Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Özil Yin and the Alexis Yang

Since Arsenal playmaker Mesut Özil returned to full-time action in late January, questions have arisen about his compatibility with new teammate Alexis. The two have joined forces in seven matches in 2015, during which Alexis has scored just one goal. That's a significant dropoff from his 13-goal production in 18 games without Özil.

This trend has troubled some supporters and commentators, because they see the integration of these two stars as the key to Arsenal's progress. After all, the club paid the two highest transfer fees in the club's history in 2013 and 2014, respectively, to acquire these remarkable players. In the process, Arsenal signaled its reemergence as a prime destination for world-class talent.

These concerns are misplaced. That's because seven matches, plus 531 minutes in eight matches in fall 2014, don't represent a large enough sample size to declare the two mismatched. More to the point, a close study of their playing styles and ability suggests that the two can emerge as ideal complements.

Playing personalities that jibe


Armchair psychoanalysis of professional athletes is always questionable. We've never spoken with them, and, by and large, we wouldn't be qualified to draw clinical conclusions even if we had met them. We are also wrong to expect elite athletes to behave like we would in high-stakes performance environments; as I've written in "Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not," their success depends on their acting not like us.

That said, we can observe their playing personalities. Alexis is all visible action, taking on defenders, pressing with abandon, relishing the spolight. Özil operates in the shadows, exploiting the space no one else sees, directing his teammates into promising positions for themselves, deflecting the attention.

These descriptions give rise to an interesting analysis of Alexis as extrovert and Özil as introvert. FourFourTwo's Chas Newly-Burden lays out this case in a compelling fashion in "Özil, Ronaldo, and Football's Distrust of Introverts."

Because football is a team game, though, what matters is how the players work together. Do their styles, preferences, and abilities -- combined and integrated with those of their teammates -- enhance Arsenal's chances of success?

Complementary expertise


Reasonable supporters, football experts, and appreciators of athletic skill and choreography can't honestly conclude that Arsenal would be a better side without Alexis and/or Özil. The suggestion that the two can't flourish also ignores substantial evidence.

In addition to raising the squad's overall levels of quality and play, Özil and Alexis are an almost ideal attacking partnership. It's been argued that Alexis's reluctance to stay in wide areas, shown by his tendency to dribble toward the center, often crowds Özil out of the Arsenal attack. With a less imaginative playmaker, that might be a legitimate concern. But thanks to Özil's vision and refined sense of playing space, Alexis's forays actually create the conditions in which Özil thrives.

Alexis's zealous excursions, even when they aren't successful, force defenses to change their shapes. In the process, they leave space unoccupied, and Özil is probably the best in the world at identifying that space before anyone else and in exploiting the resulting weakness.

The most striking recent example of this phenomenon occurred in Monaco during the second leg of Arsenal's 2-0 win in the Champions League Round of 16. The play preceded Arsenal's second goal and appears in this video starting at the 8:25 mark.

For the entire match, Monaco had been surrounding Alexis with two, three, and sometimes four players. Özil recognized this tendency and the weakness it created elsewhere.

In this instance, Özil has the ball when Alexis drifts parallel to goal, just outsize the penalty area. Monaco midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia is between the two Arsenal players, but that's not enough coverage to execute Monaco's gameplan.

So Monaco's right midfielder Dirar and right back Fabinho both step toward Alexis. This leaves a gaping hole down Arsenal's left for left back Nacho Monreal to exploit. Özil spots the space and Monreal's run and lifts a pass over all the Monaco defenders, catching Monreal in stride and allowing him to cut the ball back to Theo Walcott. Walcott's shot off the post rebounds to Aaron Ramsey, who shoots home.

Adapting to opponents' adaptations


This combination of awareness and skill is essential because the majority of opponents, like Monaco, are now hyper-conscious of the threat Alexis poses. Premier League sides Crystal Palace, Everton, and Newcastle were all notable in their focus on Alexis, double- and triple-teaming him in an apparent effort to force other Arsenal players to beat them. Indeed, center forward Olivier Giroud's impressive productivity in recent matches might be a consequence of this defensive attention on Alexis.

The player heatmaps and other visualizations on whoscored.com (originating with OptaSports) and the match chalkboards on Arsenal.com show the priority many opponents are now placing on stopping Alexis. Everton sent out three defensive-minded central midfielders, Gareth Barry, James McCarthy, and Muhamed Besic, two of whom largely focused on Alexis's side of the pitch, Arsenal's left. All but one of Barry's and McCarthy's successful tackles occurred on that side, and all their interceptions happened there.

Arsenal varied its attacks as a result. It pushed forward on its left 37 percent of the time, right 37 percent, and centrally 27 percent.

Against Crystal Palace, the attacks went predominantly down the left (again, 37 percent), where Alexis spent most of his time. Palace's primary method of coping with Alexis was to foul him. He drew four fouls, the most among Arsenal players in that match, contributing to his total of 57. That's the fourth-highest figure in the Premier League. (Stats from OptaSports via whoscored.com and from PremierLeague.com.)

These decisions by opponents might be related to Alexis's reduced goalscoring, as much if not more than his tiring or misfiring are. Whatever the mix of factors, the genius and skill of Özil have intervened to provide the perfect complement and to lead Arsenal to success so far in 2015.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Theo Walcott & Arsenal's Best Attack

As Arsenal forward Theo Walcott returned from a 12-month injury layoff in January, he praised his teammates' collective attacking talent. Walcott, typically a measured interviewee, made what was for him a bold statement to the club's Website.

After describing the qualities of newcomers Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, Walcott identified other members of the Arsenal attack and said, "And the list goes on, that's how good we are going forward. It's a headache for the manager when you have that many great attacking options. When I came, it was Pires and Ljungberg, Bergkamp, Thierry and Reyes - that’s some attacking force as well. I think this squad probably does beat it, but we need to prove it first."

Some observers took this as provocation and rejected the notion that Arsenal's current attack is better than the legendary strikeforce of the early 2000's. The more interesting twist is that Walcott's assessment relegates him to a less vital role in the squad, a position likely to affect his contract negotiations.

Comparing firepower


It's always problematic to compare statistics across sports campaigns; after all, field conditions, managerial decisions, injuries, the quality of opponents, training methods, team chemistry and turnover, and many other factors affect production. Still, this kind of analysis can be interesting and might help us weigh Walcott's statement.

In the current Premier League campaign, Arsenal have scored 56 goals in 29 matches. That's a rate of 1.93 goals per match, on pace for 73 league goals. This production would rank third among Arsenal's past six league seasons and is far off the 2.29 goal-per-match pace set by the 2004-05 team, the most prolific of manager Arsène Wenger's tenure with 87 goals.

Those numbers don't support Walcott's assertion--at least not to date.

Let's also consider how broad the contributions have been, because that might indicate an overall level of talent in line with Walcott's argument. Arsenal currently have the highest number of goalscorers in the league. Fifteen Gunners have scored, led by Alexis with 13 and Olivier Giroud with 11. Manchester City and Chelsea have each seen 13 players score.

In the record-setting 2004-05 league season, only 14 Arsenal players marked their names on the score sheet. Thierry Henry had the largest contribution, 25 goals. It's also worth noting that the 2009-10 team's 83 goals (2.18 per game) came from 18 players, the most broadly productive of Wenger's Arsenal squads.

Walcott wasn't performing a quantitative analysis, to be fair. He was looking at his teammates and their quality and drawing a conclusion about their potential potency. Forwards Alexis, Giroud, Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Walcott himself; attacking midfielders Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, and Tomas Rosicky; and central midfielders Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere do, on paper, make up an awesome array of offensive talent.

Theo's participation


In this context, the status and future of Walcott have become popular discussion points among Arsenal supporters. Tim Stillman has written some compelling pieces for Arseblog, most recently "Can Theo Walcott Dance to Arsenal's New Tune," examining the issues Walcott faces as he rejoins the team.

What seems clear is that Walcott is no longer an automatic starter, as he was, for example, in 2011-12, when he started 32 league games. His first appearance this season was in the 2-0 loss at Southampton on January 1. Including that match, Arsenal have played 10 league contests for which Walcott was available. He started just three of those matches and made five appearances as a substitute.

No one is suggesting that Walcott should have started all 10 of those matches; he had just returned from a major knee injury. And he did start two of the club's four FA Cup matches, came on as a substitute in one other, and saw time in both Champions League matches against Monaco. This seems like a reasonable number of appearances in 11 weeks. (Appearance stats are from OptaSports via whoscored.com.)

The extent of those appearances has raised questions, though. Walcott has played a total of 514 minutes, while the team has run out for 1440 (16 matches) since his January 1 return.

Wenger has acknowledged his reluctance to use the England man. "I have been holding him back," the manager told the Arsenal Website on March 13, "because he has been out for a long time and for the fact there is intense competition."

Whither Theo?


That squares with Walcott's own assessment of the talent around him, but it glosses over the issue of his fit with his new teammates and their revised style of play. With a mix of coordinated pressing and disciplined defending now expected of all 10 outfield players, Walcott's primary assets of speed and finishing aren't sufficient. (See Stillman's aforementioned article and "We Need to Talk about Theo" and Anam Hassan's "Tactics Column: Walcott on the Periphery, Ramsey, Giroud on Top Form" on Arseblog for deeper analyses.)

Indeed, the manager has hinted at this gap between Walcott's skills and the enhanced expectations. "When you have the ball in the modern game you have to attack, when you don’t have the ball you have to defend," Wenger said. "All the players who can’t do that, cannot play."

In Alexis, Welbeck, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Giroud, and even Cazorla, who has displayed a defensive ability to go along with his eye-catching control and passing skills, Arsenal have a large contingent of players who meet those modern requirements. So as much as the multiple attacking options that Walcott identified have displaced him, the expectations of defensive contributions make him less essential to the team than he's been since his breakthrough.

That makes the renewal of Walcott's contract, which ends in June 2016, a tricky proposition.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Good, the Bad, the Amazingly Coiffed Olivier Giroud

Arsenal center forward Olivier Giroud received widespread condemnation for his performance in the club's 3-1 home Champions League defeat to Monaco. The criticism wasn't entirely unwarranted: Giroud had misfired on six shots, failed to complete eight of his 18 passes, and went off defeated midway through the second half.

The interesting development wasn't Giroud's failure in that match; it was his response. When manager Arsène Wenger trusted Giroud with a starting spot four days after the Monaco loss, he scored Arsenal's crucial opening goal against Everton. He did the same three days after that against Queen's Park Rangers.

"He's strong mentally," Wenger said of his compatriot after Wednesday's match. "He can take some criticism and respond. He's shown that. I feel it was a bit harsh for him because he missed some chances. That can happen."

This fortitude, which few people outside professional athletic circles can comprehend, may make Giroud the ideal Arsenal striker from a psychological perspective.

How to stand tall in a storm


Center forwards at Arsenal are lightning rods. Fans, pundits, and other observers see the shortcomings of the leader of the team's attacking line and use that criticism to bash Wenger. There are three main reasons for this:
  1. Many watch football for the exploits of goal scorers
  2. The model of the Arsenal striker was established and perfected by Thierry Henry
  3. The "value-oriented" approach to player acquisition has been most obvious in pursuit of strikers

Until the summer of 2014, when the dearth of world-class central defenders drove the price of David Luiz to £50 million, acquiring an elite forward was the transaction most subject to the irrational forces of the player transfer market. (I wrote about this last summer in "Who Is This Mythical Arsenal Striker?") It just wasn't possible to get the services of a proven goalscorer for the prices Arsenal have been able or willing to pay. Arsenal supporters bemoaned this reality and its implications for their club's standing among the elites.

These laments, of course, conveniently overlook the status of Henry when Arsenal bought him from Juventus. Although the club paid a record £11 million to acquire him in 1999, Henry had only scored three goals in one season at Juventus and a total of 28 in five previous seasons with Monaco.

Yet he emerged as the top striker of the Premier League era and the ideal in that position among Arsenal supporters--the thin, fast, cool, smart, and lethal predator. That became the aesthetic expectation.

Giroud, much like the Henry of 1999, does not meet this expectation. However, his mental makeup appears to equip him perfectly for the current football culture. He is confident but not so confident that he doesn't recognize the need to improve, particularly in the face of direct competition from newcomer Danny Welbeck. He acknowledges criticism but does not let it paralyze him. And he risks failure to achieve success. (Without engaging in too much armchair psychoanalysis here, I must note that Giroud's handsomeness might be an asset in all these respects.)

Improvements in skill and instinct


Many have analyzed Giroud's awareness, strength, and touch and have deemed him vital to Arsenal's style of play. Without those attributes, the skillful attacking play of Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, and Tomas Rosicky and the speed of Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott, Welbeck, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain lack a foundation. His three-month absence due to injury in the second Premier League match of the season coincided with the team's most tentative offensive displays.

Since his return in late November, Giroud has shown newly keen instincts in front of goal, finding or creating space in crowded areas and scoring timely goals. His savvy is a major reason that Arsenal's performance on set pieces has improved so dramatically: Through 28 matches, Arsenal have scored 10 goals from free kicks and corners this season, compared with eight all of last season. (From Squawka.com's Team Rankings)

We saw this contribution on his goal against Everton. As his teammate Gabriel ran toward the near post, Giroud pulled back into the space Gabriel and his marker Gareth Barry had vacated, just slipping away from Everton defender John Stones. Giroud then caught Özil's cross on the volley with his weaker right foot and directed it into the far corner of the net.

Against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup, Giroud spotted empty space at the near post, a frequent hunting ground for him, darted toward it and volleyed Alexis's quickly taken corner into the net with his left foot. He was also expertly positioned to prod home a rebound against Crystal Palace and a blocked shot against QPR.

These four recent Giroud goals indicate a varied approach, an important quality that prevents defenders from predicting the location or timing of the danger he poses.

Numbers among the best


As a result, Giroud has emerged as one of the top strikers in the Premier League. He's not the absolute best, as Henry was, but he is competitive with other widely lauded forwards. The stats below from OptaSports via whoscored.com provide evidence of Giroud's growing stature:

Giroud_Stats

He's fractionally behind Manchester City's Sergio Aguero and Chelsea's Diego Costa in goals per 90 minutes and level with Tottenham's Harry Kane, while scoring more from fewer shots than all of them except Costa.

These aren't the numbers of the worthless lug many Arsenal supporters have portrayed Giroud to be. Instead, Giroud appears to be making remarkable progress. His goal production per 90 minutes was 0.4 in his first Arsenal season and improved only slightly to 0.5 in 2013-14. Those came from 4.1 and 3.3 shots per 90 minutes, respectively.

His current 0.8 goals per 90 minutes ratio would, over the course of a full season, amount to something in the neighborhood of 30 goals. Although we should be wary of projecting a full season's performance from one particularly productive period, it's possible that Giroud is becoming the perfect combination of mentality and skill to lead the Arsenal line.

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.