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.