30 October 2013

Don't be too hard on yourself, Carl. No man is an island.

Some men, however, get left on them.

In the aftermath of the league cup loss to Chelsea, a great deal of criticism has fallen on the slender shoulders of Carl Jenkinson. After all, he did commit an error that led to the opening goal, and it's hard enough to score before a team digs in to protect a lead. Yours truly joined the parade yesterday saying of Carl that "He is still limited, still too weak with his left and in the air." I'll stand by those comments because I still think that they're true, but I neglected the fact that he's still only 21 and has a lot of learning to do. With that in mind, it's well-worth asking ourselves why he was stranded as much as he was on what amounts to one the most important sequences of the evening—the game-winning goal. For as cringe-inducing as Jenkinson's attempted header back to Fabianksi was, it only came to pass after a series of other bad tactics or decisions that drew less attention only by being less glaring.

After all, other, more-experienced players surrounded Jenkinson: both Vermaelen and Koscielny as center-backs, and Ramsey and Wilshere in the defensive midfield. Each of them should have been aware that Jenkinson was one of the rawest players out there. However, the unfortunate reality is that, among those four, only Koscielny is known for a thorough commitment to his defensive responsibilities. We've long lamented how Vermaelen will bomb forward without getting back, how Wilshere similarly neglects his defensive responsibilities, and how Ramsey, though deployed in the defensive pivot, has grown into more of an attacker. Knowing that Chelsea frequently look for counter-attacks, it seems that there should have been stronger emphasis on caution, especially
on set-pieces that lure our defenders into the opponent's box. Instead, once the corner-kick broke down, we only had three players behind the ball to stave off the counter, and as the ball crossed midfield, it was Nicklas Bendtner who had dropped down deepest, as shown in the first screen-shot. Ramsey, Koscielny, and Vermaelen are each several yards behind Bendter. Wilshere had been drifting left behind Monreal, leaving Jenkinson alone in acres of open space with two attackers and the ball bearing down on him. Only Ramsey joined the play, breaking up the attack, if only briefly as his tackle sends the ball skyward.

Making matters worse, our two center-backs took this opportunity to break off their runs, slowing to a trot instead of getting back into position. While the attack looks to have been blunted, it should have been clear that the threat was still very much alive as Azpilicueta and Willian continued their runs. In this second screen-shot, we can see that Vermaelen pulls up to the point that he's actually leaning backward a bit to put on the brakes, and even Koscielny, who's at least still in stride, has slowed to a jog. On its surface, though it looks like Wilshere and Jenkinson might be bringing the situation under control, it still strikes me as odd that our two center-backs all but finished tracking back a good 40 yards from goal while the ball is still very much a 50-50. By doing so, they've stranded two teammates who have to turn their backs to the attackers and still make a good decision under pressure. Monreal, though the play has flowed away from his side, has at least stayed in position and is available for an outlet pass. The same is not true of Vermaelen or Koscielny.

By the time Jenkinson has to make a play on the ball, Azpilicueta has built up his momentum and can anticipate what Jenkinson will do. It's a no-risk decision, really: stay on-side and guess that he'll play the ball back to the keeper. The decision was made even easier by Jenkinson's telegraphing and poor judgement of the ball, which was moving so slowly that only an assertive header would do. Jenkinson, however, didn't put enough on it, and the rest is history. A more-experienced defender might have seen Azpilicueta running forward and brought the ball down to let him pass by harmlessly, but that's a lot to ask. It's certainly true that Jenkinson should have done better, but so too should have Vermaelen and Koscielny, if not Wilshere, Ramsey, and Monreal. Hindsight is of course 20-20. Perhaps Monreal should have shephered Eto'o wide instead of leaving the passing lane to Essien open. Maybe Wilshere should have stayed more central to close off that lane before Essien could receive the pass, or he could have obstructed Azpilicueta's run into the box. Maybe Ramsey should have stayed on his feet instead of going in for the tackle. Maybe, maybe, maybe. The point is this: Jenkinson's flub was only the most-obvious. He got stranded in a dangerous situation and couldn't find a way out. I said in my post-match that there weren't many broader conclusions to be drawn, but maybe there is—maybe we're playing too aggressively, committing defenders too far forward either by playing a high line or by allowing them to get too far upfield. It's similar to what happened for Dortmund's second goal, when defenders were unable to get back in time to stop the counter.

If that's the case, perhaps we should play a bit more conservatively against incisive counter-attacking sides like Chelsea and Dortmund and Liverpool. It seems then that we haven't been outclassed in these two losses as much as we've been caught out. I'm sure that Bouldie and the boys will be looking over the game-tape to prevent similar break-downs in weeks to come.

In other news, I'm honored that Woolwich 1886 is one of six finalists in the Football Blogging Awards' "Best New Blog" category. I'm facing some stiff competition from some general-interest blogs that cover a little of everything: transfers-rumors, betting, etc. I'm hoping that fellow Gooners will take a moment to vote:
Thanks, as always for your visit. 'Til tomorrow...