09 February 2013

Arsenal 1-0 Sunderland

Even playing with 10 men for most of the second half, Arsenal was able to dispatch Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. It took a brilliant display from Wojciech Szczęsny, who simply could not be beat today, making all manner of saves, especially in the second half when Carl Jenkinon's second yellow saw him sent off in the 62nd minute, Jack Wilshere came off for Abou Diaby after sustaining an injury, and Sunderland's desperation impelled them forward. Szczęsny parried and punched away everything they could throw at him, getting lucky on more than one occasion, but he was easily the man of the match in my book.  Not to be outdone, Mignolet had himself a superb game but for a sizzling shot from Cazorla in the 36th minute that was enough to earn three points for Arsenal. This keeps us on pace with Spurs and Chelsea, who each won their matches. We'll have to wait until tomorrow for Everton-Man U. For now, we get to enjoy a spell in 5th place.

Things hardly got off to a flying start as Koscielny suffered an injury during warm-ups, forcing Jenkinson and pushing Sagna to centerback. It only took Jenkinson eight minutes to earn his first yellow for a clumsy challenge, setting the stage for his departure for a similar scything of Sessègnon in the 62nd minute (I like alliteration, sorry). I like Jenkinson, but at this point, he is still a bit far out of his depth. I would have preferred that we held onto Djourou and loaned out Jenkinson instead, giving him a chance to play. Djourou may not set any hearts on fire, but he at least feels more reliable to me.
At any rate, Sunderland were looking threatening, but we were just as dangerous, peppering Mignolet often. A few nice saves against Walcott and Ramsey, along with a near-hit from Giroud, kept them in the game. Then, it was Wilshere's turn. He sliced through Sunderland's midfield, beating three players before laying the ball off nicely to Walcott. Inwardly, I worried that Walcott might keep it for himself--not that this would be a bad decision, necessarily as he received the ball at the top of the 18 with one man to beat. Instead, he turned to his right and laid the ball off for Cazorla, who one-timed it with his left. The ball somehow found its way through the legs of one defender before sliding just under Mignolet's outstretched hand. That was about it for the first half.

The second half started with Wilshere walking off after an injury. No word yet on him, but he was walking comfortably at the end of the game. Frankly, and more on this later, I don't mind him sitting down for a while. The past week has seen him elevated to a pantheon of players, and the young man could use a break. In the same week that we learn that Paul Gascoigne continues to struggle, is it really the time to start comparing Wilshere to him? Let's give him some time before anointing him just yet. 

Without Wilshere, one could sense a little less grit in Arsenal's game, and Sunderland has a few players who can cause mischief. Sessègnon and Fletcher were darting around and, were it not for Szczęsny, each of them might have tallied. The man just could not be beat on this day. Even after Jenkinson was sent off, Szczęsny and the back line held firm. There were a few scary moments, and Sunderland by rights should have had an equalizer but for some poor finishing, including one from Titus Bramble from inside the six.

Despite being short-handed, we continued to press forward, creating dangerous counter-attacks with only two or three men. Giroud's hold-up play was notable, as he repeatedly gathered long clearances and laid them off to Cazorla, Ramsey, and Walcott. Walcott was unlucky in the 75th minute, running onto a beautiful pass from Cazorla and chipping past Mignolet, only to see the shot hit the far post. An inch to the right would have seen that ball bounce in or back across the mouth for Walcott to tap in.

From there, Miquel came on for Walcott as Wenger looked for more defense. Sunderland took shots, earned corners and spot-kicks, but couldn't breach Szczęsny's line. In the waning seconds of the fourth minute of stoppage time, it was Mignolet himself who almost did it, running up to join one last corner. Szczęsny stopped his header during the scramble (right as the announcer was pointing that Mignolet has scored goals before), and time was called. 

Right, then. Three points, well-earned. Next up, we host Blackburn in the FA Cup's fifth round.

07 February 2013

The Road Ahead

Je suis aussi nerveux que vous êtes, Sébastien.
With the international friendlies over, we can breathe a sigh of relief, albeit with a hitch in that a few Gunners come back home with a few knocks and nicks--Ramsey and Koscielny seem to have calf strains, and Vermaelen injured his ankle at some point. Ramsey and Vermaelen didn't even play on Wednesday. Midfield will probably hold up without Ramsey; we can still field Cazorla, Diaby, Wilshere, and Podolski, but defense gets a little tetchier. If Vermaelen and Koscielny are not fit, we can put on Monreal, Mertesacker, and Sagna, but, after that, the cupboard is looking a bit bare. Jenksinson is available, but after him, we're left with the likes of Squillaci or a call-up from the reserve squad (Miquel?). I like our chances against Sunderland, but I'd feel a heck of a lot better knowing that our defense, as leaky as it has been at full-strength, can take the field and hold the line.

Speaking of Sunderland, we're entering the final stretch of the EPL with 13 games to play, and we're sitting in 6th, one point behind Everton, four behind Spurs, and eight behind Chelsea. A quick look at each club's remaining schedule suggests that a 4th place finish is entirely within reach, but a 3rd place finish would demand one hell of a run. In the chart below, I've mapped each of the key team's final schedules. I haven't included later rounds for Spurs in the Europa League, us in the UCL and FA Cup, Chelsea in the Europa, or Everton in the FA because (a) they're unavailable and (b) may not exist, depending on outcomes of the upcoming rounds. Between you, me, and the lamppost, I don't mind getting knocked out of the UCL by Bayern as long as we put up a fight.

Back to the issue at hand, the chart below, in all of its festive Christmas-iness, offers what I think is a reasonable breakdown of each team's prospects. Games highlighted in green are games that a team really should win or have little trouble winning, games highlighted in red are more challenging, difficult games that will be much harder to win, and unhighlighted games are various other competitions that matter only in as much as players might get injured or suffer from fatigue/distraction. Here, then, is said chart:

I don't think I'm being overly optimistic or letting my biases unduly affect me here. Arsenal seems well-positioned to close out the season with a strong run--Everton and Spurs not only face slightly tougher schedules, but they also have less of a chance of going on a long run. After we play the second leg against Bayern, we face five teams whom we really should be able to beat if we're taking ourselves seriously. I daresay that match against Man U is less-red than it looks; we lost to them 2-1 at Old Trafford when we were still adjusting to Van Persie's departure, Wilshere was just returning (and got sent off), and when Cazorla, Podolski, and Giroud were still settling in. If not for a Vermaelen whiff in, what, the 3rd minute, that game might have turned out somewhat differently.

If each time wins all of its green games but loses all of its red ones (tying each other in head-to-head matches with one of the other three on the chart), Arsenal finishes comfortably in 4th. Of course, if it was as simple as looking at the fixtures and saying, "well, Arsenal is better that Fulham, so they'll win that...", we wouldn't need players, just actuaries. Anything can happen, including Newcastle beating Chelsea. Or Everton losing to Reading. Spurs losing to Norwich. Arsenal losing to Swansea. Funny things happen, but if we're going for that 4th place "trophy," it's time to buckle down, get serious, and climb the table.

06 February 2013

Food for Thought: Van Persie v. Walcott

At first blush, I would be mad to even make the comparison, but Theo and Robin are not all that far apart when you take a closer look at their production in the EPL this year. Mr. Van Persie draws a lot of headlines, and rightfully so, for being the leading scorer for the second year in a row. Last year, we gleefully cheered "he scores when he wants to" to the tune of some 30 goals, and he's (tragically) continued that form this year for Man U while shedding the fragility that bedeviled him with us for eight years. It positively warms the cockles of the heart to hear him say that he's finally found a home at United. I guess eight years of training and support and mentorship just don't measure up to 6-7 months of wearing a somewhat different shade of red and pocketing a heck of a lot more green in hopes of winning some silver. Wouldn't it be fun to win the FA cup if only because we'd then have a trophy a few weeks before Man U could?

But I digress. My real reason here is to use cold, hard facts to assure or delude us into thinking that we haven't lost all that much. After all, as I've previously written, our stats from last year to this suggest that we are, in fact, doing better than we did last year. What we're missing this year is consistency, or at least extended streaks of wins, to render a sense of momentum and progress. Absent that, I'd like to take a look at Van Persie's heir-apparent, in attitude it not ability: Theo Walcott. He sees himself as a finisher just as devastating and as clinical as Van Persie. Excuse me--I have to wipe the coffee from my own computer-screen. Whatever the gap between perception and reality may be, I offer this chart to bridge it:

This shows each man's productivity after 24 games in the Premiere League. Of course, Van Persie's actual production dwarfs that of Walcott. However, a closer look shows that the two are not all that far apart. Walcott is only a touch less accurate with his shots, with 45.28% of them on goal to Van Persie's 45.56%. For as often as we bemoan Walcott's profligacy in front of goal, the difference between him and Van Persie is statistically insignificant. If Walcott could put more than seven of his next 17 shots on-frame, he'd have a better accuracy rate than the vaunted Van Persie, for what that's worth.

When you look at goals per shot on goal, Walcott actually surpasses Van Persie, 45.83% to 43.9%. That's notable. I could throw in some other contextualizing conjectures, but I'm not going to point out  (except that I'm doing it by saying I'm not doing it) that Van Persie gets to take most of shots between the sticks, in the box, at close range, etc., while Walcott is frequently cutting in at sharper angles and so at least in theory takes lower-percentage shots. Maybe this is part of why he wants a more central role?

By these metrics, we are in far better shape than we had feared when Van Persie jumped in the lap of the first john to riffle a wad of bills under his nose. Will Walcott sustain these rates long enough to actually match Van Persie's actual production? After all, at the end of the day, it's not how many shots you make that matters; it's how many you make. Van Persie still has 18 goals, and that's that.

What does separate Van Persie from Walcott is not the number of goals, but their timing. Simply put, Van Persie's goals matter more than Walcott's. Again, looking only at Premier League games, the difference here is stark: Walcott might score goals at a rate similar to Van Persie's, but only Van Persie is scoring what I'll call "vital" goals--goals that directly lead to a tie or a win, including the following:.
  • any goal that puts one's own team ahead temporarily.
  • any goal that puts one's own team ahead for good.
  • any goal that contributes to a tie.
All other goals count as "superfluous", namely those goals that come when one's team is already ahead and is not needed to ensure victory (this includes goals that push a one-goal lead to a two-goal lead) or goals scored in losses. With these admittedly arbitrary definitions in mind, I offer this chart to demonstrate the two strikers' contributions:
As you can see, 16 of Van Persie's 18 EPL goals have been vital--they have won games, or they have turned losses into ties or ties into wins. As encouraging as the first chart was in comparing Walcott to Van Persie in terms of accuracy and efficiency, this issue of timing, more than anything else, is what continues to separate them. To be fair, Van Persie is now 29 and played with and learned from players such as Ljungberg, Henry, Bergkamp, and Pires, among others. Walcott is 23, and from whom he has learned? Arshavin? Adebayor? Van Persie? Nothing against Van Persie, but he hardly strikes me as a tutor or mentor-type.Left with that, and considering Walcott's potential, I daresay I feel...okay. Not great, but okay. That'll do for now.

05 February 2013

International Friendlies! They're--they're...zzzzzz....

This is cute.
Well, the international friendlies are here, but no one knows quite why. It's like Waiting for Godot in reverse (what, too literary?); instead of waiting and looking pointlessly for someone who will never arrive, friendlies arrive pointlessly without anyone waiting or looking for them. Even the name is irksome--a "friendly" has all of the intensity and drama of the dregs of yesterday's leftover coffee. Are players meant to just knock it around, smiling to each other and offering hearty congratulations? ("Nice move,Steve, you spun me right round on that!"). I prefer my footy with a bit more of an edge to it. So it goes.

Anyway, from the looks of it, Walcott, Wilshere, and Ox will travel all the way to Wembley as England hosts Brazil, Podolski and Mertesacker will travel to France to face Sagna, Giroud, and Koscielny, among others, but not Diaby, who seems to have been left out. Belgium hosts Slovakia, pulling Vermaelen home. Spain hosts Uruguay, and the news there is more mixed. del Bosque seems to have left Michu and Fernando Torres out, opting apparently to leave out strikers who know how to score as well as those who don't (anymore). Xabi Alonso is also out due to injury. At least indirectly, this might open up more playing time for Cazorla (Arteta having not been called up), especially if del Bosque reprises his Euro 2012 strategy of playing Fabregas as a striker. As an aside, if we were to pick up David Villa, we'd have the 3rd-highest number of Spanish nationals playing for us--Arteta, Cazorla, Villa, Monreal--behind Barca and Real. So that's something. Or something. Closer to home, there are a number of English players unavailable or whatever--Sturridge, Gerrard, Defoe, Carrick--which might increase pressure on Hodgson to play some of our aforementioned boys, and none of Sunderland's English nationals appear to have been called up. I don't know Hodgson's thinking (does he?). Elsewhere, Simon Mignolet will most likely start. Meh.

This is all a bit of folderol, in the end. Many of our boys will not see any playing time, and those who do will likely take it easy. I won't even express any worries for fear of jinxing the whole thing. We got through the cluster of eight matches in January at 4-3-2, which, while not exactly bathed in glory, was enough to keep us from falling apart. After Saturday's match against Sunderland, we have a full week break before facing Blackburn, so there will be time to rest.  

We'll look at the rest of the year's schedule later.  Until then, I leave you with this:

04 February 2013

Arsenal 1-0 Stoke: From Out-Arsenaled to Out-Stoke-ing

Well, that wasn't pretty. Then again, against Stoke, what is? If you come out of a game with all limbs and internal organs intact, it's a victory of sorts. As it goes, we continue our dominance on a day when we needed three points--Liverpool tied Man City, erasing two potential points from each team's tally; Spurs only  managed a goal against West Brom, who went down to 10 men for more than 42 minutes, Everton barely tied Aston Villa on a Fellaini goal in stoppage time, and Chelsea found a way to lose to Newcastle on a last-gasp goal from new signee Moussa Sissoko. We now find ourselves a point back of Everton, four back from Spurs, and five back against an increasingly-fragile looking Chelsea. When we look at the rest of our schedule, optimism does start to creep in.

You'll only need stitches, not crutches.
As to the match, though, it was particularly gratifying to win against Stoke the way we did. They play football as if they're a bunch of American footballers who got cut and settled for proper footballing--only they keep playing by American football rules. This works particularly well against us, given our preference for niceties like passing and dribbling and being able to walk unassisted when the game's over. To see aggressiveness from Wilshere is, of course, becoming par for the course, but to see Monreal send a few bodies flying was just delish. I never wish harm on a fellow human, but this is Stoke, after all. I'm sure Walters is an upstanding member of the community, calls his mother on Sunday evenings, and nurses wounded squirrels back to health in his spare time, but he plays for a team that dishes it out, apparently as something akin to strategy. The play was clean, and the wound accidental, but it shows that we have players to willing mix it up. Similar with Arteta--his tackle on Michael Owen was crunching but well-timed, and he let Owen know that that petty little swipe wouldn't go unnoticed. Long story short--it's nice to see a few headlines after an Arsenal match that include the words "Arsenal", "steel", and "mettle", among others.

Continuing a long-standing tradition, we again met a keeper who had a MOTM kind of day. Begovic is among the best in the league, in my opinion, but he was making save after save after save. With almost any other keeper, we'd've been up 2-0 or 3-0 by halftime. Some of our finishing could have been more clinical--a few too many shots to the middle third of the goal instead of the outer thirds, but he was impenetrable nonetheless. When Podolski finally did slip the spot-kick in, deflecting it off a Stoke defender in the 78th minute, my first reaction was, "well, that was a crap goal." Then I reminded myself of how often we've been on the other end of that, and, to borrow a phrase from basketball, they're all swishes on the scoreboard. All that was left was to hold the ball and soak up what little pressure Stoke could muster (consisting largely of Shawcross lumping the ball in the general direction of Crouch. Well-played.
Blurry, but why is Walcott drifting forward? 

Before we're done, though, a last word on Walcott. He had a decent day, but the fact that he was even close to off-side on Podolski's kick is ridiculous--it continues a string of him being caught offside for no good reason. Look: if you're the last man wide on the weak side, with all of the action and defenders between you and your teammate with the ball at his feet, there is simply no excuse for being offside. Sure, if there's a weak-side defender wide of you who can decide to hold you onside or catch you off, that's understandable. If Walcott is serious about taking the next step in his development, in his mission of fulfilling his destiny (?), this is one area (among others) that he must address. Contrast his movement against, say, Giroud, who seems to have a much stronger sense of movement and timing, sliding laterally and only moving vertically after a ball is played forwards. They have similar statistics (Walcott has been called offsides 13 times in 1,400 minutes; Giroud, 14 in 1,516), but Giroud plays exclusively through the center and is more vulnerable to offside-traps and mistiming runs, while Walcott frequently plays in from the wing and (at least theoretically) should be able to keep the defensive line in front of him--he's also receiving a hefty number of his touches as direct passes from Sagna to his feet or into open space to chase down, while Giroud is receiving lofted passes into the heart of the defense. At any rate, back to the issue at hand, why on earth would Walcott drift offside? I admire his desire to scoop up a potential rebound, but he's gotta be smarter than that. Is he trying to protect his status as top goal-scorer? Does he resent Podolski for getting to take the shot? I like Walcott; I genuinely do, but thank the referee for making the right call to preserve the goal. I hope someone has a chat with Theo, if only on this one instance if not on the concept in general.
Right, then. We travel to Sunderland, whom we tied at home in week one. This is another winnable game. Spurs host Newcastle while Everton travel to Old Trafford. We should, at a minimum, keep pace if not pull even with Everton...