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.


  1. If I understand soccer correctly, I know that the worst teams get demoted to a worse League and that lesser team's best teams take their place. Is playing for ties partially motivated by this?

  2. In domestic league play, it absolutely is. In the English Premier League, for example, the bottom three teams of the EPL are relegated to the English Championship. So if you can gain a point against better competition, or draw against a team lower on the table (standings) than you, thereby keeping them behind you, you've done your job even though you haven't won. Of course you can't draw all the time and somewhere along the line, draws turn to wins. But if Manchester United comes to town and Norwich City manages a draw, they'd be celebrating in the streets for taking 1 point out of a match in which they were right to think they'd receive none.

    This particular match, however, was played in the UEFA Champions League, which is a contest between all of the best club teams in Europe. It is set-up in a World Cup-like format of 8 groups with 4 teams in each, but unlike the World Cup where you play each team in your group once on a neutral site, in the Champions League you play each other team in your group twice, once home and once away. After this round robin, the team with the two highest point totals in each group move onto the elimination round, which are also home and away matches rather than a single elimination match. This is where the strategy of drawing while on the road comes into play. As I mention in the article, if you were to win all three of your home matches and draw all three of your round matches in group play, you would finish with 12 points, a total that is almost assured to move you on to the next round.