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.

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