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.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Cracks in the Arsenal Brand

Arsenal's early season struggles have brought out the well worn and often angry portrayals of manager Arsène Wenger's tactical cluelessness, his transfer ineptitude, his awkward man-management, and his geriatric stubbornness.

The suspect evidence supporting these characterizations and the logical fallacy of the Arsenal=Arsène equation only seem to intensify the appeal of these arguments. It's gotten to the point that unthinking perceptions are reshaping the Arsenal brand; as a result, the club is facing a deeper issue than the manager's performance or the team's lackluster form.

What makes a football brand


In a largely problematic account of Arsenal's 2013-14 season ("Arsène and Arsenal: The Quest to Rediscover Past Glories"), Alex Fynn presents a strong foundation in brand theory. Brands aren't just logos or taglines, explains Fynn, but are collections and expressions of the rational and emotional attributes associated with an organization.

These attributes give brands distinctive personalities, such as Volvo's "Crisp and Safe" and Apple's "Cool and Innovative," which shape the main characters in those organizations' stories. The dramatic or comedic pull of these stories, along with the personalities and values they express, attract like-minded individuals.

Even more than other sports, football engenders strong brands, Fynn points out, because the dramatic impact is so great. One late moment of brilliance or bad fortune can overturn a result that seemed a foregone conclusion for 89 minutes. That's unmatched dramatic potential.

The geographic, historical, and cultural identifications of football clubs also make them sturdy vessels for brands, and clubs and their supporters can easily identify themselves in opposition to the "other" created by rivalries.

Elements of the Arsenal brand


Although Arsenal's brand benefits from clear differentiation with Tottenham, Chelsea, and Manchester United, the club has reaped its biggest reputational reward by honing its own personality. I would define this as "Refined, Successful, and Sensible." (See "The Brand's the Thing" and "Whiffing on Risk" for additional thoughts.)

At the foundation of these personality traits lie the club's historical values:
  • A distinctive balance between English football tradition and innovation
  • Adherence to standards of conduct that denote "class"
  • Consistent success at the highest level of the sport

Arsenal promises those who have identified with it that it will live out these values and behave in accordance with its underlying personality. Breaking that promise could make supporters and sponsors question their loyalty, with major cultural and financial consequences.

Fissures


Just three months ago, Arsenal appeared to be reaffirming its core personality and values, with world-class acquisitions joining the club soon after an FA Cup triumph. The speed and irrationality of the shift in perceptions should trouble CEO Ivan Gazidis and other club executives, because they suggest that a different, much less positive, brand story is replacing the advantageous one.

Here's how it's happening: First, the promise of potential success appears to be an empty one. It's extremely unlikely that the club will win the Premier League or the Champions League this season. That's the standard of success the club has established for itself, and it will once again fall short.

Instead, as Andrew Mangan pointed out on the November 7 Arsecast, we are witnessing a routine of top-four league finishes and exits after the round of 16 of the Champions League.

This pattern of performance lessens the excitement because it's so predictable. Add that to the team's inability to win matches against the top domestic competition, and you'll struggle to find compelling drama.

Second, the club's image as an innovator is getting weaker. With the same manager for 18 years, no matter how sincerely he might profess new ideas or his focus on the future, Arsenal is always going to appear hidebound. (One reason I think so many supporters were excited about the appointment of Shad Forsythe as head of athletic performance enhancement is that it hinted at the club's innovative best.)

The third brand problem is that the personality trait "Sensible" is being undermined by a perception that identical weaknesses cause the same results year in, year out. Facts and reasonable analysis to the contrary, "defensive frailty" is Arsenal's downfall. It doesn't matter that the major problem in 2013-14 might well have been a lack of speed and in 2012-13 a lack of creativity. The story is already written.

The persistence and immediacy of this narrative are strong evidence that Arsenal's brand has shifted.

Impact


If this analysis is right, a succession of good results won't move the brand back onto favorable ground. Only a major achievement, a Premier League title or a Champions League trophy, will be sufficient for that.

Major sponsors seem comfortable with this scenario. The lucrative deals with Emirates Airlines for shirt and stadium sponsorship and Puma for playing gear indicate that those companies continue to see considerable advantage in aligning with Arsenal. How secondary and regional sponsors weigh the Arsenal brand will be crucial to higher commercial revenue.

Meanwhile, supporters have communicated mixed messages about their loyalty to the brand. The increase in season ticket prices, coming as it did as the brand was shifting, sparked vocal criticism. What appeared an attempt to capitalize on the FA Cup success and hope for the future has instead made longtime match goers question their commitment to an organization whose brand promises are shaky.

Despite the reaction, the waiting list for Arsenal season tickets remains long. What proportion of season ticket holders in years to come will be new? How many ticket holders will leave their seats empty? And how will those developments affect the stadium atmosphere, which is part of what any sports organization sells to sponsors, broadcasters, and fans?

These are potentially much more troubling questions for the club than are any about the manager's transfer, team setup, or personnel decisions. They aren't as dramatic or obvious, but structural questions rarely are.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Assessing Arsenal Ten Matches In

Each Premier League campaign has its own dynamics. We can search for patterns, correlations, and precedents, but ultimately every series of 38 matches that begins in August and ends in May takes its own independent shape. That makes the 10-match milepost an arbitrary measuring point.

Even so, it is a point, a round number a little more than a quarter of the way through the season. Arsenal has played more than half the teams in the league, so it's illustrative if not definitive to look at developments thus far.

The message from the overall numbers


A fair expectation at the start of any sporting campaign is for a team to make progress on its previous season. That was a reasonable objective for Arsenal as it set out on its 2014-15 Premier League effort, particularly because the FA Cup triumph, world-class summer signings, and a full season's acclimatization for star playmaker Mesut Özil seemed to have the club on a positive trajectory. (See my preseason assessment, "The Arsenal: Forward, Upward, or on Some Generally Positive Trajectory.")

In a broad-brush analysis, the first 10 matches don't show movement upward. The 2013-14 squad produced 25 points in its first 10 matches, while the 2014-15 version has tallied just 17.

The opposition has been tougher this season, with the competition having averaged 12.7 points from the first 10 matches, compared with 10.9 points in 2013-14. The median figures, which discount the outliers, tell a slightly different story, 11 points vs. 10.5, indicating that the schedule has been only a bit more difficult.

The results from comparable fixtures between the two campaigns aren't as promising, either. Only the draw at Everton marked an improvement on last season's performances, while home draws against Tottenham and Hull City and the away draw against newly promoted Leicester City leave Arsenal five points off its returns from parallel matches in 2013-14.

As a result, over the remaining 28 matches, Arsenal will have to match its wins of 2013-14 and pick up points from draws or losses--such as West Bromwich Albion away, Stoke away, and Aston Villa at home--to reach at least 79 points again.

The positives from relative numbers


Because each season is distinctive, though, Arsenal may not have to amass 79 points to achieve a higher final position in the league table. It all depends on the competition.

At this point, the top of the league is not as congested as it was in 2013-14. Chelsea leads the way with 26 points, and four other clubs have 17 points or more. In 2013-14, Arsenal's 25 points topped the table after 10 matches, while seven others had at least 17 points. That more tightly packed group of early leaders produced the most accomplished top four in points terms in Premier League history.

Let's look at 2010-11, the last season to follow a World Cup, for a different example. That year, Manchester United won the league with 80 points; Arsenal finished fourth with just 68 points, two fewer than both Chelsea and Manchester City. Tottenham were fifth at 62.

The start of that season bears some similarity to the first 10 matches of the current campaign. At the same point, just four teams stood at 17 points or higher, Arsenal among them with 20, putting them in second place. (All standings from tables on premierleague.com.)

Telling statistics


In that competitive setting, one set of in-game statistical measures stands out.

According to whoscored.com, Arsenal has taken the second highest number of shots per game (17.3) through the first ten matches and the third highest shots on goal per game (5.6). However, it's only sixth in goals scored, with 18.

That is, Arsenal has scored on just 10 percent of its shots. Meanwhile, its opponents have produced 11 goals from 74 shots, or 15 percent.

This discrepancy points toward the most prominent statistical difference in Arsenal's offense between 2013-14 overall and this season so far, the number of shots it has taken outside the penalty area. That average figure increased from 5.0 last season to 8.4 in the first ten matches of 2014-15, the highest in the league by 13 percent. None of those shots has gone in.

Indeed, manager Arsène Wenger's own assessment, shared on Arsenal Player before Arsenal faced Burnley in the 10th match of the season, emphasized the point. "On the efficiency front, we can do better," he said, "because if you look at the chances we have created and we have given away, I think we have created many chances, and our finishing was not at the expected level. And we gave very few chances away, but the chances we have given away are of quality, and that's what you want to do better."

If the manager can convey his seriousness about better efficiency to the players, we may see fewer of the ineffective shots from distance going forward.

The qualitative story


Statistics can help us understand performance trends, but fans' interest has more to do with qualitative judgments. In essence, we're assessing if the club is producing entertainment value: Is the team performing attractively as a whole, and are players delivering individually?

The answer to the first question has to be "not yet." With a few exceptions, such as the first 20 minutes against Manchester City and the last 20 against Burnley, the team's performances have left something to be desired.

I'm not inclined to identify a cause or causes because that would produce simplistic and misleading analysis.

What can be said is that injuries to several important players, defenders Mathieu Debuchy and Laurent Koscielny, captain Mikel Arteta, center forward Oliver Giroud, as well as Özil, haven't helped. Tactical shifting may have played a role, too, although I hesitate to conclude that an established approach would have improved the attractiveness or the results.

As for the second question, Alexis has been the standout performer, netting seven goals in his first 10 league matches. Other high-profile summer acquisitions, striker Danny Welbeck and defender Calum Chambers, have also had more solid performances than poor ones. The quality of the new boys overall has therefore been a plus.

Most returning players haven't quite met the standards they set last season, but more telling is the sense that the whole is less than the sum of the parts at the moment.

All the components might add up eventually; that would boost the enjoyment and entertainment we supporters receive. It would also solidify a place closer to the top of the table, even if the raw numbers fall short of last season's. That's something to hold onto amidst legitimate current concerns.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Arsenal's Past Has Passed

The milestones of recent weeks -- manager Arsène Wenger's 65th birthday and the 10-year anniversary of the 49-game unbeaten run, in particular -- have prompted wistful looks back at the early years of the Wenger era. That's when Arsenal led the way in the English game with an energetic, eye-catching style of play and a cast of talented, compelling characters.

The journalist Amy Lawrence has chronicled the 2003-2004 team in "Invincible: Inside Arsenal's Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season," by all accounts a story well-told. Lawrence has also appeared on several Arsenal podcasts, such as the 24 October Arsecast and The Tuesday Club Invincibles Special, to share her experiences as a fan and researcher.

Discussing her book, Lawrence has noted that the unbeaten season had to happen that year, because that season Roman Abramovich injected £100 million into Chelsea and fundamentally changed the contest.
Indeed, the point in time was crucial. Circumstances have never been and will never be the same.

We should therefore take a skeptical view of efforts at nostalgia of the unbeaten season and of the past generally. Partly because, as Tim Stillman recently put it in his Arseblog column "Seasons in the Sun," "the glorious bygone age never existed," but also because glorification of the past undermines the entertainment offered us in the present.

The attractions


Supporters will articulate their motivations in different ways, but at root aren't we all in it for the entertainment? Some mixture of the matchday experience, the feeling of common cause, the artistry of athletic feats, the drama of competition, the unpredictability of the outcome, and the reliving of youth makes professional sport entertaining for each of us. Otherwise, we'd pass our time differently.

There's certainly a contingent in it for the moaning or low-stakes gallows humor, both of which I suppose are forms of entertainment. For me, though, the point is enjoyment.

I enjoy the Arsenal on many levels:
  1. The values I share with the club, such as transparency, respect for others no matter their backgrounds, and the aesthetics of a well-run business (admittedly, these values also rely on a selective interpretation of the club's past)
  2. The performances on the pitch during the season at hand
  3. An approach to management and a style of play that put a priority on intelligence
  4. The humorous, thoughtful communication with fellow supporters
  5. The matchday experience with other supporters
  6. The attractive characters in management and in the playing squad
  7. The rich material for analysis provided by numbers 1-6 above

Almost none of the enjoyment comes from revisiting the specifics of past Arsenal performances. That's not to say I don't remember where I was or with whom or how that experience made me feel; I do. It's just that the source of my enjoyment, entertainment, and identity as an Arsenal supporter doesn't lie there.

Peoples separated by an ocean and a common language


This all might seem cold, clinical. If so, my outlook has been professionally ingrained, first as a sports journalist and then as a history doctoral student. Both professions encourage a distance from events and apply critical techniques to understand them. Neither sees its purpose as the assembly or facts, dates, or trivia, which serve for many as the stuff of history and sports fandom.

My perspective also might come across as a particularly American. Our culture doesn't tend to mine the past to identify us collectively in the present, at least not in the early 21st century. Citizens of other, older nations engage in a more active, albeit one-way, conversation with the past. David Winner's "Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football" examines how this exchange has played out in England and argues that football nostalgia and negativity are responses to the question of English identity after the end of the Empire.

I'm not placing a value judgment on this tendency. The interaction of identity and memory is complicated, and denigrating or elevating how others handle that complexity seems presumptuous. Where I do draw the line is when that process leads to exclusionary thinking, in our case seeing only "true" Arsenal fans as legitimate because they display an approved perspective on the club's past or can articulate their own experiences according to a specific script.

This framework contributes to the circular firing squad of Arsenal supporters, a distinctly destructive and unentertaining phenomenon.

This doesn't mean we should seek unanimity of perspective and opinion. The diversity of views is part of what makes following the Arsenal so attractive. What I am suggesting is that we don't venerate figures from the past or fixate on experiences, results, and emotions of seasons gone by.

The glory of now


By keeping history in its appropriate context, we should be able to appreciate the present even more. The parochial days of muddy pitches trod by Englishmen aren't coming back, and only the most reactionary among us aren't glad about that. No amount of moaning about financial obscenity, complaining about foreign influences, and marginalizing non-English supporters will stop the increasing globalization of the game.

If entertainment is the objective, we should embrace these developments. After all, money from a worldwide audience attracts the highest quality talent to the Premier League, and the ease of travel and commerce allows top players from across the world to join English sides. A league without Alexis Sanchez and Sergio Aguero just wouldn't be as enjoyable.

That's where nostalgia ultimately leads, to a fantasy blinding us to a profoundly entertaining present.