Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Gervinho?

A good test of a manager's eye for ability can be found in the tough decision over whether or not to give up on a rising talent. The siren song of "potential" and "upside" are always there to clutch tight, but at some point in a player's career their rise up the ranks will stop. It is only a question of where. Some players will fight through disappointment and rise to play at the highest level of the sport, such as Robin Van Persie in 2011-2012. Others will come to a team with expectations that they will grow into a permanent spot, but flame out before getting there like Carlos Vela did. The toughest kind of decision, however, is what to do with a player once he has proven himself good enough to play, but still has too many holes in his game to warrant a permanent starting spot. That seems to be the situation Arsene Wenger is in with Gervinho and it has become a full-on debate.

Going into this year, it seemed that the Gervinho issue was more or less settled in the minds of fans. He was fine as a depth winger, suitable to playing in league cup matches or spelling an established starter. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott ahead on the depth chart, plus the addition of Lukas Podolski to the left hand side of the pitch, the Ivorian international seemed to have reached his peak as a second choice winger and an impact sub. But Walcott moved into the manager's doghouse due to a contract dispute that he swears isn't about the money and Chamberlain is seeing limited playing time while being brought back very slowly from a minor injury, so Gervinho has had the chance to start both on the wing and at striker. The move up front caught most everyone by surprise, but even more shocking were the two goals that he scored against Southampton in his debut at the new position. The usual warnings were thrown out again. "He's always been inconsistent, so this is par for the course." "The opponent didn't know what to expect from him, which'll tail off with some scouting." "It was only Southampton." But even from the most jaded observers, these warnings sounded instead like the mantra of a child when something seems too good to be true, as if people were trying to convince themselves not to get too excited about the resurgence of a player they had written off. At the very least, the debate about Gervinho was reborn.

More than anything, the former Lille man brings pace to the table. He was brought into Arsenal as a winger precisely so he could receive the ball in space and run at defenders who would hopefully be too slow to adjust to his speed. This plan proved to be unreliable though for one main reason: his horrible, horrible decision making. At his best, Gervinho would burn past a man, get to the endline, and cut the ball back across to a wide open Van Persie, using his speed and ability to draw defenders to create for his teammates. The problem is that this was a Platonic ideal, once that never seemed to manifest itself in our reality. Too often we saw the incomplete version of this form: the strong touch that sent the ball out of bounds or into a waiting tackle; the "two steps behind the man" pass that wasted all previous efforts; the laughable attempt at finishing that never came near the frame. Gervinho's movement was intelligent and his natural abilities allowed him to execute the set-up for his grand designs, but his nerves or his brains or some other unknown malfunction almost always led to the rocket never getting off the launch pad.

The match against Southampton created more hope than the expected shrug and "wow, he finally put it together for once" comment because he was being used as a striker, a position he had never seen playing time at prior. When he turned in a two goal performance up front and then followed it up with a goal against Montpelier in the Champions League (while playing on the right wing, it should be noted), people began to wonder if this would lead to a reemergence. After all, it is an easy thing to talk yourself into in hindsight, especially if you are actively looking to be encouraged. He's still only 25 years old. He's only had one season to acclimate to the Premier League. He has loads of talent but was missing that final step. He might have been disheartened knowing he was down in the pecking order on the wing. The after-the-fact rationale could go on and on, but the basic idea was that this could be the start of something new.

Then there was the away match versus Manchester City, the game that sobered up any fans who were drunk on belief in their Comeback Kid. There are two quintessential Gervinho moments in this match that need to be mentioned from here on out in any analysis. One is the run in the 15th minute or so where Gervinho dashed into space to receive a perfectly weighted ball... only to give it an absurdly heavy touch and let Joe Hart scoop up the mistake without even facing a shot on goal.  The other is the chance in front of goal with less than 15 minutes left in the match that he skied and sliced to waste the best chance the Gunners would have of winning. This was Gervinho at his most Gervinhoest (Gervinhiest? Gervinhoesque?), at least as pessimistic fans have come to see him. Two golden platter chances and two complete blowups. He didn't force a save, he didn't ring it off the post, he didn't drop it to a teammate for them to miss. He never even came close.

The forgotten part of this focus on results only is that very few other Gunners could have put themselves in a position to receive that first pass in order to blunder it into the keeper. Yes, Gervinho botched that chance. But he only botched it because he got there in the first place, similar to a keeper who makes a great play to get to a nigh-unstoppable free kick but then mistimes the punch and looks like a fool. The second chance, however, probably would have been finished by any of the other attacking players who don't possess Aaron Ramsey's instinct for flubbing shots in the box. That was a made for tv moment type of goal where a player gets free, the home fans are screaming for someone to close him down, he rips the shot inside the left post past Hart at full extension, and the Gunners celebrate a gutty, impressive away win against the former champions thanks to the most natural of dramatic circumstances. Except instead, the player ended the moment in the saddest possible way. It reminded me of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, or maybe Zoidberg's slinky. Within every argument for why you have to have Gervinho on the pitch seems to be a reason for why he can never be there.

Unfortunately, we are no nearer to an answer now than when we started all of this just like we don't know Gervinho any better now than we did two weeks ago. We don't know if he's a still developing talent or a bench player. We don't know if he learned how to finish or if he got lucky over a short span. We certainly don't know whether he's true Arsenal material or if he's never going to be more than what he is now. Thankfully it's Arsene Wenger that has to make that decision, not us. Let's hope he doesn't duff it to the keeper.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The New Standard

Sport comes in many variations, both in terms of the types of sport but as well as the level of sport. Some people find college basketball more entertaining than pro basketball, others refuse to watch a sport unless it is played at the highest level, and still others consider international play to be the most important of all. When it comes to soccer, count me among the latter. That isn't to say that international soccer is the best played soccer in the world, because it isn't. Players spend more time with their clubs and the Champions League will always be of a higher quality than the World Cup. But international soccer has the pageantry that you simply don't get at the club level and the importance that cannot be matched by tournaments that are played every year rather than every four. For me, the pinnacle of sport will always be the World Cup and I am a die hard United States fan before all others. I bother with this preamble because I want anyone reading to understand that this comes from a place of love and support rather than one of kneejerk criticism or complaining for the sake of complaining. This is important because I believe that the United States will never become a force in international soccer until we begin to hold our team to a higher standard.

The United States qualifies out of CONCACAF, a region that is not the worst in the world but is still set up for the US to qualify for every World Cup in the foreseeable future. There is only one other dominant country in the confederation, Mexico, a team that is an outside candidate for one of the best eight teams in the world when speaking most charitably. After Mexico comes a bevy of potential dark horses, but no perennial challengers save Costa Rica, and the Ticos still do not compete on the same level as the powerhouses. The way qualification works for the 2014 World Cup is that the top three countries of the final group of six will play in Brazil automatically while the fourth place country must play the first place country from the OFC (note: the best country in this federation will routinely be New Zealand, which should give you an indication of quality) in a home and away series to move on to the big show.

What does all of this mean? The United States should never, ever fail to qualify for the World Cup under these rules. Even if they were to lose both matches to Mexico and then sink into fourth place below their arch rivals and two other countries that happened to get hot at the right time, they would still only have to win a playoff with New Zealand (worst case scenario) to advance. Do you see how embarrassing this would be? How just shy of mathematically impossible it is? Even with only seven points through four matches (!), the US still only needs a win over Antigua & Barbuda and (mostly likely) a draw in a home game with Guatemala to advance to the final round, which will consist of Mexico and four other teams that of course could win, but shouldn't. The US has played about as poorly as it could so far and they still need middling results in two very winnable matches to move on. This is CONCACAF.

Let me say here that I am aware this sounds dismissive towards Honduras, Panama, Canada, and a host of other countries. I mean no disrespect, and that is the honest truth, and it is also not to say that these teams couldn't beat the US or finish ahead of them in the final group. However, I would hope we could all agree that it is a stretch to think that this would be an acceptable result to a country with the United States' population and financial backing. Antigua and Barbuda has fewer residents in the entire country (shy of 82,000) than the capacity of many football stadiums in the US. The GDP per capita of the US is almost seven times that of El Salvador. These may be extreme examples, but these are countries the United States is participating against to make it into the final round of qualifying for the World Cup. Upsets happen and nothing is certain no matter how it looks on paper. But again, such failure would be unheard of for the US.

What this means for the men's national team and what it means for us as fans is that we cannot continue to be happy to pull out close, "must have" wins. We cannot continue to laud the team when they do the minimum that is required of them. This does not, of course, mean that every game must be a 4-0 blow out and that there will never be momentary setbacks, and it definitely does not mean that the fans should openly boo a team that is coming just short of putting it all together midway through a match. But we cannot be satisfied with the minimal standards that have been set for us. We need to aim higher and we need to be more. I watched this year's US team lose at Jamaica and then barely pull off a 1-0 win in the return match in Columbus, Ohio. Yes the team was missing Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan, yes they dominated the opening 45 minutes of the game in Columbus, and yes they are sitting in first place in the group (although Jamaica and Guatemala also have the same seven point as the US) even with all of this happening. But this is the "phew, glad that worked out" kind of attitude that keeps the fans happy with making the knockout stages of the World Cup and nothing more. It is what is keeping the United States from progressing to the next stage in their soccer development.

This men's team will not suddenly turn into Spain or Brazil or any other of the traditional powerhouses that dominate the major tournaments. But there is a path and it is one that the United States seems to have wandered off. Not backwards or to their violent death, but simply "off." 1998 was an embarrassment, but perhaps too much was expected too soon. 2002 was a perfect stepping stone but then 2006 was a letdown. The problem more than anything was that 2010 seemed fated. It was "fine" that the US barely qualified for the knockout stages out of a weak group and it was "understandable" that they were bested by a talented but beatable Ghana squad. At the time, you have to be grateful. Clap your players off the field and thank them for their service. They gave you something root for and they gave you at least one fantastic moment. But this respect is given with the understanding that the system is moving forward, that things are getting better and that more will be expected next time, not that we have achieved what we want to achieve and it's time to settle into a groove. We should always want more.

Jurgen Klinsmann has attempted to change the culture of United States soccer at multiple levels and I am aware that it is too soon to see the full results of what he wants to do. I understand this and I accept this. But that does not mean that he has freedom to operate forever. I still assume that the US will qualify for Brazil and I am far from crying for revolution in the system. But again, this patience comes with the assumption that things are moving forward, that we are progressing and not consolidating. If 2014 brings us another typical United States performance, we may need to find a new path.