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.