Friday, 30 October 2015

On Rotation: Or Why Not To Worry About Joel Campbell

Ask Arsenal fans who their favourite player of the last fifteen years is, and the chances are a reasonable proportion will pick Thierry Henry. While Henry was obviously a brilliant player, much of the unequivocal positivity about his Arsenal career stems from the lack of internet streams ten years ago. Because in Henry’s last couple of seasons, he was often very poor away from home in matches which the vast majority of fans only saw brief highlights of. In 2005-06, he scored in just three away League games all season. This was a large part of why Arsenal struggled, winning just six of nineteen away games. While in 2006-07 he had his injury problems, again he scored in just three away games.

The main reason for this was that he often wasn’t really trying. Sometimes, this didn’t matter: back then, the gap between the best teams in the League and the rest was far larger. But sometimes it did, and it was why Arsenal struggled away in 2005-06 while continuing to be near-imperious at home.

Perhaps Henry wasn’t trying because he knew his body was going and he was trying to save himself for games which ‘mattered’. Perhaps it was because he’s a narcissist and only really wanted to turn it on in front of his idolising fans. In all likelihood, we will never know.

Either way, Henry’s uncommitted performances are not the case for rotation. But they do indicate how the rise of internet streams combined with 24/7 coverage and discussion of football on social media channels has changed how we view footballers. (Yes, I’m fully aware of the irony of criticising internet coverage of football on my blog).

But what the internet has done has made every performance be subject to the utmost scrutiny. Where in the past maybe 6/19 away games would be televised, now people watch every single one of them, and far more people than those at the Emirates can watch home games. In the past, if a player was getting fifteen minutes here and there, it was understandable they weren’t showing their best compared to a player who plays every week. Judging footballers on this metric and deciding they’re rubbish is absurd: clearly Kieran Gibbs isn’t as good as Nacho Monreal but he isn’t terrible; when you stop doing any activity for a while, you become rusty, but you don’t permanently lose your skills - my French is currently not what it once was, but if I spent a few weeks in France, I’m sure it would come back to me. Now, with video analysis on blogs and the sheer quantity of football coverage, people are insistent on analysing these performances as if they are a reasonable indicator of a players’ actual talent.

This lack of understanding of why somebody might be playing badly is compounded by Twitter. The view of players is binary, they’re either great or shit, almost out of necessity for a 140 character limit. Mathieu Flamini came in and had a few good games at the beginning of the 2013-14 season and people claimed he was world class. He had a few bad games and people acted like he was the worst player ever to play for Arsenal.

Of course rotation involves bringing in players who fit less well into the team. But that doesn’t mean they are completely useless. The starkest case of this is the current imbroglio of Joel Campbell coming into the team due to a series of injuries on the right wing. After the World Cup, Campbell was heralded as the best central American talent in world football. A few poor games for Arsenal and people act like he’s rubbish, pointing to his lack of goals and assists. If I wanted to make the case for Campbell, I could point out how his pressing and positional diligence was definitely a contributory factor in Arsenal scoring a series of goals after he came on as a sub, such as away against Anderlecht last season, and that he’s actually done quite well.

But the broader point is that all players tend to struggle when they’re given fifteen minutes at a time here and there: the reason players like Henry and Dennis Bergkamp were described as having a telepathic connection was that they had played together so much, they did just know what the other would do and were therefore always one step ahead. Not all players can have such a relationship, but game-time is what helps develop this, and it’s unsurprising that the less people play, the worse they perform when they come into the team. The whole concept of a super-sub took off because it was rare, and most substitutes have very little impact. Clearly, for the most part it is useful to keep the nucleus of a team together, because they are the best players and are the most used to playing together.

Despite the modern football fan’s obsession with tactics, stamina remains vital. When Man City scored their winning goal against Seville last week, journalists reacted taking the piss out of the effort put in by the defenders:

What they seemed to be missing was that the players probably actually were knackered. They had just run around for 90 minutes in a difficult away game against one of the best attacking teams in Europe who were desperate for a result. And while stamina is important within individual games, stamina and fitness also have a massive impact overall: it’s the extra bit of juice in the legs which allows players to burst past an opposition player and to turn 50/50 duels into 60/40 in their favour. That’s what you get from rotation: the hope that your best players will be at their best in the most important games come the end of the season.

The alternative to rotating is what’s currently on show at Chelsea: a refusal to rotate, leading to players being tired in the second half of the season and not performing at the level they should do. The knock-on effect of this was a truncated pre-season this year to try and spread fitness work throughout the season, resulting in players being unfit and well, look at where Chelsea are now.

But the critical thing to realise is that failing to rotate makes it much harder to sign and keep players. Why does Kevin de Bruyne no longer play for Chelsea? Because in autumn 2013 he could barely get a single game. Jose Mourinho picked the same players over and over again last season and guess what happened? Squad players like Andre Schurrle and Filipe Luis wanted out, and Chelsea struggled to sign squad players this summer because footballers want to play and were aware of the limited opportunities they would get under Mourinho. This presumably is how they ended up with Papy Djilobodji as a last resort.

The clearest example of not giving players a chance was Juan Cuadrado, who clearly isn’t a bad player. Perhaps not worth £24 million, but certainly not somebody who wouldn’t be useful as a squad player. But he was afforded just four starts in a new team in a new League before he was binned off for not being quite up to scratch. In Chelsea’s case, it may have been a specific case of mismanagement, but the broader premise that keeping squad players happy is vital is a sound one.

I don’t expect Joel Campbell to be the man of the match this weekend, but nor do I expect him to disgrace himself. A little understanding that players might be a bit worse than those who you would pick in the first eleven, while still quite good at the football would go a long way.

Keep the faith.

Monday, 31 August 2015

The team ain't bad: a post-August appraisal

How quickly people forget
At some point in your education, you probably were asked the question “why does a goldfish not get bored swimming round and round in a small bowl, especially when it does nothing but this?”

And you probably pondered: maybe the goldfish sees people walking past outside the bowl and this stimulates it? Maybe its growth, while not necessarily visible to the human eye, excites the goldfish itself? And eventually, you were taught that the goldfish has a memory of but a few seconds, and so it doesn’t remember having swum round the bowl by the time it gets to the start again; it doesn’t remember what works well and what works badly, and so it has to relearn technique forever.

The human memory isn’t as short, but just like the goldfish the human yearns for stimulation. And as tortuous, prolonged metaphors go, I think this goes a long way to explaining the fan attitude to the transfer window.

Improving the team on the training ground seems humdrum. The players knowing each other and working on instinct isn’t necessarily a visible change, until the team scores a brilliant goal as a result of it. But somebody holding up the club shirt with their name and number on the back: that’s exciting.

It was not so long ago, that in the space of a couple of days right before the transfer deadline, Arsenal signed Park Chu-Young and Andre Santos. These were signings which to any reasonable observer, even at the time, appeared gambles. And while you might caveat this evaluation a touch, those gambles failed.

There are two reasons a club might sell a good player right before the transfer deadline, unless they absolutely have to: either, a whole series of moves fall into place which enable each other. See how Gareth Bale’s transfer to Real Madrid facilitated a whole series of deals including Mesut Özil’s to Arsenal; or, that player really isn’t actually that good.

I understand the human desire for excitement and for new signings. But it’s exceptionally difficult to get clubs to sell their best players (basically what Arsenal are in the market for) and gambling on players you’re unsure on usually leads to failure. If you want evidence of this, look no further than Liverpool.

The thing which makes fans’ short memories so frustrating is that people don’t seem to join up the dots. Even last season, people were bemoaning an injury crisis at Arsenal in the autumn. Perhaps the one other reason a gamble might be successful is if a player has a bad injury record, meaning their team is happy to let them go. The signing of the season thus far is undoubtedly Andre Ayew who has been excellent for Swansea.

Ignoring whether he is good enough for Arsenal – because he definitely has the talent to play for a better team than Swansea – the point is that people hate players who are injured a lot. Abou Diaby became a figure of hate and financial profligacy from a large section of the fanbase through no fault of his own. Many of these people are exactly the same people who complain about missing out on a player like Ayew.

Of course, some gambles are also successful – one need only look to somebody like Freddie Ljungberg as proof of this. But it’s hard to justify spending money on a signing you’re unsure of when there’s nobody in the Arsenal team who my reaction to is “I really don’t fancy seeing them play ten games”. And it’s even harder in the new climate of football economics, where smaller Premier League teams having so much more money than before means a gamble is no longer maybe £5 million but more like £15 million. That’s a lot of money and a lot of wages for somebody who is highly likely to be a failure and it’s money and wages which can’t be spent again further down line.

It can be difficult to understand why money isn’t spent on improving the team. But the real thing to focus on is the lack of departures at Arsenal this summer, and how the nucleus of a very good team has been retained. Four in and four out, is largely not better than one in and one out, because players knowing each other and playing like a team is a hugely underrated quality for a team.

If a player becomes available between now and the transfer deadline who would definitively improve the team, I’m sure Arsenal will spend. But it’s not as easy as just going “we want you” – at least it isn’t unless you want to pay comedy transfer fees like Manchester United.

Defending counter-attacks
As it happens, I think Francis Coquelin’s lack of passing range in terms of clever, short passes combined with a lack of width from Arsenal’s wingers is contributing to Arsenal conceding more good counter-attacking opportunities to opposition teams than in 2014-15. With the full-backs pushing up to offer necessary width, there’s an enormous amount of space in behind for teams to exploit. (This may also lead to Per Mertesacker losing his place in the team, and ask questions of Petr Cech in terms of coming off his line he has rarely been asked since he left Rennes).

But the interesting part of all this is what it means for Arsenal defensively. Coquelin is clearly not very good at defending in space, but poor pressing from the whole team makes his job far harder than it should be.

The weird thing is I think Arsenal are allowing opposition teams more counter-attacking opportunities but defending them quite well. This is mainly because most Premier League teams are incompetent at counter-attacking. Put them under a semblance of pressure and they either just whack a long ball to a striker, in which case a centre back should be able to isolate the striker and either shut down the counter, or at the very least, give the team room to reorganise; or alternatively, they try to dribble out of trouble, in which case Coquelin just needs to ensure he isn’t dribbled past (and can make a foul if necessary).

Neither of these are particularly difficult for the team. So even against a pretty good Premier League team like Liverpool, good counter-attacking opportunities can be shut down.

And this is the weird thing about Coquelin: defensively, he will be okay most of the time. He’s not the player I want but he’s not going to kill the team.

But what’s bubbling under is exactly what happened against Monaco: that as soon as you play against a team which has a bit more fluidity in how they counter-attack, Coquelin’s ability to adjust is limited. I think he’s pretty good at repeating moves he’s been coached into: he has okay technique and is a good athlete. What he lacks is an understanding of how to organise and how to switch who he’s picking up. That may well not cost Arsenal in the League; it’s likely to in the Champions League, where teams don’t all play the same well, and the team is less practiced at dealing with how they play.

The goals will come
Since chanting ‘boring boring Chelsea’ in April, Arsenal have played five home games and scored four goals, all in a dead rubber against West Brom. To some extent, I think Arsenal’s shot numbers are masking a real problem: while the Gunners took 22 shots against West Ham, this high figure does not really tell the story of a match in which Adrian gave a pretty average performance in the West Ham goal.

But even so, to have taken 83 shots so far this season and scored one goal (excluding own goals) is pretty incredible. I don’t rate Arsenal’s attacking play thus far as highly as some; I do think a few more shots hitting the back of the net is pretty much inevitable, especially with a couple of weeks off for players like Alexis Sanchez to try and find some form and sharpness.

Keep the faith.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Two weeks in: cause for optimism

Francis Coquelin and Arsenal’s system
Officially, Arsenal play 4-2-3-1. More realistically, it’s closer to a diamonded 4-3-3, with a midfield three of Francis Coquelin with Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla ahead (with Cazorla drifting in so much, he can only nominally be considered a left-sided player, even when deployed there), and Mesut Ozil at the tip of that diamond.

The set-up puts a lot of pressure on all three of them, but primarily Coquelin. I’ve been one of his biggest critics, but here’s a player where one of his primary responsibilities is not to give the ball away and yet Arsenal don’t tend to play wingers (a by-product of most off the squad wanting to play centrally) meaning he has no real wide option to distribute to, except full backs he is also presumably supposed to cover for, leading to the unsurprising eventuality where either he goes backwards, or one of the ostensibly more attacking players has to drop back to receive the ball.

What's expected of Coquelin involves him being asked to cover at least one full-back, distribute the ball without the other midfielders having to drop deep, not lose the ball, intercept through balls and high balls, mark runners, tackle and more.

I’m not sure he is good enough to be a first choice defensive midfielder and deep-lying playmaker at the same time, but I’m also unsure anybody in world football is. Perhaps Sergio Busquets is, but he benefits enormously from Barcelona’s unique strangle-hold on possession.

What Coquelin lacks in his game is not medium-length passes to the wings - although he doesn’t often play these, that’s mainly because his team-mates don’t show for them much. What he does lack is intricacy in short passing, like blind passes that fool a marker and clever through balls. I don’t think he’s ever going to have the vision to play those balls, but I’m really unsure he should have to, and it places an enormous weight on his shoulders.

To the extent that Coquelin could try, it involves Arsenal playing a proper double-pivot again - a tactic which was very effective, but has largely been jettisoned. Put less pressure on Coquelin defensively, and it’s intuitive that it would help him, and perhaps the whole team going forward.

A more defensive season?
Although Burnley are a very recent exception to this, teams usually get relegated because they’re incompetent defensively. To the extent Burnley are even an exception, scoring three goals in their final twelve games of the season is such a low scoring rate that it doesn’t really count: few teams in history have ever had such a poor scoring rate - it’s impressive work.

The main thing I’ve seen so far from Watford and Norwich is that they’re teams who are set up reasonably well and aren’t likely to leak many more than fifty goals over the course of the season. That’s bad news for a lot of the other teams who looked like they might go down last season - Villa, West Brom and Sunderland in particular - but it also affects the bigger picture: if you’re less confident you can score yourselves, you’ll probably defend more, leading to more tense games finishing 1-0 and 0-0.

Already last season, there was a marked drop in goals per game in the Premier League to around 2.6. The teams at the bottom of the League have strengthened defensively (a by-product of the massive TV deal allowing smaller clubs to attract really good players from around Europe) but perhaps more importantly, the teams at the top have too.

Arsenal’s major summer business has been the purchase of Petr Cech. Manchester United’s weakness last season was how easily they were cut through in midfield - they’ve responded by purchasing Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin. They may still lack a cutting edge up front (they do, I just like caveating everything), but with proper central midfielders they will be even more solid defensively. I wouldn’t be shocked to see them end the season with the division’s best defensive record. Spurs conceded a massive 53 goals last season, but have strengthened at centre back with Toby Aldeweireld, Chelsea still want John Stones, Eliaquim Mangala will probably kick on for City and even Liverpool haven’t bought badly with Nathaniel Clyne.

Particularly given there’s four teams who could plausibly challenge for the title, it’s relatively easy to envisage a series of close, tight matches between the top four, with teams more afraid to lose than to go for the win.

I think there’s a case to be made that’s good for Arsenal, chiefly because in Mesut Ozil, the Gunners have the best player in the division at unlocking a deep defence and finding the killer ball which is so difficult to defend against, however hard you try. Yesterday’s assist was just such an example of this.

Chelsea look really weak
When I wrote my season preview and tipped Arsenal to come second, I was a little worried that this was more based on hope than anything realistic: most people predicting Arsenal to improve on last season thought City would go backwards. I’d felt for most of the summer - but particularly after City had spent well - that they were the most likely team to win the League this season, and while I was reasonably happy they are a better team than Chelsea, I was really unsure Chelsea were going to drop off.

Still, the evidence against Chelsea isn’t just based on the first two games of the season: the only thing which could be used to defend Chelsea’s terrible performances in the Spring (even against rubbish teams like Hull and QPR) was that they a) they were not playing at full intensity as they did not need to, due to their lead at the top of the table or b) they were knackered from having been over-played earlier in the season.

Given they’re now a) no longer really far ahead and b) coming off the back of a long summer break, neither of those explanations really stand up. Granted, the whole team seems to lack a little fitness, but when the whole League looks less well-prepared than usual, that isn’t sufficient to mitigate two terrible performances, particularly as they’ve struggled at exactly what Jose Mourinho teams usually do very well: they’ve been conceding a ton of shots on goal. As many noted, Asmir Begovic was actually pretty good yesterday.

Last season, when Arsenal suffered a load of injuries defensively, I pointed out how although it might have been a good idea to invest in more defenders, Chelsea actually had fewer defenders in their squad. The response was that it was far more likely Arsenal players would be injured than Chelsea players and so the board should have known better and planned for Arsenal’s injuries.

I’m still doubtful that Arsenal defenders necessarily are any more likely to be injured than Chelsea’s, but regardless, it’s a moot point. Before last night’s signing of Abdul Baba Rahman, Chelsea actually had even fewer defenders than last year, with Filipe Luis having returned to Atletico Madrid. Even with Rahman, they now have six first-team defenders.

Of those six, there’s serious question marks over five of them: Rahman has never played at the top level before (although will probably be a success); Zouma is very young and has mistakes to iron out; Gary Cahill has lost form and Mourinho does not seem to fancy him anymore; and both Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry are getting very old to play every week in the Premier League.

That’s why I say the fitness of Chelsea’s players does not necessarily matter: it doesn’t matter if Terry and Ivanovic are fit, if while they’re fit they’re incompetent. There’s no doubting Terry had a great season last year. But the warning signs were already there with Ivanovic, and at some point Terry’s age was bound to catch up with him.

Clearly, there’s a danger in reading too much into two games, not least when Chelsea have just played probably the most difficult domestic game of the season. But unless Chelsea bring in at least one more top-level defender (John Stones’ price will keep on going up while Chelsea defend this badly), I’m reasonably confident Arsenal will finish above Chelsea.

Keep the faith.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Arsenal season preview 2015-16

When I walked into the Emirates on Sunday, my only concern was that something had to give. For all Arsenal had enjoyed a successful pre-season and West Ham had struggled past the third-best team in Malta before being knocked out of the Europa League by Astra Giurgiu, I was concerned that at some point, Arsenal’s sensational record against bottom-half teams was going to take a hit.

After the draw with Hull on the 22nd of October, Arsenal dropped just two points against bottom half teams in the rest of the season, an unlucky 0-0 draw against Sunderland in a game of almost zero significance. It was in this light that I sort of saw Sunday’s result coming.

Arsenal weren’t great on Sunday but they still had 22 shots to West Ham’s eight. Even if you think that none of Arsenal’s shots were particularly threatening, the same can be said of West Ham. And yet the team went down 2-0.

That’s why it’s so hard to preview this season. In 2013-14, Arsenal finished seven points behind the champions, City; in 2014-15, although the gap to the champions was larger (12 points), I felt the team had markedly improved. But there’s still a nagging doubt in the back of my mind, that the team is going to drop quite a few more cheap points this season, just because that’s what normally happens to even very good teams. Combine that with a really poor away record against good teams (one win against the top nine) and it’s a little concerning.

Clearly, there’s large room for improvement in that away record, but the extent to which that’s based on realistic expectations, rather than hope and conjecture is limited. The only team in the top nine who Arsenal actually did win away to were in terrible form and missing a series of key players. Granted, I wouldn’t expect another defeat away to Swansea, but nonetheless, a serious improvement in this area where the team secures three extra wins seems unlikely.

And on top of this all, the fixture list isn’t exactly kind: Arsenal have a history of dropping a huge number of points following Champions League games, particularly when playing away. To this end, the lack of a qualifier is a boon, where four points were dropped last season. But nonetheless, although it’s not quite as bad as last season where five of the six group games were followed by away games, the three home League games following group games are against Man United, Everton and Spurs. That’s difficult to begin with, but it may well be exacerbated by the new seeding system meaning Arsenal play these games having just chased Barcelona around for 90 minutes in midweek.

All of this notwithstanding, there’s still room for optimism. While I expected a degree of regression against the bottom half teams, that was mainly because Arsenal’s 2014-15 League season can be seen in two distinct phases: the first third was dreadful, the second two thirds was almost flawless.

The regression against bottom half teams could come instead of results like dropped points against Leicester and Hull, rather than requiring even more poor results. As for the away record against good teams, a settled team with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil fit and playing was not the side seen playing away to Chelsea, Stoke, Liverpool or Southampton.

Add in Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin as a full-back partnership being a huge improvement upon Kieran Gibbs and Mathieu Debuchy, and there’s a lot to be optimistic about. I’ve voiced my doubts about the Petr Cech signing already but I’m still convinced he’s a very good player and has a lot which might help the team improve, notwithstanding Sunday’s horror show. A little more defensive depth ensuring players like Debuchy and Monreal don’t have to play centre back again is also no bad thing.

But my main concern remains Francis Coquelin. I think there’s two ways of viewing Coquelin as an attacking player: one, is that he simply lacks the attacking vision and prowess to play effective forward passes, both long and short, which stretch the opposition. You can point here to his long-standing failure to do this, both in an Arsenal shirt and when out on loan at Freiburg and played in a more attacking role.

The second way of viewing Coquelin is that he does have it in him, but was just inhibited in the second half of 2014-15 by trying to establish himself as the first-choice defensive midfielder.

I’m not really sure it matters for one very simple reason: the rest of the players in the team quite clearly don’t believe he has it in him. The reason the team has struggled attacking against defensive teams towards the end of last season, and against West Ham on Sunday (ignoring David Ospina’s appalling kicking) is that players like Santi Cazorla and Ozil keep dropping deeper into central midfield to get the ball off Coquelin, because they don’t think he can get it to them further up the pitch.

The knock-on effect is fewer options for them to then pass it on to further up the pitch, compounded by it being easier for the opposition to organise. To some extent, it doesn’t matter: Ozil and Cazorla are good enough that even from a weaker starting position, they can make attacks work.

But when picking Coquelin is questionable in how effective it is defensively, and definitely diminishes the attacking threat, it’s hard to see how that’s going to lead to Arsenal winning an incredibly competitive League, in which four teams harbour realistic aspirations of being champions.

If a new defensive midfielder comes in or Mikel Arteta regains his place, I reckon with a bit of luck Arsenal could win the League. Without that, I see a title as being highly unlikely. Despite the horror-show against Monaco last season, once again, I remain more optimistic about success in the Champions League, where teams are (generally) less likely to set up as defensively, and there may be more passing channels available to Ozil and Cazorla.

So, realistic predictions (these would have been bang on last season if David Ospina made half an effort to save Kondogbia’s shot):

League: 2nd
Champions League: Quarter finals
FA Cup: Semi-finals

Keep the faith.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Arsenal season review 2014-15

When I wrote my season preview back in August, I suggested that Arsenal would need to improve markedly this season just to stay still. It was oddly prescient of a debate which has been playing out over the last few weeks over whether Arsenal did indeed improve over the course of 2014-15, compared to the previous season.

The argument that Arsenal didn’t improve runs something like this: in both seasons Arsenal won the FA Cup, reached the last 16 of the Champions League and were knocked out early in the League Cup. In 2013-14, Arsenal challenged for the League (at least until the end of March) and finished on 79 points, only nine points back from the Champions. In contrast, 2014-15 saw no title challenge, the team accruing only 75 points and finishing twelve points back from the League leaders.

Let me make one thing clear: the area where Arsenal definitely regressed was in the Champions League. Although it had an element of tragi-comedy about it, the 3-3 draw at home to Anderlecht was a throwback to the worst of Arsenal a few years back, and losing 3-1 to Monaco at the Emirates (despite bad luck) was, under the circumstances, the worst result in a very long time. Bizarrely though, that’s not the claim peddled by those who say Arsenal regressed. If it were, I’d have a lot more time for it - the Champions League is supposed to test Arsenal against the best teams in Europe and despite not playing anybody particularly good, the team struggled except for against Galatasaray. I’ll come back to this later when I look at how the team could improve.

In the FA Cup, there was no Hull-style early collapse in the cup final and there was an impressive win away at Old Trafford but the overall standard of teams beaten was lower. Call it scratch.

And so to the League campaign. The pure maths is somewhat misleading. It was notable to me how the team seemed to be playing with less intensity after the 0-0 draw against Chelsea, only beating a Hull team which was saving itself for a huge weekend game against Burnley and a disinterested West Brom on the final day of the season. This contrasts hugely with spring 2014, where only the last game was a dead rubber. Certainly, the dropped points against Sunderland and Swansea pushed the club down from 2nd to 3rd, but given neither of those involves a Champions League qualifier, there is little tangible difference in finishing a place higher.

That’s important insofar as had there been more on the line, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that Arsenal would have beaten Swansea and Sunderland and improved on both points and distance to the champions compared to 2013/14.

So the final area where Arsenal might be said to have regressed was a lack of a title challenge. As I wrote in my season preview, for years the club has struggled when playing away after a Champions League game. Of ten Champions League games this season, eight were followed by away League games. In those eight games, Arsenal won just four (away to Villa, West Brom, Sunderland and Newcastle) and dropped some very disappointing points away to Leicester, Everton and Swansea.

First, this wasn’t a problem posed the previous season where far more Champions League games were followed by home games which is just a tangible benefit and a quirk of this year’s fixture list. But in addition - and this is why finishing third is so important and such an improvement - not only is the qualifier bad in of itself, it also has knock on effects on League form. One of the key reasons the club struggled to build momentum in the first half of the season compared to 2013/14 was this problem of playing away after Champions League games, something which was compounded by a lack of options to rotate, as a result of injuries.

The great irony is that the explosion in interest in tactics around 2010 coincided with what those in the stats community call the ‘enlightened era’: teams are generally better organised and more focused on retaining possession, leading to marked drop-off in shots per game, shots on target per game and this season, goals. In effect, since interest in tactics increased, stamina has become more important: it’s become less likely that a player is in a bad position because of organisation, and so being able to run more late in the game has a significant effect.

While it’s fashionable to talk about systems and formations, in reality, Arsenal’s lack of effective options to rotate into the team (particularly when playing twice a week, compared to opponents who had a full seven days to prepare) was something which had a significant effect, a problem exacerbated by a lack of a full pre-season for the World Cup stars.

In addition, and I appreciate this isn’t something which most people who go to matches care about, the start of 2013-14 was marked by unsustainable conversion rates from very few shots. In that sense, the drop-off in the second half of the season was simply regression to the mean. In contrast, the first three or four months of 2014-15 saw a freakishly high number of opposition shots going in, and it was always likely results would improve given the team was playing pretty well.

There are those who argue that this is a problem of mentality and that the players can only do it when there’s no pressure on. But this is counter-intuitive given that when you’re a team expected to challenge and you’re 6th or 7th at Christmas, that actually puts more pressure on.

Regardless of all this data-crunching (as I always say, it’s supposed to be fun following a football team), in terms of transitions and movement off the ball, the team is playing far better now, with several individuals hugely improved (Olivier Giroud especially) and more players who you think can ‘make something happen’ when a game seems tight. Perhaps some of the issues of the first half of the season were systemic, but more broadly it was a question of a (im)perfect storm of a tough fixture list, bad injury list (particularly defensively) and bad luck.

Moreover, the team seems more balanced, with a more sensible approach to big away games which has yielded much improved results. And yet, in terms of where the team goes next season, I have to disagree with my friend @RoamingLibero.

He says the problem against Monaco was one of panicking when going a goal behind, and that proper on-pitch management would be sufficient to fix this.

While clearly this would go a long way to counteracting the issue, it overlooks the root cause of the problem, that the specific players being picked make Arsenal play in a certain way. It was definitely an issue in the first leg that the team was overcommitted in attack after going behind; but it was a much more telling issue because of the personnel in the team lacking the mobility to play a higher line, leaving huge gaps for the opposition to exploit on the counter-attack, or alternatively, leaving Per Mertesacker engaged in a pace battle he could never win and therefore committing to a tackle.

But it also affects how the team attacks. Go back to the second leg against Monaco, a game which most observers thought Arsenal were very good in, and the problems were still on show there.

When Arsenal were attacking, the team had to sit far too deep to counteract a lack of pace of both Per Mertesacker and David Ospina. Had it been possible to push the centre backs up, so that Francis Coquelin could win the first ball out of the opposition box, rather than midfielders like Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil challenging for it, there would have been far greater attacking impetus, and the stronger Coquelin is also more likely to win these duels.

To me, it’s self-evident that not pushing the team up the pitch is a result of Mertesacker (and to a lesser extent) Ospina’s lack of pace. Not only that, but this also has a knock-on effect on the shape of the rest of the team: quite a few times, Hector Bellerin received the ball with Nacho Monreal quite advanced on the left. He didn’t want to pass to Coquelin because of Coquelin’s limitations on the ball; he didn’t want to pass to Cazorla because Cazorla was too far left for him to safely reach; and so, because of the positions Mertesacker necessarily must take up, when Bellerin passes to him the ball goes a long way back.

Given Mertesacker’s fondness for passing laterally to Laurent Koscielny, this means Koscielny has to sprint back to get the ball, and Monreal tries to cover for him in case he doesn’t get it easily and to offer a passing option by also dropping back.

The effect of this is to create a sort of split in the team which hampers the attacking harmony, allows Monaco to regain their shape and makes breaking them down significantly harder. And while needing to win 3-0 away is an anomaly, struggling to break down well-organised opponents is hardly something particularly rare for Arsenal.

Clearly, the organisation Mertesacker lends the team is enormously beneficial and he is an exceptionally good centre back. But he does require the team to play in a certain way to mitigate his weaknesses.

The problem with changing this next season is that Koscielny definitely cannot organise effectively, and it’s unlikely that Gabriel Paulista can, particularly while he’s still picking up the language. Definitely, part of the problem is mitigated by picking a goalkeeper like Wojciech Szczesny who isn’t afraid to come off his line, particularly when the alternative is Ospina. In addition, a better defensive midfielder than Coquelin would do a lot more to help organise the team effectively, lessening the chance of an effective opposition counter-attack and allowing the team to push up a bit more, even with Mertesacker. That’s where I’d prioritise improving the team over the summer and it should leave the team strong enough to challenge for the League title.

But there’s a part of me which is dubious that despite having an exceptionally high quality attack, Arsenal can challenge for the Champions League with Mertesacker at centre back. At any rate, an exciting summer awaits.

Keep the faith.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Ospina the mean man

In the age of the internet, it’s become harder to have a nuanced view of footballers. They become viewed through a binary prism of good or bad, and that’s that. So when a player who has received some criticism does something good, people use this as evidence to say “everything you said before must be wrong”!

Which brings me nicely to the case of David Ospina, the ultimate reliably six out of ten player, who is neither terrible, nor brilliant. Certainly, the case for Ospina is compelling: Arsenal conceded 36 goals in the Premier League this season, the fewest since the last time the club seriously challenged for the League title all season (07-08). What’s more, of those 36, just 11 were conceded since Ospina came into the team after the defeat at Southampton away.

But this overlooks a few things. First, the numbers do lie: there is enough historical data to say with a high degree of certainty that Ospina’s 80% save percentage is unsustainable. Second, he’s had relatively few shots to save: partly as a result of bad shooting, partly as a result of better defending from Arsenal, teams have had fewer shots on target giving whoever would have been in goal less to do. And rhose shots which have been on target have often been long-range pot-shots, rather than the sort of shots any decent keeper might struggle with. Most importantly though, just watch the games: I’m all for the use of statistics to evaluate players, but not without actually watching the matches. Ospina was lucky against West Brom to not concede a howler, the guy does not command his box effectively (as McAuley’s goal demonstrated) and his display against Monaco was absolutely wretched, but fortunately for him, doesn’t count towards his Premier League statistics.

Clearly, even were Ospina to regress to the mean a bit, he would not become a rubbish goalkeeper overnight. But this is the way the internet pendulum swings, where players are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and there’s nowhere in between. The truth is that Ospina is an average to good player, but not good enough to play for a team which harbours ambitions of winning either the Premier or Champions League.

And that’s without even mentioning things which are useful for goalkeepers, but not regarded as absolutely essential, such as good distribution and good communication. One of the things I’ve been banging on about to anybody who would listen recently is about how Arsenal should be working to build a system where the team can play to having a false nine as the striker, be it Theo Walcott or more likely Alexis Sanchez. To play a system like that, Arsenal need a goalkeeper who is confident on the ball, because they’re not just going to hoof it to the big striker every time, but can calmly pass it, kick it short or long and spot good runs off the ball. That player is not Ospina.

But it very well could be Wojciech Szczesny, and this is what’s so depressing about Ospina’s lucky run. Because Ospina hasn’t made any truly glaring mistakes (Monaco aside, perhaps), Szczesny hasn’t had the chance to come back into the team and prove himself. In the meantime, people talk about his performance against Southampton as if it were emblematic of every Szczesny appearance ever. Quite aside from the point that he was most certainly not the only person at fault for either of the Southampton goals, Szczesny was having an okay season up to that point. Not brilliant by any means, but not bad. And he has a history of keeping exceptionally for Arsenal not very long ago.

As it stands, I reckon Szczesny is close to the top ten goalkeepers in world football. But more importantly, he’s just turned 25. Arsenal didn’t even sign David Seaman until he was 27. I accept that right now a goalkeeper like Petr Cech may be better than Szczesny. Personally, I don’t agree but evaluations of goalkeepers are much more subjective than any other position. But the crucial point about Szczesny is that his ceiling is incredibly high - he has shown in the past glimpses of how he could become the best goalkeeper in the world, and if he does, there’s most of his career still to come.

There’s two keepers who I think are objectively just better than him at the moment: Manuel Neuer and Thibaut Courtois. Most people would add David De Gea to that list and I’ll give you Gigi Buffon as well. Of those four, there is no chance of Arsenal signing any of them. I also think it’s unlikely Chelsea will sell Arsenal Cech but it’s something of a moot point. Getting rid of Szczesny would be disastrous not least because it would be difficult for Arsenal to find somebody even close to his level. Unfortunately, judging by all press indications, Szczesny will be sold. Just pray it’s not Ospina still in goal come August.

Keep the faith.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Chelsea fans and the Paris Metro incident: what to make of it?

I am almost certain that no club in English league football has entirely eradicated racism from their fancies. I’ve argued in the past with the REDaction Twitter account (the biggest Arsenal supporters’ group) when they’ve pointed out racism at other clubs and mocked them - on one count, racism is still a disease which affects clubs north and south, those supported by the ‘liberal metropolitan elites’ and those who have a more ‘traditional’ fanbase.

On the other hand, perhaps Chelsea actually are more complicit than most clubs when it comes to the problem, despite it not being a partisan issue. The facts are as follows: although John Terry was found not guilty of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand, the judge was in no doubt that Terry had uttered a racist phrase. And it is notoriously difficult to secure a conviction for this sort of thing. Meanwhile, Chelsea staunchly defended their captain, despite him being handed a four-match ban by the Football Association and a fine of £220,000.

This would be bad in any instance. But Terry is often pointed to as the man who embodies Chelsea value and his commitment to the club is second to none. If that’s true, what does it say about Chelsea as a club? Certainly, in mitigation, Chelsea are likely not racist but just poorly run - the response to Ashley Cole shooting an intern with an air rifle was to tell him off like a naughty teenager when he was a 30 year-old man earning over £100,000 a week, who had SHOT AN INTERN.

But regardless, there was clearly so much more that could have been done in the wake of the Terry-Ferdinand incident. If Terry were truly against racism, he could have come out and campaigned much more strongly against it. He didn’t - and the message which came from Chelsea was at best mixed. Sure, there are plenty of other people campaigning against racism. But the reformed character who realises that what he was doing was wrong provides by far the most compelling message, particularly in terms of convincing the sort of people who currently do carry out racist behaviour. For example, one of the best campaigners against the BNP was somebody who had been involved in the BNP - because he could palpably demonstrate the fallacies they were peddling, but in addition, he could relate much more strongly to the sort of people who might ordinarily sympathise with the BNP.

It’s not just about Terry either - it’s about a message coming from a club which was renowned as racist in the 1980s: Chelsea’s insistence on a siege mentality and not admitting the club could ever do anything wrong (see, for example, how their website responds to adverse refereeing) means that it becomes much harder to weed this sort of thing out than it otherwise could be.

Even if Chelsea and Terry were to have taken a stronger tack, the Paris Metro incident might still have happened - but it’s hard to think such actions would not have made the incident less likely. Indeed, even last week, the editor of a Chelsea fanzine appeared on the radio claiming the reaction to the incident had been overblown: there still remains an oft-latent element within English football fandom who conflates racism with (and I hate to use this word) banter.

In the wake of the incident, Chelsea’s response has been admirable. But the charge that Chelsea could have done more to prevent such an incident ever occurring still stands.