Monthly Archives: December 2012

Wigan 0-1 Arsenal: early Christmas presents

The rain was coming down in biblical proportions, the players looked like they were running in treacle, the passes were slow, the pitch was bumpy, Arsenal looked disinterested for long periods, and Wigan fought tooth and nail but Arsenal managed to take all three points at the DW stadium thanks to a well-taken Mikel Arteta penalty.

It was raining so hard prior to the match that many wondered if the game wouldn’t be canceled and judging by the empty seats in the stands, many Wigan fans stayed home regardless. Arsenal’s away support, however, was there in numbers and whereas Roberto Martinez’ men had to toil in the rain in relative silence*, the Arsenal enjoyed a full atmosphere boisterously filled with holiday cheer.

As you would expect on a cold and wet day in the Northwest, there was no room in the Arsenal end for those who weren’t there to support. And so, when two men tried to unfurl an anti-Wenger banner in the Arsenal end, a scuffle broke out and several Arsenal fans were ejected.

If only the Arsenal players showed as much fight as the fans. Arsenal started the game well enough and within 11 minutes already had two shots on goal. It was shaping up to be the kind of game where the opposition keeper plays out of his skin but after the second save Wigan closed up shop in the middle of the pitch and cut off service to Cazorla. The problem for me is that Arsenal never looked too bothered to try to get back into the game.

Before the match, Cazorla opined that perhaps the Premier League needed a winter break and right from kickoff looked as if he had already taken the week off. It wasn’t entirely his fault, all the Arsenal men looked sluggish except the lively Jack Wilshere who was covered in mud within minutes.

Wilshere was both putting himself about and was the target of reciprocal fouls and for the third game in a row it was apparent that the opposition targeted him for rotational fouling. Wigan kicked Wilshere repeatedly in the first half but it would be the Arsenal man who picked up the game’s first yellow. He was dispossessed in midfield by Shaun Maloney and went in hard but fair to win the ball back. Referee Jon Moss took several tense moments to sort out which card to produce but in the end it was just a yellow.

FOUL!

It was a terrible call by Moss. Replays showed that Wilshere won the ball and went in just one footed. Was there a little malice in the challenge? Perhaps, but that’s to be expected when a player of his caliber is kicked for 40 minutes. It was hardly a reckless challenge, however, and if that card is the standard for yellow cards I dare say more players should be getting yellows.

Wigan’s formation meant that Arsenal would struggle in midfield with possession. The Latics always had an extra man in midfield and given the bonus of being allowed to foul constantly, kept Arsenal quiet. That said, Arsenal’s lack of movement compounded the problem of the Wigan formation and effectively meant that Arsenal were forced into a lot of one-on-one situations. It happened far too often that one of Arsenal’s fullbacks would try to take the ball out of the defense, only to find himself hemmed in by two Wigan players and with the only option a square pass into a midfielder who had a defender shadowing him.

The water-logged pitch gave Wigan another advantage as the ball looked like it was crawling rather than Arsenal’s usual quick passing. More than once I felt nervous when Arsenal passed back to the keeper because I kept thinking that the Wigan forward would get to the ball first. That extra fraction of a second gave Wigan time to close space and pressure the Arsenal players in midfield.

The stats bear this out and Arsenal ended up actually conceding possession and completing fewer passes than the Latics. More worrying, though, was that Arsenal never really fought to get back into the game. Save for the 5 minutes after Wilshere’s yellow card, the other 9 outfield players often looked like they were trying to run away from the ball rather than to it.

Arsenal didn’t win any of the key “hustle” stats that I keep, except aerial duels. The Gunners’ tackling was mostly absent, interceptions were dead even, and Wigan even outdribbled Arsenal. It really looked like a lack of application on Arsenal’s part. Like they just weren’t moving to make themselves open to receive passes and weren’t trying to win the ball back in midfield. I lost count of how many times I saw Arteta or Wilshere surrounded by 4 Wigan players and no one to pass to. So, he was forced to try to create something out of nothing. Inevitably, the player was dispossessed and Wilshere led all players with 4.

As I said from the start, this is partially down to the fact that Wigan played a 3-5-2. That five-man midfield is usually countered by playing wide and getting into the space around the three defenders. It looked like Arsenal employed this tactic in the second half and the interplay between Ox and Sagna down that right side picked up significantly after the break.

Sagna finished the game as Arsenal’s leading passer in the final third, Ox got 2 of 3 dribbles right in the second, and Walcott’s only completed pass in the entire second half happened in that same area when he exchanged passes with Cazorla, creating the chaos which led to the foul and penalty. It looked like Wenger singled that area of the pitch out to focus Arsenal’s attack.

Arteta put away the goal and Arsene made the rally signal, imploring his team to park the Wengerbus. One-by-one, Wenger removed creative players and put on central mids and defenders. Arsenal ended the game playing what looked like a 5-4-1 and you have to wonder if Wenger had been given a fourth sub whether he would have removed Theo Walcott. Whatever you think of the tactic it worked. There were a few moments where Wigan threatened as time ran down and Martinez felt aggrieved that his side weren’t awarded a penalty for what looked like a Gibbs handball but in the end, Arsenal did just enough to hold on to all three points.

Qq

*Except that fucking drum.

Theo, honor thy father and mother

After Thursday’s press conference, Arsene Wenger took a few minutes with the gathered writers and in a surprise move outlined Arsenal’s position in their ongoing negotiations over Theo Walcott’s contract. In case you missed it, it went something like this: without Arsenal paying Theo handsomely over the last 7 years, taking a chance on his growth, training him, standing by him through several surgeries,  and playing him when most other top club’s wouldn’t, he wouldn’t be the player that he is today; Theo, he went on to say, should take what Arsenal are offering him out of gratitude.

It was a stunning moralism to hear Arsene utter. Wenger was in essence invoking the fourth commandment of the Hebrew bible, honor your father and your mother, in the middle of a contract negotiation which will decide not his immortal soul but rather whether Theo Walcott will live out the rest of his life obscenely rich wearing an Arsenal badge on his chest or slightly more obscenely rich wearing a Chelsea badge on his chest.

What Arsene Wenger is asking Theo Walcott to do is almost unheard of in this age and I wonder if it doesn’t fall largely on deaf ears. Too many people are quick to argue that they would have a hard time turning down job offers of “double the money” and other such platitudes. Those who do so are in essence admitting that their morality is not based on an ethos of valuing the company they work for or the work they do but rather the ethos of simply getting as much money as possible. It reminds me of the conversation between the man and the woman where the man asks “Would you fuck me for $100?” No. “$100,000,000?” Sure. “So, you admit that you’re a whore and what we are doing here is just haggling over the price.”

On the other hand, if Theo does refuse Arsenal’s offer, he may convince himself that he’s leaving for the trophies promised by Chelsea or Man City but that’s a hollow claim as well. Ian Wright made that exact argument when Robin van Persie left for Man U, saying that if Robin wins a trophy with Man U he would be vindicated in leaving Arsenal. But Wrighty can’t say for certain that Robin van Persie playing along with Cazorla, Podolski, and Giroud wouldn’t be title challengers.

And more to the point, so what? So what if they offer more trophies? What’s the point of winning a trophy if you have to stand on the backs of good people to lift them? Worse than just stand on Arsene Wenger’s back, if Theo leaves Arsenal “for the chance to win titles” -in the same way that Robin did – he is doing so at the expense of all of Arsenal’s hard work and faith. To leave Arsenal now would intentionally undermine all of the work that the club have done to build the team into a title challenger and give the product of that hard work to an opponent.

That is the moral dilemma that Arsene is setting out. Does Theo believe in honoring what we have done over the last seven years together or would he use the very same tools that Arsenal has given him against the club that formed him for the promise of 30 silver coins or the chance to win a trophy?

I’m not Walcott’s conscience so I can’t answer the question of which direction his moral compass points; honor thy father and mother or honor thy agent and banker?

Qq

Arsenal v. Bayern: let’s give them a night to remember

It’s the final stages of the Champions League and Arsenal have drawn Bayern Munich. Whether you consider that a shame because Arsenal’s rather poor record in this competition put them in this pot rather than in the champions pot is not important. The important thing is that “sorting things out” has begun and plans are being laid for me to make a trip to Bavaria to see the Arsenal play Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena.

As I said above, Arsenal drew Bayern because of an admittedly poor record in the Champions League this season. Finishing runners up in a group which featured Montpellier and Olympiakos was an unexpected result but one which was born from the fact that Arsenal simply didn’t play very well. In the group stages Arsenal allowed 14.5 shots per game (ranked 23rd) and only managed to attempt 7.8 shots per game (ranked 31st). Arsenal did manage more than 53% possession and a pass rate in the mid-80s which is good enough to be in the middle of the top tier for those two stats. And Arsenal were #1 ranked in one category, aerial duels won per game with 18.5. But all of Arsenal’s stats took a major drop from the levels we see in the Premier League where Arsenal are the kings of possession and passing.

Meanwhile, Bayern were simply excellent in winning their group just as they have been excellent in the Bundesliga, having lost just one game all season in all competitions. In the Champions League, Bayern ranked first in crosses per game, third in all the other passing stats, first in goals from set pieces (4), second in possession (61%), 4th in shots on goal, and third best in shots allowed. Moreover, Bayern play exactly the kind of football that Arsenal are supposed to be renown for: possession hoarding football, short passes, maintaining possession in the opposition half, and attempting lots of defense-splitting through balls.

It’s an understatement to say that this is going to be a tough test for Arsenal. Bayern are favorites and they know it.

Thomas Müller was phlegmatic in his assessment that “It’s a nice draw against interesting opponents who are not impossible to overcome.” And Karl-Heinz Rummenigge matter of factly added that “We can be satisfied with this draw but can’t underestimate them. It’s important to try to get a good result in London; to get a goal and make a bit of a statement. We can do it, we’re going into this tie as favorites.”

Gunners will have to hang their hats on the fact that Bayern do have a bit of a spotty record when it comes to playing against English teams as Raphael Honigstein pointed out in his BBC column this morning. Well, it’s a spotty record against all the English teams but Arsenal. Bayern have played Arsenal four times in the last 15 years and have won 2, drawn 1 and lost 1.

I remember the series from 2005 well. It was the end of the Invincibles era, though we didn’t know it, and on everyone’s mind was the fact that Arsene Wenger had never won the Champions League. Before the game, all the papers were focused on the duel between Jens Lehmann and Oliver Khan and hopes were high for a good result in Bavaria. But Arsenal put it a torrid display and a poor clearance from Kolo Toure gave Bayern the lead almost from the first kick of the game. Arsenal would run out 3-1 losers that night and a fortnight later needed a 2-0 win to go through. The Gunners only managed one goal, from Henry, and despite a much better performance from Kolo Toure couldn’t get through to the next round.

It was such a bitterly disappointing first leg that I remember thinking that Arsenal would never win the Champions League. Ironically, they made the final the next year, after losing Patrick Vieira in the summer to Juventus.

Bayern is going to be more than just a tough test for Arsenal. They have a great mix of young players and experienced older players who should know how to get a result on the road in London. Most pundits will be focusing on Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben but their two younger players, Müller and Kroos, are just as dangerous.

Müller was reportedly a target for Arsenal this summer and for good reason, he leads Bayern in goals and assists. Kroos is a versatile midfielder who plays on both sides of the pitch when needed and through the middle the remainder. Both players are great with the ball at feet, in space, can cross, split the defense with a slide-rule pass, and when needed can break down a defender with a dribble.

The Bavarians are talking like they plan to take the game to Arsenal in the first leg and I think that can work to Arsenal’s advantage. Let them be over-confident and “humblebrag” about how they are wary of Arsenal as underdogs. It’s that kind of cocksure talk that makes good players like Wilshere and Cazorla up their games and give these mouthy Germans a night to remember.

I remember that second leg in 2005, Arsenal were all but written off. Then Thierry Henry scored late and Arsenal needed just one more goal to win the tie. Lehmann made a fantastic save off a powerful Ballack blast and that last 20 minutes was some of the most exciting football I’ve ever seen. I’m sure that everyone in that stadium that night will never forget that game.

Let’s do it again.

Qq