Good to see Olof Mellberg again. It's been a while.
In case you hadn't guessed, I am watching Arsenal vs. Olympiokos on DVR as I write this column. I figured I'd better watch because I need to catch up on all the midweek excitement that I started missing out on yesterday while I was on the road for work. Jeremy wrote about the drama at Manchester City and we've started to see stories elsewhere on topics related to the quality of Manchester United minus Wayne Rooney after their second consecutive draw to an inferior opponent.
The story line coming out of Arsenal seems likely to be the effectiveness of the unusual line-up that Wenger trotted out for the home tie with the Greek side. If we didn't know Wenger better we'd guess that a line-up featuring Chamakh, Ox, Santos, Rosicky, and Frimpong would be one that would feature in the Carling Cup or the earlier stages of the FA Cup, not the Champions League group stage after dropping 2 points late in their opener in Germany. Now, we DO know Wenger and for that reason we can be reasonably assured that his Carling Cup team will be significantly younger than this one.
[Match Update] The returns are positive early as I'm only two paragraphs in and the Ox made a nice move across the box and finished with aplomb. [/Match Update]
The topic of The Ox brings me to another Arsenal related topic that underscores a point I made a few weeks back about how difficult and/or unusual it is for innovators like Wenger to be able to repeat the magic a second or third time once his rivals have caught up or surpassed the initial innovations that made him special in the first place.
Wenger's real trick was identifying undervalued "properties" and those opportunities generally came from one or two places - players like Vieira or Henry who were under-performing on the benches of big clubs elsewhere and players from lower profile countries or leagues. That second group of players tended to come from places like West Africa that most clubs hadn't yet realized was a hotbed of emerging talent. In the supply and demand-driven world of transfer economics, the relative lack of suitors meant low prices.
[Match Update] Nice ball in from Santos for a streaking ChamWow and then an even better follow-up for Arsenal's second goal. That guy would be a fantasy force and a line-up fixture if he weren't, you know, forced to defend. If Arsenal played with a true left midfielder in the Ashley Young/Stuart Downing mold, I'd advocate for Santos to be that guy and all the better since he's listed (without irony apparently) as a defender. As I was finishing this mini-update off ChamWow got a great opportunity and couldn't finish, what happened to him? [/Match Update]
A funny thing happened on the way to this model continuing to produce for Arsenal and Wenger, they either stopped pushing the frontier of emerging talent. With the widespread realization that a bunch of African nations produce a great deal of talent, the competition and prices for that talent has gone up. As other clubs have gone to places like Uruguay, Paraguay, Mexico, and the US to find relatively cheap talents like Luis Suarez, Chicharito and Clint Dempsey. Until the summer acquisitions of both a Japanese and Costa Rican player, Arsenal had been conspicuously slow to either enter or find any success in these emerging markets for talent. Carlos Vela has been their only real brush with any of these emerging countries.
Instead, they have been spending their time and resources on recruiting expensive domestic and continental talent like Ox, Walcott, Nasri, and Ramsey at the "up and coming" level and players like Arshavin, Gervinho, Arteta, Mertesacker, and Vermaelen at the "established" level. It isn't necessarily a complaint related to the players acquired but a question about the ability to succeed if they are going to be competing for players everyone is watching. If guys like Aguero, Silva, and Mata represent the best "obvious" players that could be bought, it means that Arsenal are going to try to win by buying the second tier of "obvious" players. Their system of play has been successful and fun to watch but it isn't sufficiently superior to elevate a team of second tier talents over a team of first tier talents.
[Match Update] Can we just ship Arshavin off now. I just saw the reverse angle of Olympiokos' comically-easy first goal. As the Greek player steamed toward the ball he eventually headed into the net, Arshavin - the closest Gunner - just sat there and watched like it was beneath him to track a late attacking run. If that's how he feels, then why not at least spread the field and be further up for a quick counter attack? Just no excuse for wandering aimlessly NEAR the area without putting out any effort to defend while you're there. [/Match Update]
In case you're wondering, the above was inspired indirectly by an email conversation I had with Simon Kuper (and yes, I'm shamelessly name-dropping) in which he called the types of books he writes "useful". I figured I'd better continue to use what I learned from reading Soccernomics and his column from Financial Times [Free Registration Required].
I know I write about Arsenal a fair amount but hopefully you continue to find the perspective both unbiased and at least a little bit different than what you're reading elsewhere. With that, we're on to our analysis of the upcoming schedule:
The Home Teams
Manchester United vs. Norwich - The discussion really starts and ends with this match as far as great match-ups go. The joint leaders coming off two consecutive disappointing results, having rested a number of their regulars during the Champions League, and facing a newly promoted side. The big questions will revolve around any continued desire on the part of Sir Alex to rotate some players at opportunities like this. Rotation aside, its hard to imagine United not dominating this match even with Rooney still recovering. Verdict: Advantage United Attack AND Defense.
Aston Villa vs. Wigan - Such is the nature of a derby week (TOT/ARS, LIV/EVE, and FUL/QPR) combined with #2 and #3 in the league being on the road that our second most attractive option is grinding Aston Villa at home to struggling Wigan. I can't say I foresee an offensive explosion from Villa because, really, when was the last time we saw that from a McLeish team? I can see a Villa clean sheet because Wigan are without their best two attackers from last season - Yayga and N'Somnia - and Villa play pretty tight. Even better, Richard Dunne's unfortunate OG against QPR means they won't be coming off of a clean sheet when you look to pick them up this week. Verdict: Advantage Villa Defense.
Spurs vs Arsenal - I'm really not sure what we're likely to get from the Arsenal attack vs Spurs defense side of this match but based on what we've seen so far I think we can reasonably assume that Spurs will score at least two goals if not more. I tend to agree with the theory that Arsenal will keep up in the attacking department and make it an interesting match in the 3-3 or 4-3 one way or the other range. Verdict: Advantage Spurs Attack and Maybe Arsenal Attack Too.
The Away Risks
Manchester City @ Rovers - Funny thing about Rovers, they actually aren't the misfiring-but-tight-at-the-back group that we're used to. It may be in part due to Arsenal's beneficence but their "Goals For" column looks pretty solid. On the other hand, the "Goals Against" column is not so pretty. With City coming to Ewood Park, that can't be a good sign. I am still concerned about City's ability to keep a clean sheet on the road but I fully expect them to score some goals regardless how the striker drama plays out. Verdict: Advantage City Attack.
Chelsea @ Bolton - I'm really not convinced by Bolton at all. Maybe they'll be better as Stuart Holden comes back in and gives some stability in the middle of the park on the theory that more possession equals fewer attacking chances for the opposition. Still, I'd imagine it will take a little while for Holden to get back to full speed. As a bonus, Chelsea are freed of any pressure to pick Torres after his egregious Red Card last weekend. That should allow AVB to pick his best team that likely will feature Drogba supported by Mata, Sturridge, and FloMal with Ramires and Mikel behind them. That seems like a group that will score a couple of goals or more even on the road. Still not convinced on the Chelsea road clean sheet though. Verdict: Advantage Chelsea Attackers.