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.

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