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.

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