Quite the interesting few days to contemplate. It has been extremely busy around these parts so I have to say it is one of those rare times that I'm happy to see a weekend coming without Premier League matches. It gives me a little time to collect my thoughts and write something that isn't entirely focused on the immediate needs of fantasy managers. Here are a few remaining thoughts from the weekend that haven't been covered in-depth elsewhere and then some deeper analysis of Arsenal/Barca.
- United - We've been saying all year that their success has been entirely predicated on the rock solid performances of their CB duo. With Rio and Vidic absent they were exposed. I won't cover the various red card controversies because I'm sure you've already come to whatever conclusions make sense to you. Much more important was the fact that when the defense needed the attackers to pick them up, the attack wasn't even close to being up to it. Vidic/Smalling looks to be an OK pairing but I have a hard time seeing United winning anything unless Rio makes it back soon.
- Liverpool - A heck of a performance in a big match against a big rival. Assuming that Reina doesn't bolt, I think we can feel good that they have the spine of their team in place with four quality CBs, Lucas, Meireles, Suarez (who I'm quickly developing a huge soccer crush on), and Carroll. Kuyt is a great role player to supplement this group. Here are the issues I see going into the summer.
- What's Gerrard's role? - since Kenny has taken over, he's been peripheral. That's a lot of money to spend on someone who isn't making an impact. Before you start calling me a heretic take a look at John Henry's other big franchise the Red Sox and what happened the season they parted ways with their similarly iconic player Nomar "husband of Mia Hamm" Garciaparra (here's a hint, they won their first championship in 86 years.
- Wing help? The amazing thing about this resurgence is that they're doing it with very little in the wide positions. Certainly a left back who can actually play as a defender would help as would a midfielder with some speed (a Theo Walcott type) to stretch defenses and give Meireles and Suarez a target for through balls and more space to operate as defenders have to respect the winger's speed. If this player can also cross the ball to Carroll with reasonable reliability, that would be a huge plus too.
- Keeper? Obviously, the loss of Reina would be huge even if someone like Given or Robbo were brought in as a replacement. King Kenny has to hope that Pepe gives him at least the first half of next season before he starts really agitating for a move.
- The Relegation Race - This is getting fun isn't it? Wigan appear to be all the way dead but WHU are surging on the strength of the Hitz Man and Baaaaaa. Wolves are looking like they mean to make a late run to stay up. WBA continues to confound but they certainly took advantage of the corpse Birmingham showing up for Saturday's early match. Blackpool are just barely holding on with Rovers, Stoke, and Villa still no where near safe. To have all nine of those teams separated by only 7 points in the table with 9 matches left for most teams is incredible. Even Wigan could conceivably put a little run together and finish solidly mid-table (it won't happen but mathematically it isn't unreasonable).
- Wolves - Plain and simple, they were screwed by a bad officiating decision. If ever there was a reason for video replay, that was it. The play was quick hitting and in a situation (potential foul on the goalkeeper) where officials tend to be very cautious. A 15 second review would have revealed the right call and made a potentially huge impact on whether Wolves stay up or go down. I don't blame the official (too much) because I made the same assumption in real time - with the replay though, it was clear what the right call was. Blame FIFA!
I think my blood pressure is still a bit high from all the twists and turns. First things first, the better team has moved on. Barca are more talented and put on an amazing show. The competition is better off with them in the next round even if I as a fan am not better off for the same thing. The funny thing is, they seemed to have weathered the storm pretty effectively and put themselves in a position where as the inferior team, they had a really solid chance to win. So, why didn't it happen?
The obvious answer is the incredibly poor decision from the referee to alter the outcome of the match by giving RvP a yellow card for something that happens all the time - a player continuing on with a motion after the whistle because he couldn't hear/see the official's signal. Honestly though, it goes deeper than that easy explanation. Arsenal find themselves in similar situations all too frequently and have come up wanting much more often than not. Here are some of the popular lines of reasoning that have been put forward as to Arsenal's frailties and my assessment of each.
Wenger Is Too Stubborn - The complaint at the beginning of the season was that Wenger needed an experienced CB and a goalkeeper as the proverbial "cherry-on-top" of what is an excellent attacking squad. The press has abused Wenger to no end for turning a blind eye to those needs. Funny thing is that between Fabianski and Szczesny, the goalkeeping has been pretty strong and Almunia even put in a heck of a shift last night after Szcz's injury. CB has been more of an issue but that has more to do with the unexpected duration of Vermaelen's injury. If they were able to feature a CB rotation of Verm, Djourou, and Koscielny with Squillaci as the emergency back-up/4th CB, that wouldn't be bad at all.
You Don't Win With Kids -This is such a general platitude that its hard to say something in response but their one youthful mistake (Cesc's silly back pass that led to Messi's opener) was made by their captain and someone who, while young, has been a full time starter for a number of years now. Wilshere was one of their best players in the first leg against Barca and has been exceptional for most of the last couple months. Throw in the improvement since Szczesny took over in net and I have a hard time believing that youth alone is to blame for their failings.
The Squad Players - I'm certainly no huge fan of Diaby, Rosicky, Denilson, and Squilaci (and Bendtner is quickly climbing on the list of guys who seem destined for the exit doors) but honestly, what are the alternatives? The Premier League leaders have far less depth (and talent) in midfield than Arsenal do. I'd certainly take Diaby/Rosicky/Denilson over Obertan, Bebe, Anderson, and Carrick. Squillaci is certainly no worse than Evans. I'm not even sure who United's 4th forward is (Owen?) but Bendtner has been as productive has he has this season. With the exception of Chelsea's depth at CB, you can go through the same exercise there as well. Squad players are squad players for a reason. Before you uncork the "but Arsenal need more from their squad players than United because of all of their injuries" argument, that hardly washes over the last couple seasons as United have endured key injuries (Rooney, Valencia, Rio) and necessary rotation (Giggs & Scholes) as frequently as Arsenal have missed Cesc and RvP.
No Killer Instinct - We know Wenger can field a team that knows how to close. He may not have won a Champions League title but he's won trophies and still has the only squad to go through a season undefeated to his credit. The question then becomes, can THIS group of players learn that same strength? Are you born with it and learn everything else? Are you born with everything else and learn to close? Short of a PhD in Psychology and more research time than I have to commit, I'm not sure that there's an answer to this one but I think we're closing in on the cause. There are two characteristics that I think of contemplating Ferguson's best United teams and Mourinho's best Chelsea teams - precision and calm. Precision in the fact that they don't make dumb mistakes (like Cesc's pass or RvP lashing out at Alves for his first YC) that help other teams win. Calm in that when things don't go their way, they stick to the plan and seem sure that things will work out.
Something Less Tangible? - In addition to the strong possibility that Arsenal's players have not ascended to a level where they refuse to make key mistakes and lose their cool when things start to go wrong, I think there may be something else going on here too. That thing just may be that at a subconscious level, the football world may be tired of Wenger's holier-than-thou attitude about doing things the "right way" both on the pitch and with club finances. I freely admit to being very impressed that Arsenal remain competitive on a budget while outperforming teams that spend money they don't have like drunken sailors. That said, if I were one of those drunken sailors I'm sure I'd be about tired of hearing how much smarter and more efficient the Arsenal Way is than mine. Do I think those bad feelings might turn into a conspiracy? Definitely not. Do I think that it might turn little things here and there (like a judgment call on a YC) against the Gooners from time-to-time? I do in the same way I think that sometimes, not always, Fergie gets the benefit of some calls due to some combination of intimidation, reputation, and years of success giving him and his players the benefit of the doubt. In neither case do I find there to be anything sinister but rather the product of years of interactions and impressions building up and creating predispositions on the part of officials and administrators.
At the end of the day, the question is "how can they break through? or can they?" Excellent question for which I don't think there is an analytic answer. You could argue that the Red Sox of 2004 and the Phillies of 2008 (both baseball) or even the early versions of Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls (when they couldn't beat the Detroit Pistons) were in the same boat as Arsenal are now and they pushed through and won one or more championships. Conversely, the Buffalo Bills (early 90s) and the Philadelphia Eagles (early 2000s) (both American Football) and the NBA's Portland Trailblazers (early 90s) were also in similar situations and never broke through and won. Looking at all of these teams before they won (or didn't) I'm not sure that there's any one thing that you could attribute their winning or losing to.
Once the talent is in place to get close to a championship (which it was in all of the above situations as it is in the current version of Arsenal's squad), either everything comes together and you turn from "contender" into "champion" or you wilt in that moment. The thing is that there can be multiple moments over multiple years. After the fact, people will say that Jordan's Bulls needed to learn what it took to win by losing to the Pistons. Fans in Philly, Portland, and Buffalo can look back at the same type of losses and say that their teams never gained anything productive from them. If anyone has any suggestions as to what we should be looking for from this Arsenal squad that you've seen in other teams that have progressed from "young and talented" to "champions" that would lead you to a specific conclusion about Arsenal, I'm more than interested in hearing about it.