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.

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