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.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

That Was an Arsenal Match

Wednesday's Champions League match against Olympiakos was indeed a prototypical Arsenal match. It's funny, every time I make a criticism or give a compliment, it seems that Arsenal evolves or regresses to make that comment a thing of the past. Earlier in the year I had defended Arsenal's slow start to the season because of all the injuries and suspensions. Then the Manchester United debacle occurred. After that I talked about adjusting our expectations for this Arsenal squad. Then the meltdown at Blackburn occurred. And very recently, I spent an entire blog post focusing on the limitations of Arsenal's attack in the wake of the Bolton match where Arsenal needed a Bolton player sent off before they could really take a hold of the match. Then, Olympiakos.

I may be going crazy here, but Arsenal's attack looked good Wednesday at the Emirates. In a match where Robin Van Persie and Aaron Ramsey both started on the bench and Theo Walcott and Gervinho were unavailable due to injury, Arsenal were still firing on all cylinders and putting extreme pressure on the Olympiakos defense. To me, this was shocking. I know Olympiakos isn't world class and is not a favorite to move on to the knockout stages, but they are still a respectable team. With Ramsey and Van Persie not in to provide the quick exchanges through the middle, and Gervinho and Walcott not able to provide the speed and menace on the flanks, I thought this was going to be tough sledding for the Gunners. Instead, we saw perhaps the best attacking game Arsenal has put forward this season.

The passing through the middle was good, but not exceptional. Marouane Chamakh is a poor man's Van Persie at best and more likely a middle class man's Peter Crouch (ouch). He's decent as a target man, but is not good with quick passes and doesn't have those striker instincts for garbage goals and opportunity in general. And please don't get me started on Tomas Rosicky and how much he bothers me with his poor touch and penchant for terrible yellow cards (see: this very match). Mikel Arteta was not working through the middle so much as playing the deep midfielder string-puller position that he does so well, though he did exchange passes at the top of the box. But the wings. Oh my god, the wings.

First of all, let us never play Kieran Gibbs again unless absolutely forced to because Andre Santos is incredibly dangerous coming down the left side. I'm not saying that Santos is going to be an absolute star or anything, but he's such a vast improvement over Gibbs because he can actually, I don't know, cross the ball. He combined very well with an in-form Andrei Arshavin (rather than the lost zombie that we've been seeing lately) and the play down the left was always a danger to Olympiakos. The real story, however, was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the blistering pace that he brought to the right side. Bacaray Sagna was of course good in coming up the right but with Walcott out, Oxlade-Chamberlain stepped up for Arsenal and then some. His goal was a beautiful job of settling the ball and out-maneuvering the defense to get his shot off. He made run after run and more importantly, actually freed himself up to cross or cut back the ball and distribute to the middle. In other words, he wasn't just running with pace, he was creating dangerous chances as well. I love Walcott, but if Oxlade-Chamberlain plays like this, you can't leave him on the bench. This is a thought in it's nascent stage, but what about moving Walcott up to play off Van Persie as a second striker in a 4-4-2? I love the five player midfield, but Walcott just can't cross well enough to be best used on the wing. Running off of Van Persie in the middle though, he can use his speed and finishing ability and give Arsenal an added threat forward. Somewhat similar to how the Andy Carroll/Luis Suarez pairing works for Liverpool. Then play Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain on the wings, Alex Song and Arteta in the middle. The only problem is, that pushes out Ramsey and Wilshere (when he's healthy), though with European play there should be enough time for all. I don't know, just a thought to start. But the menace displayed on the wings on Wednesday should be encouraged and developed.

Of course it wasn't all good for Arsenal as at times, Olympiakos looked just as dangerous as them. Granted Song was starting at center back due to injury, but the whole team needs to be better at tracking through the middle. There were too many free runs and unmarked or loosely marked players and the inability to deal with the short corner that generated their goal was absolutely inexcusable. Wojiech Szczesny has been amazing this year, but he can't keep bailing out his defense. Eventually, he's going to have a bad game, or a team is just going to bury every chance despite his best efforts, and Arsenal is going to lose. Plain and simple. The defense needs to do a better job of protecting him and limiting the chances so that he can make the big saves, not every save.

Game Notes:

-I know I already went on about Oxlade-Chamberlain, but he was the most important part of this match. If (and I know that this is a big if) he can continue to play like that and improve as well, that transfer signing is going to look like an absolute piece of brilliance by Arsene Wenger. And that's what he's good at: finding these great prospects and investing in them when he should. Granted, I'm getting ahead of myself. That performance might have been an aberration, he could develop injury problems, he might stagnate rather than evolve, etc. But if he actually continues this trajectory... wow.

-This isn't exactly Arsenal related, but Olympiakos looked very dangerous in this game, especially on the counter. I believe it was their captain who kept curling balls in from the right and I swore every time he did it because they were pitch perfect. Credit to them for their play, although thank god they didn't get that second goal.

-More than anything, this was just a fun match to watch. Arsenal played well on offense, as did Olympiakos, so it was back and forth with tons of shots and chances. It may not have been the most well-played game of all time, especially on defense, but it was incredibly enjoyable for the excitement. I hope Arsenal gives us wins more than anything, but hopefully they can get them with this style of play. The Arsenal style of play that draws fans and reminds you of why you like watching soccer. As always, Go Gunners.