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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This gets more desperate each week.

'It's the players who fault'. Who bought the players? Or rather didn't buy the players. Clearly the lack of defensive reinforcements came home to roost on Saturday. We only had 2 first choice defenders out injured, one of whom was known to be injured in the summer, and that reduced us to Mertesacker who is horribly out of form, Chambers who is not ready for weekly starts and Bellerin who Wenger doesn't trust to play unless he has to. The protection from midfield was awful as set out by arseblog today but again whose fault is that? It's irrefutable that it's the manager recruitment which was the major cause of those problems. Particularly as, even if you want to argue he's a good enough starter, it was eminently predictable that Arteta's age would mean he would struggle for fitness.

As for blaming the referee, it's just embarrassing. Yes Chambers sending off was probably harsh but that came after an incredibly fortuitous ruling out of stoke's fourth (fourth!) and the thing which brought us back into the game was a penalty awarded for flamini tripping over his own feet. Adam's rugby tackle was awful but completely irrelevant to the result given how late it was. While we're playing with counter-factuals you could mention West Brom's offside chance last week which would have put them one up.