Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Turning It Around

When a team is struggling not only to win but to play the way they are capable of playing, it's rare that they snap out of it all of a sudden with a thumping win. Multiple goalless performances are rarely followed up with an immediate 5-0 win and this makes logical sense. If a team is playing poorly - as opposed to losing close games in which they are playing well - then it's unlikely to come back all at once. In most cases, when the breakthrough finally comes it is a narrow win in which elements of the team's play started to come around. That's exactly what happened for Arsenal against Queens Park Rangers over the weekend, yet the way many Gooners are acting you'd think the team was in full blown Titanic mode rather than a luxury liner that's sprung a small leak. Are they right, or is this a team that is slowly starting their turnaround?

Let us state a few facts first so that we are on the same page as to what we are discussing. First, this Arsenal "implosion" that we are talking about is a two game skid: the 1-0 loss at Norwich and the 2-0 loss to Schalke at Emirates. Before that they had beaten both Olympiakos and West Ham 3-1 and I think most observers would say that they've been playing quite well. That being said, the two losses have been quite horrific results especially when you consider how low the quality of Arsenal's play has been. I admit to not seeing the Norwich match due to travel but what I've seen and heard has been less that positive. Even when playing away, losing to a team in a relegation zone that is tied for second worst in the league at conceding goals... ugh. The performance against Schalke might even have been more shocking because of the circumstances. You expected the team to be angry at themselves for the performance versus Norwich and ready to come out firing on all cylinders at home against a good but not dominant German squad. Instead, the Gunners were flat, the passing was slow, the defense abysmal at times (Andre Santos you make it so hard for me to stick up for you), and the whole team was below average.

At this point, it was perfectly fair for any fan to be worried about the direction of the team. Not only had they played poorly in recent games, but it was the aimless kind of poor that really gets in a fan's head. Any team can go out, play hard, and not execute. Fans are (generally) willing to forgive that. But show me a team who sleepwalks through a game and I'll show you a group of fans who are ready to freak the fuck out. So there was some merit behind the cries of alarm. Then again, this was a team that, according to some, had been playing the best football of the two months of the Premier League season. A team that had only allowed five goals in seven league games prior to Norwich. A team that some fans and pundits were starting to claim didn't need He Who Shall Not Be Named and could challenge for the title anyway. With this base of ability established, it doesn't make much sense to start crying Arsenal Armageddon in October with the league only eight matches old, Arsenal still on six points in three Champions League games, and the FA Cup not even begun yet. So, as with all things, it seems some moderation is in order. Arsenal weren't world beaters after the West Ham game, nor were they the dregs of the league after the Schalke defeat. They are a team that is talented but still coming together. Arsene Wenger is trying to find his best lineup and what tinkering must be done when he can't field it (missing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott and Kieran Gibbs certainly has hurt them so far). Simply put, the Gunners will have ups and downs because they are still trying to reach their happy equilibrium.

Viewed in this light, the 1-0 defeat of QPR should be a good sign. Olivier Giroud is coming on stronger and stronger with the offense much better in general than the past couple matches. I've heard Arsenal's performance in this game called "listless" but I'm confused as to where someone would get that impression. The Gunners put 9 of their 22 shots on goal, controlled the ball for 66% of the game, and hit the woodwork to boot. If it wasn't for Julio Cesar going into his old "Best Goalkeeper In The World Julio Cesar," the Gunners could easily have put four more goals in. The defense still does look sloppy at times, but part of this is the domino effect from Gibbs being out and Santos being pressed into duty. Work will be done, things will get tighter, and things will get better. Besides, did you fucking see Jack Wilshere play? He came out for his first league start in over a year and not only acquitted himself well, but put in a Man of the Match performance. Arsenal are good through the middle but have obviously missed their number ten. With all of these positives from a team that is struggling, what is there to be up in arms about?

It's one of those situations where you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. For years people have complained about Arsenal not being able to find a goal when they need one, how they can't win scrappy games because they're not built for it. Well, look at this one. This was a great example of a team that isn't firing on all cylinders and isn't getting the bounces going their way, but finds a way to win regardless. Instead, we hear about how Arsenal are out of sync or struggling to find their way. Sigh. Narratives are everything these days and the sooner people stop buying into them and watch the games without a pre-planned strategy on how to react, the sooner we can all get back to a state in which logic actually matters. Come on you Gunners.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Pick Your Poison

In recent years, the criticism of Arsenal most favored by pundits was that the Gunners were one dimensional in their attack. During the heyday of Cesc Fabregas everything was supposedly too narrow while last year He Who Shall Not Be Named was a black hole of goal-scoring prowess. To a degree, this critique could be explained away; of course Fabregas used the middle of the field as he is (though Barcelona don't seem to know it) an excellent direct creative force and of course players wanted to pass the ball to the guy who was leading the league in goals and having an all-world year. But if we can set aside the kneejerk responses to those who seem to relish in coming after Arsenal, we would see that not everything said is valueless. The Gunners did have a bad habit of trying to craft a perfect goal rather than just shooting the damn ball and the second leading scorer in all competitions behind The Dark Lord was Theo Walcott with just a fourth of the goals and not even half the shots. So, perhaps things were a bit limited in their different ways. However, a new team composition brings a new plan of attack, and that plan is diversity.

It starts with the strikers as the current options give two very different looks to opposing defenses. I still firmly believe that Olivier Giroud will be the first choice striker for the majority of this campaign and what he offers is a dedicated target man and an aerial threat. Giroud's height and strength, as well as his relative lack of pace, encourages defenders to play a higher line in order to keep him away from goal, opening up space behind. The likes of Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and yes, Walcott are all adept at using this space to make runs using their pace and they can count are reliable service due to the creative influence of Santi Cazorla and others.

Though Giroud's style of play allows for all of this, it is a mistake to say that he is a target man and a target man alone. Giroud's movement is excellent and were his finishing up to snuff at the beginning of the year, we would be talking about the quality of his run to score the game winner goal against Sunderland rather than his admittedly poor attempt. The point though is that except for extreme cases of the yips (see: Fernando Torres, 2011-2012), scoring comes around for strikers. What's important is that even if Giroud is not scoring, he is still useful due to his excellent hold up play, his passing ability (look at his flick header to Aaron Ramsey against Olympiakos for a combination of the two), and his movement. He still has a goal and three assists in non Carling/Capital/League/Deargodcouldyouactuallycallitsomethingcool Cup romps so the numbers are coming along. Barring setback, he will be the go-to man up front and for good reason.

If we are going to praise Giroud for excellent play while not being in top scoring form, however, we would be remiss if we did not pay particular attention to the contributions of Gervinho. The mop-haired wonder has revitalized his image in the eyes of Arsenal fans with his five goals in all competitions and he has developed into a viable choice at striker. Because of his pace, defenses will sit deeper when playing against a Gervinho led attack and while this limits the space for runs in behind, it does leave more space for Cazorla and the other technically gifted players that the Gunners can field. In theory this leads to a more narrow attack but there are many defensive variables that can swing things one way or the other, such as man-marking Cazorla or defending the middle at the expense of the flanks, thus forcing Arsenal's attack wide. Gervinho's emergence creates another way that the team can attack and it gives Arsene Wenger additional options to choose from in order to best exploit an opponent's defense.

One problem is that this assumes that Gervinho can maintain the form he's in. I wrote already about the Gervinho paradox and while I'd like to believe that his deal with the devil in charge of inexplicable hair styles will hold up, I don't see it happening over the course of the full season. This might be ok though as Walcott is not an unreasonable option up front as well (I'm not going to dismiss everything the man says due to his contract status) and Wenger might be able to ride the striker in the better form when it is necessary to spell Giroud. Whether or not I'm right and whether or not Theo is ever given the chance up front that he wants, the speedy striker option allows Arsenal to do something different and challenge defenses that might handle Giroud's size better. In either system, the wings can do much to aid success.

Due to the rapidly improving play of Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson (England call-ups and courtships? I never would have thought it was possible at the beginning of the season), the flanks have been an area of considerable strength for the Gunners in the early season. Thus far Podolski has been used primarily on the left with a rotating cast (Chamberlain, Ramsey, Walcott, etc.) starting on the right and whoever is in there has benefited greatly from the attacking play of Gibbs and Jenkinson. Though they are still not the best crossers of the ball, the fullbacks can get downfield in a hurry, can challenge a man marking them, are not afraid to cut inside, and generally make good final decisions. Gibbs coming down the left allows Podolski to drift inside to link up with Cazorla and though Ramsey and Chamberlain haven't been as positive coming inside from the right, the combination play with Jenkinson has opened up defenses before and allowed Arsenal players to get to the endline and whip in dangerous balls. Giroud is of course a likely target but all the wing players are capable of intelligent cutback passes and their very presence creates more space in the middle due to defenders shifting to cover the vacated space. Narrow, tight passing is no longer the only way the Gunners can open up the defense and it's thanks in large part to the play of their young fullbacks.

The fact that it's taken this long for me to get to discussing Cazorla and Mikel Arteta is shocking when you consider that the Spaniards have been Arsenal's two most valuable players so far this season. Cazorla and Arteta control the midfield in two very different ways; Cazorla is the creative presence in the final third, playing just behind the striker (although he likes to drift left and link up with Podolski as well) and guiding the attack with his control and vision. Santi has two goals and two assists on the season but his influence goes beyond the basic numbers. He creates space for himself effortlessly and this leads to Arsenal holding the ball around the box more than if a less technically skilled player was put in the same position. His one-two passing is sharp, he's always looking for runs, and he showed against West Ham that he can create some magic with his shots from distance as well. Right now he is the engine driving this team and he's been one of the best players in all of the Premier League.

If Cazorla is Arsenal's engine, Arteta is more like the ABS, air bags, and crumple zones that create peace of mind. Deployed primarily in front of the defense, the former Everton player makes his living with sound tackling, clever ball pressure, and gathering possession so that the Gunners can start the attack. He has been a true defensive midfielder for much of this year, but not a brute with steel as his only positive quality (Nigel De Jong comes to mind). Arteta can put in a good tackle, but he's also technically gifted and can hold a ball he's just received - either from a teammate or off of an opponent - and then spray intelligent passes to the wings. To add to his value, due to the injury to Abou Diaby he's also been playing more in a double pivot role with players like Ramsey and Francis Coquelin. As the excellent @Gingers4Limpar points out in a recent article, this system lets Arteta move further forward and have more of a creative influence on the play, giving Arsenal yet another playmaker in the final third. The Spanish center of the midfield has been the heart of the team and there is no reason to suspect it will be any different going forward.

Perhaps this year's Arsenal team can finally put to bed that tired criticism about only having one way to play. Wenger can now choose a tall, physical striker, a forward with pace to test the defensive line, technical players that can come in from the wings to add to the attack, pure speed to overwhelm the flanks, a deep lying midfielder to control the game, two superlative creative forces working through the midfield to build the attack... the list goes on and on. There are weaknesses. There always will be. But this is now a team that can adapt to any circumstance and any opponent. More than anything, that will be their greatest strength and best chance of competing for trophies this year.