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.

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