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Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Why Arsenal's Late Season Resurgence Should Not Paper Over The Cracks

Sports fans are emotional, recklessly irrational and notoriously fickle. One day, on the back of three losses on the trot, it is "Arsene Wenger out." A few wins on the trot and suddenly Arsenal are favorites to win the premier league next season. So after our best run of form to end this season, let us settle down and look at the big picture. 

While I may come across as pessimistic and a bit of a downer in this article, I fear that the good end of season form is glossing over the lingering problems the team faced earlier in the season. It is no coincidence that our best patch of the season has come with a fully fit back four. Personally, I love the combination of Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen. They seem to have great chemistry together and most of all, they are strong, physical, have great positional sense and carry a certain swagger about them. I don't know about you, but I like my center back's to be tough, physical and have a no nonsense attitude. Having said that, how many of you can honestly say that when a high ball is played into the Arsenal box, you feel completely confident that the defense will clear it out with authority? I know I do not. Every time a high ball is played into the box, it is bingo time for the opposing center forwards. Also, considering Vermaelen's recent injury history, does anybody feel confident in Johan Djourou, Per Mertesacker or Sebastien Squillaci (By the way, where the hell has he been all season. Does he still play for Arsenal?) to fill in for him. That thought has me shaking in fear already. 

One take away from the run of form is how crucial our full backs, Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna are. When the two were out through injury, as well as back up left back Andre Santos, Koscielny or Alex Song were forced to play out of position at the right back, and usually Vermaelen filled in at left back. And just as you would expect, when you put players in positions they are not accustomed to playing in, bad things happen. Our defense predictably leaked goals.

Surprisingly, the offense was hurt too. Ever since Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg left, wing play has not been one of Arsenal's strength's. Whatever productivity they got from the wings was a bonus. With Vermaelen and Koscielny playing as full backs, they were never involved on offense, making overlapping runs, or putting in crosses. As a result, opposing teams packed the middle of the field, therefore stopping Arsenal's biggest strength, the creativity in midfield. So that begs the question, what happens when Gibbs or Sagna goes down? Pray to the gods I guess. Gibbs especially has been injury prone, playing only 22 games this season, when the starting position was all his after Gael Clichy left. Also, is it just me, or does Andre Santos look fat and out of shape? It might be my overly critical eyes, so I will withhold judgment until next season. Same with Carl Jenkinson, who my only impression of this season, was the embarrassing 8-2 defeat at Manchester United. 

Scoring goals has never been a problem for Arsenal. It was nice to see in the last few games players like Theo Walcott, Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky, and even Thomas Vermaelen step up and score. If you are relying on one player to score a goal or more every game for you to even have a chance, then you are probably in trouble, even if that player is Robin Van Persie. It is clear we need reinforcements in the striking department. Ju-Young Park, Marouane Chamakh and Gervinho seem incapable of finding an ocean, let alone the back of the net. Their inability is the reason alone Arsene Wenger brought Thierry Henry back. Other strikers such as Carlos Vela, Nicklas Bendtner and Andrey Arshavin are out on loan and unlikely to return. Good thing too, because they were extremely poor. Lukas Podolski is a step in the right direction, but not nearly enough. One more established, experienced center forward would give us a great boost.

Our midfield looks good. Tomas Rosicky's revival has been pleasantly shocking to say the least. His revival seems symbolic of Arsenal's revival. His partnership with Van Persie, Arteta, Song, and Walcott looks promising. But hang on, theme alert here! Can we rely on Rosicky to give us a full season? Going by his past history, counting on Rosicky to give you a full season is like expecting Mitt Romney to find an issue that he does not flip flop about. It is just not going to happen. My humble diagnosis: another creative midfielder would do us a world of good. Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby would be like new signings for us, but I would not count on them being available for an entire season, especially Diaby. 

So there you have it. My two cents. In light of this run, I hope my fellow gooners do not unnecessarily inflate expectations and place added pressure on the team by saying things like "The premier league next season is ours to lose." No it will be Manchester City’s to lose, because only one of them will be defending champions. It is pretty clear too that Arsenal is still a mentally weak and fragile team. A mentally strong team would not lose to Wigan and QPR on the back of strong results. They build on results.

Having said all this, I still expect Arsenal to win the league next season! But for now, let us hope Arsene Wenger recognizes the cracks and fills them. I hope Arsene knows.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Magic Of Sports

For my very first blog post, I think it is appropriate I write about my love for sports. I love sports! Sometimes I wish I did not. Sometimes I wish a team did not matter to me so much, or I did not care about how they performed. But unfortunately, I just do. And you are going to be left reading my ramblings every week like a rejected lover.

Seeing as I am a psychology major, bear with me while I briefly go on a nerdy trip. In psychology, there is a theory that states that humans tend to remember traumatic and emotional events more vividly than other events. For instance, those of us who are old enough will remember exactly where we were and how we heard about the tragic events of 9/11 or the attacks on Mumbai on 26/11. Similarly, even though it was nine years ago, I still remember exactly when and where I was when I heard about my grandfather’s death. How is any of this relevant to sports? Well, to me sports, especially games involving my favorite teams, are just as emotional and stressful of a ride. I can remember exactly where I was the day Arsenal won the league and cup double in 2002, as well as when their “Invincibles” team won the 2004 league title without losing a single game. Painfully, I also vividly remember the 2006 champions league final loss to Barcelona, although I really wish I did not! I remember a time when during game day, the result of the Arsenal game could determine my entire day. This proved to be troublesome especially when I moved to the United States, because games over there were in the morning! A bad Arsenal result meant I was moody, irritable, angry and lacked productivity. That is how much Arsenal and sports mean to me. Thankfully, I have matured from that time!

My enjoyment of sports is not limited to my favorite teams. I have yet to come across a sport I have not enjoyed in some capacity. And I think this is because I equate sports to art. The reason we love and appreciate live acts such as theater and music, or the feats of the performers of Cirque Du Soleil, or the art of Van Gogh and Claude Monet, is because their work is so spectacular that we could never imagine doing it ourselves. We marvel at their creativity and ability, and the willingness to constantly produce better. We are left staring in awe wondering ""HOW"? (Or more like, HOW THE HELL DID THEY DO THAT) Sport is similar. The athletic and physical feats performed by so many athletes is beyond comprehension. They seem super human to us, like Brett Lee bowling at 160 km/h, or Michael Phelps winning 8 gold medals in one Olympics, or Blake Griffin dunking over a car. And they do it all on the biggest of stages, with so much pressure and so many people watching. It is incomprehensible that Sachin Tendulkar can play so well in front of a billion people and yet appear to be so normal for twenty years! How does Michael Schumacher drive in circles for 70 laps, at such high speeds in the furnace that is a Formula 1 car, and never at once look jaded? 

This is why I love sports, to see people so committed and dedicated to their profession, so gifted with talent, beat all the odds and succeed, and then bask in their glory. And this is why it was so special when Sachin finally won a world cup after six tries, or Dirk Nowitzki finally won a title after thirteen seasons or, more recently, Tiger Woods beat all the odds to win the Memorial. You could tell how much it meant to them, how much they cared, and how hard they worked. If you are a true sports fan, you were happy for them, irrespective of your loyalties. 

Sport also throws up those special moments when an athlete leaves you wanting more. And I say special because their short comings makes you appreciate greatness more. Asafa Powell, one of the best 100m runners in the world, never did better than fifth place in the Olympics. While others thrived under the spotlight, he shrunk. We love Usain Bolt because he did it on the biggest of stages. Watching the recent champions league final between Chelsea and Munich, it was painfully obvious that Arjen Robben lacked mental strength. After missing a penalty in overtime, the last thing he wanted to do was take another during the shootout. Arch your mind back to the 2010 World Cup, and Asamoah Gyan, after missing a penalty in the last minutes of extra time against Uruguay in the quarter finals, stepped up and drilled a penalty in the shootout. One crumbled under the pressure, the other thrived. Think of any sport, and you will find an elite athlete who just cannot get it done. Tennis and Andy Murray. Golf and Colin Montgomerie. Basketball and Karl Malone. (Lebron James? To be continued....)

That is the magic of sports, watching regular humans perform super human feats.

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