Arsenal’s frailties resurface, but does it really matter

It was a familiar tale for Arsenal fans in Dortmund – their side's attacking potential undermined by defensive vulnerabilities.

Arsene Wenger
Arsenal finally come true?

You have to wonder whether Arsène Wenger’s infamous assertion that he ‘did not see’ the fouls committed by Patrick Vieira and co. in the early 2000s should have perhaps been taken at face value.  After all he appears to have developed a similar blind spot in not seeing the necessity to ever again sign a player in the same mould as the French midfield enforcer.

Then there’s the debate raging over Mesut Özil, a player whose signing, off the pitch, was a priceless symbol of Arsenal’s re-established authority in the transfer market, but whose effectiveness on it since has looked a tired shadow of the maestro last seen consistently pulling the strings in Madrid.

So where does all this leave Arsène Wenger?  It is a strange day when Paul Merson, who expressed his frustration at recurring defensive frailties in the wake of the 2-0 drubbing in Dortmund, is sounding wiser than the wily old French owl.

Is Steve Bould, the former defender now assistant at Arsenal, pointing these organisational deficiencies out to Wenger, or is it his influence alone that is stopping Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from being deployed in the heart of Arsenal’s central defence?

Arsène Wenger is one of the greatest orchestrators of attacking football in the history of the game.  If he were a composer then his 2004 unbeaten Invincibles would surely be his landmark album, while the following years have seen the release of several less commercially viable, though no less artistically thrilling, conceptual pieces.

Over at Chelsea José Mourinho is the formulaic producer of commercial success who will sell his product year after year with relentless efficiency.  He is Oasis.  Or, if you prefer, JK Rowling.

But what inspires more – JK Rowling or Leo Tolstoy?

Marcelo Bielsa’s brand of pressing football was hugely influential on, among others, Mauricio Pochettino and that astounding Barcelona side managed by Pep Guardiola.  Yet the Argentine has won no trophies in Europe because he has no Mourinho like obsession over his own medal haul: he once turned down the opportunity to manage Inter Milan in favour of the greater challenge that Athletic Bilbao presented.

Greece’s Euro 2004 victory was an extraordinary achievement.  But does anyone really remember who scored their winning goal in the final against Portugal?

If football is about inspiring with beautifully crafted goals and periods of play (it is) then Wenger and Bielsa are both light years ahead of Mourinho, who was always doomed to be fired by Real Madrid for his pragmatic tactical principles that conflict so transparently with the identity of the club.

Some of the greatest goals in the Premier League have been courtesy of Wenger’s philosophy, from Dennis Bergkamp’s pirouette against Nikos Dabizas in 2002 (a move started, incidentally, by a tackle from Vieira) to Jack Wilshere’s final touch in that mesmerising team move against Norwich last year (a goal which Mesut Özil, while on the pitch, was not directly involved in).

If you think football is purely about winning then you will probably reel off José Mourinho’s statistics (perhaps before listening to the latest Oasis album and then waiting for the inevitable release of Harry Potter and The Mid Life Uncertainty to herald the beginning of a brand new 24 book series.)

Of course there is nothing wrong with enjoying Harry Potter more than Anna Karenina.

But one survives, inspires and becomes immortalised in a way that the other does not.

Like Guardiola and Biesla before him, Arsène Wenger is the football managing equivalent of an artist, complete with all the flaws that entails. Most notably, in his case, his obstinacy over not buying a top quality defensive midfield player.

For all his assets Mikel Arteta is an ill fitting suit of a defensive midfielder – rather fetching and undoubtedly well made, but ultimately uncomfortable and incapable of providing the required cover when his team need to be looking their very best.

Oh and it was Angelos Charisteas who scored Greece’s winning goal in the final of Euro 2004.

Perhaps it was a remarkable piece of play, but I for one confess that I don’t remember it.

By James Cook

Bo Pelini is SOOOOO MAAAAAAAAD at Nebraska-Miami refs

What’s the first thing you think when you think of Bo Pelini? (Besides cats?) Of course, it’s extremely angry-looking outbursts. When a Nebraska interception was wiped out by a roughing the passer penalty, Bo went nuclear:


There were also some post-play shenanigans that resulted in offsetting penalties that could’ve gotten Pelini into a tizzy. Fake Bo had fun with this:


— Fake Bo Pelini (@FauxPelini) September 21, 2014

SEC West hits 22-0 against rest of world

The best division in college football continues to leave little doubt, reaching a perfect 22-0 against the SEC East and all the rest of the country. Auburn won at Kansas State on Thursday, and Saturday, Alabama covered a big spread against Florida, Texas A&M splattered SMU, and Arkansas demolished top mid-major Northern Illinois. (Ole Miss was off.)

Add those to South Carolina, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Texas Tech, and Boise State, who’d lost to SEC West teams in previous weeks. That’s not a list of the greatest teams in the world, but … it’s better than the teams any other division has beaten while also remaining perfect; that’s for sure!

Perfection against everybody else should continue until mid-October, with inter-division play beginning in earnest over the next couple weeks before more East opponents start filtering in. It’s that SEC West-on-SEC West play that could make things really messy, as Mississippi State is demonstrating by embarrassing LSU in Baton Rouge.

But for right now, there’s no real argument against the West dominating the polls. Whether the West puts five in the AP top 10 again this week remains to be seen, but we should all just get used to seeing something like that.

(And, yeah, check in later this year to see if this does go down as the best division since college football started having divisions.)

Marlins mathematically eliminated from MLB playoff contention

Miami was left to wonder what could have been after devastating injuries cut short the seasons of two of the brightest young stars in the game.

The Miami Marlins were eliminated from postseason contention with a 3-2 loss to the Washington Nationals in Miami.

The loss was the 80th of the season for Miami, ensuring no more than 82 wins, one fewer than the Pirates, current second Wild Card leaders.

Miami wasn’t widely expected to do much entering the 2014 season, but the team hung around until now with the help of a group of good young talent surrounding one of the most feared sluggers in baseball. Unfortunately for the Marlins, that key slugger suffered one of two injuries that ultimately left the team wondering what could have been.

Giancarlo Stanton was the best power hitter in the National League for the majority of the season, but his MVP-caliber campaign ended Sept. 11 when he was hit in the face by a pitch from Milwaukee Brewers starter Mike Fiers. Including that game, the Marlins lost five out of their next eight to make what was already a slim possibility virtually non-existent.

The Marlins weren’t done any favors from the start, of course, when 2013 NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez was lost for the season after eight starts with a torn ligament in his elbow that required Tommy John surgery. At the time of the injury, Fernandez had a 2.44 ERA with 70 strikeouts in 51⅔ innings.

Even without Fernandez, the Marlins’ pitching staff has been slightly above average, thanks in part to strong performances from Henderson Alvarez and deadline acquisition Jarred Cosart. Assuming Fernandez can be added to that mix sometime next season, the Marlins could be a dangerous opponent again in 2015, particularly if the offensive breakouts from Christian Yelich (115 OPS+) and Marcell Ozuna (110 OPS+) are real.

16-year-old Cole Custer wins Camping World Truck Series race

Cole Custer, 16, became the youngest driver to win a NASCAR touring series race Saturday at New Hampshire.

Cole Custer had his Sweet 16 and his coming-out party on the same afternoon.

On a restart with four laps left in Saturday’s UNOH 175 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Custer surged to the front past Matt Crafton, who spun his tires approaching the start/finish line.

Darrell Wallace Jr. drove hard to the inside entering Turn 1, passing Crafton for second and challenging Custer for the lead. But with four fresh tires to Wallace’s two, Custer prevailed in Turn 3 and pulled away to become the youngest winner in NASCAR national series history at 16 years, 7 months, 28 days.

As he climbed from his No. 00 Haas Automation Chevrolet, Custer confessed to a surreal feeling.

“I’ve been coming to these races since I was really young,” Custer said. “I’ve looked up to this series and everybody who races in this series, and I couldn’t even imagine racing here and even winning a race. I can’t even explain how amazing this is.”

Custer, the polesitter, got his first NCWTS win in his seventh start in the series. It was also the first victory of the season for Turner Scott Motorsports.

Even though Custer led 144 of the first 147 laps, a pit-road decision by crew chief Joe Shear Jr. complicated the equation-but ultimately proved decisive.

When Custer came to the pits from the lead under caution on Lap 147 of 175, Shear opted to change four tires. Erik Jones stayed out under the yellow-the second of the race-and five other drivers, including Crafton and Wallace, beat Custer out of the pits with two-tire calls, dropping Custer to seventh for a restart on Lap 153.

“I was really worried,” Custer confessed. “It was so hard to pass, even lappers.”

But a race that had gone 101 laps without a caution-a record to start a Truck Series race at New Hampshire-saw three yellows in the final 20 laps, allowing Custer to gain positions. By the final restart on lap 172, he had worked his way to second and took the green from the front row, to the inside of Crafton.

“I couldn’t believe we got through all of those guys,” Custer said. “The air affected it so much. We had some great restarts, which helped us a lot. … I can’t believe it’s happening right now.”

Crafton started the race from the rear of the field after failing to post a qualifying time because of an electrical problem in the No. 88 Toyota. Though the defending series champion charged through the field, finished third and extended his series lead to seven points over ThorSport Racing teammate Johnny Sauter, who ran fourth, the positives in the run were of little consolation to Crafton.

“Started at the back, drove to the front, got beat at the end,” was Crafton’s terse assessment of his performance. “I spun the tires and couldn’t get it in fourth gear, to be totally honest. Once I spun the tires, I was screwed right there.

“Then I couldn’t get it in gear, and everybody had a run on me. My bad.”