16 February 2015

Wengerball rises up again, whether we want it or not...

Against Middlesbrough, we witness a sumptuous goal the likes of which we haven't seen in a while, the kind that remindus us all of what this squad is capable of and what its manager's vision can look like when brought to fruition. 26 minutes in, a sequence started that involved all eleven players on the pitch and as many as 15 passes before culminating in Giroud's deft finish, a near-perfect distillation of Wengerball at its best. Everyone was involved, the passing and off-the-ball movement seemed symphonic, the assist came from a left-back bombing forward into space behind a befuddled defense, and the finish came from no more than six yards from goal. It was brilliant, but we'd do well to beware its blessing for the curse it might hide.

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The sequence, courtesy of Opta.
What am I going on about? We scored a wonderful goal, displaying technique and vision and coordination, and we won the match to boot. Why am I wringing my hands over it? With players like Cazorla, Özil, Alexis, and others dancing about, picking out passes and floating around, flummoxing and hypnotising defenders, surely, we can continue to replicate such a sequence time and time again. No, they won't all turn out like this or like Wilshere's goal against Norwich or Rosický's against Sunderland, but that's the dance, isn't it?

Then again,, for as thrilling and scintillating as a goal like this one was, the danger is that it might lure us back into old habits, habits that we'd only recently begun to shrug off. We—and I include fans, players, and managers—are like addicts who, having only recently kicked the habit, are far-too susceptible to a relapse. For years, we've come to depend on and crave the rush that comes through those perfect goals, those exquisitely choreographed sequences in which every touch, every run, is just so and the ball is tapped in whilst flat-footed defenders and helpless keepers struggle to make sense of what just happened, so quick and deft were the flicks and back-heels and look-aways. How often have we dominated possession, pushing an opponent further and further back into their box (or running up against a side set up to conced possession in the first place) only to watch in frustration as we passed pointlessly around the edges of the area?

In recent weeks, we'd seen a different approach in which we seemed to realise the futilty of that approach, both for how rarely it paid off and for how often we paid the price. What have been our Achilles' Heels? Counter-attacks and set-pieces. What increases the rate of counter-attacks and set-pieces? Committing too many players to the attack. With that in mind, it was a welcome change that saw us, since losing to Southampton, forget about possession, look to score the first goal, but otherwise lure opponents forward in order to hit on counters. With runners like Alexis, Welbeck, and Walcott, and with passers like Özil and Cazorla behind them, it would be madness (admittedly sexy madness but madness all the same) to ignore the possibilities. What good are pace or well-weighted through balls if there isn't space in behind for the two to consummate?

For as much as we all enjoyed that goal, we might hope that such an attack doesn't become the default-option, the calling-card by which we're remembered. By all means, let it stay as a tool in the arsenal (sorry, hard to work around that one...) but resist the compulsion to revert to old ways. For as breath-taking as such goals are, they are, by definition, exceedingly rare, occuring maybe once a season. Rather than pinning all our hopes to scoring such goals on a weekly basis, then, we could hold attempt in reserve, to be unleashed at such times as defenses seem vulnerable to it.

Heck, it's a wonderfully viable add-on to a counter-attack. With defenders rushing back into position but struggling to establish formation, a quick sequence of passes against the grain saw Middlesbrough's well-drilled defense turn into headless chickens, if only for the moment. So may it be against other opponents down the line. We don't have to outrun our opponents in a pure counter-attack, nor do we have to thread intricate pass after intricate pass through a dense thicket of positioned defenders.

In any case, the result itselt might offer a bit of methadone to the pre-exisiting addiction. We're through to the quarterfinal and can rest assured knowing that no one picked up any fresh knocks. Alexis looked lively, Gabriel made a comfortable debut, and we can look ahead to the draw knowing that we've taken care of business, at least for another week.