Monday, 12 December 2016

The (Not So) Curious Case of Granit Xhaka

In the summer after the 2012-13 season I wrote a piece called The Strange Case of Lukas Podolski, in which I made the point that although Podolski has been bought on the cheap due to Köln’s relegation and produced a pretty good first season for Arsenal valuing him at around €20 million, I’d be furious if I were a supporter of another team and they spunked it on a (then) 28 year-old Podolski.

I get enough wrong to suggest that piece has aged quite well, with the nadir being when Podolski decided that, trailing in an FA Cup semi-final with twenty minutes to go, it was time to see if he really could kick a ball hard enough to defy the law of physics and literally fly through the man stood straight in front of him. In a shocking and wholly unpredictable turn of events, his shot was blocked.

Many have also struggled to understand what has been happening with Granit Xhaka at Arsenal. Like Podolski, he was signed from Germany; unlike Podolski, Arsenal overpaid for Xhaka. It is true that Premier League teams are richer as a result of the new TV deal and that this makes buying players from other Premier League teams more expensive. But it’s unclear to me this should have anywhere near the impact it seems to have had on buying players from abroad. It’s not as if any of the other rich teams in England were in competition for Xhaka - Manchester City were in for Ilkay Gundogan, Chelsea for N’Golo Kante (and already owned Nemanja Matic and the snake) and Manchester United possess a veritable smorgasbord of central midfielders.

The consequence of this overpayment (and huge transfer fee) was that people had disproportionate expectations for Xhaka. They expected another player on the level of Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez whereas in reality, Arsenal had signed a very good player but who was nowhere near equivalent to their level.

Nevertheless, this still does not adequately explain Xhaka’s lack of opportunities thus far.

I’d suggest there are two other important points: Xhaka is both not very good defensively, and has a reputation which compounds this. Granted, he has produced some good performances, but too often he is bypassed by teams playing simple 1-2s around him or him not shutting off passing lanes. This is then compounded by his love of chopping people who’ve gone past him. Some degree of tactical fouling is necessary but Xhaka often seems to see it as the only option and while fans love to shout “take yellow”, if you do it has a significant effect on how you can play for the rest of the game.

This is exacerbated by the reputation he has, both from his time in Germany and his sporadic appearances here: I don’t think Stoke should have been awarded a penalty on Saturday but much like Luis Suarez used to have his penalty appeals turned down because he was considered a diver, Xhaka has a (somewhat deserved) reputation as a thug. All of this together attenuates the benefits accrued from his excellent passing between the lines.

The manager likes to talk about balance a great deal. It’s born out by him almost always picking one more attacking and one more defensive full-back, for instance. For me, he has decided that he can cope with a more functional central-midfield pairing (such as Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny) in the belief that his attacking quartet can make ‘something out of nothing. But the cost of picking such an attacking front four (without, for example, Aaron Ramsey on the right as happened last season) is that he needs a more defensive-minded central midfield pairing to avoid matches turning into games of basketball where Arsenal simply try and outscore the opposition. To me, this goes a long way to explaining the lack of appearances for Xhaka and particularly, the reluctance to pick Ramsey and Xhaka together.

To play the two as a pair would be problematic as they’re both players who like to be very proactive and push for tackles. In doing this, they make themselves much easier to be dribbled past and the team would be very open indeed, and this is assuming Ramsey is prepared to focus on defending, an aspect of his game he has at times neglected (this is a kind spin on some of his performances). It could be fixed - by telling the full-backs to sit deeper, for example - but it would require a large change to how we currently play. Alternatively, Arsenal have a set of midfielders who would probably excel in a 4-3-3, but that set-up wouldn’t suit Ozil at all.

All of which has resulted in a situation where Xhaka is clearly a good player, probably best deployed as a deep-lying playmaker. But I think to play him there you need a true DM next to him, not Francis Coquelin in his somewhat bizarre new role. The reality is for all the abundance of midfielders, Arsenal probably don’t own that player. And the consequence is that while Ramsey and Xhaka are the two best central midfielders at the club, playing them together against competent opposition is very difficult.

Certainly, this does beg the question why £35 million was spent on Xhaka. I suspect the view is that Ramsey can do an excellent job as a wide midfield player and that Xhaka will be the DLP (something that was needed with Santi Cazorla’s age and injuries), and this was prioritised over building the midfield around Ramsey. Time will tell whether this was a wise choice.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Arsenal season preview 2016-17

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way”.

I’ve written before about how the internet leaves very little room for nuance. Earlier this week, I read a debate on my Twitter timeline about how long a post should be - with the maximum suggested being 1000 words. This all feeds into an environment a bit like the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities, where people end up taking a binary position, and anything longer and more balanced is too long for modern man’s attention span.

The truth is, with Arsenal - and with almost any football team - the situation is not neatly black and white but actually very complicated.

The complaints are much the same as ever: a lack of new signings. And, er, oh well that’s basically it.

To an extent, it’s natural. Change is visible and more exciting. New signings - anybody, regardless of their perceived talent level - is now regarded as a positive move, just because it’s different. So people engage in logical contortions to try and find a way that Ashley Williams might actually have been a good signing for Arsenal.

Continuity is much less exciting. Another season of playing together and knowing which runs to expect from your teammates, and developing a greater understanding both on and off the pitch is great for the team’s success. But it’s intangible - it’s not the sort of thing you can easily point to and say “look, that’s changed from last season”.

And what’s more, that intangibility means it’s very difficult to prove that it would have been negatively affected by more new signings. Nonetheless, settled teams do tend to consistently perform better - the starkest illustration of this is how AVB struggled to integrate six new players into the Spurs team following Gareth Bale’s departure.

So, what we have is a team which has few, if any, players who might be placed on the wrong part of the ageing curve, who were the second best team in the League last season according to the table (and better by many other metrics), and with almost everybody expecting Leicester to go backwards this season.

If you want more stats on how this team was good, Statsbomb’s overview is a good place to start - but the headline point that Arsenal took shots from the closest to goal of any Premier League in the last six years, and also forced opposition to shoot from the furthest away is indicative of a team playing in a way which is likely to bring success.

In addition, even if you don’t believe that Arsenal’s very low conversion rates were simply the work of variance over a small sample size - Tim Stillman makes a fair criticism here about the speed of our attacks - the signing of Granit Xhaka should go a long way to mitigating this problem.

And the reality is that signing more players who are an upgrade on our current squad is really difficult. With the noted exception of David Ospina, there’s nobody who I look at in the current squad and think “they’re a bit rubbish”. I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing us sign another defender, but it’s very hard to find somebody who won’t be offered bigger money by City/Chelsea/United/RM/Barca and is actually an upgrade on what we have. Perhaps John Stones is that man - but where Arsene Wenger used to spend £2m gambling on potential, City have spent £48m on Stones and £49m on Raheem Sterling. It’s very difficult to find value in this market.

That’s what all the blogs which bang on about the diminishing value of Arsenal’s cash reserves miss - there’s such a dearth of supply of quality defenders compared to the demand, that the prices quoted are so high as to render any write-off in the value of the cash reserves still plausibly better business. That’s particularly the case when the market is circular - the money likely goes to a rival who can spend it better, again weakening any advantage gained from a new signing. Still, “get it done” is the mantra of the day.

Similarly, to sign an actual upgrade on Olivier Giroud is very difficult - with the players who might plausibly be an improvement already playing for Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich and likely on huge wages to boot. Still, “get it done” say people with no business experience.

So where does that leave us? With a team which has been upgraded substantially in the one position which was crying out for a new signing and otherwise retaining the components of a team which largely played very well last season, especially until January. Performances in the second half of the season were disappointing but that was largely a function of a lack of a working central midfield which should be helped by the return of Santi Cazorla as well as the signing of Xhaka.

There are other reasons to be positive - this is a team which has historically struggled in the Premier League following Champions League games. Playing Hull, Burnley, Middlesbrough, Spurs, Bournemouth and Stoke (at home), is about as good a result as we could have hoped for to mitigate any post-Champions League fatigue issues. Qualify for the last sixteen and the second leg would be followed by either Leicester or West Brom. The fixtures are kinder than in previous season and while not a massively big deal could well help eke out two or three points more.

And our problems pale in comparison with our rivals. A short-term lack of centre backs while Laurent Koscielny gets back to fitness may cost us for one match. But Chelsea still own only five senior defenders, two of whom seem completely past it, with Kurt Zouma also out with a long-term injury.

Man United lack any squad depth - although they’ve signed Paul Pogba, a couple of injuries would seriously hurt them in midfield and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is now 34. Contrast this with Arsenal who have Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Francis Coquelin as competent central midfield options and the comparison does’t favour United.

Liverpool lack enough top level talent to suggest they’ll kick on significantly (they’ll be better but not to the required extent). Spurs already ran out of steam last season and now have the added difficulty of Champions League games added in, and I’m very unconvinced that signing a striker who was available for 500k last summer is the sort of move which is going to change them into a suddenly superior team.

Even Manchester City, who were the team I expected to finish above Arsenal when I predicted a second-place finish at the beginning of last season (you can’t really have expected to get through this without some self-congratulatory comment) have significant question marks in several positions, and seem overly dependent on Sergio Aguero’s hamstrings not going twang. And it doesn’t require an over-active imagination to suggest that the energy Pep Guardiola demands of his teams is going to be difficult to maintain for 38 games in a more competitive league.

Sure, pointing out the weaknesses of our rivals may just exacerbate anger at a lack of new signings. But, as outlined above, any new signing comes with significant risks too. One of Arsenal’s great successes in recent years has been a lack of mistakes in the transfer market. A few very well-picked signings - Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez most notably - have been well integrated leading to a gradual improvement both in performances and results. Xhaka could well be the final piece of the jigsaw.

I’m not going to go all out and say this year we will win the League. But I do think the odds offered by the bookies are probably a touch big. There’s no reason to believe that a couple of new signings is enough for either Man United or Chelsea to suddenly be miles better than last season, certainly not to the extent that they suddenly dominate the League.

It promises to be close - even the bookies favourites only have an implied probability of winning the League 28% of the time. But I expect Arsenal to challenge well, and given the financial advantage of our rivals, that would be a pretty good outcome.

Keep the faith.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Why I still support Arsene Wenger as Arsenal manager

Amidst all the nonsense cliches which are peddled about football, by far the single biggest myth is that the league table ‘never lies’. I’m more confident than ever that the League table is a terrible way of accurately ranking the genuine quality of teams.

For all the media tells us that the ‘hallmark of champions’ is playing badly and winning, this doesn’t tend to be true. If you play shit regularly, on the whole you won’t win – but 38 games is often nowhere near enough to remove those statistical anomalies. I don’t think anybody who watched Swansea in 2014-15 and then this season would think they’re a noticeably worse team now, yet they came 8th last season and look like finishing around 15th this year. The difference is that last year they were incredibly lucky and won a whole series of matches while being comprehensively outshot (and from good positions too) – take the game at the Emirates last May as a prime example of this. This year, their conversion rates have regressed to the mean, and their League position is much more indicative of the team’s underlying quality.

I know a lot of fans think concepts like Expected Goals are nonsense but I would say two things in their defence. First, I have actually watched the matches – it’s not as if I believe that Arsenal are better than results suggests simply because of some small boxes on a picture on Twitter. Watch back the matches against West Brom away and Southampton, Swansea and Palace at home and if you really think that on the basis of chances Arsenal only deserved to take two points from those four games you’re watching a different sport from me. There are other examples I could add to this and there are almost no games (perhaps Newcastle at home) which can be placed in the ‘undeserved win’ camp to balance it out.

The additional reason I’m a fan of statistical concepts is they remove all the pre-existing biases fans have. It’s natural to remember the colossal fuck-ups and not remember the many times your team actually did hold on to a lead. And it’s also natural to remember things which happened recently more vividly. The outcome of this is that when your team has blown a lead recently (like at West Ham), and hasn’t been getting very good results, people come to view this as much more likely to continue than it actually is – and so despite Yannick Bolasie’s equaliser for Crystal Palace undoubtedly being a very low percentage shot and one any decent goalkeeper should save, all these other irrelevant factors come into play in judging what happened. So fans saw a Palace equaliser as ‘inevitable’, despite them having one shot on target in the preceding 80 minutes.

And the fact is, almost all statistical models (based on chance creation/negation) out there have Arsenal as one of the two best teams in the Premier League this season. Dreadful conversion rates (and from players who have no precedent for this) have meant Arsenal’s performances not getting the results you would expect them to. It easily goes forgotten amidst a poor run of form that between August and November, Arsenal were by far the best team in the League – while there were a couple of horror shows in the Champions League, this was a team which went 3-0 up against Manchester United in twenty minutes, went to Leicester and hammered them 5-2, and produced one of the single most dominant performances of the season when they had 29 shots against Stoke. And after the Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos calamities, there was the small matter of deservedly beating the second-best team in Europe at the Emirates.

If you think I’m biased that Arsenal were playing really well, go to a neutral judge – Arsenal went off favourites to win at Stamford Bridge with every bookie, and this was well before the extent of Chelsea’s slump was apparent. It was based on Arsenal’s incredible chance creation stats.

So my first defence of the manager is that he has effectively just fallen victim to random statistical variance. While obviously I cannot prove a counterfactual – and that’s the beauty of football, that 38 games isn’t a perfect sample size and there is a far greater element of randomness than in other sports – I think that had the team performed to par with chance conversion, none of the current hysteria would be ongoing. And if you think that saying the performance matters more than the result is the thinking of some crazed Wenger acolyte, you might like to know that two of the most highly respected managers in Europe, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, have said exactly the same thing.

Goalkeepers haven’t suddenly played completely differently against Arsenal, the team’s style hasn’t rapidly evolved, the players underperforming chance conversion aren’t getting old and losing their skills and nor are they new players who we lack data on – all of which overwhelmingly suggests to me this will regress to the mean with Arsenal scoring more goals going forward.

Tim Stillman suggests in his column this week
that the slowing of Arsenal’s build-up play means Expected Goals isn’t accurate (and explains chances being missed) but if you read Michael Caley’s explanation of his methodology, he outlines how speed of attack is a vital part of his calculations. In addition, it’s notable over the last few weeks that as Arsenal’s build-up has become more laborious, the Expected Goals numbers have dropped – much of the under-performance of Expected Goals came when the team was right at the top of the League in the first half of the season. The point was that a much larger buffer should have been created to allow for some of the dross witnessed in recent weeks.

So for me, certainly, you could change the manager – and the team would probably achieve better results with a sensible appointment. But that would likely not be an outcome of the new manager’s appointment, but simple regression.

Clearly though, despite these low conversion rates, Arsenal could have been better. The difference between me and a lot of other people is I’m not convinced the role of manager is actually anywhere near as important as is generally suggested. Ultimately, a lot comes down to trusting the players. There’s a story Aidy Boothroyd, the former Watford manager tells, of how one of the best pieces of advice he was ever given came from Wenger. The Frenchman told him he couldn’t possibly get to each player at the end of a match and ask them to evaluate their performance, so players themselves have to be good coaches and understand where they’ve gone wrong.

If you look at Arsenal’s struggles this season, lots stems from absolute idiocy on the part of the players. Olivier Giroud diving in on a yellow card away in Zagreb. Gabriel reacting to Diego Costa’s nonsense. Per Mertesacker diving in on Costa 45 yards from goal, fully aware he was the last man. Francis Coquelin making slide tackles while on a yellow card while Spurs were going nowhere. Each of these came at the cost of a red card, none of them require hindsight to suggest they were terrible decisions by the players, and none of them were typical of the players, to indicate negligence on the part of the manager for picking them. It’s difficult to explain why each player made their chosen decision, but it requires some serious logical gymnastics to suggest that it was the manager’s fault.

And even to the extent the manager has made mistakes, this puts him in a bracket alongside every other manager currently operating in world football. Current flavour of the month Pochettino rested his best player for a crucial Europa League game away in Dortmund so he’d be fresher to face this season’s Aston Villa, the worst team seen in the Premier League for some time. Luis Enrique, the man who won the treble last season, proved unable to actually manage Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar’s workload, with the outcome that Barcelona were short of fitness at the crucial part of the season and blew the Champions League and possibly La Liga. Pep Guardiola’s team has been similarly beset by injury, at least partly a result of a lack of rotation and his very physically taxing style of play.

I’m the first to say that bringing back Alexis Sanchez back after just a few days of pre-season was unhelpful and likely contributed to his iffy form, if not the only reason behind it. But even in that case, it’s not unjustifiable or negligent as some people put it – a team which was struggling for a result is likely improved by having one of its best players present. While it doesn’t require hindsight to suggest bringing him back early was going to have negative repercussions, it was never the plan but for going 2-0 down at the Emirates to West Ham. I’m not sure he’s entirely sure who his first-choice right midfielder is but not being certain of your first-choice starting line-up is hardly the greatest weakness in a manager. Similarly, while I would have liked to see another midfielder purchased last summer, I don’t regard that as the ‘great failure’ some like to paint it as.

Michael Keshani lists some other criticisms in this thorough piece - in particular with regard to squad building, team selection, and transfers.

In terms of squad building, the main criticism is the failure to buy a player to replace Francis Coquelin in the starting line-up before this season started. While I’m far from his biggest fan it’s notable that the team has achieved excellent results with him and Cazorla playing next to each other in central midfield and were top of the League through doing so.

The additional point though is that to the extent he should have been replaced with a better player, there’s only so many people you can reasonably put on the wage bill to play one position. With Coquelin, Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta all already in the squad, it was difficult to justify signing somebody in the summer. Any sophisticated analysis of how Pep Guardiola will do at Manchester City acknowledges that although he is a good manager, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to change the squad to entirely meet his desires in one transfer window, because players have existing contracts and are often difficult to move on. In much the same way, even to the extent the argument can be made that it was necessary to replace Coquelin before this season – one which is dubious at best – that does not mean it is something which was possible to do.

Critically, the exact same people who are so unequivocally critical of Coquelin suggested Daley Blind as a potential DM for Arsenal – a man who has endured many of the same problems with distribution that Coquelin is slated for. It’s almost like buying good defensive midfielders is really, really difficult.

In terms of team selection, the main criticism seems to be playing Gabriel and Laurent Koscielny together. Given, teams kept on coming to play Arsenal and sitting deep and looking to hit the counter-attack it made sense to play a pacier defensive pairing which could play higher up the pitch, allow the whole team to take up a higher average position and hopefully force more chances. You can dissect at length whether this was a particularly successful tactic, but having seen Mertesacker sent off against Chelsea while trying this and then him ending up caught out of position, it’s hardly a bizarre tactical decision to implement.

Even with regard to transfers, I don’t share the view that there is no coherent plan to build a good squad. People who work in player evaluation have suggested that Arsenal are probably the best in the Premier League when it comes to transfers. While the churlish might suggest it doesn’t take a genius to work out Mesut Ozil, Sanchez or Petr Cech are particularly good at football, the repeated failures of other teams in the transfer market while buying established talent suggests Arsenal’s track record deserves credit. Matthew Benham, the owner of Brentford and FC Midtjylland and a pioneer of using stats to complement the naked eye acknowledges that “no matter how much research you do, you get a couple of duff ones” underscoring how well Arsenal have done looking at things in the round.

My impression is also that Wenger retains his ability to spot a good player – witness him signing a 19 year-old right-back from Southampton who had twenty professional appearances and converting him to an excellent centre back who might well play the position for Arsenal for ten years, or his ongoing commitment to signing young players like Gedion Zelalem and Jeff Reine-Adelaide. Arsenal’s transfer policy of combining signing established world-class players with buying up talented youngsters has helped to foster an exceptionally talented squad and to ignore that simply because Cech was the only outfield signing last summer is absurd. Certainly, to only credit the manager for this is simplistic and many of those involved in transfers would continue to work for the club should there be a change of manager. But given the control almost everybody acknowledges Wenger has at Arsenal, a reasonable chunk of the credit belongs to him.

In his preface to Michael Calvin’s excellent book Living on the Volcano, Wenger outlines four things he sees as fundamental to being a successful football manager: the passion an individual has for the sport; an eye for talent; man management; and the ability to evolve and adapt.

It’s pretty obvious that if Wenger no longer had the passion, he would not seem so enraged by how this season has panned out and would probably just walk away. Similarly, the discussion of transfers above shows he still has a good eye for talent. Two questions remain: is he still a good man manager? And can he still adapt to the modern game?

The man management question is particularly important. Wenger’s strength as a coach has long stemmed from his ability to improve individual players on the training ground and his capacity to motivate them. For what it’s worth, I regard the talk of him losing the dressing room as complete rubbish. The evidence seems to be that Ramsey and Nacho Monreal argued a bit on the pitch against Sunderland last week. The problem is, this sort of thing is always judged to feed pre-conceived ideas. I guarantee that if the team were winning, this sort of on-pitch argument would be shown as a manifestation of the team’s determination, will to win and strong mentality. People said exactly this about Coquelin shouting at his team-mates to focus early in the season; the same is probably true now.

More pertinently, several players have shown distinct improvement this season – in particular, both full-backs, Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck. While I remain a little dubious about how coachable certain players are (especially Jack Wilshere), Wenger’s coaching and ability to motivate the squad remains strong. What’s been pretty notable to me is how little any of the players have said against the club or manager, despite the remarkably poor results over the last couple of months. It’s fair to say they acknowledge that the responsibility is largely theirs.

Finally, in terms of evolving to the modern game, it’s really interesting to me just how far Wenger has gone. He is by far the most outspoken user of analytics amongst Premier League managers and was certainly part of the process of the club purchasing StatDNA. It’s difficult to know exactly what Arsenal are doing from a technological point of view as for obvious reasons it’s kept very secret, but in terms of adapting the team to the modern day, Wenger remains a pioneer. Even with tactics, the decision to stick with the 4-2-3-1 stems from it working quite well, rather than his ability to innovative tactically disappearing – there are also quite large drawbacks from constantly playing a high press (for example), much those these tend to go unacknowledged.

Ultimately, my view is Wenger remains an excellent manager, who continues to make good signings and improves the players he works with. He has long been tarred with the brush of ‘not doing tactics’. While clearly nonsense, his focus has always been on giving the players a certain freedom to play within the system and for the most part, I think that’s been quite effective this season – with the caveat that multiple injuries to crucial players have somewhat broken the system.

Nobody lacks perspective quite like Arsenal fans. Redaction, the club’s official supporter group, writes in the biggest Arsenal fanzine this week of how “there really seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel” for a team which continually finishes in the top four of the Premier League and reaches the knockout stages of the Champions League. To almost all outsiders, the reaction is one of bemusement or annoyance. Arsenal operate on the fourth biggest budget in the League and it’s precisely because the club is run as a model business that they can get as close to the teams on bigger budgets as they do.

This season has almost certainly been a random statistical anomaly. Spurs are certainly much improved under Pochettino but Leicester’s run stems from incredibly high conversion rates at one end of the pitch, and opposition conversion rates so low they are historically unprecedented across the course of an entire season. Most people buy into the nonsense that the League table does not lie, but the reality is that it does and while richer teams like Chelsea and Manchester United have endured terrible runs, Arsenal have done pretty well this season and have been better than Leicester.

It’s more than a little frustrating that given how badly the richer clubs have done Arsenal haven’t taken advantage, but I remain utterly unconvinced this was even to a medium-sized extent down to managerial errors. More broadly, whilst it’s not particularly romantic, that the team with the fourth biggest budget continues to finish third or fourth in the League while suggesting more might be possible (and picking up a couple of cups on the way) is actually a sign of the club being managed well, not badly. It might seem a little boring but given fans have witnessed so many other teams change manager and regress, the upward trajectory visible at Arsenal is one I’d rather stick with. Wenger remains an excellent manager and I hope he stays for next season.

Monday, 14 March 2016

On mental strength.

Perhaps the most frequently repeated criticism of Arsenal is that the team ‘lacks mental strength’ as a result of a lack of leaders. This piece from Michael Cox did a good job of debunking the idea of ‘weak leaders’, showing how even 80 years ago, the previous generation perceived their successors as too weak.

But nonetheless, the idea that Arsenal are mentally weak and were tougher with players like Patrick Vieira and Tony Adams in the side persists, even repeated by those who find the leadership thing nonsense.

I’m very much of the opinion that the mental strength thing is also nonsense, trotted out every time Arsenal lose a game but conveniently forgotten when the team is winning. It’s almost like its reverse-engineered bullshit entirely dependent on the result of the game in question.

Presumably, coming from behind to get a result with ten men playing away at your fiercest rivals epitomizes great mental strength. Call me skeptical then, but if those players are so mentally strong, you’d expect that mental strength not to have entirely dissipated within a week, when the players went 1-0 down to Watford.

An alternative, and in my opinion far better explanation is that good teams tend to win far more than average teams and a hell of a lot more than bad teams. The teams which are traditionally help up as being bastions of mental strength are sides like Man United in the 90s and perhaps Arsenal in the early Wenger era. There are perhaps two reasons these teams tended to display the ‘mental strength’ necessary to score a late winning goal or come back from going a goal down. One was that being far better teams than their opponents, they would be likely to create far more chances, and this was even more likely as the opposition tried to sit back and absorb pressure once going a goal up.

The second reason teams used to display more ‘mental strength’ – and I appreciate this observation needs a little more evidence – is that games were a lot more open, possession was turned over a lot more easily and there was generally a lack of tactical nous. It’s notable to me that while people point to Arsenal lacking ‘mental strength’, there doesn’t appear to be all that much of it on show throughout the Premier League.

As the tactical awareness of managers has grown, the goals per game rate in the Premier League has steadily declined to the point where with an average goal rate of well below three a game, if a team concedes the opening goal, it’s just considerably harder to come from behind and win, and there’s a lot more randomness to results. Arsenal 2011-12 won the most consecutive games after going behind in Premier League history. When I go back and look at those games, the victory at Anfield was incredibly lucky, backed by a brilliant goal by somebody who was then one of the best strikers in the world, and two more of those games saw at least somewhat fortuitous last minute goals. That’s why I think the idea of mental strength is based entirely on the result, rather than the performance in question.

This isn’t to say there aren’t things Arsenal couldn’t do better in terms of mentality. I think recent games against Barcelona and Spurs were apt examples of how surrounding the referee and putting pressure on them around big decisions can help swing a game in a particular side’s favour. In addition, I think the side’s love of putting the ball out of play every time an opposition player goes down has become something other sides enormously take advantage of.

But these are just specific examples of things the players could do better. Certainly, effective game management is important and there’s no doubt in my eyes that the current Arsenal side struggles to adapt to going to a goal behind. But I view the reasons behind that as being technical and about how the team is constructed, rather than mental.

It’s just highly implausible to me that this failure to recover results is down to mentality. Even to the extent it’s true that modern footballers are just motivated by money, they have large bonuses on offer for winning individual games, larger still for winning trophies, and eye-catching performances are likely to help secure them a larger contract, either at this club or somewhere else.

But more generally, footballers want to win. Those who reach the top of the game were often not the most talented, but simply the ones who applied themselves the most when they were young players, worked the hardest on their fitness, and listened best to coaches. Given that’s true, there’s no reason for me to believe that once they reach the cusp of winning major trophies like the Premier League, their will to win suddenly diminishes.

The most interesting aspect of what tends to be attributed to ‘mental strength’ is that to the extent Arsenal used to score a lot of late goals, it was down to the far superior stamina the team tended to have compared to opposition teams. If I were going to ask questions of where the current side is faltering (tactics and injuries aside), I’d ask why the team repeatedly looks knackered towards the end of games. It’s stamina, tactics and injuries which are costing Arsenal – not a lack of mental strength.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Nobody knows what is going on.

Almost all professionals trade to some extent on being an expert. Your plumber says he’s been in business for twenty years. When hiring a lawyer, you would look at what field they specialise in.

And so too with football. Pundits get hired on the basis that having played the game at a high level makes them well-qualified to talk about football. Even I make some claim to expertise or gravitas by writing on my Twitter bio that I’m a season ticket holder.

The truth is, despite all these claims to expertise, nobody knows what’s going on. Nobody has a bloody clue. Vladimir Putin’s former advisor Vladislav Surkov aimed to turn Russian politics into an ever-changing piece of theatre where everybody was perennially confused, in order to suppress opposition.

While I don’t think anything so Machiavellian is going on with the Premier League, any analysis seems obsolete within a few days. Over and over again, I’ve written half a post, left it a few days, and the second half I planned to write appears nonsense in the wake of recent events.

The latest received wisdom – and I myself was saying this the other night – is that the new TV deal has equalised the Premier League and that explains this season’s results. I’m yet to hear this view questioned even once, and I must admit I’m more than a little skeptical. I do wonder how many people saying that would be happy to bet their own money at Evens on next season’s champions having 83 points or fewer.

I find this season very odd, but I’m really unconvinced that it will bleed into next season. Because for all the TV deal might have evened things out a bit, it does nothing to explain the rapid decline of Chelsea, Man City and Man United. Or Leicester’s rise to the top. But then, I really don’t know. I feel doubtful voicing any opinion with confidence anymore.

The bizarre thing is, amidst all the odd storylines, Arsenal are having a very Arsenal season. Of all the four teams who were at the top of the betting before the season began, Arsenal are the only team which are a shorter price to win the League than they were when the season started. It’s almost like we’re hoist by our own petard. Such is the decline of Chelsea, City and United that to not win the League feels like a travesty. And yet we’re still doing pretty well – while taking almost all the criticism. Maybe it’s because I support the team, but I’ve heard nothing like the level of criticism directed at Arsenal pointed towards City, a team which hasn’t won back-to-back League games in god knows how long.

A very bad week hasn’t killed our title chances. We have no midfield and yet if results go our way, could quite possibly be favourites for the title on Saturday night. I’d expect our forwards to come back into form, for us to take at least some of the great chances we continue to create. But I really don’t know. And I don’t think anybody does.

Friday, 30 October 2015

On Rotation: Or Why Not To Worry About Joel Campbell

Ask Arsenal fans who their favourite player of the last fifteen years is, and the chances are a reasonable proportion will pick Thierry Henry. While Henry was obviously a brilliant player, much of the unequivocal positivity about his Arsenal career stems from the lack of internet streams ten years ago. Because in Henry’s last couple of seasons, he was often very poor away from home in matches which the vast majority of fans only saw brief highlights of. In 2005-06, he scored in just three away League games all season. This was a large part of why Arsenal struggled, winning just six of nineteen away games. While in 2006-07 he had his injury problems, again he scored in just three away games.

The main reason for this was that he often wasn’t really trying. Sometimes, this didn’t matter: back then, the gap between the best teams in the League and the rest was far larger. But sometimes it did, and it was why Arsenal struggled away in 2005-06 while continuing to be near-imperious at home.

Perhaps Henry wasn’t trying because he knew his body was going and he was trying to save himself for games which ‘mattered’. Perhaps it was because he’s a narcissist and only really wanted to turn it on in front of his idolising fans. In all likelihood, we will never know.

Either way, Henry’s uncommitted performances are not the case for rotation. But they do indicate how the rise of internet streams combined with 24/7 coverage and discussion of football on social media channels has changed how we view footballers. (Yes, I’m fully aware of the irony of criticising internet coverage of football on my blog).

But what the internet has done has made every performance be subject to the utmost scrutiny. Where in the past maybe 6/19 away games would be televised, now people watch every single one of them, and far more people than those at the Emirates can watch home games. In the past, if a player was getting fifteen minutes here and there, it was understandable they weren’t showing their best compared to a player who plays every week. Judging footballers on this metric and deciding they’re rubbish is absurd: clearly Kieran Gibbs isn’t as good as Nacho Monreal but he isn’t terrible; when you stop doing any activity for a while, you become rusty, but you don’t permanently lose your skills - my French is currently not what it once was, but if I spent a few weeks in France, I’m sure it would come back to me. Now, with video analysis on blogs and the sheer quantity of football coverage, people are insistent on analysing these performances as if they are a reasonable indicator of a players’ actual talent.

This lack of understanding of why somebody might be playing badly is compounded by Twitter. The view of players is binary, they’re either great or shit, almost out of necessity for a 140 character limit. Mathieu Flamini came in and had a few good games at the beginning of the 2013-14 season and people claimed he was world class. He had a few bad games and people acted like he was the worst player ever to play for Arsenal.

Of course rotation involves bringing in players who fit less well into the team. But that doesn’t mean they are completely useless. The starkest case of this is the current imbroglio of Joel Campbell coming into the team due to a series of injuries on the right wing. After the World Cup, Campbell was heralded as the best central American talent in world football. A few poor games for Arsenal and people act like he’s rubbish, pointing to his lack of goals and assists. If I wanted to make the case for Campbell, I could point out how his pressing and positional diligence was definitely a contributory factor in Arsenal scoring a series of goals after he came on as a sub, such as away against Anderlecht last season, and that he’s actually done quite well.

But the broader point is that all players tend to struggle when they’re given fifteen minutes at a time here and there: the reason players like Henry and Dennis Bergkamp were described as having a telepathic connection was that they had played together so much, they did just know what the other would do and were therefore always one step ahead. Not all players can have such a relationship, but game-time is what helps develop this, and it’s unsurprising that the less people play, the worse they perform when they come into the team. The whole concept of a super-sub took off because it was rare, and most substitutes have very little impact. Clearly, for the most part it is useful to keep the nucleus of a team together, because they are the best players and are the most used to playing together.

Despite the modern football fan’s obsession with tactics, stamina remains vital. When Man City scored their winning goal against Seville last week, journalists reacted taking the piss out of the effort put in by the defenders:

What they seemed to be missing was that the players probably actually were knackered. They had just run around for 90 minutes in a difficult away game against one of the best attacking teams in Europe who were desperate for a result. And while stamina is important within individual games, stamina and fitness also have a massive impact overall: it’s the extra bit of juice in the legs which allows players to burst past an opposition player and to turn 50/50 duels into 60/40 in their favour. That’s what you get from rotation: the hope that your best players will be at their best in the most important games come the end of the season.

The alternative to rotating is what’s currently on show at Chelsea: a refusal to rotate, leading to players being tired in the second half of the season and not performing at the level they should do. The knock-on effect of this was a truncated pre-season this year to try and spread fitness work throughout the season, resulting in players being unfit and well, look at where Chelsea are now.

But the critical thing to realise is that failing to rotate makes it much harder to sign and keep players. Why does Kevin de Bruyne no longer play for Chelsea? Because in autumn 2013 he could barely get a single game. Jose Mourinho picked the same players over and over again last season and guess what happened? Squad players like Andre Schurrle and Filipe Luis wanted out, and Chelsea struggled to sign squad players this summer because footballers want to play and were aware of the limited opportunities they would get under Mourinho. This presumably is how they ended up with Papy Djilobodji as a last resort.

The clearest example of not giving players a chance was Juan Cuadrado, who clearly isn’t a bad player. Perhaps not worth £24 million, but certainly not somebody who wouldn’t be useful as a squad player. But he was afforded just four starts in a new team in a new League before he was binned off for not being quite up to scratch. In Chelsea’s case, it may have been a specific case of mismanagement, but the broader premise that keeping squad players happy is vital is a sound one.

I don’t expect Joel Campbell to be the man of the match this weekend, but nor do I expect him to disgrace himself. A little understanding that players might be a bit worse than those who you would pick in the first eleven, while still quite good at the football would go a long way.

Keep the faith.

Monday, 31 August 2015

The team ain't bad: a post-August appraisal

How quickly people forget
At some point in your education, you probably were asked the question “why does a goldfish not get bored swimming round and round in a small bowl, especially when it does nothing but this?”

And you probably pondered: maybe the goldfish sees people walking past outside the bowl and this stimulates it? Maybe its growth, while not necessarily visible to the human eye, excites the goldfish itself? And eventually, you were taught that the goldfish has a memory of but a few seconds, and so it doesn’t remember having swum round the bowl by the time it gets to the start again; it doesn’t remember what works well and what works badly, and so it has to relearn technique forever.

The human memory isn’t as short, but just like the goldfish the human yearns for stimulation. And as tortuous, prolonged metaphors go, I think this goes a long way to explaining the fan attitude to the transfer window.

Improving the team on the training ground seems humdrum. The players knowing each other and working on instinct isn’t necessarily a visible change, until the team scores a brilliant goal as a result of it. But somebody holding up the club shirt with their name and number on the back: that’s exciting.

It was not so long ago, that in the space of a couple of days right before the transfer deadline, Arsenal signed Park Chu-Young and Andre Santos. These were signings which to any reasonable observer, even at the time, appeared gambles. And while you might caveat this evaluation a touch, those gambles failed.

There are two reasons a club might sell a good player right before the transfer deadline, unless they absolutely have to: either, a whole series of moves fall into place which enable each other. See how Gareth Bale’s transfer to Real Madrid facilitated a whole series of deals including Mesut Özil’s to Arsenal; or, that player really isn’t actually that good.

I understand the human desire for excitement and for new signings. But it’s exceptionally difficult to get clubs to sell their best players (basically what Arsenal are in the market for) and gambling on players you’re unsure on usually leads to failure. If you want evidence of this, look no further than Liverpool.

The thing which makes fans’ short memories so frustrating is that people don’t seem to join up the dots. Even last season, people were bemoaning an injury crisis at Arsenal in the autumn. Perhaps the one other reason a gamble might be successful is if a player has a bad injury record, meaning their team is happy to let them go. The signing of the season thus far is undoubtedly Andre Ayew who has been excellent for Swansea.

Ignoring whether he is good enough for Arsenal – because he definitely has the talent to play for a better team than Swansea – the point is that people hate players who are injured a lot. Abou Diaby became a figure of hate and financial profligacy from a large section of the fanbase through no fault of his own. Many of these people are exactly the same people who complain about missing out on a player like Ayew.

Of course, some gambles are also successful – one need only look to somebody like Freddie Ljungberg as proof of this. But it’s hard to justify spending money on a signing you’re unsure of when there’s nobody in the Arsenal team who my reaction to is “I really don’t fancy seeing them play ten games”. And it’s even harder in the new climate of football economics, where smaller Premier League teams having so much more money than before means a gamble is no longer maybe £5 million but more like £15 million. That’s a lot of money and a lot of wages for somebody who is highly likely to be a failure and it’s money and wages which can’t be spent again further down line.

It can be difficult to understand why money isn’t spent on improving the team. But the real thing to focus on is the lack of departures at Arsenal this summer, and how the nucleus of a very good team has been retained. Four in and four out, is largely not better than one in and one out, because players knowing each other and playing like a team is a hugely underrated quality for a team.

If a player becomes available between now and the transfer deadline who would definitively improve the team, I’m sure Arsenal will spend. But it’s not as easy as just going “we want you” – at least it isn’t unless you want to pay comedy transfer fees like Manchester United.

Defending counter-attacks
As it happens, I think Francis Coquelin’s lack of passing range in terms of clever, short passes combined with a lack of width from Arsenal’s wingers is contributing to Arsenal conceding more good counter-attacking opportunities to opposition teams than in 2014-15. With the full-backs pushing up to offer necessary width, there’s an enormous amount of space in behind for teams to exploit. (This may also lead to Per Mertesacker losing his place in the team, and ask questions of Petr Cech in terms of coming off his line he has rarely been asked since he left Rennes).

But the interesting part of all this is what it means for Arsenal defensively. Coquelin is clearly not very good at defending in space, but poor pressing from the whole team makes his job far harder than it should be.

The weird thing is I think Arsenal are allowing opposition teams more counter-attacking opportunities but defending them quite well. This is mainly because most Premier League teams are incompetent at counter-attacking. Put them under a semblance of pressure and they either just whack a long ball to a striker, in which case a centre back should be able to isolate the striker and either shut down the counter, or at the very least, give the team room to reorganise; or alternatively, they try to dribble out of trouble, in which case Coquelin just needs to ensure he isn’t dribbled past (and can make a foul if necessary).

Neither of these are particularly difficult for the team. So even against a pretty good Premier League team like Liverpool, good counter-attacking opportunities can be shut down.

And this is the weird thing about Coquelin: defensively, he will be okay most of the time. He’s not the player I want but he’s not going to kill the team.

But what’s bubbling under is exactly what happened against Monaco: that as soon as you play against a team which has a bit more fluidity in how they counter-attack, Coquelin’s ability to adjust is limited. I think he’s pretty good at repeating moves he’s been coached into: he has okay technique and is a good athlete. What he lacks is an understanding of how to organise and how to switch who he’s picking up. That may well not cost Arsenal in the League; it’s likely to in the Champions League, where teams don’t all play the same well, and the team is less practiced at dealing with how they play.

The goals will come
Since chanting ‘boring boring Chelsea’ in April, Arsenal have played five home games and scored four goals, all in a dead rubber against West Brom. To some extent, I think Arsenal’s shot numbers are masking a real problem: while the Gunners took 22 shots against West Ham, this high figure does not really tell the story of a match in which Adrian gave a pretty average performance in the West Ham goal.

But even so, to have taken 83 shots so far this season and scored one goal (excluding own goals) is pretty incredible. I don’t rate Arsenal’s attacking play thus far as highly as some; I do think a few more shots hitting the back of the net is pretty much inevitable, especially with a couple of weeks off for players like Alexis Sanchez to try and find some form and sharpness.

Keep the faith.