Category Archives: Arsenal

Seaman

Arsène Wenger bemoans Champions League monotony as Arsenal seek 14th consecutive knockout round berth

It was fourteen years ago that Arsenal lost a penalty shootout 4-1 to Galatasaray. On that night in Copenhagen, the Turkish team put on a brave defense and held the presumptive favorites to a 0-0 draw over 120 minutes. This was an Arsenal team whose stars should have shone through the blanket of night and yet they were all too easily covered over with a thin mist.

Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Tony Adams, Marc Overmars, and Emannuel Petit are all legends now. Even Seaman and Keown along with Dixon, Silvinho, and Ray Parlor are all household names (especially if your household is in North London or Tacoma, Washington). And yet those legends couldn’t overcome a 10 man Galatasaray team whose main star was a 35 year old named Gheorghe Hagi. And their main star, I might add, was sent off for a petulant punch on Tony Adams.

And if it seems like a lifetime ago that Arsenal lost that match, it’s because in the ephemeral life of Football, fourteen years has turned out to be at least three generations. There was the Invincibles generation which started to gel the year after that defeat. That was followed by Generation Cesc™ and the latest generation, which is probably best known by our sponsors, The Emirates Generation.

This Emirates Generation was the apple of Wenger’s eye 14 years ago. The stadium project was just starting to take shape, Arsenal had just built the state of the art training ground, and Wenger’s vision was that Arsenal with a 60,000 seat arena would be able to compete with Real Madrid for players like Zidane¹.

Stadium

But a simple look around at the competition and you can see that Arsenal, despite the heavy investment in the new stadium, in the new training ground, and in hundreds of millions of dollars on new players like Alexis, Özil, Debuchy, Welbeck, and Chambers are still generations behind teams like PSG, Chelsea, Man City, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich.

 

And on the eve of his 18th anniversary at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger has admitted Arsenal have almost no chance of winning the Champions League (The Times, license required):

In the evolution of the Champions League, maybe it was a bit more open 15 years ago than it is today. The concentration of the big players in a small number of clubs is much more than it was before. It’s much more predictable today, the outcome of the Champions League, than it was ten years ago.

In a strange twist of irony part of that predictability is Arsenal and Arsène Wenger himself. In his 18 years at the club, Arsène has gotten Arsenal into the Champions League a record 17 consecutive times. And since losing that UEFA Cup final to Galatasaray he’s gotten Arsenal into the knockout phases all 14 times.

But in that record run of European appearances, Arsenal have only made the final once and in the last four years haven’t been able to get past the round of 16. If the Champions League has become predictable, Arsenal have become one of the most predictable fixtures in it.

The problem from a fans perspective is that while it is undeniably wonderful to have a European night out it’s also undeniably soul grating that these nights out are so ephemeral. Like the shadfly, they appear every year in droves, yet die off quickly, their lives lasting mere minutes — long enough to breed and ensure the return next season.

Arsenal haven’t had a sustained run in Europe for far too long and our matches in this, the pinnacle of world football, have been far removed from what we would come to expect. Arsenal don’t play beautiful football in Europe, especially against the best teams. In the last 5 years Arsenal have been dismantled by Barcelona, Bayern, and AC Milan. The Gunners have managed to come close to squeaking past these teams on the return leg four times but it’s always been a case of too little too late.

But perhaps I can be accused of looking too far ahead and spoiling tomorrow’s milk. Today’s match, against Galatasaray, is the kind of game that Wenger specializes in and you could almost hear it in his voice, the voice of experience, as he spoke about the importance of winning these home games.

We are maybe more under pressure to win than if we had won the first. In the group stage you need a minimum of 10 points so the home games are vital. Basically the target is always the same in the Champions League – you need to win your home games and you need one good result away from home. We had a disappointing result in Dortmund and the potential is there for us, we don’t lose a lot but we want to find the winning edge together and we have that opportunity against Galatasaray.

There’s one thing for sure: in Wenger’s 18 years at Arsenal, the Champions League has slowly become more and more predictable. And despite losing the bulk of the starting lineup, I have no doubt Arsène knows how to get Arsenal into the next phase.

Qq

¹Calling Time on Wenger (Amy Lawrence, 13 August 2000 The Observer)

2012-2013 Corers

How bad are Arsenal at corners and other set plays? What is a word that rhymes with Schmitty?

If we compare Arsenal to Chelsea, Man U, Man City, and Liverpool in League play and just look at set play numbers for the last two full seasons we get the following facts:

  • Arsenal are consistently one of the best teams among the erstwhile Top Four in terms of Aerial Duel %, averaging over 53% aerial duels won.
  • Arsenal average the fewest corners won per game of this group over the last two years with just 5.55
  • Arsenal score the fewest goals from corners, 4 per season
  • Arsenal have the worst conversion rate off corners, around 2%
  • Arsenal score the fewest goals from direct free kicks, just 2 in the last two years
  • Arsenal score a decent number of headed goals, averaging over 11 per season over the last two years
  • Arsenal score a decent number of goals from crossed free kicks, averaging 5 per season
  • And Arsenal averaged 4 penalties per season over the last two years
  • Add it all up and Arsenal are one of the worst teams in terms of set play goals scored
  • But then, so are Barcelona
  • Except Arsenal ain’t Barcelona

I’ve written about Arsenal’s corner woes, Benjamin Pugsley’s written about Arsenal’s corner woes, and anyone who has even watched a single Arsenal match in the last four or five years knows: Arsenal are terrible at corners.

Let’s get this out of the way, some teams, like Barcelona, simply don’t do corners. And the math adds up for those teams. The fact is that corner conversion, even for the best teams, is somewhere around the same percentage as a long distance shot. So, for example, Man U two years ago had a 7% conversion rate off corners and last year Liverpool had a 5% conversion, both topping this group of teams. Arsenal, meanwhile, had a 2% conversion rate.

A team like Barcelona is more comfortable controlling possession rather than lumping the ball in to the opposition defense and exposing themselves to a swift counter. They would much rather work the ball into a dangerous area than have a speculative shot at goal from a corner, this leads to the often comical scene of Barcelona playing in short corners and working the ball back out to the midfield to work it back in toward goal. But even with their weird non-corner corner routines, Barcelona scores more goals from corners than Arsenal, 6 per season compared to Arsenal’s 4.

2012-2013 Corers

Unlike Barcelona, Arsenal take their corners. They actively try to score off corners and they are simply terrible at it. This means that Arsenal don’t even have the added benefit of not lumping the ball into the opposition box. Thus Arsenal get the worst of both worlds: exposing themselves to counter attacks while not really threatening to score. In short, Arsenal winning a corner has become something to dread rather than something to celebrate.

2013-2014 cornersWhen we look at all the data for Arsenal over the last two years and compare to the other top teams Arsenal seems to have the resources available to be a decent corner scoring side: they are consistently at the top of the group in terms of winning aerial duels, they score a decent number of goals from crossed free kicks, and are right there in terms of headed goals per season.

2012-2013
Arsenal Liverpool Man City Chelsea Man U
Goals from Corners 4 6 8 11 15
Corners per game 5.55 5.89 7.45 6.55 5.68
Corner Conversion Rate 2% 3% 3% 4% 7%
Goals from Crossed Free Kicks 6 2 4 1 6
Headed Goals 11 10 6 18 14
Aerial Duels won % 54% 52% 51% 51% 53%
Goals from Penalties 5 5 4 9 4
Goals from Direct Free Kicks 2 3 2 3 1

But the one place Arsenal are consistently incapable of threatening is from corners.

2013-2014
Man U Arsenal Chelsea Man City Liverpool
Goals from Corners 3 4 8 12 12
Corners per Game 5.68 5.55 6.55 7.45 5.89
Corner Conversion Rate 1% 2% 3% 4% 5%
Goals from Crossed Free Kicks 3 4 4 3 7
Headed Goals 11 12 6 12 14
Aerial Duels won % 48% 53% 54% 51% 49%
Goals from Penalties 5 3 5 6 10
Goals from Direct Free Kicks 5 0 2 5 6

Arsenal, despite having a team full of technical wizards, simply don’t have a player who can step up and belt in a corner. Corner crossing is a skill just like many others in football and one that teams like Liverpool and Man U practice. When Arsenal first hired Steve Bould as assistant manager the team looked like we were going to try some new routines off corners: Mertesacker was sent to be the first man and flick headers on to the back post. But that routine soon died and Arsenal reverted to simply floating balls in to the penalty spot, much to the delight of the opposition defenses.

The reality is that Arsenal’s weakness from all set plays is evident and has been evident for years. Teams routinely foul Arsenal near the 18 yard box and simply don’t mind giving away corners to Arsenal because the team aren’t a threat in those situations. I suspect teams actually relish Arsenal corner situations because my perception is that the Gunners are far more likely to be scored on from a corner than to score from a corner¹. Given that reality, there are just three choices for Arsenal: 1. practice corners, 2. buy someone who can take a corner, 3. stop taking corners.

Qq

¹This stat doesn’t exist and there aren’t any video compilations called “Arsenal, all goals conceded 2013/2014″ so that I can compile the stat. I also don’t have time (today) to go back and watch all 38 League games last season and compile up a stat for all goals conceded off corners that Arsenal won. But do you think it’s really a stretch to say that we conceded 4+ goals off corners we won?

Wenger-NLD-Beauty

Footballistically Speaking: Wenger’s first North London Derby and Bergkamp’s “Beauty in Efficiency”

On the 24th of November 1996 Arsène Wenger took charge of his first North London Derby. At the time, Spurs had a bit of a stranglehold on the fixture. From September 1990 to November of 1996, Tottenham had only lost three of the previous 14 matches overall and hadn’t lost to Arsenal since 1993 (at White Hart Lane) nor lost a League match at Highbury since December 1991. Arsenal’s record in those 14 matches, mostly under George Graham, was 3W-6D-5L F10 A13.

But despite the personnel remaining mostly the same, this was no longer the George Graham Arsenal of the 1990s. David Dein and the Arsenal board erected a Gallic scarecrow on Holloway Road and from that day forward the chickens have been afraid to come around. And as if to prove a point, Arsenal won Arsène Wenger’s first North London Derby 3-1 thanks to goals from Wright, Adams, and Bergkamp.

Wright opened the scoring after some Spurs defender, who will forever remain in obscurity, tried to man mark God. Bergkamp almighty dribbled one way then then next and turned this mere mortal inside out like a tube sock before he was was brought down by a desperate flailing leg. The referee pointed to the spot and Wrighty put away the penalty. Arsenal were up 1-0.

Spurs reacted with a bit of pressure and eventually equalized. The goal was what we now call a “wondergoal”. Campbell (future Arsenal star) flicked on a throw-in and the ball fell to a player named Andy Sinton who got a shot off which caromed off the post and then off the back of the Arsenal keeper’s head (backup keeper Lukic) and into goal. Andy Sinton scored just 6 goals for Tottenham in his time, one was this, the tying goal in the North London Derby.

Despite the surreal Spurs goal Arsenal fought back as Spurs played for a point. Bergkamp had been growing in influence throughout the game but it was his assist in the 88th minute, off an Arsenal throw in, which played in Tony Adams who lashed in the game winner.

Bergkamp collected the throw-in near the end line and in one motion, flicked the ball up between two defenders and almost literally onto the foot of the onrushing Tony Adams. Adams, a center back who was instructed to stay back for most of his Arsenal career, had been bombing forward all game looking for the winner. And here it was, served up perfectly by Bergkamp, all he had to do was all that he could do: put his foot through the ball.

Throughout his career Dennis Bergkamp often served up passes to his teammates that were so delicious that it would be a shame to waste them. Theirry Henry called these passes “caviar”. And of all the caviar passes in Bergkamp’s career, this one is my favorite. Not just because of the skill and vision, nor even the perfection of the pearl spoon with which he served that ball to Tony Adams, but because that pass, just like this match, signified the beginning of a new era for Arsenal.

Tony Adams may have been a George Graham player, but that Tony Adams goal was not a George Graham goal, it was an Arsène Wenger goal. A goal of sublime skill which worked the entire Spurs defense and fell to the least likely man to strike the winner.

Bergkamp wouldn’t be outdone by Bergkamp’s sublime skill to win the penalty nor the assist of the season and would go ahead and add a third goal to the match in the final minute. Many people love Bergkamp’s goal against Newcastle and count it among the very best goals of all time but this goal against Spurs is arguably better. He not only traps a wild cross, on a wet night where the ball was as slippery as a bar of soap, he cuts the trapped ball back in the same motion, destroying the entire Spurs defense in one move… one efficient move. After that, the goal is easy.

Prior to the match, David Lacey wrote a piece for the Guardian about Arsène Wenger’s first North London Derby.¹ In the article Wenger was questioned about the creative ability of new midfield signing Patrick Vieira. Vieira’s vision and creativity had been praised earlier in the week by Ian Wright yet clearly doubts remained among the British press. Wenger responded with praise for the man who would become known for both his strength and creativity:

What is creative? For me, being creative is scoring goals. That is why for me, beauty is efficiency. It is not about making nice movements. Vieira is an efficient player. The crowd love him because he does the right thing at the right moment, not because he’s beautiful to watch.

Efficiency was the hallmark of the early Wenger era Arsenal. Players like Vieira rarely made a movement which didn’t benefit the team and of course Bergkamp was so ruthlessly efficient that he knew what he wanted to do with the ball before it even came to him, as you saw in the videos above.

This efficiency would reach its peak with the Invincibles. No team was as efficient at winning games both offensively and defensively as that Arsenal side. Since then, Arsenal have struggled to regain that ruthless efficiency. A struggle we saw in today’s fixture, where Arsenal took 16 shots, 15 corners, and forced Spurs to make 44 clearances and yet only created two real chances to score and scored just one goal.

Perhaps like beauty, efficiency is ephemeral.

Qq

¹Beauty is any kind of goal against Spurs, says Wenger: David Lacey finds Arsenal’s new manager approaching his first North London derby tomorrow with a Gallic shrug of confidence.
Lacey, David. The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 23 Nov 1996: A10