Monday, August 20, 2012

The Sky is (Not) Falling

I feel that at the start of each season I'm always preaching patience to any Arsenal fan that will listen. It's not because I think that Arsenal has started off the last two years well (they haven't) and it's not because I see something in Arsenal that everyone else doesn't (I'm a pretty average guy). I am simply understanding of the fact that a team needs time to gel and come together. A team needs to play a little first before you can make predictions for the whole year. Yes, they should still pick up wins in the short term and we are very right to be cross with the Gunners for giving up two points at home to a not terrific Sunderland squad. But running around like Chicken Little is rarely the proper reaction.

Let us start with the newest additions to the team as they are most likely to be out of sync and slow to adjust to playing with new teammates. That was mostly the case here as Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud both looked out of top form. Podolski started as the lone striker and while he was active in pursuing the ball on defense (always a good quality to have in any player), he seemed to struggle in setting himself up to receive service from his teammates. The German international never made a name for himself in the game and at times he was drifting further and further back just to get some touches on the ball and get involved. He wasn't helped out by service into the box (more on that later) and it was mostly a "meh" performance rather than a poor one. He simply didn't get involved.

Giroud had one obvious mistake: he missed an absolute sitter off of a brilliant pass from Santi Cazorla. Open ten yards from goal he has to bury that ball in the back of the net or, at the very least, make the keeper make a save. His run into the box was very clever but lead-up isn't enough and it should have been 1-0 after that chance. Other than that, he was fine but not a force upon the match. He didn't get many touches on the ball, similar to Podolski, and he didn't have much of an impact in the game. Both of these strikers need to learn how to receive the ball from their teammates if they are going to make an impact in these matches.

The main player providing them with the ball would seem to be Cazorla and he was the lone bright spot among the new additions. His touches were terrific, his dribbling simple but effective, and he was always looking to be positive and attack the goal. His shot from distance early in the first half was a solid effort and he also slipped Giroud through on the should-have-been-a-goal play. He truly does seem to be the creative midfield presence that Arsenal needs on offense and it will be very interesting to see if his connection with his teammates increases over time. With Mikel Arteta providing the control and possession coming out of the back and Cazorla acting as the link to the attack-minded players, this Arsenal team could be very talented at switching from defense to offense.

The biggest threat to the offense at the moment seems to be the play of the wing backs. Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson were absolutely dreadful going forward and they are making life much difficult on their wingers if they can't get up into the attack and create overlapping opportunities. In my mind, both Gervinho and Theo Walcott were good in this match, Gervinho almost looking like he might be making strides to move on from the Bad Decision Machine that he was last year. The problem is that they were often coming inside, either on the dribble or to receive the ball, and there was no overlapping outside run to threaten the defense. If Bacary Sagna and Andre Santos had been in this game, they would have been flying down the sideline and serving balls into the box almost at will. Jenkinson and Gibbs only started getting forward toward the end of the match and their service into the box was atrocious. If Podolski and Giroud aren't quite used to how their teammates think and move, then winning crosses is going to be a bit more simple than playing through the middle. But the crosses were shit and contributed to the disappearing act of the strikers. If ever there had been a match that was screaming for Santos, this was it. So why Arsene Wenger took off Walcott for Andrei Arshavin rather than making another more positive move that didn't require exposing Arshavin's uniform to fresh air is beyond me. That might have been the way to save the game, but we'll never know.

All of the criticism is valid, but do you know what it means? Arsenal did not play as well as they could have on Saturday. That. Is. All. This team is going to be vastly different in two weeks, let alone two months. Predicting doom and gloom at this stage of the season is fruitless because the people that do never account for things changing, which they always do. Now, it is possible that things may change for the worse, but looking at this team progression is so much more likely. Podolski and Giroud will work themselves into the offense; Cazorla will develop an even better rapport with his teammates; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will see the field, as will Jack Wilshere, as will Sagna, as will Laurent Koscielny (although the middle of the defense played pretty well). Wenger has also hinted at using the money from selling Alex Song (god bless you Song; I will miss you and your ridiculous hair) at bringing in another player or two, and they do need to do that. We will not have to suffer through this same performance week in and week out because the team will change, either in makeup or cohesion.

This is not meant as a blanket excuse for Arsenal, however. They should be better at the start of a season and they have to be better. You can't be a big team, a contender for the title, and come into each season still trying to figure out what your best lineup is and who needs to play where. If Manchester City or Manchester United came out looking as lackluster as this at the beginning of the year, fans would be absolutely right to wonder what the hell was going on. A "big club" like Arsenal should be able to still be figuring things out and win this Sunderland match 2-0. However, this does not mean that they will be dropping points to Fulham in January (again; ugh) and it does not mean that they can be written off as underachievers (or untalented or whatever other label you want to slap on them) after one match. Narrative drives sports these days, but the most honest thing to do is judge game to game and see how a team evolves. Only then will you approach something resembling the truth.

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