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.

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