04 February 2014

What Arsenal can learn from the Super Bowl. Seriously.

Hear me out. As laughable as it may sound to suggest that a sport as refined and nuanced and balletic as football can learn something from a sport as barbaric and savage and brutish as football (American, that is), it's really not that far off-base. Give it a minute...

Sunday saw the world's America's most overblown sporting event, the Super Bowl. Sure, a great number of the 111.5 million people who reportedly watched it were doing so idly, perhaps more interested in the ads or the halftime performance than they were by the action. Sure, the action itself was all but over before halftime. Sure, American football is itself defined by short bursts of action followed by stultifying lulls. However, the lesson that is on offer from the event—and the season that preceded it—is one that we in the Arsenal family can glean some encouragement from.

After all, the Super Bowl pitted the league's best defense, the Seattle Seahawks, against the league's best offense, the Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning, the Bronco's quarterback and already in possession a wide number of record-setting statistics, set all kinds of new records this season: one of only six players to throw for seven touchdowns in one game. Only the second quarterback ever to throw seven touchdowns without an interception. Most touchdowns in the first three weeks (12). Most touchdowns in a seaons (55). A league record 5,477 yards. The league leader in pass completions and pass attempts. A league-leading fifth Most Valuable Player, most in league history. I could go on, but the point is there. The Manning-led Broncos were a fearsome offensive juggernaut, but they were held to one touchdown—a total of eight points.Aside from the New York Giants in 2001 and the Washington Redskins in 1984, you have go back almost 40 years to find such a miserable output.

That brings me to the lesson, not that it's earth-shattering or novel: defense wins championships. For as much as we rue our options at striker, and as fearsome as the offensive displays coming out of the Etihad and Anfield, our defensive solidity has been impressive. On the whole, Chelsea's is actually better, so let's give credit where credit is due. For one, they held City scoreless at the Etihad, just a bit better than we did. However, at the risk of tweaking the noses of any Blues who might stop by, we're guilty of playing to win a little more often. There. I said it. Let's move on.

The Seattle Seahawks shut down that vaunted Broncos offense. We've shown that we can shackle similarly prolific offenses—shutting out Liverpool, Dortmund at Westfalenstadion, and Napoli in both legs. Of course, there was the aforementioned shellacking at Man City. No one's perfect. Man City has already laid claim to the goal-differential trophy, which may or may not come in handy should they end level on points with us or Chelsea. That, of course, brings us to the end of the lesson from the Super Bowl itself, because, absent some remarkably far-fetched scenario that sees us end level on points, goal differential, and goals scored, we'd then go to a playoff and the lesson from the Super Bowl becomes more pertinent. Unlikely.

It's the lesson from the season itself that persists—like the Seahawks, our defense has emerged as a mainstay. Whether it's the maturation of Szczesny, the partnership of Per and Kos, the sustained quality of Sagna, or the continuing emergence of Gibbs, these factors have all come together to all but erase the fragility that has exposed us too often in the past. Just last season, we were one of the worst in conceding goals through individual errors. This year, we're among the best. We've kept 19 clean sheets in all competitions. In the Prem, we've kept 11. We had 14 clean sheets through the entire 2012-13 Prem season.

It's not just stats, either. It's attitude. Remember Per's fury when we conceded to Aston Villa? That's what I'm talking about. This is a squad that hates to concede goals, regardless of how they affect outcome. In seasons past, we were afraid of conceding, worrying that it was only a matter of time before something terrible or unlucky or all-too-predictable happened—a squibbed clearance, a red-card in the box, a cruel deflection. This time around, it's as if we simply refuse to concede unless the opposition either earns it or there are some dubious circumstances (was Monreal fouled on Southampton's first? Maybe. Is Monreal a bit weak in the air. Yeah.). Still, it's become a point of pride, how miserly the defense has become.

Speaking after the win over Crystal Palace, Laurent Koscielny said as much:
If you want to win, it's easier when you concede no goals. I think the defenders hate to concede a goal so we work hard to keep clean sheets and we did well today. We need to continue to work hard like this for the other games.
Hating to concede is a sea-change from last season when conceding felt inevitable. No longer. Even more encouraging is that idea that we "need to continue to work hard" instead of getting complacent. Along similar lines, Wojciech Szczesny highlighted the importance of understanding each other, something well-worth remembering after a disappointing transfer-window:
We've been together for much longer and we understand each other's game now. Over the last couple of seasons we had less luck with injuries—I never played with the same back four for more than two or three games [in a row]. Now we play with the same back four, sometimes we rotate the full-backs but in general we stay with the same defence.
I won't go so far as to say that this understanding is "like a new signing", but it is worth mentioning that communication matters a great deal. Remember the goals we conceded at White Hart Lane last February? A newly signed Monreal didn't yet understand his role in relation to his new teammates, nor could he communicate with them very well. Now, by contrast, everyone seems to know or sense what to do and who's doing it. That unity, building from the back, has kept us atop the Prem despite injuries and the returns to Earth after the glittering early-season form of Ramsey, Giroud, and others.

We may not be the league's best defense, not in the same way that the Seattle Seahawks were, but, if we're struggling to score, we believe we won't concede first. Over the next fourteen matches, that belief, built on a solid foundation of evidence and results, might just be enough to see us finish top of the table.