2011/12 Stan’s Army Premier League Best XI:

It’s that time of year, where awards are given out and everyone comes out with their EPL best XI lists. That being the case, I’m throwing my hat into the ring. The following opinions are my own, and I stand by them, but feel free to tell me I’m wrong if you think so, I can take it. Alright, let’s just get to the list:

Please stay, Robin!

GK: Michel Vorm (Swansea City) – If there was a team tabbed before the season to have a cup of coffee in the Premier League and then go right back down to the Championship after the 2011/12 season, it was Swansea City. This was partially due to the lack of recognizable names on their roster, and partially due to their more free-flowing style, that is harder to maintain given the perceived disparity in talent between the top teams in the EPL and the lesser squads. That has all proven to be horribly wrong, and one major part of that has been the stellar play of Michel Vorm in goal. His 5 Man of the Match performances are tied for most among EPL goalkeepers this season.

RB: Bacary Sagna (Arsenal) – Sagna’s selection is somewhat similar to Terry’s selection (explained below), in that he has shown to be the league’s most valuable right back by his absence. Arsenal’s defense is noticeably more solid with Sagna in the lineup than without. In an admittedly weak class of Premier League right backs, Sagna, to me, was the best in 2011/12.

CB: Vincent Kompany (Manchester City) – He has been the best defender in the Premier League all season, I can’t imagine any argument to keep him off this list.

CB: John Terry (Chelsea) – This is a case of evaluating the player and not the man. John Terry, to me, is a despicable person; that being said, I find it hard to argue that he hasn’t been the most valuable defender in the Premier League this season. Plain and simple, he makes all the difference for Chelsea. When he plays they have a chance against anyone, but when he doesn’t (and please let this come true in the Champion’s League Final) Chelsea are average at best.

LB: Leighton Baines (Everton) – David Moyes deserves a lot of credit for what he has done with Everton this season. To me, they (along with Swansea & Norwich) have been the real feel-good story of the season. Leighton Baines, and specifically his work getting forward and completing crosses, has been a big part of why Everton has succeeded this year.

MF: David Silva (Manchester City) – Let not his late-season dip in form distract from how brilliant he was for most of this season. He leads the highest scoring team in the league (at this point) in assists, and is tied for the overall league lead (at this point) in assists. Add half a dozen goals to that and he’s put together a mighty fine season.

MF: Clint Dempsey (Fulham) – Most seasons this would be a sentimental pick, as I just love Deuce, but this season he has been a man possessed and deserves to be on this list in every way. Deuce has 16 goals for Fulham this season, and may have punched his ticket to play for a big club and in the Champions League next season (that is, if he so chooses).

MF: Juan Mata (Chelsea) – Were it not for Demba Ba, this guy would probably have been the signing of the off-season. In an up-and-down season for the West Londoners, Mata has been the most consistent high-level performer for Chelsea this season.

MF/F: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United) – Inexplicably, Rooney has managed to quietly pile up 26 goals (only one behind RvP at this point) in the league and play some of his best football in years without too many people noticing. Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but I really can’t believe how little attention Rooney has received this year, but I think the next guy on this list had a little something to do with that.

F: Demba Ba (Newcastle) – Coming into the season a lot of pundits tabbed Alan Pardew’s club to battle with relegation, and with only a handful of games left, thanks to a total collapse by Sp*rs,  they’re sitting in position to make the Champions League (assuming Chelsea doesn’t screw them over by winning the whole damn thing this year). Ba was the steal of the off-season, and is the biggest reason Newcastle are the surprise story of the EPL in 2011/12.

F: Robin van Persie (Arsenal) – Simply the best. Better than all the rest. That may be a tired clichéd Tina Turner lyric from the late 80s, but it applies here. Sure, he hasn’t scored from open play in the last 8 games, but no one can deny the brilliant season RvP has put together in 2011-12. Were it not for those two guys going bananas in Spain, he’d be probably be getting hyped as the best player in the world right now, but as long as he stays in North London where he belongs, that’s fine with me.

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How far have Arsenal’s standards actually fallen?

2/15/2012

A friend of mine, who is a Barcelona fan (there are worse things he could be, I guess), recently brought to my attention this article Ben Blackmore wrote for ESPN.com about the declining standards at Arsenal. What I wrote in the email response to my friend ended up almost reading like a blog post, so I’ve made it into one.

For reference, here’s a link to the Blackmore article, titled “Arsenal standards reach dangerous low”: http://soccernet.espn.go.com/feature/_/id/1022668/blackmore:-arsenal-dropping-standards-to-dangerously-low-levels-?cc=5901

Also, for reference, his general point is that the quality of players Arsenal have now has dropped drastically from the last time they won trophies, and that the only players currently on the squad that have the quality to wear the shirt are van Persie, Wilshere, and Vermaelen. That’s the extreme CliffsNotes version at least, read the whole article for more; it’s a little off, but the thrust of it is on target.

Like a lot of people who probably have only watched a handful of Arsenal matches this year, Blackmore has some misconceptions based on things he’s heard but not observed himself (Full disclosure: that’s an assumption I’ve made. I have no idea how many Arsenal matches Blackmore has actually watched this season). I think the overall point is well taken, that the level of quality on this year’s squad is significantly lower than it was last year, and depressingly lower than it was back in the early-to-mid 2000s. That being said, he’s got some things wrong.

Blackmore points out Djourou and Jenkinson as not being good enough to be on the pitch. While I agree with this, they are easy targets. Djourou is his better point, because Jenkinson wouldn’t have sniffed the pitch other than in Carling Cup matches, were it not for injury. So yes, they shouldn’t be out there playing first team football for Arsenal, but if you think about the defense last year as compared to now, it’s not so dire. I wrote a blog about this previously, but just as a short recap: Djourou was actually considered one of our better defenders until he got hurt in that game at Old Trafford last season.

I totally disagree with Blackmore on Mertesacker and Koscielny, and actually (a bit) on Vermaelen too. I think all three of them are leaps-and-bounds ahead of our central defenders last year (which included a very lost-looking Koscielny in his first year in the Prem, and featured the likes of Squillaci and almost no time from Vermaelen). As they are playing now, however, I’ll take all three of them (TV5, Kos, & Per) over, let’s say, Gary Cahill and a whole host of others out there playing central defense in the Prem. Actually, I think Vermaelen (though I love him) has been the worst of the three as of late, and Koscielny has been the best. Sure they get beat sometimes, but what defender never gets beat? In sum, I don’t think central defense is the problem with this Arsenal team.

The other real problem is depth, as we’ve seen. A couple of guys go down, and we’re screwed. You only need to look at the full back situation to understand how that works. See earlier point re: how Jenkinson has been pressed into action too soon. In the article, Blackmore mentions Clichy in the same breath as Cesc & Nasri in speaking of the quality that left in the summer… So yeah, he’s totally overrated Clichy as a player, but whatever. Gibbs and Santos aren’t great (Gibbs looked especially lost against Milan), but they’re not that much of a step down from Clichy, if any as compared to his declining form last season. Blackmore also rips Sagna, who I will defend. Bac is great, but he’s just got back from injury, so playing on that abomination of a pitch at San Siro didn’t suit him. That he didn’t look great yesterday was no shock, but that performance shouldn’t be taken to be representative of his quality.

As for the rest of the squad, I’ll defend Alex Song by saying this: I bet you can’t name five clubs in the whole of Europe that wouldn’t take him, and start him, as a holding midfielder. Challenge issued, take it if you wish. That is all.

As for the rest, Arteta and Ramsey are no Cesc & Nasri. They can’t even lick their boots, and on a team like Arsenal they should probably be complimentary players. Arteta especially has done well to stabilize the club since coming on, but he and Ramsey should be fill-ins and substitutes for an Arsenal squad. So yes, Blackmore has that part right.

He makes a weird move in talking about the wing play, and focuses on Walcott & Arshavin. The little Russian hardly plays for Arsenal right now, so I’m not sure why he’s even mentioned in the article. Blackmore should be talking about Walcott, Gervinho, and Oxlade-Chamberlain if he really wants to get it right. That being said, let’s talk about them: The Ox is young, and I think every other team in the Prem wishes they had him, so there’s that. As for the other two, they’re too inconsistent, and frustratingly so. Gervinho, despite not being able to finish since he got here, is probably better overall, but they could certainly both be upgraded. They’re not awful though, in my view the problem is greater in the midfield.

In sum, Wenger has to buy distributing midfielders with creativity, wingers who don’t disappear, and a decent backup for van Persie (everyone agrees that Chamakh has lost whatever magic he had when he first arrived, and I assume there’s a reason Wenger won’t play Park, but no one can tell what since he never even sniffs the pitch). None of that is at all groundbreaking, but at least it provided a vehicle to assess the team heading into the final stretch of the season. It will be imperative for Arsene to hold on to what he’s got (and add more quality to it in the off season. Arsenal cannot afford to lose more talent, as it’s already behind on replacing what they lost last summer, but we all knew that already. Doesn’t make it any less important though.

Arsenal Faces Make or Break Month

2/11/2012 - Thierry Henry celebrates his later winner against Sunderland (Michael Regan / Getty Images)

It’s a horrible cliché to say that that any one stretch of matches is the most important of the season, especially when there are so many games remaining, but the way the schedule is laid out, I honestly believe that the next month will decide Arsenal’s fate this season.

Let’s take a look at what lies ahead. In the next 30 days, Arsenal have the following fixtures:

February 15 – Away to AC Milan (Champions League Round of 16)

February 18 – Away to Sunderland (FA Cup 5th round)

February 26 – Spurs at Home

March 3 – Away to Liverpool

March 6 – AC Milan at Home (Champions League Round of 16)

March 12 – Newcastle at Home

When the next 30 days have concluded, Arsenal could be still alive in two trophy competitions, and putting a little distance between themselves and the other contenders for 4th place in the Premier League, OR they could be out of everything except the Premier League, and could be looking up at as many as 6 clubs in the table, or, of course, they could be (as is more likely) somewhere in between. Every one of Arsenal’s next 6 matches is of great importance, as even their Premier League schedule includes two of Arsenal’s three main rivals for the 4th spot, oh and some other team from North London too.

Henry will soon be gone, back to New York, but Gervinho will be back (and hopefully without any mental or physical hangover from the ACN), as will Chamakh (of course, whether or not the return of the latter matters at all is a completely separate issue). Even though Mertesacker just picked up an injury at the weekend, it’s good to see Sagna back in the squad, and once Gibbs returns Arsenal will be able to field a squad that includes two center backs and two actual full backs for the first time in over a month. Though the return of Wilshere before season’s end may still be a pipe dream, the squad is nonetheless getting healthier overall, with Jenkinson and Diaby scheduled to return soon. Injuries seem to always be a story for Arsenal, but if Arsenal are to keep their run of Champions League appearances in tact, they have to be able to put injuries aside and get results with the players on the pitch.

It’s no excuses time for this Arsenal club. I don’t expect them to win all of their next 6 matches, but I do not think it unrealistic to expect them to move on in one of either the FA Cup or the Champions League, and to also keep hold of their current 4th position in the table. Let’s be honest, Sp*rs have a hell of a team this season, and are in great form, but Arsenal have them at The Emirates, and it’s not too much to ask for them to scrape a draw. In my view, the most important games will be away to Liverpool and Newcastle at home. Both are very winnable games, and honestly if Arsenal expect to finish the season in the top 4, they have to get 6 or 7 points out of their next three Premier League fixtures. All that’s left now is for Arsenal to go out and get the results they need. They face stiff competition, but if Arsenal want to continue to compete on a level with other top European clubs, and want to hang on to their best players, they have to go out there and win games over crucial stretches like the next month. No excuses.

Arsenal get Diaby back ahead of Champions League clash with Borussia Dortmund

Photo by Ian Walton / Getty Images Europe

The return of Abou Diaby marks the first of Arsenal’s long-term injury victims to return to the squad in 2011. Kieran Gibbs, Bacary Sagna, and of course Jack Wilshere remain on the shelf as Arsenal heads into its mid-week Champions League match against Borussia Dortmund, and Tomas Rosicky is unavailable due to a thigh injury, but it is always nice to see a player return to full fitness and get back in the first team. Granted, Diaby’s reappearance will have nowhere near the impact that Wilshere’s or Sagna’s would, but at this point we’ll take what we can get.

I expect Arsene Wenger to put his best squad out there today, in an attempt to seal up progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League. The right back situation is still less than ideal, but I would expect to see Koscielny out there again as a fill-in for Jenkinson, who is himself a fill-in for Sagna. That being said Koscielny has been in good form recently, and deserves to be in the squad. I predict we will see a back line of Santos, Vermaelen, Mertesacker, and Koscielny in front of Szczesny tonight at The Emirates. I also won’t predict any changes in the midfield from this weekend’s squad against Norwich, meaning I think we’ll see Song, Arteta, and Ramsey run out there again. Theo Walcott played brilliantly against Norwich over the weekend, so I can’t see him being left out on the wing, but Gervinho had a bit of a rough go against Norwich, missing what looked to be two or three sure goals, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Arshavin replace him on the wing. Nothing else to say about the squad tonight, if van Persie is fit he’ll play, and he’s fit so we’ll see him tonight. I’m just hoping we can put a couple early ones past Weidenfeller so the captain can get a rest in the second half. I realize that’s a lot to ask against a team that just took out Bayern Munich on the road over the weekend, but what does it hurt to ask for an easy go of things?

What to watch: Dortmund’s electrifying youngster Mario Goetze has been linked with Arsenal in recent weeks, but whether or Arsene Wenger can bring him into the fold at The Emirates, he is worth keeping an eye on. It was his goal in the 65th minute that was the winner against Bayern Munich over the weekend, and if Arsenal’s defense is not well-organized he could well notch another one tonight. For Arsenal, I’ll be looking to see if Walcott can maintain his excellent form of this weekend. Theo looked more dangerous against Norwich than he’s ever looked in the past couple of years, at least to my eyes. If he can continue that kind of play, Arsenal could make some noise going forward in this tournament.

A win today would put Arsenal on 11 points in Group F and would guarantee them a spot in the knockout round. Let’s not leave anything in doubt heading to Piraeus on December 6th.

Arsenal v. Borussia Dortmund – UEFA Champions League, Group F

November 23, 2011 – 19:45 GMT / 2:45 PM EST

Emirates Stadium, England

Fox Soccer Channel (US)

Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Arsenal – Match Reflection

Ian Kington / AFP / Getty Images

Reality Bites

Let’s get real. It might sting a little bit, and believe me, I want to do this even less than you, but it has to be done. Arsenal are 7 games in to the 2011/12 Premier League campaign, and sit 15th in the table. It’s time to take a look at who this team really is, and what we can realistically expect from them this season. Oh yeah, and they played some little game this weekend against Sp*rs, we should probably talk about that too. The only way I can stomach this match reflection is to break it down, so here’s the good, the bad, and the oh-so ugly from Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat at White Hart Lane.

The Good

For the second match in a row, Arsenal have had an unproven youngster emerge as one of the best players on the pitch. Mid-week against Olympiakos, it was Oxlade-Chamberlain; Sunday at White Hart Lane, it was the twenty year-old Frenchman Francis Coquelin. I thought it was telling that Frimpong played in the Champion’s League against Olympiakos, a game in which Wenger rested van Persie & Ramsey, and it was Coquelin who got the nod in the North London Darby. I’ve thought Coquelin has appointed himself well whenever given a chance, so I was glad to see him get the call, and as with The OC, he rose to the occasion. To my eyes, Coquelin was Arsenal’s most dynamic player on the pitch against Spurs, and especially in the first half he seemed to be everywhere on the pitch. He looked confident on the ball, covered back well on defense, and even held his own when pressed into duty as both right back (briefly due to Sagna’s injury, before Jenkinson came on) and center half (when Mertesacker moved to center forward in the waning minutes of the match).

Arsenal were the better team in the midfield, and as a result had the lion’s share of possession throughout. For stretches Arsenal put the Spurs defense under consistent pressure. The best stretch of sustained pressure led to Ramsey’s 51st minute equalizer, which was again created by Alex Song, as he drove deep into the box with the ball, and put a nice cross right on to Ramsey’s boot. Song again appointed himself well playing out of position at center half, and kept Adebayor in check all match long.

The Bad

Despite a good finish giving him the only Arsenal goal of the match, Ramsey never seemed to get in the flow of the game. Walcott also never got involved in the game. I’d have thought he’d play with a little more urgency after the performance that Oxlade-Chamberlain made in the Champion’s League.

The team again did not respond well to adversity, and seemed to wilt after van der Vaart’s opening goal. Speaking of van der Vaart’s goal, did he settle that ball with his chest or his arm? It’s no excuse for the poor defending, but that may have been a bad no-call. More on that goal later in the “ugly” section.

Injuries, injuries, and more injuries. It would be nice if just once Wenger didn’t have to burn one or two of his substitutes due to injury. This time it was Sagna who had to be replaced, giving was to the not-ready-for-prime-time-player Carl Jenkinson. It’s not Jenkinson’s fault, as he should have never been in the game, but he looked completely overmatched against Gareth Bale. Bale’s pace was far too much for Jenkinson to handle, exposing him repeatedly on the defensive right side. The worst news was that Sagna fractured his fibula, and will be out for three months. In years past, Jenkinson would not have even sniffed the pitch, except perhaps in the League Cup, but due to injuries and the overall lack of depth, Jenkinson has and will continue to play for the first team.

After the start to the season he has had, it’s a surprise to see Szczesny’s name in the “bad” column of the match report, but his overall strong performance was marred by the soft goal he gave up to Kyle Walker in the 73rd minute, which ultimately proved to be the decisive score. Walker’s strike was strong, but it was from far outside the box, and was a ball that we have come to expect Szczesny to get to. Let me correct myself, he did get to the ball, but it went straight through his hands, and we are right to expect better from the young Pole.

The Ugly

While the match was pretty ugly overall, it was ultimately again the defense that let Arsenal down. Again set pieces and secondary runs were Arsenal’s undoing, but this time Szczesny contributed an uncharacteristic howler for the winning goal. With a defense playing as poorly as Arsenal’s, it doesn’t matter how well Arsenal holds the ball, or how dominant it looks in the middle, because every counter attack looks as if it will produce a goal. This game was a perfect example that possessing the ball means nothing if you cannot finish consistently, and if your defense is a sieve. I think we all realize this by now, but this Arsenal team can concede a goal at any time, out of nowhere, so no one goal lead will ever be safe. What was so ugly about this weekend’s performance against Spurs was that for the large part of the game, Arsenal looked the better team, but they could not finish, and every time their defense was tested, it looked shaky.

Getting Real

The rational fan has now seen enough of this Arsenal team to realize that this is not a top-4 team in the Premier League. This looks to be a middle of the table team, which will do alright at home, struggle on the road, and be frustrating to watch all season long. We can hope for a cup run, and isn’t unforeseeable that this team could make it to the knockout round of the Champion’s League, but to expect anything more out of this year would be foolish. Wenger will again be faced with dire needs after the season, assuming nothing major gets done during the January transfer window. The team is thin all the way around, and to be able to compete in the Premier League, it takes more depth than Arsenal have. They simply cannot weather the injuries that they have had, and that every club has. You can blame it on bad luck to have lost Vermaelen, Wilshere, and now Sagna for long stretches, but I blame the club for not being prepared to weather the inevitable injuries. Again, the international break seems to come at a good time for the club, perhaps allowing Arsenal to get a little healthier, and attempt to shake off what has been an historically bad start to the season. Let’s all hope that we don’t pick up any more injuries over the international break, and get behind our team again on the 16th againstSunderland, because all we can do is keep marching forward.

Man Of The Match – Younes Kaboul (the difference in the match was that Spurs’ fill-in defenders rose to the occasion, while Arsenal’s did not)

He Deserved Better – Francis Coquelin (he was a bright spot, I can’t wait to see more of him, and likely will as he looks to have passed-up Frimpong on the depth chart)

Best New Dad – Jack Wilshere (Big congrats to Jackie Boy, who welcomed his first child into the world on September 29, 2011. Archie Jack Wilshere, a real gooner from the start. Now let’s all hope that the new daddy’s ankle heals quickly, please.)