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.