Tag Archives: Mesut Ozil

Arsenal vs. Liverpool Preview: 6 Key Battles to Watch This Saturday

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Before the Capital One Cup rolled around this midweek, Arsenal and Liverpool were heading toward Week 10 of the English Premier League in good spirits and fine form, having dispatched confident wins last Saturday.

But Tuesday night saw Jose Mourinho continue his impressive record over Arsene Wenger, with Chelsea knocking Arsenal out of the Capital One Cup with a 2-0 away win at the Emirates Stadium.

Not that the first-team’s momentum should be dented in any way, given that it was a trademark Wenger B team selection on Tuesday, but suddenly the mood among Arsenal fans has turned just a little tenser, a little testier, while the Liverpool camp are starting to feel optimistic again.

Saturday will see the league-leading Gunners welcome the visit of the third-placed Reds in a surefire spectacle. Let’s look ahead at six key battles that will have a huge say in where the points go at the end of the 90 minutes.

 

Per Mertesacker vs. Luis Suarez

Here’s the current situation: Per Mertesacker on form is one of the best defenders in the Premier League. Luis Suarez on form is one of the best forwards in the Premier League. Both are on form playing in teams that are riding high.

But how will this duel turn out?

Mertesacker excels in his positioning, aerial dominance and composure. Suarez has all three in abundance—his two headed goals in the recent victory over West Bromwich Albion, especially his first one, were of such superlative quality that they’ve surely added “heading” to his skill set—but it will be his unpredictability and propensity to pop up almost everywhere on the pitch that will make things tough for Mertesacker.

Add the other half of the SAS strikeforce, and the Arsenal defence may have a huge in-form headache on their hands.

 

Laurent Koscielny vs. Daniel Sturridge

So this brings us to the other half of the equation.

Laurent Koscielny has been a standout at the back for Arsene Wenger in recent seasons, and his pace and tackling have been rightly praised as he’s established himself as one of the most consistent defenders in the league.

But he’s up against a Daniel Sturridge surging with confidence and self-belief, well on his way to becoming a top international-class striker, and with a new-and-improved Luis Suarez alongside him to help.

The constant movement and interchanging of Sturridge and Suarez will present a nightmare to all four of Arsenal’s defenders on the day, and their barnstorming form—Sturridge has a league-topping eight league goals with Suarez having scored six in four games—means that keeping a clean sheet at home will be no mean feat.

 

Aaron Ramsey vs. Steven Gerrard

Thankfully for them, Arsenal have got a brilliant midfield to take the spotlight and pressure off their defenders, and despite Mesut Ozil’s high-profile arrival (more on him later), no one has hogged more of the headlines surrounding the Emirates than Aaron Ramsey.

With five goals (from just 21 shots) and four assists in just nine league games, Ramsey has stepped up his game several notches, in the process becoming one of the Premier League’s most in-form and all-round box-to-box midfielders.

Which, curiously, is the kind of form and description that used to be attributed to his opposite number on Saturday.

Steven Gerrard delivered an impressive midfield performance as one half of an advanced pressing pair against West Brom, but he may find himself looking on at Ramsey and reminiscing the years (and legs) gone by if his colleagues don’t afford him enough support.

 

Jack Wilshere vs. Jordan Henderson

Ramsey has been in such peerless form that Jack Wilshere, erstwhile Arsenal’s “Golden Boy,” has had his mantle taken off him by the Welsh international.

But while Wilshere’s displays this season have yet to reach the lofty heights that his early performances suggested he would consistently, he has still been a useful outlet in the Arsenal midfield, and his movement, passing and now goalscoring will represent a threat against Liverpool.

He will find himself up against the Reds’ unsung hero this season in Jordan Henderson, who has run his socks off delivering relentless pressure toward opposing midfields.

Henderson’s energy will be essential to nullify the talented Wilshere—and with Philippe Coutinho likely to start on the bench after his injury layoff, he will have to provide a creative spark too.

 

Mesut Ozil vs. Lucas

But if there were one key battle to triumph over all key battles, it would be Mesut Ozil’s against Lucas in Arsenal’s attacking midfield.

A fluid and dynamic Gunners midfield has Ozil as its tip, and he has shown in his two months in the Premier League that he can influence any game and wreak havoc with his movement, vision and passing.

So it’s just as well that Lucas has seemingly returned to form at the right time. His anchoring of the flipped midfield against West Brom was his finest performance in many a month and will need to be repeated on Saturday.

Brendan Rodgers will have it drilled into his team that the Arsenal midfield isn’t just about Ozil: His masterful manipulation of space brings his midfield colleagues into play and into threatening positions, and Lucas will need the three center backs behind him to provide as much support as he can get.

 

Olivier Giroud vs. Martin Skrtel

Speaking of space and movement, there’s no finer No. 9 around at the moment than Olivier Giroud, currently on five goals and four assists in the league (just like Aaron Ramsey).

After a decent first season at the Emirates, Giroud has blossomed this term and has struck up a productive understanding with his supporting acts, and Ozil’s arrival and Santi Cazorla’s return has only augmented the attacking setup.

On paper, it’s just the one out-and-out striker that Liverpool’s three-man defence has to deal with, but in reality, when Arsenal move forward as a unit, Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho will need to be at their best to keep the hosts at bay.

Especially Skrtel, the man who has kept vice-captain and recognized cultured center back Daniel Agger at bay in recent weeks. Brendan Rodgers has hailed Skrtel’s resurgence in form, according to the Liverpool Echo, but Giroud will have something to say about that.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

English Football Weekly: Arsenal – Set Piece Kings, The Rainbow Laces Movement, and More

EPL Week 5 Recap: Set-Piece Arsenal, Self-Destructing Newcastle, Slick City

Imagine a 3-1 Arsenal v. Stoke City game at the Emirates where the victor has scored all three from set pieces and the loser from a slick passing move. In any other era, this would’ve been another loss for the Gunners against their rugby-playing bogey nemesis. But things have gotten weird since Mesut Özil signed for Arsenal. They’ve taken on a new identity: increased confidence, better results, and—curiously—stronger set pieces. Imagine Aaron Ramsey, Per Mertesacker and Bacary Sagna all scoring—and a £42.5m Özil providing all three. Strange times in north London.

After a 1-4 opening-day capitulation against Manchester City, Newcastle United looked to be in trouble for the campaign ahead, not least because of their lack of signings (Joe Kinnear excepted). After two wins and a draw, and Yohan Cabaye returning to the fold, things seemed better. So the last thing anyone expected in a home game against newly-promoted Hull City was for another disastrous capitulation, but that was exactly what the 2-3 loss, surrendered from a winning 2-1 scoreline, on Saturday was. Steve Bruce, on the other hand, has notched the same number of points (7) as Alan Pardew, and the Tigers have been wonderful underdogs this season.

Not that Newcastle were the only ones to turn in horror shows this weekend, mind. Liverpool’s 0-1 reverse at Southampton showed all the things that could go wrong at Anfield if their opponents have the right setup to take advantage. The Saints have fast become the Reds’ bogey team in recent years; after all, the last league game Brendan Rodgers lost came earlier in the year at St. Mary’s. Speaking of losing away and things going wrong (Liverpool are, after all, only two points off table-topping Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur), Sunderland turned in an abysmal performance again on Saturday—and lost their manager afterwards. More on that later.

The infamous 1-6 home loss in the Manchester derby remains a harrowing nightmare for many a Manchester United fan, but at least that was under the tenure of Sir Alex Ferguson. So for his successor to begin life as a United manager by losing first to Liverpool and then to Manchester City—1-4 no less—surely even fewer encouragements. Yet it was the manner of the loss—that only Wayne Rooney, who scored a brilliant consolatory free kick—that was worrying. It was a limp display yet again, epitomized by the anonymous Ashley Young. Why David Moyes persists with the unconvincing and increasingly infuriating Young every week, only he knows.

On the home side, this was Manuel Pellegrini’s finest result since taking the reins at the Etihad Stadium this summer, and a scary proposition of what City could look like when they’re firing on all cylinders. We saw Sergio Aguero back to his best alongside Alvaro Negredo, who has surely usurped Edin Dzeko in the pecking order now, and Jesus Navas was equally rampant on the wing. Let’s reserve the biggest praise for Samir Nasri, who was castigated by Roberto Mancini for his part in Robin van Persie’s free-kick winner at the death last season. A complete turnaround—and this sets Pellegrini well on his way.

 

Arrivederci, Paolo Di Canio

13 games after his appointment on March 31, 2013, Paolo Di Canio has returned to the unemployment circle. He lasted less than six months at the Stadium of Light, and by the end, it was just a matter of time before chairman Ellis Short made the decision to let him go.

This was a guy who had a larger-than-life ego and a larger-than-life character, whose passion meant equally the provocation of his own fanbase and the spiting and crossing of opponents. For the last few weeks of last season, this could be tolerated, justified and even celebrated, as his 3-0 win in the Tyne-Wear derby and ultimately his rescue act earned himself a productive summer transfer window.

But in the end, Di Canio was just about talking the talk and not walking the walk. He talked a good game, especially when he first signed for Sunderland, criticizing predecessor Martin O’Neill and lambasting his players for their fitness levels. Just a week ago, there was his public shaming of new summer signing Cabral, and his confrontation of the angry away section after the dismal 0-3 defeat at West Bromwich Albion.

Such controversial antics could be tolerated if the results were delivered along with them, but given that it all seemed to just be empty rhetoric, it became all the more inevitable that those fans would’ve given him abuse that they temporarily shelved following his salvation of Sunderland’s Premier League status. (Lest we forget, his political views and allegiances have courted far more controversy than necessary.) And it wasn’t just the fans: The final nail in the coffin was the players’ decision to complain about Di Canio’s actions. If your staff go beyond their means to get rid of you, your position is well and truly untenable.

What will last long in the memory and in his reputation, though, is the fact that he won’t change his style. If you’re to continue your career as a manager, Paolo, you’re going to have to work on that.

 

Rainbow laces aren’t enough

There’s been excellent work done around the globe in eradicating racism from football over the past decade, and barring some high-profile incidents resurfacing nowadays, most football fans proclaim that the beautiful game has come a long way, and long may it continue. Such organizations as Kick It Out have become part and parcel of the English game, and so it was just a matter of time before the winds of social change blew football’s way again, this time with homophobia as the focus.

This weekend, we saw the start of the Rainbow Laces Movement, if we can call it that, with high-profile players like Joey Barton, Phil Jagielka, John Arne Riise and Peter Odemwingie about to adopt the laces, while BBC Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker will also don a pair. Their attempts to publicize the plight and difficulties faced by gay footballers are admirable, as is the attempt to make #RBGF (Right Behind Gay Footballers) a trend on Twitter.

As ever, though, we have to consider both sides of the coin, and what the impact and legacy of this “movement” may be. It’s all well and good to don a pair of rainbow-colored shoelaces—which doesn’t require much of an effort at all—but the headlines and PR that this could and should attract on national TV run the risk of those involved becoming complacent in their actions. Ensuring a social movement is sustainable and productive isn’t just about the flag-bearers; it’s about what the follow-up actions are and how the lessons are taken on board.

And it’s also about how the movement is conducted. The gay-rights group behind the Rainbow Laces Movement, Stonewall, has seen considerable criticism with its PR approach, choosing to partner with a controversial commercial partner, Paddy Power, and not providing adequate communication in advance of its decision to send the laces directly to football clubs. This arrangement has allowed top clubs to, rightly or wrongly, boycott the campaign, either due to sponsorship interests or the lack of preparation time to decide whether or not to join up.

Either way, these shoelaces mark only the start of what will be a long, hard fight against homophobia in a testosterone-laden sport—if racism has taken this long to deal with and still remains a problem (albeit among just small sections of football fans), homophobia will surely take at least just as long. But a more sensibly run campaign could do wonders, and a more legitimately established organization like Kick It Out could see the right kinds of PR and activities involved. The FA, for one, have a toolkit that highlights several case studies involving football clubs, including Liverpool.

One thing’s for sure, though: It’ll take a lot more active involvement and inventiveness for any progress to be made. But this is a fascinating new movement in football, and we should pay attention to how the game is affected as a result.
This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

English Football Weekly: Week 4 Recap; Arsenal’s Resurgence; The Loan Market

EPL Week 4 Recap: Opposing Fortunes on Tyne-Wear, Villa Stumble, Shelvey Show

As the top six confirmed their status as the Premier League’s elite group with another series of predictable results this weekend (barring Chelsea’s 0-1 reverse at Goodison Park), let’s look at the so-called “mid-table” clubs, where the action is really getting interesting.

Starting with Tyneside and Wearside. Newcastle United were tipped for a chaotic season, especially after their controversial appointment of Joe Kinnear as their Director of Football, but barring an opening-day drubbing at the hands of Manchester City, they’ve actually been on the rise. Loic Remy looks like he’ll be a fine addition, while Yohan Cabaye’s return to the first team will be significant in the Magpies’ return to form. Hatem Ben Arfa stands out in what actually is a very decent squad on paper. And with seven points thus far, Newcastle stand proud.

Not so much over at the Stadium of Light though, which has surely seen many a fiery outburst from Paolo Di Canio in the Sunderland dressing room. Can you blame him? A solitary point in four games has condemned the Black Cats to the bottom of the table, but it is the manner of their defeats that should really be concerning. Di Canio’s latest public criticism of midfielder Cabral won’t help much, and their next five fixtures? West Brom, Liverpool, Manchester United, Swansea City, and the Tyne-Wear derby. It’ll be a long month and a half.

Not that Aston Villa have been faring too much better. After an impressive opening-day win at the Emirates Stadium, Paul Lambert’s side have lost their last three fixtures, albeit against tough opposition. Apart from a penalty scored by Antonio Luna on his debut against Arsenal, Christian Benteke has been their only scorer thus far, which means that for the team to climb up the table, the likes of Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor need to start delivering the goods sharpish. A few challenging weeks ahead for Villa will test their mettle.

This wouldn’t be a very good weekly Premier League wrap if we didn’t mention Jonjo Shelvey and his impact on the Monday clash between Swansea City and Liverpool. If Man of the Match awards were really given to players who have an overall impact on a game, there wouldn’t be a finer candidate all weekend—or perhaps even all season—than Shelvey. After all, with a good goal and an exquisite assist, and two horrific passes, Shelvey was solely responsible for all four goals at the Liberty Stadium in an “excellent advert for the Premier League.”

Might Arsene Actually Know?

Four games, nine points, second place in the league. If it weren’t for Liverpool holding out for a point in south Wales on Monday, Arsenal would go into Week 5 as the league leaders, in what has been a quite remarkable turnaround of form and atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium.

We all remember the foul mood at the Emirates after their opening-day capitulation to Aston Villa and Christian Benteke, and Arsene Wenger will have found out that, for all of the technology and investment in a world-class stadium, it can be quite a nasty place to be. But three wins since, all accomplished in a quite comfortable manner—yes, even that one-goal win in the north London derby—and Arsenal are looking pretty good now.

Sure, Mesut Ozil will have been a key factor in turning around the Gunners’ attitudes, but even though he’ll no doubt inspire and win many points for his new club this term, he’s only been around for one of those wins. There are other reasons for Arsenal’s resurgence: the return to form of Aaron Ramsey, the maturing performances of Olivier Giroud, and an overall sense of immaculate teamwork and camaraderie in the dressing room.

Amidst all the hype and frenzy around Ozil—understandably and deservedly so, for he is one of the world’s best players—a quiet achievement by Wenger and his team is that they go to Marseille in the Champions League looking for a tenth straight win, which would be a club record. Confidence is brewing at the Emirates, and as ever, Arsenal just can’t be ruled out as a top-four team, even though they continue to be every season. And who knows? With further strengthening in January, they could become title contenders.

The Proliferation of the Domestic Loan Market

Cameron Jerome, Jason Puncheon, Kevin Phillips, Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore, Victor Moses, Aly Cissokho, Loic Remy, Johan Elmander, Stephen Ireland, Oussamma Assaidi, Fabio Borini, Ki Sung-Yueng, Morgan Amalfitano, Scott Sinclair, Matej Vydra.

Thus goes the list of first-team loan signings arriving in the Premier League this summer. That’s almost an average of one player on loan in each first-team squad in the top flight, where we know the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea haven’t participated in such a system except in the “loan out” category, and that’s not counting those loanees who might not walk straight into the starting XI.

That the loan system is attractive, as a means for top clubs to farm out talent who need top-level experience and consistent playing time and for lower-ranking clubs to improve their results on the cheap, is well-known. The likes of Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere, now established Premier League stars, honed their talent on loan at Bolton Wanderers. Out of the 19 names in the above list, only four are from foreign clubs, and even then, two of them (Elmander and Vydra) have had experience in English football (with Bolton and Watford respectively).

But even bigger clubs are playing these days. Liverpool and Everton both have two names each, in the most high-profile representation of the benefits of the loan market to the Premier League as a whole. There have been suggestions that the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City are so far ahead from the pack that they can now afford to loan players to the Merseysiders (Moses, Lukaku and Barry), but equally it shows that in an age of relative financial austerity, the loan market can reap its benefits.

We’ll take the coming months to gauge the impact of the loan signings this summer—and as they perform well, more details of their loan arrangements (e.g. whether there is an option to buy, etc.) will come to light—and that could make for an interesting analysis in itself, but as the transfer window slammed shut, the proliferation of the loan market manifested. Watch this space.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.