa
Liverpool
Arsenal
Chelsea or Everton
Everton or Chelsea

Gooners, let’s face it: Villa are for real and look to have a Champions’ League spot barring a total collapse. It’s Pool, Chelski and the Toffees that we need to worry about now. The good news is that for at least one match (and hopefully three for violent conduct), we won’t have to worry about the continued insanity of Eboue on the right wing.

February 8, 2009 Posted by | The Arsenal | 2 Comments

Passing With a C-

Apologies for the absence of updates, my computer is thoroughly dead and I’m typing this up on a loner. With any luck my replacement box should be in by the early part of next week and we’ll be back to the usual. In the meanwhile, it’s been transfer sort of deadline day, which is when I said I’d take stock of where I thought Arsenal are and are going. I’m going to write this up in several sections and with the assumption that the Arshavin transfer- currently said to be waiting for Premier League approval- will go through. So:

The Player In

If you’re reading this you could probably write this section yourself, as Arshavin has been discussed to death since he starred at the Euros. He’s got pace, he can attack a defender with the ball at his feet, he can cross the ball well (who to is a different question) and he’s known to be willing and able to take a shot from time to time. In many respects he’s similar to what Nasri may be at his best, plus some speed. He’ll be an unquestioned asset to this Arsenal team, a grown man professional who can help hold the side together through the avalanche of injuries this squad is doomed to have, and perhaps help teach them as well; after all, he’s already got kids of his own and I can’t imagine they’re any less well behaved than Eboue.

No Players Out

This is the right move, I suspect. This season is in a great deal of danger and Arsenal have had for years a very injury prone squad- the money for, say, Toure right now would not equal the value of losing out on the Champions League because his replacement played like a sieve for the next few months, let alone what might happen if the club suffered another run of injuries in defense. On the other hand this does store up trouble for the summer; choices will have to be made about Gallas vs. Toure and what sort of defense the manager really wants, in light of what resources he’s willing to commit to that area. That’s a post for another day, however.

Negotiations

This whole Arshavin thing has been, in a word, embarrassing. There’s no way that a fan will ever know for sure what went on and which demands were made by who, so I won’t try to dole out specifics of blame and complaint in advance of what we can actually determine. But what we can determine is that these negotiations were embarrassingly public; involved some semi-disgraceful whining on Arshavin’s part of a kind which had an Arsenal player done it would have resulted in mass fan anger (see: Hleb); and dragged on for first weeks, and then hours and perhaps as much as a full day beyond the actual transfer deadline over a relatively tiny difference in valuations (less than half a million up front according to soccernet). This was insane. Zenit are out of season; there was no particular reason for them to delay such as needing to line up a replacement immediately, and there was no reason for Arsenal to delay other than the combination of arrogance and cheapness which sees them seemingly begin every transfer by telling the other club what their player is worth and refusing to move off that figure without an unbelievable amount of fuss and complaint. You may call that tough negotiations; I’d say that if Arsenal finish 5th this season, we may look back and wonder if Arshavin could have won the crucial points had he played in the Everton and West Ham games. What’s French for penny wise, pound foolish?

The other major issue here is what this says about the club’s basic negotiating ability and reputation. There have been stories for years, some just rumors and other confirmed by the club, of Arsenal being in for great players (Kaka, Ronaldo, etc.) in the youth of their careers and missing out after dickering and dithering over the price until a larger and simpler bid came in. Over the summer there was the Alonso saga; before that, a trip through the comments of most any blog will reveal a huge number of fans frustrated with the way Adebayor’s near-defection was handled, and prior to that the way the departures of Viera and Henry were handled. There have certainly been some successes, but the majority of those have all been in what you might call unequal transfers where Arsenal were clearly the much larger club negotiating to take a young player into the major leagues of Europe for the first time. I come away from this track record with a strong suspicion that Arsenal do best in negotiations when they can dictate terms to a large degree; dealing with their peers on a format of equality or near-equality seems far more often than not to cause problems. I strongly suspect this is one of the underpinnings of the current youth policy, and it’s a major and recurring issue.

Where We’re At Now

On the bright side, Arshavin coming in does prove that there’s a floor of uselessness beneath which Arsene is not prepared to see the team slide regardless of what he believes is morally correct; that’s some evidence of a core commitment to practicality the possession of which could justly be questioned after the course of last summer and the season to date. This is tempered however by the recognition that Arshavin is still very much an Arsene style player in many respects (age and nationality aside), which brings us into deeper issues.

Arshavin, Rosicky, Nasri, Walcott, Fabregas, Diaby, Denilson; these players form a huge part of the core around which Arsenal are built, and they are all very similar in most respects: small, slight, technical, non-English (bar Walcott), very young (bar Arshavin), excellent passers, mediocre shooters and scorers, highly injury prone (bar Fabregas except this year, and hopefully Arshavin), and largely average in speed (bar Walcott and Arshavin). Unsurprisingly the team plays to this general cast of abilities: majestic at retaining the ball, here and there in regaining it; a superior passing outfit but one without the quickness or dribbling skills to unlock a tight defense, the speed to break past defenders before they’re completely set up, or the shooting ability from midfield to draw defenders out of their positions; a team which excels at employing their initial gameplan, but which lacks the experience to adjust if that doesn’t work, and which crumbles more often than not when put into a difficult position; a team which is regularly reduced to playing with second and third choice players due to entirely predictable injuries. Obviously Arshavin will help this, partly because he brings needed speed and maturity to the table and partly because he’s likely to be better at playing this way than most of the other players in this class. But with that acknowledged, he’s still for the most part a player in this class. Wenger may have spent some money for once which is a partial contravention of his principles, but he seems to be holding firm on the basic stylistic conventions of this iteration of Wengerball. It’s questions about the viability of that which are not only unanswered, but totally unaddressed at this point, and will likely remain so for as long as Arsene is in charge of the team.

Having given it some thought, I believe I’ll break here and simply say that the results of this window are a positive for the club, but there are still a large number of questions to be answered. Over the next few days/weeks I’m going to pick out as many of those issues as I can individually, since dealing with them all now would make this far too lengthy.

A final note/plea to Arsenal fans: let’s be rational here. Arshavin will probably be very good, and almost certainly not a savior; Arsene Wenger is a football manager with clear strong positives and negatives-he is neither a stupid cunt nor an unquestionable genius; the club is currently in a long and short term tight spot, which does not make them the Worst Team in the World- but neither does the frustration of some fans mean They Should Go Support Chelsea, Innit. If fans want to be taken seriously for what they have to say about the club and want a seat at the big boys table in regards to the making of choices about the club’s future, they will have to behave in something like a rational and intelligent manner in public. There have been plenty of times this season when I’ve felt that those in charge of the club were exhibiting disrespect for fans; there have been more than a few times when I’ve read things that have made me understand why. Let’s do better, folks, so that when the time really comes to take a stand , we can be taken seriously. That time may be coming soon enough.

February 2, 2009 Posted by | The Arsenal | , , | Leave a comment