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: Mohamed Salah continues to shine

Men In Blazers
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Rog and Davo marvel at Mo Salah’s four goal, one dime haul in Liverpool’s 5-0 beatdown of Watford, analyze Jose Mourinho’s recent rants about football heritage at Manchester United, and recap Rog’s family trip to Stoke vs. Everton.

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1912 FA Cup winner’s medal stolen

South Yorkshire Police
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A 106-year-old footballing relic has been snatched from a house in England.

The home of the 82-year-old grandson of former Barnsley player Philip Bratley was burglarized last weekend according to the BBC and other reports, and among the items stolen was an “invaluable” FA Cup winner’s medal from 1912.

That year, Barnsley defeated West Bromwich Albion in the finals of the 41st FA Cup, with Bratley scoring the winning goal in the semifinal replay over Swindon Town. He went on to make over 100 appearances for Barnsley between 1910 and 1014 before moving transferring to Liverpool, where he spent one season before he left during the first World War.

“This item is of great sentimental value to the family and belonged to the 82-year-old victim’s grandfather who, at the time, played for Barnsley,” the South Yorkshire police said. “The family is extremely upset that this, along with many of their belongings, have been stolen. If you have any information please get in touch so we can try and reunite this invaluable item with its rightful owner.”

Barnsley has offered to assist the South Yorkshire police in their search for the stolen artifact, as those with any information are encouraged to contact either entity to share what they may know.

Griezmann sets pre-World Cup deadline for transfer future

Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
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French striker Antoine Griezmann is no stranger to seeing his name in the transfer rumor mill, but that familiarity doesn’t make it any more enjoyable for the Atletico Madrid attacker (who celebrates his 27th birthday on Wednesday).

Long-tipped for a move to either Barcelona or Manchester United, Griezmann knows one thing: He wants his future sorted before the World Cup.

[ MORE: Key newcomers for USMNT friendly ]

“I want to travel to Russia without this concern,” he told L’Equipe. “It’s not about knowing where I’ll play, but about having the peace of mind if I’m still in one place or another.

“It may be boring, but I have told my sister that, whether I stay or not, this will have to be resolved beforehand. What bothers me the most is that everyone asks me about this issue.”

That’s both honest and reasonable, and we can imagine it’s not a blast to answer questions on your future every day. He also has a contract through 2021-22, which won’t make any transfer a simple one.

Griezmann has 23 goals and 13 assists in all competitions for Atleti this season, as La Liga’s second place side remains alive in the UEFA Europa League. He’s scored 106 goals for Atleti since arriving from Real Sociedad.

NYCFC signs second Homegrown Player in history

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Four years, two Homegrowns.

That’s the decent track record for New York City FC, which has spotted a second youngster from amongst its ranks in 15-year-old Joe Scally.

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Scally joins United States youth international James Sands as Homegrown Players from NYCFC. Here’s USMNT legend and NYCFC technical director Claudio Reyna:

“Joe has been one of the top performers in the Academy for the past few seasons and represented US Soccer at U-15 and U-17 level.”

“He has all of the attributes we look for in a right-back: he’s strong in defense and can support in attack to help create chances from wide areas.”

Sands was signed last summer, and played 23 minutes for NYCFC against Colorado in his lone senior appearance.