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.

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