Arsenal’s frustrating season and their newfound grit

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It’s been quite a season for the Arsenal.

Widely recognized for their free-flowing, ooh là là style of play, the trials and tribulations of the 2012-13 season has forced the Gunners to grow into a grittier, more-hardened side.

The media ramped up their witch-hunt for Arsene Wenger this season, seeking to crucify him for everything from player selection to transfer targets to club finances. It all came to a boil before the second-leg of the Champions League quarter-finals at Bayern Munich when the Frenchman showed his towering frustration by sarcastically explaining to the media, “we want to lose tomorrow’s game so you can all be happy.”

It was an uncomfortable moment for all involved and one that could have tipped either way. Fortunately, it tipped in Wenger’s favor when his words ignited an impassioned fortitude  among the players resulting in a 2-0 victory over the Bavarian giants.

It was a moment that should not be undervalued, especially after the demolition that Barcelona suffered at the same venue this past Tuesday. The return leg at Bayern was a hand that Arsenal could easily have folded, opting instead to put out a second-string squad to provide youth products with experience and veterans with a respite before a furious conclusion to the Premier League season.

But Wenger refused, his players responded and the Gunners gave Bayern hell. It will be interesting to see if in next week’s semi-final second leg Barcelona are made of the same ilk.

It’s been an equally trying year for the players.

Arsenal’s center-back situation has been the source of constant drama and question marks as Thomas Vermaelen looks a shell of his former self and Laurent Koscielny continues his high-highs and low-lows. Per Mertersacker has been solid for the Gunners but always looks one step away from crumbling and hardly feels like the rock around which to build a back four.

In the midfield, Jack Wilshire was named to the short-list for PFA’s Young Player of the Year but the Gunners’ puppet-master has struggled with an ankle injury and currently looks a shadow of his former self.

After six months of hinting he wanted out of North London, Theo Walcott put an end to the drama by re-signing yet his on-field inconsistency remains a stress point for Arsenal supporters. When he’s on, he’s the most dangerous winger in English football. But when he’s off, he’s merely a boy who picked up football after a lifetime of athletics.

The list goes on as Gervinho leads the league in shots that go out for throw-ins, Bacary Sagna defends with his body in England and his mind in France, and Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny have both had their moments but neither has stepped up to the forefront of Premier League goal-keeping.

A huge source of this season’s stress arose from the sale of Robin van Persie to United. It wasn’t that Arsenal could have done something to convince him to stay at the Emirates – the striker’s mind was made up. But he absolutely should not have been sold to a club in the Premier League. Even if it meant accepting 5M less for his transfer, the Dutchman should have been sent to Italy or Germany where his heroics may have been seen but not felt.

Selling van Persie to United and watching him score hat-tricks to confirm league titles was like getting dumped by the prom queen and spending the entire summer watching her make-out with your best friend. And what are Arsenal supporters left with? Olivier Giroud. A talented player in his own right but hardly the rebound that will make your ex lover jealous.

Point being, Arsenal have endured immense growth this season, albeit different growth from previous years. They have acquired a much-needed chip on their shoulder, and rightfully so. They back down from fewer challenges and are now more more likely to grind out points for the sake of merely grinding out points. The change in personnel has also compelled the club to become more resourceful in where they find goals.

If Arsenal are to compete for next year’s Premier League title the club has to show a willingness to financially compete with United, City and Chelsea. They also need to tailor the majority of their signings to players who are proven stars rather than high-upside talent. With this kind of ambition, combined with this season’s mental advancements and the high quality of football for which Arsenal is so famous, the Gunners may soon return to the top of English football.

Timbers send Nagbe to Atlanta for allocation money

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The Portland Timbers have traded midfielder Darlington Nagbe to Atlanta United in exchange for $1.65 million in allocation money.

Portland is also sending defender Gbenga Arokoyo to Atlanta and receiving a 2018 international spot as part of the trade.

[ RECAP – City hammer Swansea ]

Nagbe, who has become a regular on the U.S. national team, has been with the Timbers since the team joined MLS in 2011. He was selected with the second overall pick in that year’s MLS SuperDraft.

He has 27 goals and 30 assists in 214 matches with the Timbers. His goals are the second-most since the team joined MLS.

“Thank you, Portland, and everyone that supported my family and me the past seven years,” he said in a statement released by the Timbers.

Nagbe, 27, has 24 appearances with the national team and one goal.

Wenger says schedule congestion catching up to Arsenal

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Much like their 3-1 loss to Manchester United, Arsenal dominated the chances but couldn’t find the back of the net enough to get three points.

Unlike that Red Devils defeat, however, the Gunners were stout at the back against a lively West Ham United and picked up an away point from a nil-nil draw on Wednesday.

[ RECAP: West Ham 0-0 Arsenal ]

Wenger was content enough with the result, as he continued to be in the chorus of managers who lament the congested Premier League schedule around the holidays. From the BBC:

“We had so much of the ball, but it was very frustrating because we could even have lost it at the end. They’re happy to defend, they did that against Chelsea and Manchester City, so we couldn’t find the opening and the few chances we had we missed.

“When you play every three days, you lose your sharpness.”

That’s true, and to his credit Wenger didn’t try to say West Ham had one day’s more rest (which they did). As Man City runs away with the league and Manchester United doesn’t look fit to drop back to the back, the race for the final two Top Four spots is as congested as the schedule. Arsenal needs to turn some of its shot-heavy performances into goal-heavy cruises sometime soon.

Mourinho: Derby defeat didn’t help, but United overcame fatigue

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Jose Mourinho said the Manchester Derby nearly caught up to his men in Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Bournemouth at Old Trafford.

[ RECAP: Man Utd 1-0 Bournemouth ]

The Manchester United manager says that’s not on account of emotions or let down, but simply the volume of matches his Red Devils have played and the extra rest afford the visitors.

Romelu Lukaku climbed Nathan Ake to find United its opener, and the hosts were defending plenty in the second half. But United was able to endure on a soggy night at home, and maintain its place second on the Premier League table.

From the BBC:

“Fatigue, yes, but hangover – no. The game was a big one, and a defeat does not help in your recovery – victories help, defeats don’t. They were difficult opponents and difficult conditions. If we had scored the second it would have been a calm night for us.”

That said, this felt like one of the matches United would’ve drawn last season, and Lukaku was a difference maker as were David De Gea and Phil Jones at the back.

And Mourinho would not mail in the title race despite Man City’s 11-point advantage and continued league dominance.

“It is only over in May, if it is over now I go on holiday to Brazil or Los Angeles.”

Guardiola lauds Man City after record 15th straight win

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Pep Guardiola is breaking records pretty much every time Manchester City step onto the pitch right now.

[ RECAP – City hammer Swansea ]

On Wednesday they set a new Premier League and English top-flight record for the most consecutive wins in history, with City winning 4-0 away at Swansea to seal their 15th-straight win and stay 11 points clear of the table.

City beat Arsenal’s previous record of 14-straight wins in the Premier League from February to August 2002, and now they remain unbeaten with 17 games of the season gone.

Guardiola now holds the record for most consecutive wins in the top-flight of Spanish, German and English soccer with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Man City respectively. He’s a machine and he’s turned Man City into one.

Speaking to the BBC after beat Swansea, Guardiola was delighted with the win, especially coming so soon after the energy-sapping Manchester derby win at Manchester United on Sunday.

“Considering we have a lot of games in our legs, a demanding game at Old Trafford three days ago, we were solid, we were serious and we made a good performance,” Guardiola said. “You suffer and enjoy, like a manager you see many things. When the team play good we are happy. Our feeling – we understand what we want to do. We play good inside, outside. I’m so happy for David (Silva), we cannot disguise his quality but in the past he didn’t score too much goals. He’s sharp, he’s in an amazing condition.”

Man City’s manager rightly pointed towards David Silva‘s brilliance as the Spanish playmaker scored twice at Swansea and he’s now scored four times in his last three games, including a late winner against West Ham and setting City on their way to a win at United on Sunday.

With the record now in hand and Man City also stretching their club-record unbeaten run in the top-flight to 25 games, is there a risk his side will be complacent as the bookmakers have slashed their PL title odds to 1/25?

“That is not going to happen. We are so demanding for our players. We can lose, we can drop points but complacency, never happened in the past, the present or the future,” Guardiola said. “Winning 15 games in a row gives us a lot of confidence. If people are happy watching us that is the best gift.”

Ahead of the festive season, Man City are the gift which keep on giving and they have to be up their with the best teams English soccer has ever seen.

Less than halfway through the 2017-18 season they show no signs of slowing down and the Premier League title is simply theirs to lose.

More records will fall this season as an imperious, attacking unit has been fine-tuned by Guardiola. We are watching history being made in beautiful fashion.