So, sure, this current run of matches has been a little brutal, what with beatings administered by Chelsea and Benfica serving to depress our spirits even lower than they usually are. And the scheduling gods also saw fit to throw the North London Derby into the mix as well because that particular god is a sadist and hates all things good and decent. Whatever. We still have to play it, and Arsenal is still our rivals, and we still have a chance of escaping this week with our dignity somewhat intact.
Say what you will about Arsenal, but the lot at The Short Fuse just up the hallway from the Carty-Free Captain writer's room features some pretty nice dudes, even if they did sell their souls to Satan when they chose their EPL team. I had the opportunity to catch up with writer and editor pdb and ask him some questions about Arsenal and the NLD. I also answered some questions for him. The results were remarkably fun, lighthearted... and pretty depressing, if you're a Spurs supporter.
Someone fetch me my valium!
Uncle Menno: Even though he was off the boil a bit before his injury, Mesut Özil was still a massive part of the way Arsenal plays. Does his loss doom you to fourth place (or, gasp, lower)? How big of a loss is it? Side question, how badly do you want to punch Neil Ashton in the face right now?
pdb: I don't think Özil's injury alone dooms us to anything. Özil's injury alongside Aaron Ramsey's injury, alongside Jack Wilshere's injury, alongside Theo Walcott's injury...well, you get the point. Özil is a key to Arsenal's success, ovbiously, but Arsenal have had to make do without key players for large stretches of the season so far, and they've done well. For a team that's reputed to have no depth to be in first place for a large chunk of the season, well, that tells you all you need to know about how seriously to take most football journalists. TSF has been one of Özil's staunchest defenders all season, and I'm gutted he's done. The club says he won't be back until late April, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him get shut down entirely, given that there's still no concrete word on the extent of his hamstring injury.
Speaking of... Neil Ashton. Where do I start? I generally try to ignore the bleatings of most of the English mainstream football media, because they're mostly concerned with a) hyping up English players and then b) destroying them when they get too big for themselves (in the press' estimation), but Ashton's column was one of the most ridiculous things I've ever read. There's a large dose of xenophobia behind it, which should surprise no one familiar with the English tabloid press, and it's also just plain stupid.
UM: With Wilshere, Walcott, Ramsey, and Özil all now out, which players need to step up for Arsenal to beat Spurs and also stay ahead of Liverpool?
pdb: It's getting to the point where I'm starting to think anybody on Arsenal's mailing list might get a call at any moment, so just for the record, I'm ready to go. But I guess if Arsenal want to stick with "professionals" that are "not old" and are "good at sports", as far as midfield/attack goes, look no further than Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, although Yaya Sanogo, another of Arsene's youth pickups, might get a runout as well. One of Arsenal's strengths this season, though, has been its defense - apart from the random 5-1 or 6-3, Arsenal have really improved their back line this season, and the continued presence of Bacary Sagna is one of the main reasons why. His partnership with Per Mertesacker, who is probably my favorite pre-Özil Arsenal signing in the last five years, has made a huge leap from last season, and Arsenal are much harder to break down this year than in recent years.
UM: Oxlade-Chamberlain is looking, well, very studly. Do you see him turning into the next great world-class Arsenal player, and if so, do you think you can keep him out of the clutches of Real Madrid, Manchester City, or Bayern?
pdb: I certainly hope so. I believe the "trophies are everything" trope as far as player movement is a bit overplayed - look at how many great players Spurs signed last summer, for instance - and I don't think with Ox it'll be a case like Robin van Persie, who left to chase a trophy (and got one, much to our chagrin). With all Arsenal's injuries, Ox has become the focal point of the midfield, and he's taken that and run with it and become a boss. He's beloved by the fan base and he seems to love playing for Wenger, so hopefully he'll be around for a long time yet. With him and a fully healthy Özil, Ramsey, and Walcott running around in the middle? That's tasty.
UM: What's gotten into Tomas Rosicky? Why has he suddenly become so amazing this season, and what's the secret to his sudden youthful rejuvenation?
pdb: An excellent question, and not one there's a simple answer to. Health is a big part of it - He had a great 2011-2012 season, after which we all thought he'd ascend to that biggest of all sports cliches, the NEXT LEVEL, but he hurt himself at Euro 2012 and hadn't been fully right again until this season. He got off to a good start, but he hurt himself again in September; after recovering from that, though, he's been full speed ahead and it's been great to see.
UM: Just how big IS your "Big F#*$ing German," and can I get that on a T-shirt, please?
pdb: He makes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar look like Spud Webb. In all seriousness, he's 6' 6", and a lot of that is in his legs, so he looks a bit...ungainly (although not Peter Crouch-gangly) when he runs, but he's one of the most effective defenders in the league. Can you get that on a t-shirt? Why yes, you can!
UM: Let's peer into Arsene's crystal ball towards next season. What are the areas that Arsenal needs to improve on in order to make another title push next season? Will you need to buy or are there academy products that can fill in?
pdb: That all depends on who you ask. If you ask Arsene, there's almost nowhere that needs to be improved; this attitude is a great source of consternation among a certain section of the Arsenal fan base that wants to see Arsenal spend like newly minted millionaires in Las Vegas after eight shots of Fireball. One of Wenger's great strengths, and simultaneously greatest issues, is his stubbornness - he plays the way he plays, he buys the way he buys. If that works, great, but he's not one for changing his philosophy just because the entire game is changing around him.
If you ask a more reasoned section of the fanbase, you'll get an answer that basically says "Arsenal need another striker to spell Olivier Giroud", "Arsenal need a bit more defensive cover", and "Arsenal need more depth overall". The first two are almost inarguably true - even though Arsenal don't play with a traditional target forward, Giroud's really Arsene's only option up front, and when Giroud's scoring form dips, Arsenal tend to dip. And despite the aforementioned improvement in Arsenal's defending, they're stretched pretty thin back there, so a little bit of cover wouldn't hurt. The "more overall depth" argument, I don't really buy, because as I mentioned above, Arsenal have been title contenders until very recently despite allegedly having no depth. Buying players is obviously a good thing, but I don't want Arsenal to stockpile players just to do it.
As far as the academy, there's a few players that are close, but not maybe quite ready for the big time just yet. Joel Campbell, Hector Bellerin, Isaac Hayden and Chuba Akpom are names you'll probably start hearing more of in the next couple seasons.
UM: Regarding the Derby, can you do us a favor and just not in the face? Also, a prediction for the match.
pdb: I'm going to assume that the missing words in that sentence are "punch us" or "kick us" [Editor's note: D'OH], and while I'm not arrogant/douchey enough to be a guest in your house and say ARSENAL WILL PILLAGE YOUR HOMES, STEAL YOUR WOMEN, AND KICK YOUR DOGS WHILE THEY ALSO WIN THE MATCH 13-0, I do think Arsenal will win. I'm not sure it'll be a walkover - Arsenal have a nasty tendency to only play as hard as they think they need to, and sometimes the level at which they think they need to play in order to win is far less than is actually needed - but if you make me guess, I'd say 3-1 Arsenal.