Monday, 22 December 2014

Five thoughts on Liverpool 2 Arsenal 2

Liverpool 2 Arsenal 2

Liverpool were there for the taking in the second half
Something I've written about before is about how pressing isn't some kind of absolute good thing, contrary to what many people tell you. And thus it was born out: ten of the Liverpool starting line-up had started against Bournemouth in midweek and having given an enormous amount in energy in the first half to only go in level, they started to tire. Arsenal's best period of the match (admittedly not saying much) was in the third quarter of the game, as Liverpool could not keep up the same intensity of pressing, culminating in Olivier Giroud's goal.

And then Arsenal sat back and started to invite pressure. Liverpool had been dominant but given they had already decided not to track an Olivier Giroud run to the near post, it was pretty evident even in this match they couldn’t defend.

That’s why I can’t abide the people defending Arsenal’s mentality with the argument that “earlier in the season you were calling for more defensive solidity”. Yeah, maybe I was. I’m not even sure I was. But for want of argument, let’s say I was: there’s two important differences. One is that in suggesting that throwing nine men forward against United was a little naive, that doesn’t mean I thought we should throw nobody forward - there is quite obviously a middle ground where you show at least some attacking intent, and I felt Arsenal very much veered towards no intent to score a third goal until Liverpool equalised. But in addition, different football matches are different: against a team which is comically poor defensively and has a terrible goalkeeper, chasing more goals makes more sense than against a team which is less likely to concede. All in all, it’s an absurd argument.

Critically, Arsenal sitting back meant that Liverpool’s lack of energy was not exposed. Kolo Toure was blowing out of his arse well before he was substituted. Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana both looked knackered to me and that’s just those who I noticed in the stadium - it may well have been even more obvious on TV.

Simplistic as this may sound, sitting so deep meant Liverpool didn’t have to do much running around (so lack of stamina became less of an issue) and it also invited pressure. Sure, it might be a different story today if Arsenal had held on - but they didn’t, and a third goal would have rendered all of this a moot point.

I understand that having blown several leads and conceded many goals on the counter-attack, it is intuitive that the team might want to defend more and protect leads. Unfortunately, on the basis of what played out in the final 35 minutes of the match, it was a misguided decision.

This was exactly the sort of game Mesut Ozil was bought for
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez have many positive attributes but they’re not brilliant at retaining possession and just killing a game. One of the reasons I tended to be confident defending a lead last season was that players like Ozil, Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla are very good at keeping the ball, ensuring the team is under less pressure. That Sanchez and Chamberlain kept on giving the ball away was one of the key reasons Arsenal were under so much pressure throughout. Partly, it was a result of poor positioning resulting in them being isolated. But it was also just about intelligent use of the ball, something Ozil is particularly good at. It’s not sexy, it doesn’t always translate into goals and assists, but with the personnel out there, Arsenal having a low pass completion rate (even if it was particularly low) was unsurprising. Ozil’s return cannot come soon enough.

The dual nature of Arsenal’s season
For the most part, Arsenal have played pretty well and not got the results because of profligacy in front of goal. Points were dropped against Leicester, Tottenham, Hull and Man United because of a failure to put the ball into the net from promising situations. Against Newcastle, Arsenal produced the sort of result they’d been hinting at all season, without creating very much - by taking their chances.

Against Liverpool, again, Arsenal created little but took their chances. It’s unfortunate that thus far there’s seemingly been an inability to combine the two, especially on a regular basis. But there’s no reason to think that it will continue - I’ve written before about how Arsenal’s forward players haven’t historically missed loads of chances (and so it’s been born out against Newcastle and Liverpool) but the next step is to combine creating lots of chances and scoring loads of goals on a regular basis.

Obviously scoring more goals is useful for a football team, but I think it would be particularly useful for the current Arsenal team - presumably, if there had been more faith that the forwards could score the third goal, the mindset yesterday would not have switched to one of defence. It is a weird self-perpetuating problem, where not attacking means a lack of goals continues to be an issue.

How are Arsenal doing in big games?
In the aftermath of yesterday’s game, people who I respect quite a lot on Twitter were claiming that this result was ‘yet another example’ of Arsenal failing to perform in a big game. I think that’s rather unfair.

It’s certainly true we were destroyed away to Chelsea last season, although that was really caused by two brilliant goals before an absurd sending off. And against Liverpool, even Liverpool fans acknowledged that it was possibly the best they had ever seen their team play. But it’s not true for the most part. Six times we played Liverpool and Tottenham last season - then our direct rivals - and five times we won.

An inexplicably dreadful recent record against United aside, Arsenal have done reasonably well in big games. Especially this season, this was the first time the team played really badly - against United, City, and Spurs (and even Chelsea away, the hardest game of the season) the team created tons of chances and just didn’t finish them and paid for individual mistakes. I think it’s easy to conflate poor results with poor performances.

It’s a weird quirk of fate that this Arsenal team is probably the best since 2009/10 but isn’t getting the results which show it. But I don’t think the problems are systemic (or whatever negative adjective you want to use) and so I struggle to envisage these results not improving, at least a bit.

Theo Walcott’s return cannot come soon enough
Theo’s probably not one of Arsenal’s most irreplaceable players but he’s definitely one of the best. If he had been even half-fit, I think he would have come on yesterday to give us a different point of attack. That he didn’t warm up once in the second half suggests to me he was only at Anfield because of the plethora of injuries. With a heavy fixture list coming up, I’m hopeful he might be ready for West Ham.

Keep the faith.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Five thoughts on Stoke 3 Arsenal 2

Stoke 3 Arsenal 2

The question of the manager
It strikes me that perhaps the most fallacious narrative of modern football is that in which the football manager is depicted as far more important than the players. It’s a narrative perpetuated by clubs regularly changing managers at the slightest sign of a negative run of results, but exacerbated by the focus amongst analysts on tactics (as opposed to stamina, luck, personnel etc). What it has led to is an environment in which each individual result becomes a referendum on the manager, another branch to attach to the proverbial tree of sin to damn a manager with.

And nowhere is that more true than Arsenal, where pre-existing opinions are confirmed by events on the pitch. My point here is not that Arsene Wenger was not at fault yesterday: I think he very much was. It’s that all managers make mistakes on a regular basis. This isn’t the argument that confirmation bias makes people perceive events differently, based on their pre-existing opinions. Rather, it’s that Wenger was at fault but that doesn’t mean you need to change the manager.

As it happens, I think Wenger is one of the few managers who perhaps deserves the focus over and above the team - but in a positive way, where his force of will and coaching makes a difference. But even if you don’t take such a positive view, a manager having some failings does not logically correlate to necessarily needing to change him, unless those negatives outweigh the positives, particularly given that it costs a lot of money to change a manager - money which can otherwise be reinvested in a team, and as I say, personnel available is generally far more important than the manager.

When people say “he doesn’t learn”, what they’re actually saying is one of two things. Either what they mean is “Arsenal should change, limiting their effectiveness, to try and mitigate the strengths of the opposition”. But there’s no guarantee that this does mitigate the strength of the opposition, whereas playing in a different style which the players don’t train for on a regular basis would much more probably harm Arsenal. Or, they’re picking up on a trend - Arsenal’s dreadful record away to Stoke, for example - and concluding that all those results have been borne out of the same mistakes, despite Stoke changing their style a great deal in the last couple of years. At its most nuanced, you might say that Arsenal have consistently fallen victim to a predictable passage of play away to Stoke and conceded goals through that. That’s certainly true, but pointing out a team plays one way does not mean it’s easy to stop: I imagine we’ve tried out Chambers at left centre back in training and it doesn’t work.

The ultimate question is did yesterday’s defeat stem from systemic problems which are inextricably tied to having Arsene Wenger as manager, or did it stem from individual mistakes. Personally, I think the tactics were wrong but that the problem was compounded by players making dreadful mistakes (e.g. Flaming not tracking Bojan). To this end, even when the tactics are wrong, it’s still quite possible to win a football matches.

And this links back to my original point: sure, blame the manager; but the players were at fault to a much greater extent, with individual errors being Arsenal’s biggest problem.

Gibbs or Monreal and what it really means
I’ve been a big fan of Nacho Monreal and a critic of Kieran Gibbs, and Gibbs was particularly poor yesterday. But I think the greater point is this: many Arsenal fans cannot work out which they prefer, because both have different strengths. As it happens, I think Kieran Gibbs attacking play is enormously overrated. Regardless, I’m unsure either is good enough to play left-back in a team which wants to win the League or the Champions League. What’s telling is that Monreal did not kick up a fuss when he couldn’t get in the team: a really top player would expect to play.

Counter-intuitively, although it’s a position we have depth in, in terms of first choice, it’s probably the weakest in the squad.

The problem with not rotating
In general, although it’s easy to call for squad rotation, it’s particularly difficult to justify if you get a poor result, especially when the team’s been struggling. But even if you’re no fan of Lukas Podolski, it’s difficult to argue he might not have played at least a bit better if he hadn’t had so little game time. It’s a self-perpetuating problem: he plays badly so he doesn’t play so when he does, he plays badly, but we’re going to need players like Podolski and Campbell over the next month and pretending they have nothing to offer is absurd.

Where was Szczesny?
I appreciate that for an outfield player to be on the bench, it’s perfectly plausible that they are ready to play half an hour if needed, but not the whole game. But playing in goal is not physically taxing in the same way: at the point that you’re ready to play at all, I find it hard to understand why you cannot play 90 minutes.

Which is what makes me think that Wojciech Szczesny was ‘rested’. It’s a ridiculous decision and I don’t just say that with hindsight: Emi Martinez is a decent goalkeeper but he had been fortunate to basically have nothing to do in the previous three matches. Szczesny is a far superior player and I don’t think it’s implausible that his superior command of his box and communication might have prevented some of the predictable Stoke goals.

Anthony Taylor is completely incompetent
Perhaps it should have been obvious as early as the second minute, when Erik Pieters chopped Sanchez and Taylor gave a free-kick against Sanchez that it would not be our day. Or that Peter Crouch could keep on whacking people in the face and not get a booking for it. But on and on it went, and it didn’t surprise me in the slightest when he felt a shirt pull 40 yards from goal when there was not even a slight goalscoring opportunity was deemed a sufficient offence for a second yellow card.

As my brother remarked, Charlie Adam’s ‘tackle’ (in the loosest sense of the word) on Sanchez wasn’t even a rugby tackle: it would have been a foul in a rugby game. That’s not to say that Arsenal played well. But it’s certainly true that any problems were exacerbated by a horrific refereeing display: Stoke gave an awful lot in the first half (note how Arsenal continued to dominate even after Calum Chambers was sent off) and just when Arsenal were getting into the game and had pulled it back to 3-2, Taylor dismissed Chambers. Without that poor decision, who’s to say Arsenal might not be able to celebrate a famous comeback victory today.

Keep the faith.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Arsenal 1 Manchester United 2. Confirmation bias is alive and well.

Arsenal 1 Manchester United 2

In his book about Pep Guardiola’s first season at Bayern Munich, Marti Perarnau recounts asking Guardiola what the best performance was from his Barcelona side in the time he managed them between 2008 and 2011. Guardiola ponders for a while before answering.

You might think he would choose one of his two Champions League final wins. Perhaps the 5-0 win against Real Madrid in the Clasico. But instead, Guardiola names the first half of Barcelona’s 2-2 draw at the Emirates in 2010 as the best he ever saw his team play, a half which finished 0-0.

Here we have the man acclaimed as perhaps modern football’s greatest coach, thinker and tactician naming a half which finished 0-0 as the best ever performance from a team which won everything and dominated European football for three seasons. If this isn’t evidence that sometimes performances don’t translate into results - but you can still appreciate it as a good performance - I’m not sure what is.

Which is why I find criticism of Arsene Wenger based on Saturday’s Arsenal-Manchester United match utterly misconceived. Honestly, it’s reached a point where people are so keen to draw an artificial binary distinction in the Arsenal fanbase between “AKBs” and “#Wengerout” that every single negative event has to be spun in such a way that if you want the manager to leave, that negative event must be his fault. Presumably people are worried that it’s intellectually incoherent to argue that you want the manager to leave and then acknowledge that some of the problems with this team are not his fault.

As it happens, I’m for Wenger staying but that doesn’t mean I defend everything he does. But to watch the United game and say defeat was the manager's fault just proves that confirmation bias is alive and well amongst many Arsenal fans. Given that the team was set up perfectly to take advantage of United’s weak defence, didn’t have its goal threatened until a highly unlucky own goal, and should have been out of sight before half-time, I find it hard to blame the manager. I do wonder whether people who are criticising the manager for this result, would do so if you conducted a thought experiment where one team played in blue, one in yellow, and they didn’t know the wider context of the two teams. I’d hazard a guess they wouldn’t.

Personally, I’d blame the loss on the poor conversion rates of the forward players. But note that while Santi Cazorla, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are going through barren patches in front of goal, only Chamberlain has a habit of pinging hopeful shots from distance and even his conversion rates are not that bad. In other words, in a normal season, you would write off Saturday’s match as a statistical anomaly and move on - even Arsenal don’t often lose games in which the opposition only had one shot on target.

Unfortunately, it’s not a normal season. I think most people acknowledge that a team can be unlucky in one game, but few would accept that as an excuse for prolonged poor form. Alas, they’re wrong.

I think that’s what happening to Arsenal at the moment, and the numbers bear it out. This Grantland piece details how Arsenal had the best underlying numbers in both defence and attack before this weekend’s match - a match in which Arsenal had nine shots on target to the opposition’s two.

This sort of thing has happened before. The reason Liverpool’s title run last season was actually reasonably predictable was that they were scoring far fewer goals than would be expected per match, based on the chances created in 2012-13. Over time, things regress to the mean.

A similar story is currently available at Newcastle, where a team which had been on an unlucky run starts to turn it around. And the ongoing bad run of form is similarly in evidence at Borussia Dortmund, who blew a two goal lead this weekend and continue to sit in the relegation zone of the Bundesliga, despite dominating match after match.

And this is the issue for me with claims of it’s “same old, same old” for Arsenal. Sure, Arsenal dominated the match against Manchester United and conceded a soft goal on the counter-attack. But claiming this was like the Arsenal of, say, 2009-10 is simply untrue. Then, Arsenal let teams counter-attack repeatedly, didn’t have significantly more shots on goal than the opposition against big teams, and had a defensive midfielder in Denilson who was dribbled past over and over again. When Arsenal lost 3-1 at home to Man United in January 2010, it was difficult to claim that was unrepresentative of the match.

More importantly, that was almost five years ago. In the meantime, Arsenal won a few games against big teams but never really dominated the game. That changed in an enormous way on Saturday. Last season, against a poor United team, there was very little pressure on them in either game. This time around, Arsenal created a hatful of chances and should killed the game by half-time. That it remained 0-0 was a result of extremely poor chance conversion but in the long-run, given these players aren’t shooting from sub-optimal positions, there’s little reason to expect Arsenal’s poor results to continue.

That shows that at least in terms of the tangible, Arsenal have improved and there’s a lot to be optimistic about. Ah, you might say, but the mentality of this team is one of underdogs against bigger teams, and Wenger spins a narrative of how Arsenal are fighting an uphill battle. In other words, there are intangible, statistically unmeasurable factors at work which are impacting on Arsenal’s form.

I don’t doubt it’s possible for statistically unmeasurable things to have an affect. Certainly, once Arsenal start to win a few games, confidence will rise and momentum will return. But I find it hard to believe that this manager is a block to that occurring. I appreciate this is more opinion than fact-based, but given the way Arsenal attacked United on Saturday in a manner which I hadn’t seen for years, I reject the contention that Wenger instills a negative mentality in the players. Quite the opposite in fact. Consistently, even when Arsenal were not very good, Wenger would be in the press bigging the players up and saying they could win the League. If anything, it’s the case that he goes too far the other way.

In terms of this season, winning the League title is almost certainly a write-off. But it was only a small chance at the beginning of the season - and that was without losing our best defender for a prolonged period, best striker for a prolonged period, and best player for several months.

For me, the manager is at fault for not bringing in another defender. But equally, Chelsea have exactly the same number of first-team defenders (six). Go and check their website if you do not believe me. Neither Koscielny or Debuchy’s injuries are the result of the dreaded ‘over-training’ but rather in one case, a trauma injury, and in the other, an ongoing medical condition, for which there is limited medical treatment.

What people fail to recognise is that the issue with the defence at the moment is less one of personnel, and more one of a lack of playing time together. That’s when players get the understanding necessary to defend effectively. In time - even were Debuchy and Koscielny to remain injured - I would expect the occasional defensive error which is drifting in (quite literally, sometimes) to Arsenal’s game to lessen in frequency.

Thus far this season, while missing a series of key players, Arsenal have still dominated almost every match they’ve played. In time, the goals will come, and Arsenal will move up the League table.

Keep the faith.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

It's all about the money, money, money

Across Arsene Wenger’s 18 years in charge, there have been few consistent trends. One that does stand though is that Arsenal have pretty much always done better in seasons not preceded by an international tournament. The three seasons in which Arsenal have won the League under Wenger, he had a full pre-season. More recently, seasons in which Arsenal have challenged for the League title have tended to begin in odd years (07-08, 09-10, 13-14). The only real exception to this trend is 2011-12, and that’s fairly easily explained away by the disruption caused by the prolonged departures of Messrs Fabregas and Nasri.

Obviously, there’s a big difference between spotting a statistical trend and explaining it. As I am wont to say far too often, correlation is not causation. But in this instance, the sample size is large enough to argue with a reasonable degree of confidence that the cause of the trend is that Wenger teams do better when he has more time with them in pre-season. And that therefore, Wenger is - contrary to popular perception - good at coaching his teams.

The skill of great managers is to build a team which plays in a way that it becomes more than the sum of its parts. That’s particularly important for Arsenal: the club is simply never going to be as rich as Manchester City or Chelsea and so needs to overcome having weaker players by playing better as a team.

That’s something which is very difficult to work on during a season. I’ve really enjoyed reading ex-pro David Farrell’s blog in recent weeks, with his insider’s take on what it’s like to play as a professional footballer. This is his explanation of how training often works:

There is a general pattern most clubs will follow throughout the working week. Sunday/Monday will generally be recovery days. Light sessions of gentle exercise, five-a-sides, pool work and massage after the weekend game. Tuesday is the day when the main fitness work of the week is done. Aerobic work, strength and conditioning training, and more demanding possession and pressing sessions, alongside possible gym work in the afternoon. Wednesday is the traditional day off to allow for recovery from the exertions of the previous day. Thursday is usually when the technical work, practice matches and team shape is done, working towards the match and exploiting the opposition’s weaknesses, allied with some crossing and finishing and some small-sided games. Finally Friday, a light session, five-a-sides and possibly some set-plays. Some teams will also do some short, sharp sprint work to ready the legs and mind for the challenges of the match.

Note that this weekly schedule is entirely contingent on playing one game a week. At the point you play twice a week, you still need at least one day off, you still need some recovery time, you still need to do fitness work, but you have an extra day devoted to playing a football match. That leaves far less time for players to build the understanding needed to play together, particularly playing at the sort of intensity which is actually helpful in preparing for matches.

You can see how having a shorter pre-season for most of the squad, but particularly for key players like Mesut Ozil and Per Mertesacker, would actively diminish Arsenal’s play. Without pre-season, at a top club playing twice a week, it becomes much harder to build the understanding necessary to make a team tick. It’s one of the reasons why Santi Cazorla’s first season was so exceptionally impressive, in that he didn’t have a pre-season with his team-mates but was still consistently superb.

This lengthy goes at least some way to explain Arsenal’s travails this season. The next question is to what extent is the manager responsible. While he was never going to get a full pre-season after the World Cup, have his tactical choices exacerbated the problem?

To be honest, I don’t really buy in to the narrative of some wholesale system change this season. Insofar as the midfield three might be 2+1, rather than 1+2, yes. But I struggle to see why that should be be the biggest causal link behind Arsenal’s poorer performances year-on-year.

Probably the biggest tactical change has to been to favour more wing attacks, pushing the full-backs higher up the pitch, and asking the defensive midfield player to sit a little deeper. I think that’s a change based on personnel, but one that Wenger would philosophically want to make.

He’s an attacking coach by nature, whose philosophy of wing play is that if the opposition push players forward that leaves us space to exploit, and if they don’t, then there’s no harm in throwing players forward. And I’m not convinced those have been misguided tactics. With the personnel available, I think we were always going to ship a few goals this season. Chambers does not strike me as a full-back and Oxlade-Chamberlain is never going to be competent enough defensively to protect a full-back. So the attempted solution has been to outscore the opposition.

It hasn’t really worked, but in my eyes it hasn’t worked for two reasons. One, profligacy: the most curious aspect of the draw against Anderlecht was the over-abundance of missed chances. Against Leicester, 24 shots and just one goal. Against Tottenham, 16 shots and one goal. Against Hull, 25 shots and a scraped equaliser during injury time. Heck, even away at Chelsea we restricted them to just three shots on target - problem is, we haven’t taken our chances.

And that for me has been the biggest issue. I don’t think that’s a failure of the tactical system. I think it’s a failure of certain player’s finishing (especially Oxlade-Chamberlain) and just a bad run which is unlikely to hold in the long run. Similarly, I think Szczesny is a good goalkeeper and we will concede fewer goals as the season progresses.

The second reason for Arsenal’s problems has been a quirk of the fixture list. Arsenal have thus far dropped ten points from six games following Champions League matches, all of which have been in away games. In my season preview, I suggested Arsenal repeatedly having to play away after playing midweek would have a knock-on effect and it has. When you have a smaller squad than your rivals - at least in terms of depth of talent - it makes it far harder to rotate, and this means that your players are carrying minutes in the legs the opposition aren’t. Couple that with the fact it’s considerably harder to play away from home and it becomes especially difficult to win.

It’s one reason I expect a noticeable upturn in form over the next few weeks. After the Dortmund home game, there should hopefully be no competitive Champions League games until mid-February. This added energy, combined with the return of key players such as Theo Walcott (who is rarely guilty of the aforementioned profligacy) should give Arsenal the chance to kick on.

Ultimately, you might say that every season under Arsene Wenger is ‘same old, same old’. I don’t agree. I think in terms of personnel, Arsenal have improved sufficiently that they might well be able to beat a bigger team in the Champions League, something they have struggled with for several years.

But more importantly, even if you believe that the manager is tactically bereft, would another manager also be able to overcome the vast resource disparity between Arsenal and the two better teams in England? Because if not, you should be exceptionally wary of throwing away the benefits having Arsene Wenger as manager brings. The aspects in which Arsenal’s seasons are similar is that they do not win the League: that’s not the fault of the manager.

Keep the faith.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Five thoughts on Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0

This was not “same old, same old”
For sixty minutes, Arsenal were very good. Playing a better team away from home, Arsenal were reasonably in control. One moment of skill from Eden Hazard had cut Arsenal open but for the most part, Arsenal were defensively solid and producing quick counter attacks.

In such matches, it’s the small margins which count - Jack Wilshere’s heavy first touch when in on goal, Santi Cazorla’s missed attempt to bring Hazard down, Martin Atkinson failing to send Gary Cahill off and letting Oscar kick the shit out of the Arsenal players for 70 minutes before finally deigning to show him a yellow card.

But if you don’t believe Arsenal were good, watch the game again and watch Cesc Fabregas off the ball - I won’t pretend to have watched absolutely every Chelsea game this season, or every Barca game for the previous three, but I watched enough (and 200+ games at Arsenal) to know that Fabregas normally does not work even nearly that hard. I was actually really surprised he lasted all 90 minutes given the amount of work he was forced to do. Similarly, look at how Branislav Ivanovic - one of Chelsea’s best attacking players this season, hardly ventured forward.

And that was in no small part down to the great movement of Arsenal’s front six. There were a couple of frustrating occasions when good opportunities to shoot were passed up, but in the main, Arsenal were patient and probing and looked very much like they would score at least one goal.

To some extent, that changed with the substitutions. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is a very talented player but I’m not convinced he’s the player you want when Chelsea are sitting deep, particularly given his telegraphed passing (in action once again yesterday) is exactly the sort of thing which gives Chelsea the chance to counter.

What does it all mean?
Pointing out Arsenal played well does not imply happiness with the result or diminished expectations. Only an idiot would compare with last season’s game to consider where Arsenal are at, given Chelsea scored two once-a-season goals and Arsenal had a player sent off before the game was even twenty minutes old. But what it does mean is that Arsenal can compete in this sort of game without surrendering the vast bulk of possession, like happened so often last season in away games.

Sure, you can make the case that it didn’t matter as Arsenal went to places like Swansea and hit them on the break. But it’s very hard to absorb pressure like that and that was borne out against better teams like Liverpool, Man City and Everton. By playing in a more positive way, Arsenal stand a much greater chance of getting results in games of this nature. That’s how the team has improved, for anybody who says Arsenal just replaced like with like this summer.

But it doesn’t mean you’re always going to win big away games - tight games swing on small margins, and yesterday those margins weren’t in Arsenal’s favour.

Incidentally, if you’re using this as a stick to beat Arsene Wenger with, check Barcelona’s away record in the Champions League under Pep Guardiola. Or that in eleven away League games to Arsenal since the Abramovich takeover, Chelsea have won just four times. Maybe it’s just quite hard playing away to good teams.

The Ozil narrative
Here’s the thing, Mesut Ozil wasn’t at his best yesterday. But there does seem to be a perception amongst a large proportion of Gooners that as he is our most expensive player, Ozil should always be the best player on the Arsenal team. And that if he’s not great - like yesterday - he should be dropped. In other words, he’s being judged by completely different criteria to everybody else in the team.

In Bacary Sagna’s penultimate season, he copped a load of abuse until people realised he was giving the ball away because nobody was offering him a passing option. There does seem to be a general trend for people only to blame the player involved in the last phase of an error. So Koscielny gets blamed for the Hazard penalty despite him going past three players first and Alexis giving the ball away for no reason, and Ozil gets blamed for losing the ball even if he has no passing option. It’s absolutely farcical. Ozil played okay yesterday - perhaps it’s worth remembering that even Lionel Messi went about three months without scoring a League goal from open play last season.

Complaints about the system is the new calling for a DM
By its very nature, a 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot transitions into 4-1-4-1 when a team is attacking. There’s certainly been a tactical tweak this season, but claiming that it has engendered an unnecessary season of transition is both completely premature and more importantly untrue. The actual issue is one of personnel and too many players who want to play in the same positions. It brings benefits - for example, Sanchez and Welbeck ensured Ivanovic couldn’t get forward yesterday - but it also means Arsenal’s attacking play can sometimes lack a diversity of options.

As ever, I’d encourage people to really think - you might disagree with the tactics on show, but there are usually intuitive reasons why a good manager would pursue particular tactics.

Checked expectations
Last season, Arsenal were very lucky with how the fixture list stacked up until December and the momentum gathered was definitely worth an extra few points - how many is pretty much impossible to quantify, but at least four or five. In other words, just to stand still this season (i.e. to get 79 points again) Arsenal needed to noticeably improve over the summer. Probably the squad did get better - injuries to Mathieu Debuchy, Nacho Monreal and Arteta (as well as Theo Walcott’s continued absence) have not helped Arsenal. But regardless, it was always asking a lot of a team who were widely tipped to finish fifth last season, to kick on this year and win the League?

Add in Arsenal’s tough start to the season - already played four of last season’s top six within the first seven games - and there’s a lot to be encouraged about. I think people would be a lot happier if three points had been taken away to Leicester, and that was basically a freak result. Ultimately, your perception of how the season is going probably depends on whether you expected a serious title challenge.

Keep the faith.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

It Ain't So Bad

A couple of years back Arsenal had a Dutchman playing up front who scored lots and lots of goals. So people drew up pointless League tables showing “Arsenal without Van Persie” to show the team’s dependency on him.

In case you were in any doubt, this was an immensely stupid thing to do. Because - here’s something amazing - if Arsenal hadn’t played Van Persie, they would have played somebody else in his place. In fact, the sheer ridiculousness of this so-called thought experiment was born out the following season when Arsenal were indeed without Van Persie but finished fourth, rather than the fifteenth the tables indicated. Funny that.

I mention this because the latest one was this weekend people tweeting that not only were Arsenal doing worse than last season but “imagine where we’d be without the late goals against Everton and Palace”. Apart from anything else, this is a facile thing to tweet because it doesn’t require much imagination.

But much more importantly, football matches last 90 minutes. It’s a drum I’ve banged relentlessly but to reiterate, having good stamina is something incredibly valuable in football. Arsenal scored those late goals because they were fitter than the other teams. Which was partly a consequence of tactics in the Everton game, despite those tactics being feverishly criticised, probably by the same people.

If you watch the closing act of Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist” on its own, it’s impossible to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the farce ongoing. Watch the whole play and it sort of makes sense. At risk of a very stretched analogy, most of the discussion around Arsenal has reached the point where people are so determined to be ‘proved correct’ that they stretch the bounds of logic to breaking point and beyond, and it is just a constant farce.

To be clear, it hasn’t been brilliant so far this season. But the way idiots come out of hiding with the slightest sign of a bad result is ludicrous. The other one so far this season (back, in case you’d missed it since April) is that “Wenger is done at the top level”. The evidence for this seems to be that Arsenal took a bit of a shellacking against Dortmund.

This was then coupled with the untruth that Arsenal had consistently struggled in the biggest European games to ‘prove’ some sort of point.

But here’s the problem: on matchday one of this year’s Champions League, ten home teams won. One away team out of sixteen won, and they played against ten men for 75 minutes. All PSG’s money couldn’t get them a win away to Ajax. Atletico Madrid (with the manager many seem to want for Arsenal) lost away to Olympiakos. And yes, Arsenal lost to Dortmund.

But if you want to spot the odd one out, it’s that Dortmund are much better than Ajax or Olympiakos. And that this result was a rare aberration: Arsenal have consistently had an excellent away record over the last three seasons, roughly the life-span of the current team - seven wins, three draws, and four defeats, two of which came in dead games in Athens. It doesn’t exactly strike of being done at the highest level.

For all Arsenal’s relative lack of success in the Champions League, you’d be hard-pressed to claim Arsenal had been knocked out by an inferior team since 2007. Since 2005, only three poorer clubs have reached the Champions League final: Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and Dortmund. Liverpool have since endured four years outside the Champions League and now appear to have a manager who isn’t much cop at signing players. Dortmund have done well in big games but struggled to beat smaller teams - I think Klopp is an excellent manager but struggling to beat Mainz (etc) is an issue for a top manager. Diego Simeone has done brilliantly so far but is also batshit crazy.

But it’s also a bit of a moot point - I think very few people would deny that there are some managers who are tactically better than Arsene Wenger. It doesn’t mean he’s completely useless, or anywhere close to it.

And here’s the key point - Arsenal haven’t changed their system this season just so that Wenger could save some money and not buy a defensive midfielder. That’s the argument of the people who genuinely think the manager gets a bonus for not spending money and is desperate to wallpaper his downstairs toilet with fifty pound notes.

The reality is that on a base level, Arsenal’s system last season went against the manager’s principles. It was, truth be told, a little boring. And so by playing a 4-3-3, Arsenal have greater fluidity, greater attacking purpose, and more bodies who can pile forward. Ignoring the Dortmund game as a freak game (the team was knackered from playing City), the stats show the team having more shots and more possession. Exactly the sort of stats you look for as positives. As it happens, I think Santi Cazorla needs to play more to give us greater defensive balance higher up the pitch, but in general there’s a lot to be optimistic about.

Because here’s the key thing: without playing particularly well (except for in patches against City), Arsenal are still fourth in the table. The only people who are really down are those who expected Arsenal to win the League this season. I was never one of those.

Keep the faith.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Six thoughts on Arsenal 2 Man City 2

Arsenal 2 Man City 2

This was good fun
Social media has seen a great democratisation of football analysis, with every man and his dog able to have a view on things, but it’s also led to a 24/7 discussion of all things Arsenal, leading to people taking football far too seriously.

I’ve never held any truck with the ‘philosophy’ Jose Mourinho espouses of win at all costs. I think football should be enjoyable, and I don’t derive enjoyment solely from winning at all costs. Football should be fun and if you don’t enjoy it, you’re doing it wrong.

So sure, were there tactical tweaks which might have made Arsenal’s life easier? Yep, but that doesn’t mean this wasn’t a highly enjoyable way to spend a Saturday lunchtime.

And to a large extent, that’s because this was the most entertaining display I’ve seen from Arsenal in a long time. Scintillatingly quick transitions from defence to attack allowed Ozil, Sanchez et al to really stretch the City defence. Arsenal’s reputation as entertainers (built in the era where Cesc Fabregas was the fulcrum of the side) stemmed from brilliant possession football in the opposition half and shooting from good positions.

This was different, but arguably more entertaining, with the ball zipping from one end to the other in just a few seconds. And at the heart of all that was Mesut Ozil. No doubt he will face criticism once again – a quick skim of my Twitter feed (and I like to think I largely follow sensible people) indicated that’s the case. But I don’t really see why; the difference between him and Fabregas is that he makes the ball move so much quicker, only ever taking one or two touches. A style based on quick transitions simply can’t contain Fabregas, and on the basis of yesterday’s performance, my hopes for the season are much higher. This was not just an entertaining performance – it was also a very, very good performance.

The curious case of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil
Attacking players like Sanchez and Ozil are ultimately judged on goals and assists – but it’s only really fair to judge them over the course of the whole season. Some woeful decision-making from Alexis was one of the main reasons Arsenal trailed at half-time. Conversely, Ozil makes the right decision almost every time he gets the ball. But because he hasn’t really supplied any goals and assists so far this season – whereas Alexis already has three goals, the narrative is one of Ozil underperforming. I’m sure by the end of the season that wrong will have been righted. For the record, I thought Ozil was very good yesterday.

The Aaron Ramsey paradox
Ramsey has been miles worse than he was last season. I never expected him to score 30 goals this season, but his defensive work is lacking and he is taking up some bizarre positions. And yet because he is plausibly the fittest player in the team, you can’t really take him off after 70 minutes if he’s having a bad game, because it’s so likely that his stamina will tell towards the end of games. His goals against Palace and Everton are testament to that.

To lose the first half was a travesty
Ignore the bollocks about it being “so very Arsenal”. That’s only if you discount the last three years where Arsenal have rarely dominated big games even for ten minutes, let alone 35-40 minutes. It’s a completely different team from the one which used to get hit on the counter-attack, and the first City goal stemmed from a sensationally good piece of play from Jesus Navas.

But to dominate territory to such a great extent – presumably this was the last big game start ever for Frank Lampard – and to go in 1-0 down was incredibly harsh on Arsenal. Danny Welbeck must take some blame – sure he’s only had two training sessions but you don’t need team practice to finish the chance he had. Just imagine the reaction of Gervinho had missed it.

Mark Clattenburg was atrocious
And I don’t say that as a partisan point – I thought there was quite possibly a foul in the build-up to the first Arsenal goal. But its pretty galling to read criticism of Arsenal’s “lack of steel” when every time Arsenal players committed a slightly bad foul they picked up a yellow card. James Milner’s foul on Mathieu Debuchy in the City left-back position just before half-time should be shown at conferences as the dictionary definition of a yellow card foul. Clattenburg’s decision? Just a free kick. Rotational fouling is something that happens and I can deal with. But Milner committed three yellow card offences and emerged from the game without a caution to his name. Farcical.

Arsenal’s Carling Cup line-up will be very interesting
Presumably with yesterday’s injury to Debuchy, the team against Southampton will be a mix of a comically inexperienced defence and then a very experienced midfield and attack, with Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky and Lukas Podolski desperately in need of game time. And the way Wojciech Szczesny’s been playing, it will be a good opportunity for David Ospina to show what he can do.

Keep the faith.

Friday, 29 August 2014

5 thoughts on the Champions League draw

Most fans’ views on Twitter are very odd
Of all the bizarre complaints, people who were asking not to draw Olympiacos were the strangest.

If you’re somebody who actually goes to matches, every person I know who’s been to Athens (whether for Arsenal or just for a holiday) has said what a great city it is - even if they’ve been multiple times.

If you don’t go to matches, you should have wanted to draw Olympiacos because they were one of the weakest teams in their pot and so were a plum draw for Arsenal.

The conclusion I’ve come to is simple: people are talking rubbish on Twitter. Who knew?

The fixtures could have fallen better
Although the draw was a favourable one which Arsenal should qualify from, the way the fixtures fall is not. Playing away in Dortmund just three days after a tough Premier League game against Manchester City is not ideal. Similarly, having the most important fixture (Galatasaray at home) sandwiched between games against Spurs and Chelsea is not what I would have chosen.

As I wrote in my season preview, Arsenal have an atrocious record playing away after playing Champions League midweek. It’s already been born out by dropped points against Everton. Playing away after five out of six of the group games could well be what kills any small hope of Arsenal winning the League.

The TV pairing system is patently ridiculous
I find it very strange that people complain about the coefficient system but not about UEFA’s use of TV pairings when making the draw. Because Dortmund are paired with Schalke for TV coverage, once Chelsea had drawn Schalke there was a one in three chance Arsenal would draw Dortmund again. That’s not a random draw and it’s why we keep seeing the same fixtures over and over again.

Sure, hate on the coefficient system for reinforcing the status quo - but the Champions League would be more interesting if the groups weren’t so similar. And the worst part it is that the TV pairings are done for TV, but it actually makes for worse TV. It’s hard to get people excited about Arsenal vs Dortmund for the fifth time in three years.

The Nouveau Riche have changed the Champions League
It used to be the case that winning your group would have you nailed on for a favourable draw in the last 16. Now, with Bayern Munich and Man City in together, along with PSG and Barcelona, it’s eminently plausible that Arsenal could win the group and still find themselves up against one of the best teams in Europe in the last 16. Incidentally, Arsenal really need to get to the last eight this season - one more season of PSG and Dortmund doing well and Arsenal will almost certainly lose their spot in pot one.

There’s going to be a lot of ticketless Gooners in Brussels

Take everybody who ever goes to a European away game tweeting about how much they’ve enjoyed it, very cheap train tickets midweek to Brussels, and a small Anderlecht ground and what do you get? Far too many Gooners planning to go to Anderlecht.

It’s lucky that British people are so fond of the EU as I’m sure people will enjoy exploring the EU institutions instead of watching Arsenal!

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Arsenal 2014-15 season preview

It feels slightly weird not to be going into the new season wondering at what point Arsenal might actually spend some money and strengthen the playing squad. For the first time in years, the Arsenal squad looks at least somewhat better than when the season ended.

What’s more, positive feeling in the stands tends to help on-pitch performances and there’s no doubt that Gooners are buoyant, with many even talking of winning the League. I’m just unsure we really should be.

The truth is that to get 79 points last season was a remarkable return from that squad, particularly considering the injury problems in the second half of the season. Sagna was nowhere near as good as he used to be, Kieran Gibbs was improved but nothing special, Flamini is superb at kicking people but less good at kicking the ball and Szczesny was better without ever being brilliant.

And that’s just defensively. Offensively, you have a choice on the left wing between Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (yet to consistently deliver in goals or assists), Lukas Podolski (yet to actually ever sprint in an Arsenal shirt) and Santi Cazorla (not really a left winger). Combine that with question marks over Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky getting no younger and a great deal of uncertainty about how Theo Walcott will recover from his ACL and the optimism around the Arsenal camp seems more misplaced. That’s without even mentioning Olivier Giroud’s pretty average finishing.

I’m not trying to destroy the whole squad here, I’m just making the point there seems to be an awful lot of pressure on Koscielny and Mertesacker staying fit once again, and an expectation that Aaron Ramsey will continue to excel and Mesut Özil will kick on from an impressive first season.

So, the question is can Alexis Sanchez, Calum Chambers and Mathieu Debuchy push Arsenal on to greater things? I think there’s no doubt that Sanchez is an excellent signing for Arsenal, especially with Walcott injured. Even when Theo returns, Sanchez could fill the troublesome left-wing spot or provide an alternative to Giroud up front. With Özil delivering through-balls for both Walcott and Sanchez, Arsenal could score many, many more goals, as they really need to.

When I was previewing last season I said there needed to be more goals from midfield to really challenge - while Aaron Ramsey provided them, Theo Walcott’s injuries meant that the team was still short of goals. 68 goals scored is not nearly enough to win the Premier League these days, especially considering the number of shots on goal conceded last season. I fully expect Sanchez to help address this and I’d be surprised to see Arsenal score fewer than 80 goals over the League campaign.

Of the other signings, Debuchy is a good player but it’s not exactly inspiring and I think very few people would pick him over either Cesar Azpilicueta or Pablo Zabaleta. Calum Chambers is a lot more exciting and was secured for an excellent price, particularly in the context of the English player premium and the way transfer prices seem to have spiked this summer. Even so, I’d be surprised to see him start more than 20 Premier League games unless Koscielny’s achilles injury is worse than feared. I don’t expect David Ospina to play in the League unless Szczesny is injured.

Given that there have only been two major departures (Sagna and Vermaelen), its certainly fair to say that this Arsenal squad looks better than last season. And I should add that I’m basing my predictions on no there being no further major additions to the Arsenal squad.

So why my lack of shared optimism? First, to get 79 points last season was the squad massively outperforming itself. Momentum is incredibly important in football and Arsenal definitely benefitted from having easy fixtures stacked together in the first half of the season. The fixture list doesn’t allow Arsenal to (easily) build up momentum in the same way in the season ahead. In other words, just to stand still the squad needed to get better.

Not only that, but Arsenal have a very poor record playing away after Champions League games: over the last four seasons, Arsenal have played away 19 times after Champions League games, winning just seven times and losing eight of those matches. Providing progress is secured against Besiktas, the Gunners will play away after seven of their first eight Champions League games: that’s a minimum of 20% of League fixtures in which you can expect Arsenal to only win one out of three games. That’s going to be a major stumbling block to winning the League.

Most importantly, I just think Manchester City and Chelsea have superior squads to Arsenal. Chelsea have filled the obvious defensive holes in their squad while at the same time signing Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa. I certainly think its plausible that Costa could struggle - I’m just unconvinced it matters. Chelsea were pretty good last season without a decent striker and have now added one of the best playmakers in the world. City only got better as last season went on and if Sergio Aguero can play over 30 games will probably win the League again.

There’s definitely some important caveats I should add here: an easy Champions League draw for Arsenal (assuming qualification) would diminish the importance of playing away repeatedly after playing in midweek. But equally, if you want more pessimism, Arsenal haven’t made a serious title challenge in a year after an international tournament since 1998-99.

So, realistic predictions: 3rd in the League, Champions League quarter-finals and maybe a domestic cup.

Keep the faith.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Evaluating Arsene Wenger

Even medium-sized businesses which turn over tens of millions of pounds invest enormous amounts in marketing their grad schemes, so keen are they to recruit the 'brightest and the best' (I was just sick a little too) to their organisations. Yet football clubs which turn over far larger sums continue to hire from a very small talent pool. If you want to become a professional football manager, you generally have to have played the game at the highest level.

What's most bizarre is how few clubs go against the grain in this regard. Particularly given almost all football clubs are competing over a very small section of society (ex-footballers), even if it were true that the average ex-footballer makes a better manager than an ordinary citizen - a highly questionable hypothesis - it still does not mean that no citizens could make a good manager, and clubs would face far less competition in getting their man (or woman). It's hard to believe that training a bunch of bright 20-somethings for ten to fifteen years wouldn't give top clubs a better talent pool to hire from than they currently have, and without paying the large amounts of compensation that are regularly necessary to hire a good manager. Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy, made a similar point with regard to businesses only hiring graduates with a 2.1 and above.

Given modern football is so obsessed with statistics, it is genuinely confusing as to why clubs are ignoring stats which show that over the long-term a change in manager makes no difference in the majority of scenarios. Now this might be because the role of manager isn't actually that important. But this seems implausible given the vastly disproportionate success that certain managers have had at a variety of clubs, at different levels. So the more likely explanation is that most professional football clubs are hiring very badly.

That football remains a 'closed shop' makes life far easier for the top managers. Most managers are simply copying what went on in the dressing room when they were players because otherwise there's very little guidance available on how to manage. Sure, you take coaching badges but if these were actually important then clubs turning a blind eye to people without their badges would not be nearly as common.

How does this relate to Arsene Wenger? Chiefly, it goes a long way to explaining the context in which he should be evaluated - that he is relatively successful is not altogether surprising: he is an intelligent person putting his brain to football, competing against a lot of unintelligent people who also lack the same capacity for independent thought.

So comparing Wenger's success to most other managers - and viewing him as successful in that light - is a false comparative. You don't have to be very good at all in order to be better than most football managers.

That's not to suggest Wenger hasn't been successful. But it does mean you need to do a little more than point out a lack of eligible replacements to prove how good he is: I think many readers of this esteemed blog, with fifteen to twenty years training, could make better managers than most of the people managing in the Premier League.

What, therefore, are appropriate criteria to evaluate how good managers are?

The journalist Raphael Honigstein likes to point to total wage spend as evidence that Wenger has not really over-achieved: Arsenal's wage bill in the last few years has consistently been the fourth-highest in the League, and they have consistently finished fourth. Particularly given there is quite a strong correlation between wages and finishing position in general, this seems to suggest that Wenger has not done anything especially special.

There's three important responses to this. First, Honigstein's argument is contingent upon a view of wages as being entirely merited - that footballers are paid 60k a week as a reward for their talent and performances. But there's an alternative explanation that to me is quite persuasive: particularly between 2007 and 2011, Arsenal handed out a series of contracts that rather than being a reward were designed to be incentives: we'll pay you 60k a week so that you perceive yourself to be as good as a 60k a week player and play better. This is entirely consistent with the general view of Wenger as a developmental coach, who instills an enormous amount of self-belief in his players. It's also consistent with how players such as Denilson, Bendtner and Eboue (the 'deadwood') played the best football of their careers after being handed these contracts, and were therefore so incredibly difficult to get rid of, due to their massive contracts. Getting more out of players by choosing which young players to hand large contracts to is a sign of good management.

The second response to the wages argument is that Arsenal had to pay higher wages to young players to at least be able to compete in the market somewhat: if you cannot afford the fees for older players, you have to be prepared to pay younger players more to get them to sign for Arsenal, rather than a rival club. This empirically stacks up: some of the very best young players have joined Arsenal, at least partly because they could earn more than they do elsewhere. This was a clever ploy: Liverpool tried to copy it and failed, and moreover, there is now far greater competition for young talent than 8-10 years ago, as a direct result of Wenger's methods. It seems unfair to pin wages on him when net transfer spend has remained so low as a result of signing young players.

But most importantly, even if you don't buy either of these responses, Honigstein's argument seems a bit irrelevant: failing to finish above the enormous wage bills of Man City or Chelsea, or Ferguson's Man United is hardly 'performing to par'. Failing to finish above two of the richest teams in the history of football, and somebody widely admired as one of the best managers in football is not exactly total failure. A better measure might be to compare with teams who spend wages at a similar level - and continue to perennially finish below Arsenal: Liverpool and Tottenham. This seems to be quite a good marker that even if you want to view wages as all-important, Wenger has been at least something of a success. Critically, the logical corollary of this argument is that Manuel Pellegrini has not been a success this season as Man City had the highest wage bill and therefore should finish first. It's pathetic. It basically involves belittling much very good achievement with words like "should". The whole reason football is so watchable is that it is so often unpredictable. Conforming to expectations is something than an enormous amount of even very good managers struggle with.

And critically, even if you think that wages are importantly, they're not the only important factor. The lack of spend in the transfer market at least mitigates Arsenal's wage bill: at the very least, being in less debt is a normatively good thing.

It's for these reasons that I don't think wages is a good metric by which to evaluate managers. Rather, I'd pick two other factors: one is what players say about managers and the other is legacy.

With regard to what players say, it's quite a good way of differentiating between top managers - obviously it's just opinion but when people who played under other excellent managers say that Wenger is the best manager they played under it shows a lot. For one thing, it debunks the media narrative about Wenger not knowing anything about tactics and always playing the same way - if this were the case, ordinarily you would expect players to pick another manager who does 'do' these things as the best manager they played under. To be clear, I haven't picked this factor simply to endorse Arsene Wenger: Santi Cazorla says Manuel Pellegrini is the best manager he ever played under.

But given I've already established that being better than most managers is not enough, it does provide an effective comparison between successful managers. That so many players - Thierry Henry, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas, Kanu - who have played under pretty much all the best managers of the generation (perhaps bar Ancelotti) say that Wenger is the best manager who they worked with, this means a lot. This isn't me simply selecting people to prove a point: of the players who have spoken publicly about who their best manager was, players who have been managed by Wenger overwhelmingly select him and also praise him. On this basis, it's fair to place Wenger amongst the very best in the business. But lots of players also have kind things to say about Jose Mourinho who I consider an inferior manager to Wenger.

That's why legacy is also relevant. I'd view legacy in terms of two things: first, success the club enjoyed during a manager's time in charge; and second, the position a manager left the club in after he left.

In absolute terms Wenger comes out below many managers on the first metric, and I expect this is the point at which many people will start to disagree with me. To appreciate Wenger's achievements in the last eight years requires a context which is often overlooked. Suffice to say the following: Arsenal have finished above every single Premier League team within the last four seasons, they are not the perennial also-rans which the media portrays them as.

Consistent success - even if it isn't the success people might want most - is still a rare commodity in football. The only team who can match Arsenal's run of seasons in the Champions League is Real Madrid, a club which is subsidised by the local government.

Even the trophies thing is a bit of an anomaly: in his entire managerial career (a season longer than Wenger's time at Arsenal), Carlo Ancelotti - an admittedly terrific manager - has won three League titles. Wenger has won three at Arsenal. That they came ten years ago is not really the point. In the overall context of his time at Arsenal, it is still a great success.

It's certainly a legitimate criticism of Wenger that Arsenal have not taken the domestic cups as seriously as they should have done for the last five or six years, but the flip-side of that is that when a place in the top four has come down to one or two points, the extra fitness players have by not playing in the FA Cup can actually be very beneficial. As ever, few things are simple.

Ultimately, to view Wenger as a failure involves believing a top-four finish is something to be sniffed at. I don't believe it is.

On the second question, that of what followed after a manager leaves a club, this is far more subjective, especially as Wenger has not left Arsenal. A priori logic shows that a manager could leave a club in a great position and they could still flop. But that's not what Alex Ferguson did. Even if you believe David Moyes is a poor manager, Ferguson left United with the fifth best squad in the League. What followed was likely if not inevitable.

If you look at the direction Arsenal are headed in - a squad on long-term contracts, a stadium debt which is mostly paid off, new sponsorship deals - everything looks very positive. Moreover, given it looks like Wenger will stay, the proverbial trophy monkey will surely be lifted.

I don't think Arsene Wenger is necessarily the best coach, the best tactician, the best transfer market operator or the best motivator. But on an overall basis, I think he is pound-for-pound the best manager in world football. Back in your box Guardiola.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Why the focus on Arsenal's trophy drought?

In case you didn't know, it's been almost nine years since Arsenal won a trophy. During the ensuing seasons, there's been plenty of causes for hope and almost as many moments that would still cause many a Gooner to close their eyes with despair.

Read any mainstream media publication and the entire debate is on the one hand "Arsenal have won nothing for ages" and on the other "ah but…" and then a host of mitigating factors, although the mitigating factors are never nearly well enough explained. Even if you think they are, it's a moot point.

Take this tweet from Bruce Millington:

You probably don't know who he is, but I'll enlighten you: Bruce is the editor of the Racing Post and therefore isn't really trying to sell his paper to football fans. Why's that important? Because he isn't obsessed with the 9 Years narrative. As he says, Arsenal take ridiculous amounts of stick.

How long have you been hearing about how long it's been since Arsenal won a trophy? At least four years. And yet take in the following five statistics:

- Liverpool have won one Carling Cup in eight years
- Tottenham have won one Carling Cup in fifteen years, six years ago
- Despite an investment of over a billion pounds, Chelsea have won the League just three times in eleven years since the Abramovich takeover
- Manchester City despite spending the better part of a billion pounds have won one League title since they started ploughing money into the club seven years ago and are yet to win a Champions League knockout tie
- Real Madrid haven't reached the Champions League Final since 2002, despite being subsidised by the Spanish government

You'll never hear any of those things in the mainstream media. The narrative is exclusively what Arsenal have or have not done, with very little discussion of their rivals' failure. All they bang on about is how Arsenal have the fourth largest wage bill in the League and so you'd expect them to finish fourth, and therefore you can mitigate anything Arsene Wenger has done and tacitly claim he is an average manager.

Why is this a weak line of argument? Well, just looking at the 2011-12 data Chelsea and Manchester City's wage bills were vastly bigger than Arsenal's. Manchester United's was 15% larger. Incidentally, Arsenal finished above Chelsea that season but let's overlook that.

Liverpool's wage bill is 15% smaller than Arsenal's, with Spurs spending a similar amount. Presumably if Arsenal are supposed to make up the gap on the teams above them then you could also expect the teams below them to do that to Arsenal? But apparently not. Apparently that is an expectation you can only place on Arsenal.

Even if you don't want to completely ignore the enormous mitigating factor for Arsenal's trophy drought, it still begs the question why other clubs aren't questioned about their lack of success and trophies. Unless of course, Arsenal aren't actually that bad but it's just a good story which sells papers and page views. Because that's when even a cursory glance at the facts shows.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Giroud is quite good and four other Good Friday thoughts

I've written up a few thoughts that were too long for Twitter but weren't worth blog posts of their own. Some are more developed than others...

Calling for Giroud to be sold is odd
There's a bizarre tendency amongst some fans to both call for 'greater squad depth' and then decry players such as Olivier Giroud as 'not good enough'. Presumably if Giroud were to be sold and a 40 million pound striker to be bought in his place, the same problem would remain: a strike force of top striker, Yaya Sanogo, Joel Campbell and Theo Walcott as an option would still be putting an enormous strain on the top striker signed.

The other point is that Giroud actually has a very good record against smaller teams: he's probably not going to score the winner at Stamford Bridge; he might well score ten goals in fifteen starts against bottom half teams, giving whoever might normally lead the line a well-earned rest. I'm all for keeping him.

You have to be able to kick the ball
I find it quite strange when people praise Yaya Sanogo's running and the positions he takes up without mentioning one thing: he is bloody awful at kicking the round thing. Not just in the net but even close to it. Admittedly he's only played a few games but if you can't kick the ball, you're not going to score many goals.

How good really is Brendan Rodgers?
I know Liverpool are very much flavour of the month and they have been on an exceptional run, but I do get the impression that Brendan Rodgers has had far too much credit. In his time at Liverpool he's bought nine players for substantial fees:

Fabio Borini
Joe Allen
Daniel Sturridge
Philippe Coutinho
Luis Alberto
Iago Aspas
Simon Mignolet
Tiago Ilori
Mamadou Sakho

Of those nine, three are out-and-out flops (Borini, Allen, Aspas). Tiago Ilori is largely unknown but spending £7 million on a defender to not play him once for five months before sending him on loan to a bottom-half La Liga team where he has played just four times is hardly encouraging. Luis Alberto might be good but has hardly played; and Mignolet and Sakho are just average players, with Mignolet no improvement on Pepe Reina. Sturridge and Coutinho are both good signings but spending almost £100 million for two very good players and a couple more average ones is hardly brilliant management.

Top managers such as Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson have always built teams so that they can make up for the loss of one player. Rodgers has done some good things - Jon Flanagan has improved enormously and Jordan Henderson is becoming the player I thought he might.

But if Liverpool fail to win the League and lose Luis Suarez (a player incidentally not signed by Rodgers), I think they'll be in a fight for fourth next season. Rodgers has certainly done a good job. But the hyperbole about him being a brilliant manager needs more evidence.

Very few people seem to actually understand tactics
For years, the tactic of derision was zonal marking. Now, finally, most people seem to have caught on there's a reason that most top teams use this system and a large proportion of the people criticising it were failed managers.

But there do now seem to be some things which are considered normative goods: things a football team just 'should' do. Pressing is one. Playing a high line is something considered a normative bad.

And the truth is, like in most things, it's much more complex. (NB You can see the value of my nine grand a year social science degree here). It's plausible that playing a high line against Chelsea was the wrong decision. But there was an obvious thought process behind it: push the game higher up the pitch, put pressure on John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic who aren't especially good on the ball and try and get Cazorla et al in positions where they can be most effective, particularly when Arsenal's movement off-the-ball is nowhere near as good as it was a few months back, due to personnel changes.

AVB's failure combined with how bad a high line looks when things go wrong means people don't like it, whereas its advantages are less overt.

Similarly, two of the most successful managers in recent years have been Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp, both of whom have consistently picked teams which press very hard. But the idea there's no downside to this is just ludicrous. There's a reason that Guardiola teams repeatedly tire in the final quarter of matches, something exploited by Arsenal both times he came to the Emirates with Barcelona.

My point isn't that Arsenal necessarily should play a high line or not press, but that these are legitimate choices with benefits attached to them.

In fact, that Arsene Wenger changed things for the Chelsea game shows he does indeed do tactics. When people say 'Arsenal always play the same way' they're either not watching the matches, or they actually want Arsenal to hoof aimless long ball in a way reminiscent of the England national team circa 2000-2006. Quite why that would be a positive thing is lost on me. But at least Arsenal would have played a different way!

Oxlade-Chamberlain nails it
I read somewhere - I forget where - Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain making a fair point that while Arsenal haven't won anything in a long time (yes, all media outlets, I'm aware how long it's been - you don't have to mention it every ten minutes) this current squad has only really been around for three years max. It's a fair point that losing is not some sort of long-term endemic thing at Arsenal, despite what the media might have you believe. A good point, well made by Chamberlain - now go and learn how to pass the football.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Who's to blame for Arsenal's injuries?

In recent weeks much has been said and written about Arsenal’s injury list. Nobody denies that injuries have had an impact on Arsenal’s slide in form. But the question which every man and his dog has an opinion on is who is to blame?

The answer I keep on reading is Arsene Wenger. I simply don’t think the answer is as simple as that.

The first thing worth establishing is that the problem is not nearly as large as it is generally made out to be. People say “it’s the same every season” and it’s simply not true. Last season, Arsenal suffered from relatively few muscle injuries; the season before a similar situation arose, it was just unfortunate that so many of these injuries were clustered amongst all the full-backs at the club at the same time. Even this season, while Arsenal are top of the ‘injury League’ this is mainly because of long-term injuries to Abou Diaby, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere, none of which are muscle injuries. There's a case that Arsenal have simply been unlucky this season. Nonetheless, it is true that Arsenal have suffered from muscle injuries this season, and while I am not a medical professional, these are allegedly preventable.

The criticism of Arsene Wenger stems from the contention that his “out-dated training methods” are causing these injuries. The logical corollary of this is that Arsenal used to suffer from an abundance of injuries, it was just that other clubs also did and so this was less noticeable. This is simply factually untrue: in the 1997-98 season, just fifteen players started ten or more League games for Arsenal. If it were the case that the training methods were out-dated, they also would have caused a multitude of injuries fifteen years ago. That they didn’t suggests that unless humans have markedly changed physiologically in the last fifteen years (something I’m going to say is unlikely), Wenger’s training methods cannot be causing more injuries.

Arsenal’s injury crises are actually a relatively recent phenomena, beginning after the stadium move. My theory is that it stems from two things.

First is squad size. Arsenal fans are quite insular and are therefore more likely to notice injuries at their club, compared to at other clubs. Manchester City have been without Matija Nastasic, Sergio Aguero, and Stevan Jovetic for large parts of this season. The difference is that City’s squad is so large that it is far less noticeable when they have a few players injured, even if they are key players. This is comparatively harmful in of itself for Arsenal in terms of picking up results: they simply have fewer excellent players than Manchester City.

But the smaller squad size means that once Arsenal pick up a few injuries, it becomes necessary to keep on playing the same players, often when they are in the famed ‘red zone’, increasing likelihood of further injuries. In other words, it is a self-perpetuating cycle, which it is very difficult to do anything about. Although it is a repeated problem, it is very difficult to fix because of resource considerations: Arsenal simply cannot afford to sign players of the caliber City do, simply to sit on the bench. This part of the problem is therefore definitely not Arsene Wenger’s fault.

The second thing I think Arsenal’s injuries stem from is the type of player they pick: lots of small, skillful nippy players. Arsenal have forsaken the power displayed by players like Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry for more skill-focused players. For a start, the powerful game intuitively seems less likely to cause muscle injuries because it entails far fewer sudden movements. This is born out by the evidence: Vieira and Henry suffered very few muscle injuries in their time at Arsenal.

The short, sharp movements required by the Arsenal game are more likely to cause the sort of muscle strains witnessed. So while there was little that could be done about Walcott or Wilshere’s injuries, those suffered by Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil seem more preventable. Not necessarily on an individual basis, but if Arsenal bought taller, stronger players these players could drive the team forward, giving the skill players room to work their magic. In a sense, the greatest tragedy of the last five years at Arsenal is the impact Abou Diaby would have had if he had been regularly fit. He is exactly the sort of player Arsenal need at the moment – but unfortunately, there is nobody else comparable to him in the squad. This is certainly a failing on the manager’s behalf in terms of recruitment.

Biology was my worst subject at school so I’m not going to sit at my laptop and arbitrarily blame the Arsenal medical department for injuries. Nor do I think it is reasonable to peg all of it on Arsene Wenger: if he were so laissez-faire with his training as to let players get injured easily, I find it unlikely that so many players would say he was the best manager they ever worked with. I do think changing the style of the team somewhat would help to prevent injuries, but there is a question of whether big, strong players can be found who are also technically sound. That’s a job for the summer.

Keep the faith.


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Sunday, 30 March 2014

Sometimes continuity is better than change: Arsenal 1 Man City 1

Arsenal 1 Man City 1

At half-time yesterday, Arsene Wenger was faced with a tactical conundrum. Jesus Navas and Pablo Zabaleta were over-powering Kieran Gibbs due to Lukas Podolski's defensive incompetence. TV pundits advocated substituting Podolski and replacing him with a more defensive player. And yet Wenger did nothing of the sort: in fact, he doubled down on Podolski.

Attack-wise, Podolski had probably offered more than any other Arsenal player in the first half and Wenger recognised this. Arsenal played even more down the left in the second half, committing more bodies to that part of the pitch and created three terrific chances from that position: first, Podolski put in a brilliant cross which Olivier Giroud might have done better with; then, he put in a cross that Mathieu Flamini did put away; and then he himself had a chance as a result of a lucky ricochet and probably should have scored.

It's a really important lesson: sometimes continuity is better than change - conservatism (with a small c) has its place. The response of the armchair tactician would have been to become even more defensive. Instead, Wenger and Arsenal went for it and were rewarded.

The ludicrous media depiction of Arsene Wenger as some sort of tactical neanderthal who only knows how to play one way is just stupid. Sure, his teams tend to play a similar style. But if you think that means the tactics are always the same, you really shouldn't be allowed to express an opinion about football. Here he was, making a tactical tweak against one of the best tacticians out there and getting it right. Still though, it's all about narratives and this is an established one.

Yestersay's result also underscores the fine margins in football: two weeks ago, Arsenal were able to play defensively at White Hart Lane because of Tomas Rosicky's goal; last week, if Giroud had taken his early chance, Arsenal might well have mirrored those tactics: instead it turned into a clusterfuck. Against City, it could so easily have gone 2-0 early in the second half because of Arsenal's continued attacking mindset. Instead, Arsenal equalised and were perhaps unfortunate not to find a winning goal. On such small margins do whole seasons change. Just look at Dennis Bergkamp's penalty in 1999 against United as proof of that.

Keep the faith.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Wouldn't you expect Arsenal to lose to Chelsea?

In Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, the titular character’s personal shortcoming is one of a weak heart, falling for Dora, rather than the more suitable Agnes. I’ve now saved you reading 700 pages of Dickens’ awful prose but more importantly, Copperfield’s shortcomings are similar to those of Arsenal fans: always believing the grass would be greener on the other side, always wanting the allure of something new regardless of how it might go wrong, turning down sensible Agnes for beautiful Dora.

The aftermath of any Arsenal defeat these days is usually characterised by the return of an abundance of people calling for Arsene Wenger to be sacked, talking about how he is past his sell-by date etc etc etc. It’s boring, I’m not going to recant it all. There’s two odd things about this: generally this season Arsenal have been very good; the odd defeat, such at the one to Stoke is what makes football exciting. If the favourites always won it would be exceptionally boring.

But the second is that the response to other defeats – particularly the games away to Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea – have been followed by an outcry about the results. It’s very odd to me: before the match, people usually concede these teams are better than Arsenal and predict a defeat. When defeat follows, there is then a huge display of faux-shock of ‘how could this possibly happen’ despite it being predicted by most people.

People depicting all these games as being exactly the same and this season as being “same old, same old” need to open their eyes. Arsenal have been far more consistent this season. They’re in the semi-final of the FA Cup and there is still a chance they will win the League. Do they have the best squad in the League? No. Do they have the second-best? No. Do they have the third best? Yeah, probably. Where do I expect Arsenal to finish? Third. It’s almost like they’re performing about to the standard I’d expect.

But I’d still be wary of taking the three away shellackings as being evidence of tactical negligence. Simply because all three ended in heavy defeats does not mean they should be conflated into one. At City, while I might have set up more cautiously, Arsenal could easily have won the game, and this despite an injury to their best defender mid-game. At Liverpool, the opposition performance was the finest 20 minute spell any team has produced in the Premier League all season. There’s a peculiar insistence among Arsenal fans that the opposition can never just be better. When Arsenal were terrific against Napoli, they rightly received much praise. Similarly, another very good football team can sometimes be excellent against Arsenal. It’s why they’re good, and it’s more than likely to happen on their home ground with their supporters cheering them on. This isn’t some massive conspiracy theory: it’s how football generally works. It’s why cup ties played over one leg can often see surprising results when a bigger team plays away to a smaller team.

And against Chelsea, it’s also hard to see that tactical negligence was to blame, so much as individual errors. Even at 2-0 down, Arsenal had already a brilliant chance in a game that looked very open. It was not inexplicable that they could get back into the game. I’m not entirely sure what Arsene Wenger was supposed to do to stop Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain suddenly deciding he was a goalkeeper. Intuitively, it seems unlikely to me that he was told before the match to do that. When footballers do stupid things, blaming the manager seems an odd response.

Like other Gooners, I’m very disappointed. It’s obviously very embarrassing to lose 6-0. But the rational part of me says it’s difficult to blame the tactics when you play with ten men for 75 minutes away from home against a better team. Perhaps the bigger reason for a downturn in form has been the loss of Walcott, Ramsey, and Ozil, three of Arsenal’s very best players. Having them in the team might well have led to a better result on Saturday and better results in the last few weeks. Of course Podolski isn’t brilliant: but tell me who should play instead. Everybody complains we have too many wide players; it’s a shame that so many are injured.

I’d love Arsenal to win more of these big games. In particular, the two matches against Man United were a huge let-down. But in general, I just think Arsenal are still about the third-best team in the League. All the people criticising the transfer policy seem to think that Arsenal didn’t try and sign a striker or holding midfielder last summer: they did. They bid more than three times their previous transfer record for Suarez. Given the comparative success Arsenal have had this season, the argument that it would have been worth signing another striker of Giroud’s caliber for circa £15 million and £12 million wages over four years is odd. I’m struggling to see where that would have brought more success, even if such a player existed.

Nobody predicted Arsenal would win the League this season; not having to battle it out for fourth place is a welcome improvement on the last two seasons. The team can improve this summer and come back fighting next season: Arsenal are no longer a selling club and there’s a lot to be optimistic about.

Another of Dickens’ novels opens with the famous line “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. I’m happy to predict the best of times are returning to the Emirates pretty soon.

Keep the faith.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Five thoughts on Arsenal 0 Bayern 2

Arsenal 0 Bayern Munich 2

The referee took a massive punt
Whether the rule of giving a penalty and a red card for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity is fair or not, it was entirely moot last night: Wojciech Szczesny did not deny a clear goalscoring opportunity. He fouled Arjen Robben, certainly. But before any contact was made, Robben went to control the ball and a reasonably heavy touch pushed the ball away from the goal, well to the left of the goal-mouth. As Szczesny brings Robben down, two Arsenal defenders come over to cover the goal-line, so that even if he had stayed on his feet and managed to get the ball back under control, it was far from a clear goalscoring opportunity. It was, without a shadow of a doubt, a terrible decision.

But here's the really important thing: even if you buy the argument (which I don't) that it's incredibly hard to judge these things in real time, the ref still then took a massive punt on deciding it was a clear goalscoring opportunity. Given the disproportionate harm to the defending team of taking such a punt - not to mention that he was wrong - it seems a very bizarre thing to do.

And at risk of sounding like a broken record, it continues a long, long run of highly contentious decisions going against us in the Champions League.

Sometimes there's not a lot you can do
There's a completely absurd column from Tony Cascarino in today's Times criticising Arsene Wenger for being tactically inflexible and basically blaming last night's result on this. I know this will annoy a lot of 16 year-old tactical whizz-kids, but sometimes there's not a lot you can do.

An Arsenal win was the least likely result going into the match, before playing 55 minutes a man down. The idea that it was Wenger's tactics which made Arsenal lose is frankly ridiculous.

In reality, by playing very narrow for most of the second half, we actually kept a very good shape. A 1-0 defeat to a brilliant goal while playing a man down would have been quite a good result. Should Mesut Özil have gone off instead of Santi Cazorla? Maybe, it's very hard to say. I think Özil provides more of an attacking threat and you need to continue to offer a threat or the opposition will just throw everybody forward.

The second goal was a disaster
After playing really very well for 87 minutes, the second goal was a real hammer-blow, killing the tie competitively with one swift flick of Thomas Muller's head.

It's particularly galling as it came from our most atrocious phase of play of the night. Laurent Koscielny drove forward from defence, winning a free kick just inside the Bayern half, finally giving us some breathing space. To pass it sideways and retain possession would have been a reasonable option - Arsenal were tired and running the clock down, at least a bit, would have been a reasonable option. To commit five or six players to the box, pushing Bayern back and giving us a goal threat would also have been a sensible choice.

Instead, they chose some sort of middle way - Koscielny went forward, there were maybe two other Arsenal players in the box, and it was easy to defend for Bayern. The lack of defensive organisation then stemmed from it taking Koscielny an age to get back into defence and in my opinion, almost certainly contributed to conceding what was a very soft goal. Bill Clinton might have advocated for a 'third way' but on this occasion it was a bad, bad decision.

The sheer absurdity of the away goals rule
I'm not one for inductive reasoning and obviously four matches is a very small sample size, but in all four Champions League games this week, the away team won, furthering the case that playing away in the Champions League really isn't that great a disadvantage. Given all the other reasons which Jonathan Wilson has gone into about it being a misguided rule, isn't it time it was scrapped?

The myth of Bayern 0 Arsenal 2
The narrative promulgated by the media about Arsenal's victory in Munich last season is that it was borne out of complacency. This really is utter bollocks. Bayern had 21 shots to Arsenal's 8, 9 shots on target to Arsenal's 3. The idea they weren't trying is just untrue. So to therefore claim Arsenal have no chance in the second leg as "Bayern won't make the same mistake again" is just unfair.

What is true is that it was a freaky result - there is no way on the balance of play Arsenal deserved to win 2-0. But Arsenal are now much improved. Score the first goal in Munich and they might get nervous: they were certainly rattled in the first twenty minutes last night.

Keep the faith.