Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Saving Sagna

It seems like every day there is another rumor flying around about an Arsenal player going out the door during the next transfer window. There are several types of rumors that make the rounds depending on what the prevailing state of the club is. Going into the transfer window, there are the wishlists of players that fans want to see the club sell because they're not wanted anymore. Who knows how many times Sebastien Squillaci, Andrei Arshavin, Marouane Chamakh, and Nicklas Bendtner have been sold or resold in fans minds over the years, only to have them loaned out instead or benched without hope of being used. There's also the ongoing transfer sagas that have dominated the headlines in years past. Robin Van Persie's status was in doubt even before his now infamous public letter, Samir Nasri was always suspected to be after a big payday, and Cesc Fabregas... I love the man, but the whole "Cesc to Barcelona" story carried on for far too long.

The most interesting type of transfer rumor though begin when players who don't have much time on their contract haven't signed new deals yet. This was the start of worry about Van Persie, who was ultimately sold, as well as Theo Walcott this past winter, who was ultimately resigned. The reason this type of situation is so fascinating is because it appears seemingly out of nowhere, catches hold, and then becomes a fan referendum on the merits of keeping the player versus selling the player, even if there have been no serious contract talks to that point. When Walcott hadn't yet signed there were cries of "sell him to City and we'll use the money to buy a younger, better version" (Wilfried Zaha anyone?) as well as "if Arsenal sell, that proves their intentions to other clubs as well as their fans." The debate itself gives insight into the psyche of fans and what they think their team is capable of. Right now, the foremost subject of this kind of rumor is right back Bacary Sagna. Some people say that he's one of the best backs in England and the Gunners would be mad to give him to a competitor ("it's the same thing as Van Persie" has come up before) while others think that he's out of form and we should get what we can for him so we can let Carl "The Corporal" Jenkinson take over. I could address both sides and the merits of their arguments, but let me instead choose a third option: Arsenal should re-sign Sagna... and move him to center back.

Right away let me say that this post is not an overreaction to one game in which Sagna committed a particular series of errors. That would be unfair and also intellectually dishonest. This is instead an idea for a post I've been toying around with for a while so the timing of said post is all that's affected by Sunday's events. Anyway, moving on.

Sagna has long been one of the best right backs in England (possibly the world) for several reasons: he has excellent understanding of position, he is a solid on the ball defender, he has the pace to both join the attack and recover on defense, and he is an excellent crosser of the ball. Most teams would happily settle for three out of the four abilities, perhaps even two of the four if the two the player has are exceptional. Arsenal have not had to settle with Sagna and that is why he has been a mainstay of the squad for so many years. However, those years are starting to catch up to the French national. This year has seen a significant drop in his form and there are serious doubts about his ability to regain it. Granted, this is his first full year of playing after missing the end of last season and Euro 2012 with a broken leg, no small injury. That injury though is a reason both for optimism and doubt. He may simply need some more time to fully regain his abilities but it's also entirely possible that the leg injury has hastened the inevitable countdown on a football player's career. In short, there is no guarantee that he will ever again be the Bacary Sagna that he once was and we have a season of data to show us that. He has crossed the ball very poorly this year, seems unwilling (or unable) to take on defenders, and is often caught out by speedier wings (or occasionally Flying Dutchmen). The cries for Jenkinson, a promising young back, are warranted and one can see why selling Sagna away makes sense to some.

However, Sagna's positional awareness never left him even if he can be exposed in space on the wing. He also is as dominant in the air as ever, consistently winning balls flung forward from the opposition as well as 50/50 balls popped up in his area. While he may not be wing-back-quick he still has quite a bit of speed and he is adept at passing in tight spaces, such as the triangles he's worked on the sidelines for years. Is it radical thinking to assume that he would be perfect as a new center back for Arsenal? This is not without precedent, after all. Sagna filled in next to Per Mertesacker against Sunderland earlier this season when Laurent Koscielny was a last minute scratch with an injury, and he performed immensely. By many accounts he was the man of the match and it was due to his natural abilities: winning tackles, heading the ball away, and playing the ball out of the back. Granted this was against Sunderland and the sample size is as small as it can get, but the possibility certainly exists. Arsenal haven't been the strongest in the center this year with the captain Thomas Vermaelen being relegated to the bench. The Mertesacker/Koscielny pair has worked quite well but Mertesacker has always been slow and there is talk of Bayern having interest in Koscielny. If he were indeed to leave, the Gunners would be short at the back once again and a replacement would be needed. Why not someone from within the squad whose ability is known? Jenkinson could then take over at right back with Sagna available as a last ditch backup, similar to Vermaelen's emergency duties on the left these past two seasons. Further right back cover would be necessary, but that is what a summer transfer window is for.

The fact of the matter is that Sagna is getting older. At 30 he is no longer able to get down the flanks like he once could or defend against faster players. But he is still an excellent defender and has abilities that apply to another area of the back line. Of course this is all said with no inkling whatsoever of the player's state of mind. It is entirely possible that Sagna still wants to play right back and will happily get that work elsewhere. He may be sick of Arsenal and need a change of scenery. Or, possibly, he would be open to the idea and it is something that he could transition into so that he could remain with his team and indeed improve it. Rather than getting into this false debate of sell him vs keep him, maybe the Gunners could play him in the position that he has evolved into.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

An Enjoyable Flirtation

Yesterday I was forced to DVR the Borussia Dortmund vs Real Madrid match since I was stuck at work during the live broadcast. I normally am able to breakout early to watch Arsenal matches but for other good games (or "lesser" Arsenal matches) I will employ this strategy and to be honest, it's not as bad as some people make it out to be. The necessary social media blackout can make those last few hours of work a little slow and if you have asshole friends who like to text you updates without checking to see if you're watching it live, prepare to be filled with rage. But if you can get past these obstacles, the whole postponement of pleasure thing actually has some merit. I was excited all day yesterday to get home and flip the game on, mainly because I love watching Dortmund play. They are exciting, energetic, and supremely talented but without the douchiness that we often attribute to clubs that have won too much. Watching them is a delight and I was excited (while only marginally nervous) when I sat down to watch what most of the world had already seen.

*It should be obvious by now, but don't read any further if you have any need to keep the match unknown in your mind.*

Holy Jesus, the match did not disappoint. In short, Dortmund were electric. They buzzed around the pitch, pressuring the midfield and earning an early goal from world class striker Robert Lewandowski. Real were able to work their way into the game and even control it for a while, earning a fluke goal courtesy of a defensive mistake, but one that could have came on their own merit as well. In the second half, however, Dortmund made no doubt. With Westfalenstadion roaring, Lewandowski scored three more goals as last year's German champions buried Real and then spent the last 25 minutes patrolling the grave just to make sure. It was a fantastic sight and brought home the reason I feel both very happy and incredibly sad while watching such a vibrant squad.

It's easy to like Dortmund because, well, they're a very good team. They are loaded with exceptional young talent who play well together and are a delight for neutrals because of their attacking style. The style is what is so appealing because they are speedy and aggressive on both sides of the ball. The players attack relentlessly when the other team is in possession and break quickly once winning out. It is not at all uncommon to see quick one-twos through an opposing defense or one player gamely taking on defenders on a surging run (Marco Reus' early shot on goal came from just such a charge). While they are not a defensive stalwart in the way we normally understand that description, they are strong on defense and their overall style maximizes the ability of their players. It is attractive to watch and that is both the reason I love and loathe it: they play as Arsenal should.

This truly is the Arsenal style of play with gifted attackers fed through well won tackles and an aggressive bent. It is hard-working but not workmanlike because everything in the system feeds a beautiful style that is entertaining and highly effective. It is, in my biased opinion, the best way to play football and while it is so much fun to watch, it's saddening and maddening to have the team best executing it not be the Gunners. Arsenal has sunk into a strange hybrid style where they still try to break with speed when they win the ball, but they no longer press high which leads to a less frenetic pace, one that seems to bleed over into the offense. Possession often seems for its own sake with the ball moved around in a probing but lazy manner. It's both an inferior form of Dortmund's play and of the high possession Barcelona style and it can often lead to frustrating games where the lack of intent is the most damning criticism. Put simply, another team plays what I consider to be the Arsenal style with more skill than Arsenal. When watching Dortmund I feel like I'm looking at what could have been.

It's easy to be attracted to another, especially if they seem to be a better version of what you have. The thrill is there as is the awe, but what is also lacking is the attachment. I can enjoy how Dortmund play and still feel next to nothing if they lose save the usual "I wish they had won" or "I can't believe [insert team I don't like] had lost!" They are fun and they are wonderful, but they are not mine. I will watch them when they are on and I will enjoy doing so, but they are not Arsenal.