Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Who Is This Mythical Striker?

The injury to Arsenal's first-choice center forward Olivier Giroud has tightened the widely held grip on a prevalent myth about the Arsenal squad. It goes something like this: Arsenal did not score enough goals in 2013-14, and the side needs more to contend for the Premier League title, therefore it must recruit a center forward who scores at least 25 goals a season.

As an explanation, this train of thought does have simplicity on its side, a core feature of myth. It also fails to distinguish between correlation and causation of last year's weaknesses, overlooks the historical record, and denies current realities.

Timing of goals was as important as goal total

The final 2013-14 Premier League table makes the obvious point that Arsenal scored far fewer goals than its title competition. Champions Manchester City racked up 102 goals, while second place Liverpool finished with one fewer. Arsenal's total of 68 paled in comparison.

Even Wenger has focused on this discrepancy. "We scored 66 goals," he said before the 2-0 season finale at Norwich gave the Gunners 68 in total, "compared to 100. We have some room for improvement there.

"We miss goals, and that's what we want to improve."

Although Wenger did not say the shortage of goals caused the title challenge to falter, that's the conclusion many critical supporters have drawn and where the error in the premise lies.

It can just as reasonably be said that the context of the goals not scored mattered just as much as the total number. If the team had scored more goals in games that were already decided in its favor, putting five rather than three past West Ham in April, for example, those goals wouldn't have influenced the final standings. Additional goals would have been just as meaningless in those four infamous road contests against Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Everton; Arsenal could have scored 12 more goals arrayed in a certain way and still lost all those matches.

Maybe, then, the issue is not the need for more goals, but the need for important goals in close matches. Aaron Ramsey's emerging specialty. That's Ramsey, midfielder.

The importance of goals against in particular situations

Another route to success would have been conceding fewer goals. Arsenal could have edged out Man City for the title by allowing four fewer goals, the equalizers by Everton, Southampton, and Swansea and Stoke's penalty. The first three turned Arsenal's second-half leads into draws, and the one at Stoke decided that match as a loss. That's eight points forsaken in a campaign that ended with a seven-point gap between first place and fourth.

Sure, several teams could rewrite their league finishes based on fine differences such as these. And the historical correlation between goal difference (not goals scored) and league finishes might make a more probable argument than this counterfactual account in which Arsenal wins the league with a fourth-best, plus-31 goal difference.

I'm willing to see validity in both those points. I just don't want to accept without question the notion that Arsenal's goalscoring inadequacy, which some see as evidence of the squad's poor quality and the manager's incompetence, was an incontrovertible cause of its failure to win the league.

The great man of history

We should also study the records to identify the prolific goalscorers who brought their teams league titles. That's the second element of the myth, that Arsenal must acquire someone to score at least 25 goals to bring that prize back to North London.

With a swift swing, Tim Bostelle of 7amkickoff has batted away that argument. Earlier this week, he answered the question "Do you need a 30-goal scorer to win the league?" with a definitive no. In the 21 Premier League seasons, just six titles have gone to a team with a 25-plus goal scorer.

Tim's examination is pointed and devastating to the myth.

An academic discussion given the situation

If the premises underlying the 25-goalscorer argument are dubious, the realities of August 2014 lay the myth entirely bare. Meaning, even if a prolific, available striker would vastly improve Arsenal's title chances, that player does not exist.

Using the stats on, I searched for players who exceeded the 25-goal threshold in the five major European leagues in the past three full seasons. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are in a class by themselves, all having registered at least 25 goals in each of those seasons. None would be available to Arsenal anyway.

Nor would be others who had netted that many goals at least once:
  • Diego Costa (27 goals for Atletico Madrid in 2013-14), always destined for Chelsea
  • Edinson Cavani (29 for Napoli in 2012-13), massive wages and not leaving Paris Saint-Germain while Ibrahimovic is injured
  • Radamel Falcao (28 for Atletico Madrid in 2012-13), realistically too expensive for Arsenal on a permanent transfer
  • Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney of Manchester United, not Arsenal prospects for obvious reasons
  • Luis Suarez (31 for Liverpool in 2013-14), a sordid case that doesn't bear repeating
There are two strikers from the Bundesliga whose records make them seem more promising, but their careers have likely peaked. Stefan Kiessling scored 25 goals for Bayer Leverkusen in 2012-13, but he's now 30 years old, and 31-year-old Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored 29 for Schalke in 2011-12. By the time either adjusts to the Premier League, he would be well past his prime and unlikely to return to that goalscoring form.

Two players come to mind who are comparable to Giroud, Mario Mandzukic, now of Atletico Madrid, and Mario Balotelli, now of Liverpool. Wenger and his colleagues at Arsenal were not acting unreasonably in declining to pursue those two. Intense salivating has also covered Borussia Dortmund's Marco Reus--great player, not a center forward, never scored more than 16 goals in a campaign, one of the last valuable playing assets at the club. In other words, he's not coming to Arsenal to play center forward.

The likely outcome

Debunking the myth of the center forward helps us set expectations for the next five days. The world-class striker arriving to save the day, or Arsenal management's inability to secure the services of said striker, are equally unrealistic. That player isn't out there to be had.

Instead, as Andrew Mangan argues on this week's Arsecast Extra, the club might acquire someone more experienced and durable than Yaya Sanogo but less accomplished than Giroud. The hope will be that the player fills out the squad in the near term and develops into real competition for Giroud in the longer term.

That's not as exciting as a headline acquisition as the transfer deadline nears, but it's better than perpetuating a myth.

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