Tuesday, January 24, 2012

They Are Who We Thought They Were

Denny Green has become "internet famous" for his rant during a postgame conference in which he shouted about the Chicago Bears "they are who we thought they were." Now commonly quoted and referenced, this classic flip out seems like an odd tautology at first, the "it is what it is" of angry reactions to the football media. But taken out of the context of one-liners and snarky commentary, the phrase is surprisingly insightful - at least as far as what you'll get out of a coach during a press conference after his team just gave away a game. Too many times sportswriters, be they professional or amateur, make too much out of what ifs and potential and dream scenarios that they don't realize they already have a pretty clear picture in front of them that shows how good a player or team is in reality. It's called "the past" and it's a surprisingly good determining factor in "the future." Now, there are of course exceptions. The New York Giants came out of absolutely nowhere to make the Super Bowl this year and as late as week 16 people (myself included) were calling them frauds or disappointments, depending on your expectations and perception. But then there are the wealth of other examples that suggest that what you see is what you get. You can keep waiting for Dustin Penner to live up to his potential, but perhaps he's just a lazy player who is never going to blossom. You can keep waiting for Albert Haynesworth to find the right coach to motivate him, but maybe he's an arrogant head case. And you can keep waiting for this Arsenal team to do more than we think they can, but it's possible that they are who we thought they were.

Coming into the match against Manchester United, everyone knew a couple of very important things about Arsenal, themes that had either lingered from the beginning of the season or had become of vital importance in the recent part of the campaign. An obvious example of the latter is the staggering lack of depth among Arsenal's fullbacks due to injury problems. Not only have the Gunners lost their first choice left and right fulls (Andre Santos and Bacary Sagna respectively) but they've also lost the back-ups Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson. With so many of the players out on the wings, Arsene Wenger has been forced to move around their normal central defenders (using Thomas Vermaelen on the left or Laurent Koscielny on the right), rely on veterans who would otherwise be sitting on the bench (Johan Djourou), or give an inordinate amount of playing time to an out of position youngster (Ignasi Miquel). The question prior to Sunday's match was "can the Arsenal defense hold up against the Man U attack?" Are we that surprised that the answer is "no?" Shouldn't all of the injuries and all of the obvious problems be a sign that things were going to go wrong? I love Vermaelen to death, but he's not used to playing on the left and he lost Antonio Valencia on the first goal of the match. Djourou played so bad that he was subbed at halftime for an 18 year-old making his first Premier League appearance. And the second Man U goal, well...

How often on this very website have you seen me make bald pleas to Arsene Wenger to never play Andrei Arshavin again? I'm not a renegade in this of course as nearly every Arsenal fan I've heard speak their mind says the same thing, but the track record is there. He has been garbage in pretty much every game he's played in this year. The worst thing is that he not only disappears for long stretches of time, but he sucks the life out of attacks for other players as well, putting in poor passes or taking bad touches when given good passes. It was such a relief to see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain finally get the start over Arshavin because of the quality that Chamberlain had brought to every game that he'd played in so far this year regardless of the level. But in the 74th minute Wenger subbed Chamberlain out (apparently because he was nursing a calf injury? - the truth in the matter is uncertain, though I hope Wenger has earned the right to not be called a liar) and Arshavin came trotting in. Were people really thinking that this was going to be the game that he turned everything around and started playing like the man who was instant offense two seasons ago? Are we really surprised that wasn't the case? Arshavin was badly burned by Valencia who proceeded to set up Danny Welbeck for the game winning goal, to the surprise to absolutely no one who had watched a game so far this year.

The run of form that Robin Van Persie has enjoyed this season has been nothing short of remarkable, but it's not all high fives and smiles when discussing Arsenal's attacking options. I've mentioned time and time again that while Van Persie is playing brilliantly, the scoring isn't coming from anywhere else. The Dutch international has scored 19 out the team's 39 goals on the season. Gervinho (currently away from the team due to the African Cup of Nations) is currently in second with four. Knowing how the season has gone so far did anyone truly expect another player besides Van Persie to kick start the offense in Sunday's match? Wenger threw a slight curveball at fans by starting Chamberlain, who was the second best offensive player on the field for Arsenal and really did add something to the game. But even with that, Van Persie scored the Gunners only goal and had the next best chance as well, which he inexplicably put wide. Theo Walcott was ok, Aaron Ramsey was ok, and no one else really chipped in that much. In another words, it was another Arsenal match.

I don't want to seem too down after this match as there were some good spots. Arsenal were the better team for significant stretches in the second half, which is good to see when you're playing against the number two team in the league. Chamberlain looked fantastic and it will be great to see him get more play coming up. When Gervinho comes back to the squad, Arteta gets healthy again, and Wilshere makes his triumphant return, the midfield has a strong chance of being really good. But even with those bright sides, this was still a 2-1 loss at home in a game that Arsenal desperately needed. As it sits now, they are 5 points behind Chelsea and even though they will host that fixture later in the season, it's now even more of a must win, a game that very well could end the Gunners' season if it goes poorly. This was a disappointing loss to take, but, and I hate to say this, it should not have been surprising.

No game notes on this one as I find that I've said all I need to say by touching on the three biggest issues in the main body of the post. See everyone back after the FA Cup match against Aston Villa and As Always, Go Gunners.

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