26 February 2014

Joel Campbell goes the distance

We've had to observe Joel Campbell from a distance for a few seasons now, having signed him—kind of—in 2011 only to have his work-permit turned down, forcing us to loan him out, first to Lorient, then Real Betis, two locations where he failed to distinguish himself except in the collecting of yellow cards. This season's loan to Olympiacos seemed to further suggest that he'd already come as close as he would to ever appearing at Arsenal, which is to say, never. However, his wonder-strike against Man U revives interest, if not hope, in the idea that he may yet have a future.  There must be something there or we wouldn't have jumped through so many hoops to get him in the first place. At 21, he's still too raw and inexperienced for us to start dreaming. Then again, he did in 54 minutes what no current Gunner has done in 180—score against Man U. It's not so much who did it as from where that interests me.

Brass tacks suggest that Campbell is still not close to being ready for top-flight football. Yes, he scored against Man U, and, yes, it's the Champions League, but we can celebrate the goal without making too much of it. It was a fantastic strike, coming after nutmegging Carrick and then curling it around Ferdinand and past de Gea from about 25 yards out. Well-struck, indeed. However, it came as part of a sloppy sequence that showed Man U failing to get back in position. It was a nifty sequence, and I don't want to take the sheen off the moment for the man, but calls for him to return to Arsenal post-haste are, well, hasty. Instead, there's a larger point to be made, one that asks us to step back in order to see the forest, not the trees.

What I mean is that Campbell scored from distance. 25 yards or so. There's something to be said for having a go from there, if only once in a while. For as scintillating and satisfying as goals like Rosický's against Sunderland or Wilshere's against Norwich, goals that dart and dance among four or five players one-touching it through narrow slits of space before being tapped home, there's nothing wrong with the occasional howitzer from outside the box. It's not that we don't have players who can do this—Podolski, of course, and Cazorla, are not shy about letting fly. It's been said that Arsène discourages his players from taking shots from distance. Whether that's true or not is for others to say. I've seen enough highlights and goals from the last 17 years or so to see that players aren't gun-shy.

The reluctance or inability to shoot from distance may be an accidental by-product of our style, which sees us push forward with as many as eight players in the final third, in the process packing the opponent's defenders into that same tight space, leaving us with a dense thicket of 16 or 18 players in and around the box. Finding a window through which to shoot in such settings might seem like a fool's errand as the shot will inevitably be blocked or deflected, perhaps conceding possession for a quick counter-attack.

However, we've seen for ourselves as recently as the weekend that shooting through such a thicket is not impossible, as Sunderland's Giaccherini sluiced his own shot through a half-dozen players to beat Szczesny. That thicket, just as much as it  obstruct clear paths to goal, does the same to the keeper, who is left with little time to anticipate much less see a shot coming through that many players, not to mention deal with the swerves and dips such shots can take due to English or deflections. Such shots become dangerous in and of themselves, of course, as Giaccherini and Campbell have shown. Even if their success-rate is lower than shots from close-in, they can create second chances from those deflections, from the goalkeeper being forced to make a save, and from set-pieces that result.

If nothing else, it's sometimes worthwhile to let fly from distance if only as a signal of intent, testing the keeper while announcing "we're not simply going to pass it around until we find the perfect opportunity from 12 yards away."  Campbell, from considerable distance, beat a keeper widely (if not recently) touted as one of the best young keepers in the Prem. If a player of his still-nascent qualities can score from there, surely, some of our more-seasoned and skilled players can test other keepers from time to time. The goals that come may not come from the quintessential Arsenal oeuvre, but I seem to remember a fair number of famous goals coming from distance. One of the more-glorious sights in football, after all, is seeing that well-struck ball soaring over helpless defenders and just out of reach of a hapless keeper and yanking taut against the back of the net.

Have at it, boys.