Friday, August 16, 2013

Hello and Goodbye

I had planned on making no new posts on this blog as I am switching sites and the format (more on that at the end) but then I realized that if I didn't, I couldn't be on the record with any predictions for the upcoming year and that just wouldn't be right. Last year's predictions were very accurate with the top four correct in order and six of the top seven foreseen. Newcastle in the top seven ends up looking rather garish but their fall and Everton's ascendancy were met with general surprise, so I won't feel too bad about it. At any rate, here's some details about my predictions for the top four.

1. Chelsea

Last season Chelsea looked like a team that were struggling to find out exactly what they were and how they wanted to play, yet still had a relatively easy run to third place even if the Manchester teams pulled away as things wound down. In fact, the Blues were basically in a civil war with the fans loathing Roman Abramovich's choice of interim manager Rafael Benitez, a man who famously taunted the Chelsea faithful while he was manger of Liverpool. This controversial hiring came on the heels of the firing of Roberto Di Matteo, who did nothing short of win the goddamn Champions League but was never in favor with the Russian owner. Two coaches, bitter resentment from fans, zero consistent striker play... yet Chelsea were still third. If this year is simple stable instead of violently disrupting, they should challenge for the title.

Let's not forget how talented Chelsea is. Last year they had a tremendous midfield with Ramires, Oscar, Eden Hazard, and Juan Mata. Mata at times looked like the best playing in the Premier League and Ramires impressed with charging runs and a high work rate. The defense was solid, giving up the third fewest goals in the league, and had interesting options with Branislav Ivanovic, Caesar Azpilicueta, and consistent racist John Terry. Plus Petr Chech was behind it all to clean us any potential messes (looking at you, Gary Cahill). The only thing they seriously lacked was quality play up top with neither Fernando Torres nor Demba Ba looking comfortable in front of goal. Frank Lampard, a player who I didn't even see fit to name while listing midfield highlights, led the team in goals. It is entirely possible that Torres or Ba could come back into form but if they don't, Romelu Lukaku is back from a very impressive loan spell at West Bromwich Albion and Andres Schurrle, the German international, has been brought in for even more options. This team looks like a contender already and I haven't even mentioned the biggest news of the summer, the return of beloved (and special) manager Jose Mourinho. This team will be disciplined, they will have a system, and they will be even more talented than last year. They are my preseason pick to win the title.

2. Manchester City

It's just not fair at this point. Manchester City finished second last year and while they weren't in it until the very end, they finished comfortably and had enough talent to challenge again this year with no changes. So what do they do? Fire manager Roberto Mancini and replace him with a different elite manager, Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean comes to Manchester fresh off a Champions League quarterfinal run with Malaga, done while the team was having problems paying its players due to financial conditions, and has also coached at Real Madrid and Villareal. Also incoming are goal scoring machine Alvaro Negredo (25 in La Liga last season), versatile and skilled Stevan Jovetic to replace the departed Carlos Tevez, and Jesus Navas and Fernandinho to give the midfield speed and steel respectfully. These players come into a squad that was incredibly strong to begin with, boasting stars such as Yaya Toure, David Silva, Vincent Kompany, and Sergio Aguero.

Like Chelsea, Manchester City looked out of sorts like year, just slightly off from what the team should be. Many blame that on how Roberto Mancini's defensive tactics were an ill fit for his talent and while that narrative has reached the state where it is probably overblown, it has it's base in truth. With so much creativity in the squad, there is no reason to think that they should not only be improved stylistically, but also in results on the field and challenge for the title.

3. Manchester United

This might seem like an unfair ranking for last year's champions who strolled to their 20th league title with shocking ease, but I don't feel that's the case. This was a team that often stumbled their way to going down in games only to miraculously come from behind, usually on the boot of Robin Van Persie. It is not likely that Van Persie will suddenly dip in form but it is difficult to assume that United will once again recover from all those deficits, especially when they rely so much on one man to do so. That's really a minor quibble about how last year's team performed, however. They lead the league in goals scored and goal differential so what can you really complain about? This ranking is more about the teams around them than their own team. Chelsea and Manchester City weren't that far behind already and both teams brought in proven big name players to bolster their rosters. United have signed Wilifred Zaha and while he is a true talent, it's doubtful he'll have the impact that the stars on those other contenders will.

The biggest loss for Manchester is off the pitch. The club always exuded an air of invincibility with Sir Alex Ferguson on the bench and now they will have to do without him. David Moyes is by no means a poor manager and he may turn out to be more than a worthy replacement. The fact remains, however, that United have lost something at manager while both Chelsea and City have made real improvement. Moyes has made the classic Arsenal blunder of getting involved in transfer "sagas" and I find it incredibly unlikely that main target Cesc Fabregas will come to the club. The window is not closed though and Manchester United are a big team with big goals. It is likely that they will still bring in talent and challenge for the title as returning champions.

4. Arsenal


That pretty much describes Arsenal's summer so far. The team finished strong to close out the 2012-2013 season in fourth place and, for the first time in what seemed like ages, didn't have any stars leaving the team during the transfer window. With chief executive Ivan Gazidis talking about the team's £70 million budget for offseason acquisitions, this seemed like the season Arsenal were going to step back up to the big boys' table and become a serious threat. Then... nothing. The Gunners lost out on Stevan Jovetic, Gonzolo Higuain, Luis Gustavo, and seemingly Luis Suarez (thank god), and currently have brought in no one but a young French striker who will be used more for depth than to make an impact. Now Mikel Arteta will be out four to six weeks, Nacho Monreal and Thomas Vermaelen will miss the start of the season, and both Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla have picked up minor knocks. Arsene Wenger did an excellent job of clearing out the dead weight over the summer but without anyone coming in, the team is thin and that money is freed up for nothing. There are young players on the team that can raise their level but then the team is looking like a project when it has a real chance to be a player. With everyone around them getting better, it's been frustrating to watch the Gunners sit on their hands and do nothing.

And yet... there is just something about this team. I enjoy watching them. I think there is real talent and there is also the chance for players to make improvements. I'm biased towards supporting handsome Frenchman Olivier Giroud but he's looked fantastic in preseason and his finishing should improve with a year in the league under his belt. Plus his passing and possession never let the team down even when he wasn't finding the back of the net. Aaron Ramsey has also been bossing the preseason and has continued to make his inclusion in the starting XI a foregone conclusion. Santi Cazorla was one of the best players in the league last year and if Wenger can simply bring in warm bodies so that our main playmaker doesn't look as tired this year as he did toward the end of last, the diminutive Spaniard's play should improve even more. The starting XI is top four if not higher right now, it's the depth that could end up costing the team.

What it comes down to is the assumption of transfers coming in and I just don't see Wenger standing pat, even if it takes until August 31st. He has to know that this team is on the brink of contending status and he can't think that this team is complete right now, especially with the injuries. If Arsenal does indeed do nothing before the window closes then I will regret this position for them, but I don't see that happening. Look for the Gunners to bring in players in the next two weeks, shore up the weaknesses, and be ready to compete again.

5. Tottenham (ha)
6. Liverpool
7. Everton

18. Stoke City
19. Cardiff City
20. Norwich

This is the last post you will see on this blog as I will be changing it up and moving to another site (most likely Wordpress, need to finalize this over the weekend) as early as this coming Monday. This is being done not so much due to problems with Blogger but because I want to change the format and expand beyond an Arsenal blog. There will be Arsenal posts still (probably even more) but there will also be a renewed commitment to more varied and more frequent writing. I will publicize once the switch is made and I invite you to join me there. In the mean time, check out my writing on the Boston Gooners website One Club on Boylston. My first post there will be Wednesday so be on the lookout. Thanks to anyone who has read me, good luck with the season, and Come On You Gunners.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Saving Sagna

It seems like every day there is another rumor flying around about an Arsenal player going out the door during the next transfer window. There are several types of rumors that make the rounds depending on what the prevailing state of the club is. Going into the transfer window, there are the wishlists of players that fans want to see the club sell because they're not wanted anymore. Who knows how many times Sebastien Squillaci, Andrei Arshavin, Marouane Chamakh, and Nicklas Bendtner have been sold or resold in fans minds over the years, only to have them loaned out instead or benched without hope of being used. There's also the ongoing transfer sagas that have dominated the headlines in years past. Robin Van Persie's status was in doubt even before his now infamous public letter, Samir Nasri was always suspected to be after a big payday, and Cesc Fabregas... I love the man, but the whole "Cesc to Barcelona" story carried on for far too long.

The most interesting type of transfer rumor though begin when players who don't have much time on their contract haven't signed new deals yet. This was the start of worry about Van Persie, who was ultimately sold, as well as Theo Walcott this past winter, who was ultimately resigned. The reason this type of situation is so fascinating is because it appears seemingly out of nowhere, catches hold, and then becomes a fan referendum on the merits of keeping the player versus selling the player, even if there have been no serious contract talks to that point. When Walcott hadn't yet signed there were cries of "sell him to City and we'll use the money to buy a younger, better version" (Wilfried Zaha anyone?) as well as "if Arsenal sell, that proves their intentions to other clubs as well as their fans." The debate itself gives insight into the psyche of fans and what they think their team is capable of. Right now, the foremost subject of this kind of rumor is right back Bacary Sagna. Some people say that he's one of the best backs in England and the Gunners would be mad to give him to a competitor ("it's the same thing as Van Persie" has come up before) while others think that he's out of form and we should get what we can for him so we can let Carl "The Corporal" Jenkinson take over. I could address both sides and the merits of their arguments, but let me instead choose a third option: Arsenal should re-sign Sagna... and move him to center back.

Right away let me say that this post is not an overreaction to one game in which Sagna committed a particular series of errors. That would be unfair and also intellectually dishonest. This is instead an idea for a post I've been toying around with for a while so the timing of said post is all that's affected by Sunday's events. Anyway, moving on.

Sagna has long been one of the best right backs in England (possibly the world) for several reasons: he has excellent understanding of position, he is a solid on the ball defender, he has the pace to both join the attack and recover on defense, and he is an excellent crosser of the ball. Most teams would happily settle for three out of the four abilities, perhaps even two of the four if the two the player has are exceptional. Arsenal have not had to settle with Sagna and that is why he has been a mainstay of the squad for so many years. However, those years are starting to catch up to the French national. This year has seen a significant drop in his form and there are serious doubts about his ability to regain it. Granted, this is his first full year of playing after missing the end of last season and Euro 2012 with a broken leg, no small injury. That injury though is a reason both for optimism and doubt. He may simply need some more time to fully regain his abilities but it's also entirely possible that the leg injury has hastened the inevitable countdown on a football player's career. In short, there is no guarantee that he will ever again be the Bacary Sagna that he once was and we have a season of data to show us that. He has crossed the ball very poorly this year, seems unwilling (or unable) to take on defenders, and is often caught out by speedier wings (or occasionally Flying Dutchmen). The cries for Jenkinson, a promising young back, are warranted and one can see why selling Sagna away makes sense to some.

However, Sagna's positional awareness never left him even if he can be exposed in space on the wing. He also is as dominant in the air as ever, consistently winning balls flung forward from the opposition as well as 50/50 balls popped up in his area. While he may not be wing-back-quick he still has quite a bit of speed and he is adept at passing in tight spaces, such as the triangles he's worked on the sidelines for years. Is it radical thinking to assume that he would be perfect as a new center back for Arsenal? This is not without precedent, after all. Sagna filled in next to Per Mertesacker against Sunderland earlier this season when Laurent Koscielny was a last minute scratch with an injury, and he performed immensely. By many accounts he was the man of the match and it was due to his natural abilities: winning tackles, heading the ball away, and playing the ball out of the back. Granted this was against Sunderland and the sample size is as small as it can get, but the possibility certainly exists. Arsenal haven't been the strongest in the center this year with the captain Thomas Vermaelen being relegated to the bench. The Mertesacker/Koscielny pair has worked quite well but Mertesacker has always been slow and there is talk of Bayern having interest in Koscielny. If he were indeed to leave, the Gunners would be short at the back once again and a replacement would be needed. Why not someone from within the squad whose ability is known? Jenkinson could then take over at right back with Sagna available as a last ditch backup, similar to Vermaelen's emergency duties on the left these past two seasons. Further right back cover would be necessary, but that is what a summer transfer window is for.

The fact of the matter is that Sagna is getting older. At 30 he is no longer able to get down the flanks like he once could or defend against faster players. But he is still an excellent defender and has abilities that apply to another area of the back line. Of course this is all said with no inkling whatsoever of the player's state of mind. It is entirely possible that Sagna still wants to play right back and will happily get that work elsewhere. He may be sick of Arsenal and need a change of scenery. Or, possibly, he would be open to the idea and it is something that he could transition into so that he could remain with his team and indeed improve it. Rather than getting into this false debate of sell him vs keep him, maybe the Gunners could play him in the position that he has evolved into.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

An Enjoyable Flirtation

Yesterday I was forced to DVR the Borussia Dortmund vs Real Madrid match since I was stuck at work during the live broadcast. I normally am able to breakout early to watch Arsenal matches but for other good games (or "lesser" Arsenal matches) I will employ this strategy and to be honest, it's not as bad as some people make it out to be. The necessary social media blackout can make those last few hours of work a little slow and if you have asshole friends who like to text you updates without checking to see if you're watching it live, prepare to be filled with rage. But if you can get past these obstacles, the whole postponement of pleasure thing actually has some merit. I was excited all day yesterday to get home and flip the game on, mainly because I love watching Dortmund play. They are exciting, energetic, and supremely talented but without the douchiness that we often attribute to clubs that have won too much. Watching them is a delight and I was excited (while only marginally nervous) when I sat down to watch what most of the world had already seen.

*It should be obvious by now, but don't read any further if you have any need to keep the match unknown in your mind.*

Holy Jesus, the match did not disappoint. In short, Dortmund were electric. They buzzed around the pitch, pressuring the midfield and earning an early goal from world class striker Robert Lewandowski. Real were able to work their way into the game and even control it for a while, earning a fluke goal courtesy of a defensive mistake, but one that could have came on their own merit as well. In the second half, however, Dortmund made no doubt. With Westfalenstadion roaring, Lewandowski scored three more goals as last year's German champions buried Real and then spent the last 25 minutes patrolling the grave just to make sure. It was a fantastic sight and brought home the reason I feel both very happy and incredibly sad while watching such a vibrant squad.

It's easy to like Dortmund because, well, they're a very good team. They are loaded with exceptional young talent who play well together and are a delight for neutrals because of their attacking style. The style is what is so appealing because they are speedy and aggressive on both sides of the ball. The players attack relentlessly when the other team is in possession and break quickly once winning out. It is not at all uncommon to see quick one-twos through an opposing defense or one player gamely taking on defenders on a surging run (Marco Reus' early shot on goal came from just such a charge). While they are not a defensive stalwart in the way we normally understand that description, they are strong on defense and their overall style maximizes the ability of their players. It is attractive to watch and that is both the reason I love and loathe it: they play as Arsenal should.

This truly is the Arsenal style of play with gifted attackers fed through well won tackles and an aggressive bent. It is hard-working but not workmanlike because everything in the system feeds a beautiful style that is entertaining and highly effective. It is, in my biased opinion, the best way to play football and while it is so much fun to watch, it's saddening and maddening to have the team best executing it not be the Gunners. Arsenal has sunk into a strange hybrid style where they still try to break with speed when they win the ball, but they no longer press high which leads to a less frenetic pace, one that seems to bleed over into the offense. Possession often seems for its own sake with the ball moved around in a probing but lazy manner. It's both an inferior form of Dortmund's play and of the high possession Barcelona style and it can often lead to frustrating games where the lack of intent is the most damning criticism. Put simply, another team plays what I consider to be the Arsenal style with more skill than Arsenal. When watching Dortmund I feel like I'm looking at what could have been.

It's easy to be attracted to another, especially if they seem to be a better version of what you have. The thrill is there as is the awe, but what is also lacking is the attachment. I can enjoy how Dortmund play and still feel next to nothing if they lose save the usual "I wish they had won" or "I can't believe [insert team I don't like] had lost!" They are fun and they are wonderful, but they are not mine. I will watch them when they are on and I will enjoy doing so, but they are not Arsenal.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Consistency Killer

Up to this point in the season many people have been blamed for the relative failures of the Arsenal. Off the field, owner Stan Kroenke and chief executive Ivan Gazidis have been lambasted for their failure to reinvest in the squad, for their concentration on business relationships, and for just not caring enough about winning. On the field we have seen both Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey turned into scapegoats, one for his maddening and instantaneous transitions between in-form and out-of-form, the other for no more than doing simple things wrong and being available to mock. The blame has even combined the two arenas with many fans calling for the resignation of Arsene Wenger due to his out of touch ways. At the heart of it for Arsenal, however, is a more simple recurring problem, one that can strike anywhere and anytime. Catastrophic individual errors are devastating the Gunners and destroying any sense of consistency the team might have. For a team that is lacking the talent and experience to win the title, consistency is the most important quality to surviving the race for the Champions League.

When I use the word "catastrophic" I do not mean a relatively simple play that leads to a goal. An own goal by itself is not a catastrophic error because crosses are pinged off of defenders and into the back of the net all the time. It's aggravating, but it's an understandable consequence of defenders trying to block the ball from coming through the area. No, a catastrophic individual error would be something like a defender facing away from his goal at the top of the box and attempting a simple volley to clear... only to shank the ball in such an awkward way that it ballooned backwards over the head of his keeper into the net for an own goal. Something that rears its head out of nowhere and instigates chaos. Something that is utterly indefensible and changes the game completely.

In that context, I would think a few readers would be nodding their heads right now. Thomas Vermaelen gifting a goal to Robin Van Persie in the third minute of the match at Old Trafford. Two different instances of failing to cover set pieces against Chelsea. Mikel Arteta not closing out the back post against Swansea when the Gunners could have sealed an FA Cup win. Because this kind of title is so results driven, there are going to be more defensive examples than offensive examples. After all a terrible play that leads to a goal has proof in the goal, while a similar play on offense leads to no goal, just like roughly 97% of the rest of matches. However, special attention can certainly be given to Gervinho blowing two golden chances to earn the win at Manchester City, not to mention his one foot sitter against Bradford in the Capital One Cup that inexplicably went wide. These are the types of plays that I am referring to and they change the complexion of games not the least due to how little they have to do with the rest of the match. Giving away free goals, or not taking advantage of free goals put on a plate for you, is a sure fire way to drop points and find yourself dropping in the league.

Of course it is true that giving goals away should hurt any team so why bring this up as a key point to Arsenal's season when it applies so broadly? Even if you are not ready to admit that the Gunners have been particularly prone to these types of errors this year (and I would strongly argue that they have), it turns out that they are also the type of team that is seriously hurt by such swings. On the surface, Arsenal have an impressive 40 goals in 20 league games (3rd overall), an average of 2.0 goals per game (2nd overall). They also boast a goal differential of +18, good for fourth in the league. However, they are prone to spontaneous goal scoring windfalls, having produced goal totals of six, five, five, and seven during their league matches. It is a good indication that they can score, yes, but it also shows their inconsistency as the Gunners have been shutout in five EPL games. 23 of their 40 league goals (57.5%) came in four of their 20 matches (20%). When you adjust these numbers, the result is a dismal 17 goals over 16 games or an average of 1.06 goals per game. However, this is an unfair way of looking at the numbers because they were obviously dominating those matches. It is intellectually dishonest to remove their results completely. Let us instead say that they would have won each of those matches by two goals in an attempt to normalize Arsenal's goal scoring record. We are left with 33 goals over 20 games, good for 7th in the league. It also knocks the goal differential down to +11, good for 5th in the league. Granted this method isn't perfect, but it does a better job of showing how Arsenal's blowouts have pumped up their gaudy numbers without acting like such games did not exist at all. 7th and 5th in the major goal scoring categories are not poor ranks, but they also show how the Gunners are far from a lock to make it to next year's Champions League due to their erratic offensive performances.

Consistency is what this team needs and the individual errors are killing that possibility. The team has defended well as a whole according to the numbers. Only 22 goals allowed over 20 games (4th in the league) and seven clean sheets. That said, every fan reading this can think of their "favorite" defensive blunders of the season, blunders that cost the Gunners goals and points. Even after the spectacular volley by Kieran Gibbs to go up 2-1 against Swansea in the FA Cup and all the celebrating that went with it, there could be no shocked gasps when Danny Graham was left unmarked and then not closed down properly before he tied the match. This is what needs to stop, this is what needs to change. That sinking expectation of an Arsenal collapse needs to be removed from fans, psychic surgery that cuts out the pit-of-your-stomach feeling and allows a healing calm to take over. Until they fix these errors, Arsenal will continue to be an inconsistent side, one that chases its form, and even catches it once and a while, only to have it escape again and again.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Unpredictability of Arsene Wenger

It is his 17th season as Arsenal manager and people are still trying to prognosticate about what Arsense Wenger will do during the transfer windows. Why people put themselves through this kind of personal hell is something I'll never quite understand but it is an undertaking that resembles hitting in baseball, where batting .300 is considered elite. It has become fashionable lately to assume doom and gloom (not arguing against or for the veracity of this attitude) about the Gunners which has in turn showed people's true side to be one that believes in Wenger to "do the right thing." The vast majority of pundits, professional or otherwise, believe that the boss simply has to buy during the January transfer window. The reasoning is varied but mainly revolves around two points: the squad depth is sorely lacking and the team isn't good enough to guarantee a Champions League place as is.

The first point has been hovering at the margins of commentary as more pressing issues have stolen space in articles, but the players departing during the window have brought the discussion to the forefront. Johan Djourou is off to Hannover, Sebastien Squillaci is out as soon as he finds a team to take him, and Marouane Chamakh has convinced West Ham that he's more than just a pile of hair gel with a terrible first touch. Though these are bench players, they are still warm bodies who provide cover in case of injuries. Wenger only uses three competent center backs and one of them (Thomas Vermaelen) is also cover at left back because Andre Santos is, well, Andre Santos. Chamakh has been out of favor also but he is still the only dedicated striker on the current squad besides Olivier Giroud. Of course Gervinho and Theo Walcott have played up front, but Gervinho is in terrible form right now and he's off to the African Cup of Nations anyway. Walcott is a whole other story, one that many people have spent thousands of words discussing, but for now let's just say that he might not be around at the end of the month. Thus, the argument for Wenger to buy goes that he is forced into doing so due to the players he's allowing to leave, meaning that he has a plan for all of this, meaning that he's going to buy.

The second point's strength all comes down to how you want to define the word "guarantee." This team is certainly not a mathematical certainty to finish in fourth place or higher, but it would not be far-fetched to see them in fourth by the end of the season. However, even an eternal optimist like myself must see that not improving the team in any way is a risky proposition at the very least. Everton is going to be there until the end of the season (so long as they don't lose their players during this window), Liverpool is annoyingly starting to gel and only sits three points back of Arsenal at the moment, and Tottenham is somehow surviving their defensive deficiencies to excel. All of that doesn't even take into consideration Manchester United, Manchester City, and Chelsea, who are still the favorites to finish in the top three and would only do the Gunners more harm by sinking to a competition for fourth. So perhaps buying in order to improve has some merit to it.

As logical as those arguments are, they are simple to refute by someone who wanted to argue that Wenger will not make any significant signings during the January window based on past attitudes and actions. Here, I'll show you what I mean:
  • Who is an impact player that is legitimately available during January? Demba Ba was obviously a favorite about rumormongers but he's off to Chelsea and he carries certain risks (extensive injury history, rumors of multiple agents wanting seven figures in fees, etc.). Who else? Wilfried Zaha is certainly a possibility, but he's more of an impact sub for this Arsenal team and should therefore be labeled a project. Besides, Manchester United are leading the race for him at the moment anyhow (The Short Fuse wasn't the first to report this, but I wanted to link them anyway due to how consistently great the blog is). Names could always pop up but we don't know the extent to which they are available or how much they're being valued at. It would not be shocking to see Wenger avoid desperation purchases that would hurt the team long term due to fees and wages paid.
  • Djourou, Squillaci, and Chamakh were never going to play anyway. They don't make the bench half the time anyway and would have only seen time in Capital One Cup matches, which is over for the Gunners anyway. Wenger would be more likely to give time to promising youngsters, such as Ignasi Miquel and Serge Gnabry, and use the versatility of players like Podolski to cover at forward if it is absolutely necessary. The depth isn't gone as no one of true use has been sacrificed.
  • Look at the bench during the last Arsenal match! Mertesacker! Ramsey! Rosicky! Giroud! Coquelin! Gervinho! There's a lot of talent on that bench, certainly enough to provide different looks as substitutes as well as spell players during the three competitions that the team is still in. Rosicky is still recovering from injury after all so he'll only get better. Plus Abou Diaby is coming back and will be, say it with me, like a new signing. This doesn't even begin to consider callups for players like Thomas Eisfeld and Chuba Akpom, so the depth in the club is not as bad as the naysayers are making it out to be.
Do I believe in all of those points? No, at least not in their entirety. But I could see those arguments being enough to convince Arsene to perhaps spend on a couple of projects that can also act as cover if necessary and avoid making the big purchases like David Villa that everyone is sure he's going to make.

This is not to say that I believe sincerely that Wenger will spend during the window. I am not afraid to admit that I have absolutely no idea what he is going to do. I have players that I'd like Arsenal to bid on but I also have no idea what the personal terms are for those players, or if there are better ones out there that scouts have their eyes on. I do hope that Arsene takes this window seriously as it is going to be a dogfight for the fourth spot even if someone like Villa was signed. However, I have come to recognize that I am powerless over this so I will continue to wait with bated breath, refreshing Twitter ever five minutes and praying that the boss is still The Boss.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Tempered Ray of Sunshine

On Wednesday Arsenal announced that five of its younger players had signed lengthy contract extensions, establishing the core of the club further into the future. The key to this bit of news was assuredly that Jack "Savior of Arsenal From Here to Eternity" Wilshere is one of the signees, showing his Arsenal DNA and sending a very important message to potential transfer targets that there will be real quality on the side they may be interested in joining. Of only slightly less importance was that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's name appeared in the press release. The Ox has been a fan favorite from his debut with the first team and though he is not as advanced as grizzled old veteran Wilshere, the newly minted England international is an important building block for the future of Arsenal as well. Throw in the commitment from Carl Jenkinson and most Arsenal fans will hail this as only the most positive of news.

There will, however, be some dissenters in the mix. They will say that this list is made more noteworthy by the name that was left off of it, and they will not be wrong. Theo Walcott still has yet to sign and when five other players have had their contracts extended while Walcott claims that "it's going to be a slow process," it is looking more and more like the mercurial winger-turned-kind-of-striker will be out the door. Exactly how important the loss of Walcott is to Arsenal is a topic that has already been debated ad nauseum, but it is fair to say that seeing a talented player able to force his way out the door is not usually seen as a good sign. Other commentators might debate the wisdom in extending Kieran Gibbs' contract given his history with injuries, or in keeping Aaron Ramsey around longer seeing how Ramsey has turned into the on-deck scapegoat for all non-Gervinhian (Gervinhoish? Gervinhcal?) episodes on the team. For my part I believe that all five signings were proper moves (though length and price certainly do matter and to the best of my knowledge that information has not been officially released) as Gibbs has obvious quality and likely was not such an expensive signing as to preclude bringing in another player should things go south. Ramsey is an interesting story that I may tackle in a future post, but let me say this: inside that nervous, twitchy body is a quality footballer that may simply need to get over the yips and play within himself again. This contract gives him assurance that he'll have the time to do that and it is hard to see this expenditure being a huge misstep.

The quibbling over the details of contracts and possible future outcomes for players ignores the true import of these signings. Arsenal, be it the board or Wenger or whomever, is taking steps to avoid making the same mistakes over again. With Walcott's talks dragging on and rumors swirling around Bacary Sagna, the club stepped up and made a statement about some of their most important assets. No, signing five young players (only two of whom are first choice starters) is not akin to immediately overhauling an entire roster. It is a step in the right direction though, a step that moves past prior errors and says to the fans of the club "we hear you and we are working to be better." Of course this may simply be contract economics at work that do not speak to a greater change in club signing/recruiting policy, and of course these signings do not immediately improve a team that will struggle to finish with a Champions League spot and holds next to no hope of anything above that. Still, progress is progress and it is nice to see the beginnings of improvement at the club.

This sign of movement forward in the boardroom comes at roughly the same time as an uptick in performance on the field. The Gunners were impressive in their 5-2 dismantling of Reading and it is indeed a good sign when Arsenal has essentially put an away game, er, away by halftime. There are several important caveats to be made here, however:

1. This was a Reading team that looked every bit the last place team that they are. For a home side to show almost zero heart or ambition in the opening half... it was shocking. Reading parked the bus on defense but unfortunately had parked it in a neighboring field and thus made no impact on the game whatsoever. No defenders closed the ball down, runs were left unchecked, movement was allowed freely, etc. It was a mess. Arsenal did well to take advantage and passed quite brilliantly for most of the game, but it is somewhat difficult to judge them properly because of the competition.

2. Catastrophic Individual Error is still having a hell of a season for the Gunners and these huge, glaring mistakes continue to change matches. The captain has not been immune this season with his excellent pass to notorious traitor Robin Van Persie during the Manchester United match, and this time it was Kieran Gibbs at fault, blowing a chance at a clean sheet and giving Arsenal fans heart problems usually associated with seeing Marouane Chamakh warming up. It's annoying that Arsenal can look so good over the course of a match and still leave fans feeling nervous, but that is what happens when massive mistakes can come from seemingly anywhere and anyone.

3. Arsenal was allowed to play exactly the kind of game that they wanted. This goes hand-in-hand with #1 but it is worth mentioning on its own. Mikel Arteta was given time to spread things around, back passes were never challenged, on ball pressure was virtually non-existent, opposition counters were executed poorly, Gunners attackers had time around the box, and so on and so on. If you wrote a script to see Arsenal execute the way they want to play and regain confidence going into a stretch of four very winnable games, this Reading game would have been the end result.

I do not mean to suggest that Monday's match should be thrown at as too extreme an outlier because of course that would be ridiculous. Results are results and Reading is a team that does exist within the structure of the Premier League. Hell, even that wouldn't be a necessary qualification to get Gooners' hopes up considering the Capital One Cup debacle. We should simply resist the annoying pundit habit of forgetting all previous evidence and focusing only on the latest match to determine the quality of a team.

For now though, Arsenal fans should have cause for minor celebration. Perhaps "celebration" is too strong a word, actually. Cause for slightly warmed cockles perhaps. The team put in a good performance (and two straight league wins) on the field against a team they should beat and the board did an excellent job locking up their young talent, primarily Wilshere who is looking more and more like the Jack of old with each match. The dark clouds still loom and could overtake us again certainly, but it is nice to have a reminder that not all is dull and grey in our Arsenal centered world.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Statement Game Gone Horribly Wrong

"Nobody brings a fella the size of you unless they're trying to say something without talking, right boy?"

Arsene Wenger made a statement with his choice of a starting eleven for the trip to League 2 club Bradford for Tuesday's quarterfinal match of the Capital One Cup. The message of "we are desperate to win this trophy" was received loud and clear when fans saw names like Vermaelen, Cazorla, and Wilshere on the lineup card as it appeared the manager had no interest in messing around with five full days off before meeting Reading in a league match. It was a bold statement, a declaration of intent and an obvious attempt to deny critics their all too familiar plug-in line of "no trophies in eight years." With the match already infamous among Arsenal supporters it is difficult to think of a way things could have backfired worse than the lackluster showing that ended in a loss on penalties to a team three leagues lower than the perennial Champions League qualifying Gunners.

Soccer managers needs to perform three basic tasks when running their club: assemble the best squad possible, use proper tactics to put the players in the best position to succeed, and properly motivate the players to excel when it comes to game time. Arsene Wenger has long been hailed as a master of transfer dealings who encourages a general style of play (fluid passing in possession that leads to attacking opportunities) while letting the leaders among the players handle the main thrust of the motivating in order to bring everyone together. He is not a strict x's and o's man liable to put together 30 page Powerpoint presentations on the proper strategy in a given game and neither is he a Harry Redknapp type that tells his players to just kick the ball around and have fun. Wenger uses his strength, scouting and talent assessment, to support his weaker qualities. By bringing in the proper players who can lead he takes care of motivation and as all of his purchases fit the style of soccer he wants to play, he also handles the tactics.

It does need to be said here that while Arsene is not as good at tactics and motivation as he is with club assembly, that does not mean that he is poor or harshly lacking. The amount the man has won cannot be laid solely at the feet of the way he put his team together because that would ignore all that is required to make a champion. Players cannot win with a bumbling coach who is out of touch with how to communicate and the development that numerous players have undergone while at Arsenal before moving on shows that Wenger can certainly teach and improve the (generally) young men he coaches. However, most would agree that he prefers to let players handle their own business rather than lord over them like a task master and that he isn't the type to make brilliant halftime adjustments that lead to the Gunners exposing a weakness of their opponents that slowly became apparent over the first forty-five. His strength is in the players he brings in and the value he finds while purchasing them.

Recently though, Wenger's assessments have begun to slide and his transfer and wage philosophy has not been adapted to changing times. Everyone can point to obvious transfer misses like Marouane Chamakh and Sebastien Squillaci, but that's not fair as all managers have their mistakes. The more telling sign of a fading touch is the general level of skill that exists in the side, how finding hidden gems for cheap has turned into getting what you paid for and not much more. Mikel Arteta is a fantastic player who all Arsenal fans should be happy to have in the side. However, he is a 30 year-old midfielder that the Gunners paid £10 million for. This is certainly a fair price for a useful player but it is not the world-beater kind of find that Wenger was known for earlier in his Arsenal career. Arteta is of course one of the much more defensible signings, one that if we find fault with it's more an issue of nit-picking than objective analysis. The real problems are paying £7 million for Andre Santos and £11 million for Gervinho, players that were necessary to fill particular positions but were obvious overpays to bring someone in rather than spend bigger on a premium name. The result is a squad where the starting left back is a somewhat inconsistent young player with a history of injury, the cover at left back is a center back, and the cover at striker is best off as a disgruntled wannabe striker that will most likely be sold in January, at least in part due to the fact that no one trusts the Ivorian winger that cost half of the former captain's eventual transfer fee. These are small examples and there are more to be had, but evidence is mounting that the manager has lost his magic touch when it comes to exploiting blind spots in scouting and assessment to build the team.

The erosion of Wenger's primary skill has exacerbated his deficiencies in the other coaching areas. Again, for anyone who would inaccurately label me as ungrateful or reactionary, he is not by any stretch a poor manager nor is he inept in these areas; they are just the spots he has more trouble with. The tactics have not won any matches this year, nor has the general theory behind the play guided games along any better. The team is no longer talented enough to play crisp possession soccer (or at least the midfield hasn't gelled enough yet to do so) and the adjustment to this has been unclear. The team now sits deep rather than pressing the ball but cannot spring on the counter because it lacks the pace through midfield and the finishing up top to do so. Pressing high would seem to be the solution so that the ball would be won higher up the pitch but no one other than Jack Wilshere seems to believe this. Additionally, substitutions consistently come five to ten minutes too late and miss that instinctive feel for changing the game in the proper way when it is necessary. Hindsight is of course 20/20 but when everyone following a match in progress calls for changes in the same way yet never sees them carried out, there is something more at work than bloggers looking for things to write about. The level of talent coming off the bench is also an issue, and here we see Wenger's mistakes in the transfer market affecting other areas. After all, there is no "proper" time to bring Chamakh off the bench.

Where things look the worst is in terms of man motivation. This is painful to say because I have all the respect in the world for Arsene Wenger, but at times this squad looks like one that has quit on its manager. The problem is that the ways in which points are lost are so varied that it's difficult to say that for sure, but watching the dreadful performance against Swansea and following the debacle that was Bradford shows a team that cannot seem to elevate their play when it is necessary. It is not just the result, but the way in which the result occurs. Against Swansea the play was listless and the Gunners never looked like they were going to create positive chances and truly challenge the Swans. The same was true against Aston Villa earlier in the year where Arsenal were able to possess against an inferior team but never tested them. The players are not playing to their full potential and though this is a dip in form that will most likely be evened out by a corresponding rise, that equilibrium is far from guaranteed.

This brings us back to Bradford and the statement that was made. Wenger intended to show the rest of the league, and most likely his critics, just how good his team could play and just how serious he was in taking home some hardware to stock the cupboards. Instead a selection of mostly first team players was embarrassed by a team that had yet to sell out their stadium, a team that sits 64 places below Arsenal in the English leagues. All of Wenger's mistakes were on display here. Gervinho comically missed a golden opportunity for a goal while Chamakh came off the bench to the gasps of Arsenal supporters rather than Bradford players. A strong squad for a quarterfinal League Cup match still did not have the depth to bring on game changing players when it really needed to. More than anything though, the majority of Arsenal players thought that they would win this match by showing up rather than putting in the work to put their opponent away. That is certainly on the players. The players have to be professionals and find ways to get up for games that seem like they'll be easy, situations where is seems like the full effort won't be necessary to win. But one of the primary duties of a manager is to make sure that the team is properly coached and that includes giving them the motivation to win every match that they play. Losses are painful, but are much more acceptable when you can see the effort on the field that just came up short for the result. Losses that have no business being losses are the kind that drive fans crazy and the kind that managers must avoid.

Arsene Wenger is still the Arsenal manager and this is not a post advocating for the board to fire him or for him to step down. However, fans from all walks can now see the deficiencies of this team and the boss needs to work harder than ever to shore them up and turn this team around. "And if he isn't, he fucking should be."