Thursday, February 9, 2012

Trends or Outliers?

There is a tendency in sports to judge a team primarily by how well they played their last game. Nowhere is this more true than in football (by which I mean the American version, sorry purists) due to the weekly games, relatively short schedule, and endless talking head punditry about every facet of every game. Teams who were 8-0 suddenly become riddled with holes and doubts when they lose their first game. Teams who were 0-8 become "dangerous" and "a tough out" once they win that first game. And teams anywhere in between jump from world beaters to also-rans depending on the performance they put on last Sunday. Now there is some truth to this. Some. If a otherwise poor team played well against a strong competitor (see: Kansas City defeating Green Bay this past season) then it is worth taking a moment to reevaluate matters and try to find trends. Did they start playing better recently? Have they been dominating in one particular area and that strength happened to match up well with their opponent? Did their opponent simply not show up to play, giving the team you're analyzing a relatively cheap win? These are steps a logical person would go through, particularly after seeing a shocking result. The important thing is to not get carried away by what you just saw and instead try to consider it as part of the whole, one aspect of a story that has been building since the beginning of the season. In that context, the 7-1 win by Arsenal over Blackburn should be seen as a success, certainly, but not necessarily a harbinger of things to come.

Though it should be no surprise with a score like 7-1, there were a lot of positives for Arsenal in this match. It's not that hard to pick out what was good and bad (goals good! giving up goals bad!), but what is more indeterminate is whether or not each occurrence might continue into the future as a solid trend. Let's look at a few examples:

1. Scoring Seven Goals

Obviously the Gunners won't be scoring seven goals a game from here on out, but it's unlikely that even a small increase in production will continue into the future. First, we must keep in mind that four of these seven goals were scored while Blackburn was down to ten men. Three goals scored in even play is still quality, but it's not something that normally happens. In Arsenal's previous ten games in all competition, they scored more than two goals once: three versus Aston Villa in an FA Cup match, and two of them were off of penalties. All season, Arsenal has scored more than two goals only six other times: vs Wigan, West Bromwich Albion, Chelsea, Stoke, Bolton, and Blackburn. Three of those teams are in the relegation zone currently (Wigan, Bolton, Blackburn) and two are in the bottom half of the Premier League table (West Brom and Stoke). Arsenal does not routinely light up the scoreboard and when they do, it is usually against bad teams. This is compounded by the fact that no one besides Robin Van Persie seems able to consistently score (save Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but the sample size is very small). Scoring wouldn't be such an issue, however...

2. Only One Goal Conceded

Blackburn did only score one goal during this match, and it was from a piece of brilliance off a set play by Morten Pedersen. However, it was another foolish foul (this time by Laurent Koscielny) that set up the free kick and this is a habit that Arsenal can't seem to shake over the season. Furthermore, Blackburn was down to ten men for just over half of this match, so only scoring once isn't that surprising. The problem lies in the fact that Arsenal are currently tied for 9th in Goals Against in the Premiership, a highly problematic number when the Gunners' scoring hasn't been consistent. Arsenal plays plenty of 1-0, 1-1, 2-1 type of matches, but the goals they give up are often crippling or foolish, and the Blackburn goal in this match was indicative of that.

3. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's Performance

Here is a positive trend that seems like it might actually have some legs. In every game he's played this year (save perhaps the Bolton match), Chamberlain has been a force on the field. His pace has been dynamic, he's been an obvious playmaker, and he seems to have the support of the veterans, including his captain Van Persie (the Dutchman's reaction to Chamberlain being subbed off against Manchester United can be displayed as evidence to this point). More than that though, he fights when not everyone else is fighting and he runs hard while he's out there. In this way he reminds me a lot of Jack Wilshere during the drubbing Arsenal took at Barcelona in the Champions League last year. Never say die, continue to fight, keep running and working. Arsenal needs players like that as they have too often given up on games, or at least not shown that grit required to gut out tough wins. I hate to say it, but Arsenal doesn't come back from 3-0 down in the second half against Chelsea. Manchester United did, and it's why they're such a legendary team. If Chamberlain can help change the attitude around, he will be worth even more than he already is.

Arsenal's big breakout win against Blackburn was nice, but let's be honest... it's Blackburn. Not just Blackburn, but Blackburn Playing Down A Man For An Entire Half. Because of that, it's hard to see Arsenal carrying these kinds of results forward. However, if the players have any character at all then it should act as a confidence booster for a team that needed one after their dismal January performances. Even if they don't win all of their games by six goals from here on out, something like this might give them the belief they need to gut out the one goal games. That alone would be worth the momentary hype.

Game Notes

-Robin Van Persie. Enough has been said already, but let me add a small addendum. This game showed why he's the most in form striker in England right now because it's not just about the clinical finishing when he has the ball. In this game, Van Persie showed how intelligent his placement is, how well he gets to spots in front of goal where he is available to receive passes. Early in this year, I said that he didn't have that striker's mentality because he doesn't get goals exactly like the three he got in this match. Either I was jaded from his injury prone seasons of the past, or I was just flat out wrong. I'm happy to admit fault in either case as he is the complete package as a scorer. Now someone else just needs to step up to take some of the pressure off.

-It's hard to talk tactics too much from this match because Blackburn was being run ragged after already being down 3-1 before they had Gael Givet sent off with a straight red, but perhaps we can take away some things. Namely the wing play that appears to be slowly returning to Arsenal's game. Bacary Sagna got a day off as he's still recently back from injury, but out of position Francis Coquelin is starting to play well down the right flank and his deft through ball to Theo Walcott helped set up the Gunners' first goal. Let's be honest: Arsenal should always be dangerous on the flanks with the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gervinho, and Walcott at their disposal. But good wing play by the fullbacks makes the speedy wingers that much more dangerous because defenders can't key on just the burners. If this improvement keeps up, the Arsenal attack will surely benefit.

-Aaron Ramsey was given the game off as well and I'm beginning to wonder if that might become more routine. I am usually loathe to credit Tomas Rosicky with anything except picking up foolish yellow cards when he comes in as an ineffectual substitute, but he really has played well recently as the link-up between Mikel Arteta and the strikers. This is the role that Rosicky has played in the past so it's puzzling why things are clicking for him now, but his passing has been superb and he's actually looked dangerous pressing forward. I like Ramsey and because I hold him to a higher standard I've been critical of him this year, but that criticism has been deserved. He's not creating chances for other players and he's been very poor in front of goal himself. With Rosicky playing well, Arsene Wenger may decide to finally remove the "automatic inclusion" tag from Ramsey. Which, unfortunately, is probably not a bad idea. As Always, Go Gunners.

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