25 December 2006

News Flash: Arsenal are Inconsistent

Merry Christmas, everybody!

I haven't written anything about Arsenal's 2-2 draw with Pompey or their more satisfying 6-2 dismantling of Blackburn, mostly because I wasn't able to see either game. And what can you say? When the Gunners were down 0-2 in the Pompey game, I was convinced we would see their first loss in Ashburton Grove. And yet they were able to fight back for the win, nearly finding a winner in the dying minutes. One point is better than none, and it's good to see that the boys can fight with their backs against the wall. Still, Portsmouth is the kind of team they should handle easily at home, so it's not helpful to see another 2 points left on the floor.

Then, the Blackburn game. Once again, the Gunners gave up that silly early goal -- this time handing a penalty to David Bentley before two minutes were gone. Yet this time Arsenal fought their way back into it, led once again by Messers. Silva and Adebayor. Those two are leading the team in Thierry Henry's absence, and doing a good bit of work with it. 3-1 at the half felt safe, but another preventable Rovers goal made for an uncomfortable 3-2 before the wheels came off and Arsenal ran off three more in quick succession. It looks like a spectacular win, but at times it felt like a nail-biter.

That match is a perfect illustration of the Gunners this season. This Arsenal team is frustrating precisely because they're so inconsistent. It's great to see them dismantle Liverpool, or to get the win at Old Trafford. And the draw at Stamford Bridge was well-earned too. Yet they've been crap against the more mediocre teams. I've gone on before about my thoughts on what's wrong with Arsenal at the moment. Suffice to say that the Portsmouth and Blackburn games didn't change my mind. But then I started to wonder, are Arsenal really that inconsistent?

Well, yes.

Let's compare to the other Big Four teams: Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United. Including Arsenal, these are clearly the top teams in the Prem. In the past five years, none of them have finished below fifth, and only twice has another team cracked the top four. The Gunners fully expect to stay among that elite group.

So then we need to define consistency. I'd say that you're always going to have a difficult game against the other Big Four teams; consistency is how well you do against the rest of the league. That's 16 teams, so in a season you could take a max of 96 points against the 'other guys'.

So I took a look at that, back over the last 4.5 years, counting up how many points the Big Four took against the other teams, and marking that as a percent of possible points. So, for instance, this year Arsenal have taken 21 points from a possible 45 against the non-Big Four teams, giving them 51%. I compared those to the team's finishing position. How does that stack up?
    Team    Year            Pos     % points vs 'others'
Man Utd 2006/2007* 1 89%
Chelsea 2004/2005 1 84
Lvrpool 2005/2006 3 81
Arsenal 2004/2005 2 81
Chelsea 2006/2007* 2 81
Arsenal 2003/2004 1 79
Chelsea 2005/2006 1 79
Chelsea 2003/2004 2 75
Man Utd 2005/2006 2 75
Arsenal 2002/2003 2 74
Man Utd 2002/2003 1 72
Man Utd 2003/2004 3 72
Lvrpool 2006/2007* 3 70
Man Utd 2004/2005 3 68
Arsenal 2005/2006 4 66
Chelsea 2002/2003 4 65
Lvrpool 2002/2003 5 61
Lvrpool 2004/2005 5 57
Lvrpool 2003/2004 4 56
Arsenal 2006/2007* 4 54
*Current on 25 Dec 2006.
So. There are a couple interesting things about this list. First, teams that take care of business against the non-Top Four tend to win the league. No surprise there. And this year's Arsenal, so far, are absolutely the worst of all these teams at taking points from lower-placed sides. Thankfully there's still half a season to cover.

But this can't tell the whole story. Teams that do poorly against both good and bad teams will be at the bottom of the list. But that's just consistent, isn't it? Arsenal this year are so maddening because of their inconsistency.

So let's look at it this way. Arsenal have taken 54% of possible points against the non-Big Four teams. But they've taken 7 of 9 against the Big Four; that's 78% of possible points. From 54% to 78% — that's a swing of +24%. How do other teams stack up?
    Team    Year            Pos   %-oth   %-big4    diff
Arsenal 2006/2007* 4 54 78 +24
Man Utd 2002/2003 1 72 78 +06
Chelsea 2005/2006 1 79 83 +04
Man Utd 2004/2005 3 68 67 -01
Arsenal 2003/2004 1 79 78 -01
Chelsea 2004/2005 1 84 78 -06
Man Utd 2005/2006 2 75 61 -14
Chelsea 2006/2007* 2 81 66 -15
Lvrpool 2003/2004 4 56 33 -23
Lvrpool 2002/2003 5 61 28 -33
Arsenal 2002/2003 2 74 39 -35
Chelsea 2003/2004 2 75 39 -36
Chelsea 2002/2003 4 65 28 -37
Man Utd 2003/2004 3 72 33 -39
Lvrpool 2004/2005 5 57 17 -40
Arsenal 2005/2006 4 66 22 -44
Man Utd 2006/2007* 1 89 45 -44
Arsenal 2004/2005 2 81 28 -53
Lvrpool 2005/2006 3 81 22 -59
Lvrpool 2006/2007* 3 70 0 -70
*Current on 25 Dec 2006.
Yes: This year's Arsenal are so far the most inconsistent team. Now, that doesn't mean much in itself. Several other top inconsistent teams won the league. But that's because they just didn't drop many points overall. For instance, the Man Utd of 02/03 took 78% against the Big Four, but they also took 72% against everybody else. They were just a solid team overall. Last year's Chelsea were much the same, and many of the points they did drop came at the end of the year when their title was virtually certain.

And those are the only other teams who did better against the Big Four than everyone else. Which makes sense: you don't expect a team to play better against the league elite than they do against the rabble. I looked at 20 teams, and that was true for 17 of them — and nearly true for two more. What makes Arsenal so unusual?

I've a few thoughts on that, but this post is too long as it is. I will say this, though. It's tempting to blame it on the coaching, and many signs point in that direction. Arsène may have to rethink some things... but in the end, the players have more to answer for.

I'll write on that later. But for now, I'm looking forward to watching Arsenal take on Watford tomorrow. Let's get the second half kicked off right. COME ON YOU GUNNERS!

13 December 2006

Chelsea 1-1 Arsenal; Wigan 0-1 Arsenal

It's not easy, but the Gunners are making progress.

Continuing my tradition of "better late than never," I thought I'd put in a few words about the 1-1 draw with Chelsea on Sunday. Heck of a match, wasn't it? It's the classic kind of tense draw: at different times you're thinking your team will win, lose, and draw; in the end, you feel exhausted and reluctantly satisfied to call it even.

Both teams wanted the three points, but in the end Arsenal feel better about taking one. Chelsea will rue their missed chances, especially from Drogba and Lampard, and the Gunners had to leave feeling a bit lucky there. But on the other hand, it took a seriously good strike from Michael Essien to even bring the Blues level. Were it not for his one good moment, Chelsea could have lost at home for the first time in forever.

And Arsenal? They had some nervy moments in defense, most notably from a few Senderos miscues, and from the fullbacks after Mourinho switched gears with Robben and Wright-Phillips. But they were hard in the tackle all day, and the Flamini goal was extremely well-worked. Mathieu is starting to take on some leadership with the club, and it's gratifying to see him have an impact in games like this and with Liverpool. And I have to give a shout for Gilberto, who has backed up the captain's armband with some magnificent performances.

The quality of play was excellent from both sides; Chelsea are not the dour defenders that they were last year. Which makes their whining and diving even more annoying. It's always hideous to see Drogba throwing himself to the floor, but it's even worse (if possible) when he's having such a great season. As it is, he'll never have a solid reputation if he can't stop his flailing. And the whole team is just pathetic in how they argue with the referees. I have no idea why it is tolerated; were it me, I'd be very tempted to show an early yellow (or two!) for dissent to put a stop to it.

But despite that, it was an interesting match, with good ebb and flow, and a thrilling finish. The draw is a fair result, though both teams will feel they should have done better. The rematch should be an interesting affair.

And then, three points today as Arsenal nick it from Wigan, 0-1 on the late Adebayor goal. Another match that could have gone either way; Henri Camara did much to trouble the Gunners, and Wigan could have easily had a couple goals. But this time, there was no Essien wonder-strike, and instead Arsenal's surging pressure finally forced open the gates.

I haven't seen the game — I heard it online from ATVO. It sounds like the Gunners missed some chances and gave Wigan some too, but in general held the upper hand for much of the match. That's gratifying, particularly when Arsenal fielded a reduced lineup after Sunday's game. Adebayor continued his frustrating but rewarding run, missing a few chances before getting the crucial winner. (His play is fascinating to me, due to its inconsistency, but that's a post for another time.) Much will be made of the fact that it took a Fabregas pass to crack open Wigan; Cesc sat out until 75' and may be seen as the Gunners' savior. But Arsenal did a lot even before he and van Persie came on.

And full credit to Wigan. In their 1.5 seasons in the Prem, they've been a genuine threat despite their short history. Unlike the standard dour relegation candidates that settle like sediment to the bottom of the table every year, Wigan always look to play a positive match, and have earned some surprising and rewarding wins because of it. It surprises me that Paul Jewell has lasted this long without being snapped up by a larger club, but for now I'm glad to see him craft a team that looks up for a win on Any Given Saturday.

So after three solid performances on the road, Arsenal return home to face Portsmouth. Pompey aren't in their best form, with 2-3-2 in their last 7. But this can be a dangerous team. If you haven't yet, see their goals against Everton from Matt Taylor and Kanu. If the Arsenal defense falls asleep, we could see another early goal for the visitors.

07 December 2006

Klinsmann Withdraws. Dammit.

Well, Klinsmann is out as the next US Men's coach.

I'm convinced he would have been a great choice. What's more troubling is the reason behind it -- if rumors are true. Sports Illustrated is reporting that it's due to questions of control:
Klinsmann and USSF president Sunil Gulati apparently are far apart on issues of executive control over the U.S. program, which is more of an issue than money. It was earlier reported that Klinsmann was looking for a deal of up to $2 million a year.
If that's true, it's quite disappointing. It's not as if US Soccer has a great reputation for managing the Men's National Team, particularly in terms of achieving international success. These guys think too much about marketing and not enough about soccer. We can live without Klinsmann. But if the suits are looking to assert control? Watch out.

Evidently, US Soccer will make an announcement later this afternoon. We'll see what happens. But I'm worried that it will not be good news.

Update: The more I think about this, the more disappointed I get. At any rate, US Soccer is holding a conference call tomorrow (Friday) afternoon. We'll see what the deal is then.

What's The Story With Arsenal?

I haven't posted much about the last few games; frankly I haven't known what to say in any depth. Up and down doesn't even describe it. Let's recap. Since the win over Hamburg, we've seen:

Bolton 3-1 Arsenal: What a depressing game. Everyone knew this would be a tough match; Bolton have been a struggle for the Gunners for some time now and they're playing pretty well again this season. But still, the match and the result were depressing. Despite their respective reputations, it was Bolton that looked to have all the ideas, while Arsenal were naive and uninspired.

That was followed by...

Fulham 2-1 Arsenal: If the Bolton match had a feeling of doom wrapped around it, the trip to Fulham was like a nightmare. And we couldn't wake up. Fulham are better than their reputation, but still the Gunners should have been able to keep them in check. Not so; once again an early goal put us under the gun and even a late run forward by Jens Lehmann couldn't buy us a second goal.

Then came relief, in the form of...

Arsenal 3-0 Tottenham: Finally, the breaks went Arsenal's way. Some close refereeing decisions resulted in all three Arsenal goals, as the Gunners took the lead at 20 minutes. Once again, Arsenal showed that an early lead is the prescription; it allows them to attack and relieves the pressure on the defense. And it helped that Spurs were just about woeful.

Finally, we had the spectacle of...

Porto 0-0 Arsenal: There's not much to say about this one, other than the Gunners (and Porto) did what they needed to do. Porto looked more likely to score, but the woodwork was kind and the danger evaporated.

So, there you have it. In 11 days, Arsenal are 1-1-2. Two punishing, humiliating losses, a huge derby win, and a functional draw that saw Arsenal to the top of their group. Emotionally, it's a roller-coaster. But despite the inconsistent outcomes, there's a clear pattern, and I'm not the first to see it.

The first goal is the key. If Arsenal score first, they win. If not, it's a draw or a loss. Rarely this season have Arsenal come from behind to win. Once was the second leg against Dinamo Zagreb, and that's misleading as the Gunners already had a 3-0 lead in the tie. Once was against woeful Charlton. And once was against disappointing Hamburg.

This is fairly surprising, as Arsenal are a high-scoring team (1.64 goals per game so far). With their potent offense, Arsenal should have the ability to come back against anyone. And yet, once they're behind, they struggle to even get the first goal. And lately, they've been behind a lot. Here's a list of all games where Arsenal's opponents have scored, and when the goal came:
19 Aug D vs Villa:     53' (Mellberg )
23 Aug W vs D Zagreb: 12' (Eduardo)
26 Aug L @ Man City: 41' (Barton pen)
9 Sep D vs Boro: 22' (Morrison)
13 Sep W @ Hamburg: 90' (Sanogo)
30 Sep W @ Charlton: 21' (Bent)
17 Oct L @ Moscow: 24' (Carvalho)
28 Oct D @ Everton: 11' (Cahill)
5 Nov L @ West Ham: 89' (Harewood)
18 Nov D vs Newcastle: 30' (Dyer)
21 Nov W vs Hamburg: 4' (van der Vaart)
25 Nov L @ Bolton: 9' (Faye)
29 Nov L @ Fulham: 6' (McBride)
To put it another way: In the 13 matches where Arsenal have given up a goal, on average it comes at 31'. Only 3 times has that goal come in the second half; 5 times that goal came in the first 15 minutes.

That's shocking.

And compare that to some of the matches that Arsenal have won. Just two recent examples, quoting from the BBC:

Liverpool: "Liverpool thought they had taken the lead after 13 minutes when Peter Crouch turned home Alonso's cross, but he had strayed offside. The visitors had enjoyed more than their fair share of possession and territory in the first half..."

Spurs: "Their one and only moment of note came in the 11th minute."

What's going on here?

Well, no surprise from my comments above, but I think it all begins with the defense. Those early goals make the opponents comfortable, allowing them to defend aggressively and counterattack. Defenders lose confidence, becoming jittery and nervous. The midfield bunkers down, afraid to pass to the defenders or to take risks going forward. And the strikers receive no service since the midfielders are tied up. I don't want to oversimplify -- this doesn't explain our poor finishing -- but I do believe it's the root of our challenges. The defense provides the foundation for the team, and the shaky foundation we're seeing now results in an inconsistent team.

You can see it on the flip side, too. No team has come back against Arsenal this year. Once they take the lead, they don't give up goals. The only exceptions are late, meaningless goals in both Hamburg games. Arsenal are a great team once they have the lead. The pressure's no longer on the defense, and that steadies the whole ship.

Which brings us back to the key question: why are the Gunners conceding those early goals? In a word: organization. Watch the tapes. It's not simply poor defending at set pieces; we have given up goals on counterattacks too. But it's confusion and missed assignments that cut us open: a man left unmarked, indecision between two defenders, a poor pass. Even when the goal comes from a great shot, like Anelka's first goal, you can see that the defenders didn't communicate who should pick up the man.

I put that down to two reasons. First, this is a very young defense. Gallas is 29 and Toure is 25; they are the veterans of the back line. After that, you have Eboue (23), Hoyte (22), Senderos (21), Clichy (21), and Djourou (19). Those are young ages for any player, but defenders take longer to bloom because their role depends more on knowledge and decision-making than physical skill. Gallas and Toure have been starters for years, but none of the other players have seen significant playing time in the first team before last year.

That ties to the second reason: the defense has been anything but stable over the last two years. Injuries and youth have driven Wenger to constantly improvise the back line. I'm not going to go look it up, but I suspect we've had seven or eight different defensive alignments this year. Think about it -- if you're Kolo, you have to react differently depending on whether it's Gallas, Senderos, Djourou, or Hoyte playing next to you. And then you have players like Djourou and Hoyte who have switched back and forth between center-half and fullback. That's a hard enough transition for a veteran, but for the kids it has to be daunting. It's no coincidence that our two worst performances (Bolton and Fulham) came right after Gallas was injured. That leaves three players getting on-the-job training for every match.

Look, I'm not offering excuses. If the kids want to be Arsenal players, they have to do better than they have. And that includes times when we lose players due to injury or suspension or whatever. The time to learn is now. The good news is that these kids are talented players. For every mistake, we've seen flashes of brilliance. Once the dust settles -- once the kids get experience and confidence -- the Gunners could have another legendary Back Four.

But in the meantime, Arsenal face Chelsea. Toure is suspended, Djourou may have a hamstring injury, and Gallas is only 20% to play. More turnover in defense.

So there's only one solution: get that early goal! COME ON YOU GUNNERS!

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