First Impressions plus Champions League Thoughts

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.

Premier League
  • 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!
On to Arsenal and the match with Barcelona last night.  
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.


  1. Anonymous4:49 PM

    Thanks, Neil, for your attempt to solve the insoluble. Here are two slight variants on your thoughts.

    Firstly, I get tired of watching Arsenal play games where they have overwhelming possession and shots on target but little result, and the standard media response is lack of finishing. Barcelona was in exactly the same position after 150 minutes of football but the media claims they 'deserved' the referee's blatantly bad call.

    Secondly, they need a leader - a 'take charge' guy who will 'kick arse' and drag the team into a fight. Where is Arsenal's Tony Adams, Roy Keane, John Terry, Nemanja Vidic, Kevin Nolan, Kevin Davies .....

    They have lots of pretty gold and silver, but no iron.

  2. Chris O.5:10 PM

    Vieira was a pretty big deal during Arsenal's Invincibles run. Claude Makelele was a pretty big deal in Mourniho's Chelsea years. Can Wilshere step into that role for this iteration of Arsenal?

  3. Anonymous5:19 PM

    Might be a little early for Wilshere. How about Vermaelen or Song in the short term?

  4. song is not having the same year as he had last year. he was co-mvp in my book with cesc last year. he seems to have been given more room to roam forward, hence his scoring goals, but that leaves a whole in the middle.

    as far as winning and tradition go, chelsea before jose mourinho did not really win much nor made it to the champions league every year. as soon as chelsea got over the hurdle of winning the league, they became a dominant team. now even though they have thin team they are still in contention for the title. once arsenal get through it, it becomes self perpetrating.

    it is in their hands now, win out and arsenal are champs.

  5. I'd say Arse are a very talented and deep team with no clear leader and no clear matchwinner. If you have a Samuel Eto'o type who gets handed that counter chance Bendtner got at the end of the game yesterday, he remoreslessly buries it and sticks the knife in Barca's back. I almost think that instead of the defensive upgrade, they should pay over the odds for a lethal and durable striker (yeah, easier said than done) and just outscore everyone. Seems to be the way the game is going right now anyway, with the notable exception of Inter last year.

    Van Persie is a great striker when he's in form and not broken, but he's not on that level. Nobody on Arsenal is on that level, not even Cesc, at least yet. Barca has like 5 of those guys. Cesc wouldn't even start for Barca right now. Actually, who on Arsenal at all would start for Barca right now? Maybe Nasri over Pedro? Even that's a toss-up. You need at least 1, preferably 2 World-11-level players to really make a run at the CL (and you can get away with some weaknesses around them if you have them), but for all of their surfeit of young talent, Arsenal just don't have that.

  6. One thing to consider is the congested schedule. No other team was playing as many games as Arsenal was in all four competition. It's much easier to cope when you have a fairly healthy squad but injuries to Cesc/RvP/walcott (and long term TV) have really slowed Arsenal's pace down. They looked so flat against Sunderland/Birmingham. The B team (Bendy, Rosicky, Diaby/Denilson) was also out of form/shape and not playing up to the expected standard until recent weeks. The gap between the A (in form then) and B team was huge.

    I was really happy immediately after the CL draw. As i said to my friend, it's the perfect scenario, you either prove your mantle and beat the best team in the world and go on win it all, or you get rightfully put in your place and then concentrate on the league.

    Now that there are only two competition remaining for Arsenal, I hope they make good use of rest for weeks when they only have to play a game every weekend.

    Let's see how Man U cope with CL/FA/EPL with all their injuries.

  7. Also I can't wait till a healthy Ramsey replaces the ever-so-frustrating Diaby and Denilson (his game against Sunderland was one of the worst I have ever seen from an Arsenal player).

    A healthy Ramsey give you ball retention, scoring ability, passing range, and the one piece that glues everything together. Wilshere, as brilliant as he has been, is not as suited for this role as Ramsey.

    In short, Ramsey can give us another Cesc while Cesc is out/off.

  8. Did anyone remember this post????

    I'm torn between: Ridgewell + Carr vs. Coleman/Osman + Hitzlsperger...
    Any advice much appreciated.
    By the way, please rate the proposed team below:

    Howard / Baines, RoJo, Ridgewell, Carr / Arteta, Neville, Bentley / Beckford, Saha, Zigic

    Many thanks as always!

    OF COURSE, I DROPPED Coleman, Osman and Hitzlsperger FOR Ridgewell, Neville and Carr....


    I eventually scored 71.5 points with 11 double gamers. That has to be the worst score for a full double-game week.
    Post your score if you did worse...

  9. I agree with GunnerArt. Arsenal has its chances to beat Barcelona but lost to the better team. Let's move on. If Arsenal ends up winning the double this year, all will be forgiven and Wenger will once again bask in the glory of his "genius" and ability to deliver a championship team on a budget.

    Be happy with the good news that twice now Man U has lost following disappointing draws from Arsenal. So Lady Luck has not abandoned the Gunners.

  10. Advice to Arsenal fans:
    DON'T expect anything from your team; it's always heart-breaking...
    Let whatever is won by the team be a bonus, seriously.

  11. 'Pool fan for arsenal8:07 AM

    As a long-time Liverpool fan (still smarting from the League championship loss in the last kick of the season to Arsenal in 1989), I get the hand-wringing...but if Arsenal are to show some steel finally and win something, right now is the time to do it. While we're all looking back gasping at losing to the team of the century, Man U is quietly stumbling down the stretch like they haven't done in a long time: losing 3 of the last 5? Arsenal is within 4 with a game in hand, and a home match coming with these same L'pool is out of contention for the honor this year I'm pulling for Arsenal to get back on the horse and take ManUre by a nose. Some confidence, y'all!!!

  12. Anonymous11:54 AM

    They really need a deadly striker, strikers like eto, inzaghi, live for the kind of pass Bendtner got towards the end of the match, they always expect the ball to get to them somehow. Their problem is numerous, Van Persie sure killed them.

  13. Thanks, Neal, for mentioning that horrible backheel from Fabregas, which looked as bad as Van der Sar's inexplicable bookie-payoff drop that led to the Man U-West Brom draw at Old Trafford. What I mean is that although RvP's dismissal was crucial to the match, it was a 50-50 call, and there were other factors that contributed to Arsenal's unhinging (a defensive strategy, for one). RvP had acted in frustration in a couple instances before the sending off, and although I think a stern "No more nonsense" would have been better from the ref, it is not unthinkable that RvP really was lashing at the ball in frustration, and that Busacca acted accordingly.

    @Tayo, getting back to fantasy football, I imagine this was a so-so week for most managers who double-stacked. Although I thought your team looked good, I added the caveat that "too many eggs in one basket" could come back to bite you. If there are only two DG teams in a game week, then experience has taught me to pick selectively from them and go for logical SGers elsewhere. (To be fair, though, even though Lampard or Duff would have been excellent choices, both of whom I included in my blog poll, Tévez proved a disaster for anyone who took the plunge.)

  14. Anonymous4:36 PM

    oh come on. fist, RVP deserved the Red card much earlier in the first half when he open fisted D.Alves in the face. No defence to his sending off as he should've been sent off much earlier. Messi should have gotten a penalty as well and you don't see Barca supporters complaining about that. The best won and the ref is not to blame because he was fair on both sides imo!

  15. Great discussion, Neal. First, my Liverpool boys. Gerrard's going nowhere. He's a Liverpool man through and through, playing for a Liverpool man through and through. Gerrard and Dalgleish are a married pair. Just because he's not scoring (which he came VERY close to twice against ManUtd) doesn't mean his role is any less vital. He's playing a deeper midfield role, and has been distributing beautifully alongside Lucas. I'm more than happy to see him sink deeper into midfield because it's obvious Miereles belongs further forward where Gerrard used to be. I know I'm a fan, I know that means obvious bias, but we've already done the double over Chelsea and taken the mickey out of ManUtd. With Arsenal (who we should have beat in the season opener) and Man City (who we need some redemption against) and Tottenham (who we put in a VERY good shift against) still left to play, I say we're legitimate title contenders next year again. If we can keep Reina, we're going to be a serious threat, and play some smashing good football. Carroll won EVERY ball in the air that came to him in the Europa Lg game. Can you imagine what him and Suarez on the pitch will look like, w/ Miereles in support and Gerrard orchestrating the midfield? I'm already looking forward to next season.

    On to Arsenal - the solution is simple. Fire your entire physio team. They must be absolutely AWFUL. Has any team in the Premier League ever had as much success as Arsenal with their most talented players only available for 2/3 of the season? Yes they need a keeper. But it's the physios who are ruining Arsenal! In any other occupation, this much failure to do your job gets you fired. I wouldn't go to Arsenal's physios if I had a cold.

  16. Anonymous10:32 PM

    GREAT post Neal and responses! truly good stuff!!!!
    sorry, nothing to add as I have no time.

  17. Anonymous2:11 PM

    maybe the problem was being outshout 19-0