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.

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