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 J├╝rgen 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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