Monday, April 9, 2012

Credit Where Credit is Due

In every sport there are positions or players that aren't noticed until they make a mistake or they aren't there anymore. It's commonly said in football that if you don't mention an offensive lineman's name it's a good thing because it means they haven't messed up. Similarly, everyone scoffs at a team who drafts a punter until their own player can't make a simple directional kick out of bounds and avoid one of the most dangerous return men in the game so he doesn't end one of the biggest comebacks of all time with a run back to the house and force you to forget the game by imbibing massive quantities of whiskey. Nope, not bitter at all. Most team sports have positions like this (middle reliever in baseball, fourth line player in hockey, etc.) but sometimes there are players that go unnoticed because of the businesslike way they attend to their duties. Tim Duncan is one of the best to ever play basketball and he still doesn't get the credit he deserves. You don't really think twice about his performance until they post the stat lines and he's got 23 points and 13 rebounds and you're left wondering how he got to that point. Possession receivers like Bobby Ingram or Amani Toomer can be seen the same way because while they perform an essential service, it's not a flashy or highlight reel-type play. It just gets the job done. Central midfielders can be these silent contributors but not necessarily by the very nature of the position. Cesc Fabregas was known league-wide when he was with Arsenal because his passing was often so insightful that you couldn't help but notice what he was doing. This year however, Arsenal have a different kind of playmaker and while he doesn't stand out play to play, it's about time to give Mikel Arteta his due.

When he first was signed by Arsenal during the summer transfer window, many fans and pundits thought that Arteta was a bail out move for Arsene Wenger and the Gunners, a fall back signing that was more of a "Plan B" than an actual goal (I use "Plan B" here in the longer standing meaning, but am now amusing myself thinking of misreadings of that sentence using the lens of the morning after pill). At the time of the signing, I understood those complaints and held them as well to a degree, but I was interested in seeing how he played on the field before cursing him as a failure. Still, voice of reason or no, I found it hard to see Arteta as anything more than a less than famous addition to the team. Signing Mikel Arteta was something that Fulham or Newcastle or, god forbid, Tottenham would do, not a "big" club like Arsenal. It had none of the sexiness of the summer long romances with Keisuke Honda and Eden Hazard and Chelsea had already poached Juan Mata out from under the Gunners, not to mention that Fabregas had already committed to his boyhood club and left London behind. Bringing Arteta at first seemed like when it was August 31st, Wenger looked around and realized there were no center mids left and thought "shit, who do we sign now?" It didn't mean that Arteta was a bad player or that he wouldn't work out, just that he wasn't the first choice over the previous two months and everyone knew it.

For the majority of the season, Arteta wasn't on my mind in a good or a bad way unless he was specifically mentioned by someone else. I would see him play and notice him moving the ball around and making passes but I would never really stop and take note of what he was doing. Part of this is the game that he plays. While he can make the incisive through ball or two, Fabregas was incredibly gifted at that specific type of pass so it's hard to get really excited when Arteta does it. If anything, you end up thinking "ok, why not do that more often?" The strength of Arteta's game is his ability to manage the ball, to spread it from side to side or up the middle, to turn away from the defense and keep possession, to generally act as the caretaker of the game rather than a flashy playmaker. This is where he so often goes unnoticed because who sees and applauds the play where a midfielder keeps the ball rather than letting the opponent break down the field? It's a small seeming play but it can make a lot of difference. I admittedly didn't see these qualities and held Arteta in my mind as a competent player but nothing to really write home about.

It wasn't until his time out with an injury in January that I noticed the quality that Arteta possessed. As I said, you often don't notice this kind of player until he's not there anymore. Arsenal's loss at Swansea City was the real light bulb moment for me. I remember watching that game thinking "my god, Arsenal can't keep possession to save their lives" and then realizing that this just so happened to be the game that Arteta was out for. It was shocking how much of a difference his absence made. There was no rhythm to the Arsenal attack, no patience or directing influence, just quick turnovers and dominance by Swansea in the middle of the field. Once I noticed this, it was hard to pull the wool back over my eyes. Game after game, Arteta settles in, keeps the ball, directs play, and makes the attack go. It shouldn't have taken as long as it did for me to recognize his contributions, but at least I figured it out in the end.

Arteta is a strong player for Arsenal, but not in the flashy kind of way that will draw Robin Van Persie kind of attention. Although he's been in the highlights more recently for his beautiful free kick against Aston Villa and his game winner against Manchester City (that winner is why I decided to write this article after all), it's his steady play and control of the ball that makes his so valuable. He still isn't Fabregas or Mata or any other dynamic midfield presence and in a perfect world, those players would be controlling the attack for Arsenal instead. But he is much, much more than a replacement player who came to London because there were no other options and even if the team upgrades during this offseason, I'm still glad he had his chance to be a Gunner.

Game Notes

-I must admit, it was strange to see Arsenal dominating Manchester City so effectively throughout this game. Granted Man City aren't the force they were earlier this season and granted David Silva was out with injury, but still the Gunners completely controlled the second place team in the Premiership from start to finish. It did look for a while like Arsenal would perform their classic play "We Look Really Great But Fail to Score in a Variety of Comical Ways" but the Mikel Arteta strike was enough to see them through. It was a game that could have easily been 2-0 or 3-0 and you'd like to see Arsenal really put it away when they were so obviously winning on the field, but it's hard to complain about dominating the team that has been leading the EPL for much of the season and moving back into sole possession of third place again.

-I do hate to sound like a broken record, but I am consistently confused with Arsene Wenger's use (or lack thereof) of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. I've come to understand that he isn't going to start every game, most likely due to Wenger's strategy of bringing young players along slowly. Fine. I don't necessarily agree, but at least I comprehend the decision. But if his role is to be that of a super sub with the occasional start, doesn't he surely need more than five minutes of playing time to be a factor? Yet here he was coming in the match in the 85th minute in an attempt to put Arsenal over the edge and get the goal they so rightly deserved. What's even more baffling is that Yossi Benayoun had been replaced by Aaron Ramsey six minutes earlier, a switch that seems tailor made for Chamberlain rather than Ramsey. When you have a true game changer sitting on your bench and a need to get him confidence as well as experience, I don't see how giving him all of five minutes to work with can help much of anything.

-Know that I especially after the Norwich City game that was played earlier today, I am trying very, very hard not to openly mock Tottenham. I'm too much of a believer in jinxs to do something like that, but trust me: I really want to. As Always, Go Gunners.

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