Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Regression to the Mean, Or to the Past?

Earlier in the year I took great pains to highlight the ways in which this year's Arsenal team were very different from the squads over the last couple of years who failed to live up to fans' expectations, not just in terms of wins but in terms of character. Players from previous Gunners teams were often accused of being too soft, of not having the heart to win games, of possessing a preoccupation with playing the way they wanted to play regardless of what the game was dictating. This often led to frustrating results where Arsenal would never truly participate in a match, waiting for the result to roll in their favor rather than expending the full effort to make certain that the win or difficult draw would be theirs. Back when this year's team was clawing and scratching their way back from a brutal start to the season, I made the case that the athletes now playing for the team no longer had that luxury due to no longer having an obvious talent gap, that they were doing everything they could to win because the points were so desperately needed and nothing could be taken for granted. I still believe that character and determination exists in the Gunners this year. However, Sunday's match against Swansea can be taken as a maddening return to the entitled play of prior years.

Before we go any further, let credit be given to Swansea City, as it absolutely should be. This isn't about a pampered Arsenal team that didn't do their job to beat the newly promoted Welsh-based side because that wouldn't be fair to the effort that Swansea put forward. Their strikers pressured high up the field, keeping the Gunners from moving the ball forward confidently. The midfielders didn't give Alex Song, Yossi Benayoun, or Aaron Ramsey time on the ball and forced them into numerous turnovers. And while the defense was not dominant, they did what was needed to keep Arsenal from passing around the box and creating open runners and clear shots. We need to praise this team because they out possessed Arsenal and they did many things the Gunners couldn't do, such as counter incisively and harass their opponents into mistakes that were then used to open up the defense. So, well done Swansea.

However, this is an Arsenal blog and at the end of the day, we are here to discuss the Gunners' play as well as their temperament, and frankly both were lacking at the end of the day. It starts with the play of the midfield as this was where the game was won. Up until this point, I had never considered the degree to which Arsenal needed Mikel Arteta to be on the field. Looking back on previous games, he has never been a dynamic force, a player capable of turning games by himself or completing a set of tic-tac-toe passes that propelled the Gunners forward. Nor has he ever been the best player on the field in a given match, overall or for Arsenal. But perhaps I (or we) were focusing on the wrong aspects of the game. Arteta is important because of the shape that he imposes on the field. He is a player that, when pressured, can cut to his right, turn his shoulder back to the left, and manipulate his defender into giving up just enough space for the proper pass to be made. We see this in basketball all the time, with attackers that are adept at using simple arm motions, ball fakes, or step-ins to create the chances they need, either to get off shots or find the passing lane. This is how Barcelona plays as well, although admittedly at a much higher level than Arteta or any other Arsenal player. Xavi especially has the ability to turn in a three-by-three box and suddenly find space going forward because of the position he has put the defender in. Arteta has a lesser form of this ability, as does Jack Wilshere. The problem is, neither of those players were on the field against Swansea and once you get past them, there is no one else that can consistently possess the ball and create openings utilizing simple delaying tactics. I thought Aaron Ramsey would have grown into that role, but he hasn't, more often going completely backward or easily giving away the ball instead. Long had I thought that the Arsenal midfield was the strength of their team, but the play up the middle on Sunday proved otherwise.

The problems go beyond the technical skill in the middle though. During this match the Gunners looked like they thought they were better than Swansea, like they expected to gain a result without having to fight for one against a team that came to the park ready to fight themselves. As tough as Alex Song can be in the middle of the field, he doesn't appear to be someone that the team rallies around when he fully commits himself, nor did he fully commit himself in this match. Early in the year, Robin Van Persie was that lightning rod, but although he scored the first goal in this game, he didn't have enough of an impact to change the momentum when things were going decidedly against Arsenal. It is possible that this was due to a lack of service as none of the other Gunners did anything to get him into the play and give him the chances he needed. But some of that blame can go to Van Persie as well because he is the captain of this team and therefore he is the man that needs to set a tone for the rest of his players. What you saw on Sunday looked more like a group of players trying to just show up and win rather than earn what was coming to them. Or perhaps they did just the latter in a more negative way.

To a degree, this analysis will be flawed from the get-go. It is trying to make psychological assumptions, broad ones, about a team that was only observed playing once on a soccer field. No thought bubbles were sprouting from their heads, nor was there any commentary after the fact that showed a sense of entitlement or a lackadaisical attitude. If anything there was the opposite, with Thierry Henry responding angrily to fans who accused the team of having no heart or commitment. Perhaps the veteran's response will serve them well going forward. And perhaps there really is no fire underneath this smoke. It is possible that this was a one time thing, where an Arsenal squad, fresh off of an emotional return for Henry but not terribly fresh in many other ways, simply ran into a team playing fantastic soccer that wanted it more in their home stadium. But unfortunately, try as we might, we cannot divorce ourselves from recent history. By objective assessments, this was a step back for a Gunners team that has shown that grit and determination over the course of this season. Let us hope that it is a momentary lapse rather than a change in attitude. As Always, Go Gunners.

Game Notes

-Though I ran through many of the players' mistakes or responsibilities, some of the blame has to land at the feet of Arsene Wenger. Teams, especially young teams, often find themselves taking on the personality of their coach. We are seeing that right now with the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL who are playing all out and passionately for a coach that gives his all and is passionate about football. To what extent do we turn our psychiatric analysis on Wenger then? He has what he wants in a youthful team loaded with ability and upside, as well as key leaders (Arteta and Van Persie being the foremost) who can lead them along. If this team does collapse again, or fail to demonstrate the mental fortitude necessary to make it through a Premier League season while simultaneously competing for the FA Cup and attempting to progress in Champions League, we need to look at all aspects of this team.

-Along these lines, it may be right to question the tactics that Wenger has been using. Thus far this year, Theo Walcott has played well, but has lacked the consistency necessary to make him a truly vital player. If he has the capacity to disappear for stretches of the game on the right side, especially without Bacary Sagna to provide the necessary service and over-lapping runs that help to create space, why not move Walcott to the middle and take over Ramsey's position? Ramsey has not shown that he deserves that lineup spot week in and week out yet, so why not make him fight for it? Walcott has improved his finishing but is still weak with his crosses, so perhaps his speed will help him link up with Van Persie and provide the Dutchman with more space for his own opportunities. Not to mention that this will free up the right wing spot for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has impressed in each game he's played at every level. One loss doesn't mean the world is falling, but after the lackluster efforts over the packed holiday season as well as this dispiriting away match, some tinkering may be necessary.

-The Swansea match is another example of a theme I highlighted earlier in the year, namely that teams are learning to pressure Arsenal high up the field. It was a tactic most notably used by Olympiakos and Borussia Dortmund during Champions League matches, but it will continue unless the Gunners find a way to neutralize it. Arteta is instrumental in this without question, but the wingers need to make themselves available to receive as well as make passes, and Alex Song must do a better job of playing safe passes out of danger and then turning upfield. Too often does Song try to make plays on his own when the opponent is still lurking in dangerous positions, and when he does this he often strands his deep midfield partner (usually Arteta) in a bad spot where defensive talent is required. I believe that when healthy, Jack Wilshere has the talent to both pull strings on offense as well as play defensively when forced to. But until he is back, Song needs to temper his creativity (which at times can be wonderful to watch) with the knowledge that he is needed as the defensive link between the midfielders and fullbacks.

1 comment:

  1. Sports psychology is always such a guess filled exercise. You always notice major sports coverage trots in ex-athletes to validate whatever opinions they may be spouting. Its an interesting exercise in conjecture.