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.

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