Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Match Preview, Hull City v Arsenal: The Match No One Wanted

Neither Arsenal nor Hull City had this on a list of preferences—an FA Cup 5th Round replay in the middle of crucial fixtures in other competitions. Yet Tuesday’s meeting at the KC Stadium appeared on the agenda after neither side could score at the Emirates on February 20th.

In that contest, a combination of tame Arsenal finishing and an outstanding performance by Hull goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic prevented the Gunners’ dominance from being decisive.

Tigers’ manager Steve Bruce’s approach was a little odd, changing his team’s setup to a very defensive 3-5-1-1 even though a draw didn’t suit him. He may have figured that going for a sucker punch was the best way to knock Arsenal out at home.

This time, Hull has no reason to play more assertively. Another 90-minute clean sheet, followed by extra time and potentially a penalty shootout, would give Bruce’s team a reasonable chance of advancing to host Watford in Saturday’s quarterfinal.

A priority on defending makes even more sense in light of Hull’s own recent struggles in front of goal. The Tigers have scored just once in their last five matches, including the first leg against Arsenal, despite shooting 72 times.

That relative impotence has contributed to Hull’s fall from the Championship’s top spot to third place, outside the top-two positions that secure promotion to the Premier League.

Of course, Arsenal are no strangers to inefficient finishing, scoring just 46 goals from the 356 chances (12.9 percent) they’ve created in league play. The gap between the Gunners’ Expected Goals (xG) and their goals scored is the widest in the league.

Perhaps Arsenal’s better than expected performance on that measure against Tottenham on Saturday will be the start of an improving trend: Two goals, one at a numerical disadvantage, from an xG measure of 0.7.

There were other encouraging signs from Saturday’s combative 2-2 draw in the North London Derby.

Despite Francis Coquelin’s dismissal in the 55th minute, the Gunners held their own statistically, with passing numbers comparable to their opposition’s. The midfield seemed more coherent as well, as Mohamed Elneny’s inclusion in the center and Aaron Ramsey’s return to the right resulted in quicker ball movement and enhanced defensive cover. And once they had pulled level through Alexis Sanchez’s first league goal since mid-October, Arsenal created the chances most likely to produce a match-winning goal.

Do these indications of progress tell us anything about the team’s prospects for Tuesday? After all, a fair number of Saturday’s starters won’t see action against Hull. Don’t be surprised, though, if Wenger gives Alexis another go in an effort to build on the Chilean’s spirited and successful showing against Tottenham. He’ll help the Gunners put greater pressure on Hull’s back line and help them win their first FA Cup replay since eliminating Swansea in the 3rd Round in 2013.

Key Matchup

Arsenal’s fullbacks against Hull’s wide defenders. Hull succeeded in funneling Arsenal’s attacks into central areas in the first leg, so the onus will be on the Gunners to widen their play on Tuesday. Without any true, touchline-hugging wingers, Arsenal will rely on its fullbacks to stretch the Hull defense.

Calum Chambers will probably get the nod on the right, while either Nacho Monreal, if he’s shaken off the minor injury that kept him out Saturday, or Kieran Gibbs will play on the left. All are capable on the ball; they’ll need to be quick, clever, and dynamic to offer the variety and danger that seemed lacking in the home fixture.

Where to Worry

This Arsenal side seems its own biggest challenge at times, in the sense that bad decision-making and lackluster displays have kept it from fulfilling its potential. Its task on Tuesday is twofold: Re-energize itself after a physically and emotionally taxing derby, and combine effectively as a selection that hasn’t played together much. This will not be easy work against a determined and accomplished Championship side on an iffy pitch.

Match Verdict

Arsenal moves the ball quickly and succeeds at moving Hull City’s defenders out of position. Joel Campbell and one of Alexis or Ramsey bring ingenuity to the proceedings, and Alex Iwobi keeps things flowing to his attacking teammates. Hull are stubborn but can’t hold out.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Alex Iwobi. Arsenal’s latest young talent has caught the eye in home cup matches, receiving the ball on the turn, slipping past defenders, and picking some dangerous passes. If he can keep the ball moving away from home, the Gunners will get good chances to score.

Hull City. Edin Jakupovic. It was his blinder in London that made this replay necessary. If the Hull keeper can stop Arsenal early, the favorites might start to doubt their prospects while the hosts gain confidence.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Match Preview, Tottenham v Arsenal: The Vermaelen Moment?

Since the trip to Liverpool in mid-January, our match previews have been exhorting Arsenal to stand and deliver. To stake a claim to the Premier League title.

It’s no revelation that they haven’t done so. Eight points from seven matches is the proof.

Now, the Gunners’ visit to the most threatening Tottenham side in half a century carries some major implications. Those include losing a third consecutive league match for only the fourth time in manager Arsène Wenger’s 20-year tenure, falling nine points behind leaders Leicester City with only nine matches to play, casting serious doubt on another St. Totteringham’s Day due to a six-point deficit, and raising the risk of finishing below the Champions League positions.

Given these massive stakes and the toothless performances produced by the team recently, the question arises—Does Wenger see this as another Vermaelen moment? A point in the season that necessitates a radical move?

You’ll recall that after a 2-1 defeat in the March 2013 North London Derby left Arsenal 10 points adrift of the rivals, Wenger benched club captain Thomas Vermaelan and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and rode the new central defensive partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker to eight wins and two draws in the season’s final 10 matches. That run, during which the Gunners gave up just five goals, allowed them to pip Spurs for third place and that season’s last Champions League spot.

A similar shakeup seems needed to push this team to a strong finish. Even that might not be enough to grab the league title, but it could aid Arsenal’s efforts to win a third straight FA Cup and to quell a supporter revolt.

Wenger can consider several options. As was the case when midfielders Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin were injured in the fall, the manager could change the formation and work different personnel into the mix.

Because the midfield hasn’t seemed coherent in Cazorla’s absence and because Tottenham may be the best English team at exploiting that particular weakness, Wenger could switch to a 4-3-3 with Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey, and Mohammed Elneny offering physicality, energy, and better flow in the midfield. An even more extreme solution, explored by Dave Seagar in “The New Formation to Best Use Our Fit Players, Re-energize Alexis, and Beat Spurs,” would be a 4-3-1-2 with the midfield just described and the striker pairing of Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez.

That such overhauls seem like reasonable responses shows the extent of Arsenal’s struggles.

There’s also the option of adjusting the personnel within the current framework. This is the choice Wenger made after the Coquelin and Cazorla injuries, an approach that proved neither optimal nor fatal through November and December.

With the players available now, a similar lineup adjustment seems less problematic. Elneny could come into the midfield beside Coquelin in the 4-2-3-1, helping to break pressure with his canny movement and clean passing. Ramsey could move forward and right, whence he served the midfield and attack well in the fall. Indeed, that deployment, with Olivier Giroud or Danny Welbeck as the lone striker, looks closest to the one that appeared so strong in October.

It would be a bit harsh for Joel Campbell, who was Arsenal’s brightest player in the midweek loss to Swansea, but he’ll see action either Saturday or Tuesday in the FA Cup replay at Hull City.

Whichever selections Wenger makes, his charges will face a stern test. Tottenham are energetic, physical, and well-drilled. They too lost on Wednesday, but that was a dip in an otherwise impressive run of results. They might be susceptible to being pressed themselves and have shown some weakness defending set pieces—cue Mesut Özil and Danny Welbeck on the latter. Otherwise, they seem designed to overwhelm Arsenal in its current state.

And yet, these matches aren’t played in theory, on keyboards, or on lifelike video games. As long as that’s the case, possibilities abound until the final whistle blows.

Key Matchup

Francis Coquelin against Delli Alli. As Adrian Clarke observed on the club’s weekly podcast, the confrontation of the teams’ energetic youngsters may determine the shape of the match. Alli is the trigger of the Spurs press whose quickness forces opposition midfielders into hasty decisions. He latches onto turnovers and launches Tottenham’s attack.

Coquelin will certainly need technical assistance breaking that Alli-led line of pressure, but he should have no problem in the physical battle. The Frenchman gives as good as he gets and has shown signs of strengthening form against Manchester United and Swansea.

Where to Worry

Honestly, the signs from Arsenal’s recent performances are not encouraging. Goals have been lacking, the midfield has been disjointed going forward and retreating, experienced defenders have made poor decisions. The savior, goalkeeper Petr Cech, has come up lame, so David Ospina will have to keep Spurs out.

Match Verdict

Spurs apply an uncomfortable amount of pressure for 70 minutes and hope that pays off in a lead that they can ride the final 20 minutes. Arsenal go back to basics, show some professional pride, and produce a disciplined performance. The match turns on a set piece or the referee’s decision.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. He starts on the right or leads the line. His speed, physicality, desire to make up for lost time, and growing confidence in front of goal could make the day extremely difficult for Tottenham’s defenders, who, though organized, can’t match Welbeck’s athleticism.

Manchester United. Christian Eriksen. The Dane creates from the flanks for Spurs and is a crafty deliverer of set pieces. Arsenal’s midfielders need to track his movements, and defenders can’t give away silly free kicks to him.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Arsenal's Problems Aren't Mine

If you’ve read any of my writing on Arsenal, you’ll have gathered that I approach the subject with an analytical eye and attempt to offer a reasoned perspective. This suits my demeanor and I hope makes my efforts distinctive, if probably not unique.

This piece will be a departure from that style and outlook.

The context is, of course, the team’s three consecutive losses and its apparent squandering of a reasonable shot at the Premier League title. But the focus isn’t on the team’s performances, its needs in the short- and long-term, or manager Arsène Wenger’s competence. There are myriad voices discussing those matters, few in edifying ways.

Instead, I want to address—feel compelled to address—two characteristics of the Arsenal supporter mindset, aggrievement and resignation, and the unhealthy and pointless application of these characteristics.

Let go

Let’s establish the main premise first. We supporters have virtually no control over what happens at the club. There is some evidence to suggest that match-day fans can, through positive reinforcement, strengthen players’ states of mind. Their psychological advantages, which escape those who haven’t excelled in elite athletic competition, are strengthened when they perceive they’re being supported.

Other than that, we are powerless. The Arsenal board does not consider us when it’s taking action, Wenger and his staff don’t factor our perspectives into their planning, and the players don’t ultimately feel responsibility or anything toward us.

Now, I understand that there’s a direct line between this feeling of powerlessness and outrage. Any observer of politics, particularly US politics, has to acknowledge that. But I think we have a choice individually and collectively over how we handle the lack of control. Actually, our reaction is the only thing we can control.

It helps to recognize that when a group of 20- to 33-year-old men fail in an athletic endeavor, that’s no reflection on my worth as a person. Maybe they didn’t provide the uplifting distraction we were looking for. Maybe we’re disappointed because we expect better when we invest our time, money, and emotional energy.

Does that mean my family doesn’t value me, my associates don’t respect my contributions, my friends no longer enjoy my company, my other pastimes don’t fulfill me? No.

So outrage, particularly in the form of abuse, is twisted and pointless. It’s also boring.

The quest for fun

Second premise: Sport is entertainment.

I know many people are making a statement of cultural affinity when they support a team. So the connection is a deep psychological one that may seem impossible to separate from who we are.

I also acknowledge that entertainment means different things to different people. I personally prioritize enjoyment and inquiry in my entertainment, which means I prefer pastimes that I learn something from, laugh at, or feel taken away from myself in some way.

Others see entertainment as a way to relieve their frustrations, often connected to an impulse to voice criticisms. There’s also a belief among some that they can criticize sources of entertainment and seem smart or clever, especially in the era of social media.

We’re free, of course, to choose types of entertainment and to react in a way that matters for us individually. The problem is that some of those reactions, distributed and intensified by the Internet, reduce the value for others. That provokes another choice—keep paying attention or seek the benefits somewhere else.

It’s really a question of how we want to spend our limited time on this earth, a choice which might, I believe, extend our time here. We can wallow in the negativity, think we’re smarter because we notice the problems, and resign ourselves to the worst-case scenario.

Embrace the uncertainty

This resignation, in the form or low-stakes gallows humor, is a popular choice in the British Isles. Stiff upper lip and all that. I understand how it helps cushion the blows when unwelcome events, such as losses by one’s preferred sports team, occur. I also understand how resignation and its interpretive offshoots predictability and inevitability help brains process random, complex, and uncontrollable events.

Indeed, all of the post facto observations about predictability are just methods of self-soothing. “We saw that coming.” If you saw the worst coming and you still paid attention, you are sick.

Or maybe outcomes of human endeavors, including sporting competition, aren’t predictable at all. Although chances of specific results are better or worse based on correlations in the past, each event is new and could conclude in many ways.

That is why more and more people watch the Premier League, for example, because despite the correlation between expenditures on salaries and transfer fees and final position in the league table, the end is not at all predictable. We can’t foresee the champion, and we certainly can’t know the winner of each individual match.

If your method of coping with this uncertainty is to identify the most uncomfortable outcome and make quips about it, okay. I guess that can be entertaining and funny in small doses. As a persistent tone and unyielding point of view, though, it’s tiresome.

What’s the healthy response? Well, I’d say maintaining perspective, respecting others’ decisions if ignoring their tedious expressions, and focusing our energies on things we can control.

My hope is that the Arsenal first team will respond to its recent setbacks in this mature way. If they can't, I'll recognize that it's no reflection on me personally.