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

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 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").


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.