Thursday, December 8, 2011

Losing Steam?

Momentum is a funny thing in sports. It is incredibly important but is created through all kinds of events, from hustle plays to unbelievable outcomes. It can drive good players to do great things and great players to become historic, yet sometimes it seems to have no affect on players at all. Some players soldier on regardless of the tide crashing into them (e.g. Aaron Rodgers) while others couldn't be carried to shore at Manhattan Beach (e.g. AJ Burnett). But it really does seem that anything can start or change it. There are certain instances where it is fairly obvious: a walk-off home run changes the momentum of a series, or a huge interception gets a team into that "we can win this thing" mode. But other times it's something less noticeable: a scrappy shift by a fourth line in a playoff game or a sweetly struck winner up the line by a player who was starting to lose faith in himself. When anything can change momentum, fans begin to worry at the smallest signs of a team faltering if that team has done it in the past. No Minnesota Vikings or Cleveland Browns fan doesn't get that lump in their throat when things start to fall apart. No Washington Capitals or San Jose Sharks fan doesn't throw up their hands and yell "Again?!" when their team gives up a big goal in a playoff game. Even when fans try to be supportive, you can still sense that nervous energy that buzzes around the stadium and the worry is always that the players feel it too. Given that Arsenal has had plenty of those moments over the last couple of years, what are we to make of the sloppy loss at Olympiakos?

Arsenal went into this match with all the momentum in the world. Arsenal was undefeated in their last 11 Champions League and Premier League matches coming into this game and people were starting to believe in them. That streak had allowed them to win their Champions League group prior to the last group stage match as well as rise to fifth on the English table, only a win/loss weekend away from climbing above Chelsea into the coveted fourth spot. Moreover, the team was playing as a real team, with Robin Van Persie leading the way looking like an absolute world beater. The hardships the Gunners had undergone seemed to bring them together and they looked tight knit, be it on celebrations after goals or the way they looked to pick out each other rather than running into multiple defenders and giving up the ball as well as their hopes. It would be quite reasonable to think that this new and improved Arsenal squad was on its way to better times. But then came the stumbling block.

Let's say first off that this match had everything going against Arsenal and every fan knew it. Arsenal had already advanced so were playing for nothing; Olympiakos needed a win to advance so were playing for everything; the match was in Greece; Arsenal was going to rest their most important starters; for the Gunners, the game didn't matter. And so it would be perfectly reasonable if Arsenal went out, knocked the ball around, scored maybe once, and got beat by a more enthusiastic, more desperate Olympiakos side. But what happened was far less routine than all of that. It wasn't that Arsenal lost 3-1, a reasonable score for this type of match. It was the way that they lost. The defense looked horrendous, partly due to a disinterested effort from Thomas Vermaelen, the first time I've really seen him play that way. Olympiakos pressed high and rather than string two or three passes to beat the first man and break into space, Arsenal's youngsters constantly gave the ball away. There were rarely connections between the ball coming out of the back to the attackers up front, especially once the perennial Greek contenders began to dominate possession. Once again, this can be excused by the inexperience of the up-and-comers that received the starts, but it doesn't explain the lackluster performance from Andrei Arshavin or why Yossi Benayoun was borderline non-existent. The iconic moment of the match was of course when third string keeper Vito Mannone botched a second save by foolishly trying to scissor kick a shot away when he had already retreated into the box and could have caught it instead. While this could all be expected from a game where Arsenal had nothing to win, in some people's minds it will be seen that they still had something to lose.

In my mind, however, this Arsenal team is different. I have written about it all year long and I believe that the pressure these players have been under all year has molded rather than broken them. The loss at Tottenham could have destroyed them. Instead the Gunners rattled off five straight wins in the Premier League. Their inability to clinch the Champions League group at home against Marseille could have set nerves on edge. Instead they went out and clinched the very next match against Borussia Dortmund. The home draw to Fulham could have brought the team back down to earth and made them doubt their goal scoring abilities. Instead Arsenal came back and blasted four tallies in at Wigan. This team has been playing from behind for so long that they no longer have excuses. They wouldn't have made it back to this point if they didn't believe they could win and a game like this is not going to stop that momentum. For Everton on Saturday, the full squad will be back out again and we'll see what the response will be. My money is on another Premier League win.

Game Notes

-With all that went wrong for Arsenal on Tuesday, the biggest was obviously the loss of Andre Santos for "a while" according to Arsene Wenger. Santos is still a fairly weak on-the-ball defender, but his runs down the left side and the combination play with Gervinho has been electrifying all season long. Even if you're the type of viewer who doesn't believe in the play of Santos, it's hard to argue that he wasn't the best option. Aside from being terrible, Kieran Gibbs, and Carl Jenkinson are both injured, so the role of left back could go to anyone from Laurent Koscielny to Ignasi Miquel to Thomas Vermaelen, though I dismiss the latter as a garbage idea due to how important Vermaelen is to the organization of the defense. Personally, I would keep Koscielny on the right hand side until Bacary Sagna is back and try out Ignasi Miquel on the left because in my mind, the only other option is Johan Djourou and we've already seen that he's only the answer when other players need a rest.

-One thing Arsenal must prepare for each match is their opponent pressing high as it continues to work against the Gunners. To be fair, this week it worked against young players and under-performing veterans and Arsenal was able to effectively counter when Fulham tried to get too close, using quick passing to break through the first line. But until they prove that they can counter it routinely and with devastating results, the high pressure will always been in the back pocket of opposing managers.

-Thomas Vermaelen, I expect games like that from Andrei Arshavin but not you. You're the heart and soul of this defense, perhaps of this team, and you can't have performances like that when your team needs you. Lukasz Fabianski and Vito Mannone are by no means fine goalkeepers, but you did them no favors with your soft back passes and inconsistent marking. I know you were working with Sebastien Squillaci (perish the thought) but you have to make him better rather than sink to his level. I know you're a gamer and I know you're a leader, so I have faith in you. Prove me right. As Always, Go Gunners.

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