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.