Friday, January 11, 2013

The Consistency Killer

Up to this point in the season many people have been blamed for the relative failures of the Arsenal. Off the field, owner Stan Kroenke and chief executive Ivan Gazidis have been lambasted for their failure to reinvest in the squad, for their concentration on business relationships, and for just not caring enough about winning. On the field we have seen both Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey turned into scapegoats, one for his maddening and instantaneous transitions between in-form and out-of-form, the other for no more than doing simple things wrong and being available to mock. The blame has even combined the two arenas with many fans calling for the resignation of Arsene Wenger due to his out of touch ways. At the heart of it for Arsenal, however, is a more simple recurring problem, one that can strike anywhere and anytime. Catastrophic individual errors are devastating the Gunners and destroying any sense of consistency the team might have. For a team that is lacking the talent and experience to win the title, consistency is the most important quality to surviving the race for the Champions League.

When I use the word "catastrophic" I do not mean a relatively simple play that leads to a goal. An own goal by itself is not a catastrophic error because crosses are pinged off of defenders and into the back of the net all the time. It's aggravating, but it's an understandable consequence of defenders trying to block the ball from coming through the area. No, a catastrophic individual error would be something like a defender facing away from his goal at the top of the box and attempting a simple volley to clear... only to shank the ball in such an awkward way that it ballooned backwards over the head of his keeper into the net for an own goal. Something that rears its head out of nowhere and instigates chaos. Something that is utterly indefensible and changes the game completely.

In that context, I would think a few readers would be nodding their heads right now. Thomas Vermaelen gifting a goal to Robin Van Persie in the third minute of the match at Old Trafford. Two different instances of failing to cover set pieces against Chelsea. Mikel Arteta not closing out the back post against Swansea when the Gunners could have sealed an FA Cup win. Because this kind of title is so results driven, there are going to be more defensive examples than offensive examples. After all a terrible play that leads to a goal has proof in the goal, while a similar play on offense leads to no goal, just like roughly 97% of the rest of matches. However, special attention can certainly be given to Gervinho blowing two golden chances to earn the win at Manchester City, not to mention his one foot sitter against Bradford in the Capital One Cup that inexplicably went wide. These are the types of plays that I am referring to and they change the complexion of games not the least due to how little they have to do with the rest of the match. Giving away free goals, or not taking advantage of free goals put on a plate for you, is a sure fire way to drop points and find yourself dropping in the league.

Of course it is true that giving goals away should hurt any team so why bring this up as a key point to Arsenal's season when it applies so broadly? Even if you are not ready to admit that the Gunners have been particularly prone to these types of errors this year (and I would strongly argue that they have), it turns out that they are also the type of team that is seriously hurt by such swings. On the surface, Arsenal have an impressive 40 goals in 20 league games (3rd overall), an average of 2.0 goals per game (2nd overall). They also boast a goal differential of +18, good for fourth in the league. However, they are prone to spontaneous goal scoring windfalls, having produced goal totals of six, five, five, and seven during their league matches. It is a good indication that they can score, yes, but it also shows their inconsistency as the Gunners have been shutout in five EPL games. 23 of their 40 league goals (57.5%) came in four of their 20 matches (20%). When you adjust these numbers, the result is a dismal 17 goals over 16 games or an average of 1.06 goals per game. However, this is an unfair way of looking at the numbers because they were obviously dominating those matches. It is intellectually dishonest to remove their results completely. Let us instead say that they would have won each of those matches by two goals in an attempt to normalize Arsenal's goal scoring record. We are left with 33 goals over 20 games, good for 7th in the league. It also knocks the goal differential down to +11, good for 5th in the league. Granted this method isn't perfect, but it does a better job of showing how Arsenal's blowouts have pumped up their gaudy numbers without acting like such games did not exist at all. 7th and 5th in the major goal scoring categories are not poor ranks, but they also show how the Gunners are far from a lock to make it to next year's Champions League due to their erratic offensive performances.

Consistency is what this team needs and the individual errors are killing that possibility. The team has defended well as a whole according to the numbers. Only 22 goals allowed over 20 games (4th in the league) and seven clean sheets. That said, every fan reading this can think of their "favorite" defensive blunders of the season, blunders that cost the Gunners goals and points. Even after the spectacular volley by Kieran Gibbs to go up 2-1 against Swansea in the FA Cup and all the celebrating that went with it, there could be no shocked gasps when Danny Graham was left unmarked and then not closed down properly before he tied the match. This is what needs to stop, this is what needs to change. That sinking expectation of an Arsenal collapse needs to be removed from fans, psychic surgery that cuts out the pit-of-your-stomach feeling and allows a healing calm to take over. Until they fix these errors, Arsenal will continue to be an inconsistent side, one that chases its form, and even catches it once and a while, only to have it escape again and again.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Unpredictability of Arsene Wenger

It is his 17th season as Arsenal manager and people are still trying to prognosticate about what Arsense Wenger will do during the transfer windows. Why people put themselves through this kind of personal hell is something I'll never quite understand but it is an undertaking that resembles hitting in baseball, where batting .300 is considered elite. It has become fashionable lately to assume doom and gloom (not arguing against or for the veracity of this attitude) about the Gunners which has in turn showed people's true side to be one that believes in Wenger to "do the right thing." The vast majority of pundits, professional or otherwise, believe that the boss simply has to buy during the January transfer window. The reasoning is varied but mainly revolves around two points: the squad depth is sorely lacking and the team isn't good enough to guarantee a Champions League place as is.

The first point has been hovering at the margins of commentary as more pressing issues have stolen space in articles, but the players departing during the window have brought the discussion to the forefront. Johan Djourou is off to Hannover, Sebastien Squillaci is out as soon as he finds a team to take him, and Marouane Chamakh has convinced West Ham that he's more than just a pile of hair gel with a terrible first touch. Though these are bench players, they are still warm bodies who provide cover in case of injuries. Wenger only uses three competent center backs and one of them (Thomas Vermaelen) is also cover at left back because Andre Santos is, well, Andre Santos. Chamakh has been out of favor also but he is still the only dedicated striker on the current squad besides Olivier Giroud. Of course Gervinho and Theo Walcott have played up front, but Gervinho is in terrible form right now and he's off to the African Cup of Nations anyway. Walcott is a whole other story, one that many people have spent thousands of words discussing, but for now let's just say that he might not be around at the end of the month. Thus, the argument for Wenger to buy goes that he is forced into doing so due to the players he's allowing to leave, meaning that he has a plan for all of this, meaning that he's going to buy.

The second point's strength all comes down to how you want to define the word "guarantee." This team is certainly not a mathematical certainty to finish in fourth place or higher, but it would not be far-fetched to see them in fourth by the end of the season. However, even an eternal optimist like myself must see that not improving the team in any way is a risky proposition at the very least. Everton is going to be there until the end of the season (so long as they don't lose their players during this window), Liverpool is annoyingly starting to gel and only sits three points back of Arsenal at the moment, and Tottenham is somehow surviving their defensive deficiencies to excel. All of that doesn't even take into consideration Manchester United, Manchester City, and Chelsea, who are still the favorites to finish in the top three and would only do the Gunners more harm by sinking to a competition for fourth. So perhaps buying in order to improve has some merit to it.

As logical as those arguments are, they are simple to refute by someone who wanted to argue that Wenger will not make any significant signings during the January window based on past attitudes and actions. Here, I'll show you what I mean:
  • Who is an impact player that is legitimately available during January? Demba Ba was obviously a favorite about rumormongers but he's off to Chelsea and he carries certain risks (extensive injury history, rumors of multiple agents wanting seven figures in fees, etc.). Who else? Wilfried Zaha is certainly a possibility, but he's more of an impact sub for this Arsenal team and should therefore be labeled a project. Besides, Manchester United are leading the race for him at the moment anyhow (The Short Fuse wasn't the first to report this, but I wanted to link them anyway due to how consistently great the blog is). Names could always pop up but we don't know the extent to which they are available or how much they're being valued at. It would not be shocking to see Wenger avoid desperation purchases that would hurt the team long term due to fees and wages paid.
  • Djourou, Squillaci, and Chamakh were never going to play anyway. They don't make the bench half the time anyway and would have only seen time in Capital One Cup matches, which is over for the Gunners anyway. Wenger would be more likely to give time to promising youngsters, such as Ignasi Miquel and Serge Gnabry, and use the versatility of players like Podolski to cover at forward if it is absolutely necessary. The depth isn't gone as no one of true use has been sacrificed.
  • Look at the bench during the last Arsenal match! Mertesacker! Ramsey! Rosicky! Giroud! Coquelin! Gervinho! There's a lot of talent on that bench, certainly enough to provide different looks as substitutes as well as spell players during the three competitions that the team is still in. Rosicky is still recovering from injury after all so he'll only get better. Plus Abou Diaby is coming back and will be, say it with me, like a new signing. This doesn't even begin to consider callups for players like Thomas Eisfeld and Chuba Akpom, so the depth in the club is not as bad as the naysayers are making it out to be.
Do I believe in all of those points? No, at least not in their entirety. But I could see those arguments being enough to convince Arsene to perhaps spend on a couple of projects that can also act as cover if necessary and avoid making the big purchases like David Villa that everyone is sure he's going to make.

This is not to say that I believe sincerely that Wenger will spend during the window. I am not afraid to admit that I have absolutely no idea what he is going to do. I have players that I'd like Arsenal to bid on but I also have no idea what the personal terms are for those players, or if there are better ones out there that scouts have their eyes on. I do hope that Arsene takes this window seriously as it is going to be a dogfight for the fourth spot even if someone like Villa was signed. However, I have come to recognize that I am powerless over this so I will continue to wait with bated breath, refreshing Twitter ever five minutes and praying that the boss is still The Boss.