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Arsenal Season Review: We Never Left the Shoney’s!

AFC - FA CupI was all set to put this out before the FA Cup Final. Then the Final happened and I got caught with all the celebrating. So I figured I’d take a step back, finish other pieces, then come back and look at this with fresh eyes.  After all, the glow of another trophy can make the pain of the season feel smaller.  So, with several weeks of distance, how do we grade the 2016-17 season? Well, it was like being stuck in the Shoney’s of Rick Sanchez’s mind — we think we’re making progress towards our long-sought goal, only to find in the last moment that he tricked us and we never left the Shoney’s.

The sad fact is that it started out that way, got better then horribly worse and when it couldn’t get worse, it got better. But not better enough to save the season.

Perhaps it was only fitting that missing on a Top 4 finish came down to needing Liverpool to drop points as our campaign started with losing 4-3 to them in the opener.  A result of another summer of incomplete transfer business saw a crisis at CB and a starting central defensive pairing of Calum Chambers and Rob Holding which Liverpool’s zippy forwards challenged and harried all match long. Both young English defenders had better days as the season went along but their inexperience showed. That the 4th place trophy came down to these two teams should have been obvious that August day — for all their talents, both teams were woefully short in key areas, which would stop them short of truly challenging for the Premier League crown.

Interestingly, after that loss to Liverpool, Arsenal went on a 19-game unbeaten run across three competitions. And yes, I’ll grant you that included 5 draws against everyone from Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League to Tottenham, Manchester United and Middlesbrough in the Premier League. Plus, if we’re being honest, the performances against Spurs and United were not the most imperious. Some might even suggest that Arsenal escaped those matches with something for their troubles. And while such actions are often lauded in champions, when you combine it with the poor outings elsewhere, it dulls the shine of some of the other fixtures. (Remember needing a last minute goal to win against Burnley which had claims of being both a handball and offsides?)

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There were pockets of instability where a couple of bad results derailed good runs and forced the team to reset itself to find its way again. And then there was that horror run — from the 3-1 loss to Chelsea in the Premier League through the 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Crystal Palace — which featured such moments as being trounced 10-2 in aggregate by an average-for-them Bayern Munich in the Champions League and getting played off the park by West freakin’ Bromwich Albion.  Even the advance through a weak FA Cup campaign — thank you, football gods — couldn’t salve the wounds that Arsenal kept picking up as the year trundled on.

Now some would look at the table and say that Arsenal were right on course for finishing right where they normally do. After all, 75 points is a 4-point-improvement on last year’s 71 and that was good enough for 2nd place.  Except that this undercuts how the league fluctuates.  Five years ago, Arsenal finished 4th with a points total of 73; 5 points behind Manchester City in 2nd place — but 16 points behind champions Manchester United. This year, Arsenal finished 1 point behind 4th-placed Liverpool but 18 points behind Chelsea.  In fact, in the last 5 seasons, the closest Arsenal have been is the 2013-14 season when they finished 7 points behind Manchester City’s title-winning side — the same year they kept going away to big teams and getting beat big.

At least this year, the losses to the other big clubs weren’t by large margins. That said, it was still a negative 2-3-5 overall against Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United — with wins against Chelsea before they turned their season around and an United side that had both eyes fixed on the Europa League Final the only two triumphs. It hardly speaks of an ability to challenge for the top and that’s exactly what Arsenal did not do.

The larger point, however, is that Arsenal performed much in the same way they have the last few years. 73, 79, 75, 71 and 75 are not the digits to someone’s safe combination. They’re the point totals for the last 5 seasons for Arsenal in the Premier League.  And if you think that somehow this is something to dismiss, take a look at their records for those last five seasons:

Season Record Goals For Goals Against Goal Difference Total Points Final Position
2016-17     23-6-9 77 44 +33 75 5th
2015-16 20-11-7 65 36 +29 71 2nd
2014-15 22-9-7 71 36 +35 75 3rd
2013-14 24-7-7 68 41 +27 79 4th
2012-13 21-10-7 72 37 +35 73 4th

In effect, Arsenal have been living in a Groundhog Day situation. Why is that?

Of the squad that we have now, 13 players remain from 5 years ago. Among them are key contributors like Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Nacho Monreal, Olivier Giroud, Laurent Koscielny and Theo Walcott. And they scored — Giroud had 16 goals overall (12 in the league) while Walcott added 19 goals ( in the league) — or assisted — Ox providing 11 assists overall — or provided stability at the back — Koscielny starting 43 of our games while Monreal started 41 across all competitions. In truth though, this season has been defined by one man above all: Alexis Sanchez.

AFC - Alexis30 goals with 24 in the league. 15 assists. 46 games started. 100 fouls suffered. 61 fouls committed. In fact, the only statistical categories Alexis Sanchez didn’t lead Arsenal this season are in yellow cards (he comes in 3rd behind Mustafi and Xhaka) and red cards and substitute appearances.  For all our talented players and style of play, the way of Arsenal’s season rose and fell according to the ability of the Chilean to influence things. Starting the season as the de facto center forward allowed him to begin scoring goals for fun. He racked up 12 of his 24 league goals before the turn of the calendar. It’s a pace that would continue throughout the season, even as he was moved off the central striker role for Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck.

How crucial was Alexis this season? Only two other players hit double-digit goals — Giroud had 12 and Walcott had 10. No one else had more than his 10 assists — Ozil followed with 9 and Ox had 7. The dependence on Alexis combined with his dwindling contract has created the perfect storm for fans to freak out over.  Because at its heart, the thought of losing Alexis Sanchez sparks fears of a regression. Particularly when there’s issues elsewhere in the squad. For starters, Mesut Ozil.

I don’t want to pile on Mesut. I think he’s truly a world-class player. Like I said during the season, there’s no way managers from Joachim Low to Jose Mourinho to Arsene Wenger have all raved about him and he’s not the real deal. But a late start due to the Euros didn’t seem to be any issue as he started racking up the goals — against Watford and Chelsea in the Premier League before getting a hat trick in the Champions League as part of the 6-0 destruction of Ludogorets. While he wasn’t providing the assists as before, he seemed to have added a lethality to his attack that resulted in goals.

But his goalscoring dried up as the team began to spin downward — he found the back of the net only 3 more times after December 10th. He still grabbed 8 of his 9 assists after this but for a guy who had just nearly broken the league’s assist record the year prior with 19, to fall to half that mark is somewhat disappointing. Perhaps not surprisingly the furor over his contract situation is nowhere near Alexis’ but that should not deter the club from keeping him long-term. Specially as the new formation seems to have woken him up.

AFC - OzilThe switch to 3 at the back — into a 3-4-2-1 — was borne out of desperation, like so many other moves in years’ past. Following the collapse against Crystal Palace, the nadir of the season mentally and emotionally, something had to change. The switch to a back 3 asked for solidity in defense and sought to limit the issues on midfield and defense the team had been having. And it worked. Of the following 10 fixtures, the Gunners lost only once and conceded 7 goals in total.  (The loss was the North London Derby, mind you).

But what the move at the back did was acknowledge certain facts that were obvious for all to see. The team had a midfield of custard which opponents could harass into turning the ball over with ease. The loss once again of Santi Cazorla deprived the team of its only central midfielder capable of moving the ball from defense to attack. This meant that the balance in the engine of the team was wrong for a second consecutive season. Aaron Ramsey is not another Santi Cazorla. Neither was Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny nor Francis Coquelin. Maybe Jack Wilshere could have filled that role but he was at Bournemouth by his own choosing — a gambit to get the consistent game time that he felt was going to elude him at Emirates Stadium. Things got so bad that Alexis Sanchez was dropping back into midfield to pick up the ball to then try to create an attack; a sense of palpable frustration emanating from the Chilean.

With the 3-at-the-back and two wingbacks on either side, the central partnership of Ramsey and Xhaka seemed to turn into a more capable tandem. Though it took them a while, it seemed that they were asked to do more of what they are best at — Ramsey linked with Ozil and Alexis and had the opportunity for his signature lung-busting runs from midfield into the box while Xhaka patrolled the midfield and had the opportunity to shoot from range. (Hi Ander Herrera!) This also seemed to solve the issue of how to bring the ball forward as that fell to either Nacho or Ox/Hector on either wingback position before finding one of the four guys in the middle to start the attacking move.

AFC - 3-0The new formation also revealed the other major issue in the squad: center forward. In this formation, the ideal striker at the top would be someone like Danny Welbeck, with his pace, power and athleticism. Only problem is that Danny lacks the finishing of Olivier Giroud or Theo Walcott. Giroud, for all the criticism he gets, is a more capable striker — only he doesn’t have the pace to stretch defenses and open up space behind him for Alexis, Ozil and Ramsey to run into like Welbeck does. And as for Theo, well, 10 goals is nothing to sneeze at, but his time at CF was a disappointment and with the move to the new system, he found himself a square peg in a round hole.

He wasn’t alone. As players like Oxlade-Chamberlain, Xhaka and Holding shone in the new formation, we saw less and less of Theo, Elneny, Iwobi and Lucas Perez. Well, Iwobi seemed to have been taken off the line after hitting the same wall that all young, talented players hit at some point. And as for Lucas, I don’t think anyone has any clue what that man saw to have been dumped to the side so strongly by a side that had just spent 17 million pounds on him less than a year before. He’s already asked for his walking papers and it feels like a disappointment as we never knew if he could have added more — I mean, all he did was contribute whenever he was given the chance.

Not surprisingly, due to the issues throughout the season, Lucas’ absence was one of the many sticks with which the manager was beaten. The tactical frailties against Bayern Munich seemed to indicate the end was at hand. And when the team collapsed against the likes of West Brom and Crystal Palace, it was as if the “Wenger Out” meme was on the verge of becoming true. We know he’s taken a new two-year deal and all indications are things are good to continue as they have been — for his sake I do hope they do not. Another season like this one and the fighting that was seen in the stands and on the grounds outside and on Twitter won’t be as contained. Horrible as it is to consider, shit could get worse.

In order to prevent that, Arsenal need a great summer. Not a good summer or an above-average summer. They need a summer that’s exceptional and helps not just build positivity around the club but engenders good will from the quarters of supporters who spent the season angrily protesting. Maybe some are unreachable — so ensconced in their positions as to be unwilling to see anything else — but most are Gooners and want to see Arsenal succeed. Step one on that road has to be building a great squad. That starts with keeping Alexis and Ozil.

AFC - Scorpion KickIt is frightening that we sit less than a fortnight from the transfer window opening and there’s no word of new deals for either the Chilean or the German. OK, maybe Alexis is considering his alternatives, but why is there a hold-up on Ozil? The market for him isn’t as vociferous and there’s every reason to think he would want to stay at Arsenal. Likewise for Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey, whose contracts also expire a year from now. They are key starters and contributors to this team but their contract situation is as up in the air as the bigger named teammates. And I’m not including players like Welbeck, Gabriel, Nacho, Cech and Giroud, whose contracts expire in 2019.

Decisions also have to be made on David Ospina, Wojciech Szczesny, Jack Wilshere, Lucas Perez, Joel Campbell, Kieran Gibbs, Mathieu Debuchy, Carl Jenkinson and Theo Walcott. Some like Ospina, Perez, Jenkinson and Campbell appear set to depart for newer clubs in order to continue their careers. Others like Gibbs, Debuchy, Walcott and Wilshere may have plateau or not be willing to sit on the bench as World Cup squads are built ahead of Russia 2018.  In either case, the club will have to replace them in one way or another — whether that’s bringing youngsters like Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Ainsley Maitland-Niles into the first team for good or buying from the transfer market.

In that aspect, we’ve seen the first addition with former Schalke LB/LWB Sead Kolasinac. The expectation is that he and Nacho will split the left wingback spot as needed. Meanwhile, the transfer rumor mill is churning news that Arsene is set to break all sorts of records for players ranging from Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe to Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette to Kylian Mbappe of Monaco to Real Madrid’s Isco to wunderkind Mbappe from AS Monaco. (Noticing a theme?)

Arsenal Unveil New Signing Sead KolasinacUltimately, the goal has to be to have a better 2017/18 season than the one that ended with the FA Cup in May. Truth is that the FA Cup, a great trophy, isn’t enough to cover up all the ways this team and this club came apart this season. Fights in the stands. Recrimination online every which way. Tales of power struggles between the top figures. Key players unsure of whether or not the club is interested in retaining their services. Waiting till the last minute to plug holes in the team. This was a mess. A complete mess. We thought we were headed towards our goal of leaving the Shoney’s and getting that sweet, sweet Mulan Szechuan sauce. But we never left the Shoney’s.

Time to start making amends, Arsenal Football Club. Your supporters want sweet & sour Mulan Szechuan sauce!

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Ten Comic Book Adaptations I Want To See

ntg_r6_c06v02_170418_014ma_g_r709.519234.tifAfter watching Wonder Woman (Feel free to read that review here), I was talking with a friend who said that she was just tired of all the superhero movies. That took me by surprise a bit even though it probably should not have.  Superhero movies used to be an odd occurrence — a X-Men here, a Batman there, the odd Spider-Man now and again and the new Superman is here. You would even get some lesser-known property like Hellboy, Judge Dredd or The Mask occasionally popping up out of nowhere or non-superhero comic adaptations like Road to Perdition or A History of Violence.

But that is no longer the case. The top-rated show on TV is a comic book adaptation (The Walking Dead) and there’s other properties like The Flash, Supergirl, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on TV. Netflix has the Marvel Defenders properties like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Meanwhile the movie theaters are literally brimming with superhero films. Just this year we’ve had The LEGO Batman Movie, Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2 and Wonder Woman. We still have Spider-Man: Homecoming, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League to go this year. 2018 will bring another 9 including Black Panther, Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War.

OK, OK, so maybe — just maybe — we are reaching saturation point and audience fatigue has to be a concern. I mean, we are nowhere near the volume of cowboy movies or the Biblical/sword-and-sandals epics that used to permeate movie screens in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. But that doesn’t mean that superhero properties won’t reach a point where even the biggest fans won’t be bored by them — specially if all they’re getting is origin story after origin story.

So with that said, I was thinking of what would be some comic book properties that I’d love to see adapted — whether movie or TV screen — before this current wave dies off. Not Marvel or DC properties as I’m sure they’ll try to get stuff out before it is all over. So I went back and looked at stuff I liked from the other publishers that I hope get adapted. Just some ideas:

CBM - TurokTurok: Dinosaur Hunter. Though originally created in 1954, the version I’m most familiar with is the one that Valiant Comics released in the 1990s as it spawned an interesting series and one really awesome video game for the old N64. The story focuses on Turok and Andar, two young Native American hunters who fall into a cavern one day while out exploring and end up in the Lost Lands; a place out of time where all sorts of creatures reside. Everything from dinosaurs to robot warriors and alien creatures live there, trapped and unable to escape. Though eventually they would escape, the tale of two young men, desperate to find their way home and using everything possible to fight bionic dinosaurs would be awesome!

Harbinger. My second of three Valiant picks. Harbinger, at first, may look and sound like a X-Men clone. The story of teenagers waking up to super powers? A team of good guys versus a team of bad guys battling it out? The difference is in the details. Imagine if Professor X instead of being altruistic was more like Doctor Doom and you have the main antagonist, Toyo Harada.  He thinks the only way to ensure peace is if he’s in control of the world. And the only people standing in his way were a group of young, unsure outcasts, led by Pete Stanchek, who have power but no training and are on the run from him and his own minions. There are twists in the story that would make it a great TV show.

Shadowman. Last Valiant recommendation and I had to pick the one where the New Orleans musician becomes a crime fighter. (Of course I did). Jack Boniface is a jazz musician who, after a one night stand, finds himself with a strange mark and a desire to bring vengeance on evildoers. He becomes a figure who can traverse both the real world and the world of spirits — which eventually brings him into direct conflict with the powerful and dangerous Master Darque. While bringing in mysticism and voodoo practices might reek of cultural appropriation, I think it would give an opportunity for a different sort of crime fighter and a way to speak about other traditions, cultures and ideas in a far better light.

The Savage Dragon. Switching over to Image Comics, I cannot think of a superhero property that would be more bonkers than the Savage Dragon. A nigh-impervious, super-strong amnesiac is found in the remains of a burning building. With the rise of super-powered villains all over Chicago, he agrees to join the Chicago PD to help stop them. Thus starts the tale of the Dragon, the Vicious Circle, the Overlord and Officer Wilde among others. Combining hard action with some great comedy and the occasional “WTF is that?” insanity, Savage Dragon retained its following well into the new century. Not as serious as some other tales but not quite kiddie, Dragon would be like combining 80s-era Bruce Willis with Wolverine — and a giant freaking fin.

CBM - SagaSaga. This might be the toughest comic to adapt — or the second most. The short, short version is this: two warriors on opposing sides of an intergalactic war, Alana and Marko, fall in love, defect and have a daughter. Their defection forces their peoples to send all sorts of bounty hunters, warriors and killers after them. Their running through the galaxy with their newborn daughter, Hazel, puts them in constant danger. To say the comic is imaginative is an understatement. It combines sci-fi, magic, fantasy and adult themes and is compared as “Star Wars meets Game of Thrones.” But at its heart is not the winning over evil or battling foes. It’s a quest for peace and for love.

Supreme. Let me differentiate. In the 90s, Rob Liefeld created a superhero he dubbed Supreme and he was meant to be his gritty, bloody take on Superman.  Somewhere along the way, he convinced Alan Moore to take over the book and he agreed, on condition that he be able to change the story entirely. Liefeld consented and Moore’s Supreme — a take on the Silver Age Superman — was born. And this is the story I’d want to see. One of a man who discovers he’s the most powerful superhero ever and knows he’s a superhero because he was living in a story that is always changing. So he even gets a chance to meet other versions of himself who have been Supreme and whose stories are over. The meta-commentary alone is interesting here.

Rex Mundi. Explaining this comic might be tough but imagine an alternate world where magic is real, Europe never rose out of feudalism and is ruled by secret societies and the Catholic Church remained powerful in a political and military sense. In the middle of all of this, Dr. Julien Sauniere begins seeking for an ancient scroll; one which could potentially lead him to the Holy Grail. To say this book is out there is saying something. But the ability to combine a mystery quest, alternative history and magic would make for an intriguing tale. Rumors of a movie have swirled for a decade but, so far, not a peep.

Madman. There’s something that’s both comforting about Mike Allred’s classic series about Frank Einstein, a man brought back from the dead by two scientists who fights the good fight despite being an amnesiac with blue skin and horrible wounds. In many ways, this story is what would happen if Frankenstein’s Monster (notice the name) had not been rejected by society, but instead allowed to find his place. It’s at times silly, at times exciting and fun, but it is so unique that it really deserves to be seen by audiences. This is another that’s been in development hell for ages.

Grendel. I’ll admit: this is one of those titles that always sort of scared me when I was young. The art of it was never easy and it always seemed to speak of dangerous things. In essence, Grendel is a secret identity that people take from time to time to overcome obstacles or battle enemies. The catch is that to become Grendel is to become more and more aggressive until it all ends in tragedy. This could be another project that could reflect on the nature of heroes and warriors and what it’s like to turn to violence to resolve problems. Did I mention Grendel might also be an evil entity?

CBM - Sandman.jpgSandman. I’ll correct myself here: THIS might be the toughest story to adapt. Death. Destiny. Desire. Despair. Delirium. Destruction. Dream. The Seven Endless. But of them, it is Dream AKA Sandman who regales us with tales and stories, even as he lives his own immortal one. To say it is heady is an understatement. Neil Gaiman’s magnus opus is dense and refuses to be adapted into an easy tale. Part of me wishes it just become a series on prestige TV budget but to adapt it would be intense. It’s not a straightforward story (dreams never are) and it weaves and wanes and takes side trips all the time. Still, this is the project I’d love most to see. It’s funny, sad, poignant, maddening, frightening and, in the end, damn near perfect.

So that’s my list. Any you’d love to see before we grow tired of comic books and move onto board games or video games to adapt?

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“Wonder Woman” Review: Finally DC Gets It Right!

wonder-woman-theatrical-posterDC has had a far rockier road to bringing its universe of heroes and villains to the silver screen in this modern “Golden Age of Superhero/Comic-Book Movies”.  Sure, they had The Dark Knight trilogy, which raked billions of dollars. But their Superman Returns reboot did not attract any new fans and, when they rebooted it again in Man of Steel, encountered a whole new set of issues. I’m on record as being a fan of Man of Steel, but not as much of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. As for Suicide Squad, let’s just say that it’s a nice series of short films that don’t quite come into a cohesive and solid whole. Not a surprise for the new DC Extended Universe/DCEU.

One of the best parts of Batman v Superman, however, was Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Though her turn could have been called a glorified cameo, she was one of the luminaries in that bloated mess, delivering a performance that was fun and exciting.  It raised my interest in the Wonder Woman movie that was in the works even if the subsequent Suicide Squad left a sour taste. Though word of work under director Patty Jenkins (Monster) appeared to indicate a difficult production, I was still hopeful. Did it live up to my hopes?

Wonder Woman introduces us to all the elements that make up Diana’s back story before she is ever called by that title. Her life being raised as one of the Amazons under the guidance of her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and training by her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright) is one of peace and quiet. But Diana is interested in a greater calling — one towards destiny and combat.  Her desire for adventure is eventually answered when a plane carrying Cpt. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American pilot seconded to British intelligence, crashes through the fog hiding the island of Themyscira from the larger world. For it is 1918 and the Great War has been ravaging humanity for four long years. Diana sees the hand of Ares, god of War, in this great conflict and chooses to leave her home in order to bring his work to an end. But the world beyond her shores is a strange one and not one ready for her as a warrior or as a woman.

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As I said above, Gadot is a bright light in the DCEU. She continues to embody all the various sides of Diana, Princess of Themyscira.  In here she goes from a young woman who believes in the stories her mother has shared and seeks to become the best warrior possible. She’s trying to make both Hippolyta and Antiope proud. That they could have different goals for her never occurs to Diana. This youthful naiveté shifts as she enters London and the world of men with Steve and Gadot is able to show both her wonderment and disagreement with it. That this is also leads to some comedic moments is to the movie’s benefit, even as it never forgets that the sexism Diana is encountering is wrong.

But it is when they finally reach the front lines of World War I that Diana becomes Wonder Woman and Gadot is able to bring the heroic side of her to the front. Gadot displays a Diana that is resourceful, courageous and capable. She welcomes all and accepts them as they are in her quest to find and overcome Ares’ effect on the world split by the war. If the first half is marked by Diana’s youthfulness, then the second half is all about her displaying her prowess as she heads into an inevitable battle against the god of war. Her birth as a hero.

At her side is Pine’s Steve Trevor — a spy looking to do the right thing to prevent more death. In shifting his story from World War II or even the Cold War to World War I, they put Steve right in the front lines of some of mankind’s worst atrocities. Gas attacks that would kill villages indiscriminately and weapons that would destroy men in many different ways. His personal mission — to find a way to keep the newest weapons being developed by Dr. Maru (Elena Araya) for Gen. Ludendorff (Danny Huston) — races against the clock of the armistice.  In the middle of his quest, he lands square into Diana’s lap and becomes as much her guide into the world of men as she forces him to become as heroic as she is.  Pine is a great part of the movie and his rapport and chemistry with Gadot are both fun and heartwarming in a way that was different from Gadot’s with Ben Affleck’s in last year’s Batman vs Superman.

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The rest of the cast performs rather admirably. This includes the various Amazons supporting Antiope and Hippolyta — Ann Ogbomo, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Florence Kasumba — who help in building a Themyscira that is both idyllic and astonishing. Nielsen and Wright are their normal great selves and it’s interesting to juxtapose their roles as mentors and parents of Diana — a mother who years to protect her daughter and an aunt who seeks to get her ready for the future. 

It also includes David Thewlis’ Sir Patrick and Lucy Davis’ Etta Candy, who dispatch and support the mission Diana and Steve are involved. Davis provides a solid bit of comedy relief as she tries to help Steve shape Diana to fit in 1918 London while Thewlis forms the backbone of the mission. But the biggest supporters are Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremmer) and The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock), the three warriors/spies/infiltrators who go along for Diana’s journey into Belgium. In each of them there is a piece of the same struggles and prejudices that Diana is encountering on her journey. Though men, they are looked down upon and thought of as incapable of doing more.

Working on a story by Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs, director Patty Jenkins breathes a sense of life into Wonder Woman that has been sorely lacking in the DCEU. She directs the story with a deft touch in what is, in essence, another superhero origin movie. The story glides from Themyscira to London to Belgium that sometimes it is easy to forget that it takes only a matter of days once we see grown-up Diana. She also does amazing work in the action sequences — taking the slow-mo approach set by Zack Snyder in key moments only but letting them move and breathe so that we can appreciate the action. Unlike some other superhero movies, she keeps her camera always on the point of action: Diana. Some other directors should take note or two from her.

WW - Diana and Team

She’s helped in this by cinematographer Matthew Jensen who assists her in turning Themyscira into a paradise of eternal sunshine and colors. Notice how, the moment after Diana leaves it, the rest of the world is muted and gray. Editor Martin Walsh assists in crafting those action pieces and giving Diana both the hero moments of action and the pensive moments of reflection. And composer Rupert Gregson-Williams does a terrific job of taking Hans Zimmer’s & Junkie XL’s epic theme for Wonder Woman and crafting a greater score around it. Jenkins does a great job of holding that epic electric cello beat from us until Diana is ready to become Wonder Woman — and when she does, it’s awesome.

Here’s where I get to rave about what Jenkins did with Diana and her tale. Like I said above, it would be easy to dismiss it as an origin story because it is. And usually with origin stories, the question at the heart of the story is whether or not the protagonist will rise to the role of hero. This has been doubly-enforced in the DCEU thanks to the work of Snyder, Goyer and Nolan. After all, they crafted a Superman full of doubt and insecurities about his powers and his place in the world. Meanwhile their Batman is a man who cannot trust and who is full of fear and anger.  The easy juxtaposition is that Diana is none of these things. Diana is certain of who she is and what she is called to do. Diana does not doubt herself or the presence of evil that must be met in battle to be vanquished.

Intriguingly, the movie puts the doubts into everyone around her. Her mother doubts out of love — she knows that to train Diana is to eventually lose her. Steve doubts her because, despite all he’s seen, he cannot bring himself to believe it’s all down to an one-on-one fight between good and evil. The men in command of the Allied forces doubt because of her gender.  Her friends doubt because they have been told time and again that it is not the way of the world. These are the obstacles that Diana must overcome — external rather than internal.WW - Luddendorff & Maru.jpg

That doesn’t mean, however, that Diana does not grow during her journey. On the contrary, going from the beauty and peace of Themyscira to the trenches of World War I forces her to come face to face with the worst elements of mankind. Encountering the gas attacks, the desperation of people displaced by war and the resigned demeanor of everyone fighting to the suffering and pain around them challenge her beliefs deeply. Because ultimately Diana’s quest is one of embracing her role as a hero of people who may not be worthy of her sacrifice. Diana is not doubting her place in the world but rather that of the world around her.

Let me go and quote Patty Jenkins herself from an interview she did with Screen Rant. Because this take on heroism was crafted by design. She said:

 

“I’m such a believer in the genre because I’m a believer in mankind turning stories into about what it means to be a hero and what would I do if I was a hero and how would that feel. And so, you know, there is always that opportunity in any movie with a metaphor to use to make something beautiful that really touches people. And this is such an important time in the world for people to think about what kind of hero they would want to be and what we’re going to do to save this world that I was honored to get to join in the dialogue.”

You can read the interview here. It’s not long.

I think this idea, of heroes being heroic because it is the right thing to do, has gotten away from DC. Granted, this is as much a reflection of how attitudes and eras have shifted — away from heroic do-gooders to troubled warriors. However, unlike Marvel, DC has the gold standard of true blue superheroes with Superman and Wonder Woman. It’s nice that they hired someone who got that right out of the gate in Patty Jenkins for Diana’s story.

WW - No Man's Land

Wonder Woman is a great time. On that alone, it deserves all the plaudits it is getting. That it’s also the welcomed reprieve from the avalanche of mediocrity that DC had been pushing out should not go unrecognized. It is fun and exciting and acts as a much better launching off point for Justice League than anyone realizes. Jenkins and Gadot have crafted one of the better superhero movies of the last decade. Where they go from here is anyone’s guess. Diana has risen to the role of hero. But when does she take on the title of Wonder Woman? Guess we will find out soon enough.

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Postmortem on the 2016-17 Premier League Season

Once again, it ends. Once again, footie leaves us just as things were getting good.  Whether your team ended up hoisting a title, winning a cup, surviving relegation or just beating that rival of old, the roller coaster ride that is the Premier League is over and we head into the summer with visions of rest and relaxation in our heads.  I needs me a break after that insanity! So with that said, let’s look back at my predictions from last August, assess what happened and give a verdict to every team before suggesting what they need to look at in this summer’s transfer window.

PLP - ArsenalArsenal. Prediction: Title Contenders. Final Standing: 5th; FA Cup Winners. There’s going to be a chance to speak in greater detail about Arsenal for me. Suffice it to say that the FA Cup salves some but not all the wounds the Gunners caused this season.  For a side that was in the race up until mid-January, their February-April collapse was something epic. Losing to Chelsea and Liverpool are one thing, but the capitulations against West Brom and Crystal Palace will not leave the memory for a while. That they were even within sight of the top four speaks more to the flaws in other sides than the Gunners’ ability to right the ship. Even the bright spots, like the dominance of Alexis Sanchez or the rise of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, came with caveats: specifically, their contract situations. But no contract issue loomed as large as Arsene Wenger’s and, with summer finally here, there’s no putting it off. Europa League awaits next season.
Verdict: A disappointing mess which got slightly better with another FA Cup triumph.
Transfer Suggestion: Can they finally find the striker that will score the goals to take Arsenal to the top?

AFC Bournemouth. Prediction: Relegation Fighters. Final Standing: 9th. They didn’t record their first victory until Matchday 4. And they spent much of the season trading wins and losses — their epic 4-3 comeback against Liverpool followed by a 3-2 loss to Burnley. But then they turned it on in March and lost only twice — to Chelsea and Tottenham — while recording 5 crucial wins down the final stretch. Led by Joshua King’s 16 goals, the Cherries managed to record 31 of their 46 points at home and ended up in a more comfortable position this year than they did last year.  Just as importantly, they got 6 key draws away from the Dean Court.  In the end, they benefited from a tight relegation fight down below them, but that should not fool them into thinking things could not be switched around next year.
Verdict: An improvement on last season.
Transfer Suggestion: Rumors abound of Jermain Defoe’s upcoming arrival. He’d be a solid addition.

Burnley. Prediction: Relegation Fighters. Final Standing: 16th. Well, the defense gave up more goals than last year’s 35 in the Championship. Not surprising as the Clarets were second in the league in saves — 151 total — meaning teams were getting chances against them. And Vokes and Gray led the team with 19 goals combined. But life in the Premier League proved as arduous as everyone expected for the Clarets and Sean Dyche had to get his team to scrap for every one of the 40 points that saw them keep their top flight status. Turf Moor at least provided 10 of their 11 wins. Good thing too as they were abysmal away — recording only 1 win and 4 draws against 14 defeats. They will now try to fight to keep players like Michael Keane from departing Turf Moor.
Verdict: A poor away season that nearly took them down.
Transfer Suggestion: Someone who can help create more goals.

PLP - Chelsea

Chelsea. Prediction: Top Four Contenders. Final Standing: 1st (CHAMPIONS); FA Cup Finalist.  24 September 2016. Arsenal 3 – Chelsea 0. People remember that match because it was the last match before new boss Antonio Conte would switch his side to a 3-4-3 system that he was more comfortable with.  They went on a 13-wins run after that saw them vault to the head of the pack — a position they never relinquished. Spurred on by Diego Costa’s 20 goals and 7 assists, Eden Hazard’s 16 goals, Pedro’s 9 goals and 9 assists and Cesc Fabregas’ 12 assists, the Blues had the second-best scoring attack this season (85 goals).  They also had the second-best defense in the league (33 goals conceded). All of which helped the Blues run away with the Premier League; winning the most matches of any club this season with 30.  Conte opted to play his way and no one could hang with them.
Verdict: A return to form sees the Blues return the title to Stamford Bridge.
Transfer Suggestion: Hang onto Hazard when Real come for him.

Crystal Palace. Prediction: Midtable Comfort. Final Standing: 14th. They may have saved themselves, but for a while the Super Eagles were staring relegation in the face. With only 4 wins to his name by the time he got fired, Alan Pardew’s side hung barely above the drop zone. In came, Sam Allardyce and he helped steady the ship racking up key wins down the stretch — including at Liverpool and against Arsenal. Led by Christian Benteke’s 15 goals and Wilfied Zaha’s 7 goals and 9 assists, Big Sam got enough points to ensure Palace survived for another year in the top flight. They still finished tied for 3rd with the most losses in the league this season (21). With his departure, the Eagles enter a period of uncertainty as they need a new boss to take this team and ensure they don’t slip into another relegation battle again.
Verdict: A scary ride that nearly took them down.
Transfer Suggestion: More defensive help to help cut down on 63 goals.

Everton. Prediction: Midtable Comfort. Final Standing: 7th.  For a while there, the Toffees looked like they were going to compete with the other big boys for the top four spots. They were taking points off Tottenham and beating Arsenal and Man Utd convincingly. Romelu Lukaku was chasing Harry Kane for the Golden Boot. Ross Barkley looked like the next great English midfielder. So how come they ended up comfortably in 7th and not higher? Their away record was poor. 4 wins versus 6 draws and 9 defeats (Compare that to their 13-4-2 record at Goodison Park). The loss of Seamus Coleman hurt deeply. The season sputtered to its end — Everton won only 3 of their matches in April and May — and rumors of feuding between Barkley and boss Ronald Koeman over Barkley’s unwillingness to sign a new deal will not augur well for the summer.
Verdict: Right where expected even if the chance for more was there.
Transfer Suggestion: Keep Lukaku and Barkley. It all starts there.

Hull City. Prediction: Relegation Fighters. Final Standing: 18th (RELEGATED). Things started bad when Steve Bruce walked off the job a month before the season started. Mike Phelan got the job, first as interim, then as permanent manager when no one else took it. And for the first two weeks, it looked as if things would turn out OK when they beat Leicester and Swansea. Things turned sour quickly though and Phelan managed only one more win until he was replaced by Marco Silva.  Though the Portuguese manager won his first four games across three competitions, the task of keepin the Tigers up proved too much. Conceding a league-worst 80 goals hurt deeply. Having no one score more than 4 goals for the entire campaign — Abel Hernandez and Oumar Niasse — hurt. Silva leaves for Watford now and Hull City have to reassess for life in the Championship once again.
Verdict: A disaster from start to finish.
Transfer Suggestion: Anyone who can help cut on 80 goals conceded.

PLP - LeicesterLeicester City. Prediction: Top Four Contenders. Final Standing: 12th. A comedown was to be expected but I don’t think anyone suspected the hangover from winning the Premier League would be this bad. The defense that surrendered 36 goals in 2015-16 gave up 63 this time around. The team that lost only 3 times — and only once at home — in 2015-16 lost 18 games overall in this season, including 5 times at home. Jaime Vardy managed only 13 goals while Riyad Mahrez slipped to only 6 goals and 3 assists, when the year prior Vardy had 24 goals and Mahrez had 17 goals and 11 assists. New players like Islam Slimani and Ahmed Musa struggled and no one was able to fill the N’Golo Kante’ shaped hole in midfield. The rumors of player unrest against Claudio Ranieri eventually cost the Italian manager his job and how they picked 5 wins in a row after his firing cast more aspersions on the team. Despite a good run in the Champions League, the Foxes did not make anyone think that 2015-16 was anything but a miracle.
Verdict: The dream ended and everyone woke up.
Transfer Suggestion: Unless they can buy Kante’ back, how about someone like him?

Liverpool. Prediction: Top Four Contenders. Final Standing: 4th. Freed from any European obligations, the Reds had one goal: challenge for the top. At times, they even looked the part — beating Arsenal twice, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham this year. In fact, they didn’t lose to any of the top 7 around them, winning or drawing all of those 12 matches. Led by Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho, who put in 13, 13 and 11 goals respectively and Georginio Wijnaldum’s 9 assists, Jurgen Klopp’s men looked capable of beating anyone at any time. They created the second-most shots this season (640) and were the second-most passing team in the league. So why did they barely scrape into that 4th place? Losses to Burnley, Bournemouth, Hull City, Leicester and Crystal Palace among a series of dropped points to the also-rans in the league. Liverpool were careless against teams they should have beaten and it nearly cost them. A more surgical mindset is necessary for next season.
Verdict: Job done but barely.
Transfer Suggestion: Some more defensive steel to go with their attacking nous.

Manchester City. Prediction: Title Contenders. Final Standing: 3rd. The Arrival of Pep didn’t really provide the sizzle that people expected at the Etihad. Sure, there were stories a plenty — shipping out Joe Hart and starting Claudio “What is he doing??” Bravo for one. But not everything came together as expected. Sergio Aguero knocked in 20 goals and Kevin De Bruyne provided a league-leading 18 assists. However, injury kept Leroy Sane’ and Ilkay Gundogan from contributing more. And with a defense that kept being shifted, things never seemed to click. Somehow the Citizens managed to come second in the league in home draws — everyone from Everton and Southampton to Boro and Stoke left Etihad with something.  They were a great team in moving the ball around and creating chances — leading the league in passes and hitting the woodwork 20 times. But they will need to bury more of those chances in order to turn draws into wins.  Pep is expected to have City where winning trophies. The outlay in cash and reputation means the pressure will be on the Spaniard next year.
Verdict: A solid first season
Transfer Verdict: Defenders. World-class defenders.

PLP - EFLManchester United. Prediction: Title Contenders. Final Standing: 6th; Europa League Winners, EFL Cup Winners. Any talk of United’s season must start with the number 15. That’s the number of draws they picked up this year. It’s 2 off the mark set by Newcastle and Aston Villa twice. It’s why, despite not losing a match for months of the season, United could barely get out of that 6th place spot. They did tie Sheffield Wednesday and Leicester City’s mark of 10 for most home draws in a season — winning only 8 matches at the “Theater of Dreams.” It will go unrecognized, but United did manage to have the second best defense in the league, conceding only 29 goals. Much of their problem came when Zlatan Ibrahimovic went down in April. Without him, the rest of the team had trouble scoring — he still led them with 17 goals. They didn’t score away from home against their top rivals and somehow managed to score less than Everton’s 61 goals or AFC Bournemouth’s 55 goals (United had 54). Winning Europa League got them back into the Champions League, but another summer spending spree will be necessary to avoid getting dumped out. Injuries hurt but poor performances won’t be tolerated again.
Verdict: A season that never seemed to get right still ended well.
Transfer Verdict: Find the top striker available out there and sign him. Money is no object.

Middlesbrough. Prediction: Relegation Fighters. Final Standing: 19th (RELEGATED). Let’s start with the bright side of things for Boro: They had a decent defense. Their 53 goals allowed was better than 8 of the teams that survived this season in the top flight. It’s a way better mark than their fellow-relegated teams. They even led the league in tackles (727). So how could they drop when others let anywhere from 10 to 17 goals more? That’s the bad side: their league-worst 27 goals scored. A third of them came from Alvaro Negredo but no one got anywhere near that much. And without a win in 2017, Aitor Karanka was shown the door. Boro won only 1 match afterwards while getting beaten handily by the likes of Man Utd, Hull, Bournemouth, Chelsea and Liverpool, ensuring their Premier League stay was a short one. If only they could have turned some of their 13 draws into wins, they might still be the in the Premier League. Instead, it’s back to the Championship to build a new challenger.
Verdict: A tame attack doomed them.
Transfer Verdict: Build a team that can break down better defenses.

Southampton. Prediction: Midtable Comfort. Final Standing: 8th, EFL Cup Finalist. At first glance, it feels as if the Saints managed the same kind of season they normally have. They beat teams that were lower down the table and were beaten by teams above them. They advanced in the League Cup to the final but lost to a better team. Look closer and you might see some of the threads fraying at the edges. In years’ past, St Mary’s Stadium could be counted as a place of terror for visitors and a strength for the Saints. This season? 6-6-7. Their 41 goals scored was their lowest tally since they returned to the Premier League in 2012. Losing to Hull, Palace, West Brom, Burnley, West Ham and Stoke was not indicative of progress under Claude Puel. And as summer starts, stories begin of another raid on the south coast as Virgil van Dijk is sought by teams like Manchester United. How long can it hold?
Verdict: A slip in form that will worry supporters.
Transfer Suggestion: If they cannot keep van Dijk or Rodriguez, buy. Buy as much talent as you can.

Stoke City. Prediction: Midtable Comfort. Final Standing: 13th. Once upon a time, the Potters were known for their tough defense and tenacious playing style. This year they allowed Man City, Tottenham twice, Crystal Palace, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal each to score 4 goals in a game. That’s 28 out of their 56 goals conceded. Meanwhile, the former attacking luminaries were nowhere near their best this year, as Peter Crouch led them with 7 goals with Joe Allen scoring 6 and Marko Arnautovic had 6 goals and 5 assists. Despite all this, keeper Lee Grant was a top 10 keeper in saves (90) and clean sheets (9). Maybe Mark Hughes needs one more summer to finish transforming the Potters but another season like this and they might not give him the chance. They’re riding their luck that teams will be worse below them.
Verdict: Caught in between not being good enough in attack or defense.
Transfer Suggestion: Someone who can help create goals.

PLP - Sunderland relegatedSunderland. Prediction: Relegation Fighters. Final Standing: 20th (RELEGATED). It finally happened. After years of flirting with relegation only to find a way to pull themselves out of the fire, the Black Cats finally fell through the trap door. Not recording their first win until November hurt. They had the worst away record — only 1 win and 15 draws — and the second-worst home record of the season. Just about everyone beat the Black Cats this season. They were so bad that they were relegated with four matches to go.  Jermain Defoe tried to keep them up, but his 15 goals (out of 29 total for the team) were not enough — the next higher scorer was Victor Anichebe with 3 goals. Good thing they had young Jordan Pickford making saves for them. Sunderland led the league with 176 saves made — a mark that highlights how good Pickford was and how bad his defense hung him. Their profligacy forced David Moyes to resign in ignominy as Sunderland begins to pick up the pieces and tries to build for life in the Championship — without Defoe.
Verdict: It felt like it has been coming but it still stings to see them go.
Transfer Verdict: Someone who can take over for Defoe in the scoring department.

Swansea City. Prediction: Midtable Comfort. Position: 15th. It was touch and go there for the Swans there for a while. With just 3 wins in the 2016 half of the season, they were staring at relegation. The replacing of Francesco Guidolin with Bob Bradley had not produced the hoped-for response. In came Paul Clement and he got three times as many wins out of the remaining 19 matches, beating the likes of Liverpool and Everton to claw out of the relegation battle. No team stayed up in the Premier League and gave up more goals — 70 in total. Led by Fernando Llorente’s 15 goals and Gylfi Sigurdsson’s 9 goals and 13 assists, the Swans were able to battle and regain some semblance of their old form, even if they did manage to lose to the likes of Hull and Bournemouth and West Ham.  Finishing tied for third-most losses this year with Palace at 21 is not a good mark.  Now they gotta find a way to keep Sigurdsson and build around him.
Verdict: A scary first half that was saved by a scrappy second.
Transfer Suggestion: More defensive help to cut on those 70 goals conceded.

PLP - Kane BootTottenham Hotspur. Prediction: Title Contenders. Final Standing: 2nd. The top scoring attack (86 goals). The best defense in the league (26 conceded). The Golden Boot winner (Harry Kane with 29 goals). The second-best assist maker (Christian Eriksen with 15). The second-best keeper in the league (Hugo Lloris with 15 clean sheets). The best home record in the League (17 wins, 2 draws, 0 losses). The fewest losses in the league (only 4). How did they not win the league? For one, two of those 4 losses were to Chelsea, the eventual champs. For two, the eight draws they picked up — ranging from Everton and Man City to Sunderland — took vital points away. Basically, the title was decided from October 15 through November 6, when Spurs picked up 4 draws in a row to West Brom, Bournemouth, Leicester and Arsenal. Not winning the title shouldn’t deter Tottenham from what’s been their best season in the Premier League ever.
Verdict: Their best accomplishments nearly had them celebrating in May.
Transfer Suggestion: Keep the party together. Kane, Erikssen, Lloris and Alli will all be targets of others.

Watford. Prediction: Relegation Fighters. Final Standing: 17th. Somehow Walter Mazzarri kept his job until the end of the season. Was it because they beat the likes of Man Utd, Leicester, Everton and Arsenal? They closed the season out on a six-game losing streak and led the league with 84 yellow cards and tied for top with 5 red cards and 5 own goals — stats you do not want to lead the league. Their form away from Vicarage Road was poor — 13 losses vs 3 wins. And this doesn’t even take into account that former striker Odion Ighalo was on a poor run of form — 1 league goal — before he was sold to a Chinese club. If it wasn’t for Troy Deeney and Etienne Capoue, the Hornets could have easily found themselves in the Championship next season. Former Hull boss Marco Silva takes over for Mazzarri and it’s going to be up to him to build discipline and cohesion into this team. Or another relegation fight might beckon.
Verdict: Escape artists this year.
Transfer Suggestion: Another scorer who can help them improve on that -28 goal differential.

West Bromwich Albion. Prediction: Midtable Comfort. Final Standing: 10th. The Baggies continued to follow the teachings of boss Tony Pulis — tough at home and desperate on the road. Winning 9 of their 12 at The Hawthorns but only 3 at other stadiums around the UK. Their road woes started against Crystal Palace and saw them drop points against Bournemouth, Sunderland, Hull, Everton, Watford and Swansea. At least they had a great win against Arsenal and had some scrappy draws against Man Utd and Tottenham. They weren’t the most attacking team, nabbing only 43 goals — 8 of which came from Salomon Rondon — but Ben Foster and his defense kept them in matches. Along the way they managed to scoop up 80 yellow cards, second most this season. There’s a fine line between surviving and thriving in the Premier League. If teams around them get better, West Brom may find themselves fighting for their lives.
Verdict: Job done but should not rest on their laurels.
Transfer Suggestion: A goal creator would be nice — someone who can manage more than 5 assists a season.

PLP - WHUWest Ham United. Prediction: Top Four Contenders. Final Standing: 11th. What happened, Hammers? Moving into the Olympic Stadium, splashing some cash and keeping Payet were all seen as signs that West Ham was ready to challenge for the top. Instead, the Hammers spent the year oscillating between poor and capable. On one hand, they gave 4 goals to Watford and West Brom. On the other, they were beating Southampton and Tottenahm. In fact, those were their only two victories against the top 8 — they also picked up draws against Man Utd, Liverpool and Everton. The Olympic Stadium was no Boleyn Ground — dropping 8 matches and conceding 31 goals there. Things were even worse on the road. And the situation with Payet devolved until the talisman was sold to Marseille.  Luckily for them, new boy Manuel Lanzini stepped up to score 8 goals while Michail Antonio led them with 9.  Manager Slaven Bilic seems to be safe for the moment but don’t think his leash is long.
Verdict: A disappointing tumble back down the table.
Transfer Suggestion: A forward that can score more than 7 goals a season
.

Let me end with a few awards and my Team of the Season (3-4-3):

Player of the Year: N’Golo Kante’, Chelsea
Manager of the Year: Mauricio Pocchetino, Tottenham
Goal of the Year: Olivier Giroud’s scorpion kick
Flop of the Year: Odion Ighalo, Watford/Dimitri Payet, West Ham
Buy of the Year: Sadio Mane’, Liverpool

Team of the Year
GK: David De Gea, Manchester United
D: Cesar Azpilicueta, Chelsea; Toby Alderweireld, Tottenham; Gary Cahill, Chelsea;
M: Kevin DeBruyne, Manchester City; Christian Eriksen, Tottenham; N’Golo Kante’, Chelsea, Eden Hazard, Chelsea
F: Romelu Lukaku, Everton; Harry Kane, Tottenham; Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal

Substitutes: Thibaut Courtois, Chelsea; Kyle Walker, Tottenham; Virgil van Dijk, Southampton; Dele Alli, Tottenham; Gylfi Sigurdsson, Swansea; Sergio Aguero, Manchester City; Diego Costa, Chelsea

So with that all said, let the summer silly season commence. We all need a break, right? There will be a Confederations Cup in Russia in June-July. A CONCACAF Gold Cup in July also. And of course, all the transfer drama that supporters crave and dread. That said, at least 

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On Arsene Wenger’s New Deal

AW - PressI am busy at work in both the Premier League Postmortem and the Arsenal Season Review. So don’t fret. Those are coming.  However, I did not want to let this opportunity pass by given the news of today.  Specially since I get to say…I was wrong.

Last September, I said that I felt this would be his last season. That, by the time Arsenal took on Everton in the league closer, we would know that he was departing at long last from the Arsenal touchline.  I even said that this would be done in order to engender a sense of unity and reflection that would allow for Arsenal supporters everywhere to give their greatest living manager the send off he so richly deserves.

Boy, did I get all of that wrong. I mean, you rarely expect to get it all wrong, but this was spectacularly off the mark!

Despite the protests, the chants and songs, the planes that flew overhead, the “will he?/won’t he?” back and forth with the media and everything else that happened this past season — you know the stuff out on the pitch — the die appears to have been cast. And Arsene Wenger is set to extend his run as Arsenal manager for another two years. Following his third FA Cup triumph in the last four years and a private meeting with majority shareholder/de-facto-owner Stan Kroenke, things appear all set for the man who has overseen Arsenal for the past 20 years to remain at his post.  

The reactions to it have been the expected: elation from some quarters, rage from others and resignation from the rest.  Fact is that, even as the season teetered and toppled into ignominy and misery, there was always a feeling that Arsene Wenger would not walk away from the club that has defined him as a manager and leave it in such shambles. The weary figure he cut against the touchline and the frustration shown at reporters asking time and again about his future may all have been true reflections of the emotional toil of the moment. Still, he has admitted in the past he would have continued managing even if it was not at Arsenal.

That is a key point I don’t think I or many take into account: Arsene lives and breathes and eats and thinks about football all the time. He doesn’t have a horse racing team or a vineyard to pull him away. There’s no large family with kids and grandkids — that we know of — which requires his time and attention. He is not quite a monk, but quite devoted to his life as a football manager, coach and pundit — when he’s not managing or coaching, he’s on French TV, providing analysis and punditry.  AW - Loss

Does that sound like a man who’d give it all up? Like he’d walk away from the biggest job of his career?

Consider also the landscape of the Premier League and how it has shifted since he took over in 1996. Back then it was Manchester United as the top side. His Arsenal teams quickly rose up to be their main rivals through the turn of the century. Then he saw the rise of Chelsea and Liverpool to form the old “Big Four” — just as Arsenal were moving from Highbury to Emirates Stadium. As his Invincibles side was stripped and he shifted towards putting the team in the hands of younger players like Fabregas, Adebayor and Van Persie, Manchester City was bought and rose up. They competed, challenged, but kept coming up short; only for his best assets to get pipped by clubs like Chelsea, City and Barcelona. He kept adding pieces year after year — Vermaelen, Koscielny, Ramsey — all at a bargain. Then the explosion in 2012: Ozil. Sanchez. Cech. The bad days were over. Arsenal was ready to rise once again.

Only…well…it hasn’t.

Look, how we split the responsibility pie chart for the repeated failures of Arsenal to contend in the Premier League or their yearly Round of 16 Champions League crashes is entirely subjective. Suffice it to say that every element — board, manager, players — share in that responsibility; even if, at times, it has felt like the bulk of the blame has gone right on the shoulders of the veteran manager.  Granted, he often makes a rod for his own back in his answers to the media or lack of answers.

To me, and this is just my opinion, I’m fine with him extending his stay a further two years provided the club are also working on how things will shape up after he is gone. Arsene is a 67-year-old lifer — so he’ll be 69 when he reaches the end of this deal. Even if he’s managed to climb back atop the Premier League and wrested the crown from the Chelseas and Citys or finally obtained the coveted European trophy he’s missing from his CV, the fact remains that we are closer to his departure than ever before.

Truth is that we have other issues within the club that must be looked upon.  Where is our Chief Executive, Ivan Gazidis? The man is eager to show up when speaking about a new deal with some big business, but when the season is going to crap, he’s mute. Would he have picked the new manager? Why does it take forever and a day to complete transfers for new players? How in the blue hell were the contracts of so many key first team players allowed to get to within 12 months of their end??

AW - IGIssues within Arsenal Football Club extend beyond the role of the manager. And as much as many see him as the roadblock keeping the club from reaching its full potential, others see him as the person trying to keep the boat from capsizing. It’s in this duality that we have existed for the last few years and, while it seems as if we’re signing up for two more years of it, the simple fact is the blame for it should not be placed exclusively at the feet of Arsene Wenger.

Let me end on this: During the last few seasons, there are times when I have agreed with many others that it was time for Arsene to call it a career at Arsenal. Part of me still wonders how things are supposed to change when nothing really has changed. Though I do not for one second doubt his commitment and love to Arsenal, I do worry about his lack of willingness to work under any system but the current one.

The job of manager may not have changed for him, but it has in the modern world of football. It’s more than just than the rise of the Director of Football. Scouting networks are vaster. Coaching regiments are more intense and year-round. The world Arsene Wenger saw in 1996 is here now and Arsenal are, surprisingly, lagging behind. Despite the wealth accrued from the move to Emirates and the new massive TV deals that Arsenal are benefiting from, it feels as if everyone in authority at Arsenal is more than happy to continue running things like a mom-and-pop shop. That, more than the manager, has to be the big change this summer.

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“Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2” Review: More 80s Goodness Found Here

guardians_of_the_galaxy_2_new_posterJust under three years ago, I said of the original Guardians of the Galaxy that “Gunn and his crew take those things that influenced them and colored their youth and make a movie that is sure to become a favorite of the next generation.” (Go back and read that review if you want a fuller take).  Not surprisingly, Guardians has become one of the most loved comic book movies of this current run and often ranks among the best of Marvel Studios’ output.  Its combination of great action set pieces, comedy and characters still have it a fan-favorite for comic book fans. Which means that Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 has some pretty big shoes to fill. If before, the question was “Will anyone see this?” now the question becomes “Will they like it as much as the first one?” For the answer, well, let’s get some things out of the way first.

Guardians Vol 2 follows the eponymous team’s adventures as they gallivant across the galaxy taking jobs for hire.  After one such adventure for The Sovereign and their High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicky), the Guardians find themselves splitting up when the long-missing father of Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) shows up.  His name is Ego (Kurt Russell) and he’s a Celestial; an ancient cosmic being of tremendous power.  Along with Quill go Drax (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) while Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) along with Nebula (Karen Gillan) fall into the hands of the Ravagers and their leader Yondu (Michael Rooker). Why does Ego seek out Peter? Why are the Ravagers after them? Why is Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego’s companion, so worried for the Guardians? How can the Guardians get all these people after them off their backs?

The first thing that needs to be said is that this isn’t just a rehash of Guardians Vol 1. Pulling double-duty as writer and director, James Gunn actually crafts a tale to push the various characters forward from where we last saw them. This means getting deeper into who they are, what has driven them and what keeps pushing them forward. And that makes things more complicated and complex — which is why some might not find this as easy to enjoy as Vol 1.Guardians 2 - Team

The cast is all game for this. Pratt, Zaldana and Bautista bring the same energy to Quill, Gamora and Drax respectively.  They continue to riff on one another, with Drax getting to be his usual dense self, Gamora being the stoic warrior putting up with everyone around her and Quill continuing to be the jerk with the heart of gold. It’s the same with Rocket and Groot — irascible, quick-tempered and silly, the two animated characters continue to be a fun part of proceedings. What’s interesting though is the willingness the cast has to follow Gunn’s script and let their characters grow.

Because Guardians Vol 2 is all about delving into the team members and finding out what makes them tick. In Vol 1, Quill said they had all lost something and in Vol 2, it all comes to the foreground. How losing his mom impacts Quill meeting the man who claims he is his father.  Gamora must come to grips with the warped relationship between her and Nebula and how that cost both of them and shaped them. Rocket has to confront his making and how it impacts his relationship with his new friends. Interestingly, the one who shines the most in all of this is Rooker and his Yondu, whose reasons for not delivering Quill and his history with Star-Lord impact proceedings in several ways.  

The rest of the cast does a solid job. Diesel has to do different for Groot — a baby version of his earlier self means he’s cute and even more innocent than before. Gillan gets more to do this time as Nebula and it’s interesting how she and Gamora play off one another.  Debicki gets to look alluring and distant as Ayesha. It’s a simple role but she does it well.  Sean Gunn gets more this time as Kraglin, Yondu’s lieutenant, and he does add more humor. And Klementieff plays really well against the Guardians, in particular Drax, as Mantis the empath.  The two of them manage to have some of the funniest and saddest moments of the movie.Guardians 2 - Yondu & Rocket

As for Russell’s Ego, I don’t want to spoil things too much, but it is rather interesting how he plays him.  In part, there’s an older take on Pratt’s Quill — a smart-mouth and quick wit.  He’s very much a scoundrel with a heart.  But there’s also an interest in showing the ageless wanting of Ego. After all, he’s a Celestial. How would such a being think? How would he feel?  How would he react to finally meeting the son he searched for so long? Russell balances the various sides of Ego well until the end.

Gunn takes this opportunity to not just add another layer on top of the first movie but to build outwards from it. This extends to the universe around the Guardians and the work his crew do to bring it to life. Cinematographer Henry Braham, editors Fred Raskin & Craig Wood, production designer Scott Chambliss and the various FX houses all forge a galaxy that is colorful, unique and varied across its breadth. Framestore returns and builds on their work on Rocket and Groot and makes them just as much a part as the rest of the cast.  Weta Digital, meanwhile, does tremendous work with Ego’s planet, which is wondrous to behold in its various terrains, landscapes and details.  It looks like everything you dreamed an alien planet would look like. Meanwhile set decorators Jay Hart & Lauri Gaffin, costume designer Judianna Mokovsky, makeup department led by Legacy FX and the various art departments populate it with a variety of species, races and characters that feel as unique and interesting. From techno-brothels to golden palaces to a Dairy Queen in Missouri, every place breathes like it is alive and that is to be commended.Guardians 2 - Peter & Ego

I shouldn’t go too far ahead without mentioning either Tyler Bates’ score for the movie or the compilation Gunn put together for Awesome Mix, Vol. 2.  Bates’ scores continues to do a lot of the heavy emotional underpinning, particularly in the big action set pieces. Meanwhile Gunn provides some big if out-of-left-field songs for the Mix. From ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky” over the opening credits to going back to Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” and Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” for key emotional and plot moments, this isn’t just a compilation of tracks. The songs are as much the specter of Peter’s mom, looking down on him and guiding him in his quest to uncover the truth of his parentage as well as of himself.  

Here’s where I’m going to make a possibly controversial comparison: Guardians Vol 2 is the Empire Strikes Back of this series. Not in impact but in how it is structured. Opening action set piece, heroes are split up into two different storylines, major revelations of parentage occur, key partings and a somber ending that touches upon where the heroes go next. And that structure is key because it impacts how things proceed. Sure, there’s the usual action sequences and battles.  Of note, I’ll highlight the escape by Yondu, Rocket and Groot as well as the final battle between the Guardians and the cosmic danger they all face.

But while the final battle is dazzling and the space battles are fun, nothing compares to the grin-causing Kyln escape from Vol 1. This movie doesn’t have the easy breeze and effortless nature of the first one.  And that is by design. Because Gunn and crew are digging into the broken, difficult and complex psyches of his leads. Which requires slowing things down and having more conversations and less set pieces. This is what’s led people expecting the same easy, breezy time to come away disappointed by it.

Guardians 2 - Baby GrootHowever, that doesn’t mean Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 is any less the movie than its predecessor. It’s, like I compared above, as different from it as Empire Strikes Back was from A New Hope.  It’s trying to be more nuanced and go into greater depths as to friendships and family, fatherhood and purpose. Of course, it does it in its usual silly, colorful, action-packed way. I think multiple viewings will reward fans with a movie as good as the original. You’re still laughing most of the time and having a good time when it’s all said and done. Gunn continues to be one of the better directors in the MCU and the Guardians continue to be one of the more interesting properties Marvel has in its arsenal.

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The 2017 Sure-To-Be Wrong NFL Mock Draft (And Some Saints Thoughts)

*cue the Eminem* Guess who’s back…back again…

After a long winter of hibernation, I arise once again. And what, praytell, has made me dust the cobwebs, sweep the rat droppings and cast out the demons from this here old blog? Why it’s the NFL’s annual meat market! Better known as the “Draft” for those who aren’t aware, it’s the mechanism through which young, talented, collegiate football players can enter the professional ranks of a team.

Many people dismiss the Draft or think of it as silly that it’s become such a big deal. Me? I love it. I find that it’s the one time of the year — outside of the first weekend of the season — when all possibilities exist. All teams could unearth a gem in the 4th Round that would have their team dancing into the playoffs next season.  There are no busts on Draft weekend. Every CB will be a Pro Bowler. Every QB a star. (Truth is that, at best, it’s a 50-50 crapshoot buuuuuttt that doesn’t matter right now).

With that said, I hereby submit my own version of everyone’s favorite game: the mock draft. Picking which players will be taken by which team is always an interesting if futile endeavor. You can probably pick who goes #1 but the more you move down, the tougher it gets. Trades are impossible to predict and they will happen as teams fall in love with a player and become desperate to not lose him to a rival.  And teams may hint they love a player as a smokescreen to keep others off the scent of their true target.

OK, so all that said, here you go:

1. CLE:    Myles Garrett, DE Texas A&M
2. SF:    Mitchell Trubisky, QB North Carolina
3. CHI:    Jonathan Allen, DT Alabama
4. JAC:    Leonard Fournette, RB Louisiana State
5. TEN:    Malik Hooker, S Ohio State (f/LAR)
6. NYJ:    Marshon Lattimore, CB Ohio State
7. LAC:    Jamal Adams, S Louisiana State
8. CAR:    Christian McCaffrey, RB Stanford
9. CIN:    Solomon Thomas, DE Stanford
10.BUF:   Mike Williams, WR Clemson
11.NO:    Derek Barnett, DE Tennessee
12.CLE:    Patrick Mahomes II, QB Texas Tech (f/PHI)
13.ARI:    Reuben Foster, ILB Alabama
14.PHI:    Marlon Humphrey, CB Alabama
15.IND:    O.J. Howard, TE Alabama
16.BAL:    Haason Reddick, OLB Temple
17.WAS:    Obi Melifonwu, S Connecticut
18.TEN:    Corey Davis, WR Western Kentucky
19.TB:    David Njoku, TE Miami (FL)
20.DEN:    Garett Bolles, OT Utah
21.DET:    Taco Charlton, DE Michigan
22.MIA:    Jarrad Davis, ILB Florida
23.NYG:    Ryan Ramczyk, OT Wisconsin
24.OAK:    Dalvin Cook, RB Florida State
25.HOU:   Adoree Jackson, CB/KR Southern Cal
26.SEA:    Cam Robinson, OT Alabama
27.KC:    Deshaun Watson, QB Clemson
28.DAL:    Charles Harris, DE/OLB Missouri
29.GB:    Kevin King, CB Washington
30.PIT:    T.J. Watt, OLB Wisconsin
31.ATL:    Forrest Lamp, OG Western Kentucky
32.NO:    Tre’Davious White, CB Louisiana State

A few explanations? Sure. Why not?

  • This draft feels the most volatile of the last few years. Teams at the top have so many needs and no clear ranking of prospects (meaning a guy who’s #2 in one team’s board may be #11 in another). This also leads to teams willing to trade down in the hopes of snatching more of a bunch of similarly-ranked players. If there’s a draft to have multiple picks, this one might be it.
  • Things get even harder to predict when players have red flags like injuries (Jonathan Allen, Malik Hooker) or failed drugs tests (Jabrill Peppers, Reuben Foster) or worse (Gareon Conley, Joe Mixon).  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but, suffice it to say, there’s going to be teams letting really talented players get away from them for fear of past concerns rearing their ugly heads again.
  • Everyone’s said it: this draft is deep in defensive talent; namely CBs and Safeties. What isn’t it deep in? Offensive linemen (offensive tackles specifically) and Quarterbacks. That means if you want one of those, you may have to reach in order to get your guy. Unlike CB, where a 3rd-round prospect could become a starter, there’s likely a floor for other positions beyond which taking a player isn’t worth it. That brings those better prospects at those positions up on draft boards.

With that said, here’s a few thoughts on what my Saints will do:

  • Trade up, trade up, trade up.  (KIDDING! Or am I? This is Mickey Loomis.)
  • With 7 picks and none in rounds 4 or 5, it increases the importance of nailing those picks in rounds 1 through 3. Good thing is that’s 5 picks in the first 103 players taken.
  • With holes at DE and CB as well as depth questions at OT, S, WR, LB and QB, the Saints may not be able to meet all their needs with what they have unless they take a trade down with one of their first picks. I’d love for that to happen, but as we said earlier, many teams are looking to trade down. That means there may not be much in the way of a return for a big drop down the draft. (Plus, it’s not the Loomis way to trade down).
  • It would be crazy if Loomis lets 2 entire Rounds on Saturday pass him by and he doesn’t make any attempts to get back in. Maybe offering a conditional 3rd gets him into Rd 4 or something like that.
  • Would the Saints still draft Christian McCaffrey even though they just signed Adrian Peterson? Different RBs, I know, but there’s only one ball and having that crowded a backfield may mean less touches for all involved.
  • Given the low number of picks and high needs elsewhere, can the Saints afford to take another QB in this Draft? Some people have them taking Deshaun Watson at #32. Others have a Brad Kaaya or a Nathan Peterman in Round 3. While I don’t want to point to the failings of Garrett Grayson to develop, I’d say there’s more prescient needs and it’s not like any QB drafted this year could replace Drew Brees come the fall or even next year. Simply put, the Saints are gonna suck whenever Andrew Christopher Brees departs Airline Drive.  Worry about 2017 first!

 

So who would I take? If no trades:

11. Derek Barnett, DE Tennessee
32. Tre’Davious White, CB Louisiana State
42. Zach Cunningham, ILB Vanderbilt
76. Carlos Henderson, WR Louisiana Tech
103.Justin Evans, S Texas A&M
196. Will Holden, OT Vanderbilt
229.Channing Stribling, CB Michigan

My hope though is that the Saints are able to parlay one of those first round picks into a bevy of picks in Rounds 2-5. They need more talent and, with injuries always a play away, we cannot count on one guy to be the solution.

In any case, have fun, drink lots and hope your team lands that glorious prospect!