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.

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