Forget the foils and epees, Bellerin is a sabre

I had this whole article idea about how there are foils and epees and how they look the same in theory but in practice they are very different. The difference between the two doesn’t make the one better than the other, just different.

Foils and epees look the same but they are used in different ways. In foil fencing only the tip of the sword scores and only the torso of the opponent is a target. There are also rules about “right of way” in foil which are meant to even out the odds between differently sized opponents. In epee it’s much more “anything goes”: there are no right of way rules and everything is a target. They look the same but are used in vastly different ways.


I got this idea watching Giroud and Walcott. Both play center forward for Arsenal and yet are used in vastly different ways. So, I figured that they were like foil and epee. I also figured that I could explain the entire team this way. So that at left back we have Nacho (foil) and Gibbs (epee), at right back Bellerin and Debuchy, in the center mid roles there’s Cazorla and Ramsey or Coquelin and Arteta, and on the right you’ve got Ramsey and Ox.

It was going to be a masterpiece of insight and analogy, a 7am-instant classic. Except one little problem, some of the backup players (whisper it) aren’t real good.

In a cursory examination of Bellerin v. Debuchy I saw that Debuchy was really good in the air. I thought I’d make that my angle: Debuchy’s good in the air and a decent defender. He is the boring ole foil to the Bellerin epee.

I forgot to mention that in fencing there is a third blade, the sabre. Sabre looks like a mini version of a mini version of a cutlass or what we would normally associate with cavalry men wielding swords. The fighting style is taken from cavalry and not only is the blade different, you can score with a slashing motion and anything above the waist is a target. These duels tend to be very fast paced and much more akin to what we think of as sword fighting. The problem is that Bellerin is no ordinary epee, he’s so good that he’s a sabre.

Bellerin has such a fantastic engine that he acts as a wing-back in Arsenal’s system, providing width to the midfield and a scary fast attack combined with his usual hustle on defense. His assist for Özil’s goal against Bayern Munich was classic Bellerin: after a full 90 minutes of dealing with Costa, he raced down the pitch, beat his marker with a dribble, and beat Manuel Neuer with a waist high cross to Özil at the far post.

It’s difficult to compare the two because Debuchy had only played in 12 League games for Arsenal (yep, total). But if we look at Debuchy’s 10 matches from last season and compare them to Bellerin’s 10 matches this season we get a picture:


Bellerin excels at going forward and his 1.1 key passes per game are the best Arsenal have seen from a fullback since Kieran Gibbs in 2012/2013 and his 1.8 successful dribbles per game and 69% success rate makes him a good dribbler in almost any position.

Despite getting forward so much, he still puts up impressive tackling and interceptions numbers. Tackling a lot is a tricky stat because it can mean that the player was out of position or that he’s being targeted by the opposition so, what I look for instead of totals is a percent: you want him making 70% or more and that’s the case with Bellerin.

Debuchy on the other hand is.. exceptionally strong in the air. He’s not good going forward. At all. To illustrate, he hasn’t completed a single cross for Arsenal (in any of the competitions that I have stats for — Premier League and Champions League, he is 0 for 33) and has just 3 key passes in 15 games. He’s also a poor dribbler with 12/21 in all competitions.

What Debuchy offers Arsenal is fairly solid defending: he’s a great tackler and strong in the air. But he needs to focus on his strengths of defending and let the forwards take the responsibility for attacking.

Debuchy isn’t terrible, he’s basic. Debuchy is a foil: small attack area, lots of defense, all kinds of rules about who gets to attack and when. But Bellerin… wow. That kid is all sabre. He’s up on his horse, racing around the pitch, chopping down the footsoldiers below.

My only concern is that the demands of him playing in that sort-of wing-back position will wear him down as the season goes on. As Jonathan Wilson points out in Inverting the Pyramid playing with a true wing-back is almost impossible in modern football because the demands to run up and down the pitch are so great that even the best athletes will eventually break.

I guess to make the analogy correct, Bellerin is not just Arsenal’s sabre, he’s like a one man Charge of the Light Brigade.



Arsene knows

Footballistically Speaking: what you want and what you have

Now if I tell you Erik you have 24 hours to live. Will you imagine the blade that will slit your throat – during all of your remaining 24 hours – or will you try to live them to the fullest? — Arsene Wenger.

Well, Erik? What will you choose? The path of anxiety over the inevitable or the path of enjoying life to the fullest by living in the moment? Will you spend your last 24 hours questioning everything you do wrong, contemplating every error you’ve made, or applauding everything you’ve gotten right, or will you use your time to have one last go at doing all the things you love?

It’s not even an abstract question that Wenger is asking. It seems abstract but it’s concrete. Death is inevitable. Death is a moment away for all of us. We know that. We have all lived long enough to have been touched by death and we all know that it comes quick, without warning, and without reason. It is inevitable, Erik, so how will you live your life?

The inevitable for Arsenal is defeat. And as if to make a proof of the concept, once Arsenal built a team that went 49 matches undefeated. Perhaps they were lucky to get that far, but these “Invincibles” set a new record and showed what Arsene’s philosophy could achieve at its pinnacle. But even the Invincibles were eventually defeated when Wayne Rooney took a dive over the outstretched leg of Sol Campbell.

Of course that defeat had to happen in the worst possible way, through an act of cheating. Arsenal had to be cheated out of the 50th game. It’s inevitable.

If you have a favorite tea cup, you might as well take it outside and smash it on the ground. It is just waiting to be smashed. Maybe not today, maybe it will break in 49 years. Maybe in the 50th year your house will be broken into and your teacup tossed on the ground by the thief in his rush to find something of value.

If you do break the cup, put it back together. Why not? It’s symbolic of the cyclical nature of the universe. Everything is falling apart and being reformed at all times. All systems are entropy. So is the cup.

Arsenal are the cup. They are brittle and beautiful at the same time. Just like everything in the world. You behold the beauty of the moment and then realize that this moment cannot hold.

Arsenal can defeat Bayern Munich three times in the last three years. Arsenal can beat Manchester United twice in the last two years. Arsenal can be a perfect teacup, the very icon of a teacup, and of course it’s at that moment that it reaches the zenith that then Arsenal can fall to pieces.

It’s an overreach to say that Arsenal have fallen to pieces. It’s more like the cup is chipped. But we live in a time of hyperreality. Where people reach for the very highest emotions with every phrase. Even simple things like “How are you doing?” get hyperbolic responses ‘I’m great.” And if you respond with anything less than “great” “fantastic” or “excellent” people might ask if you’re all right. This is why when anyone asks how I’m doing I raise both hands in the air as if I’m grabbing a cloud and yell at the sky “IMPERIOUS!”

In the North London Derby Arsenal looked smashed in the first half. Then it was revealed that Arsenal’s starting central midfielder was suffering from some illness and he was removed at half time. Immediately, the team got better and dominated Spurs in the second half, putting in a performance that should have seen them win the match.

The hyperbolic reaction, however, is that Spurs dominated Arsenal or that there has been a power shift in London. The cycle of these kinds of stories is as inevitable as the broken teacup. Arsenal went into a game with 7 injuries to first or second team players. Arsenal played with a third or fourth string right sided player and with a makeshift central midfield pairing. And Arsenal’s star striker, Alexis, looked as tired as I’ve ever seen a player. Arsenal were a teacup held together with Scotch tape and yet, dominated that second half.

Not only that, but Arsenal scored the equalizer with a reserve left back playing left wing. Ironically, this whole “injury crisis” is being painted as a lack of depth at Arsenal but I’d just ask you to see the field instead of the object for a moment. Take in the whole picture. Arsenal dominated a top four rival (and were unlucky not to get the win¹) with a makeshift lineup that included a fullback deployed as a forward, three defensive midfielders, and a host of backups in other positions. Is that indicative of a lack of depth?


I’ve been fairly consistent over this summer and into the fall about one thing: Arsenal don’t lack depth. The Tottenham match proved that conclusively. An Arsenal team with every player healthy is good enough to beat Bayern Munich and Man U. An Arsenal team with half the starting lineup missing is good enough to beat Tottenham. That’s depth.


Of course, it was inevitable that Arsenal’s players would get injured. All teams seem to be suffering from this at the moment: Bony went down with a hamstring injury for Man City leaving them with zero starting forwards. All systems are entropy! All the teacups in the world are inevitably dust.

The philosophical definition of happiness is a match between what you want and what you have.

As long as you are always looking back at how the teacup was reconstructed or longing after the teacup in another man’s cupboard, you’re not going to be able to enjoy the moment. Maybe I’m an old softy but when Kieran Gibbs scored to equalize against Tottenham I nearly cried out of joy.

There is something special about this team. You just need to stop and look at it for a moment. Stop wondering what it could be or what it should have been in your mind this summer and just look at what it is. This could be your last chance, Erik.


¹I don’t care how well Tottenham played for part of the match. It’s the whole 90 minutes that interests me. I don’t even care if Arsenal only had 20 minutes of good football. That’s all it took to get back into the match and have a real chance at winning.


Arsenal v. Tottenham: iconic moments

We don’t need to talk about the importance of the North London Derby. We all know the historical reasons why Spurs our our rivals. We all love to have bragging rights for a few months. And we all know the importance of this particular match as both a response to Arsenal’s defeat in Munich and in terms of Arsenal’s title challenge. In short, this match is bigger than global warming.

We could talk about the injuries which have taken a toll on Arsenal. Given the fact that Arsenal beat Man U and Bayern with a full squad and then followed that up with two tough losses to Sheffield Wednesday and Bayern Munich, it’s pretty clear that the Gunners are firing with half a keg of powder at the moment. But there’s not much that can be done about injuries except hand-wringing and fan-guessing who will play and what kind of performances they will put in.

And we could talk about what tactics we would like to see Arsenal deploy. Given the fact that Pochettino is a former Bielsa player, like Pep Guardiola in midweek, and given the fact that Tottenham are mostly healthy, I’m expecting them to try to control spaces both in and out of possession. Arsenal have to counter that with a more energetic version of the match in midweek. The Gunners simply cannot sit back and let Spurs dictate play. Arsenal have to control space in defense and hit Tottenham quickly on the counter. It’s going to be a tough match and Arsenal are going to have to put in a full performance to get all three points.

We can talk about those things but what I love about this match is how form, tactics, and our injury record seems to go out the window. The North London Derby, more than any other match of the season, is the ground on which heroes are born.

These matches create iconic moments, both good and bad. There’s the famous Lansbury leap when Arsenal won 4-1 in the League Cup and it’s opposite, the infamous Bendtner-Adebayor row in the same fixture two seasons prior. Of course, even in the midst of our shame, Spurs one-upped us in the shame department by releasing a DVD of the match!

But I don’t want to dwell on the negative moments: I tend to forget those pretty quickly. The ones where Arsenal doing something spectacular are my favorite football memories.

For example, remember’s Sagna’s header? Arsenal were down 2-0 at home. Louis Saha had scored a deflected shot to make it 0-1. Then Gareth Bale was played clean through on almost the exact same pass that had set Saha though and won a penalty. That’s when Arteta just stood a ball up from the left to the right. It wasn’t to any particular player and it wasn’t even a very good ball but Sagna just ran up and attacked the ball, sending a bullet header past the hapless keeper. Arsenal went on to win that match 5-2.

Arsenal were below Spurs in the table before that match. In fact, Arsenal were below Chelsea in 5th place at kickoff. That win, that comeback, spurred on Arsenal’s season and the Gunners finished 3rd. Which they needed to do to secure Champions League football because Chelsea finished 6th that season but took the 4th Champions League place away from Tottenham because they won the Champions League. In my mind, that header saved our season.

Of course there’s the legendary goal that Thierry Henry scored against Spurs in 2002. Easily the best solo goal in Arsenal’s Premier League history. It’s such an iconic moment that Arsenal enshrined it in Bronze outside the stadium. It’s a moment of such majestic beauty that Arsenal had to make it as permanent as possible, like Michelangelo’s David or Nelson’s Column.

But for me Vieira’s goal in 2004 is more memorable. I’m not suggesting that I’ll forget Henry’s goal, but Arsenal should have won the League that season and they finished 2nd instead. So, while Henry’s goal was a great individual moment, I agree with Arsene Wenger that those individual moments are as meaningless as drops of rain when compared to a storm.

Tottenham won an early corner but Gilberto headed away easily to Thierry Henry. Henry carried neatly up the pitch a bit to create a passing lane and slotted the ball to Bergkamp. Bergkamp had one look up and saw Vieira bombing through the midfield and slotted a caviar pass to him. Vieira reached out with his telescopic right leg and poked the goal home. Vieira had sprinted nearly the entire length of the pitch to get that goal. It was a goal which perfectly embodied that Arsenal team who could rapaciously turn defense into attack.

Arsenal won the League that day, at White Hart Lane. They won the League at White Hart Lane. They won the League in the cesspool. They won the League at White Hart Lane.

They won the League and went undefeated that season. It was the best team that Wenger ever produced and that goal is my favorite from that season. That goal was the filet of a season that was all Wagyu beef.

Impossible to bronze that moment but my friend @11cannons made a great drawing of it, and that drawing hangs on my living room wall.You should go buy a print if you still can.

There have been other moments that stand out in my mind, Rosicky’s hair catching the sun just before he bangs in the only goal of an Arsenal defensive masterclass or Flamini’s volley in the League Cup just a few weeks ago, but those three above are my favorites.

What I want more than anything else tomorrow is another moment like that Vieira goal. A moment which defines our season, which crystallizes this Arsenal side as title challengers.