Thursday, December 22, 2011

Does This Make Arsenal "Good?"

It is a sage piece of wisdom in nearly every sport, but it bears repeating here as well: good teams win ugly games. Not that their main method of winning is to win ugly, of course, but good teams are able to come up with that extra bit of quality that propels them to victory. That game winning basket, that one last drive, that smart base-running play; successful teams find some way, any way, to will themselves to take a win even when things have not been going as they should. The match versus Aston Villa on Wednesday was a prime example of what happens when a favored side doesn't fully commit to a game and they run into a tough underdog. There are plenty of explanations for why Arsenal didn't come to play in their trip to Villa Park. There was a letdown after the close loss to Manchester City; this match was too quick of a turnaround from Sunday's encounter; the Gunners didn't take Aston Villa seriously. All of these could have been reasons for the Gunners' slowness physically as well as psychologically, but with no way of knowing what exactly kept the team down, let us just say that they did not have their best of matches. However, on their fourteenth corner kick of the match, Yossi Benayoun somehow found a way to get free and give Arsenal three points regardless of what had happened for the last 86 minutes.

That previous time in the match was an oddly lackluster near hour and a half for the Gunners. It wasn't a bad performance exactly and to characterize it as such wouldn't be fair as there were moments of quality to be seen. However it was decidedly not good either as there seemed to be no organization to the Arsenal attack and the midfield passing was rather sloppy, a rarity from the London club. The best word I can think of to describe what happened yesterday is "disjointed." Arsenal was there and was competing, but everything seemed to be just a bit off. It's difficult to describe as the numbers don't quite bear out the difference. In shots (on goal), Arsenal led Villa 11(5) to 9(3), while also dominating in possession 62% to 38%. In perhaps an even more telling stat, Arsenal won 15 corner kicks to 7 for Villa, high numbers on both sides but especially high for Arsenal. But while everything points to a dominating performance that was born out in the end by a late goal, that just wasn't the case.

It is at this point I realize that I could be accused of having perhaps a poetic, subjective view of how "my" team was playing in a match that all statistics point to a different story. It is possible that I'm assigning this performance an unnecessary star-crossed feel by saying how it all wasn't fitting together properly when in fact it was a strong performance by Arsenal, though perhaps not up to their normal standards, which resulted in beating an inferior team. But even though this notion is running through my head, I don't believe that I am changing the feeling of the game by finding this storyline where Arsenal weren't mentally there. For stretches of the game, Aston Villa were legitimately the better team. Before Robin Van Persie's converted penalty kick in the 17th minute, Arsenal looked uncomfortable in possession and had already relied on the heroics of Wojciech Szczesny once to keep the game level. After the PK, Arsenal exhibited more control, but it was in the manner of a team that was finding its feet and working its way back into the game rather than "ok boys, we've got the lead let's bury this thing now." It wasn't until early in the second half when I felt that Arsenal were finally getting control of the match, but then of course Thomas Vermaelen made one of the few bad passes you'll see him make in the year and gifted Marc Albrighton with the equalizer. After that, the build of control completely ceased and Aston Villa were dominating the match. Arsenal looked not defeated, but instead as if they were debating whether or not they wanted to continue, to struggle to regain control. It wasn't until the double-switch in the 81st with Andrei Arshavin and Yossi Benayoun coming on for Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey that Arsenal finally realized that they needed to step it up and win this game or they would be dropping points to an Aston Villa team that has looked anything but convincing this year, yet was giving Arsenal all kinds of trouble in this match. The goal from Benayoun was an escape, but it did the job of securing the full three points and getting an important road win.

Escape or not, however, it was the right result for a team that has proven they are capable of this kind of play this year. Arsenal should never have left it so late. They should not have let the tying goal affect them so negatively and they most definitely should not have waited a full half of the match to begin playing to their ability. Still, they got the result. It is a rare team, or perhaps an impossible dream, that brings the full 100% every single game. More likely, a team will have these types of games over a long season where something just isn't going right. We don't know for sure whether Arsenal is a good team to the extent that they will qualify for Champions League or maybe even challenge for the domestic title. But wins like this certainly give us hope.

Game Notes

-For Arsenal to reach their highest levels, they will need to improve upon their ability to convert corner kicks into goals. Since their loss earlier in the year to Tottenham (a time period that is generally connected with Arsenal's turnaround), Arsenal has only given up more corner kicks than taken once (3-2 vs Chelsea) and only three times on the year in sum. Four times they have earned 10 corner kicks or more with a whopping 129 in total in the Premiere League thus far. With all of these dominating stats, Yossi Benayoun's match winner on Wednesday was only the second goal off of a corner kick all season. Something tells me that that sub 2% conversion rate just isn't going to do it. For starters, every single ball into the box is an in-swinger. If the kick is to the left of goal (when facing it), Mikel Arteta hits it in with his right. If it's to the right, Robin Van Persie hits it in with his left. I understand that Van Persie has a wicked left foot but something has to change when faced with these results. Van Persie is a natural goal scorer who simply has to be in the box for a corner. He's good in the air and he has a knack for doing whatever it takes to put the ball in the net, so he will most likely pick up some garbage goals as well. If this is too drastic of a change, at least switch from in-swingers to out-swingers every now and then as the delivery is entirely too predictable at the moment. Changes must be made.

-I'm unsure whether to applaud or shake my head at Francis Coquelin for his performance in this match. On the positive side, he played the full 90 minutes for his team out of position, which can account for some of his mistakes. Save an obvious gaffe or two in the first half, he did look competent on defense and he has respectable speed. On the negative side though, one of his gaffes was getting badly beaten by Charles N'Zogbia and the other was a poor yellow card for tackling N'Zogbia out of frustration. He began to get forward more towards the end of the match, but that was due to the final push to get the go-ahead goal and he showed almost no threat before that. I like Coquelin. I've said before that I would like to see him get more time and if one way of doing that is to play him out of position while Arsenal is thin due to injury, I can understand that. But he would need to show improvement the next couple of times out or giving Ignasi Miquel the start at left back while moving Lauren Koscielny to the right seems preferable.

- I mentioned in my last post that I would prefer to see Yossi Benayoun coming off the bench than Andrei Arshavin, and this match has pretty much sealed it. It was not just the goal though; Benayoun played with pace and the desire to win the ball, which is exactly what is needed from him when you're trying to get a crucial goal. Granted Arshavin saw the field too due to the double switch and granted he did play slightly better than his past performances, but he still is not a game-changer. I would still much rather see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain than either of the veterans, but if you're going to play one then Benayoun is the one to pick. As Always, Go Gunners.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bench Full of Nothing

If you missed the Manchester City vs Arsenal match on Sunday then I feel nothing but pity for you as it was one of the most entertaining matches I've watched all year. The soccer haters will scoff at calling a 1-0 match entertaining, but this was a game with chance after chance where the score could just as easily have ended 5-4 (and perhaps should have, depending on your opinion on the finishing versus the defense). Arsenal fans should take heart as this is a match that the Gunners could easily have won if certain plays had luck change just a bit in Arsenal's direction. Having said that, Manchester City was the better team yesterday and if luck had gone just a bit more in their direction, we could be talking about a 4-0 walkover instead. Arsenal did look a bit scattered at times on defense, but that is unfortunately to be expected with four fullbacks hurt and therefore Johan Djourou and Thomas Vermaelen playing out of position on the flanks. The offense created chances but could not finish, except for the one beautiful chip by Robin Van Persie that was correctly called back for offsides. All of these things happened and plenty more, but rather than giving a blow by blow report of what transpired or breaking down specific aspects of the game, I'd like to harp on the reason I believe Arsenal lost this match: depth.

To regular readers of this blog, I'm sure I sound like a broken record. I've mentioned time and time again how Arsenal is incredibly thin in the back, how they don't have a suitable back-up for Van Persie, how they need to make moves in the January transfer window, and so on and so on. But in this case, I'd like to point to the Gunners' lack of depth with a much more concrete example from Sunday's match. In the 65th minute or so, Arsenal was down one to City and of course there was no reason to assume that Arsene Wenger wouldn't go full out for the draw, or even win, playing away against the league leaders. The question then became, who would he send into the game to try to get the equalizer? As I asked myself this question, my heart sank. I could not think of a single player who was the go-to instant offense for a situation like this. Then I sat upright in excitement because I realized that this was the perfect environment to send Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in: low pressure (can't really fault a team for losing by a goal away to the best team in the league), high impact (tons of pace down the wing in a game where one goal changes everything), and absolutely up in the air. Imagine my dismay when I checked the roster for the match and saw that he wasn't even available as a substitute. As you know, I am generally a defender of Arsene Wenger and his style of managing. This, however, is the main area in which he and I disagree this year. I cannot understand for the life of me why Oxlade-Chamberlain doesn't get more run with the side, or at least why he's not even available in most games. He has shown great talent and poise thus far in his young career and he is the perfect player for these types of games, where the Gunners need some spark and a goal. But he wasn't even available. Arsene, I don't understand it.

Instead, our glorious leader went with Andrei Arshavin and things just went downhill from there. I understand the introduction of Arshavin. When at his best, he provides speed and quickness, can create offense out of nothing, and will run hard at a tired defense. But let's be frank: Arshavin has not been at his best for the better part of the last two seasons. I don't know if this is who he actually is now that teams are used to playing against him or if he just has an atrocious case of the yips, but the Russian is simply no longer a viable option. His play in Manchester was abominable and Wenger should think long and hard about how much time Arshavin actually should see. Perhaps it's time to put some feelers out to Anzhi Makhachkala...?

Marouane Chamakh was the other substitute used (aside from Ignasi Miquel, but that was a forced substitution when Djourou went down with an injury) and though he doesn't deserve his own section, I'm going to give him one anyway. The problem with using Chamakh as a substitute in this kind of game is that he's a poor man's Robin Van Persie. Actually, that's not entirely accurate. He is a single-mother-working-three-jobs-to-keep-food-on-the-table-for-her-four-children-while-trying-to-fend-off-the-advances-of-her-over-aggressive-boss-but-keeping-from-losing-her-job's Robin Van Persie. While that might be fine for Carling Cup matches or meaningless Champions League games where the group is already wrapped up (or just resting Van Persie in general), Chamakh simply doesn't fit into a match where Arsenal is behind and Van Persie is still playing. Aside from his poor form for the last year, he doesn't bring anything to the table and doesn't mesh right with the rest of the tactics. So when you see him warming up on the sidelines, it doesn't exactly make an Arsenal fan think "ok, we still have a shot at this thing."

The rest of the bench yesterday varies from "he doesn't do what we need right now" to "dear god no, not him!!" For the record, I view Emmanuel Frimpong as the former and Tomas Rosicky as the latter. The aforementioned Miquel is an interesting player who I think might have a future with the Gunners, but he isn't an attacking option that you bring into a match like this. I still haven't given up on Yossi Benayoun and if in the future Arsenal needs to bring on an experienced winger, I do hope Benayoun gets the call over Arshavin, but he isn't exactly a spark of energy at a desperate time. He's more the type of player who will see duty when Gervinho departs for national team duty. So who does that leave? Aside from Oxlade-Chamberlain, no one. There are some younger players that might grow into the role, and when Jack Wilshere comes back that will help since most likely there will be a rotation between him, Aaron Ramsey, and Mikel Arteta, but as of now Arsenal doesn't have the players for every situation.

With the loss at Manchester City, the depth issue has gone beyond the realm of "just in case someone gets hurt" or "when we need to rest a player." Arsenal's lack of an offensive substitute may have cost them three points on Sunday as the game was still there for the taking up to the very last second. I know that Arsene Wenger believes in his squad and I fully agree if he's limiting that belief to his starting squad. But the bench is not good enough and the Gunners can't afford to drop anymore points going forward. Here's hoping he has the good sense to find some upgrades during January.

Game Notes

-Aside from his nice effort on goal in the 56th minute or so, Theo Walcott was invisible during the big clash with Man City. It should be noted that he has been a big factor in many of Arsenal's games this year, most notably the win over Chelsea, so it is not my intention to bring up tired old stereotypes of Walcott's ability. But his absence was notable in a game where most people expected Arsenal to exploit City on the wings using the pace of Walcott and Gervinho. The Ivorian did his job but Walcott seemed lost during the game, never calling for the ball or making himself a part of the play. One game is excusable, even if it's a big one, but please don't make this a habit, Theo.

-I never thought I would lament an injury to Johan Djourou but I must admit to being quite worried when I saw him leaving the field on Sunday. With now five(!) fullbacks hurt, it looks like Arsenal will be forced to start Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker in the middle, with Ignasi Miquel on the left and Laurent Koscielny on the right. Things will get "better" when Kieran Gibbs comes back in a week and this starting four is not the worst that Arsenal could put forward, but the overlapping runs and marauding attitude of Bacary Sagna and Andre Santos were definitely missed in the match versus City. The ability of Arsenal's first-choice fullbacks to get forward puts teams further back on their heels, especially combined with the work and speed of Walcott and Gervinho. Miquel showed signs of getting forward on Sunday and Koscielny made a run or two, but with nowhere near the consistency of Sagna and Santos. Aside from the injury concern over Robin Van Persie, I think this lack of flank play will be the main worry for the Gunners going forward.

-I haven't mentioned him in the while, mostly because it seems that good matches from him are automatic, but Wojciech Szczesny is having a monster of a season. He made several crucial saves on City attackers and gave Arsenal a chance for the entirety of the match. I heard some rumblings about how he could have done more to punch Mario Balotelli's attempt away since it eventually became David Silva's tap-in goal, but that is nit-picking a man who has been sensational all year. The young Polish international has proven himself to be one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League this season and I for one am so happy to have ended the Manuel Almunia era. Kudos to you Wojciech. As Always, Go Gunners.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Fitting the Games to the Narratives

Several times this year I have mentioned different narratives that Arsenal fans have gotten used to, and deservedly so, over the years. Playing fancy rather than to score, trying to pass the ball into the net, not having a killer instinct, not being tough enough to hold on against top competition, and so on. Though these themes are simple constructions and constructions of this nature do not have a direct bearing on new matches, they are useful for various reasons. For starters, they are grounded in the facts of the past. Arsenal has, over the past couple of years, not seemed to have the steel and fortitude necessary when it was required. When the players got knocked around and roughed up, they seemed to fall to the ground and raise their hands, bewildered as to what the opposing team could possibly be doing. The desired response of course is that the Gunners would realize what was happening, adjust accordingly, and at the very least not let such tactics disrupt their game. Though these instances have occurred in the past, it is important to consider the narrative for the future because many of the current Arsenal players are veterans from those teams with all the troubles. There has been turnover of course and it would be easy to say that Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri were "those" kind of players and now things are completely different, but that would be a bit disingenuous and quite removed from reality. The fact is that this Arsenal squad will be rightly judged by the performances of the recent Arsenal squads until they prove that they are different. With this entire season taking a different tone than any past season (awful start, Arsene Wenger's job on the line, brilliant comeback, so on), why then is the team still being not just judged by past narratives but crammed into them?

If you watch this fantastic interview, you (hopefully) will come across thinking two things: 1. Russell Brand is much more intelligent than you had originally thought and; 2. His point about narratives is very well stated. For those who don't want to bother with the video, he argues that narratives are used in politics so often nowadays because it's a way to express an idea without actually having to argue for that idea. It's much easier to portray George W. Bush as a Washington outsider and a cowboy from Texas than it is to make that same argument when the evidence shows that he grew up in Connecticut, went to Yale, and has a man who was Vice-President and President for his father. We use these narratives to express things because it is an easy way to typecast and label someone or something with very little effort. It's a straw man argument, but one that is difficult to disprove because the story itself is built into the heads of the people who are already familiar with the subject matter. It would be very easy to use the "action hero" label on Colin Farrell due to his performances in movies like S.W.A.T. and Miami Vice and therefore assign a whole other set of characteristics, both positive and negative, without even having to enumerate or defend them. So now it would fall on a defender of Farrell to point out that he was brilliant in the dark comedy In Bruges, or that he played a very understated role in Crazy Heart, or that he was hilariously over the top in Horrible Bosses. It's an uphill battle to fight these narratives because they already exist in people's minds and merely need to be appealed to.

The Russell Brand interview was repeating in my mind as I watched the Arsenal vs Everton match today because I couldn't believe how hard the announcers were trying to make the match fit their prefabricated notion of what an Arsenal match really was. We've seen this plenty of times already this year, from pundits calling the early season the "downfall of Arsenal" despite the fact that at one point they had three starters suspended and another four injured, to a draw to Marseille at home being proof of the Gunners' lack of character. I've heard these comments before and they've annoyed me, but I acknowledge that I watch the team week in and week out and, as a fan, there is the possibility that I'm biased. However, today's commentary sent me over the edge. I have never heard a match be so obviously shoe-horned into a particular set of contrived ideas than the one today.

To me, it started with the chance that Theo Walcott had in the 15th minute. He received a beautiful through ball and broke into the box on the right side. Rather than take an open shot though, he tried to play across to Gervinho but an Everton defender slid in to break it up. Gervinho still got the ball back and put a shot in on the open net but another Everton defender slid in front of it to deflect the ball over the endline. In my notes on the match I had ripped Theo for not taking the shot initially, but then I saw that Howard had done well to come out and limit the angles and that there were two Arsenal players open to Walcott's left. I still would like to see him shoot it as maybe Howard would give up an easy rebound, but I understand that he saw a potentially better option with the pass to set up the tap-in goal. What came from this was the beginning of a game-long "Arsenal is trying to pass the ball into the net" narrative that never let up. It's one thing if you want to say "Theo should shoot there and if he doesn't then it has to be a better pass." It's a completely different story to say that this is a fundamental problem with Arsenal as a team. If that pass is properly spaced then the ball is in the back of the net and those same announcers would be praising Walcott's decision-making ability. And that's my problem. It's not that someone may disagree with me regarding an assessment of what happened, it's how disingenuous the whole build-up of this narrative is.

This went on throughout the match and the commentary got worse and worse. Despite Aaron Ramsey turning beautifully in the box and floating a shot just barely over the post, despite Walcott having a near post blast stopped by an outstretched Tim Howard, despite having Howard stop a low Gervinho when the Ivorian was in alone, despite all of these chances and just slightly missed balls, Arsenal's play had been "disappointing" at the half. I thought to myself "they have to be joking. This has been one of the most entertaining matches I've watched all year! Arsenal has had a lot of opportunities, true, but many of them were shut down by fabulous Everton defending or barely mistimed runs or passes. How could this be 'disappointing?'" The worst, in my mind, came in the 55th minute when Walcott thundered a low volley into the box that was just slightly behind Robin Van Persie, which caused the ball to deflect away. This was simply a well-struck ball that was inches away from being a goal, but was instead pinballed out in a reasonable fashion. Instead, the announcers called it "a wasted chance." I was stunned. "Unfortunate timing" I could see. "A bit unlucky" I would understand. "A wasted chance" because a ball that was well struck but never quite on target didn't go in the back of the net? You can call every play in the box that doesn't result in a goal a "wasted chance" then. Again, it's how people are disingenuous about these critiques. If the announcers weren't already working with the "disappointing match for Arsenal where they can't score a goal" narrative then the commentary would have been a little more balanced and a little more rational.

Luckily Van Persie put that narrative out of reach with his brilliant strike to put the Gunners ahead for good in the 7oth minute and in the end, a 1-0 Arsenal win was a very likely outcome. They had been the better team all game, had the most dangerous chances, and deserved to have one of them put in. Then again, Everton defended brilliantly all day and played very well for ninety minutes. They were unlucky not to get a point out of the match, and would have even been justified with the full three points if a bounce had gone their way. Ultimately, this was a hard fought game in which Arsenal attacked very well, Everton defended very well, and the game could have gone in either direction. And, but for a moment of brilliance, it may well have. Is it so wrong to say that? Is it so wrong to respond to a game as it's being played rather than shove whatever happens into the box of what you already want to say? I think that it might be best for all involved if we started looking at the games as they happen on the field rather than come in with your direction already prepared. But what do I know, I'm not a commentator.

Game Notes

-Briefly keeping with the theme of the narratives, did the announcers really need to reach so hard as to call Theo Walcott's performance "disappointing" and say that he needs to "develop consistency" despite the fact that he very nearly set up two goals, almost scored one himself were it not for a world class save by Tim Howard, and was an absolute menace on the wings whenever he touched the ball? He did miss a couple of crosses badly, which he knows is not his strong suit, but he still had a largely productive game. Michael Cox wrote an excellent article recently where he asked "Why so hesitant and forced?" when people praised Walcott, and he's right. Walcott has played exceptionally this year, posing a constant threat on the wings while adding two goals and four assists during Premier League play. What does he need to do for people to start giving him at least some credit?

-Speaking of credit, here's some for Alex Song, my man of the match. All game long Song was instrumental in playing the strong holding midfielder role in front of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker (due to Thomas Vermaelen being forced to play out of position at left full), but he did much more than that. He passed well out from the back and he also made several brilliant passes up to the front, including the perfectly weighted chip that found Van Persie for the game winner. His outside of the foot curling through balls almost led to several other goals as he had one of his best games of the year. Brilliant stuff from Alex Song.

-Once again though, the ominous specter of Depth looms over Arsenal, waiting to derail its title hopes. When the match was still 0-0 in the 65th minute or so, I was looking over the bench list to see who they could bring on to liven up the game. I then became extremely worried. Arshavin, Benayoun, Rosicky, Chamakh? Good God. When Walcott pulled up lame, I first looked for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a replacement only to see that he wasn't even on the bench. I understand that Arsene Wenger wants to rely on his veterans as a stabilizing presence, but they are not game changers. He either needs to let some kids like Oxlade-Chamberlain have some run, or make smart moves during the transfer window. If he doesn't, Arsenal just won't have the firepower to outrun Depth. As Always, Go Gunners.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Losing Steam?

Momentum is a funny thing in sports. It is incredibly important but is created through all kinds of events, from hustle plays to unbelievable outcomes. It can drive good players to do great things and great players to become historic, yet sometimes it seems to have no affect on players at all. Some players soldier on regardless of the tide crashing into them (e.g. Aaron Rodgers) while others couldn't be carried to shore at Manhattan Beach (e.g. AJ Burnett). But it really does seem that anything can start or change it. There are certain instances where it is fairly obvious: a walk-off home run changes the momentum of a series, or a huge interception gets a team into that "we can win this thing" mode. But other times it's something less noticeable: a scrappy shift by a fourth line in a playoff game or a sweetly struck winner up the line by a player who was starting to lose faith in himself. When anything can change momentum, fans begin to worry at the smallest signs of a team faltering if that team has done it in the past. No Minnesota Vikings or Cleveland Browns fan doesn't get that lump in their throat when things start to fall apart. No Washington Capitals or San Jose Sharks fan doesn't throw up their hands and yell "Again?!" when their team gives up a big goal in a playoff game. Even when fans try to be supportive, you can still sense that nervous energy that buzzes around the stadium and the worry is always that the players feel it too. Given that Arsenal has had plenty of those moments over the last couple of years, what are we to make of the sloppy loss at Olympiakos?

Arsenal went into this match with all the momentum in the world. Arsenal was undefeated in their last 11 Champions League and Premier League matches coming into this game and people were starting to believe in them. That streak had allowed them to win their Champions League group prior to the last group stage match as well as rise to fifth on the English table, only a win/loss weekend away from climbing above Chelsea into the coveted fourth spot. Moreover, the team was playing as a real team, with Robin Van Persie leading the way looking like an absolute world beater. The hardships the Gunners had undergone seemed to bring them together and they looked tight knit, be it on celebrations after goals or the way they looked to pick out each other rather than running into multiple defenders and giving up the ball as well as their hopes. It would be quite reasonable to think that this new and improved Arsenal squad was on its way to better times. But then came the stumbling block.

Let's say first off that this match had everything going against Arsenal and every fan knew it. Arsenal had already advanced so were playing for nothing; Olympiakos needed a win to advance so were playing for everything; the match was in Greece; Arsenal was going to rest their most important starters; for the Gunners, the game didn't matter. And so it would be perfectly reasonable if Arsenal went out, knocked the ball around, scored maybe once, and got beat by a more enthusiastic, more desperate Olympiakos side. But what happened was far less routine than all of that. It wasn't that Arsenal lost 3-1, a reasonable score for this type of match. It was the way that they lost. The defense looked horrendous, partly due to a disinterested effort from Thomas Vermaelen, the first time I've really seen him play that way. Olympiakos pressed high and rather than string two or three passes to beat the first man and break into space, Arsenal's youngsters constantly gave the ball away. There were rarely connections between the ball coming out of the back to the attackers up front, especially once the perennial Greek contenders began to dominate possession. Once again, this can be excused by the inexperience of the up-and-comers that received the starts, but it doesn't explain the lackluster performance from Andrei Arshavin or why Yossi Benayoun was borderline non-existent. The iconic moment of the match was of course when third string keeper Vito Mannone botched a second save by foolishly trying to scissor kick a shot away when he had already retreated into the box and could have caught it instead. While this could all be expected from a game where Arsenal had nothing to win, in some people's minds it will be seen that they still had something to lose.

In my mind, however, this Arsenal team is different. I have written about it all year long and I believe that the pressure these players have been under all year has molded rather than broken them. The loss at Tottenham could have destroyed them. Instead the Gunners rattled off five straight wins in the Premier League. Their inability to clinch the Champions League group at home against Marseille could have set nerves on edge. Instead they went out and clinched the very next match against Borussia Dortmund. The home draw to Fulham could have brought the team back down to earth and made them doubt their goal scoring abilities. Instead Arsenal came back and blasted four tallies in at Wigan. This team has been playing from behind for so long that they no longer have excuses. They wouldn't have made it back to this point if they didn't believe they could win and a game like this is not going to stop that momentum. For Everton on Saturday, the full squad will be back out again and we'll see what the response will be. My money is on another Premier League win.

Game Notes

-With all that went wrong for Arsenal on Tuesday, the biggest was obviously the loss of Andre Santos for "a while" according to Arsene Wenger. Santos is still a fairly weak on-the-ball defender, but his runs down the left side and the combination play with Gervinho has been electrifying all season long. Even if you're the type of viewer who doesn't believe in the play of Santos, it's hard to argue that he wasn't the best option. Aside from being terrible, Kieran Gibbs, and Carl Jenkinson are both injured, so the role of left back could go to anyone from Laurent Koscielny to Ignasi Miquel to Thomas Vermaelen, though I dismiss the latter as a garbage idea due to how important Vermaelen is to the organization of the defense. Personally, I would keep Koscielny on the right hand side until Bacary Sagna is back and try out Ignasi Miquel on the left because in my mind, the only other option is Johan Djourou and we've already seen that he's only the answer when other players need a rest.

-One thing Arsenal must prepare for each match is their opponent pressing high as it continues to work against the Gunners. To be fair, this week it worked against young players and under-performing veterans and Arsenal was able to effectively counter when Fulham tried to get too close, using quick passing to break through the first line. But until they prove that they can counter it routinely and with devastating results, the high pressure will always been in the back pocket of opposing managers.

-Thomas Vermaelen, I expect games like that from Andrei Arshavin but not you. You're the heart and soul of this defense, perhaps of this team, and you can't have performances like that when your team needs you. Lukasz Fabianski and Vito Mannone are by no means fine goalkeepers, but you did them no favors with your soft back passes and inconsistent marking. I know you were working with Sebastien Squillaci (perish the thought) but you have to make him better rather than sink to his level. I know you're a gamer and I know you're a leader, so I have faith in you. Prove me right. As Always, Go Gunners.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Game Like This Was Coming

Starting out the season struggling is not normal for Arsenal. Failing to control possession during matches is not normal for Arsenal. Hell, standing up to physical play is not normal for Arsenal. However, a sense of normality returned to this Arsenal season as the Gunners finally had one of those matches where everything seems to be going right... but then it doesn't. Hosting Fulham on Saturday, Arsenal had the majority of chances (9 to 2 shots on goal), the majority of possession (56% to 44%), and the majority of corner kicks (a staggering 13 to 4), but could do no better than to salvage a draw. This was just "one of those games" for Arsenal fans, a game that you knew was coming because things had just been going a bit too well lately. A win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge? Uh-oh. Five straight Premier League wins? Getting nervous. Locking up first place in their Champions League group with a match still to play? Yup, things are about to go bad. It's the soccer version of the characters deciding to split up during a horror movie, except you don't want to yell at the screen because things have been going so well. But the honeymoon can't last forever and eventually the rising Gunners had to fall back to earth a bit. Too many games, too little margin for error. It was in the cards. The question is, was it a bump in the road or was it a sign of things to come?

Arsenal had won 8 of their last 9, with the only oddity being a 0-0 draw to Marseille in a classic "this doesn't mean everything, let's rest some people" game. Keep in mind, this was a run that they needed due to their past problems. The Gunners started the year taking only 1 out of 9 possible points, dumped what should have been an easy win to Blackburn, and lost matches to Liverpool and Tottenham, two teams that will most likely be competing for a Champions League spot until the end of the season. Arsenal also were forced to beat Udinese in a home and away playoff to make it into this year's Champions League, all while trying to find a viable lineup with all of the injuries and suspensions they were facing. The hole had been dug deep and to Arsenal's credit, they managed to climb their way out. More than just the wins, the attacking flair and possession game had returned as well. They weren't just winning games, but adapting to situations and doing what they needed to do to achieve results. I have been bullish on the Gunners play in the last few weeks and don't regret any of what I said, though I do note that I have said that the reborn squad needs to face sterner tests before we can hand them a 2012-2013 Champions League spot. This stumble at home to Fulham has given fans cause for pause and reevaluation, but there are reasons to think it was a momentary hiccup.

1. Arsene Wenger seems to have found his lineup. As players became used to the system and used to playing with each other, a pattern emerged and now we generally know what to expect from night to night, save the player at right back due to the injury to Bacary Sanga. With that consistency has come comfort and you can see it on the field. Gervinho is combining well with Robin Van Persie. Aaron Ramsey is finding the quick pass rather than turning all the way back to midfield himself. Mikel Arteta is beginning to become more of an influence rather than simply the person who receives the ball from the back. In short, a team that was in flux early in the season is now one unit and that lends itself to better teamwork. That's not going to go away just because of one draw at home.

2. Fulham played very well defensively. So far I have just discussed the way Arsenal has behaved (surprise surprise, it's an Arsenal blog), but Fulham deserves credit for their organization and response. This was a "park the bus" type of gameplan and for the most part it worked. Arsenal had chances in the first half, but not so many quality chances that they were incredibly unlucky to remain goalless. In the second half, Fulham got the break they needed on Thomas Vermaelen's own goal and then soaked up most of the Arsenal pressure, though they did concede to Vermaelen on their own end as well. Credit to goaltender Mark Schwarzer for a phenomenal game as well. It was not an absolutely masterful job all around, but the visitors did a good job of keeping Arsenal at arm's length for most of the game. Still...

3. The bad luck. It comes in all forms really. Ramsey skying a tap-in somehow. Per Mertesacker's header glancing just wide. Vermaelen's own goal. And then the bad luck that isn't quite luck, but still creates that "nothing's going right" feeling. Schwarzer stoning Johan Djourou's header on the goalline. Van Persie shooting at an open net, but the Fulham defender covering the angle perfectly to clear off the line. Andrei Arshavin scoring a goal, but from the offside position. So many things had to happen for this scoreline to be what it is. If Arsenal scored first, Fulham has to come out of their shell and expose themselves to counterattacks. If Arsenal kept attacking at 0-0 and Fulham didn't put eleven men behind the ball, that goal was going to come. If Vermaelen doesn't put one in his own net, Fulham likely doesn't score because they were putting almost no pressure on Arsenal. If Arsenal doesn't blah blah blah. The point here is that so much went wrong it's hard to look at this match and start to worry because it would be incredibly difficult to replicate the issues.

However, there is one key issue in the minds of all Arsenal players, coaches, and fans that has them looking over their shoulder at the Arsenal collapse of this past spring: depth. I mentioned before that Wenger has found his optimal lineup, and this is undoubtedly a good thing. The only downside is that this lineup is the optimal one because there aren't very many other variations that could even be considered. Save Laurent Koscielny, I wouldn't feel comfortable with any other defenders seeing considerable playing time in either the Champions League or Premier League. Save Emmanuel Frimpong or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, there are no midfielders I would want to see in a starting lineup for multiple games. And worst of all, there is no one on this club that can fill even one of Van Persie's boots. Eventually, Sagna and Jack Wilshere will come back and there'll be more depth in each line. But that is a long way down the road. Until then, Arsenal is forced to play the same players week in and week out due to chasing teams in the Premier League and entering the knockout stage of Champions League. There are no games off. That will absolutely take its toll over time, and it should be Wenger's prime concern during the January transfer window. When their best lineup is in, Arsenal look like they can contend in every league they play in. But sooner or later, they will be unable to play their best lineup, and that's when we'll wonder just how far they can go.

Game Notes

-I was skeptical at the beginning of the season, but I do see the value in Andre Santos now. He is not the best at on-the-ball defending, this much is true. And he hasn't been put in a head-to-head match-up that has tested his ability to remain a force going forward while still playing defense (to steal a phrase from Men in Blazers, he hasn't proved that he can "Cherundolo"). But my god, he gets forward so well that I'm starting not to care. I should care, I know. He's too unproven to get fully behind and if Arsenal were truly putting a stellar team forward, he would be the backup to a more well-rounded back. But for the money spent in this summer's transfer market, Arsene Wenger has done quite well.

-After praising Wenger, I feel like I should question him. When are some of the younger players for Arsenal going to get the chance to step up and play? Oxlade-Chamberlain has proven that he can play on a big stage, so why not give him a home start and spell Gervinho or Walcott? Emmanuel Frimpong can be somewhat impetuous, but he's played well this year. Why not let him spell Alex Song? Francis Coquelin is already making noise about leaving Arsenal for more playing time and he's a quality player. Why not throw him out there and see if he can make an impression? Players will need to rest and while I see the benefit of being able to bring in Arshavin or Yossi Benayoun with their experience, these young players need to get run as well, and not just in Carling Cup matches. Arsenal can't roll out the same starting eleven game after game so why not give a shot to these players with upside rather than the veterans who have already maxed theirs out?

-Every now and then it seems that we get a glimpse of everything Theo Walcott could be and this match against Fulham was one of those times. Walcott was the main outlet for Arsenal on Saturday and he made the most of it. He played well down the wing and even whipped in a well struck cross or two, but he was most dangerous when cutting inside with the ball and threatening goal. He now seems to have developed that shooter's instinct that is so necessary and I continue to wonder why, with all of the experimenting Wenger has done this year, Walcott hasn't been paired with Van Persie up top for the classic "target man, speed man" striker duo? I'm not claiming that it will work for sure, but it's something that is worth trying out. Hopefully Arsene begins to see things my way. As Always, Go Gunners.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Evolution of Arsenal

All Arsenal fans want this year's team (and every year's team) to be a dominant and dynamic passing team, one who keeps possession of the ball but also gets forward strongly and cuts apart the opposing defense with clever one-twos and incisive through balls. A team that is simply better than their opponents and forces their foes to adapt to the Arsenal style of play rather than the other way around. A team who imposes their will and beats you how they want to beat you. That is the gold standard and will always be the ideal for every iteration of the Gunners. It is that kind of team that Arsene Wenger tries to build, those types of players he recruits, and to get to that point is the ultimate goal of the assembled squad. All of this being said, that of course can't happen every year. You can't spend every single season as the best team in the world and the most dominant team in the world. Still, the best team doesn't win every year, so other teams have a shot. The trick is for teams to figure out how to play their very best. Arsenal may not be an absolute force of will this year and they are most definitely not one of the favorites to win Champions League and be crowned the best team in the world. But with their win over Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday, they have clinched first place in their group and seem to have figured how to adapt when they can't impose.

In my last blog post, I made a big deal about how the old Arsenal style of possession passing was back and it was a great thing. I should have been more careful to point out the difference between that style being back and that style imposing its will. This Arsenal team has gotten to the point where they can retain their passing style against teams that range from bad to somewhat above average (I only don't include "good" or "great" teams because we haven't seen the improved Arsenal team play any of those teams yet), which is no mean feat considering where they were two months ago. But just because they are able to play that way does not mean that they control the game that way. It is simply the style that gives them the best chance to win. Against teams like West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City, the passing game does dominate. Arsenal moves the ball around quickly, they're always on the attack, and the goals seem to come as if they were preordained, an obvious eventuality. However, when playing against a talented and spirited Borussia Dortmund squad, the passing game seemed more a tactic than destiny, and more plan than force of will. But, and this is the important fact to note, that tactic, that strategy, that choice gave the Gunners the tools to win the match.

Early in the match. Dortmund was absolutely flying around the field winning every ball, starting quick on the counter, and pressuring Arsenal high up the field. The German side was simply better for the first half an hour or so as they created more chances (including a vicious strike that went just wide left of the goal), showed more energy, and forced more turnovers in the middle of the field. But Arsenal didn't concede. Nor did they look panicked. Nor did they allow Dortmund to completely overwhelm them. What Arsenal did was slowly pull themselves back into the match and this is why I'm more convinced than ever that this Arsenal team knows how to win now. They knew that Dortmund needed a breakthrough early for several reasons:

1. Dortmund was playing away and feeding off the "us vs them" mentality, not to mention the support of their outstanding traveling fans.
2. Dortmund could not keep this pace up forever. No team can fly around the field that much for a full ninety minutes, not even if they have Bob Bradley drilling the mantra "conditioning over creativity" into their heads at every practice.
3. Dortmund had to use two substitutes in the first half hour due to injury, including their most talented playmaker Mario Gotze.

So Arsenal did what a smart team would do. They defended well and looked for attacks on the counter. Thomas Vermaelen did an excellent job organizing the defense and Alex Song had one of his better games as a solid defensive midfielder. For a while, the counters weren't working. They were losing the ball too easily or Dortmund was defending too well. But as the match went on, an Arsenal player would turn and actually have space. The string of passes to work out from the back would connect instead of being poked away by a lunging Dortmund player. The Gunners fought their way back into control of the game rather than just counter vs counter. If soccer was scored like boxing where you decided who won each three minute round, Arsenal might have been down as many as twelve rounds to three at halftime. But the score was still 0-0 and Arsenal was in control. There hadn't been a knockdown and definitely no knockouts, despite all the punches that Dortmund threw. Instead, it was Arsenal that landed the first haymaker when Song put in one of the best individual moments of creativity I've seen this year (I know, it sounds weird when I read that too). Dribbling down the left wing for what seemed like an eternity, he made a beautiful move to split two defenders and then picked his head up to put in a well-measured cross that Robin Van Persie nodded into the back of the net. From there on out, Arsenal had the lead and control of the match, and they did it by playing how they wanted to play, even if they couldn't dominate the entire game that way. It would seem that this team has learned how to win, and if that's true, they've done it at just the right time, sitting three points out of fourth place in the Premier League and into the knockout stages of the Champions League as the group winner.

Game Notes

-I guess this is why you play Alex Song. As I said to another Arsenal fan in the bar, "he's good for moments of stupidity twice every game, but has one of those once every five games." I don't think that's far off from the truth, but you have to hand it to him. When he has one of his good games, they're really superb. Against Dortmund, he defended very well, stopped counters, and brought the ball up from the back. Plus, he did that thing where he impossibly got between two defenders, cut inside, and put a perfect cross in for the go ahead goal. I know that Song isn't an elite defensive midfielder and it's a spot they should upgrade at some point. But I have that kind of love/hate relationship with him that every fan has with a member of their team.

-Another very encouraging sign from Arsenal is the way they're responding to physical play. In past years, commentators have said that they don't have the steel to beat teams like Chelsea or Manchester United because as soon as they get knocked off the ball and "can't play all fancy," they take themselves out of the game to a degree. I don't see that so far this year. The game against Dortmund was very physical and there was little to no dropping to the ground and looking plaintively at the officials. Instead, there was a lot of good, strong shielding of the ball and working in space, even from players I wouldn't have expected to do that like Mikel Arteta. Considering how physical and demanding the Premier League can be for a full season, this is a great attitude to see from the Gunners.


No seriously, he's amazing right now. As Always, Go Gunners.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Having the Old Arsenal Back is a Double-Edged Sword

When Arsenal has been at their best under Arsene Wenger, they have been a crisp possession team whose pinpoint passes cannot help but open up the defense, allowing for a plethora of chances on goal. Until this year, their field captain was Cesc Fabregas and he was masterful in directing play, sending perfectly timed and weighted passes to teammates in space so that they could threaten the net. Unfortunately during this time the team also picked up another characteristic: making a mess of many of the chances they created. It was an interesting combination of a lack of the killer scoring touch and a lack of the killer scoring instinct, a pairing that not only led to a large number of baffling misses, but a general predilection for trying to create the "perfect goal" rather than simply, you know, score. I can't count how many times last year I heard announcers accuse Arsenal of "trying to pass the ball into the net," usually after an Arsenal attacker decided against taking an open shot on goal in a misguided attempt to make a perfect pass to set up his teammate. The frustration (aside from failing to score, of course) was in the realization of what the team was trying. They weren't trying just to score; they were trying to score pretty. I appreciate scoring stylish goals as they are more fun to watch and it is more enjoyable to witness beautiful, expressive soccer than physical drudgery (Stoke, looking at you). But the showmanship aspect of it cannot come at the expense of the scoring itself, the need to win. The style of play does not necessitate the issues the Gunners have had in the past, but the two have gone hand-in-hand for the last couple of years. Saturday against Norwich City, Arsenal made a return to their dominant possession passing during a match in which they controlled the ebb and flow almost perfectly. The problem was that their inability to finish chances came back as well.

The good news overall is obviously the return to proper passing form. Granted this comes with a giant "OH MY GOD IT WAS JUST NORWICH CITY" type of disclaimer, but Arsenal finally dictated play to their opponents in a way that we haven't seen yet this year. Their play is steadily improving and they are unbeaten in their last eight matches in all competitions, but they have been winning in games that tend to ebb and flow, with both sides getting their chances. Winning is winning, but for Arsenal to climb the table and make it back into position to play in the Champions League next year, they need to be a dominant team. They have dropped too many points already to play back and forth games and expect to always come out on the right side of them with no bad luck whatsoever. So it's a very healthy sign to see the control side of their game come back. It's just unfortunate to see its dark, hauntingly masochistic side come back as well.

This was a problem that Arsenal didn't have the luxury to have so far yet this year because they weren't playing well enough to know if they were getting too cute or too lethargic. Arsenal has had to fight in every match they've been in so far this year save the West Brom and Norwich City tilts, so we as fans didn't know if they had shaken the habit. I mentioned that this problem was occurring during the "Fabregas Years" but I don't mention his name in an attempt to blame him specifically. If anything he was one of the more goal-minded players considering how often he scored from his midfield position, though I admit that on occasion he could be guilty of attempting a cheeky back heel or two. So it wasn't as if clearing out Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichey was going to remove that attitude. There was no reason to suspect it went the way of the buffalo, just the hope that it did.

The good thing for Arsenal is that in a way it has. The problem is still there, but it seems that the root cause has changed. The Gunners led the Canaries 11-2 in shots on target in this match. That number and that disparity do not speak to a team that is frittering away opportunities on silly extra passes or holding onto the ball too long waiting for the perfect angle. The cause it seems here is a matter of polish, of execution. Time and again chances weren't. going. in. the net. There is no other way to say it. Some of that is poor shooting, like in the 55th when Gervinho deked around the goalkeeper to open up the net, only to shoot the ball directly into the man he just beat. But then there are times like the 12th when Theo Walcott cut inside and curled a shot at the open back post, only to have a flailing Norwich defender kick it just over the bar. Walcott is given to ripping shots when he has a look now, Gervinho isn't shy, and Aaron Ramsey is starting to get into the act as well. This is a team that is looking to score just to score. The early part of the season has robbed them of the leeway necessary to win how they want to win. They just need to win.

Game Notes

-One man that is obviously unaffected by this former lack of killer instinct and current lack of finishing touch is Robin Van Persie. His brace in this match gave him 30 goals in the past calender year and 13 goals in the Premier League this season. Those are crazy numbers folks, absolutely crazy. I have criticized him before for not being elite and not having that "out of nowhere" ability that the great strikers do but this run of play can't be anything but praised. It is scary that he seems to be the only Arsenal player with the ability to put the ball in the back of the net, but if he keeps this up it may not be necessary to find anyone else. One thing that Arsene Wenger would be wise to do during the January transfer window though is to prepare for the pants-shittingly scary possibility that Van Persie gets hurt and Arsenal is left without a scoring presence up front. He has been injury prone in the past and the likes of Marouane Chamakh and Park Chu-Young are not going to do it at this point. For now though, let's not assume his future is full of nagging leg injuries and appreciate the form he is in because it is brilliant.

-One interesting change that Wenger made for this match was to try Laurent Koscielny out as the right fullback. I don't believe that Koscielny should be given much run as a starting center full, but he has played well lately and is capable coming forward from the back, so giving him a shot at right full is actually a very interesting idea. My view from this game is that it's a work in progress. I don't mean that as a nice way of saying that it didn't work out, just as the honest answer that I'm not sure if it'll work yet. He wasn't glaringly bad in his on the ball defending, but he also wasn't challenged that much. He got forward well enough, but not at length and his ability to cross balls into the box wasn't tested. Hopefully he gets more run at this spot as I'm curious to see if he is the short-term answer to the absence of Bacaray Sanga.

-Per Mertesacker, step your shit up. You almost cost the Gunners points because of your piss-poor shielding and astonishing lack of strength. In a contest that Arsenal was dominating, you let a man go around you in front of the goal, collapsing to the ground at the slightest amount of contact. Unacceptable. You haven't been bad so far this year, but your slowness worries me and now your compete level (to use a hockey phrase) does too. A tough, rugged defender would have shielded that ball no problem and a smart defender would have just gotten rid of it. Thomas Vermaelen could choose either of those options and do it right. You were too soft to do one and too stupid to do the other. Get it together. We need you. As always, Go Gunners.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Don't Drop Points

On Saturday, Arsenal took care of business and handled West Bromwich Albion 3-0 in a convincing, albeit fairly boring fashion. On the one hand, Gunners fans would like a little more verve from Arsenal. They would like to see their team dashing up and down the flanks, attacking menacingly, dominantly possessing the ball, and looking hungry for the next score. And the next, and the next, and the next. However, Arsenal still controlled this match and never let things get away from them. And for fans, sometimes dash and flair can be relinquished in exchange for your team never scaring you during what should be a routine victory. That is the heart of all of this. What Arsenal needs to do now is to not drop any unnecessary points and make sure that the victories keep coming in.

Soccer fans talk about not dropping points the way that NFL fans talk about winning the games you're supposed to win. In the end the phrasing is irrelevant as the meaning is the same, but the concept is even more important to soccer. I don't mean this as some kind of snooty "soccer is more important" comment, I mean that as a legitimate argument. For the novice English Premier League follower, the season is 38 matches long. With 20 teams in the EPL, that means that every team plays every other team both home and away during the season, a structure that I'm a huge fan of, though that's not exactly part of my argument. In each of these 38 matches there are three possible results: win, lose, or draw. There are no shootouts or overtime periods in these league matches. At the end of 90 minutes (plus injury time), the match stops and we have our result. Similar to the NHL, soccer uses a point system rather than a straight record system. A win earns a team 3 points, a draw 1 point, a loss 0 points.

Right here you will notice an important difference between soccer and hockey: the difference between a win and a draw (well, overtime or shootout loss when talking about hockey) is greater. I speak from experience when I say that having your hockey team lose in a shootout isn't the worst thing in the world. Of course the win is the desired outcome, but the team still gets a point out of a loss and they only miss out on one additional point as well. To give you an idea of how things would change in hockey under the soccer point system, the Los Angeles Kings would have jumped two playoff spots in the 2010-2011 season due to their elevated win total versus teams that relied more on overtime/shootout losses. Hockey isn't really the main competitor with soccer for the importance of taking care of business, though. The 82 game season is enough to diminish the impact of each individual game, not to mention that the mentality of "let's just hang on until overtime" doesn't exist in soccer. A team can hang on until the end of a match to secure one point from a draw, but they don't then get the opportunity to go for the win with one point already secured. This is absolutely not a knock on hockey (I love hockey, trust me) but it is something that takes away from the importance of winning when you should win.

The main competition here is between soccer and professional football. I specifically say "professional" because college football by far has the most hanging on each game. I mean, it's a bunch of kids who must run the table in order to have a shot to be the national champions, and even then an undefeated team isn't guaranteed a chance. The votes and the lack of any kind of playoff when the majority of the good teams don't play each other during the regular season just adds to the ridiculousness and value of each game, so I acknowledge that. But the NFL versus the EPL is a legitimate argument. At the surface, the NFL seems to have more riding on its games. In addition to the EPL having more than double the games in an NFL season, the NFL doesn't have a tie option, at least not one with the same likelihood as the Premiership. If there were three ties during the entirety of an NFL season, I think we would all agree that was a rather high amount. It wouldn't be rare to see double that number during one week in England, which means that soccer is much less of a zero-sum game than football. A team in the NFL can't salvage something out of a close game. They're going to win or they're going to lose.

So why do I say that the EPL matches matter more? Because there is no playoff. In the NFL, everyone can drop a game here or there because all they need to do is make it to the playoffs. Three of the last six Super Bowl Champions have been wild card teams and out of the last ten years, only the 2003 Patriots won the Super Bowl as the overall number one seed (the 2009 Saints were the number one seed in the NFC but the Colts had a better record). The main goal for the NFL regular season is to make the playoffs. If a team can pick up a bye and home field advantage throughout, even better. But in order to have a chance at the title, you just need to get in there. The EPL is completely different because the champion is whichever team has the most points at the end of the season. There is no tournament, not even a two team playoff. The winner is the winner and that is that. Suddenly, those two points your team dropped in August look a lot more important now. The bad loss your team took at home to an inferior opponent is that much more damning. Last year in the last third of the season, Arsenal drew twice and lost twice to teams that finished in the bottom half of the table. That's 10 points down the drain in four "easy" matches, points that would have had them hot on the heels of Manchester United for the title and easily into the Champions League for this season. Now, hindsight is 20/20 and Man U could play the same "we dumped points here and here" kind of game. But the point is when all you can reach for is number one, the times you fall short hurt that much more.

Over the next month (roughly), Arsenal has four straight matches against Norwich City, Fulham, Wigan, and Everton. Meaning no offense to those teams whatsoever, those are four matches that Arsenal should win. If they can do that, they'll be sitting no worse than 7th on the table and more likely will be up around 6th or even 5th. Blow one or two of those matches and we might already be looking forward to the 2012-2013 season for European play. Here's hoping they can take care of business and pick up all the available points.

Game Notes

-Robin Van Persie is at it again, this time with a goal and two assists to guide Arsenal to victory. If this is what he's going to do to prove me wrong, I should start dogging him more often. He now has 11 goals and 3 assists on the season, by far the high man in the Premiership so far. More importantly, he has taken on the weight of the captaincy and is leading by example, pulling Arsenal out of the gloom of the beginning of the season and, for the time being, putting them back in contention. I hesitate to praise him as I fear the bad luck that will follow, but thus far he has earned it.

-Another good thing to come from this match was the return of the possession game. Arsenal is at their best when possessing the ball and building up the attack, but that has been missing somewhat this year. They still usually come out ahead on the possession stat, but it always feels like that happens for short stretches at a time without leaving them in control of the match. Two minutes of possession followed by a minute where they are frantically sprinting downfield to recover and fend off a chance by their opponents. In this match, however, the Gunners dominated with 67% possession and seemed in control the whole time, never really letting West Bromwich Albion into the match. Now, let's temper this by pointing out that the match was against West Bromwich Albion. Still, progress is progress and I for one welcome it.

-It seems that Arsene Wenger has settled into his optimal line-up for the year, even though there was some juggling in this game. Though Laurent Koscielny started on Saturday, it is clear that Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen will be the starting centerbacks with Andre Santos on the left and Carl Jenkinson on the right. Once Bacaray Sagna comes back he will of course replace Jenkinson, but that is a long way out. In the midfield, Mikel Arteta has settled into the deep-set string-pulling position with Alex Song playing as the defensive middie. Jack Wilshere can also play Arteta's role (and should to promote his development) so it will be interesting to see what Wenger does when he comes back. However, that might not be until the spring so such worries are a long way off. Aaron Ramsey is the central link to the forward play, with Gervinho and Theo Walcott providing the pace and playmaking on the wings. All of this of course is focused on getting Van Persie involved in every match so that he can continue his winning ways. Personally, I would like to see both Emmanuel Frimpong and Francis Coquelin get more time because they are both promising players, they both play hard through the entire game, and frankly, I just don't trust Alex Song. I think that Song is still the best option as defensive mid, but he will almost assuredly miss time this year due to yellow card accumulation or a red card. Wenger needs to have those substitutes ready, both for then, and for the future. As always, Go Gunners.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

This is Why I Can't Believe Yet

The post I made about Arsenal after their match versus Chelsea was a post about how fans of sports teams need something to make them believe their team could win before full emotional support could be given. I said that while the win against Chelsea was a big step, I wasn't quite ready to commit yet and as if to prove my hesitation an act of prescience, Arsenal managed to draw 0-0 at home on Tuesday against Marseille. Don't misunderstand me, this wasn't a collapse of epic proportions or a terrible misstep by a team that needed a win. Though a win at home is the obvious desire and though Marseille were happy to get a point out of this match, Arsenal had just come off an emotional win against Chelsea on Saturday and has an important match (to their Premiership hopes, not in terms of the level of competition) with West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. It is understandable that Arsene Wenger would rest the most important player to his team, Robin Van Persie, and put faith in the rest of his squad to do what was needed to get the win. The only problem was, this faith was misplaced.

In the past few years, there have been two main complaints against Arsenal: they are sloppy on defense and they can't finish the chances they create. Both are fairly self-explanatory, but allow me to explain. While some have honed in on Arsenal's lack of ability to defend set pieces (a valid point, trust me), it's more important to take this as a whole and understand that Arsenal has trouble picking up the correct runs to defend, when to stop the ball, tracking runs through midfield, and so on. Attackers are often left unmarked or shaded incorrectly and Arsenal give up goals when it looks like all they had to do was have a basic understanding of defensive positioning. At the front, Arsenal simply don't score. Well, that's perhaps the wrong way to say things. Last year the Gunners scored 72 goals, second only to the 78 of Manchester United, the Premiere League champions. I suppose the right way to say this is that they score their goals in bunches or not at all, often mirroring what their opponent does and no more. It's fantastic to win 6-0 over Blackpool and 4-1 over Bolton in the beginning of the season, but it is indefensible to draw both Sunderland and Blackburn 0-0 at the Emirates in the latter third of the year. Arsenal often dominate possession and put chances on goal, but can't finish the job. Regardless of these problems, Arsenal finished 4th on the table last year and qualified for Champions League play. What then is the outlook for this year?

Needless to say, both based on the start to the season and the talent that left before the season started, the outlook is not so good. It is far from dire, but Arsenal cannot expect to leave these issues unresolved and slide into Champions League play again. Looking at the defense, they have gotten off to their bad start partly due to injuries. Thomas Vermaelen is a spectacular center full. When he is on the field, he organizes the team and can single-handedly save chances and goals for Arsenal. The problem is that he is only one man. At the best of times last years, he was playing with Laurent Koscielny, a maddeningly inconsistent counterpart who has had similar problems this year. And when Vermaelen is injured, as he often is, Koscielny must play and at times must lead the defense. This year, there is a more viable second center full in Per Mertesacker. Vermaelen and Mertesacker is the obvious center pair and they looked quite good against Marseille on Tuesday. However if one of them is out of the lineup, as Vermaelen was the first part of this year with an injury, then the defense is downgraded significantly and the middle of the defense is no better than last year. Flank play is something that saved Arsenal at times during the 2010-2011 season because both Gael Clichey and Bacaray Sagna are fantastic two way players. The problem this year is that Clichey has moved on to Manchester City while Sagna is out for months with a foot injury. Now Arsenal must deal with Carl Jenkinson and Andre Santos, players who love to get forward but are very suspect with their on-the-ball defending. This is the problem that Arsenal faces this year. The wings will be less solid because of the personnel available, so Vermaelen and Mertesacker must work with defensive midfielder Alex Song to lock down the middle of the field, stop runs before they start, track players through effectively, and avoid giving up cheap goals off of free kicks. If these players can stay healthy and play cohesively, Arsenal might be slightly better on defense than they were last year.

The problem on offense right now is quite simple: Robin Van Persie is the offense. When Danny Welbeck went down with an injury earlier this year for Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson had the oh-so-terrible front two of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez. And if Man U needs to dip further into the well because of a number of games played in a row, they have the proven goalscoring talent of Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen on the bench. Manchester City has the luxury of starting Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli, or Edin Dzeko, and that's with Carlos Tevez essentially being kicked off the team. Who do Arsenal have when they need to rest Van Persie, either temporarily for a match to give him a breather, or, god forbid, long term if he goes down with an injury (and guess what: he's injury prone)? Marouane Charmakh, who can neither hold up the ball or stay involved in the run of play long enough to make a difference? Or perhaps Park Chu-Young, who was all but invisible during the Marseille match? Granted Park could improve and become better as time goes on, but he is hardly an option now. To underscore the point, Arsenal have scored twenty goals in the Premiership this year. Ten have been scored by Van Persie. Only Gervinho and Theo Walcott have multiple goals and each only have two. While that does speak to the brilliant season Van Persie is having, it also speaks to the complete lack of scoring depth for Arsenal.

What may be the most important component to this season may be something that hasn't recently been an issue: the midfield. Last year when Van Persie started the season injured, Arsenal was not only receiving better passes and set-ups orchestrated by Cesc Fabregas, but also additional scoring from the midfield through Fabregas and Samir Nasri. There was also the promise of a young Jack Wilshere growing into his role as a secondary midfield maestro. This year the midfield is being run by Mikel Arteta, who I am happy to have (though if I was shopping for a Spaniard during the transfer window I would have broke the bank on Juan Mata) but isn't the passer that Fabregas is. Once Wilshere gets back things may improve, but it will be interesting to see how Wenger fits Wilshere, Arteta, and Ramsey into that five-man midfield. Even if a proper rotation/formation is developed, it could take time for everything to come together, time Arsenal most likely will not have. I will say this: I think Arsenal will get more scoring from the midfield. Gervinho and Walcott have shown too much flair and promise to not score more in the future, and though his games can be hit or miss, Aaron Ramsey has proven he has a flair for the dramatic. There is also the possibilitt of contributions from young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who will most likely see more chances as time goes on. Together, this midfield may not be as good as last year's squad, but they are fully capable for giving Van Persie the support he needs and carrying this Arsenal team through.

Game Notes

-For me, Gervinho was the man of the match against Marseille. He ran up and down the wings as well as into the center of field, not only beating defenders with his pace, but showing much more touch on his passes than he had at the beginning of the year. He was constantly leading Arsenal's counterattacks and can blame his teammates for some poor runs and bad touches that cost Arsenal solid chances on goal. If Gervinho can keep being this kind of a menace on the wing, the goals are going to come, not only for him but for his teammates as well.

-Running a close second to Gervinho was Thomas Vermaelen. Good god is it fantastic to have him back in the center of defense. Not only does he make great saving tackles on otherwise productive runs by the opposition, but he organizes his defense and keeps defenders like Mertesacker from having to do too much. I fully believe that if Mertesacker can be the second central defender who challenges in the air and slows down attacks, Arsenal will be fine because Vermaelen can do so much more. But if Vermaelen is out and either Mertesacker or Koscielny have to attempt to play above their level, it is trouble for the Gunners.

-Arsenal really needs to get more out of the substitutes that they send on the field. For the record, I'm not counting matches like the first leg against Marseille when Ramsey came on and eventually scored the game winner. Ramsey is a starter on this Arsenal squad and will not normally be coming off the bench. I'm talking about players like Andrei Arshavin, Yossi Benayoun, and Tomas Rosicky, who are supposed to give the team a lift when they come in, using their experience and fresh legs to expose a tiring defense. Instead we too often see them come into a match and immediately disappear, except when picking up awful yellow cards (looking at you Rosicky) or trying to take on three men on the flank (looking at you Arshavin). For Arsenal to succeed this season, both in England and in Europe, their substitutes need to be meaningful contributors. And if the veterans can't do it, Wenger should absolutely look further down the bench and give his young players a chance. As always, Go Gunners.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Next Step

I'm back again after a bit of a hiatus and I'm sure you all missed my writing. This hiatus was once again due to a lack of televised games. The Manchester derby was shown instead of the Arsenal win over Stoke (correct programming choice, just annoying for a Gunners fan) and the victory over Bolton in the Carling Cup match was mysteriously not shown on television at all. I rushed home from work to DVR the match (I had forgotten to previously set up a recording) only to find that my efforts would gain me a replayed Serie A match rather than the confrontation I wanted to see. So, no posts for those matches as I don't like to write with secondhand information. But even though I was out of town for the weekend, I managed to watched the Arsenal vs Chelsea match live and it turns out that this particular match was the best of the bunch to actually see.

I have stood up for Arsenal this season even when I probably shouldn't have. I defended (to a degree) the moves made during the transfer window, argued for patience after the slow start, and didn't fill up a blog post with 73 f-bombs after the drubbing at the hands of Manchester United. But at no point during all of that rationalizing did I think that Arsenal had a chance to qualify for European play again next year. This win over Chelsea have given me that hope and to be honest, it's making me quite scared. That seems counter-intuitive, I know. Why would seeing your team succeed make you afraid? It's the same reason that I can't get all wrapped up in the hype when the New York Giants are winning: I don't trust them. Sometimes this kind of attitude will be proven wrong of course. But the crux of it is that if you are a fan of a team, you need them to prove something to you before you throw your emotional weight behind them.

Sport is strange like that. The athletic talent on the field and the intelligence during preparation and play are obviously the most important factors in success or failure. Emotional character can only take a bunch of out of shape novices so far before the reality of the world catches up with them. But there is something real in the support that players receive from their fans and what that support can will the players to do during the game. Good crowds can lift teams just like constant booing and listlessness can sink bad teams faster than would happen naturally. The strange part of the whole thing is that fans need something from their team first to truly get behind them and give them the support that can propel them to great heights. Of course there are fans that will go to every game and be rabid and those fans get credit for their passion and commitment. But for most of us, sports isn't an obsession that we invest in so easily. This isn't a value judgment mind you, just a statement of my impression of reality. I love sports. That should be obvious by the fact that I'm writing this blog about a soccer team that plays all of it's matches at times that are five hours removed from the ideal time for me to watch them. And I love a lot of sports. I will watch soccer, hockey, football, baseball, basketball, tennis, lacrosse, and even NASCAR if drinking is involved. But I can't say that I am emotionally invested in all of them. The Minnesota Twins won their division last year and while I was definitely rooting for them, I didn't think they had the pitching to win the World Series. So I wasn't crushed when they were swept by the Yankees. The Pittsburgh Penguins were, at times last year, the best team in the NHL. But they went into the playoffs without Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. So I wasn't crushed when they lost game seven 1-0 to the Tampa Bay Lightning. I was annoyed perhaps, maybe even upset. But it didn't ruin my week and it didn't fuck up my world. For that to happen, I need to truly believe in a team. I need to think that they have the talent and the mindset to win it all. If I do, then I am all-in and opening myself up to be crushed if things don't work out. Much like love (or at least a much reduced version of love), no one wants to lay it all out there and be devastated. You have to believe in the future to allow yourself to expose your heart to the often cruel forces of the outer world, the world that you can't control. This of course is risky, but we do it for those times (that time, if I'm to continue the analogy) when everything works out right.

I'm not there yet with Arsenal. The collapse from last year is too fresh in my mind. The bad start this year is too fresh in my mind. The loss to Man U is too fresh in my mind. Hell, the fact that the Gunners were up 3-2 with 80 minutes gone in the Chelsea match and let in a goal to almost fail to close it out is too fresh in my mind. But this really is a step for me, to get into that mindset where I believe that I can start to hope. Will they win the Champions League this year? No, despite currently topping their group with two out of their last three group stage matches at home. Will they win the Premier League this year? No, Man U and Man City are simply too talented for Arsenal to compete. But can they place in the top four and play in the Champions League next year? I'm starting to believe that they can.

Game Notes

-This win was really all about Robin Van Persie. I have ripped on him a ton of times and have stated in this very blog that he's not an elite striker (which I'm sure he's read and used as bulletin board material). However, the Dutchman has absolutely surprised me this year, and not just with his goal scoring ability. The fact that he was handed the captaincy and has picked this team up at times and been the vocal leader slash leader by example that they need is astounding. I would have made this entire article an apology letter but I got going on the emotional connection with sports, plus David Hirshey already did that but with Arsene Wenger instead. So, Robin will have to do with this small section instead. My apologies.

-Speaking of Wenger, I'm impressed that he's resisting the "fuck you I told you so" urge that surely is swelling in him as we speak. To be fair, if I'm not 100% sold on Arsenal this season, I'm sure Wenger isn't either. He has to have belief to motivate his team, but he also has to be a realist so that he can assess their strengths and weaknesses in order to improve. It's an impressive tightrope walk that I didn't realize coaches had to walk until, well, now. Regardless, if Wenger is able to guide Arsenal to the Champions League next year with this current squad after all the criticism he's taken, it'll be an all time season for him. I obviously wish him the best.

-I don't want to sound like a broken record, but can Arsenal never play Kieran Gibbs again? I don't say this out of a man crush on Andre Santos. He's not the best on-the-ball defender and he looks downright exposed at times. But his pace down the wing, his crossing, and his playmaking abilities are heads and shoulders above Gibbs. Of course I understand that it's a long season and Gibbs will have to play at points to spell Santos. I get that, despite my rhetoric. But if Gibbs ever starts in a "must win, must have" kind of game, I will be floored. As always, Go Gunners.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Taking Care of Business, Plus a Little Extra

It's been a while since my last post, but here we are again. Before I get into today's Champions League match against Marseille, I just wanted to explain why I did not post anything about Sunday's Sunderland match. The fact of the matter is, it just wasn't on television. It wasn't on Fox Soccer Channel live and it wasn't being replayed some other time so that I could DVR it. Plus it was on at 8:30am so heading down to the bar with the expanded soccer package was off the table as well. I read through some reports of the match and while I got some information about what had happened, but I didn't really feel comfortable writing an analysis of the match from secondhand information. So, no post. I know that it's unlikely that anyone reading this was truly up in arms, or that there are that many people reading this in the first place, but for myself and the few who were interested, I wanted to explain. Anyhow, on to today's match.

In the Champions League group stage, and even in the home and away matches in the elimination rounds, you will often hear commentators or fans talk about "taking care of business." Part of this is that you have to beat the teams that you should beat, like in any sport. When your football team loses to Rams (sorry Steve Spagnuolo, I still love you), you're that much more upset because that was a win that your team should have had. The same is true when a true European power loses to Trabzonspor. It's no insult to that team, but the likely contenders can't afford to give away points like that. The second part of taking care of business is something that American sports fan don't understand or like as much, which is the idea of getting at least a draw on the road and then winning your home matches. The idea of playing for a draw is anathema to fans here, but it's something that's logical and much more than a cowardly strategy as it is unfortunately portrayed at times. If a team managed to draw every road match and win every home match, they would end Champions League group play with 12 points, almost assured to move on to the elimination rounds. If you take care of business, you go through.

In some cases, it would be considered cowardly to play for a draw of course. If Manchester United walks in to play Otelul Galati and attempts to do no more than tie, fans would have a right to be furious. You're Manchester Fucking United, you don't fear that Romanian team, you bulldoze them and pick up the win. But in many cases, when a team is going into a foreign city to play an opponent of equal or greater skill, the smart thing to do is to try to salvage something from the match, at least one point so that you not only gain a small advantage for yourself, but you also deny the greater advantage for your opponent, that of a home win. If a team plays too aggressively and gets caught on a counter, suddenly they are down a goal with the home crowd screaming and whole stadium rocking, and they need to overextend themselves and play catch-up. This is how a 1-0 deficit turns into a 4-1 loss and it is exactly what teams do not want to have happen. Instead, it can often be the better option to play cautiously and let the match come to you. If there's a chance to counter, jump on it and make the opponent pay. Otherwise, make sure you don't make any mistakes and look for your chance to win as well.

Of course losing in an opponent's stadium isn't a foregone conclusion. Skill levels play a huge role, as do play style and tactics, but let's be clear: home field advantage is absolutely a real thing in soccer. Numerous writers have talked about how the modern stadiums are removing, or at least lessening, the impact of having home field in football. There are more box seats to break up the lower areas of the stadium so you've got less noise. Ticket prices are much higher resulting in fans getting priced out of seats or being moved to the upper balconies where their impact is lessened, so you've got less passion. Emotions are at least somewhat removed from what is an emotion-filled activity and teams aren't left with that same push that they used to get from their fan base. However, this is not the case in soccer. Stadiums are rocking, crowd noise can be deafening, and the travel to foreign countries takes its toll. No one is looking forward to traveling to Russia to play CSKA Moscow right now, where the weather is colder, the fans love their team, and the players are used to being there. The chants and songs keep the noise up even during dull or disappointing matches and everyone is fully invested. Being able to get a point out of an away match should be celebrated as it's a step forward in the cause. If you can get more than that, it's even better.

Though in years past I would be loathe to refer to Marseille as a team that Arsenal needed to be overly cautious around, the form of this year's Gunners squad makes this caution a requirement. This Arsenal team simply isn't good enough right now (hopefully just right now) to walk into the stadiums of European champions and expect to have their way. Not to mention that Marseille is nowhere near a complete pushover that is out of place in the Champions League, having made it to the elimination round last year before bowing out to eventual runner-up Manchester United. So Arsenal did what they should have done and played conservatively, trying to keep possession and work the offense where they could, maybe catch Marseille in a counter. The problem was that Marseille had won their first two matches and weren't exactly desperate for points, despite playing in front of a home crowd. Naturally they still wanted to win, but they weren't throwing caution to the wind and pushing forward en masse. They instead were attacking where they could and playing a game fairly similar to Arsenal's. To be honest, this made for a fairly boring match. Both sides had their spells of pressure, but there were maybe a total of five honest-to-god chances in the match. Arsenal was nominally the "better" team but they still looked downright sloppy at times and weren't exactly dazzling all viewers. Regardless though, they were the more dangerous team toward the end of the second half especially when it look like Marseille was tiring (or becoming disinterested, it was really hard to tell) and were eventually rewarded in the most unlikely of ways. Roughly two minutes into injury time, Johan Djourou put a cross into the box that Gervinho looked to mishandle as he attempted to settle it. Luckily for Arsenal, the ball ran on to Aaron Ramsey who did settle and then blasted the ball near post past the diving keeper. In one unlikely minute, the story changed from "Arsenal plays stodgily, but escapes Marseille with a point in hand" to "Arsenal come up with miracle finish to beat Marseille and take first place in their group." To be honest, I would have been happy with the former, seeing how Arsenal would have taken five points over their first three matches with two home matches still left. But obviously, I'm overjoyed to have the latter.

Game Notes

-It looks like I may not have to endure the Carl Jenkinson era much longer. To be fair, he wasn't awful today and he also may not be out for much more than this match, depending on the severity of the knee injury that cause him to leave the game. But he is severely overmatched on the right wing and he also limits the effectiveness of Theo Walcott, who is forced to play in a more restrained fashion knowing that he may have to cover for the inexperienced Jenkinson. Still, it would be great not to have yet another back line injury, for depth if for nothing else. Even if he had roughly 73 crossing attempts blocked in this match. Ok, I'll stop.

-Alex Song needs to stop thinking he's a goddamn creative midfielder. Every now and then, he comes up with a moment of brilliance and I think it's nice that Arsenal has a holding middie that has good vision for the field. But then he does something ridiculous like try to dribble out from the middle of his box in a moment of sheer lunacy. That's basically the knock on Song, or at least my knock. Occasionally he thinks he's going to dribble through the whole field, or do something super clever with the ball rather than make the easy pass. And it's especially nerve-wracking when he does it in his defensive third. He needs to let the game come to him and stop making stupid mistakes. It would also be nice if he could avoid picking up useless yellow cards as well, which make me scared to death that he'll pick up another stupid yellow card and leave Arsenal down a man.

-Marseille did an excellent job of pressing Arsenal high, both in terms of pressuring the fullbacks when they had the ball and not allowing the midfielders to calmly start possession going forward. The back line had a lot of trouble handling this pressure and it caused several errant passes and turnovers. The midfield pressure was perhaps even more problematic because it kept Arsenal from getting into the comfort zone of its passing game and mostly took Mikel Arteta out of the match. The inability of both areas of the squad to handle the pressure and make Marseille pay is something that will need to be worked on, because odds are they'll see similar treatment in the future. Here's hoping they figure it out. As always, Go Gunners.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Putting Sunday Into Perspective

As it exists in today's society, competition has both its good and its bad qualities. On the positive side, competition motivates us. It makes us want to be better than someone or something else, and therefore better than we currently are. It produces innovation and encourages ingenuity, inspiring people to create new things and making the evolution of strategy and planning essential to relevancy. It demands perfection because if something is not perfect, it can improved upon and beaten. In all of these ways, competition elevates the human condition because it demands that we become something more. However, competition has its dark side as well. When everything is results based and everyone is striving to win a zero-sum game, the darker side of humankind emerges. People take short cuts, either to make themselves better or to damage their competitors. Those that fall behind are often left there, because they no longer matter. And that darkest of emotions shows its face as well: hate.

Sports are essentially competition concentrated into an arena which has (comparatively) low stakes, but also clear winners and losers. In baseball, teams aren't competing for social status, control of power, economic supremacy, or the right to stay alive. Nor are the players judged by arbitrary sets of rules of who did the best, how, and for what reason. In sports, everyone is competing to be the best as is defined by the rules of the game. The champion is a clear winner when all is said and done. We may argue about whether this year's winner is better than that year's winner, but such arguments, however drunken and belligerent as they can get, are "safe" arguments. Two people argue about the competency of Joba Chamberlain rather than the place of religion in government. A bar chants about how another team sucks rather than speaking to a crowd and warning them about the growing negative influence of Jews in society. Two opposing groups of fans jeer and mock each other rather than ethnic groups murdering each other in the streets in armed conflict. In this way, sports elevates competition by giving it a safe place to play out.

Of course, there is overlap between the "real" world and sporting world. While sports subjugates our differences to the rules of the game, we cannot act as if these two realities are completely unaware of each other. I'm not only referring to those "dark" times way back when, as if since Jackie Robinson's introduction to the major leagues we've made sports the meritocracy and emotionally removed exercise that it is in its purest form. Two weeks ago, Wayne Simmonds, a black hockey player, had a banana thrown at him by a fan as a form of taunting. The next week, Simmonds himself was caught calling his opponent Sean Avery an anti-homosexual slur. Fights break out in bars and on the streets over the results of matches. People in Vancouver rioted after their loss to the Boston Bruins in last season's Stanley Cup (though the true players in the riot and their motivations are difficult to discern). Less than twenty years ago, Andres Escobar, a Columbian soccer player, was shot to death for an own goal he scored during a World Cup match. We cannot remove sports completely from the world we live in.

Even though the fourth wall of sports, the one that causes everyone to this that "this is just a game," is shattered at times, its affect on society is still dramatic. Just as democracy (supposedly) removes violence from the process of governance, sports helps to create the type of society in which violence still surely exists, but is drastically reduced from its historical levels. In ancient Rome, the sport was death itself, as gladiators died for the passion and amusement of the fans. In colonial times, matters of honor could be settled by duels to the death. Within the last two hundred years, black people were bought and sold as property rather than human beings. Of course it is not thanks to sports that all of these ills were fixed. However, the society that we currently live in uses sports as a way to shape and mold the passions of people, allowing for competition and the outlet of emotions in a way that is much less martial and mortal than in past times. This is why for some people, the issue of head injuries in sports, especially football, is so important. If we do not protect the people who provide this entertainment, this release, this absorption, we move back down the path we've traveled, where players are simply tools for our amusement rather than highly skilled practitioners of games that not only bring joy to millions of people, but helps them in ways they don't know it.

Last Sunday, Arsenal and Tottenham met in the London derby, one of the most highly contentious rivalries in all of soccer, perhaps in all of sports. Commentators talked endlessly about the bad blood, about the way each team uses the other as a measuring stick, about how the players and fans of each side truly hated the other. But when all was said and done, after Tottenham defeated Arsenal at White Heart Lane to the joyous cheers of Spurs supporters, in a city where mere months ago, violent riots and the governmental response had taken lives and caused untold millions of dollars in property damage, violence was the furthest thing from most people's minds. Despite the rivalry and despite the competition and despite "importance" of everything that had happened, at the end of the day, the normal state of affairs is that this was just a game. This is what sports does. This is why we watch, whether we realize it or not.

Game Notes:

-Alex Song had a bad opening ten minutes in the match with some foolish passes and poor marking, but he settled down and played one of the best matches he's had this season. He effectively shut down Emmanuel Adebayor and defended well on set pieces throughout. Though I have no desire to make Song Arsenal's permanent second option central defender, it is nice to know that he can play the role if he absolutely has to. And with Emmanuel Frimpong coming along well as the holding midfielder, that may be an option that is looked into more often than we would have thought coming into this season.

-The loss of Bacary Sagna is a major problem for Arsenal going forward. The offensive-minded right back will be out three months with a broken leg and if Carl Jenkinson's play on Sunday is any indication, this will be yet another position for opposing teams to exploit. To be fair, Jenkinson isn't awful; he's simply young and inexperienced and potentially awful. After coming in against Spurs, Gareth Bale beat him up and down the flank with Jenkinson taking forever to learn the simple lesson "Gareth Bale is really fast." If this kind of slow learning curve is any indication, Jenkinson can consider himself targeted by every coach on the upcoming schedule. And I wouldn't blame them.

-I can't really say enough about how much this loss hurts. Not only does it leave Arsenal waaaaaay down in the table when they had a chance to really shock people and move back toward the top, not only was it another match in which they were arguably the better team where they didn't get a result... but it was to Spurs. Ugh. Now Spurs believes that they are the ascendant team in this rivalry and it's really hard to argue with them. Better recent record, better position on the table, better outlook for the future... Arsenal is going to have to face the fact that right now, everyone thinks they are not the London team to beat. The question is whether they let this judgment get them down, eat at their confidence, and make this a full-blown calamity, or whether they accept this as a challenge and begin to get better now.

There's a bit of a break as this weekend brings us no Premier League due to international play, but be sure to check back when the matches start again. As always, Go Gunners.