Robin van Persie, Loyalty, & the Modern Athlete

Following the 2009-10 NBA season, LeBron James became a free agent. His choice, to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers (the team who drafted him, and for whom he played his first 7 NBA seasons) in favor of the Miami Heat, sent shockwaves through American sports. LeBron was widely criticized for the move, which saw him jump ship to join fellow all-stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to create the “Big 3” in Miami, more for the manner in which he left Cleveland, and less because he left Cleveland. LeBron held an hour-long ESPN special, all culminating in the announcement that he was “taking [his] talents to South Beach.” This display of arrogance, by publicly breaking the heart of an entire city, was beyond comprehension for many, even in American sports, and the backlash that followed was largely justified. On Wednesday July 4, 2012, Robin van Persie released what was, in effect, his own “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” on his website, when he proclaimed to the world that he would not be signing a contract extension with Arsenal. In doing so, he became the second Arsenal captain in as many summers to force an exit from the team, and caused most Arsenal supporters equal parts intense anger and severe depression. As LeBron had, he proclaimed for all the world to hear that he was turning his back on the fans who had supported him through the good times (37 goals in 2011-12) and the bad (missing long stretches because of injury in each of his first 7 seasons with the club). Thanks to the wonders of satellite radio, I heard the news over the radio as I was driving to the store in the late-morning over-100-degree heat, in preparation for my Independence Day celebrations scheduled for later in the day.  As the talkSPORT radio personality read the statement to me, all I could get out was a defeated “fuck”, which drew the attention of my lady friend, who was riding along with me. “What is it?” she asked me, and I told her that an Arsenal player was leaving the team and that I had just heard the news. As a bit of background, my lady is not a big sports fan, and only nominally supports Arsenal in that when they win, my mood on the day is better than it is when they do not, but she must have sensed that this was a big deal, because she followed up by asking me which player it was. When I responded “van Persie” even she knew what that meant. “Oh no, seriously?” she replied, and I felt the same way. Seriously? Again? You have got to be kidding me. To be clear, I was not surprised that it was happening, but until the moment comes, do you ever really know if you are prepared? I certainly was not prepared for this. Not now, not this way.

I spent the better part of the afternoon contemplating what this meant for the club. The greatly lessened price Arsenal will get in return for him because of his big fucking mouth. What this means for Walcott. What the starting lineup will look like when the season begins. What should be done to fix the pit that was growing in my stomach. But most of all I just kept thinking about sports, and modern athletes, and loyalty, or more properly the utter lack of loyalty that the modern athlete has. This brings me back to LeBron James, and the state of the modern athlete. I’m sorry to get so basketball-heavy with my analogies today, but that’s what is working the best for me, so I’m going to stick with it. What bothered me most about LeBron fleeing the Cleve for sunny South Beach & the cozy embrace of two fellow superstars was not as much the way he spurned Cleveland, but the fact that he was trying to take the easy way to a championship. This is not what the sports heroes of my youth did. When Michael Jordan was early in his career and he couldn’t get over the Pistons hump, when his Bulls were beaten in the NBA playoffs by the Bad Boys in 1987, 1988, & 1989, Jordan didn’t jump ship on Chicago and try to team up with Patrick Ewing in New York to try to ensure he would win a championship. When Michael Jordan ran into a wall that was keeping him from a championship, he worked harder and got better and made himself great, and eventually he won. That was the mindset of the pro athlete that I grew up idolizing. Jordan would have never thought of leaving the Bulls to try and team up with other superstars to guarantee him a championship every year, and none of those other stars ever thought of teaming up with Michael, because they were focused on beating the best, not simply having the best carry them along to glory. LeBron and the Heat’s Big 3 got their NBA title this year, but does anyone really think LeBron is a greater player now than two years ago when he left Cleveland? Someone probably does, “it’s all about the hardware” they might say, but I don’t. To me, LeBron took the easy way out, he chose to join up with others who could carry him along to glory, rather than working harder to achieve it on his own. Sure, LeBron hoisted the trophy this year, but I’m still not impressed, because to me, that win was cheap, he got there by a shortcut, and I don’t respect him like I would have had he done it in Cleveland, for the fans that loved him all the way up his rise, unlike the front-running Miami fans who only back a winner. Watching LeBron win the NBA finals felt very much like watching Samir Nasri win the Premier League. Nasri isn’t a better player now than he was last year, in fact I would argue he is worse because he spent so much time on the bench, yet there he was getting his medal for winning the league, because he hitched his wagon to a front-runner & in doing so took his shortcut to glory, just like LeBron did, and just like van Persie is trying to do now. Robin may get his silverware elsewhere, but those who are paying attention won’t be impressed, because the real accomplishment is becoming the best yourself, not just riding the coattails of the best to success.

The only loyalty in sports today is that of the fan to their club. Everyone else involved is a mercenary, as LeBron showed us in 2010, Nasri showed us in 2011, and van Persie has shown us in 2012. I wasn’t surprised when I heard that van Persie is refusing to re-sign, but I was saddened. I had hoped that I was wrong, and that not all athletes were mercenaries. I had held out hope that there might be a little loyalty left in our captain, but I was clearly wrong. At the end of the day, as supporters, we pull for the club not the players. The club goes on even when players leave. I’ll still be excited when the season kicks off in August, and I’ll live and die with the Arsenal all the way through May. To the current Arsenal captain, I say good riddance. My only hope is that Arsenal’s next captain is nothing like the last two, as I’m not sure I have it in me to write this article again next year, for the third summer in a row.

Euro 2012: Who Wore It Best?

So we’re now a week into Euro 2012, and quite a few Arsenal players have been mixing it up on the fields of Poland and Ukraine. Since there are a million people over-analyzing every moment of play in every game, I thought it might be fun to look at the first round of Euro 2012 group matches from a different perspective. Perhaps a more aesthetic perspective. Oh yeah, take a seat Joan Rivers, it’s time for the Stan’s Army Arsenal Edition of Euro 2012 Fashion Police! Footballers will appear in order of their team’s appearance in the tournament.

Disclaimer: The following opinions are my own and are completely subjective.

First on the runway is Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny, who made an inasupicious start to the tournament by getting sent off in Poland’s opening match against Greece. While he was on the pitch, however, he stood out from the crowd in this solid yellow number.

That kit was red card worthy on its own

I have to say, I’m a huge fan of the Poland kits for Euro 2012, produced by Nike, especially the white “home” kits. If Arsenal had a player who was out in the field rather than in goal, I’d go so far to say that they would be the favorite to win the Stan’s Army’s Best Dressed at the Euros 2012 award, but I can’t say the same for our man Szczesny. I’m just really not digging that goldenrod shade of yellow, and his woeful performance in the first match didn’t help his cause. No hard feelings, but he’s closer to worst-dressed than best.

Moving on, recently-loaned forward Andrey Arshavin captained his Russian side against the Czech Republic, and while his Arsenal future is currently in question, he is still technically an Arsenal player, so let’s see how he looked.

Andrey “I only show up for the Euros” Arshavin

Not too shabby from the little Russian. He was looking sharp in the opening match in this red on red kit, featuring a two-tone white and blue diagonal sash, along with gold numbers and Adidas’ trademark three striped sleeves. The red socks also have a sharp two-tone white and blue horizontal stripes. These kits are pretty classic in style, I can’t say I have any complaints at all. A strong entry from the Russians.

Next up we have Tomas Rosicky, who has the advantage of having two looks for us, the first, and in my opinion best look, (red on red) is from the Czech Republic’s recent 2-1 defeat of Greece, while the second look (white on white) is from the their 4-1 pounding at the hands of Russia.

Better look, better result for the Czechs

The lesser of the Czech’s looks

Let me just say straight away that I’m a huge fan of the Czech Republic’s red kits. I think the blue field behind the crest on the left shoulder is very slick looking, and the deeper color red used is top notch. I’m a bit of a Puma fanboy, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoy the Czech kits. To me the white kits leave something to be desired. Though not poor, the white kits just don’t do it for me, and are a bit too plain for my taste. My only complaint about both kits is the font the numbers are in. I’m not a big fan of that modern pixelated look on the numerals. Overall though, Rosicky gets high marks from me, and may be tough to beat.

Another Arsenal man with an unknown future with the club is our old pal Nicklas Bendtner. We all know that Nicky B. is the greatest striker in the world, but will the Danish target man also be crowned the best-dressed Arsenal player in the Euros? Take a gander.

The greatest kits at the Euros?

I recently discovered that Bendtner is not only the best striker in the world, but also a high end jewelry designer. So, will Nicky B. take home some more bling? Not likely. While I don’t hate these Danish kits, they’re pretty bland, and those red stripes on the shorts that point in are just a disaster. The black and red horizontal sock stripes are a nice touch, but they don’t save the entire kit. I give it a C, it’s solidly average in my mind.

edit: Not only did Nicky B. and Denmark break out the red against Portugal (pictured below), but he caused a uni-based stir by revealing his boxers, which bore the name of a sponsor, “Paddy Power” which is an online betting service. For his trouble, Bendtner received a £80,000 fine and a one-match UEFA ban. In doing so, Bendtner’s fashion statement has taken center stage, making him a dark horse candidate for Euro 2012 best dressed, so stay tuned!

In the shock of the tournament, Bendtner did something stupid to draw attention to himself!

Arsenal captain Robin van Persie is next on the scene, sporting the traditional orange of the Dutch national team. This year’s version, produced by Nike, is a very modern design. Here’s a look:

What number is RvP wearing? Is that a 1b?

I’m usually a fan of Holland’s kits, but I can’t say I am this time. For me, the number font is just too modern and blocky. I mean, the 6 on van Persie’s kit looks ridiculous without a top. I’m also not a big fan of the two-tone orange. And what’s up with the trim on the sleeves and bottom of the kit being black, but not the neck? Let’s keep it consistent, guys. Overall it’s just a big mess really. I have liked the black change kits I’ve seen the Dutch wear in the warm-up matches, but they are still plagued with those horrible numbers, so overall it’s just not their year. Who knows, maybe those awful kits contributed to how terribly they played in their 1-0 loss to Denmark. Stranger things have happened.

edit: Though it did not help them on the pitch, the Dutch broke out their black kits in their final game against Portugal. The team looked sharp, but their play again fell flat, as the Dutch went out without a single point in Euro 2012. While the black kits won’t erase the memory of their poor play, perhaps we’ll at least remember the Dutch looking decent while playing like shite, and that’s only thanks to these black change kits (pictured below).

RvP looks good in the black Dutch shirt, but will we ever see him in an Arsenal shirt again?

New Arsenal signing Lukas Podolski started for Germany in their opening match 1-0 win over Portugal. Germany usually represents pretty strong in the national team kit department, and this year’s entry is no exception.

I hope we get to see those beautiful green change kits

What the Mannschaft lacks in flashy color options, they make up for with a typically classy design. This year’s version features three very thin diagonal stripes creating a sash effect. The top stripe is black, the middle is red, & the bottom is gold, mirroring the stripes on the German flag, a nice touch. While not eye-catching color-wise, the Germans look sharp in this kit. If, however, the Germans get to break out their fantastic green change kits during Euro 2012, that will be a game-changer. I’ve got my fingers crossed already.

Arsenal youngster Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was a surprise inclusion in Roy Hodgson’s England starting lineup against France, let’s see how he looked.

Definitely the best of the white and red bunch

I know I harped on similar kits from the Czech Republic and Denmark, which also featured primarily white with red numbers and details, as too bland, but I really like what Umbro designed for the Three Lions to wear in Euro 2012. I can’t really even explain what it is about the kit that I like better than other similar kits, but it just looks good to me. This kit was somewhat controversial, as it was the first England primary kit ever to not include any blue, but controversy aside, I think Umbro hit a home run with this design. Will it be enough to secure Chamberlain the coveted best-dressed award? Only time will tell.

Damn you Stevie G. for ruining a beautiful Arsenal moment!

edit: Oxlade-Chamberlain came off the bench against Sweden, almost combining with Theo Walcott for what would have been a delicious Arsenal-to-Arsenal goal for England, but alas Steven Gerrard’s ego got in the way and stole the cross basically off Chamberlain’s boot. All the same, check out Alex sporting the England blue kits.

edit: Theo Walcott not only played a starring role for England in their 3-2 win over Sweden, but he also looked sharp in England’s blue-on-blue change kit (pictured below). Personally, I prefer the red & whites, but Umbro did a nice job with both England kits. Have a look.

Super-sub Walcott shows off England’s blue kits.

edit: Now that Arsene Wenger has confirmed that the Olivier Giroud deal is 90% done, I think it’s safe to add Giroud into the best dressed mix. Here he is sporting the new France shirt by Nike (below). I think these kits are sharp, and prefer them to England’s similarly-colored two-tone blue change kits (above).

Arsenal’s newest man, Olivier Giroud

Overall a fairly vanilla kit, but I do like the thin hoops around the end of the sleeves.

edit: Laurent Blanc finally came to his senses, starting Koscielny over Mexes against Spain, but even a heroic performance from Kos couldn’t bail out the rest of the largely-listless French squad, as they went out 2-0 to Spain in the quarterfinal. Here’s a shot of Koscielny looking sharp in the France all white kit (below). Giroud, who will soon be officially announced as an Arsenal man, also got some field time in France’s all white kits (above).

Despite the loss to Spain, Koscielny showed his quality.

As it stands, I would say that Rosicky is my leader in the clubhouse, with strong pressure from Podolski and Chamberlain, but as I said before, those green change kits are Podolski’s ace in the hole. Szczesny and our dear (for now) captain are battling it out for worst-dressed, and I really can’t see anyone else challenging them for that dubious honor.

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.

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.

Reassessing the 2011/12 Gunners After Arsenal 3-1 Stoke City

Jamie McDonald / Getty Images

The Stoke City match wasn’t on live in my parts of the States, and didn’t show until 7:00 pm Monday night my time, so I feel like a traditional match reflection would be pretty worthless because of the timing. That being the case, I’m going to forego the match reflection and instead take a minute to ask (and answer) a few questions, and in so doing maybe reassess my expectations for this year’s version of The Arsenal.

Was the Stoke City match Gervinho’s breakout performance?

Arsenal supporters have been waiting all season for Gervinho to start producing goals consistently, and boy did he do that against Stoke on Sunday. Gervinho not only scored the opening goal, but he created both of van Persie’s late goals. Gervinho has consistently looked dangerous in his time with Arsenal, but that has not translated into goals as much as was expected. I look for his performance against Stoke to be a real confidence-builder for Gervinho, and will propel him into a consistently productive player for the Gunners.

Is Arshavin best suited coming off the bench?

The much-maligned Russian has struggled in his starts this season, but has been looked much better the last couple of times he came off the bench. I look for this to continue, with Walcott & Gervinho getting more of the starts, with Arshavin coming off the bench.

Can anyone stop Robin van Persie?

No.

How soon will Man City and/or Barcelona start tapping up our new captain, promising to double his wages?

If we all agree to not talk about it, and not even think about it, it won’t happen… right? (read as: soon)

Is Koscielny’s good form of late sustainable?

If I knew, I’d be more than just a want-to-be blogger in middle America. Let’s hope the answer is “yes.” It doesn’t hurt that Mertesacker appears to be settling in to the English game, but has his improved form raised Koscielny’s play, or vice-versa? Chicken and egg, my friends.

Will we ever see Park Chu-Young?

I would love to know what the deal with Park is. Chamakh hasn’t impressed in his last couple of chances, so it baffles me that Park has remained on the bench in all except Carling Cup matches. I thought this guy was supposed to be ready to step right into the squad. I would love to know what Arsene and his staff candidly thinks about Park’s skill. Is he not living up to what they expected from him?

Why can’t Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain crack the squad?

It’s not like Walcott has been setting the world on fire, surely there’s space for The OC to get into the squad. I don’t expect to see him in the Champions League, or against Chelsea this weekend, but with Premier League matches upcoming against West Brom, Norwich, Fulham, & Wigan, I’d be surprised not to see his name in the starting XI at least once during that four-match stretch.

With Liverpool stumbling, is 4th place back within reach?

I don’t see why not. Arsenal currently sit 7th in the table, and while I don’t think they’ll challenge the top 3, I do think Sp*rs, Liverpool, and certainly Newcastle will all falter enough for Arsenal to finish in the last Champions League spot as long as they don’t drop points in a bunch of matches they should win (you know, like the end of last season).

Vermaelen Re-signs! / Arsenal 2-1 Sunderland – Match Reflection

One of the worst things about Arsenal’s slow start to the season for myself and fellow American fans is that Arsenal matches are getting bumped to more obscure television channels or not shown live at all. This was the case this week, as only Fox Soccer Plus (which is not a part of my television plan) carriedSunderland@ Arsenal live. The game was not replayed until Monday night, so I was only just able to catch the match in full. As such, my reflection will be both brief and tardy.

Big news of the morning here has nothing to do with Arsenal 2-1 Sunderland, and that news is that Thomas Vermaelen has signed a new long-term deal with the club. Assuming health, which with Vermaelen is a large assumption; this is an important move for Arsenal. Vermaelen, when healthy, has been a top-notch center half, and Arsenal always look a better team with him in the squad than without him. By all accounts he’s also well-liked in the locker room, and a leader at the club, so locking him up long term sends a strong message to other players & fans perhaps wondering about the future of the club. Let’s hope that Vermaelen can convince van Persie to make a similar move, though I don’t expect that to happen until Arsene makes other moves to solidify the club’s position for the future.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Alright, now on to my quick-and-dirty match reflection. Things started as well as anyone could have possibly hoped for, with captain Robin van Persie scoring a mere 29 seconds into the match, the fastest goal scored in the Premier League this season. The good times kept rolling for The Arsenal, who dominated the first 25 minutes of the match. As we have seen so many times, however, Arsenal failed to get the second goal, despite three or four stellar chances (van Persie’s right-footed chip off the post most readily comes to mind, but there were others). During this stretch,Sunderlandlooked completely off the pace, never even threatening the Arsenal defense, and in every way other than the score line the match looked a rout.

As so often happens, Arsenal were punished for failing to pull 2 or 3 goals in front during their period of total dominance when former Gunner Sebastian Larsson tucked in a beautiful free kick from just outside the box in the 31st minute. The equalizer total shifted momentum, and all of the suddenSunderlandnot only were even on the scoreboard, but also took it to Arsenal, who looked shocked to be even again. It took a miracle save from Szczesny (or a terrible point-blank miss from Lee Cattermole) to keep the game level as it went into halftime.

To Arsenal’s credit, they came out and controlled the game again in the second half. Rosicky played as well as I’ve ever seen him play while filling in for Ramsey in the middle. In fact, it was Rosicky and Song who pressed the game in the midfield, as Arteta never seemed to get into the match. Gibbs, predictably, went off with an injury early in the second half, butSantosappointed himself well in emergency fill-in duty. Again, it’s becoming a given that Arsene’s first substitution will be due to injury, which pretty much sums up the season up to this point. After terrible set pieces taken by Santos, Arteta, & Walcott in succession, it van Persie finally earned himself a free kick in a position he fancied and made the most of it. It took until the 82nd minute, but the captain again put the team on his back and put Arsenal ahead with a glorious free kick. The end was shaky, to say the least, as Sunderland threw everything they had at Arsenal’s makeshift defense, but in the end Arsenal got the three points they deserved, and climbed up to 10th in the table in doing so.

In sum, Arsenal were the better team for the vast majority of the match, but again did not respond well to adversity at home. They did respond better in the second half, but it shouldn’t always take 2 goals from van Persie to get all the points. Arsenal will only be able to win consistently if people like Gervinho & Walcott start scoring consistently. The same could be said for Arshavin, who looked good after he came off the bench, but the moral of the story is that production must come from somewhere other than the captain.

And now for the awards…

Man of the Match – Robin van Persie

Honorable Mention – Tomas Rosicky / Alex Song

Gingers Do Have Souls!! – Jack Colback

Arsenal 3-0 Bolton Wanderers – Match Reflection

Clive Mason / Getty Images

Due to my own schedule constraints this week I was not able to get out a match reflection for the Bolton game in a timely manner. Due to work constraints (surprise Wednesday 2:00 meeting!) & the general plight of being an American who does not get Fox Soccer Plus, I have also not yet been able to watch Wednesday’s Champions League match against Olympiakos. Both those unfortunate things being e case, I’ll give a quick & dirty & horribly tardy reflection on Saturday’s 3-0 Premier League win over Bolton Wanderers.

Coming into the match I expected as easy of a exult as could reasonably be expected from this year’s Arsenal squad. Bolton came in to The Emirates bottom of the table & had the Prem’s worst road record in 2010/11. That being the case, the first half was terribly frustrating, as Arsenal were sloppy & sluggish throughout the first 45′. Bolton seemed content to clog the middle & slow the game down, and Arsenal looked as vulnerable as ever on set pieces. There was a lot of standing around, & even Alex Song, who has been a consistently high level performer this year when not suspended, looked out of sync. 0-0 at half was fair, and that’s what worried me.

Oh captain, my captain! Nearly straight off the second half whistle Robin van Persie put the club on his back & put us up 1-0. Once Gary Cahill’s fill-in was sent off in the 54′ the 3 points were all there For the taking, and for once, this Arsenal team finished an opponent off. RvP scored his 100th goal with the club, set up well by a nice 1-2 between Ramsey & Walcott followed by Theo’s blistering pace & a great cross into the box. Walcott really gave Bolton fits the whole second half, despite picking up a knee injury late that kept him out against Olympiakos. Song finished Bolton off with a truly amazing strike. Honestly you haven’t seen it you need to find the highlight. Song has been in top form this year & thoughts early, I can see this being his best season yet for the Gunners.

Most of all it was nice to get a comfortable win, and to see a dominant squad, if only for a half & with the benefit of a man advantage for most of at half. I was encouraged to see Arsenal finish off the game by getting 2 & ultimately 3 goals clear, as no 1 goal lead seems safe with the current state of our back line.

Now for the (painfully obvious) awards:

Man Of The Match – Robin van Persie (“Mr. Century”)*

*No other Stan’s Army Awards were given for this match so as to not distract from the captain’s truly great accomplishment. Hats off Robin, and please don’t leave us this summer like Those Two Who Must Not Be Named did this past one.