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.