04 February 2006

Arsenal Woes

It's a challenging time to be an Arsenal supporter. Things have been grim since the 7-0 beatdown on Middlesboro. We've lost 3 out of 4 played, and even the one win is deceptive -- we beat Wigan 2-1 in the Carling Cup but went out due to their away goal.

So effectively, that's four losses. The 2-3 home loss to West Ham is probably the worst of all, because it was at home and because we dominated so much of the play. Arsenal had 56% of posession and 16 shots; West Ham had only 4 shots, but 3 of those found the back of the net. Worse yet was Sol Campbell's meltdown. What happened on the pitch is clear enough -- a series of horrid errors that gifted two goals to the Hammers. It's less clear what followed next, but in any event, Sol was taken off at the half (for a midfielder; Arsenal had no defenders left). He showered and left the stadium before the game finished, and hasn't been heard from since.

The story since has been well-covered. The bloggers' reaction has been all over the map, from those calling for his head to those asking for more understanding.

Where do I fall? Much of the commentary has really bothered me, so I've thought on it a lot. There is certainly no denying that Sol has played extremely poorly in the last year or so, ever since he returned from injury last spring. Arsenal need better from their players, and I don't have any problem with anyone who says so.

What does bother me is the tendency to blame it on "desire" or "lack of effort". Frankly I think it's bollocks to assume that you can know a player's mental state from watching on TV or in the stands. I wouldn't be comfortable making those kinds of judgements about my coworkers -- people who I spend 45+ hours a week with.

I think one of the huge attractions of socccer is that it's so easy to identify with the players. They're not (obviously) freaks of nature in the way that basketball or football players are. There's very little equipment involved, so it's easy to see what players are doing. And with video closeups, you can see every emotion fly across the players' faces. Then you add in the interviews, the tabloid rumors, the "sources close to the player", and it seems as if every detail of their lives are laid out for us. Mix that with fans who invest so much time and energy and money and care for their teams, and it's no surprise that we start to feel like we can know the depths of these heroes of ours.

But it's an illusion. Perhaps not completely, but it doesn't matter. There's a good chunk of what we think we know about Sol Campbell that's wrong. It's worth remembering that when we see discussion of his 'desire' or 'where his head is at'. For myself, I'll focus on what we really do know, which starts with what he does on the field.

So where does that leave us? Sol's clearly out of the picture at the moment. Ordinarily I'd be OK with that, since he's clearly not been playing up to par. But right now, Arsenal's defensive woes are verging on the ridiculous, with eight defenders unavailable. When there's talk about bringing Martin Keown back into the squad, you know there's trouble. (I will not be disappointed if Ivory Coast lose to Cameroon this afternoon.) But whatever Sol's problems are, it's clear that they're affecting his play, and we'll just have to make do with whoever else we can find.

I'm really unsure what we'll see in the Birmingham match. Our away form has been bad enough, and this makeshift lineup won't add to the confidence. The back line will clearly be a mess, most likely with two central midfielders (Flamini and Larsson) playing as fullbacks. I do however like the partnership between Senderos and Djourou; they play together for the Swiss national team, and they seem to work well together. I would stick with the 4-4-2 -- we often look a mess when we use the 4-5-1 -- but instruct the wide midfielders to protect the back line a bit more than usual. The good news is that our new players are already having an impact; Diaby has been useful if a bit raw, and Walcott will possibly make his debut today. So it could be an interesting lineup.

Despite the poor form, Arsenal are still easily capable of acheiving a Champions League place, which must be the current goal. Even the loss on Wednesday didn't cost them too badly, as everyone ahead of them (save Wigan) dropped points.

So we'll see what happens. Come on you Gunners!

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