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.

Men in Blazers podcast: Transfer window, USMNT at Gold Cup, RBNY-NYCFC

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Men In Blazers are back with their latest podcast, and the boys are hitting club soccer here and abroad as well as Bruce Arena’s men in the red, white, and blue.

Rog and Davo break down transfer window activity, rumored and real; get a heat check on the USMNT heading into the Gold Cup; and recap the (Ray) Hudson River Derby.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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Agent Jorge Mendes appears before judge in Falcao tax probe

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MADRID (AP) Football agent Jorge Mendes has told a Spanish judge that he had no involvement in the financial planning of client Radamel Falcao, who has been accused by a state prosecutor of tax fraud.

Mendes, who is not accused of any wrongdoing, appeared before a judge in a Madrid court for 45 minutes on Tuesday as part of the probe into whether there are grounds for the case against Falcao to go to trial.

[ MORE: Lampard linked with manager opening ]

Mendes’ agency, Gestifute, released a statement saying that “neither he nor his employees have ever intervened in the creation of corporate structures for his clients and much less provided any tax advice to them.”

Last month, a state prosecutor accused Falcao of defrauding Spain’s Tax Office of around $6 million from 2012-13. The alleged unpaid taxes were from money the Colombian player made from endorsement deals through image rights, not from the salary he was then being paid from club Atletico Madrid. Falcao now plays for Monaco.

Arfield, Adekugbe on Canada’s Gold Cup roster

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Burnley midfielder Scott Arfield and on-loan Brighton defender Samuel Adekugbe are among the players who will represent Canada in this summer’s Gold Cup.

Arfield, 28, was born in Scotland and earned the first of seven Canada caps in 2016, and Adekugbe returns to Vancouver from a year-long loan to Brighton and Hove Albion on June 30.

The pair join nine MLS players, two NASL player, and a USL player, with the rest of the group based outside North America.

[ MORE: Lampard linked with manager opening ]

Notably, Orlando City players Will Johnson and Cyle Larin were not called up by coach Octavio Zambrano.

Goalkeepers: Maxime Crepeau (Montreal), Milan Borjan (MKS Korona Kielce), Jayson Leutwiler (Shrewsbury Town)

Defenders: Samuel Adekugbe (Brighton and Hove Albion), Fraser Aird, Manjrekar James (Vasas Budapest), Dejan Jakovic (New York Cosmos), Adam Straith (FC Edmonton), Steven Vitoria (Lechia Gdansk), Marcel de Jong (Vancouver Whitecaps)

Midfielders: Scott Arfield (Burnley), Patrice Bernier (Montreal), Alphonso Davies (Vancouver), Raheem Edwards (Toronto FC), Junior Hoilett (Cardiff City), Mark-Anthony Kaye (Louisville City FC), Anthony Jackson-Hamel (Montreal), Jonathan Osorio (Toronto), Michael Petrasso (QPR), Samuel Piette (CD Izarra), Russell Teibert (Vancouver)

Forwards: Lucas Cavallini (CA Penarol), Tosaint Ricketts (Toronto)

Lampard speaks to Oxford United about manager’s job

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Frank Lampard may be getting his first stint in the manager’s hot seat.

A Sky Spors report claims Lampard will join Oxford United in League One as the club aims to make its way to the Football League Championship.

[ MORE: Henry Onyekuru to Everton?

The 39-year-old has been vocal about his desire to move into management after a celebrated playing career that saw him become a Chelsea legend and make stops at West Ham, Swansea, Manchester City, and New York City FC.

The U’s finished eighth in League One last season. Manager Michael Appleton left the club and is an assistant to Craig Shakespeare at Leicester City. Oxford won the League Cup in 1986.

Lampard seems willing to earn his stripes, though some players wait for jobs in bigger leagues. The report says the longtime England midfielder is just one of several names in the mix for the job.