Thursday, February 2, 2012

Choosing Your Battles

This week has been a busy one for English soccer as the FA Cup matches were held over the weekend and the Premier League schedule continuing on Tuesday and Wednesday. A glut of games like this occurs every now and then when there is time set aside for the domestic cups, and also for some of the elite teams when the Champions League holds mid-week matches with the domestic leagues running over the weekend. As you can imagine, this can lead to some exhausted soccer players and therefore some difficult decisions for managers as they have to weigh the various competitions carefully and choose where to spend their talent. With the Carling Cup nearing the final match, the FA Cup kicking into high gear, and the Premier League entering an important stretch, I'd like to go over the various trophies that can be won and give some analysis about how Arsenal might use their players in each.

The most prestigious trophy to win is most definitely the Champions League. This is the tournament that pits all of the best teams in Europe against each other to see who will come out as champion. For the record, I prefer the World Cup due to the amazing amounts of pageantry and meaning that go into every match no matter how small and seemingly inconsequential. The World Cup isn't club against club but country against country in a tournament that comes around only once in every four years, meaning that even superstar players only have so many chances to win. It is, in my opinion, the biggest prize in all of sports and it's a fantastic event. However, the Champions League is by far the best play that you will see as it features teams that have been training together all year and are much more comfortable than the international players that get together only every so often to defend the honor of their country. I'm not going to go through the multi-step tournament system (though if you have any questions, please post them in the comments), but Arsenal are currently still alive and will be playing traditional powerhouse AC Milan in the first round of the knockout stages.

The other title that everyone dreams of winning is the domestic league title. This trophy goes to the team who comes in first in whichever league they play in (English Premier League, Italian Serie A, Spanish La Liga, etc.) and is not determined by a tournament. If you finish in first place in the regular season, you win the league title, which is why so much attention is paid to each and every game. There is no "we'll get in the playoffs and see what happens." It all comes down to the regular season. Think of it as similar to college basketball. Coupled with the various league cups (which I will get to shortly), you have an atmosphere somewhat similar to the regular season champion and the tournament champion, with the NCAA tournament acting as the Champions League. While the league cups are important, the league titles are the full year grind that everyone plays through and league standings also ultimately determine who will be relegated and promoted when all is said and done. Due to this, the domestic titles are second in prestige to the Champions League, though this isn't true for every European league and some fans of each league. Perhaps the way to say it is that the domestic titles are the second hardest to win. Currently Arsenal sits in 7th place in the Premier League with 37 points (out of 20 teams; leaders Manchester City have 54 points).

The aforementioned league cups are next on the difficulty/prestige scale, though this is a little difficult to explain. In England, there are two knockout style tournaments for multiple levels of soccer teams: the FA Cup and the Carling Cup. The difference here is one of scope. The Carling Cup includes the Premier League as well as the next three divisions of the Football League (Championship, League 1, League 2). The FA Cup includes all of those teams as well as teams from the National League System, which means that there are village squads competing at the early stages of the tournament. The Carling Cup consistently contains 72 teams due to the set nature of the Football League. Last year's FA Cup had 763 teams participate when all was said and done. You might think that due to the more elite nature of the Carling Cup it is the more prestigious tournament, but this isn't true. The FA Cup is the oldest association soccer competition in the world and the wide open, Cinderella nature of the tournament makes it fascinating to watch. The FA Cup is a tournament that teams set out to win to bring glory to their fans. The Carling Cup is somewhat of an also-ran tournament that teams often use their secondary players or young up-and-comers for rather than exhaust their true stars further. Arsenal was knocked out of the Carling Cup by Manchester City in the quarterfinals but is still alive in the FA Cup after beating Aston Villa 3-2 on Sunday. Which brings us to where we are now.

Arsenal is still alive in three out of four trophy races, but the level to which they are breathing vs gasping for air is highly debatable. Realistically, the race for the Premier League title is over for the Gunners. 17 points is a huge difference to overcome and they would have to leapfrog five other teams besides the current leaders to get there. Put more in American sports terms, they are 5.66 games out with 15 games to play and have six teams in front of them. It's technically possible, sure, but very unlikely, especially if we were to compare the relative talent levels. Therefore, the more achievable goal is 4th place, currently held by Chelsea with 42 points (5 points ahead of Arsenal). Why does 4th place matter? The top three finishers in the Premier League get automatic bids into the Champions League group stage while the fourth place finisher has to play a home-and-away playoff to reach the same level. In other words, fourth place is the last chance for a team to get into next year's Champions League and usually fourth place in England is going to be a large favorite over whoever they would face in the playoff. So, Arsenal's Premier League hopes are more about battling into fourth place (or higher of course, but that's less likely as third place is currently occupied by Tottenham with 49 points) in order to make the 2012-2013 Champions League than challenging for the title.

In this year's Champion's League, Arsenal faces a tough elimination round match against defending Italian champions AC Milan. This is a winnable tie (term for two match knockout series) for the Gunners, but definitely difficult as Milan is a dangerous team. Still, it would not be unheard of for Arsenal to go to the San Siro and play Milan close, then come back to London and close things out to advance to the quarterfinals. The problem is, then what? There are four teams still in the Champions League who are absolutely better than Arsenal (Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona) and unless they all get knocked out in the round of 16 or face each other in the quarterfinals on the opposite side of the draw from Arsenal, the Gunners will have to play one of them soon. They would be very lucky if that didn't happen until the semifinals and once it does happen, it's all over. What I said before is very true: the Champions League is the title that you want to win. It's the one you will always fight for if you're in it. But if you realistically have no chance of winning, it's not great to get your hopes up too high.

The FA Cup is a very interesting story for Arsenal mostly due to the fallout from the earlier rounds. Manchester City and Manchester United (the #1 and #2 teams in England right now) have been eliminated, leaving a wide open field for the Round of 16 and beyond. With each game being an elimination match, it would be possible for Arsenal to get lucky with their draws and advance through the next level or two easily, and the worst they could draw would be their arch-rival from Tottenham, a match you still have to like Arsenal to put up a good fight in at the very least. Because of this, Alan Davies of the excellent (but often profane and almost exclusively for Gunners fans rather than general soccer fans) podcast The Tuesday Club recommended giving up on the other competitions and making damn sure that Arsenal brought back the FA Cup as a major trophy this year. Personally... I don't know. Arsenal has the best shot for the FA Cup, that's for sure, as they aren't going to be winning the Premier League or Champions League this year. And if they saved their players for this tournament and caught some of the other teams more tired or unprepared, they would have a good chance. However, I just can't justify giving up on going for 4th place when the Gunners are only five points back, and as a matter of pride I wouldn't be able to sit stars in the Champions League, even though Real and Barca will be hoisting the trophy this year. But then, is that really an answer? Play all of your players in all of your matches and come up half-assed in everything? I don't know. The 5th round of the FA Cup doesn't start until the middle of February and by then, Arsenal will have a better idea of where they stand in the Premier League as well as how the first leg of their tie against AC Milan went, so this is most likely where Arsene Wenger will make his decision. If they are keeping pace, expect a diminished squad to show up for the FA Cup match. But if they dump Premier League games to Blackburn and Sunderland, and get run out of the San Siro 3-1, well, expect a lot of depressed Arsenal fans cheering for FA Cup success. It would be the only success we see all year.

Game Notes

-The game on Sunday vs Aston Villa had all the makings of a classic Arsenal match where they play as the better team but can't put the ball in the back of the net, then see the opponent score against the run of play to doom them in the end. Only in this case, the Gunners managed to come back once all of that happened. It was a new twist on an old classic, but it was nice to see some fight from the team. I'm not sure what Arsene Wenger said in the dressing room at halftime, but it worked. Arsenal came roaring out and showed some true heart in battling back to win the game in regulation and keep from having to go to Aston Villa for a replay match that would just tire them out further.

-Of course, Arsenal's comeback wouldn't have been possible without a few ghastly mistakes by Aston Villa. It's a shame to a degree as Villa defended well most of the game and did a good job frustrating Arsenal before turning up the heat on breakouts. Arsenal threatened consistently, but the Villans always seemed to poke the ball away at the last moment, intercept that last pass to keep the real chances from coming. However, they were undone by two poor decisions in their own penalty box that led to converted penalty kicks by Van Persie. As well as they played cohesive team defense, Aston Villa gave this game away by making terrible decisions in just a couple of big spots.

-Both Mikel Arteta and Bacary Sagna came into this match as substitutes, which is a glimmer of hope for struggling Arsenal fans. Before, I hadn't been overly impressed with the play of Arteta this year as he just seemed to be holding the ball and making easy passes. Nothing incisive and nothing that creative. But when he missed several games with injury, his value showed as the Gunners couldn't even hold possession much less control the game in midfield. Sagna's return marked a return to the time when Arsenal wasn't forced to play defenders out of position on the right and that will be incredibly important going forward as the flanks finally open up again. Great to see both players back. As Always, Go Gunners.

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