Tag Archives: Arsenal

Arsenal count down the games to the end of the season of ennui

By Tim Todd on his couch

Thank the gods for Alexis Sanchez. The Tocopilla Tornado, a man who never seems to stop running, never seems to stop attacking, never seems to stop defending, Alexis Sanchez embodies all that fans want from a footballer. If only Arsenal had 11 Alexis Sanchez’s.

The crowd was spartan, not literally Spartans — that might have been fun to see the Spartan crowd slay the Albion supporters, but rather just sparsely populated as the combination of tube strikes, Thursday football, late-season ennui, and the call of a cool beer in a pub and watching Arsenal on television begged many fans to stay home. And as is the norm with an Arsenal crowd, those who were in attendance were sitting quietly, politely watching the match unfold.

Arsenal were playing football the Arsenal way and lulling the crowd to sleep with some highly accurate sideways passing when Alexis fell from the heavens, stepped in front of Ramsey’s pass, and turned so fast that he actually had to reach down and grab a bit of the earth to stop himself being flung off by centrifugal force.

Bypassing his marker Sandro, who looked like a cart horse and cart, Alexis looked up at the goal and from 20 yards out uncorked a champagne blast into the lower corner. The shot reminded the gathered fans why they go to football matches. They lept to their feet in joy and rained down cheers on Alexis.

Meanwhile, Sandro was still doing the math on how a cart horse and cart is supposed to do a 180 degree turn.

The way Alexis took the shot gave the impression that he was just fed up with Arsenal not winning and if someone else wasn’t going to win the game then he might as well do it.

Energized by the early goal, the crowd settled back in for a nap. This respite was made especially easy by the West Brom goalkeeper taking two minutes over every goal kick before kicking the ball out of touch.

Arsenal tried to liven the game up again with some incisive play around the West Brom box and Alexis again provided the spark, slipping in Elneny and Bellerin for some shots. And West Brom for their part remembered that they are a football team and managed to work the ball into the Arsenal end so that they could win their all-important corners.

I firmly believe that Tony Pulis’ one tactic is to get the ball to a wide man and his job is to get as deep as possible into the opposition half before trying to kick the ball off a defender and win a corner. I firmly believe this because that is what I saw.

Meanwhile, Arsenal played right into this tactic. Even at 2-0 up they played eight outfield players in the center forward positions leaving Per Mertesacker alone on more than one occasion with Salomon Rondon. Gods bless you Arsenal, never change! How else will I know that I’m watching Arsenal if I’m not screaming “WHY THE … ARE WE PLAYING A HIGH LINE AT 2-0 UP???” at the television?

The tactics make sense because West Brom play with six center backs. Shakespeare might say they make the beast with six center backs. If you know your Shakespeare then you are pretty grossed out right now about making six backs with Sandro, McAuley, Olsson, and the other three hulking dudes that I can’t name off the top of my head.

McAuley hit the crossbar with one of their corners and with West Brom fully spent from that penetration, they decided that was enough excitement for week and went back to play defense.

Sandro has at this point fully turned the cart and horse and stands in midfield beaming like a child who drew his first picture of mommy and daddy. Alexis collects the ball near him, runs circles around him three times, Sandro falls over, and the cart and horse collapse with little tweety birds circling his head.

Meanwhile, on my couch, I was looking up things on my phone. Summer is threatening and I ripped my shorts the other day. Yes, I was actually bending over to pick something up. How did you know my shorts are very old? I’m not fat. I’m big arsed.

Then Arsenal won a free kick! Ramsey! He was tripped.

Alexis set Mertesacker and Giroud in the wall and West Brom didn’t notice that Arsenal had just put our two tallest players in their wall. It was like that one time I was at that fancy French restaurant and they secretly swapped my coffee for a Big Fucking German and a Giant Handsome Frenchman. I don’t know how I didn’t notice.

Then Alexis tried to kill Mertesacker (this is a reference to the one time Sir Alex of Ferguson once said an Arsenal player tried to kill Robin van Persie by kicking the ball at his head) and luckily Mertesacker did what he does best and ducked an aerial challenge. The ball went in as Bananas Foster stood and wondered how Mertesacker and Giroud got in the wall. I expect an episode of “How it got Made: Arsenal’s second goal against West Brom” will uncover the mystery.

The second goal ensured that everyone could go on vacation.

Sandro was first, he was taken off to work on his cart horse turning mechanics. West Brom created one final good chance, from a… wait for it… CORNER. It was the third time in the game that no one on Arsenal collected, claimed, headed, or really noticed the ball in the box. This time when it fell to the back post where there was a West Brom “forward” he cleared the ball off the line. Saving his team the ignominy of scoring a goal.

Alexis was taken off for a much deserved early shower. After the match, Arsene Wenger said that this was a top quality performance and that fans should be here, enjoying this quality.

If you love football, you go out there and I think you see quality football. That’s what we try to give to our people. It was a special night as well, Thursday night, and I don’t know if you are intelligent enough, nor am I, to detect exactly why everybody that did not turn up tonight did not turn up.

I don’t expect Arsene Wenger to give anything less than a glowing review of any match that Arsenal win. But I love football and I don’t think yesterday was “quality” football. I think Arsenal have a special player who caught a West Brom side on vacation. That second goal in particular was the kind of defending that you don’t see from a team who are on their game. The same goes for the numerous chances that Arsenal conceded from undefended corners.

If a lot of people stayed away from the Emirates because they couldn’t be bothered, well that makes perfect sense to me. This is the end of our season of ennui.



Why Tottenham are favorites to win the League

So, I watched Spurs demolish Stoke yesterday and that wasn’t fun. At all. It was about as much fun as that time a few months ago I went back and purposefully rewatched Star Wars Episodes I-III.

If you watch Star Wars IV and see the light saber battles there and compare them to the light saber battles between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Episode III, where they are jumping around on rocks floating on magma, and you don’t want to gouge your eyes out with the sheer illogic of it all, then you probably would have liked Stoke v. Spurs. All I could think of while watching the match was Darth Vader rising up like Frankenstein’s Monster:

Nooo-Meme-Darth-Vader-04Before the match Harry Kane tweeted a photo of some lions on the hunt with the caption, “coming for you Leicester” or something like that. In the match, that’s exactly what Spurs looked like, hungry lions.

Lions I assume for the England/English connection of Kane and Alli. And in the match it was Kane and Alli who pounced on poor Stoke. But the lions metaphor works well for the whole team, they hunted in packs, they were organized and stuck to their game plan.

I know what all the models say. I know that they have Arsenal finishing 2nd and Leicester finishing first. Some of them have Leicester winning the League by 90%+. But there is something in my gut (my database, actually) telling me that Spurs are going to overhaul Leicester.

First, Leicester have lost Vardy for Swansea and Man U for his diving and then telling the referee off. I have a feeling they are going to drop points in those two matches. Second, Spurs don’t look like the feeble Spurs team of the past. Kane’s strike was world class and came at the moment he decided to take over the game. Meanwhile, Alli missed a sitter. The worst miss I have ever seen in a football match. But it didn’t perturb him in the least and he came back and scored the fourth goal, a brilliant volley. Watch the highlights, the 4-0 score line flattered Stoke.

I’ve been telling people for months that Tottenham are a threat. Tottenham take the most shots in the League and concede the third fewest. They have scored the most goals and conceded the fewest. Not only that but they create Big Chances on par with Arsenal now, having put in 74 to Arsenal’s 88 and they have the best SiP saves rate of 65% and the 2nd best Big Chances saves rate.

They are also on a massive run of good form. In the last 14 matches they have created 38 Big Chances, 2.7 per game. And they have scored 31 goals in those 14 matches. In the previous 20 matches they created 36 Big Chances (1.8 per game) and scored 33 goals.

In this run, they have also limited the opposition to just 13 Big Chances, allowed 9 goals, and kept 7 clean sheets. As a point of contrast, Arsenal have created 30 big chances in the last 14 matches, scored 23 goals, conceded 13 Big Chances but also conceded 16 goals, keeping just 6 clean sheets.

Last 14 games Arsenal Spurs
Goals 23 31
Big Chances Created 30 38
Goals conceded 16 9
Big Chances Conceded 13 13
Clean sheets 6 7

This is what it looks like when a team is hunting like hungry lions. Maybe it’s unsustainable? Maybe they will revert to the mean? Maybe they are already reverting to the mean and this is their mean?

Meanwhile, Leicester still haven’t changed. They still allow way too many shots in prime (137 this season, compared to Arsenal’s 86 and Tottenham’s 92) and have allowed 44 Big Chances compared to Arsenal and Tottenham’s 34 each. Schmeichel is saving 57% of the SiPs he faces but also just 40% of the Big Chances.

In their run of the last 14 matches Leicester have been dominated by their opponents: 198 shots to 171. But they have only conceded 8 goals and 15 big chances, kept 9 clean sheets, while scoring 21 and creating 36 big chances.

Leicester is riding a wave of luck at the moment: their opponents have only put 45 shots on target out of the 198 shots they have taken, that’s 23% on frame which is 10% below season average for the Premier League. Can they keep this pace of blocked shots and opposition misses going? I’ve said no all season and they have defied me all season. Maybe they will continue to do so. But from what I’m seeing, Leicester would be the most improbable of League winners.

I think it’s going to be a tight one and we won’t know until the end of the season. But right now, given the form they are in and the underlying stats, I have Tottenham as favorites to win the League.



Leicester serve up a season worth savoring

Leicester City are going to win the League and are going to break the triopoly of Man U, Man City, and Chelsea. It’s going to be a dream come true to see Cesc Fabregas giving Claudio Ranieri a guard of honor. Especially since Ranieri was fired by Chelsea in order to bring in the Mourinho era.

Since I have been writing this blog only three teams have won the League. Those three teams have spent the most money on transfers and wages and essentially built the model of spend, spend, spend.

Before the arrival of Chelsea and Man City, Arsenal were the team that broke the mould. We were the team that didn’t spend, that sold our players for enormous prices to Spain*, that bought cheap and sold high, and who had a large salary but certainly nothing like what Ferguson had at Man U. That’s not to say that Arsenal weren’t a big team, we were the famous Arsenal, but rather that in those days a team could challenge for the League without spending obscene amounts of money.

And I mean obscene. For example, in the 2003/04 Invincibles season, Arsenal had the third highest wage at £70m and the second highest transfer spend with £16m.  In the previous title winning season 2001/02 Arsenal had the second highest wage bill at £61m and the 8th highest transfer spend with £11m. There were plenty of teams spending money in those years — Man U, Chelsea, Leeds, and Liverpool were up there with Arsenal in total spend — but no one was doing what Chelsea would do starting in the Abramovich era; spend 10x the transfer money of any other team and double the wages.

Manchester United quickly followed suit and 5 years later Manchester City added their oily money to the pot and for the last 11 seasons the three biggest spending teams have won the League.

Until this season.

Leicester have a team that are well organized, they play as a team, their players are ambitious, and they play to their strengths. Leicester have also largely escaped injury, they are finishing at above normal rates, and they have gotten the benefit (early in the season) of referees calls, especially penalties, but none of those facts are abnormal for a title winning team.

Leicester have followed a simple formula for success. They don’t over complicate their system and they don’t ask players to play in ways that they can’t. For example, Robert Huth is not a ball playing center back so Leicester don’t try to build from the center back position. Their center backs are also not fast, so they don’t try to play high up the pitch where they would be exposed. They also have some of the fastest players in the League in Vardy and Mahrez so they play compact, simple football which plays exactly into the strengths of their star players, Mahrez, Vardy, Kante, Drinkwater, and Huth. This is basic stuff, I know, but there are a lot of teams who try to complicate football unnecessarily.

As for injury, there are some that want to sully Leicester’s injury record with insinuations that they are doping. We don’t have evidence of that but we do know that they have a dedicated team of physios who test pitch conditions and set up practices to maximize success. They also didn’t have to play in Europe which made their season simpler and in this all important post-Christmas period they have only played 16 matches whereas Arsenal have played 20. It’s also not that unheard of for a team to field a small team: Chelsea, for example, only used 20 players last season, just 1 more than Leicester this season. United used 23 players two years ago, Man City 21 players three years ago, United 21 in 2008, and so on.

As for their finishing, I have been looking at scoring percentages for years and I have detailed data back to 2008. I can confidently say that the top teams always finish at above normal rate. Leicester are actually not converting at a historically high rate. Their bulk conversion (minus pens) is just 11%, tied with Arsenal, West Ham, and Everton. Last season’s winners were highly efficient: scoring 13% of their total shots. And for two seasons prior to that we actually saw the winning teams convert 14% of their total shots.

The other accusation I see a lot is that Leicester have been awarded too many penalties. But 10 penalties in a season isn’t at all unusual for a title winning team — Liverpool had 12 in their title challenge season, Chelsea had 11 in 2012/13, Chelsea 12 in 2009/10, etc.

Most fans are suggesting that Leicester got lucky this season and some fans are even saying that this is the worst Premier League season ever. Both of those things ring true. Next season Chelsea will have Conte in charge, Man City will have Pep Guardiola, and Man U will probably have Mourinho. All of those teams are going to spend money to bring in new players that fit the systems that their managers want them to play. All of those teams are going to be supremely organized. And Chelsea will also not have the burden of Champions League football.

In addition, there are several up and coming teams: Liverpool are looking like a team with an interesting new identity, Tottenham play a good brand of football, and even West Ham are starting to look like a team that could challenge for 4th place.

And starting next season teams are going to reap an additional £35-40m a season in television revenue.

The League is changing. Teams are getting wealthier and will be able to attract more players like Mahrez and Kante. We are going to see all the games get more difficult from top to bottom. But the question is “will we ever see another team like Leicester win the League?” Do the fundamental changes to the Premier League mean that every team has a chance to win the League if they do what Leicester has done and play to their strengths?

I doubt it. This looks like a one-off, like Leicester were just in the right place at the right time. And if that’s the case, we as fans of football should savor this moment. Because if I’m right, the Premier League is about to revert back to the triopoly of Man U, Man City, and Chelsea winning the title every season.


*Wenger’s magic in the Spanish market is amazing: the sales of Overmars, Petit, Hleb, Song, and Vermaelen more than make up for the cheap prices we got for Cesc and Henry.