Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spreading the Burden

Arsenal has been on quite a run of late, winning their last seven Premier League games and vaulting into third place, currently three points above rivals Tottenham. With third place comes an automatic Champions League spot for the 2012-2013 season (fourth place must play in a home/away playoff, though English clubs are usually favored in such ties) and, of only slightly less importance, peace of mind and important marketing potential going into the offseason. The best players in the world want to play for clubs who can compete in Europe, so the Champions League spot is incredibly valuable, but so is the image of a team who can actually challenge for the title. Arsenal has looked like many things this year, but this is the first time that they have been able to make the claim that they might be contenders and it couldn't be coming at a better time. This is free advertising directed at all the players in the world who'd like to step up a level, for all the budding (or current) superstars who dream of winning trophies. While the most important step will be locking up the team's leading scorer Robin Van Persie for the foreseeable future, Arsenal seems to finally be learning to win without him being at his world beating best, an important indicator for anyone who was worried this was a one man show.

To be clear, this is not in any way meant to downplay Van Persie's contribution to the team this year or suggest that he is no longer valuable. Far, far from it. The Dutchman's 26 goals still lead the Premiership by five and he has been the man holding things together when without him, everything would have unraveled in a hurry. He is still scoring goals, including his brace against Liverpool and the game-tying tally against Newcastle, but he is starting to look human for the first time. I by no means am suggesting that he is returning to the frustrating "talent without a killer instinct" striker that I labeled him as at the beginning of the season (a thousand apologies for that, oh Great One), but he is no longer putting everything in sight in the back of the net, which should honestly be expected. He has had shots blocked, he has put good shots just wide, he's gotten closed down by goalkeepers, and all of these things are perfectly natural. Unless your name is Lionel Messi, you simply can't maintain the streak that Van Persie was on. But no other player, not even Messi, can claim to be as valuable a goal scorer for his team as the Arsenal captain simply because for a long while, there didn't look to be anyone else that could score for the Gunners. But now, finally, there is some faith that other players can pick up the slack and do their part.

Arsenal's current seven game winning streak has come because of a massive outpouring of goals, 22 in total. This number is inflated by a 7-1 defeat of Blackburn and a 5-2 come from behind win over Spurs, but there is no doubting the scoring form the Gunners are in. Van Persie has put in 7 of those goals and nearly one-third is no number to scoff at, but it is not the 50% clip he was scoring at for most of the year. More recently, he has had only one of Arsenal's six goals over the last three wins, wins that have come without Van Persie being the dominant force on the field. True the goal against Newcastle was a masterpiece of "anything you can do, I can do better," coming just 53 seconds after Newcastle's opening goal and sparking the familiar chant of "He Scores When He Wants," but other times he has been taken out of the game by defenses or been uncharacteristically untidy in front of net. When this has happened, however, different players have stepped up to get Arsenal moving forward. Because of this, the mood has changed for fans when watching the Gunners. Before, everyone "knew" that Van Persie was going to have to rescue the team. Now there is a belief that the goals are going to come whether of not they're off the foot of the captain and that trust in the rest of the squad is what has fans feeling so confident now.

In my mind, this started in one of the most unlikely of places: the boot of Tomas Rosicky. The rebirth of the Czech attacking middie (recently rewarded with a new two-year contract) changed two major things in the minds of fans. One, the level of belief in the topmost midfielder in Arsenal's 4-5-1 formation, something that was especially necessary after a disappointing season from Aaron Ramsey who often looked lost in front of goal. Two, the emergence of Rosicky was so drastic due to how poor he had looked the rest of the season that it brought out that "hey wait a minute, we actually do have players" feeling from the fans. In a way, Rosicky turning things around was emblematic of the team's ability to do so because this belief was coming from such an unexpected, but now potent, source.

From here on out, Arsenal will be looking to its other attacking players to continue contributing so that the Gunners don't live and die on the touch of Van Persie. While it is fantastic to have tallies from Thomas Vermaelen and Kieran Gibbs, fullbacks cannot be relied on to provide the finishing in the offensive end. Players like Theo Walcott, now second on the team with six goals, will have to continue their good form and act as viable threats, both in order to produce scores and take some attention off of their fearless leader. Of course the occasional goal from Mikel Arteta is nice (whose free kick strike against Aston Villa was as strong as you'll see this season), but the real pressure will be on Rosicky to continue his solid level of play and wingers Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho to get into the mix. Oxlade-Chamberlain has been impressive all season long, but he's still young and may not be able to go all out week after week. Gervinho has been unimpressive since returning from the African Cup of Nations and needs to get more involved in the attack so that his speed can put the defense under pressure. I doubt that Van Persie will completely lose his scoring ability any time soon, but with other players keen to contribute and the existing belief that they actually can make a difference, Arsenal looks able to compete both now and in the years to come.

Game Notes

-This match against Aston Villa was one of those "taking care of business" matches that fans absolutely adore. There was no drama, no white knuckles, just two goals inside of the first half an hour and Arsenal always looking like the team that would net the third. Good teams do this, of course. Good teams leave no doubt in anyone's mind who is going to win; not the players, not the fans, and certainly not the opposing team. Villa is a team that is in serious trouble this year, near the relegation region for most of the season, so this shouldn't be taken as a sign that Arsenal will roll through the rest of the league. Still, there is something to be said for these matches being as easy as they look on paper.

-Alex Song is an oft... maligned is a bad word, but there is something to the intent. Perhaps "scapegoated" is more accurate. He is a player whose mistakes are instantly jumped upon (often because of how glaring they are, to be fair) and whose accomplishments are often swept under the rug. He does have an annoying habit of getting too cute on the ball which, as a defensive midfielder, can lead to major errors. And he does try a little too much to make that perfect pass rather than just the one which will keep play moving. But several times this year he has made that extraordinary pass to perfection (including once in this match to Theo Walcott to set up the Gunners' second goal) and with eight assists in the Premier League this season, it about time he gets some love. Bravo to you Alex Song. There are times when I wish you were all steel instead of a mix of steel, fancy, and stupidity, but I love you for what you do.

-While I'm in the mood for giving credit, I'll begrudgingly give some to Kieran Gibbs. Not necessarily for the goal because it's one that Shay Given really should have stopped, but because he seems to pass for competent coming forward these days. I know I've said some pretty negative things about Gibbs in the past and I still don't believe that he should be the first choice left back. However, he is starting to learn how to jump into the attack and give support to his winger, something that his opposite number Bacary Sagna already does so incredibly well. Again this comes with the caveat of playing against Villa, who don't have much in the way of wingers to challenge his position, but it's nice to see him coming around a bit. Besides, he's still young (only 22 at the time of this writing) so perhaps there will be more to him than I would have thought. There are times when I'm happy to be wrong. As Always, Go Gunners.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Defense Wins Championships

For years, this has been the common adage through sports. A team can be as high flying and as high powered as they want, but a good defense will win out in the end. The core of this argument comes down to the idea of imposing will, and in sports it is assumed that this favors the defense. After all, the impetus is on the offense to score in order to produce points. If everything stays the same, the defense achieves their goal, so the offense is at a disadvantage due to being forced to act. However, others would argue that because the offense guides the tempo and tone by nature of being in this "predicament," they are actually at the advantage because the defense must respond to them. As this attitude has gained more traction, our truism of "defense first" has come under fire, the emergence of the Packers offense under Aaron Rodgers in the NFL and the dominance of the passing game and scoring prowess of Barcelona led by Lionel Messi being prominent examples. The old fashioned among us will quickly create counter examples, however. The vaunted Packers offense was stopped by the elite defense of the New York Giants in this year's playoffs. Only two years ago, Inter Milan was able to "park the bus" at Camp Nou, holding Barcelona to just two goals in two matches, sending Inter through to the Champions League final. Great offenses might exist and win some of the time, but great defense still beats great offense. Or so the argument would go.

I don't expect to end this great debate here, of course, but I think that it is important to note the tension between the two ideas, especially which of the sides starts out on the automatic front foot: defense because the offense must act, or offense because they dictate terms to the defense. Getting away from this for a minute, it's also important to decide whether or not you (as a coach, manger, general manager, etc.) believe that there are limited resources available and then, depending on your answer, how best they are utilized. For example, if you believe that there are completely unlimited resources at your disposal, then hell, you're going to want to make everything as good as it can be, right? Legendary offense, other-worldly defense, it's all right there for you. If, on the other hand, you believe that your resources (time, money, skill) to be incredibly limited, then odds are you want to maximize a particular strategy rather than try to be good at a couple of things. If you had never been in a fight before but were scheduled for a UFC match in two months, would you learn a little wrestling, a little jujitsu, some judo, etc... or would you just try to get really good at striking and hope that carries you through?

I would wager that most managers fall somewhere in between: they do not believe that they can spend all the time or money in the world on their strategies, but they do have an ample amount to conceive a well rounded plan of action, teach it, and implement it. With this in mind, you rarely see these professionals spend all of their money on either offense or defense. No GM constructs a football team by spending all of their money on their offensive players and then stock their defense with only minimum contract players at each position. However, you might see a GM in baseball choose his position players to be more offensive minded their solid defensively and hope the runs scored outweigh the runs allowed (e.g. 2011 Milwaukee Brewers). These trade-offs are made to favor either offense or defense, depending on who is running the team, and it happens in most sports. Because of this, the key to winning is often the team that does the best job minimizing the weak part of their squad. If the 2011 New Orleans Saints were guaranteed that their defense would only give up 21 points a game (a very average number in the NFL), they would be ecstatic because they would trust their offense, the focal point of the construction of the squad, would be able to outperform that. You hear it all the time in baseball ("if their starting pitching can just last through the sixth, that team will be dangerous"), basketball ("if they can get enough stops on defense, the offense should be able to put the game away"), football ("if Trent Dilfer can just put a few points up on the board, the Ravens could win the Super Bowl"), and of course soccer.

At its best, Arsenal should be an offensive minded team. The type of game that Arsene Wenger teaches and preaches is primarily a ball control, quick passing attack that seeks to wear defenses out while still providing incisive balls to breakdown opponents and score in bunches. The optimal Arsenal game should be possession passing that is always looking to move forward and attack, more like Barcelona with Messi than the Spanish national team with... well, without Messi. This year the talent in the squad is diminished, but with Robin Van Persie in career best form, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Gervinho all able to run at defenders on the wings, not to mention Tomas Rosicky and/or Aaron Ramsey attacking up the middle, the Gunners are a team that can score goals. This has been proven against the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham, and AC Milan to name a few top clubs Arsenal has played and beaten. When things go right, the offense is a force that controls the game and provides numerous chances.

Yet if Arsenal is to hold onto third place this season (yes, the Gunners now sit one point above Tottenham at the end of Wednesday's action) it may be the defense being "good enough" that allows them to do so. Today at Everton, they were that and then some, with the defense holding on to produce a clean sheet in an incredibly important match. This isn't quite the first choice side that Wenger has out on the field. He may prefer Per Mertesacker to Laurent Koscielny depending on the matchup and Andre Santos would most likely receive starts over Kieran Gibbs unless a threat down the opponent's right flank was especially worrisome, but things are currently better than they have been in months. Thomas Vermaelen is back in his commanding center back roll. Koscielny has come along better than anyone could have anticipated. Bacary Sagna is once again a menace down the left. And Gibbs, save poor positioning on the Ben Afra goal versus Newcastle, has done a good job playing soundly on the left even if he isn't a menace going forward. This defense may not be able to hold off the likes of Barcelona or Real Madrid, but in a Premier League season where no team has proven to be completely dominant week to week, the current setup may be good enough to make it into the Champions League next year.

Game Notes

-Defense, however, cannot start and end with the back four. The midfield must do better, and this includes keeping the ball, not just protecting the goal when the opposition is on the attack. Early in this match, it looked like Arsenal might put five up on the board. But after fifteen or twenty minutes, it was Everton who were holding onto the ball, pinning the Gunners into their own defensive end. This occurred because the midfield was not able to control the ball coming out of the back, too often giving it away or putting players running forward in poor position. Alex Song was lucky that Royston Drenthe was (most likely incorrectly) called offside when he scored his goal, because the Cameroonian opted for a "go for broke" pass out of the back that led to the (waived off) goal, rather than choose the simple pass to get the ball moving forward. The midfield was able to gather more control later in the second half and limit Everton's chances as time went on, but it needs to be a full game effort in the future.

-Bless his heart, but Aaron Ramsey has the worst combination of luck and touch in front of goal I've seen out of a skilled player in a while. First he blew a beautifully laid off header by Robin Van Persie, shooting wildly over the bar instead of playing a simple touch into the back of the net. Then he had not one, not two, but three open chances expertly blocked by well placed Everton defenders. The blocks he can't do that much about, save perhaps anticipate better and utilize more fakes and hesitations to open lanes for himself or others. But his touch is ghastly. It is by far the biggest part of his game he needs to work on because his effort invariably finds him in important positions in the box. He just can't do anything about what happens next.

-I hate to look ahead, but as a fan and commentator, I allowed to do that where players and coaches cannot. With nine matches left, Arsenal holds a one point lead on Spurs for third place and a six point lead on Chelsea for fourth place (were they to fall past Tottenham). That means that the Gunners would have to drop two full games to Chelsea to worry about missing out on Champions League qualification. Two games in nine isn't unheard of, but the schedule shakes out favorably. Arsenal has five out of the nine games at home, the toughest by far being against Manchester City and Chelsea. Out of the road games, the toughest is a difficult, but winnable test at Britannia Stadium and the likes of Stoke City. Other than those three games, Arsenal plays Aston Villa, Queens Park Rangers, Wolverhampton, Wigan, Norwich City, and West Bromwich Albion, all teams in the lower half of the table. Things are set up for a run to the Champions and very possibly yet another St. Totteringham's Day. But first, the work must be done. As Always, Go Gunners.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Yet Another Twist

Just when you think this season couldn't get any more strange, it finds a way. Just when you think it's only nine kinds of weird, it finds a tenth out of nowhere. And just when you think that we had already revisited every possible theme from early in the year, here comes another one back around again. The magical and aggravating fact of this year is that Arsenal has been several different teams at multiple times during the season. The early season form, featuring an 8-2 defeat to Manchester United as well as an embarrassing loss to Blackburn, resurfaced in the two demoralizing losses to AC Milan and Sunderland, knocking the Gunners out of the Champions League and FA Cup respectively. The late fall form of the five straight Premiere League victories is now being matched by the four wins in a row we currently see, a run that has left Arsenal only one point back of third place and hated Tottenham. The middling, stumbling form of the holiday season is the only side of the squad that hasn't been repeated yet, and let's hope it stays that way because this would be a terrible time for that tired team to return. But even more than the overall quality of the side has been the ebb and flow of certain opinions about the team. In this case, I'm talking about the heart and grit of a winner, a team that can pull out games because they are simply better.

Watching Thomas Vermaelen score the game winner in the 5th minute of injury time against Newcastle was shocking. Not because it was against the run of play. After a lull towards the end of the first half, Arsenal was by far the better team, creating multitudes of chances for many different players. It was surprising not for any reason related to this particular game played at this particular time, but because this kind of thing isn't supposed to happen to Arsenal. Scoring in injury time to pull a needed result out? That's something that Manchester United do. That's something that teams of destiny do. That's something that winners do. Arsenal, at least in recent years, haven't been the kind of team that does that. In fact, they've been the team that gives up those kinds of heartbreaking goals, the team that loses those close games. And when they do lose those close games, any observer would just throw up their hands and say "what do you expect? It's Arsenal."

Earlier this year, however, they showed signs of being this type of tough team. In that later fall period, Robin Van Persie had late goals twice, one against Sunderland in the 82nd minute and the other a goal of the year candidate against a stringy Everton defense. Aaron Ramsey had a goal in the 90th minute to pull out a win against Marseille in the Champions League. Yossi Benayoun saved a win against Aston Villa with an 87th minute header. All of these tough wins suggested that maybe Arsenal had changed, that maybe this was a new team, one that, as I argued, couldn't afford to play the old way with points dropped here and there because they'd had to fight so hard to put the awful start to the season behind them. But then came the holiday lull with games given away to inferior opponents. Then came that miserable run in February that ended with Arsenal out of two competitions. So of course, then come the comparisons to the old teams and the questions about whether Arsenal has actually changed. And to a degree, rightfully so. However, a win like this does a lot to set people back to neutral, to stop thinking about their invented storylines and start thinking about what's in front of them. Arsenal have won close matches. Arsenal have won matches late. Arsenal have come from behind this year. Must we forget about that every time we discuss the heart of this squad?

I do not mean to go too far in the other direction either. This was still a win in the 95th minute and if a goal hadn't come there we might be talking about an Arsenal team that can't finish instead of a team that has the grit to win these games. I think that blowing either result (a late win or a disappointing draw) out of proportion would be unfair to what happened in the match, so even though I have been writing about the late wins for Arsenal, it is not my intention to make that the only story. Arsenal were the better team in this match, with more possession (61% to 39%) and more shots on goal (8 to 2) than Newcastle, and would have been unlucky to come away with only one point. But aside from being an Arsenal fan and ecstatic with the win, I'm also happy because it forces people to stop being lazy with their analysis. If there was a draw, it would be incredibly easy to bring out the "Arsenal can't score yet again" critique when there is evidence to show that Arsenal have won that type of game this season. It makes writers and commentators actually look at what happened rather than what they already "know" about the team. With that plus the three points, I'd say it's a win all around for the Gunners.

Game Notes

-Players are starting to get healthy, veterans are starting to work to their potential, and suddenly Arsenal is looking like a team that has some depth. Though I'm happy about this, let's keep the emphasis on some. Arsenal can't bring world beaters off the bench like some other teams can, especially the two Manchester clubs and their stables of strikers. But whereas against Milan the only solution was to bring on Maroune Chamakh and Park Chu-Young, only a week later Arsene Wenger is able to bring on Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey. Part of this is the emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as his presence gives the ability to rest himself, Gervinho, or Theo Walcott and then bring a high octane winger on for offense. Another factor is Tomas Rosicky finally playing like we know he can, which lets Aaron Ramsey come off the bench. Again, these aren't monster players but even having the option is better than what was happening before.

-Speaking of Aaron Ramsey, I think that it's good he's coming off the bench. To be honest, he wasn't living up to expectations starting as the connecting man between the strikers and midfield. He isn't tidy in possession, his vision is lacking, and he is not comfortable trying to put shots on goal. I have been critical of him over the course of the year, but I do think he is valuable. I just didn't think he deserved the automatic start he was receiving. With Rosicky playing as well as he is, now Ramsey can use his energy and work rate effectively as a substitute, hopefully taking advantage of tired defenders to make up for the lack of polish.

-I noticed during this match that Arsenal was primarily attacking down the right wing rather than using Oxlade-Chamberlain as much on the left. While it was certainly in part because of Walcott being effective, this mostly speaks to the play of Bacary Sagna versus Kieran Gibbs. Sagna is a master of getting forward, overlapping his runs with Walcott's so that either player can be in a position to win a one-on-one battle or be played into space, areas where Walcott thrives. I don't see this as an insult to the Ox, just as proper usage of the assets available. Were it Andre Santos playing at left back rather than Gibbs, I'm sure we'd see a focus on that wing as well. Chamberlain should keep the faith. He's too talented to not see the ball, it's just that Arsenal was sticking with what worked in this match. As Always, Go Gunners.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Heart, Not Depth

Going into the match against Milan, it was all but a foregone conclusion that Arsenal would be knocked out of the Champions League. While it's not impossible for a team to come back from a 4-0 deficit in a home and home series, it had never been done in European play and, even with the Gunners' recent form in the Premier League, there was no reason to assume that this would be the first. As an Arsenal fan, all I wanted was a team that came out and cared about giving their fans a good show, giving their supporters a proper send-off as the team was bounced from the tournament. The feelings of fans cannot be paramount in the mind of teams, players and coaches, if only because fans are highly reactionary when they have no true data from which to make decisions. But soccer, like all popular sports, is a spectator sport, which is why teams and players make such a point to do things for the fans, from signing autographs to charity events to one-on-one specialized interactions. For this game it made sense for fans to feel as if they were owed something given how miserable Arsenal played when they were in Milan, prematurely eliminating themselves. Rational fans would have been more than happy if the players showed up to play for them, to give them the great atmosphere the crowd previously hoped to have in this return leg of the elimination round.

As it turned out, the Gunners wanted to do more than just put on a show. In an impressive display of heart and grit, Arsenal came out absolutely flying and was able to put three shots in the back of the net in just the first half. Most of the attack was directed down the right flank as Theo Walcott and Bacary Sanga were going against an untested left back in Djamel Mesbah, but Gervinho still presented himself as a threat down the left flank as well. Either due to injuries or desperation, Arsene Wenger deployed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as one of his attacking central midfielders and "The Ox" was up to the task, linking up with other attackers and drawing a penalty kick with a darting run into the box. In general, Arsenal pressed high and hard, moving their entire team forward up the field at break neck pace and playing as a team who had nothing to lose. The strategy caught AC Milan off guard as the Italian side struggled to maintain any possession in the midfield while never adjusting to the high backline Arsenal's fullbacks were playing, resulting in nine offside calls over the course of the match. Going into the break within one goal of drawing even in the tie, the Gunners looked like a team capable of making history.

Unfortunately, the very strategy that put Arsenal so close to their goal in the first half would be their undoing in the second. More than anything, the Gunners tired. The suicidal pace that started the game off would only result in a slow death as time went on. Both Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain were forced off the field due to slight pulls or strains, and the team as a whole was too exhausted to keep Milan on their heels. The saving grace for the Gunners could have been the addition of substitutes that could continue the hard work of the departing attacking players, substitutes that could run at defenders to generate chances as well as keep Milan from settling too much into the match. Unfortunately, the best that Wenger could do was bring Marouane Chamakh and Park Chu-Young off the bench, two unimpressive strikers that had almost no impact on the game whatsoever. This is the woeful injury situation that Arsenal finds themselves in. Aaron Ramsey, Yossi Benayoun, and Mikel Arteta were all inactive for this match, any of which would have been influential subs; Ramsey as a workhorse and ball chaser, Benayoun as a veteran attacker, and Arteta as a midfielder to keep possession and dictate tempo to Milan. Injuries seem to have come at the worse times all year for Arsenal and these may have cost them the miraculous turnaround that seemed so close at times on Tuesday.

While it did hurt somewhat to have the Gunners come so close yet land so far, it's hard to be angry or sad about something we had no right to expect in the first place. Arsenal gave their fans goals, hustle, excitement, and more than a little belief over the course of ninety minutes, which is much more than anyone could have realistically wanted. If anything, it has given Gunners fans more hope for the chances of not only locking down a Champions League spot for next year, but completing a different kind of dramatic comeback by overtaking Spurs for third place. Though this has been an up-and-down year from the get go, we're all looking for a reason to believe in the future. I'm thankful that Arsenal brought that familiar feeling back to London, and anywhere else fans might reside, with their play in this leg of the Champions League match. As Always, Go Gunners.

(no Game Notes this week as this post was largely analysis)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Truth Prevails

It took over seven months, forty-two matches, and quite a bit of celebratory/commiserating alcohol, but I think I have finally figured out the way to explain the 2011-2012 Arsenal season. At first blush, none of it makes sense. Or rather, it does make sense until a startling bit of contradictory information is presented to us, thus causing us to reassess everything that we have seen so far. Arsenal was a middling to bad team at the beginning of the year until the ten game unbeaten streak, including a 5-3 away victory over Chelsea, that only ended with a defeat to Manchester City, the best team in the Premier League. At this point the Gunners were a scrappy competitor who was dangerous regardless of who they were playing. But then came the holiday dog days when Arsenal struggled to win against average competition, an indication that they were not deep enough or talented enough to hold on to a Champions League spot. Their embarrassment at Milan in a Champions League match and then poor bow out of the FA Cup against Sunderland reinforced the idea that they simply did not have what it takes and were no longer an elite club. But then. THEN. A stunning 5-2 come from behind defeat of arch rivals Tottenham and a gutty road win at Liverpool including typical late game heroics from Robin Van Persie, and no one has any idea what to think. Suddenly Arsenal is not only three points clear of Chelsea for the fourth spot in the Premiership, but the Gunners are also only four points back of Tottenham for the third spot and a guaranteed Champions League birth (no annoying playoff). On the surface, none of this makes any sense. Not at all. Arsenal can't be this talented and clutch but also bereft of moxie and ability. Then it hit me. This entire season has been Arsene Wenger's master plan to drive the majority of soccer writers mad with confusion.

There can be no other answer. A team does not learn how to win tough games all of a sudden, just like they don't forget how to put in a modicum of effort in huge matches. It is nigh impossible to reconcile what we have seen over the course of this season into one, unified view of a team. Arsenal only makes sense when viewed without glasses on, duplicate visions of the physical representation of the club standing side by side. But consider: Arsenal is a very polarizing Premier League team (although what established or successful team isn't at this point?) with one of the most polarizing managers leading the way. Fans of the team point to their gloried past, their enticing style of play, and their off the beaten path method of buying young talent low and selling high rather than splashing money around every transfer window. Critics of the team point to the entitled attitude of both players and fans, the way Wenger seems to assume moral superiority at every turn, and the "continental" passing style that values style over substance. It is a club that is easy to love, easy to hate, and especially easy to use as a jump off point for hyperbole and/or criticism of the utmost conviction. It is this rush to judgment that Wenger masterfully seized on during this season to eliminate some of his most vocal critics.

Knowing that Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri, and Cesc Fabregas were all set to leave for greener pastures, the Frenchman purposefully waited until the last day of the transfer window to grab replacement players, while still building for the future (a future cleansed of criticism) by signing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. With the blood swirling in the waters, Wenger implored his players to ease into the season, only barely making the Champions League while also starting horribly in the Premiership, losing to Blackburn and looking dead to the world against Manchester United. With his critics calling for his head and predicting an end to Arsenal's image as a top team in Europe, the team was urged to turn on their full abilities, leading to the aforementioned unbeaten streak and bringing the club up to fifth on the table despite starting the season so atrociously. This would be enough for most men, but Arsene Wenger is not most men. He is a mastermind and genius in every sense of the word. He brilliantly ordered his team to take some time to rest in the middle of the season while secretly telling the medical staff to start weakening the legs of every single defender on the roster. To drive the point home, Arsenal used their games against Milan and Sunderland not just to eliminate themselves from competitions they knew they couldn't win, but increase the soccer punditry to a fever pitch, with the calls for blood, hellfire, and general other-worldly destruction returning in earnest. Then, the masterstroke. Wenger once again turned loose his physically and psychologically rested squad, taking command of the last Champions League spot while also putting the Gunners in position to deliver a killing blow to the hated Spurs. What else can you call this but genius?

Soccer commentators are completely befuddled at this point. On the surface they mumble platitudes about talent rising to the top, or commenting on the "deeply flawed" nature of the team, but inside they are all manic, twitching views into the psyche of Jubal Early. Arsene has them right where he wants them, waiting for more powerful, authoritative analysis of the talent of this Arsenal team and how they are in the driver's seat for the third spot in the league. However, I predict a cessation of winning at the end of March, including an uninspired performance at Swansea (a team Arsenal should have all the motivation in the world to beat considering that earlier in the year, after a home loss, everyone and their mother were calling Swansea "the new Arsenal) and an absolute shellacking at the hands of Manchester City. Then, just when the uproar is at its highest, the kid gloves come back off as the Gunners embarrass Chelsea and finish the season with four straight wins, driving the dagger into the hearts of Spurs fans as Arsenal moves past them into third place. The critics, no longer with any solid grasp on the physical world, hurl themselves into the Atlantic all the while screaming about the evil professor. All part of Arsene Wenger's master plan. That has to be it, right? Otherwise this season makes absolutely no fucking sense.

Game Notes

-Wojciech Szczesny played like a man among boys on Saturday, stopping a penalty as well as the rebound, and generally being the force that kept Arsenal in this game. To their credit, the defense mostly played strong as well, under pressure most of the match but careful to not give up too many chances. The shots that did get through were turned aside by an impressive Szczesny, though he was not dominate enough to stop the fearsome scoring force that is Laurent Koscielny. The young Arsenal keeper has shown all season long that he can be a brick wall in goal when he puts his mind to it, and under normal circumstances would have been the man of this match. However...

-It is becoming very hard to write about Robin Van Persie. Rather, it's becoming hard to write anything new about him. He is having an absolute monster of a season, is the odds-on favorite to be the Player of the Year, and is almost single-handedly carrying Arsenal to victories. But, we all know that. So when he keeps doing these things, it's hard to find something to say besides "Robin Van Persie is really good." But he has been so good that it's impossible to ignore his accomplishments. We'll just end the tension of this situation right now by awarding him the man of the match title and breathlessly waiting for his next superhuman feat.

-It may not be smart to talk of next season already, but I was discussing it with a friend today so what the hell, why not post it here? For the record, this is all wishful, but possible, thinking so trust me when I say I'm aware that this could all turn up the wrong way instead of the right. Let's assume that Arsenal do well enough to keep Van Persie when his contract is up as well as present themselves as a club in contention for titles. Lucas Podolski seems Arsenal bound based on his comments and that signing, plus the resigning of Van Persie, could be enough for Wenger to spend for either Eden Hazard or Mario Gotze to place in midfield. With the return of Jack Wilshere, that would yield a lineup of:

Striker: Van Persie
Midfield: Hazard/Gotze, Wilshere, Alex Song, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott
Fullbacks: Thomas Vermaelen, Per Mertesacker, Bacary Sanga, Andre Santos
Keeper: Wojciech Szczesny

That leaves Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta, Gervinho, Podolski, and Laurent Koscielny coming off the bench, with youngster like Ignasi Miquel, Emmanuel Frimpong, Francis Coquelin, Carl Jenkinson seeing time as well. With only two buys and everyone getting healthy, that makes for a much more dangerous Arsenal team in 2012. We'll see if that actually happens. As Always, Go Gunners.