We can talk about different styles of play, we can talk about which lineups we want to see, we can fantasize over which players we would like Arsenal to buy this summer, we can moan about referee selection, but the reality is that all that stuff is irrelevant because we just need Arsenal to win this game.
I don’t care if Wenger lines up with a 4-4-2. I don’t care if he sticks to the 4-3-3. I don’t mind if he plays a 4-5-1 or if he goes balls out and plays a 2-4-4. Just win the game.
I don’t care if Arsene starts Andrei Arshavin in the center forward role. I don’t care if he plays Ramsey out of position on the right. I don’t mind if Monreal starts or if Vermaelen is dropped. I don’t care if Mertesacker is played to deal with Benteke. Just win the game.
I don’t care that Arsenal have only won 2 of their last 6 encounters with Villa. I don’t care that Villa is a hoofballl team, third in aerial duels won per game. Or that Villa play 72% of their game down the wings yet are dead last in crosses per game. I don’t care how old Arsenal are, how old Villa is, or whether there is some kind of stat about anything that someone thinks matters. Just win the game.
I don’t care that Edinson Cavani is a dreamboat, that Etienne Capoue is a man of steel, or that Christian Benteke is everyone’s fourth favorite Belgian (Kompany, Hazard, Fellaini, Benteke?). I don’t care if Arsenal have £200m to spend this summer, that they will or they wont spend it or that Wenger will or won’t retire. Just win the game.
And I don’t care that Martin Atkinson hasn’t awarded Arsenal a penalty since 2010 or that he has awarded Aston Villa more penalties than any other team (11 in 26 matches refereed). I don’t care that Atkinson has only ever given Villa one red card while he has given the opposition four and that he’s awarded Arsenal more red cards than any other team he has refereed (5). I don’t care that Jack Wilshere is the fourth most fouled player in the League and that Benteke is the 9th most fouling player in the League. Just win the game.
Tomorrow morning at 7am none of that stuff is relevant. It doesn’t matter if Arsenal tackle more, intercept more, head the ball away more, get into better scoring positions, play more direct, play vertically, play like a footballing crab, play an insanely high line, play deep, get fucked on the calls by Atkinson, get all the breaks, get lucky, deflect a goal in off a player in an offside position, make an error that leads to a goal, flap at a corner, fluff their lines, shoot from distance, don’t shoot, dribble, get wide, put in crosses, hold the ball up well, or finally get a single corner kick into a dangerous area. Just win the game.
It’s gospel for many Arsenal supporters that in his tenure at the club Arsene Wenger “changed the Premier League”. Often cited are the changes in diet in the Premier League, the widespread use of technology (data, stats, etc), and the way teams like Newcastle now recruit players that “no one has heard of”. But for me, those changes were obvious ones that needed to be made to bring the League up to date. There’s a subtler change that Arsene managed to bring to England which isn’t talked about often: Wenger is trying to change the way we look at and think about players’ positions on the pitch. And it’s this last change that is perhaps the most difficult to swallow.
Football fans are one of the most conservative groups of people on the planet. I don’t mean “vote for X political party” conservative, but rather people who cling desperately to a mythological past when the pies were hot, the beer perfectly tepid, the terraces a joy, every team played a 4-4-2, and every player’s role on the pitch was clearly defined. It was a time when men were men and fullbacks were fullbacks.
This conservatism is most obvious when a defender makes a rash challenge and the television commentator immediately announces that “in my day, that wasn’t even a foul”. Many heads nod in agreement up and down the English countryside whenever that phrase is uttered.
The more subtler form of this conservatism happens when people start talking about what roles players should be playing on the pitch. Often Arsenal get hammered with the criticism that they play “too high a line” defensively, meaning that their fullbacks are getting too far up the pitch. This happened on Saturday as Arsenal were playing Aston Villa.
The Arsenal left back, Kieran Gibbs, was criticized for being “too far up the field” and leaving space behind for Aston Villa’s Marc Albrighton to exploit. And yet, it was Gibbs’ goal which opened the Arsenal account and which forced Aston Villa out of their shell and which in turn created the space that allowed Arsenal to hammer Villa 3-0.
And yet it was only a few months ago, when all four of Arsenal’s first choice fullbacks were out with injury that Arsenal fans saw how critical those players are to the Arsenal system both in terms of offense and defense. It’s no coincidence that Arsenal’s run of 7 consecutive wins coincides with the return of Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna. Theo Walcott looks like a totally new player now that he has his teammate on the right back in the team with him.
But fullbacks have always enjoyed a bit of freedom to roam and demands that they get forward. The same with forwards and attacking midfielders. Few people criticized Cesc Fabregas for his seemingly lazy defending in the last two years of his tenure at Arsenal* because “that’s not his job” in the traditionalists view. That’s the job of the holding midfielder.
And if any position on the pitch defines footballing conservatism it’s the holding midfielder. He’s the guy who won’t cross the Maginot line in midfield. He’s the guy who adds spine to the team with his no-nonsense tackling. He’s your ball winner. He’s your rock. He’s the man you lash the boats to in a storm. And at Arsenal he’s played by Alex Song.
Alex Song… During Arsenal’s run of poor form this Winter many folks pointed to Tottenham’s Scott Parker and said that he was exactly the kind of player that Arsenal really needed. In addition to being one of the purest passers in the League (12th in passing percentage), Parker is second in the League in tackles per game, fourth in interceptions, and even gets in nearly a blocked shot per match. Scott Parker is a defender first and a midfielder second.
Alex Song’s defensive numbers are less impressive: 17th in tackles per game, 50th in interceptions per game, and less than half the number of blocked shots that Scott Parker has. Yet, Alex Song has 8 assists and leads the League in through balls per game. He has the vision to see Theo and Robin make runs like this one (below) and the ability to put the ball on a dime for him to score as he did yesterday for Arsenal’s second goal and as he did when he nearly slipped Robin van Persie in for a third:
I suspect that Song embodies all that Wenger wants out of football. He’s not a bad defensive midfielder, he’s actually Arsenal’s leading tackler**. He was even brought to Arsenal to play center half if you remember from Arsene’s early pronouncements about him. But Wenger doesn’t seem to want to limit Song’s expression of football because Wenger doesn’t cling to traditional notions of what a holding midfielder should be doing on the pitch.
Instead of a scripted play, it seems to me that Wenger sees the players as actors in an improv, with roles more broadly defined: each player acting off the other and the game flowing freely, rather than acting out lines.
But sometimes players get stuck in places where they clearly don’t want to play and those players (Bendtner and Arshavin, for example) seem to hate the role they play and in turn seem to hate the football they are playing. Almost like taking a Shakespearean actor and throwing them on stage at the UCB Theater. Sure, they are professionals and they can do it but they will always be thinking about their favorite moment in As You Like It.
In my youth thou wast as true a lover
As ever sighed upon a midnight pillow.
I’m not sure if Arsene is consciously trying to break down the traditions of football or if he has simply turned those traditions over in his mind and said “meh, fuck that, we’re doing this my way.” Either way, the Wenger way can be a little bit difficult to take at times and with some players it just doesn’t work.
I think that’s because inside each of us is a little tiny footballing conservative. Maybe it’s that coach who told us where to stand on the pitch when we were playing? Or maybe there’s a little Mark Lawrenson inside of us screaming about something we’ve internalized from years of watching and talking about football? But when Wenger’s system does work, you get a run of seven straight wins, culminating in the dominating display of football we saw on Saturday against Aston Villa and our little footballing conservative is drowned out by all the happy feelings of Song’s chip, Theo’s control and the pure fun of Arteta’s free kick.
Would you have it any other way?
*Except me, and you should have heard the howls.
**For players who have played more than 10 matches.
Arsenal host Roberto Martinez’ Wigan Athletic on a snowy St. Andrews Day and though Arsenal are fielding a numerically young side, it’s not a side bereft of experience. The Latics, meanwhile, are a team that will try to play on the ground and have turned Arsenal over doing so. Arsenal should be looking for revenge for their abject performance last season and will look to get at them early. Thus, this should be an open clash that will delight the audiences who get to watch and may even put a sparkle in the eye of match official Martin Atkinson.
Arsenal will be making several changes over the normal Premier League lineup and I expect to see Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott get the nod up front. Robin can play on the left, Theo on the right and Bendtner in the center if Wenger chooses to stick with the 4-3-3, but if not we might actually even see a 4-4-2. Theo has made his bones in this competition, scoring famously against Chelsea in the final, but those runs have all come to a fruitless end and one can only hope that he is hungry to earn a place back in the full Arsenal side. After a good performance today, he just might find himself knocking on the boss’ door. Though, how he would displace the excellent Samir Nasri is unknown.
The same can be said for both Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner who have to see the form of Marouane Chamakh and be left wondering how they crack the starting lineup. Bendtner in particular can grumble all he likes but when given the chances he needs to take them. Nothing less than a fully committed performance from those three will be acceptable.
The midfield should be a trio of Denilson, Wilshere, and an older head like Rosicky. Were Diaby fit, he would certainly get a run out.
At the back, Squillaci is being rested with a knee injury and Djourou hasn’t gotten much playing time lately so I expect the central partnership will be DJ and Koscielny. Left back is going to be Gibbs and right back will be Emmanuel Lazarus Eboue who has sprung back from his grave knee injury to be fully fit in time for the Carling Cup.
While the team is young, it is a strong team. Just by way of example, Denilson has had 131 appearances for Arsenal already, including featuring in a large number of Carling Cup matches. He’s as experienced as any player on the pitch and needs to show it after a string of awful defensive performances have left even his most ardent adherents wondering.
Wigan, for their part will not play the villains today. Don’t expect that they will come out kicking or lumping the ball forward. Roberto Martinez coaches his teams to play football and that’s what they will do. That said, they have one eye on this weekend’s match against Stoke since Premier League survival is actually worth some money and there should be some heavy rotation. Rodellega is out with suspension which makes way for Victor Moses to show what he can do.
Funnily enough, the match official today has a lot of previous with Arsenal and Wigan, angering both sets of fans with a seeming predilection for given red cards. In the Wigan v. Man U match, Martin Atkinson sent two off including Rodellega who is out suspended for today’s match. And in both matches he has been in for Arsenal he has given a red card to an Arsenal player. In fact, Atkinson’s last 4 Arsenal matches have seen 4 red cards: 3 to Arsenal players and 1 to Joe Cole.
But that record is in the League, in cup ties he’s a totally different referee, preferring to allow more contact and showing fewer cards. In all 8 of the Arsenal cup ties he’s refereed he hasn’t shown a single red card and he averages just 2.4 yellow cards a game. Which includes a zero yellow card performance as Arsenal were trounced by Stoke 3-1.
In the 13 League matches he’s officiated, on the other hand, the yellow card average is 3.5 and the number of red cards totals 6, again with 4 in the last 4 games.
Arsenal’s results in the cup matches that Atkinson has refereed has been very poor of late with 2 losses and 1 draw but prior to that we’d notched 4 wins and 1 draw. Including the incredible 6-3 win over Liverpool which even Atkinson counts among his very favorite matches of all time.
I have to say that I think it bodes well for both teams that Atkinson will likely just let play go on. Neither club is known for intentionally or rotationally fouling and while Arsenal have had a massive uptick in yellow and red cards this season I don’t expect that we will come out to kick them off the pitch.
Given both teams’ set up, our similar managerial philosophies, and the Laissez-faire approach of Atkinson to cup matches I fully expect that today’s match will be end to end football and goals to be scored. One nil to the Arsenal highly unlikely today.
Unfortunately, most of us will either need to steal some illegal feed or will be reduced to listening to the match on ATVO. Well, I say reduced, but listening to the live feed can be fun. Just imagine yourself back in the dawn of football, when the whole family would gather around glowing tubes of the radio and dial in the Arsenal match. Except now days the radio is a laptop and the tubes are the intertubes and I’ll be at work trying to steal a few minutes of commentary as I can so no family will be gathered around my laptop.
Right, that’s it for today. Really bummed that I can’t watch the match live but that’s just because us USA Gooners are spoiled rotten with television coverage. Hoping for a top quality performance today and Arsenal advancing to the next round to face… uhhh… how about Ipswitch? Roy Keane? That would be good!