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.