07 December 2006

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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