Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Solution: More Red Cards!

First off, my apologies for the lateness of this post. I know I have this immense fan base that I must be attentive to, but I also want to keep up-to-date on this for my own purposes and I don't like when I lag behind. It was a busy weekend and I didn't get the chance to finish watching the match until Sunday morning, but I still could have found a way to throw the post up in a more timely fashion. I'm still making it back from where writing is a more natural thing that I want to do as opposed to a task I set for myself, but that's not an excuse for being lazy. So, sorry for delay and the (mostly unnecessary) explanation but again, I wanted to say this for myself as well as the benefit of anyone who actually reads me. Which, if the followers list is to be believed, is two people (read: if you do read this, please follow the blog). Now, on to the match.

Arsenal went into the Bolton match not only desperately needing the points to try to make it mid-table and at least pace the leaders, but needing to prove something to themselves, fans, and critics. Robin Van Persie said after a winnable Blackburn match that it was frustrating the team wasn't winning those types of games, and here was another one. After an opening day drubbing of Queens Park Rangers and a highly entertaining 3-2 loss to Manchester City, Bolton has looked less than quality, capped by a 5-0 loss to that other Manchester team that we shall not mention. Arsenal had everything they wanted: a team sliding down the standings coming into the Emirates right when Arsenal had something to prove... and for the first 45 minutes, it looked as if they were going to give away this opportunity too. First of all, credit to Bolton. They defended very well, putting ten men behind the ball and daring Arsenal to break them down. They kept the Gunners' attack at arm's length so that even though Arsenal dominated possession, there were almost zero quality chances. If I remember correctly (and I may not be, just for full disclosure), Arsenal did not put a shot on goal in the first half, with the closest being Van Persie's free kick that whistled just wide. So, credit to Bolton. They had a solid game plan and executed it well. However, this also speaks to Arsenal's attacking drop off from last year to this year more than anything else.

Let's just get this out of the way: Arsenal no longer have Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. This is the elephant in the room, this is the point that dominates all others. If you think that Arsenal should have done a better job in the transfer market replacing those two players, you make a very reasonable point and it is a valid criticism of what Arsene Wenger did this summer. But even with that being a valid criticism, it by no means eliminates the fact that Arsenal no longer have Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Over the last three years, Fabregas has 51 assists in all competitions to go along with his 31 goals. He already has 5 and 4 this year for Barcelona. Where are you supposed to pick up that kind of production without severely overpaying for someone like Wesley Sneijder? Last year in his breakout year, Nasri had 15 goals and 5 assists in all competitions and he's already put up 4 assists with Manchester City this year despite getting a very late start to his training with the team due to the transfer saga. Numbers aside, these two were the most creative players in Arsenal's side all of last year. When Fabregas and/or Nasri didn't play, it showed. The team had no shape, the build-up was slower, the passing was off, everything was slightly different. Arsenal will eventually have to adjust to this. Cesc Fabregas isn't walking through that door, and so on. But this early in the season, this is the obvious reason why this team isn't playing like they did last year.

There is more to it than just Fabregas and Nasri leaving, however. I honestly believe that losing Gael Clichy has been a serious blow to Arsenal's attacking game. I take a lot of flack from one friend in particular for this belief and it is possible that I make too much of his abilities. But one thing I always had faith in over the last couple of years was Arsenal's play down the left. Not only is Clichy an excellent crosser, but he always seemed to fly forward at the right time and recover when he needed. I'm not saying that he was the best on the ball defender in the world, but he always did well when jumping into the attack and that is something that is sorely missing right now. The reason I will allow that I may be making too much of Clichy is that there is such a considerable drop in talent from him to Kieran Gibbs. That drop may be from an A- to a C+ or from a B to a D, that scale is up to you. Either way, it's painfully obvious that Arsenal has no threat coming forward on the left and it shuts down an avenue of attack that used to be exploited all the time. Bacaray Sagna is still great at working with Theo Walcott down the right, but it's just not enough. Perhaps losing the last member of the Invincibles was a bigger deal that people thought.

The biggest problem not concerning the departure of old stars is obviously the injuries and suspensions that Arsenal have been forced to deal with. Since the start of this season, the following players have all started matches for Arsenal: Wojciech Szczesny (thank god he's started all of them), Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Johan Djourou, Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson, Armand Traore, Andre Santos, Bacaray Sagna, Alex Song, Emmanuel Frimpong, Francis Coquelin, Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky, Andrei Arshavin, Theo Walcott, Gervinho, Yossi Benayoun, Samir Nasri, Marouane Chamakh, and Robin Van Persie. That is twenty-three starters and that does not include the Carling Cup match (where lesser used players are usually given a chance to make their case for playing time) or any substitutes in any match. How is a team supposed to develop cohesion and a sense for how to play with each other when the starting line-up is rotating so much due to who's available? Things are starting to settle into place somewhat with Mertesacker, Koscielny (until Vermaelen gets back), Sagna, and Gibbs (hopefully Santos or someone else gets a chance) in the back, Arteta, Song, Gervinho, Walcott, and Ramsey in the middle, and Van Persie up front. But that's not set in stone either due to new injuries to Gervinho, Walcott, and others. The bottom line is that this team needs to play together for a bit before it can be expected to be firing on all attacking cylinders. Unfortunately, they do not have the time to figure things out for much longer.

That's the bad news to explain why Arsenal haven't been looking as dangerous on the attack as they can. However, there is some good news and the good news that specifically came out of the Bolton match was the play of Van Persie. After making those statements about the team needing to step up, the captain did just that himself and had his best game of the season. I'm on record as saying that Van Persie is not an elite finisher and doesn't have that "scare you" factor that top-flight strikers have, and I still hold to that. But this was a match in which Van Persie played to the best of his ability by being constantly involved and finishing the opportunities he had. After narrowly missing the free kick earlier in the first half, he was consistently involved rather than fading out of a frustrating match as he is want to do. Then he opened up the second half with a goal. Granted it was a goal that the Bolton keeper should have stopped, but he did everything in his power to put it in and he was rewarded. His second goal was more impressive as he put a deft touch on a cross from Walcott directly into the back of the net to solidify the Arsenal lead. This wasn't a brilliant strike or a crazy bicycle or anything like that. This was a striker who did exactly what he needed to do to put the ball in the back of the net. And if he can focus on doing that going forward, Arsenal will have the threat that they need up front.

This "good thing" is going to sound more hopeful than like logical analysis, but it still remains true. Once Bolton went down to 10 men, Arsenal looked like they could have put in five plus goals and nearly did. Arsenal dominated play, were carving up Bolton around the penalty area, and basically had their way the entire second half. Yes, I know that Bolton went down to 10 men and of course they also needed to press forward at times since they were already down a goal before going down the man. But it was still heartening to see the floodgates open once Arsenal got the break that they needed. No, it's not everything but when you're having attacking woes, any kind of progress or momentum is a good thing. Just like a shooter in basketball or an individual striker in soccer, sometimes you just need to see the ball go in the net for your confidence. After that, anything can happen. And for Arsenal, here's hoping it does.

Lastly, I'm going to introduce something tentatively titled "Game Notes." I was thinking something more punny like "Bullet Points" but even I can only take so much of that. Basically, this is going to be a section where I make a couple of notes about the match I'm responding to in particular. That way if I go off on some tangent like my childhood heroes or the state of sports media for the majority of the post (which would make it more than a tangent I suppose, but whatever), then you'll still have a couple of observations about the match to look at. So, without further delay:

Game Notes:

-Gervinho's final touch on the ball is still maddening. In the 7th he was sprung by Arteta on a beautiful through ball, only to touch it way too far out in front and have the keeper sweep it away. I'm not asking for goals every time he touches the ball, but it would be nice if he at least got some shots on goal, or balls played directly to the person he's aiming for, or anything that keeps me from slamming my hands down on the couch while shouting "Gervinho!!"

-Ramsey does a beautiful job of keeping possession for Arsenal when the pressure is on, but very often he does so by retreating all the way back to the center back rather than finding a square pass or making a quick turn and feeding the wing. In fairness' sake, I haven't analyzed every instance closely enough to know whether he could make any of these other passes, so it's entirely possible that the extreme back pass was his only hope. It's just something I've noticed and I'm wondering if teams are going to start to bring pressure on him from the front more in order to stall attacks.

-I know that Koscielny is, well, Koscielny and he hasn't played long with Mertesacker in the back, but the marking simply has to get better. Szczesny was forced to make a brilliant diving save in the 2nd minute after there was a breakdown in the middle. If the keeper hadn't been at his best, or if the striker has finished perfectly, Arsenal would have been down a goal inside two minutes and this match would have been drastically different. It's a common refrain with Arsenal but the defense has to be better.

As always, Go Gunners.

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