I have recently developed tendonitis in my achilles. This malady followed on the heels of sciatic pain which was preceded by back pain. I was worried that something was wrong so I went to see the doctor and she assigned me to physical therapy. After a few days of physical therapy I figured out the problem: oh yeah, I’ve not been exercising much less stretching at all for the past three months. In short, I’ve been lazy and at my age and with my health history, I can’t do that.
One thing about my achilles tendonitis is that I am constantly walking around on eggshells, afraid that I may step funny and then the throbbing pain will start in my legs. I try to avoid stairs if I can and climbing hills is also right out. As well, walking on flat ground is terrible. And if I sit for too long in one position, I basically cringe in anticipation of pain as soon as I start to get up to go do something.
Much like my own aversion to confrontation, Arsenal seemed like a team that was walking around on eggshells. As if someone wanted to say something, to do something, but were afraid that any confrontation would send shooting pains through the squad. Alexis cut the worst of figures, posing as Rodin’s thinker on the pitch after Arsenal conceded a goal and walking off the field in a huff when Arsenal lost.
My decline into sloth coincides with Arsenal’s dip in form. Since losing to Watford, Arsenal have played 14 matches and have lost 7. Arsenal have conceded 28 goals in that time, including 10 to Bayern Munich and an additional 8 to Watford, West Brom, and Crystal Palace. Arsenal have kept just three clean sheets in the last 14 matches and have slipped in the Premier League table down to 7th place.
I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast yesterday morning and one of the guests said something which struck me. It was a bit about how even on a losing sports team there are star players. All teams have star players but the crucial difference is that on the losing team, as the team declines, the stars start playing just for themselves while on a winning team we find that the best players lift the others around them, they play for the team.
It was clear that Arsenal’s star player, Alexis, was focusing too much on himself for the last three months. He was not playing to lift the others around him but was instead trying to do it all. It was selfish, petulant and not edifying. Though there is part of me that wonders if his strops were a catalyst for the change that was needed at the club.
After yesterday’s win over Pep Guardiola’s Man City, Wenger spoke in veiled terms about this period saying:
People questioned us, we went through tough times. In these times you can be divided or united and today we have shown the right response. People can question my decisions but not my loyalty and commitment to the club. We went through a difficult period. I will talk one day about that.
And later in another interview alluded again to something negative,
We have gone through a very difficult period, we faced some adversity that made the situation more difficult from inside as well. We showed a united response, not a divided response. Mentally we were in a fragile position.
That “right response” that Wenger spoke about came in the 101st minute of the game. Alexis Sanchez put away a goal from 5 yards out and ran over to celebrate in front of the Arsenal supporters. And for the first time in months, the entire team came over to celebrate with him. It was a feel-good moment but the very best part of the celebration was when Nacho Monreal arrived, put his finger to his head, and shouted at his teammates to “stay in the game”. Arsenal had taken the lead but they needed to stay focused for 20 more minutes and Monreal was there to remind them.
On the sidelines Wenger made a similar gesture, urging his team to stay mentally focused for the last 20 minutes. Urging his team to just finish this out and they will see themselves get to the FA Cup Final, which is exactly what they did.
I don’t read the papers (just the Guardian) and I have missed out on all of the gossip. Actually, I haven’t missed anything. I’m just where I want to be with the gossip, that is, not knowing any of it. We don’t know what has transpired in the last three months with Arsenal. Maybe one day Wenger will write his “tell-all” book and break down this episode along with explaining about Arsenal’s lack of transfer activity, the Suarez transfer saga, selling Cesc, why he didn’t buy Cesc back, and dozens of other stories (he could probably fill 20 books if he wanted to). But until then, I’m content just seeing the team play as a team once again.
On the back three
Wenger has played a back three now for two straight matches and I hope that he keeps this going for the rest of the season. Wenger’s natural proclivity toward attacking and pushing his fullbacks forward leaves his team vulnerable to counter attacks. Having a third center back doesn’t ensure that you will always have great defensive cover but it does mean that Arsenal will typically have an extra defender against two attackers or at least even numbers against a front three.
The drawback is, of course, that because arsenal are playing with a third center back, they are losing a midfielder and thus making it more difficult to control the ball in the game. This puts extra pressure on finishing for the forwards and means that Arsenal are sometimes overrun in midfield.
For Wenger to accept this represents a much more pragmatic approach from the boss. It may not produce the eye wateringly beautiful pass and move football from 2007 but Arsenal haven’t been playing that way in a few years anyway so it makes sense for Arsene to change things up.
Some players are responding especially well to the new formation and some are struggling. In yesterday’s match against Man City that weakness in midfield was especially apparent in the first half.
Xhaka should be well protected in a 352 and have plenty of outlets for short, simple passes to keep the ball moving. But I think Wenger is playing a 343 in attack, which means that Arsenal have all of the midfield problems of a 442, where Wenger’s two center mids are often required to play against three or more opposition players. The result is that Xhaka looks slow (he is) and in the crowded midfield, he’s not able to carry the ball, so he’s caught in possession. Its quite the problem how to get the best out of this player: he can’t be left alone in a Pirlo role because he is caught on defense and in a more crowded midfield he looks kind of useless as he doesn’t have time to make his great long passes. Probably Wenger’s biggest problem right now is solving his midfield puzzle.
On the other hand, both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rob Holding are thriving in this new system. Many want Ox to play central and I can understand why, because his close control and dribbling is so fantastic. But the center mid role requires a specific type of passing mind, one that Ox hasn’t developed yet (I’m sure he will). In the mean time, his speed and trickery with the ball is maximized by having him start his runs from the deeper right wing-back position. And his crosses are excellent. Easily the best on the team. Ox is the reason why you play a wing-back: if you’re going to play your fullbacks forward (like Bellerin and Monreal do) then they should at least be really good at crossing the ball and beating their opponents in a 1 v.1. Bellerin is ok at those things but Ox is great at them.
And finally, a shout to Rob Holding. I really like this youngster. He’s great in the air and not afraid to get stuck in to a challenge. He also showed some great ball control yesterday taking on City players with his dribbles and his passing. All around this is a player who really benefits from the back three and who adds some grit to an Arsenal defense which is often slightly soft. I don’t know who said it but it’s true: Holding is the player that the British press think John Stones is. And for 1/10th the price.
I honestly hope Wenger plays Holding the remainder of the season and will be peeved if Mustafi claims his place.
Arsenal have a horrible schedule ahead. Four matches against Leicester, Spurs, Man U, and Southampton. If Arsenal want to get back into the top four, they have to win every match and still hope that Liverpool, Man U, and Man City drop points. They are going to need every ounce of this new found camaraderie and a decent helping of luck to achieve that goal this season.