The Problem Bear

Picture 3Zlatan has struck again! He called Pep Guardiola a coward and etc, etc, etc: exactly the sort of thing we expect from Zlatan, not really news, just how Zlatan relates. It was enough, however, for Bayern Munich’s president Uli Hoeness to come to the defense of Pep, calling Zlatan a “Problembär.”

A fucking Problem Bear.

A Problem Bear! How dare Uli?!? And also, what is a Problem Bear? It sounds like quite a euphemism. However, it’s simply German and almost transcendently literal: a problem bear is a bear that creates problems. Specifically, Bear JJ1, aka Bruno, aka Beppo, aka Petzi. Yes, all this info is from wikipedia. The first brown bear on German soil in 170 years (this was 2006), and the killer of a guinea pig among other contemporary German beasts, like sheep. The Problem Bear was eventually shot dead after wrecking meek havoc, which is really more indicative of a German Bear Problem (ie they really should have more bears, as bears are wonderful, and would make Germany tougher) rather than the existence of a true Problem Bear.

Since Bruno’s demise, the word “Problembär” has apparently become something Germans call troublemakers of multiple stripes. Stirrers of the pot. Guinea pig slayers. Folks that flit from one situation to another, causing strife in each. Unnecessary rufflers of feathers. Zlatans.

This made me think: is Jose Mourinho a Problembär? I would say yes, but I’ve just decided to withhold personal usage of the term from anyone or anything I find consistently obnoxious. I’ve decided that the Problembär, in my sphere, isn’t so unbearably bitchy.  Here is Mourinho storming out of a pregame press conference because he was annoyed by a “why isn’t x on your team sheet” question. If the situation were taken totally seriously, one would have to ask some basic questions, like why do we have these press conferences? what on earth does anyone really hope to learn from this? isn’t this just about one game, plans for which the coach will reveal as little as possible? and the game doesn’t even happen today, but tomorrow? how bored, exactly, are these poor reporters? why doesn’t everyone storm out? why do we watch television?

But let’s skip the real questions, and continue on with the inane and the whimsical. The hubbub over team selection is of course related to Mourinho’s shunning of Juan Mata. For those of you that don’t obsessively follow the EPL, Mourinho has used Mata as a sub in league games and omitted him entirely from the squad against the derby game with Fulham. Mata has been Chelsea’s best player for the past two years, and is a fan favorite. Here‘s Michael Cox’s take, written before the Tottenham match.

It’s a situation that’s been brewing since Mourinho was announced as Chelsea’s next coach- I recall Mata was asked how he felt about his new coach, and in stark contrast to the enthusiasm of his team mates, he said that he’d wait and see. That was at the end of last season. The summer passed, Mata was not sold, the new season began, and he’s now second string. While there’s nothing wrong with a coach having preferences contrary to public opinion, or being ruthless with egos, I think the scenario illustrates the ludicrous misbalance in finances in the sport. Here’s a guy Chelsea could have sold to a another team, in another league, for at least £35M. A guy the coach doesn’t rate. Instead, they keep him because they can, and because it weakens potential competitors- foreign competitors who they most likely will not play. The situation is the same with David Luiz, also omitted from the Fulham game, also in demand, and also worth an incredible amount of money. Similar is true with Lukaku, an incredible player who they’ve sent out on loan again, because they won’t make room for him in their squad, but can’t be moved to make what would be a necessary economic choice at most other clubs. Demba Ba isn’t a superstar, but he isn’t playing, and could’ve been sold as well.

Chelsea sits on these players because they can. It’s no good for the players, it’s no good for spectators, it’s economically nuts, but the financial rules are so weak coaches like Mourinho can make strategic decisions at tremendous cost that only marginally add value to their team. He does that, and then he can spend £30M on Willian (possibly just so Tottenham couldn’t have him), and then bench him, too. There’s no real genius in any of this, only mega-luxurious spite. The game would be more interesting, and managers like Mourinho less vaunted, if this sort of business wasn’t allowed.

Zlatan is a Problembär. Mourinho is just a headache.

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Manchester United start a new narrative

Every EPL weekend ends up as strata of competing headlines. It plays out episodically live, one team’s trauma replaced by another’s, victors and modes of victory hopping around. In the aftermath, everything melts together and the great bulk is quickly forgotten or reduced to anecdotes and snapshots. There’s the overhead picture of the league as a whole, relayed by papers and tv, where every team has a narrative that stands in some sort of relation to the whole. Usually the narratives don’t represent much beyond the need for journos and talking heads to deliver fast,  easily repeated lines with an emotional hook. As an Arsenal fan, the tabloid narratives of other teams are all more entertaining than those constructed around the Gunners. This is probably true for most fans whose team isn’t a monolithic win-machine: United have been generally celebrated for a very long time. That looks to change (wow, did they lose this weekend…) and while it’ll be nice to have a new storyline, I’m sure the new tune will get old before long.

 

I was struck by how sleepy United looked, how disengaged. I’m sure that is more troubling for their fans than their lack of a linchpin creative midfielder, as it suggests something rotten with their spirit. Fellaini, on the inconclusive evidence of this one start, looks like the wrong buy, and an expensive one at that. United picked up the pace in the second half, but looked average and unconvinced by their own effort. It was strange for a derby game. I imagine they’ll rebound, but I doubt it will be a Fergie-sized rebound.

Norwegian Babe Taunts Spurs Fans

There were pics going around twitter today of a girl in the away section of the Tottenham v Tromso Europa league game: she put on an Arsenal shirt to taunt the home fans, she was cute and very Norwegian-looking, Arsenal twitter nerds really dug it. As they naturally would. I’m going to keep this meta and not find and repost the picture as really it was kinda unremarkable in and of itself and I’m lazy. It’s the idea that counts, and this was a nice idea, worthy of a little infatuation.

I looked up Tromso on a map and it is quite ludicrously far north, even in Norwegian terms. I’ve toyed with pretend-following a Norwegian team, as that’s where so e of my family is from. Tromso, I guess, could be a candidate…

Aaron Ramsey, attacking from deep

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 10.27.32 PMIn the past couple seasons, there’s been a complaint about how Arsenal lacked a midfielder who could arrive late in the box and knock in a goal. It’s been Frank Lampard’s specialty for years: a well timed run to take advantage of an attack whose first wave has just crested. Arsenal’s attacking midfielders provided decent goal returns last year, but the deep lying players didn’t do much goal-wise beyond Mikel Arteta’s penalty kicks.

One of my major frustrations with the team last year was that transition to attack wasn’t fast enough. When the team eventually made it to the opposition’s 18, there was some pretty passing, but more often than not the time of maximum opportunity had already passed. A four man defense was suddenly five or six, and there wasn’t enough room for much finesse.

In order for a deep lying player to arrive “late,” the initial attack has to be fast, because he still needs space to run into. Otherwise, he’s just running into the opposing defensive midfielder. What I find most promising about Arsenal’s play early this season is the increased tempo of their counter attacks, which before the purchase of Özil must have been down to the team finally settling. Well, settling plus one player hitting outstanding form, and that’s Aaron Ramsey.

I’ve always liked him and I thought it was dumb and ugly when a section of fans turned against him early last season. I really don’t get how miserable some soccer fans are, actively hating members of the club they purportedly support- surely there must be a better mode of being a bleak, mopey bastard? Here’s a young guy, hailed as a brilliant prospect for the future- a guy we snatched out from under Alex Ferguson’s belligerent nose- who before his Shawcross-horror-leg-snap was seen as Wilshere’s equal and an able disciple of Fabregas. He was never nearly as bad as the haters said he was, and was always clearly working as hard as anyone on the team. Unlike Gervinho (and I really hesitated to make the comparison) the bile of the fans didn’t derail him entirely, and he progressed until he was centrally important to the late-season run that clinched a Champions League spot. At the the end of the season, opinion had turned and he was seen as a hard-working journeyman who would put everything he had into the game. Useful but not world-class, likeable. I still didn’t really think this was fair, as he was still really young and if he’d already become integral for his energy, why wouldn’t the next step be the further development of what had been in the past a very obvious talent?

So I had big hopes for him. I didn’t, however, expect to see him volleying in goals at the rate of an out-and-out striker. Praise has come pouring in for him from all quarters, and he’s more than earned his spot as a starter (which was his to begin with). The midfield is moving faster, in part due to his progress, and now he has the chance to be the guy arriving on the 18 to hammer home a beauty, as he did yesterday. The goal is being compared to one of Dennis Bergkamp’s, which is pretty much the best compliment an Arsenal player can get.

His success is also Arsene Wenger’s: without the coach’s faith in him, and belief in developing talent, he would’ve been left behind a year ago. Instead, he looks primed to be a standout player in the league and a cornerstone of the team.

It’s exciting because the attacking midfield is looking so good, and the option of someone coming from deep who can also score makes the team much more dynamic. It’ll be difficult enough to defend Cazorla and Özil, and their outlets Giroud and Walcott, but when you add Ramsey as well, the team’s ability to compete rises significantly. Özil, whose movement off the ball is superb, will make the team both faster and more unpredictable in attack, and he is very well served by having goal scorers both in front and behind him. It’s refreshing to see it moving in this direction: they’re going to be more an dmore fun to watch.

Now if only everyone could stay fit…

Mesut Özil… Mesut Özil… Mesut Özil… Mesut Özil

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Arsenal signed Mesut Özil a week and a half ago and I’m still high on it. I would like very much for this feeling to last.

Arsene somehow turned it around. After a summer of uninterrupted embarrassment in the transfer market, in the last hour of the last day, he managed to sign Mesut Özil, one of the best number 10s in the world. There had been rumors that something like this was afoot for the week prior, as Real Madrid had to get rid of someone to make space for Gareth Bale, but it never seemed likely that they’d part with the most creative member of their midfield, who also happened to be a well-loved fan favorite. Why not sell Angel Di Maria, a talented winger, but not a lynchpin? Why not sell sullen Karim Benzema, who has been getting booed off the field by the fans? Or, what seemed most likely to me, why not just keep them all?

Well, maybe Madrid just couldn’t afford to keep them all. They’re going to get a cut of Gareth’s custom jewelry money, but perhaps at the end of the day his pendants won’t be a smash hit. But still, why sell slick Mesut?… I don’t get it, but then again I don’t care, not really, as Madrid’s loss is clearly Arsenal’s gain. Big clubs run by megalomaniac gazillionaires sometimes make mistakes. At such a late hour I didn’t think Wenger would, or could, capitalize on such a mistake, but boy am I glad to be wrong. The buy changed the narrative of the club’s summer, and indeed may change the narrative of Wenger’s Arsenal career.

The immediate reaction of much of the press was a combination of “Holy Cow! That’s actually exciting!” and “Arsenal need someone expensive, but not an expensive number 10. Now allow me to explain which expensive other person would have made more sense…” Obviously I agree with the first bit of sentiment (thank God, excitement at last.), and I think the second point- that Arsenal have more need in different areas of the team- is only half-true. We need another striker, and of course it would be excellent if this additional striker was super duper world class, the best ever, etc. However, Giroud is coming along nicely, and both Poldi and Theo aspire to play centrally, so while it clearly would be better to have another body there, it’s not the end of the world. We could also use another central defender, though this is less pressing with Sagna’s recent development in that role and Flamini’s signing as cover for the fullbacks.

One of Arsene’s old  press conference saws, which grew over the years to be pretty aggravating, was how he was only looking for “top, top quality” players. Always the multiple “tops”. Always the not getting of “top, top quality” players. Instead, the getting of Gervinho. Well, now I believe we have a taste of what he meant all along, and it turns out he meant pretty much what anybody might mean by it: one of the best players in the world. It’s kind of shocking. Suddenly he doesn’t seem as intransigent. Suddenly everyone asks themselves whether, in fact, this sort of player is often available. They answer themselves with a no, not really. (The wicked ones think well, except when we sell them). This is what Wenger has been saying all along, in an increasingly annoyed manner, like a parent driving a load of tired kids to some distant delicious destination.

And boy is Özil delicious! What people miss when they say Arsenal don’t need another attacking midfielder is, well… how Arsenal have played since the loss of Fabregas to Barca. They need more creativity, they need to be quicker on the counter, and they need to create more goal scoring chances. Sure, there’s Wilshere ( no reliable form since his injury, needs more time, very well may play deep), Rosicky (alway injured, over 30), Chamberlain (injured, raw), Ramsey (excelling in a deep role), Arteta (injured, deep), and the effervescent Cazorla. Cazorla has been great, but does just as well wide as he does centrally, and the team need multiple reliable outlets. Wenger needs a couple of creative midfelders to build his team around, and he now has them, and with depth. Özil is an ideal Wenger player: quick, good vision, good one touch play, excellent through balls, unpredictable, and still young. I rate him as a better capture than any of the summer’s previous high end targets. Higuain is a great finisher, but while what he would give to the team would’ve been valuable-better conversion to than Giroud-it’s not as valuable as a faster attack and more chances created. Higuain would not have been a player to build a team around. Suarez is a goalscorer and a chance creator, but also a nutcase who bites people, and greedy with the ball. A team built around him would’ve been unstable as his ambition, quite transparently, was to play for Real Madrid. What we have with Özil is a player choosing to leave a super-elite team in order to play with Wenger.

I can’t really imagine a better scenario. Ok, fine, another striker. But that’ll come.