Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Tempered Ray of Sunshine

On Wednesday Arsenal announced that five of its younger players had signed lengthy contract extensions, establishing the core of the club further into the future. The key to this bit of news was assuredly that Jack "Savior of Arsenal From Here to Eternity" Wilshere is one of the signees, showing his Arsenal DNA and sending a very important message to potential transfer targets that there will be real quality on the side they may be interested in joining. Of only slightly less importance was that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's name appeared in the press release. The Ox has been a fan favorite from his debut with the first team and though he is not as advanced as grizzled old veteran Wilshere, the newly minted England international is an important building block for the future of Arsenal as well. Throw in the commitment from Carl Jenkinson and most Arsenal fans will hail this as only the most positive of news.

There will, however, be some dissenters in the mix. They will say that this list is made more noteworthy by the name that was left off of it, and they will not be wrong. Theo Walcott still has yet to sign and when five other players have had their contracts extended while Walcott claims that "it's going to be a slow process," it is looking more and more like the mercurial winger-turned-kind-of-striker will be out the door. Exactly how important the loss of Walcott is to Arsenal is a topic that has already been debated ad nauseum, but it is fair to say that seeing a talented player able to force his way out the door is not usually seen as a good sign. Other commentators might debate the wisdom in extending Kieran Gibbs' contract given his history with injuries, or in keeping Aaron Ramsey around longer seeing how Ramsey has turned into the on-deck scapegoat for all non-Gervinhian (Gervinhoish? Gervinhcal?) episodes on the team. For my part I believe that all five signings were proper moves (though length and price certainly do matter and to the best of my knowledge that information has not been officially released) as Gibbs has obvious quality and likely was not such an expensive signing as to preclude bringing in another player should things go south. Ramsey is an interesting story that I may tackle in a future post, but let me say this: inside that nervous, twitchy body is a quality footballer that may simply need to get over the yips and play within himself again. This contract gives him assurance that he'll have the time to do that and it is hard to see this expenditure being a huge misstep.

The quibbling over the details of contracts and possible future outcomes for players ignores the true import of these signings. Arsenal, be it the board or Wenger or whomever, is taking steps to avoid making the same mistakes over again. With Walcott's talks dragging on and rumors swirling around Bacary Sagna, the club stepped up and made a statement about some of their most important assets. No, signing five young players (only two of whom are first choice starters) is not akin to immediately overhauling an entire roster. It is a step in the right direction though, a step that moves past prior errors and says to the fans of the club "we hear you and we are working to be better." Of course this may simply be contract economics at work that do not speak to a greater change in club signing/recruiting policy, and of course these signings do not immediately improve a team that will struggle to finish with a Champions League spot and holds next to no hope of anything above that. Still, progress is progress and it is nice to see the beginnings of improvement at the club.

This sign of movement forward in the boardroom comes at roughly the same time as an uptick in performance on the field. The Gunners were impressive in their 5-2 dismantling of Reading and it is indeed a good sign when Arsenal has essentially put an away game, er, away by halftime. There are several important caveats to be made here, however:

1. This was a Reading team that looked every bit the last place team that they are. For a home side to show almost zero heart or ambition in the opening half... it was shocking. Reading parked the bus on defense but unfortunately had parked it in a neighboring field and thus made no impact on the game whatsoever. No defenders closed the ball down, runs were left unchecked, movement was allowed freely, etc. It was a mess. Arsenal did well to take advantage and passed quite brilliantly for most of the game, but it is somewhat difficult to judge them properly because of the competition.

2. Catastrophic Individual Error is still having a hell of a season for the Gunners and these huge, glaring mistakes continue to change matches. The captain has not been immune this season with his excellent pass to notorious traitor Robin Van Persie during the Manchester United match, and this time it was Kieran Gibbs at fault, blowing a chance at a clean sheet and giving Arsenal fans heart problems usually associated with seeing Marouane Chamakh warming up. It's annoying that Arsenal can look so good over the course of a match and still leave fans feeling nervous, but that is what happens when massive mistakes can come from seemingly anywhere and anyone.

3. Arsenal was allowed to play exactly the kind of game that they wanted. This goes hand-in-hand with #1 but it is worth mentioning on its own. Mikel Arteta was given time to spread things around, back passes were never challenged, on ball pressure was virtually non-existent, opposition counters were executed poorly, Gunners attackers had time around the box, and so on and so on. If you wrote a script to see Arsenal execute the way they want to play and regain confidence going into a stretch of four very winnable games, this Reading game would have been the end result.

I do not mean to suggest that Monday's match should be thrown at as too extreme an outlier because of course that would be ridiculous. Results are results and Reading is a team that does exist within the structure of the Premier League. Hell, even that wouldn't be a necessary qualification to get Gooners' hopes up considering the Capital One Cup debacle. We should simply resist the annoying pundit habit of forgetting all previous evidence and focusing only on the latest match to determine the quality of a team.

For now though, Arsenal fans should have cause for minor celebration. Perhaps "celebration" is too strong a word, actually. Cause for slightly warmed cockles perhaps. The team put in a good performance (and two straight league wins) on the field against a team they should beat and the board did an excellent job locking up their young talent, primarily Wilshere who is looking more and more like the Jack of old with each match. The dark clouds still loom and could overtake us again certainly, but it is nice to have a reminder that not all is dull and grey in our Arsenal centered world.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Statement Game Gone Horribly Wrong

"Nobody brings a fella the size of you unless they're trying to say something without talking, right boy?"

Arsene Wenger made a statement with his choice of a starting eleven for the trip to League 2 club Bradford for Tuesday's quarterfinal match of the Capital One Cup. The message of "we are desperate to win this trophy" was received loud and clear when fans saw names like Vermaelen, Cazorla, and Wilshere on the lineup card as it appeared the manager had no interest in messing around with five full days off before meeting Reading in a league match. It was a bold statement, a declaration of intent and an obvious attempt to deny critics their all too familiar plug-in line of "no trophies in eight years." With the match already infamous among Arsenal supporters it is difficult to think of a way things could have backfired worse than the lackluster showing that ended in a loss on penalties to a team three leagues lower than the perennial Champions League qualifying Gunners.

Soccer managers needs to perform three basic tasks when running their club: assemble the best squad possible, use proper tactics to put the players in the best position to succeed, and properly motivate the players to excel when it comes to game time. Arsene Wenger has long been hailed as a master of transfer dealings who encourages a general style of play (fluid passing in possession that leads to attacking opportunities) while letting the leaders among the players handle the main thrust of the motivating in order to bring everyone together. He is not a strict x's and o's man liable to put together 30 page Powerpoint presentations on the proper strategy in a given game and neither is he a Harry Redknapp type that tells his players to just kick the ball around and have fun. Wenger uses his strength, scouting and talent assessment, to support his weaker qualities. By bringing in the proper players who can lead he takes care of motivation and as all of his purchases fit the style of soccer he wants to play, he also handles the tactics.

It does need to be said here that while Arsene is not as good at tactics and motivation as he is with club assembly, that does not mean that he is poor or harshly lacking. The amount the man has won cannot be laid solely at the feet of the way he put his team together because that would ignore all that is required to make a champion. Players cannot win with a bumbling coach who is out of touch with how to communicate and the development that numerous players have undergone while at Arsenal before moving on shows that Wenger can certainly teach and improve the (generally) young men he coaches. However, most would agree that he prefers to let players handle their own business rather than lord over them like a task master and that he isn't the type to make brilliant halftime adjustments that lead to the Gunners exposing a weakness of their opponents that slowly became apparent over the first forty-five. His strength is in the players he brings in and the value he finds while purchasing them.

Recently though, Wenger's assessments have begun to slide and his transfer and wage philosophy has not been adapted to changing times. Everyone can point to obvious transfer misses like Marouane Chamakh and Sebastien Squillaci, but that's not fair as all managers have their mistakes. The more telling sign of a fading touch is the general level of skill that exists in the side, how finding hidden gems for cheap has turned into getting what you paid for and not much more. Mikel Arteta is a fantastic player who all Arsenal fans should be happy to have in the side. However, he is a 30 year-old midfielder that the Gunners paid £10 million for. This is certainly a fair price for a useful player but it is not the world-beater kind of find that Wenger was known for earlier in his Arsenal career. Arteta is of course one of the much more defensible signings, one that if we find fault with it's more an issue of nit-picking than objective analysis. The real problems are paying £7 million for Andre Santos and £11 million for Gervinho, players that were necessary to fill particular positions but were obvious overpays to bring someone in rather than spend bigger on a premium name. The result is a squad where the starting left back is a somewhat inconsistent young player with a history of injury, the cover at left back is a center back, and the cover at striker is best off as a disgruntled wannabe striker that will most likely be sold in January, at least in part due to the fact that no one trusts the Ivorian winger that cost half of the former captain's eventual transfer fee. These are small examples and there are more to be had, but evidence is mounting that the manager has lost his magic touch when it comes to exploiting blind spots in scouting and assessment to build the team.

The erosion of Wenger's primary skill has exacerbated his deficiencies in the other coaching areas. Again, for anyone who would inaccurately label me as ungrateful or reactionary, he is not by any stretch a poor manager nor is he inept in these areas; they are just the spots he has more trouble with. The tactics have not won any matches this year, nor has the general theory behind the play guided games along any better. The team is no longer talented enough to play crisp possession soccer (or at least the midfield hasn't gelled enough yet to do so) and the adjustment to this has been unclear. The team now sits deep rather than pressing the ball but cannot spring on the counter because it lacks the pace through midfield and the finishing up top to do so. Pressing high would seem to be the solution so that the ball would be won higher up the pitch but no one other than Jack Wilshere seems to believe this. Additionally, substitutions consistently come five to ten minutes too late and miss that instinctive feel for changing the game in the proper way when it is necessary. Hindsight is of course 20/20 but when everyone following a match in progress calls for changes in the same way yet never sees them carried out, there is something more at work than bloggers looking for things to write about. The level of talent coming off the bench is also an issue, and here we see Wenger's mistakes in the transfer market affecting other areas. After all, there is no "proper" time to bring Chamakh off the bench.

Where things look the worst is in terms of man motivation. This is painful to say because I have all the respect in the world for Arsene Wenger, but at times this squad looks like one that has quit on its manager. The problem is that the ways in which points are lost are so varied that it's difficult to say that for sure, but watching the dreadful performance against Swansea and following the debacle that was Bradford shows a team that cannot seem to elevate their play when it is necessary. It is not just the result, but the way in which the result occurs. Against Swansea the play was listless and the Gunners never looked like they were going to create positive chances and truly challenge the Swans. The same was true against Aston Villa earlier in the year where Arsenal were able to possess against an inferior team but never tested them. The players are not playing to their full potential and though this is a dip in form that will most likely be evened out by a corresponding rise, that equilibrium is far from guaranteed.

This brings us back to Bradford and the statement that was made. Wenger intended to show the rest of the league, and most likely his critics, just how good his team could play and just how serious he was in taking home some hardware to stock the cupboards. Instead a selection of mostly first team players was embarrassed by a team that had yet to sell out their stadium, a team that sits 64 places below Arsenal in the English leagues. All of Wenger's mistakes were on display here. Gervinho comically missed a golden opportunity for a goal while Chamakh came off the bench to the gasps of Arsenal supporters rather than Bradford players. A strong squad for a quarterfinal League Cup match still did not have the depth to bring on game changing players when it really needed to. More than anything though, the majority of Arsenal players thought that they would win this match by showing up rather than putting in the work to put their opponent away. That is certainly on the players. The players have to be professionals and find ways to get up for games that seem like they'll be easy, situations where is seems like the full effort won't be necessary to win. But one of the primary duties of a manager is to make sure that the team is properly coached and that includes giving them the motivation to win every match that they play. Losses are painful, but are much more acceptable when you can see the effort on the field that just came up short for the result. Losses that have no business being losses are the kind that drive fans crazy and the kind that managers must avoid.

Arsene Wenger is still the Arsenal manager and this is not a post advocating for the board to fire him or for him to step down. However, fans from all walks can now see the deficiencies of this team and the boss needs to work harder than ever to shore them up and turn this team around. "And if he isn't, he fucking should be."