Friday, February 27, 2015

Arsenal's Pressing Problem

In Arsenal's last two Premier League matches away from home, Tottenham and Crystal Palace pressed the Gunners aggressively. This activity stymied Arsenal's flow in midfield, the foundation of its offense, and put its defense under pressure.

Many statistics from these games show just how effective this tactic proved. Arsenal were outshot in both matches, but more telling was how much Arsenal struggled to move the ball. The team completed just 72 percent of its passes against Palace and 70 percent against Tottenham. Those figures fall far below Arsenal's season average of 83 percent, which ranks fifth in the Premier League. (Stats from OptaSports via WhoScored.com.)

The risk-reward tradeoff favors opponents


Meanwhile, the major risk of a pressing approach did not materialize. It's thought that a team might succeed in pressing Arsenal for a limited period of time; when the opposition's legs and concentration weaken, Arsenal can profit.

But neither Palace nor Spurs exhausted itself by pressing. On the contrary, the tactic seemed to wear Arsenal down, creating late lapses that led to goals. 

The successes of these two opponents, and those earlier in the season of Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool, could encourage others to take a similar approach when they host Arsenal. (Listen to this week's Arsecast Extra Episode 56 for an apprehensive discussion of this possibility.)

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger won't be surprised by this development. After all, aggressive pressing damaged his side in several high-profile away matches of the 2013-14 campaign. Partially in response, he and his staff installed a 4-1-4-1 setup to relieve the pressure on the midfield, focus on covering space, and enable greater flexibility. (See "A Look at Arsenal's Move to the 4-1-4-1.")

Given that Arsenal haven't been able to enjoy these advantages consistently, it's worth exploring other solutions to the bedevilling pressing tactics.

Going airborne


There seem to be two general answers to the assertive press: 1. Go over it; 2. Go through it.
One way to go over the press more effectively would be to return Wojciech Szczesny to the starting goalkeeper spot. Although Szczesny has made some questionable decisions distributing the ball against the high press, notably leading to Tottenham's opening goal at the Emirates in September's 1-1 draw, he varies his passing more than does current first-choice David Ospina.

As Tim Stillman observes in his recent Arseblog column "Ospina and Szczesny Keep the Debate Going," Szczesny has relied on the long ball much less than Ospina has. The Polish keeper has averaged 4.9 long balls and 23.3 passes per match over his 17 Premier League appearances this season, while his Colombian teammate has made, on average, 14 long balls and 28.8 passes per match in seven league appearances.

Granted, Szczesny has often played without center forward Olivier Giroud, while Giroud has provided a target for Ospina in six of his seven League appearances. That may explain some of the discrepancy, as Stillman admits. Ospina seems to aim most of his kicks at the striker, making it simpler for the opposition to defend. And those kicks haven't been especially long, meaning that the opponents' pressing midfield can swarm Giroud and his midfield passing outlets.

This points to another adjustment to bypass the press--offer a different aerial outlet. We saw this alternative at Palace, as Mesut Özil occupied an advanced position, received some long passes, and controlled the ball to relieve pressure. Arsenal could also move Danny Welbeck up the pitch for goal kicks, giving the goalkeeper another target and dividing defenders' attention. A third option might appear when right back Mathieu Debuchy returns from injury; he's an effective relief valve and long-ball target, much as his predecessor Bacary Sagna was.

Arsenal could also vary the source of the long ball, launching from one of the defenders or a deep-lying midfielder. Mikel Arteta's absence makes this choice less appealing. He attempted, on average, 5.7 long passes per game over the 2012-13 and 2013-14 Premier League campaigns, completing an average of 5.0. Contrast Arteta's work in that regard to the passing of Francis Coquelin, who has attempted just two long passes and completed 1.2, on average, during his 11 Premier League appearances this season.

The land route


The downsides of the aerial approach are the sacrifices of possession and control as well as the invitation of more pressure on the midfield. If the long pass doesn't stick or isn't long enough, the opposition can close down Arsenal quickly. That's why the second approach -- going through the press, is appealing.

The problem is that the best personnel to provide that response were not available at Tottenham or Palace. Arteta's calmness on the ball and passing efficiency would have helped this terrestrial approach. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain'a speed and power may have allowed him to elude and out-muscle aggressive opponents. (See "The Ox Rocks Arsenal 3.0.") Even Jack Wilshere, using ball control and quick surges, might have succeeded in getting through the perilous midfield.

Staying the course


Wenger may weigh these options and decide, based on the personnel at his disposal, to maintain the team's tactics against pressing sides. That would not be an unreasonable decision, especially given the requirement that pressing be precise, tireless, and comprehensive or risk leaving gaps that Arsenal's quick movement, thought, and passing can exploit.

Arsenal's depth also serves the existing approach because it allows the manager to introduce a high-energy substitute like Tomas Rosicky or a high-speed sub like Theo Walcott just as the opponents' energies wane.

The experiences at Tottenham and Palace do suggest, though, that Arsenal's play cannot be passive. The lesson is that even if the Gunners concede possession and look to counter-attack, they need to engage actively for the full period of play.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Mesut Özil Remastered

Arsenal playmaker Mesut Özil has earned widespread acclaim since his mid-January return from a knee injury. This praise marks a change for the club's record signing, who had been a target of criticism for much of his first season and a half in London.

In my view, these negative opinions stemmed from a failure to understand Özil's skill, his subtle contributions, and his mindset. (See "Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not" for research and analysis of Özil's psychological advantage.) The spurious nature of the previous criticism notwithstanding, it's clear that Özil has recently improved upon his already world-class standards.

The evidence appears in Özil's physical presence, his statistical production, and his relationships with teammates. Those signs bode well for the team's prospects for the rest of the 2014-15 campaign and for seasons to come.

A remade physique


Three months on the sidelines gave Özil the time to bulk up for the rigors of the Premier League. After his reappearance in January, many remarked on the transformation.

Ozil_Before_After
 

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger confirmed our perceptions when he told the club Website that "Every day he is in the gym, and he can work on it [getting stronger], and as well you don't have the fatigue of the games. And it's better when you look in the mirror!"

Opponents can't be enjoying what they are seeing. The combination of vision, intelligence, and existing physical gifts with newfound strength makes Özil a formidable midfield presence. Just ask the Aston Villa defenders and midfielders who tried to shove Özil off the ball during Arsenal's 5-0 victory on February 1, Özil's first Premier League start since October 5.

This video compilation is full of physical challenges won by Özil. The most impressive for me happened in the second half, when Arsenal already led comfortably. (It starts at the 7:30 mark of the video.)

Özil takes a pass from Aaron Ramsey near the end line and quickly comes under pressure from Villa's Fabian Delph. Delph slides in and knocks Özil off his feet. Özil regains his footing, shuffles the ball toward the corner flag, and readies himself to be shoved by Delph. Delph shoves him once. Özil moves the ball to his other foot; otherwise, he hardly moves. Delph shoves him again. Özil traps the ball. It takes the intervention of another Villa player, Carles Gil, to clip the ball out of bounds.

Granted, Özil does have a size advantage on Delph, but he doesn't on Villa defender Alan Hutton, whose challenges he also warded off consistently. These were indications of Özil's enhanced strength and determination, to relish contact in a match whose outcome did not hinge on application after Theo Walcott's 63rd-minute goal put Arsenal 3-0 up.

Better numbers


Özil's assertiveness is also appearing in his statistical production. In the six games since his return, admittedly a small sample size that includes matches against two Championship sides and two teams in the bottom half of the Premier League, Arsenal's Number 11 has been more involved in front of goal. He has three goals in 458 minutes of playing time, compared with six in 2,541 minutes of Premier League and FA Cup action in 2013-14. That's 0.59 goals per 90 minutes in 2015, versus 0.213 goals per 90 minutes in the previous competitions. (Stats from  OptaSports via whoscored.com.)

These goals have come from an increased rate of shots (1.77 per 90 vs. 1.34 per 90) and shots on goal (1.38 per 90 vs. 0.82 per 90). Özil has been efficient with his shots as well, scoring with three of his nine shots. That ratio ranks well above those produced by the Premier League's top goalscorers this season. Last season, he scored six goals on 35 shots in domestic competitions.

Although his production of assists per 90 minutes has actually fallen in 2015 relative to the 2013-14 season, he is setting up teammates much more frequently. He has delivered an eye-catching 3.34 key passes per 90 minutes since his return, including eight in his star turn against Middlesbrough; in the Premier League last season, that figure was 2.82. (Last stat from Optasports via Squawka.com.)

Perhaps these figures will trend toward those of the previous competitions as Özil and Arsenal face more accomplished opposition. But even if, statistically speaking, Özil's production reverts to the mean, the overall results for Arsenal seem bound to improve.

Chemistry and relationships


That's because Özil's contributions are enhanced by the involvement of his teammates. Unlike last season, when opponents could limit the team's attacking potential by focusing on Özil, the 2014-15 version of Arsenal boasts many weapons.

First, as has been widely observed, the team has more speed. Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck, and Alexis Sanchez can frighten defenses with their speed and receive those passes on the run that Özil has long been adept at delivering. His relationship with Alexis appears especially promising--watch this video for the exchanges between the two in Sunday's FA Cup tie with Middlesbrough for a hint of the potential.

Another benefit Alexis provides Özil is the deflection of the spotlight. Unlike last season, when Özil's record transfer fee created the expectation that he would be an immediate, eye-catching star, this season has brought Alexis's spirit and ability to the fore. This has freed Özil to maximize his introverted genius. (I think this theory was first offered by Arseblog and Gunnerblog on an Arsecast Extra, but I can't find the precise citation.)

From a tactical perspective, Özil's interaction with an outstanding Santi Cazorla has allayed much of the concern that the two could not thrive in the same midfield. What we saw against Middlesbrough, in fact, was an attractive symbiosis. As Adrian Clarke noted in his Breakdown segment on Arsenal Player, the two formed the contest's most frequent passing combination. Cazorla had 129 touches while Özil had 114, so there was plenty of the ball to go around.

There was also plenty of space. Cazorla took up a deeper position, by and large, and Özil focused his activity on the final third, with a slight bias to the left wing. (See the player heatmaps on WhoScored.com for a visual representation of the pair's complementary positioning.)

With Alexis, Welbeck, and Oliver Giroud in the forward line, the offensive unit was fast, strong, skillful, and determined. Not every match will provide a platform for such a setup, but it's hard to envisage an encounter in which Arsenal's performance will suffer from the involvement of the freshly masterful Mesut Özil.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Passion of Mikel Arteta

In the month of January, the trials endured by Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta intensified.

Most recently, he had to stand by silently as his employment security came under question. Arteta's agent Inaki Ibanez told Foot Mercato on 27 January that the club had extended the captain's contract until June 2016. Manager Arsène Wenger, however, made no such commitment in his press conference before Sunday's victory over Aston Villa. Asked about Arteta's contract, Wenger said, "We have nothing to announce yet."

These mixed public messages about Arteta's contract appeared while his in-game influence, the most obvious expression of a club's captaincy, was waning. Arteta hasn't featured for the team since departing Arsenal's 2-0 Champions League victory over Borussia Dortmund in late November.

His absence became extended in mid-January when he underwent surgery to repair a bone spur in his ankle. He will likely not recover until mid-April, meaning he won't appear for the first team until May at the earliest. By that point, he will have missed 27 of Arsenal's 38 Premier League fixtures.

Such an inactive season has to be a worry for a soon-to-be 33-year-old and especially for one whose contract ends this summer. He no longer seems indispensable either, due to the assured performances of Francis Coquelin in his position (though Arteta does not seem the type to begrudge teammates their individual successes).

In this context, it would be only a mild surprise -- but a huge sadness for many -- if Arteta doesn't play another competitive match in Arsenal colors.

Arteta's importance


The reason for the sadness is that many will recognize the important role Arteta has played in the club's trajectory. He has ushered the club through the transition from its youth project, a response to the financial restrictions created by the Emirates Stadium construction, to the current and likely last version of Wenger's Arsenal, which I have called "Arsenal 3.0." (See "The Ox Rocks Arsenal 3.0.")

The midfielder arrived from Everton at a tumultuous time and provided a steadying influence. Recall August 2011: Captain and star Cesc Fabregas had demanded a move to Barcelona, while another midfield talent, Samir Nasri, had been sold to Manchester City. The result was an unsettled squad and an 8-2 humiliation at Manchester United.

Yet thanks in part to Arteta's calmness in midfield, Arsenal overcame its early season struggles and finished third in the Premier League, essential for yet another Champions League qualification. Arteta's late strike against Manchester City, giving Arsenal a 1-0 home win in April 2012, was particularly important.

Arteta's contributions deepened and broadened the following season, when he became, with Santi Cazorla, the team's top performer. Some observers, such as 7AM Kickoff's Tim Bostelle, named him their player of the season for 2012-13.

Indeed, Arteta emerged over that campaign and the next as one of the Premier League's standout deep-lying midfielders, as shown in the following statistics from Squawka.com:
 
Arteta_Stats_2
 


As with any set of numbers, this one does not tell the whole story. However, the stats do show that Arteta has competed with the best in the Premier League.

Arteta's position among Wenger's captains


Arteta has performed at this high level while equaling or exceeding his counterparts' leadership contributions. Many have watched Arteta's demeanor and concluded that he's not a strong leader because he doesn't point, shout, and intimidate. But his leadership qualities are remarkable in the way they have helped him -- and Arsenal Football Club -- navigate a changing captaincy.

Here are Arsenal's first-team captains during Wenger's 18-year tenure:
  • Tony Adams, 1996-2002
  • Patrick Vieira, 2002-05
  • Thierry Henry, 2005-07
  • William Gallas, 2007-08
  • Cesc Fabregas, 2008-11
  • Robin Van Persie, 2011-12
  • Thomas Vermaelen, 2012-14
  • Mikel Arteta, 2014-present

Setting aside the Gallas disaster, we can discern a trend in the dominant traits of Wenger's captains. The first two, Adams and Vieira, were vocal and tenacious. They were the first into a scrap. Henry was just as tenacious, but in a different way: He was unrelenting in pursuit of goals. He was also obviously the star of the team.

After Henry's departure and the Gallas interregnum, talent defined the next two club captains, Fabregas and Van Persie. They were, like Henry, the headliners of their Arsenal sides; given the inconsistent ability around them, the captaincy may have partly been a tool to secure their loyalty. It failed.

Then came the appointment of Vermaelen. He was not the club's star player, nor was he vocal. Vermaelen's foremost quality was his professionalism. He conducted himself with thoughtfulness and class, and in that way, he became an extension of the club's management. Holding that as a priority guided the choice of Arteta.

Exercising new responsibilities


The qualifications of an Arsenal first-team captain have therefore changed. It's no longer enough to be the club's most vocal, tenacious, or talented player. The captain has to be a professional ambassador for all the club's activities, accomplished in board rooms, with the media, at charity events, with teammates, and with supporters.

Not all clubs are viewing the captaincy in these terms. See Wayne Rooney at Manchester United. But even Joey Barton, the Queen's Park Rangers captain who does not fit the Arteta mold, has hinted at the importance of professional management in a captain, even as he struggles with that aspect of the role. Barton has written: "As captain you are the go-between for the manager and the players on a daily basis. But there are times at football clubs when a captain’s role goes further. This has happened to me at QPR. There can be any number of issues that can cause board members or owners to ask a captain’s opinion."

To represent the players and the club in the modern, corporate game, the captain must take on the duties and qualities of professional management. That's especially true of Arsenal Football Club because it is aware of its position in the public eye. The club's role in the community and its relationships with diverse constituencies call for a captain with leadership skills that go beyond supporting or criticizing teammates during matches.

Wenger and his colleagues appear to have recognized these new requirements when they appointed Vermaelen captain. Arteta's captaincy has solidified the trend, as he has fulfilled the new management role gracefully and perfectly in a season that might have broken the spirits and conduct of lesser characters. This will be a meaningful legacy even if injuries cut short Arteta's tenure as captain.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Arsenal Deliver Hope

Arsenal's 2-0 victory over Manchester City is an occasion to savor but not to belabor.

As sports fans in general and Arsenal supporters in particular, we have yearned for moments like this, an event that is all the more satisfying for our inability to see it coming. We struggled to imagine the satisfaction of victory because this scenario, in which Arsenal traveled to one of the league's elites, had produced such different conclusions in the recent, memorable past.

The records didn't favor Arsenal, but those records didn't determine the plot or result of this contest. The individual and collective performances on the day did. That's why, compelling statistical correlations and convincing historical storylines notwithstanding, there is always hope.

Mental and physical ability in a familiar package


In addition to the drama created by the unpredictable, we follow sport to witness the highest levels of physical and mental ability. We saw that on Sunday in the person of midfielder Santi Cazorla.

Analysts and supporters by the dozens are rightly praising Cazorla's performance; I won't replicate those ratings here. Instead, I'll be looking briefly at Cazorla as a compelling character in this particular sporting drama.

Cazorla's physique distinguishes him from professional athletes not named Woosnam. He is 5-foot-5 and not exactly muscular. He stands apart from the large majority of professional athletes in most sports, who are gargantuan and/or amazingly defined specimens. Fans can therefore relate to Cazorla in ways we can't to other top-level athletes.

We can also see our own outlooks reflected in Cazorla's. Unlike the joyless hordes of stars who portray their professions as grinds, Cazorla takes great pleasure in what he does. His laughter and smiles show the attitude we would have if we were blessed to play a game for a living. At least that's what we tell ourselves, knowing next to nothing about a professional athlete's  sacrifices, past, or psychology.

What we don't share is Cazorla's remarkable skill, vision, and calm. All were on full display as he controlled Sunday's match, which featured 14 selected members of the world's most expensive sporting enterprise, Manchester City Football Club. (See Adrian Clarke's always excellent segment, The Breakdown, on Arsenal Player for a shrewd analysis of Cazorla's performance.)

The professional perspective


Another trait that distinguishes Cazorla from fans is his perspective. We'll be excited for some time--and understandably so--about what happened at the Etihad. Not Spurs-Special-Issue-DVD-level excited, but buzzing all the same. That emotion is what fans live for.

Professional athletes, though, live for the next contest. I wrote about this mentality after a quite different occasion, the 2-0 loss at Chelsea earlier this season ("Arsenal's Next Steps"), and what's encouraging is that Arsenal's players are now displaying the same level-headedness that they showed then in defeat.

One example was Cazorla's reflection immediately after the match: "Today, the team had good spirit, good concentrate, and we need to play the same the next game, no?"

Quite charming in its earnestness, simplicity, and cross-lingual struggle.

Similarly, midfielder Francis Coquelin, who might be excused some excitement and exaggeration given his rapid transition from a fringe player to a vital contributor, did not get carried away as many of us would. "It's a tough game to win," Coquelin told the club website, "but we did that, and now we need to move to to the next one, because there is no point winning here and then losing at home in the next game."

Captain Per Mertesacker neatly summarized the calm reaction, saying "We don't have to talk too much -- it was just one game, but it was a good response."

Treating the two imposters


These statements from the players suggest that they're handling the highs and lows of the season like professionals. Although we as fans might relate better to full-blown emotional reactions, such swings by the team aren't productive. Instead, it's vital that players manage the stress of elite competition with a cool head. (See "Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not.")

I'd therefore expect the management, coaching staff, and team to deploy the same methodology after the City performance as they do after every other match, one I described in the wake of the Chelsea loss. Win or lose, they will:
  1. Analyze the performance
  2. Avoid excessive praise or blame
  3. Apply what they learn
  4. Turn their attention to the next match

These aren't inspiring steps, but they are what's required to focus a group of elite athletes over the course of a long campaign. They are also necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for the fulfillment of this side's potential, a hint of which just stunned us in the technicolor of individual and collective feats.
 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Will This Arsenal Side Fulfill Its Potential?

Arsenal's victory over Hull City in the FA Cup was its 30th competitive match since the start of the season. After those 30 contests, the consensus both inside and outside the club has to be that the team's performance has not met expectations.

Following the May 2014 FA Cup triumph and the top-class acquisitions last summer, few expected the team to usher in 2015 by marking a negative milestone. Yet, after the defeat to Southampton on January 1, Arsenal had amassed the fewest points (33) from its first 20 matches in 18 years under manager Arsène Wenger.

The team's relative standing was also poor by the standards set under Wenger. Arsenal stood sixth in the Premier League table on January 2, only the third time since Wenger's arrival that its position was that low after 20 matches.

Reminder of the gap


Although the performance has been inconsistent and disappointing, it's worth remembering two points:
  1. The Premier League season is 38 matches long, not 20, and
  2. The financial gap between Arsenal and Chelsea and Manchester City has not shrunk

The ability to spend almost indiscriminately on transfer fees and wages does not cause a club to win titles. That would be way too deterministic and would sap the league race of any drama at all. However, the correlation between a club's outlay on players and its final league position has been well documented. That research has shown that higher spending teams enjoy a greater likelihood of success.

How significant is that likelihood? The Pay as You Play blog goes into precise detail on the relationship between spending and success. Its 2012 analysis concluded that a team has to spend roughly 3 1/2 times the normalized median league expenditure on transfer fees and player wages (mTTV) to achieve a 95 percent chance of winning the league. To get similar odds of finishing at least fourth, a club would expect to spend three times the league median.

In 2011, these correlations meant a club needed to lay out £493 million to enjoy 95 percent odds of winning the league, or £375 million for 50-50 odds. Those numbers are based on transfer fees and salaries between the introduction of the Premier League in 1992 and 2011. No more recent figures are available, but I can't imagine the overall expenditure or the multiple of the median has decreased since 2011.

The point here is that even though Arsenal increased its wage bill to £166 million and laid out £54 million net in transfer spending over the 2014 reporting period (see "Arsenal: Money Changes Everything" on the Swiss Ramble blog), its challenge to Manchester City and Chelsea was always going to be difficult. That's because City's wage bill stood at £205 million in 2014, and it had averaged £72 million in net transfer expenditure from 2008 to 2014, while Chelsea paid £176 million in wages in 2014 and had averaged £42 million in net transfer expenditure since 2008. (Sources: The Swiss Ramble, "Manchester City: Roll with It" and SB Nation, "Premier League Transfer Spend over 3, 5, and 7 Years")

So while the FA Cup win, the long run at the top of the table in 2013-14, and the arrivals of Alexis Sanchez, Mathieu Debuchy, and Danny Welbeck may have strengthened the perception that Arsenal had the potential to win the league, the stars still had to align for the team to reach just even odds, according to historical norms, of winning the league.

Star crossed


It's hard to argue that fortune has favored Arsenal this season.

The long and persistent injury list is an obvious factor foiling the club. Particularly damaging has been the chronic lower-leg problems of center half Laurent Koscielny.

As my fellow You Are My Arsenal blogger JokmanAFC has persuasively argued in "Kos Is the Boss and our Most Important Player," the Frenchman is the essential piece in Arsenal's defensive machine. His absences have been unsettling, and the consequences are clear: Arsenal conceded seven more goals in its first 20 matches of the current campaign than it had in the previous season.

The injury problems have also contributed to the other major issue hindering the team's performance so far: the inconsistent attacking lineup. Tim Stillman's most recent column for Arseblog, "Window Shopping," puts it succinctly: "Arsenal have struggled for rhythm."

In a way, this shouldn't be a surprise, given that the team's top attacking talent has played together so seldom. An review of participation in Arsenal's 2,700 minutes of action shows how rarely the potentially effective combinations of attacking players have been on the pitch:
  • Mesut Özil and Theo Walcott: 0 minutes together
  • Walcott and Oliver Giroud: 0
  • Alexis Sanchez and Walcott: 128 (less than 5 percent of total Arsenal match time)
  • Alexis and Giroud: 458 (17 percent)
  • Alexis and Özil: 531 (20 percent)
  • Alexis, Özil, and Giroud: 0
  • Alexis, Özil, and Danny Welbeck: 317 (12 percent)

Because intuition and instinct are integral to Wenger's philosophy and system, the absence of these combinations of players for more than 80 percent--and in several cases 100 percent--of Arsenal's playing time has, understandably, produced inconsistent performances.

What to expect


We should account for both the structural financial conditions and the proximate factors of injuries and unsettled player selections when we assess the team's prospects for the remainder of the season. They all point to a low likelihood that Arsenal will enjoy the broad success many of us thought possible in August.

When I say "broad success," I mean a credible title challenge. If you consider that your standard of fulfilled potential, Arsenal will probably fall short.

That doesn't mean that we should give up, though. Many opportunities to enjoy the team should pop up between now and May. A deep run in the FA Cup could thrill us as in 2014, as could victories in the knockout stages of the Champions League.

There's also a possibility that the team, resupplied in attack and more stable in defense, could, on its day, get the better of teams higher in the table. Who knows what effect such victories might have on the rest of this season and next?

Those possibilities are open. They're why we shouldn't give up, even if our initial expectations appear out of reach.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Ox Rocks Arsenal 3.0

In Arsenal's 4-1 victory over Newcastle United, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's performance in midfield showed us the future.

Manager Arsène Wenger has said that Oxlade-Chamberlain would one day move from an attacking forward position to the center of midfield, and the 21-year-old's display on Saturday hinted that this day may not be far off. That will also mark the fruition of Wenger's vision for his third and final Arsenal team.

Wenger first built the title-winning sides of the early 2000's, then turned to youth to negotiate the move to the Emirates Stadium. Having fulfilled the most burdensome obligations associated with the stadium construction, the club is poised for a third incarnation under Wenger.

The foundation of Arsenal 3.0


Broadly speaking, Wenger's Arsenal 1.0 was driven by a strong midfield engine and accelerated by speed in the forward line. It comfortably and lethally sprang from defense into attack. Arsenal 2.0 under Wenger was a finesse side, characterized by short, quick passing movements.

The latest and last version of Wenger's Arsenal, 3.0, is taking shape now. From the standpoint of personnel, it's dominated by players entering their primes. (See "Arsenal's Experienced Youth Movement" for my analysis of the approach.)

The qualities of speed and power, enhanced by tenacity, are coming to guide Arsenal's style of play. This year's headline acquisitions -- Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez -- bring speed, strength, and relentless drive. Their assertive attitude complements their own physical advantages and inspires teammates to overwhelm certain opposition.

Oxlade-Chamberlain has himself noted the influence of Alexis. He told BT Sport (quoted by The Guardian), "He has brought that winning mentality to the side, and I think it definitely rubs off on a lot of players."

Principles at work against Newcastle


Recall the Newcastle game's opening 20 minutes and the first 15 minutes of the second half. The seventh-place Magpies, just a week after vanquishing Chelsea, could not cope with Arsenal's speed of foot and thought. All Arsenal's goals from open play occurred during those periods, as did Welbeck's lovely effort that was called back for a perceived foul.

Quick thinking and powerful running also helped Arsenal negate Newcastle's tactic of pressuring the Gunners' makeshift back line. Once Arsenal's defenders or midfielder Mathieu Flamini had passed around the Newcastle forwards, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi Cazorla and even right back Hector Bellerin encountered light resistance.

Aggressiveness and speed delivered benefits in the offensive end as well, as Arsenal won the ball back in advantageous positions. The team won 11 of its 33 tackles in the Newcastle half and made five interceptions (of 16 total) there. That's a lot of activity in the opposition half for a team that led after 15 minutes.

Oxlade-Chamberlain puts the desired qualities at the center of the action


As Adrian Clarke emphasized at the outset of his Breakdown of the match on the club website, Oxlade-Chamberlain was at the heart of Arsenal's performance. He compiled 87 touches, highest on the team, made five successful dribbles, again a team high, and was second in tackles (5) and pass accuracy (86 percent). (Stats are from whoscored.com.)

These contributions surpassed most of those Oxlade-Chamberlain has made when he's played a wide forward position, not only from a statistical perspective but also from the standpoint of the team's flow. Fast transitions from defense to attack happen naturally with him in the midfield, where his speed and strength are on full, frequent display.

Yet many observers failed to recognize the vital role Oxlade-Chamberlain played. The player ratings compiled by whoscored.com ranked his performance seventh among Arsenal players, and The Guardian's Rob Bleaney wrote that it would be "a shame" if Oxlade-Chamberlain were "restricted" to central midfield (#5 among "Premier League: ten talking points from the weekend's action").

Implications


I suppose if you are interested in the occasional, eye-catching, individual run in open forward space, you'd regret Oxlade-Chamberlain establishing himself in Arsenal's midfield. You won't have an unobstructed view of an obvious, dazzling play there.

But if your priority is the effective functioning of Arsenal as a unit, you might soon prefer the Ox in the midfield. For one thing, it permits the deployment of Arsenal's four fastest offensive players (Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sanchez, Welbeck, and a returning Theo Walcott) along with a playmaker such as Santi Cazorla or Mesut Özil. Or it allows the manager to diversify the attack with a center forward target, Olivier Giroud, surrounded by three fast teammates.

Playing Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield also provides more vertical balance to the side. The strong pressing of the forward line can be linked with robust midfield pressing, given Oxlade-Chamberlain's physicality. He'll need to learn when to put that into action and when to take up station close to the defensive midfielder to protect the defense.

"Hold on," you might respond. "Where's Aaron Ramsey in this scheme?"

At his best, Ramsey also succeeds at this midfield remit. He tackles, intercepts, avoids opponents' challenges (more through technique than through power), and runs without tiring. Ramsey scores as well. His goals and overall contributions made him Arsenal's best player by a distance in the 2013-14 season.

When he's not at his best or when he's suffering a string of injuries, Ramsey risks being replaced in the starting XI. The same goes for Jack Wilshere, whose strengths don't necessarily complement the speed and power of the forward line in the way Oxlade-Chamberlain's strengths do.

Sunday at Anfield


The most immediate matter is the approach to last season's disastrous fixture at Liverpool. The Reds without Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge aren't the offensive juggernaut they were in 2013-14. Their midfield still relies on aging captain Stephen Gerrard, who, along with most of the club's starters, got a stern physical test from Bournemouth in Wednesday's Capital One Cup and face their fifth match in 15 days on Sunday.

Given those circumstances, there's a good chance that Liverpool's midfield will struggle to handle Oxlade-Chamberlain. He'll have to be alert to Liverpool's threats in a way he wasn't in the 6-0 defeat at Chelsea last season. But his progress since then, his performances, his physical presence, and his logical role in this Arsenal side do inspire confidence for Sunday and the future.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Arsenal's Omniscients Miss the Point

If you're so smart, how do you explain your spectacularly poor timing?

That's the only meaningful question raised by the dismissive banner unveiled in the away end after Arsenal's 1-0 win against West Bromwich Albion. The team had just won its second match in four days, holding the opposition scoreless again. Yet a few of the leading lights in the grandstand thought that was the right occasion to publicize their desire to usher manager Arsène Wenger into retirement.

The episode was unedifying. We heard no new arguments about freedom of expression, got no insights into the internecine debates among Arsenal supporters, gained no appreciation of the complicated task of managing a professional sports organization.

What we did get was a glimpse of modern sports support, if not life, in all its simplistic self-indulgence.

Contrary in almost every respect


The impulses behind this type of expression run counter to the drivers of a successful, attractive footballing enterprise. Despite the clarity of the final results, professional football is a complex group undertaking, requiring business savvy, judgment of character and ability, tactical experience and smarts, psychological and motivational skills, uncommon physical ability, collective understanding, and other expertise.

That complexity frightens many. Those are ones clinging to the notion that "the simplest explanation is always the best," not recognizing that Occam's Razor has long been a logical fallacy. They latch on to every new piece of information about the club, not understanding how to assess the accuracy or meaning of that information. This same group appoints itself arbiter and tribune of The Truth about Arsenal Football Club, usually defined by an in-or-out vote on the manager.

The lack of nuance in this line of interpretation signals the fool's own stupidity. What's modern is the ability to gain an audience for that foolishness.

"Part of our emergency is that it's so awfully tempting to do this sort of thing now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the 'moral clarity' of the immature," wrote David Foster Wallace in the essay "Deciderization 2007 - A Special Report." "The alternative is dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it's continually discovering new vistas of personal ignorance and delusion."

Or, more to our point, Gunnerblog observed in the aftermath of the 2-1 defeat to Manchester United: "The truth is that a result is rarely determined by one single thing. It's almost never entirely due to the brilliance of one player, or indeed the error of another. Football is a game composed of thousands of interconnected moments." ("Arsenal 1 - 2 Man United: Why the players have to take blame too")

Your known unknowns


Those myriad connections during a match certainly call into question straightforward, cause-and-effect analyses. Similarly, simple narratives fail to convey a football club's complicated preparations for competition, in particular its player acquisition activities, fitness regimes, and man management style.

Still, a contingent of Arsenal fans reduces these activities to simple stories, such as:
  • In negotiating the transfer market, Wenger is a cheapskate and a ditherer
  • Arsenal's injury problems stem from the players' delicate physiques, the manager's inability to rotate the squad, and/or the playing style
  • The manager is a micromanager who can't get the best out of his staff or his players

We've debunked these myths before. Have a look at "Silly Season Survival Tips" on this site and "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Even Small Crowds" on my personal blog for better ways to think about the transfer market. In essence, if someone purports to have the complete, inside story on player acquisitions, dismiss that out of hand. It's such a murky environment that all accounts are suspect.

I'd encourage a healthy skepticism of injury analyses as well. A multitude of factors acts differently on each human body, so the idea that we could identify one cause or a few causes is far-fetched. For example, Wenger's recent implication that the World Cup schedule brought on the current spate of injuries doesn't account for the full summer vacations of the subsequently crocked Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, Nacho Monreal, and Kieran Gibbs.

Instead, we're better off trying to understand how the club is addressing the web of contributing factors. "Arsenal's Medicine Man, Shad Forsythe, Will Work Wonders over Time" provides a good foundation in the advances the new performance chief is trying to institute.

And rather than accepting an at-best dated analysis of Wenger's management style and its consequences, we should consider the possibility that structuring and nurturing human relationships are highly complex undertakings. Management approaches, including delegating tasks and setting performance expectations, and motivational work owe everything to systems and psychologies that outside observers won't fully grasp. (Some attempts to describe these multiple dimensions appear in "Management the Arsenal Way" and "Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not.")

Legitimate questions


These dynamics don't mean we should give up trying to understand what's happening with the club we love. They just call for appreciation of the complexities, wisdom to ask insightful questions, and skepticism of obvious answers.

For example, the question of who will succeed Wenger is now a shallow one. We should instead be asking how Arsenal's leadership is preparing itself to identify and hire the next manager, what principles will guide that process, and what structures will produce the choice. No writer or analyst, to my knowledge, has pursued those lines of inquiry with club officials.

That's a failure of the Fourth Estate. Indeed, the media is an active party to fans' rush to judgment because the simple story is easy to write and popular. Inaccuracy and banality don't seem to be concerns.

Acknowledging complexity and the limits of our own knowledge and ability should be of high importance, though, if we truly care about Arsenal more than our own opinions and brief moments in the spotlight.