Premier League clubs, west to east

The geographical placement of each club is determined here by the location of its current ground (which means Wembley for Spurs). Currently, no Premier League side may be found east of the Prime Meridian — though West Ham would be if they still played at Upton Park — and that situation is unlikely to change until Norwich make their way back to the top flight. It is difficult to imagine that we’ll see a PL club west of Swansea, barring an unexpected rise to prominence by Plymouth Argyle.

  • Swansea
  • Everton
  • Liverpool
  • Manchester United
  • Manchester City
  • Stoke City
  • Burnley
  • Leicester
  • Huddersfield Town
  • West Brom
  • Bournemouth
  • Newcastle
  • Southampton
  • Watford
  • Tottenham
  • Chelsea
  • Arsenal
  • Crystal Palace
  • Brighton
  • West Ham

Premier League clubs, north to south

  • Newcastle
  • Burnley
  • Huddersfield Town
  • Manchester City
  • Manchester United
  • Everton
  • Liverpool
  • Stoke City
  • Leicester
  • West Brom
  • Watford (Vicarage Road: 51.6500° N)
  • Swansea (Liberty Stadium: 51.6427° N)
  • Tottenham
  • Arsenal
  • West Ham
  • Chelsea
  • Crystal Palace
  • Southampton
  • Brighton
  • Bournemouth

One down, so, so many to go

“Well, that escalated quickly,” said Barney Ronay Indeed it did. As a devoted Fulham supporter, I attempted to look upon Arsenal v. Leicester with frigid tranquility, but come on, who could watch that match with anything approaching tranquility? What an electric encounter.

Post-match commentary has focused on the Gunners’ shocking defensive shortcomings, but, while I have long been sick and tired of the club’s tendency to make excuses for itself, I do have to agree that Wenger was in a tough place with his first three center backs unavailable — and then, when he took Holding off, he finished with two left backs (Kolasinac and Monreal) at center back, a right back (Bellerin) at left back, and an attacking midfielder (Ox) at right back. Under those circumstances, that the team shipped only three goals seems little less than a miracle — especially since in the first half Cech was mentally scrambled.

On the other side, the Gunners demonstrated enough individual and collective skill than four was a low result — quite a low result. They easily could have put up six or seven. When you consider that Lacazette had never before played a serious match with the club, and nevertheless managed a goal and a key pass and a general aura of threat; and that Welbeck was involved in several key combinations and scored a goal; and that Xhaka, despite some distressingly sloppy passing, ended up with two assists; and that Özil had a day of inaccurate passes and poor touches the likes of which I have rarely seen from him; … well, I think you can see why Ronay commented that “up front the combined craft of Lacazette, Olivier Giroud, Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott kept on suggesting … a team half-glimpsed, flickering just behind the fuzziness of late-Wenger Arsenal.” It may not happen; it probably won’t happen; but hope is flirting with me, and I find myself susceptible to her flirting. That minx.

So: in the last eight matches that mattered, Arsenal have six Premier League wins, an FA Cup, and a Community Shield win. Even if you think that only seven of those matter, it’s a pretty good run.

Fulham Football Club

My goal for the English soccer season: to leave behind the manifold miseries of supporting Arsenal and become a Fulham supporter. Yes, I know, there are plenty of miseries involved with supporting Fulham — fandom always brings suffering. But I’m ready for some different miseries, some other forms of suffering.

Why Fulham? I’ve always liked them, in part because of their history of American players: Bocanegra, McBride, Dempsey, and several others. They’re a London side — I am spiritually a Londoner — but not one with a huge international profile; they have the most adorable ground in all of English football, probably. (One that I might even be able to afford to visit one day.)

And right now they’re not in direct competition with Arsenal, which might make the transition easier.

I like the idea of supporting a team with more modest expectations. Cutting myself free from Arsenal’s constant almosts — for a while it was almost a title, now it’s almost the Champions League — might help me avoid inhabiting T. S. Eliot’s image of old age as “the conscious impotence of rage / At human folly, and the laceration / Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.”

It is possible that I am taking this too seriously.

In any case, as I’ve written before, it’s hard simply to choose in these matters. I did not decide to be an Arsenal supporter — I’m not even sure why I’m an Arsenal supporter — I am not happy to be associated with some Arsenal supporters, who shall remain nameless, though others are pretty darn cool. When I first seriously started following English football I decided I would support Aston Villa, because I too am from a city called Birmingham, and while I still keep track of Villa and wish them well, no strong attachment ever formed. I somehow drifted Highburywards.

But now I hope to change that. Arsenal begin the Premier League season this afternoon against Leicester. I shall look upon this event (certain to produce a loss, Arsenal always lose their first match of the season, what the hell is Wenger doing) with what Dr. Johnson called “frigid tranquility.” Frigid tranquility — that’s it. That’s what I’m after.

The Captain Class

I’ve just read Sam Walker’s book The Captain Class and mercy, is it a book to argue with. In a good way.

The project that led Walker to this book had two components: first, to identify the greatest teams in the history of team sports; and second, to figure out whether they have anything in common. That first one is where most of the debate comes in, especially since Walker does not think that Michael Jordan’s Bulls teams qualify. (Die, heretic!) Walker explains his reasoning here and here. The tl;dr: it’s pretty good reasoning.

But, for my money, it’s with Component Two that the book really gets interesting. What Walker discovered was that these wildly successful sports teams are also wildly divergent in character: for instance, some had innovative coaches, some had conservative coaches, some had mediocre coaches. But what they all did have in common was a Captain — an on-the-field leader. That might not in itself be wholly surprising, but what is surprising is that those captains almost never match the conventional picture of sporting leaders: they tend not to be dynamic figures, full of vim and vigor, cheerleaders, encouragers, sunny vocal outgoing types. Sometimes they’re grumpy and prickly, or quiet and reserved. How they managed to be powerful leaders anyway … well, you’ll have to read the book to discover that. And it’s very much worth your time.

Specifically for my fellow soccer aficionados: Walker is great on an obviously totemic figure like Ferenc Puskás — but he’s also illuminating on those who don’t get nearly enough credit for their leadership of truly great teams: Carla Overbeck for the USWNT and Carles Puyol for Barcelona.

It’s a book that gives you a lot to think about — expect more posts about it in the future.

forecasts, fears, hopes

Here’s a good tactical preview of the forthcoming Arsenal season. I am made a bit nervous about this passage:

Outside of the top contributors there are myriad other uncertain situations spread throughout the squad. Petr Čech is 35, with his closest possible successor Wojciech Szczęsny having just been sold to Juventus after spending two seasons out of sight and out of mind on loan at Roma. Per Mertesacker is retiring at the end of the season and his best partner Laurent Koscielny is 31. Jack Wilshere is clearly not long for this club. Calum Chambers, despite being only 22, doesn’t seem to be in Wenger’s plans in any serious way.

These examples could go on but you get the point: there’s a lot of deferred outcomes and holes that will soon need filling in the current squad. Özil and Sánchez could both very well leave at the end of the season, meaning the club would somehow need to recruit two elite players out of nowhere if they desire to retain their current level. Convincing them to stay, if that’s even a possibility, also seems pretty unappetising. Do you really want to be giving pricey long-term contracts to two 29-year-olds? Especially considering Sánchez has played international football every summer dating back to 2014 and is notable for the fact that he is always running? These problems would be lessened if there were comparable talents waiting in the wings to inherit the responsibilities but there just aren’t many. Finding such talents is obviously difficult yet Arsenal have avoided making preparations for too long and will likely suffer for it.

Some thoughts:

  • Here at the end of the preseason I’m feeling better about central defense. I think Koscielny has a few more good years, and I see both Mustafi and Holding as solid, possibly better than solid, defenders. Also, Kolasinac looks like he can play on the left side of a back three as well as at wingback.
  • I’m now inclined to believe that Xhaka will be better this year, and continue to be impressed by Elneny’s intelligence and workrate; I’m also not ruling out improvement by Coquelin. So I’m less worried about defensive midfield also.
  • After several months of breaking into a cold sweat every time I thought about the possibility to Alexis leaving, I am now, half the time anyway, wishing for him to be sold right now. I fear that he’s the sort of player who could suffer a dramatic drop-off in performance if injuries and fatigue catch up with him (Özil, by contrast, has the kind of game that could flourish into his mid-thirties.) I am also concerned that his evident disgruntlement will affect morale. If you can squeeze a healthy fee out of a big club for Alexis, even if that big club is a rival like Man City, I say: go for it.
  • But keep Ox and play him every game you can. Kolasinac steaming up the left side and Ox flying up the right can terrify defenses.
  • And give some of the kids a chance. For heaven’s sake. Let’s see what Nelson and Maitland-Niles can do. I think they can do a lot.

predicting Arsenal’s season

The Guardian football writers have Arsenal coming in sixth this year. I would love to disagree but am not sure that I can. When you consider that Arsenal have

  • good but not great goalkeeping;
  • uncertainty along the back line (at least after Koscielny, whom I expect to be excellent again);
  • uncertainty about whether Xhaka in defensive midfield will improve on his horrific first season, and whether Coquelin will return to the form he showed season before last;
  • uncertainty in central and attacking midfield;
  • profound uncertainty in attack given Alexis’s manifest unhappiness, despite the welcome addition of Lacazette;

— then it’s hard, for me anyway, to get too excited. Especially since both Manchester clubs should be significantly better, as should the Liverpool clubs: I very well might put a fiver or so on Liverpool winning the league this year, despite their defensive eccentricities, and Everton with their recent signings now look to be a stronger side overall than the Gunners. I expect Spurs to come back to the pack a bit this year, but they were considerably better than Arsenal last year and I don’t expect that gap to close significantly this year. So, yeah: sixth seems likely. Maybe fifth.

What would it take for Arsenal to get a place in the Champions League?

  • A significantly improved defense, probably through a full season of playing a back three (with Rob Holding emerging as a consistent defensive force) with a stable defensive midfield (probably featuring Xhaka and Ramsey);
  • some unexpected creativity in midfield, maybe from one or two of the heralded youngsters;
  • keeping Alexis and Ox, and keeping them happy;
  • Alexis and Lacazette finding that they can work together in a front-line partnership;
  • avoinding the emotional drama that afflicted the side so much of last season;
  • no major injuries.

Plus at least two of the following:

  • Pep’s purism overcoming his pragmatism, and his side finding themselves unable to play just exactly as he wants them to play;
  • Mourinho finding a way to thwart and frustrate the creativity of his bounty of dynamic attacking players;
  • Liverpool continuing to be unable to defend, especially from set pieces;
  • Everton not succeeding in replacing Lukaku’s scoring;
  • Spurs coming way back to the pack, most likely through injury (they’re not the deepest squad among the top six).

So: it could happen. Arsenal could get back to the CL. But I’m probably not going to bet on it.