offside

Mourinho and PGMOL show Pragmatic side to Arsenal

By Tim Todd, turning a sows ear into a Peirce

It appears, then, that the rule for attaining the third grade of clearness of apprehension is as follows: Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object. – Charles Sanders Peirce, father of Pragmatism, gives his Pragmatic Maxim

If it looks like a cart horse, turns like a cart horse, then it’s probably Peter Crouch. I… ok, I really don’t know what he’s talking about and frankly any mention of Peirce makes my throat go dry and my palms sweaty. Have you ever had to read his original texts? Oh god, that just gave me a flashback, I need to call my therapist. – Tim Todd, decidedly not C.S. Peirce who is like some kind of philosophical god and whose works are as impenetrable as a Jose Mourinho back four.

Arsenal played Chelsea for 90 minutes at the Grove and neither team scored. There was a moment of controversy, or two, and in the end Chelsea players celebrated on Arsenal’s pitch because the draw took them one giant step closer to winning the Premier League title. Chelsea did what they had to do to get themselves closer to winning the title, Arsenal didn’t quite do enough to win the game and get themselves into real title contention. Call it whatever you want, call it parking the bus, call it pragmatism, call it weefleflorvin, whatever you call it, Mourinho came to the Grove to get at least a point and got what he wanted.

Thus ends my Pragmatic match report.

I always found it funny that the father of Pragmatism, C.S. Peirce (whose last name rhymes with “curse”, “coerce”, and “nonsense verse”), wrote such impenetrable works. I know, he’s not writing for us, and he’s, like, a polymath supergenius, but couldn’t he have, just once, been like “ugh… ok, here’s my philosophy, for you dummies”?

A lot of philosophers write densely packed and coded works. It’s almost as if they write in such a way as to intentionally obscure the meaning of their work. Like priests in the dark ages, holding onto scraps of knowledge, and keeping that dangerous knowledge away from us proles.

If you think about it, it’s a bit like how the organization who run refereeing in England act, they are the high priests of the Laws of the Game and they aren’t going to let us in on their secret knowledge. PGMOL, or Professional Game Match Officials Limited, organize match officials in England. They pick the officials for games, train the officials, review the officials, keep the officials fit, and lately have started an “information” campaign for the masses, sending out tiny missives of opinion cloaked as information.

PGMOL piped in this propaganda masked as quasi-information to international broadcasters in yesterday’s match between Arsenal and Chelsea. Contradicting their own official on the field but without benefit of explanation and since they simply told the broadcasters what to say, there was no one to question the “ruling”.

Here is what happened on the pitch: Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas collected the ball deep in his own half, spotted teammate Oscar making a run between two Arsenal defenders, and played a perfectly weighted ball 40 yards over the top and into Oscar’s path. Arsenal’s keeper, Ospina, rushed out to collect the ball, but Oscar got there first and flicked over Ospina, the two players collided in the box, Oscar was knocked out, and it took a heroic effort from Bellerin to get back and clear the ball off the line with a diving header.

Here’s what happened off the pitch: all of the commentators were convinced Chelsea should have had a penalty. Some were convinced that Ospina should have seen a red card. And at the end of the match PGMOL released an amazing statement which NBCSports quoted without criticism: ”[PGMOL] say that Michael Oliver may have changed his decision if he saw [Ospina collide with Oscar] again.”

You should watch the replay over on Arsenalist.com. The first thing you’ll notice is that Oscar is offside, clearly offside. The second thing you’ll notice is the collision and Oscar get knocked out cold. The third thing you’ll notice is that referee Michael Oliver doesn’t make a call and that Bellerin does a fantastic job to get back and save the goal.

offside

What I found shocking, however, is how the broadcasters here in America reported that the PGMOL felt that referee Michael Oliver might have overturned his decision if he’d seen the incident again. There was no mention by PGMOL of the clear offside by Oscar. This incident cannot be a penalty because Oscar was offside and yet the NBCSports announcers and PGMOL have essentially said that Chelsea should have won the match by being awarded a penalty.

The other thing I found shocking is that Oscar played for another 30 minutes before going to hospital at halftime. Chelsea should be sanctioned for allowing Oscar to play on after that collision. They risked his life by keeping him on the pitch. I think that the FA need to review the head injury rules and perhaps force a substitution whenever a player is knocked unconscious. I don’t know, I’m grasping at straws here, but something needs to be done before there is a very serious injury.

I’m going to receive calumny from both the Arsenal fans who want me to complain that Arsenal didn’t do better and I’ll also get an earful from the Chelsea fans who want me to “be fair” and call the Ospina tackle the most brutal murder seen in London since the Victorian era. These two sets of fans will cry that I am complaining about the PGMOL, deflecting, instead of calling for Ospina to receive 3 life sentences in Attica.

I don’t care. The broadcast media uncritically aired propagandist opinions by an organization that looks to me to be fighting for its very existence. They threw Michael Oliver under Mourinho’s parked bus, tossed Jose the keys, and watched as he drove off over Oliver’s body.

The media should refuse to uncritically air their opinions. If PGMOL wants to re-referee matches so that they can look like they are “fair”, they should have a spokesman go on television and face questions. They should have their views challenged. But they can’t have people questioning them because then the whole facade falls apart. It’s easier just to throw Michael Oliver under the bus to make it look like they actually want to get the decisions right. It was a disgusting moment and exposed the PGMOL for the self-serving group that they are. 

As for the match, I know there are a lot of people sitting around today complaining about Mourinho’s “pragmatic” approach to the game. And I agree with them on one point, Mourinho is pragmatic. He’s pragmatic because he is not as tactically astute as people make him out to be. He takes a simplistic approach to the game, buys the very best players, and tells them to go do it. It’s hardly the stuff of genius to buy the very best players and make them play defense first.

But the thing is, he has every right to play that way. As long as his fans are happy, his players are happy, and his owner is happy, he can play any style of football he wants. It’s the opposition’s job to unlock Jose Mourinho’s team and get the win.

Arsenal tried to do that on Sunday and came up a bit short. Mourinho refused Arsenal the space in the middle of the park which would have allowed the Gunners to attack in a more dangerous area. As a result, Arsenal resorted to playing in long crosses which Terry and Cahill dealt with easily – those two Chelsea defenders are most comfortable when the opponents are playing in crosses for them to head out and least comfortable when nimble attackers are running at them.

I felt Arsenal should have countered with fewer crosses and more attempts to get to the end line and draw the ball back. Arsenal’s three best chances of the match came when their defenders (Monreal, Bellerin, and Koscielny) did exactly that. But Arsenal couldn’t get their shots on target and in the end it looked like a comfortable affair for Chelsea.

I don’t know what else there is to talk about in terms of the match. The Gunners weren’t terrible but just not quite good enough to get the win. It’s not even really disappointing, Arsenal weren’t supposed to win, Chelsea have the far more expensive squad, and the simplistic defense-first tactic is difficult to break down. So, it’s just something that Wenger will need to work on this summer.

In the mean time, Arsenal have a real chance to claim second place and all the glory (money) that goes with it. They also have a chance to win back-to-back FA Cup trophies. In Arsenal’s reality, they should be pragmatic, themselves, and remember to focus on what Peirce called the “conceived sensible effects.”

Uh huh..

Qq

Ozil-Welbz

Naveen’s Tactical Column: Verticality, Compactness, and Countering Chelsea’s Parked Bus

By Naveen Maliakkal, Footnote Impresario

An Ideal Day for Jose Mourinho

With the Premier League title almost secured, and the fatigue present in the side due to a lack of rotation[1], it seems likely that Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea will play Sunday’s match with a desire to just not lose. They approached their last fixture, against Manchester United, in a similar fashion. United had 70% possession and only 22% of the game was played in United’s defensive third. While they attempted fifteen shots to Chelsea’s seven, they attempted eight of those shots from outside of the box, and their only two shots on target were from distance. This is the type of football Mourinho enjoys playing, defending in a deep defensive block, and exploiting the space teams concede due to their attacking shape[2].

Against United, Chelsea looked to exploit their defender’s inability to play the ball up from the back, particularly targeting Chris Smalling. Out of possession, Chelsea would sit in a kind of 4-4-2 with Didier Drobga and Cesc Fabregas looking to deny passing lanes from the center backs into midfield. With Drogba’s age and Fabregas’ fitness/fatigue, it would seem too much to ask of the duo to take part in a pressing game, which may have been necessary if United had center backs with an ability to play more like midfielders in possession, allowing them to competently advance with the ball. But with United playing one midfielder deep, in Ander Herrera, Fabregas and Drogba would cede United a numerical superiority at the back to obtain a numerical superiority in the area around Herrera. With the lack of comfort the two Manchester United center backs have playing in wide areas, the option of dropping Herrera into the back line, spreading the players out to create more passing angles behind Chelsea’s front two, and creating a more effective numerical superiority, was not in play. This meant that Chelsea could deny passing lanes into the Spaniard, forcing Manchester United into wide areas.

With Antonio Valencia at RB, United did not pose of a threat to Chelsea’s left side. This led to United’s attack having a significant left-sided bias, with 41% of their attacks coming from that flank (as per, Whoscored.com), as Luke Shaw represented a superior option to Valencia in building attacks from deeper positions.

When United want to attack through the center, but find it difficult to break their opponent’s lines, they usually look to use Fellaini’s size and brutishness to win aerial duels, allowing them to advance the play. With Nemanja Matic looking quite fatigued, Chelsea could not rely on him to control as much space as they could earlier in the season. Also, the physical contest of going up against Fellaini could have exhausted Matic. With Chelsea lacking the proper depth to replace what he does, especially in possession, it could make their limited opportunities to counter too inept.

Mourinho opted to field Kurt Zouma in midfield as a kind of man-marker against Fellaini. While young, not sophisticated in his understanding of the game, and lacking the technical ability to solve the problems that come with defending in midfield, Zouma’s impressive athleticism made him a fine candidate to mark the Belgian out of the game. Fellaini’s only recourse was to drift into wide areas, which did leave Chelsea vulnerable, as Zouma could get dragged out of the center, forcing a fatigued Matic to control too much space. This proved particularly effective when Fellaini drifted towards United’s left.

Overall, Chelsea had no problem with United’s center backs passing the ball back and forth between themselves or building down the flanks. The former involved Manchester United failing to move the ball into dangerous areas. The latter played right into Chelsea’s center backs strengths. While John Terry and Gary Cahill are rather incompetent defending in a high line, the simpler task, on both the mind and the legs, of defending in their box, comes naturally to them. Having to pay attention to 180 degrees of space rather than 360 degrees of space, combined with their size, made them more than able to win aerial duels and make clearances on balls played in from wide areas.

Arsenal’s Potential Problems in Possession

Arsenal have a similar problem to Man U with their ability to play a possession-based game against Chelsea [3]. With Gabriel replacing Per Mertesacker, Arsenal have replaced one of the best line-breaking passers at center back, with a player who lacks any identifiable quality on the ball, at this point in his career.

Arsene Wenger desires a more vertical passing game from the back. This way, Arsenal can break a defensive line, and then break another, before the opposition can retreat and get men behind the ball. Arteta represents Arsenal’s best option at holding midfielder, if they want to build from the back, especially in the Wenger manner. His movement and positioning can work to make him an option for the center backs, but, more importantly, it works to create passing lanes into more advanced midfield areas.

For any the talk of the downgrade from Arteta to Coquelin in terms of what they do on the ball, it is this lack of quality out of possession, when the team has possession, that represents the biggest drop-off in quality that Arsenal experience with Coquelin on the pitch instead of Arteta. Coquelin often looks lost when his teammates have the ball. He does not understand how to free himself up to consistently provide an option for his teammates, nor does he show an understanding of how to create those vertical passing lanes for his center backs.

(Examples of the forthcoming passage from Reading v. Arsenal)

Debuchy passes to Cazorla, Cazorla turns inside. Coquelin is watching the ball, like a hawk!
Debuchy-Cazorla
Cazorla turns upfield and passes to Ozil:
Cazorla-Ozil
Ozil is in double coverage but he beats both men with his touch:
Ozil-beats-two
And immediately turns up field to find Welbeck:
Ozil-Welbz
Reading are forced to foul Welbz — look at the space in front of him and the positioning of Alexis, this is a goal-scoring chance snuffed out by a foul:
Welbz-fouled

This became quite problematic for Arsenal against Reading, in the semi-final of the FA Cup. In the beginning of the match, one can see Coquelin watching the ball, but not playing a role in Arsenal’s control of space in possession. He is not wont to drop into the back line to create a situational back three, allowing Arsenal to spread out at the back, giving them more passing angles to bypass Reading’s front two. He is not a threat to receive the ball, execute a proper turn, and either move forward or immediately play the ball to another teammate in an advanced position. This forces Santi Cazorla to move wide into the build-up, which does create space for Mesut Ozil to drop into, so to receive the ball however, it reduces the number of options in more advanced areas. Ultimately, Arsenal could not control central areas of the pitch well enough, forcing them wide, hoping to move the ball into the interior, forcing Ozil drop deep, or calling for Koscielny to hit speculative long balls. Fortunately for Arsenal, Reading are not Atletico Madrid, defending more like an English side than a proper defensive side, and Mesut Ozil is a phenomenally intelligent footballer, meaning that the lack of verticality in this type of build-up, allowing Reading to get men behind the ball, did not prove too problematic, as long as Arsenal reduced the verticality in their build-up.

A more worrying example came in the second half, after Mertesacker left with an injury. In this passage, Arsenal are trying to build an attack from the back, while maintaining a more Wenger-like level of verticality in midfield. Again Coquelin shows his ability to watch the play unfold, but not much else. The result is a passage of U-shaped passing, a common sign of an a team’s inability to control the center of the pitch in possession, with the ball moving from fullback, to center back, to center back, to full back, and back again.

While Arsenal could get away with this with a ball-carrier at fullback, like Hector Bellerin, having Mathieu Debuchy and Kieran Gibbs at fullback meant that Arsenal had problems advancing the ball down the flanks. Even Bayern Munich, a team that dominates wide areas and half-spaces better than any side in the world, rely on the likes of Juan Bernat and Rafinha to push the ball forward, commit defenders, and either beat them or exploit the space the committing defender concedes with the right pass[4]. The passage of play ends with Debuchy losing the ball. Reading create a chance on a counter attack led by Pavel Pogrebynak and Jamie Mackie playing the same role, in the counter, that Eden Hazard will on Sunday.

If Arsenal do persist with a kind of 2-4-4 build-up, with two central midfielders and the two fullbacks spread out in front of the two center backs, then Arsenal will have to rely on Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil’s close control to work in tight spaces, beat defenders, and open things up so Arsenal can advance the ball through the center. While Kurt Zouma is not the right type of player to use in a man-marking scheme against Cazorla, as Cazorla challenges a defenders’ quickness and sophistication of thought rather than their physical ability, Mourinho could opt to take Cazorla out of the game with a man marker (he likes to use Oscar for this, Tim). And unless Hector Bellerin plays, having the full backs carry the ball forward seems like a recipe for disaster, as Chelsea can use the sideline as an extra defender, isolate the fullback, win it back, and sprint towards Arsenal’s goal.

Compactness in Possession: Reject the “English” Desire for Expansive Shapes

While the commentators for the FA Cup semi-final talked about Arsenal needing width and Walcott being the man to provide it, it was less Walcott coming on and more Coquelin coming off that improved Arsenal’s possession. By having Aaron Ramsey in that deeper midfield role, Arsenal had a player with the intelligence off the ball and the ability on the ball to allow for greater control of the center of the pitch. With Theo Walcott on the pitch, who struggles to provide value in the build-up play against a deep defending side, it became crucial that Arsenal could control the center of the pitch better, due to the substitution reducing their effectiveness in one of the wide areas.

This greater potential for control manifested itself almost immediately after the substitution. With Ramsey in the deepest midfield role, Arsenal had someone who defenders have to worry about. This allowed the fullbacks to tuck inside, keeping the line compact, as they did not have to space themselves out as much to find free space, which gave Arsenal three men close enough together to exert a numerical advantage over Reading’s defensive front. With the line of three able to play into the next line, both Ozil and Cazorla stayed higher up the pitch, staggering themselves so to not be directly in front of their teammates. One could classify this more as a 2-3-2-3 kind of build-up. This allowed Arsenal to comfortably work the ball down the left, with Ramsey giving Arsenal a numerical advantage, ultimately leading to a shot on goal from the Welshman.

(Here is Ramsey taking the ball forward for a shot from the holding midfield role – note that Cazorla’s on the right, Ozil’s on the left, as Naveen points out, they get to go forward more where they are more effective. On a side note, if you look in the upper right corner, like “Where’s Waldo?” you’ll see Gibbs, hiding behind the defenders, in a great position to get caught out on a counter attack. -Tim)

Ramsey-Reading

 

So, while there are obvious costs of not playing with Coquelin, particularly apparent when Arsenal lose the ball, the gains in possession from having someone who has even the smallest idea of what to do, both on and off the ball, (or in Ramsey’s case plenty of ideas on what to do) are immense. Not only did having Ramsey in that role help Arsenal control central areas but, their ability to maintain a more narrow shape played a positive role as well.

By keeping a narrow shape in possession, the ball can change direction more quickly, making it harder for the defensive unit to ideally solve resource allocation problems, and it allows for a better ability to gain control of important spaces and exploit important spaces at the right moment in time. This is why sides that play a narrow shape in possession require intelligence and technically gifted players who can work in tight spaces, along with identifying and exploiting transient opportunities to control more desirable areas of the pitch.

Maybe most importantly, a narrow shape in possession facilitates counter-pressing and better control of space by the unit, if possession is lost. Counter-pressing may also help Arsenal score goals against a stubborn Chelsea.

To score goals, a team needs to bait the opposition out of position, so to gain control/exploit the spaces they want. Some teams do it with possession. Some teams do it by giving their opponent control of possession and waiting for their opponent to get into a poor defensive shape. With counter-pressing, a team combines both approaches.

First, the attacking team uses their possession to advance the ball into a space that serves a purpose in possession, but also allows for effective counter-pressing. If the attacking team loses possession, the opponent potentially moves into a bad defensive shape, as they try to execute an attacking transition. The counter-press then wins the ball back, and with the opposition defense out of shape, the side that started with the ball now has a greater ability to exploit/control space than they did when the passage of possession happened.

With long balls to Giroud having lowered effectiveness against the likes of Terry and Cahill, counter-pressing could prove Arsenal’s best way of breaking down Chelsea’s defense, as their attempt to start an attacking transition leaves them ill-suited to control space, if they lose the ball. Therefore, as was observed against Manchester City, Liverpool, and Manchester United this season, Arsenal may need to show proficiency in an aspect of football they have rarely showcased under Arsene Wenger, if they wish to earn all three points.

@njm1211

[1] It seems like the Chelsea strategy for winning the EPL was fly and die, where they hoped to build a large enough lead at the start to not have to worry about the title during the final quarter-season, when the physical attrition would manifest
[2] Against teams that understand positional play with respect to controlling space with possession and controlling space in the event of a loss of possession, defending in a deep block can lead to a side being pinned into their penalty box, hoping for luck, an insane ability to block shots, an immense goalkeeping performance, to obtain a desirable result. See Chelsea’s entire 2012 Champions League run in which all three of those factors were in play, in that order of importance
[3]Unless Arsenal plan on getting a 0-0, they will be forced into a possession based game. If they score though, it could prove problematic for a Chelsea side whose XI could be ill-suited to controlling space with possession.
[4]One can see how important it is to build a side of eleven players who understand what to do with the ball at their feet and when they do not have the ball at their feet to allow a team to control space in possession.

Fabregas, Pires, Goatee

Remember when Cesc beat Vieira? Who will beat Cesc this weekend?

Think back to March 2006. What were you doing?

I was standing in my basement, watching a Champions League football match. The top billing for the match read “Arsenal v. Juventus” which should be a big game all by itself, the team who finished second in the Premier League versus the best team in Italy¹. But the real game, the drama, was played out in midfield as an 18 year old Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal prodigy, played head-to-head with one of the giants of the game, Patrick Vieira, former Arsenal captain.

Vieira had left Arsenal that summer to join Juventus and Chris Harris, writing for Arsenal.com, on the day before the match put it thus:-

In the pubs and bars around Highbury – not to mention the pages of Arsenal’s fanzines – Patrick Vieira has been a hot topic of conversation this season.

Were Arsenal right to sell him last summer? Did they replace him adequately? If Edu had stayed, would Vieira have been missed? Would Cesc Fabregas have risen to prominence if Vieira still occupied a first-team place?

“Has Vieira been replaced” is a bit of a funny question now, 9 years later, because we are still asking the same thing and coming up with the same answer: nope. The truth is that players like Vieira are irreplaceable. No one asked the Chicago Bulls “have you replaced Michael Jordan?” when he retired (for the first, second, and third times) because everyone knows that Jordan was a unique player. The same with Vieira, his size, power, and tactical awareness combined with stamina and a natural technique made him a unique player in world football. All comparisons fade away upon any cursory inspection. He is and was irreplaceable.

What you can do, however, is find another unique talent and build around him. That is what Arsene Wenger did when he found Cesc Fabregas and put him almost straight away into Arsenal’s first team.

Ten days before the Juventus match, I was in London for Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Charlton. On the day 38,000 fans sat in the freezing cold on a cloudless day and watched in pure yellow sunlight the dawning of an 18 year old prodigy. Despite his mullet and Alice band, Cesc Fabregas charmed every single Arsenal fan that day. This little slip of a lad, moving effortlessly to the exact right place to collect a pass, passing the ball perfectly to a teammate in open space, his head constantly on a swivel, knew where all of his teammates were and where they would be when he needed them to advance the ball, dominated Charlton that day.

There was a man sitting next to me at that match and I remember his words as clear as today. He was talking to his friend and he point out Fabregas and said, “that Fabregas, what a magnificent player, just look at the way he seems to create space and time.”

It was a key insight, something I had never heard before and so I watched for it. Sure enough, Fabregas, because he knew where everyone was around him and had the technique to receive and get them the ball, was able to move into spaces that people would otherwise overlook. And these were tiny spaces on a crowded pitch, with giant players running at him full speed. But like an Aikido master, he just used their own momentum and power against them, and created even more space and more time.

So, in the build-up to the Juventus match, what everyone wondered was whether this 18 year old kid could weave his magic against a former Arsenal colossus. Patrick Vieira was the man who dominated Arsenal’s midfield for 9 years before that match. He was the man who acted as both bulwark for Arsenal’s defense and spearhead for Arsenal’s attack. Vieira was also Arsenal’s emotional leader, lifting the team by going nose-to-nose with the infamous bullies of the day, players like Roy Keane². Patrick Vieira was everything for Arsenal.

But in their head-to-head Fabregas ruled the day. Fabregas dictated the tempo of the match, keeping things close to him at all times, and simply passing and moving. On Highbury’s tiny pitch, and facing a Juventus team which outsized them in nearly every position, Arsenal were forced to probe slowly, prodding, looking for an opening and Cesc Fabregas did exactly that, showing a patience which belied his tender years.

Fabregas scored the opening goal in the 40th minute, taking a pass from Thierry Henry, and sort of scuffing the ball between the legs of Thuram and into the lower corner as Buffon stood and watched. His celebration was pure joy and is often the very picture of Fabregas’ time at Arsenal.

Fabregas also set up Henry for the second goal, getting to the end line and cutting the ball back. Henry expertly controlled the pass (it wasn’t the best pass to be honest) and fired into an open net.

Vieira’s humiliation was complete as he received a late yellow card and because of his foul would miss the return leg in Turin. After that, Juventus seemed to lose the plot and Camoranesi and Zebina were both sent off. A 2-0 win, with 2 red cards and a yellow card to the former Arsenal captain, Arsenal had destroyed the Italian champions.

But it was more than just a win. With the win, Arsenal signaled a new era for the club, what we would later call “the Fabregas era.” There was a major shift in the way that Arsenal played football after that — or perhaps we were just more in tune with the shift after that match. The Gunners focused less on swift counter attacks, less on a big, powerful midfielder, and instead dominated possession with intricate passing, technically gifted midfielders, and constant movement.

There is so much more that can be said about the Fabregas era, much of which was well said by Les Crang in his Rogues Gallery column yesterday, and I will leave that for now. Suffice it to say that Fabregas left Arsenal (in a huff), went to Barcelona, and then orchestrated a move to Chelsea. That was three seasons ago, almost four years, and I have to wonder, has Arsene Wenger replaced Cesc Fabregas? And if he has replaced him, who is it? Will we have a repeat of Juventus 2006, where the once great Arsenal player returns and his game is completely overshadowed by his replacement?

There are many candidates for Cesc’s replacement. Cesc himself was tipped as his own replacement. During his contract talks with Chelsea, Arsenal had a chance to pay him £200k a week and buy him back from Barcelona but for myriad reasons³ Arsene rejected the player. Martin Keown claims that Ramsey is the man, though I have my doubts. Ramsey is a fantastic footballer but I don’t know if you can build a team around him as we did with Fabregas. The common consensus this summer is that Özil is that man. Özil certainly shares many of the traits that Fabregas has: he finds space, he creates time, and he is the most technically gifted player I’ve seen play the game. Özil also came with a massive price-tag and if anyone is going to be your franchise player it’s probably going to be the record signing, right?

But I don’t think Arsene has started building his team around Özil. I think Arsene is building his team around Alexis Sanchez. And I think Alexis is that franchise player.

When Alexis first came to Arsenal, you could see right away that he was different from all the other players. First, he’s a body in constant motion. You know how they set the atomic clocks to the constant vibration of atoms? Well, God sets the vibrations of atoms to the constant motion of Alexis Sanchez. Second, it’s his constant motion which has led to the development of a new style of play at Arsenal. A style of play where the team rely on hard work up front to press the opposition into errors. I remarked on this early on, possibly his first match with Arsenal; Alexis was constantly closing down space on the opposition defenders and causing problems along the way, while his teammates seemed confused by this new style of play. I said then that I hoped his teammates learned to play with Alexis and not the other way around. In other words, I hoped that they adopted his style and not that he adopted Arsenal’s stale, passing and possession, style.

In my opinion it looks like Arsenal have done just that. The Gunners beat Liverpool with a high press. They beat Man U at Old Trafford with a similar style of harassing the opposition when they have the ball. It looks to me like Arsene might have found the player he wants to build around, Alexis.

It’s telling that Wenger believes Alexis is the Premier League player of the season. Most pundits have already given that award to Chelsea star Eden Hazard but Wenger sees Alexis as a close second this year and as a winner next:-

“He should run him [Hazard] very close [this season],” Wenger said. “He has had a big impact and let’s remember, it is not the first season [in England] for Eden Hazard. For Alexis Sanchez it is his first season.

“If Alexis doesn’t make it this year, he will give him a fight for next season. He is my choice for Player of the Year, but only because he is my player.”

As much as Arsenal fans see this match as the return of Fabregas and as much as we want to see if Ramsey or Özil will outplay Fabregas the way that Cesc did to Vieira in 2006 I think this is actually a matchup between Alexis and Hazard. Chelsea isn’t built around Fabregas, his job is to get the ball to Hazard. Much the same way Arsenal isn’t build around Özil, his job is to get the ball to Alexis.

What I’m hoping for is a chance to see Alexis get one over on Hazard.

Qq

¹Juventus were stripped of their 2005 and 2006 Serie A titles as punishment for their involvement in the 2006 Italian Football match-fixing scandal known colloquially as “Calciopoli”.
²Keane once crushed a man’s kneecap for laughing to him
³The manner which he left Arsenal still stings. I wouldn’t be surprised if he lost Wenger’s trust in that deal and once you can’t trust a player, how can you build a team around him?