I used to play golf. I know the stereotypes about golf and you can shelve them: here in Washington we have nice municipal courses where you can have an evening summer round for a reasonable price. Golf was two important things for me – competition, which I love, and four hours of drinking, which I also love. Sadly these two things are incompatible and somewhere around the 12th hole I would be drunk enough to shank a ball into a water hazard and then wrap my club around a tree.
When I wasn’t drunk I noticed that golf is a funny sport. It’s one which you typically practice alone (unless you can afford a trainer, which I couldn’t) and because you don’t have someone there helping you with your swing, the more you practice, the more ingrained your bad habits become. I was great at putting and chipping, but tended to overswing with the long clubs. So, I practiced a lot and developed horrible muscle memory which was almost impossible to break once I did get professional help. If you want to see what I’m talking about google search Charles Barkley plays golf.
“Dad, why did he go down like that?” my daughter asked me as we were watching the penalty shootout between Arsenal and Chelsea. Cech had just done one of his now signature “ugh” penalty saves: where he knows he went the wrong way and doesn’t even commit fully to the save so he just sort of crumples on the ground.
“That’s the old bad Cech” I replied. “That’s how he used be in these penalties, always diving the wrong way but also knowing he went the wrong way so not even fully committing to the fact that he went the wrong way. It’s a mental thing.”
Earlier in the match, he did commit. He did go the right way. He made the save on Morata’s penalty. It was confident, a good save. And he would do it again to win the match. But in between those two penalty stops he had the one “ugh” moment. That one where he went back to his old, indecisive, penalty save approach. It felt to me like muscle memory. I’ve been there. On the golf course, doing any physical activity, and my bad habit suddenly slips back in and boom… I’m wrapping my golf club around a tree.
One time I was having a really good game, I had hit par on the front nine, and the back nine started out well. Then I hit a poor drive into the trees. Then I tried to do something over-confident and curl a shot onto the green, which hit another tree and put me further in trouble. Now I was losing my cool and with the ball sitting in deep, dry grass, probably on a bed of rocks, I pulled my club up just a bit at the end of the stroke and skulled the ball. One hitch followed by two mental errors.
Instead of accepting that I had made a mistake on the drive and taking my penalty stroke to get back on to the fairway, I tried to make up for it and made it worse. Bellerin did that yesterday against Chelsea. As if trained by muscle memory to be out of position, he was beaten by his man, which he followed up with two mental errors and dived in for a tackle which gave away the penalty.
Mustafi, Bellerin, and Kolasinac had a number of these moments in this match. I noticed a trick that Sarri (the Chelsea manager) had his men doing, where they were passing around in order to invite Arsenal to “press”. As soon as Arsenal’s shape became compressed, their forward would start a run and one of the players at the back would try a chip. Arsenal weren’t playing that stupid “two at the back” that we did last year when this happened, we had a full flat back four, but the ease with which the Chelsea side were toying with our press and then springing that pass was quite astonishing.
Mustafi was caught literally just letting his man run past him, several times, and I think at least twice Arsenal benefitted by an incorrect offside call. The most egregious was when Bellerin played Drinkwater on but got the call anyway. The space Arsenal were conceding, combined with the slow legs of Mustafi, Sokratis, Kolasinac, and even Bellerin made for quite the scary combination at the back. Maybe the boys were just shattered. But it looked like some familiar mistakes from players who are already being savaged by the fans (Mustafi and Bellerin). Emery has his work cut out for him there.
Guendouzi was a diamond again. I’ve only seen him play a few times and I’ve already run out of adjectives to describe his passing range. One thing that I keep thinking about is how Fabregas used to play for Arsenal. He has/d the unusual ability to not just kick a ball into a corner and let someone run under it, but pick out the runner and put the ball on his feet where he could get a shot off. I looked back at Fabregas’ numbers and he was quite the phenom. In the 09/10 season, he averaged 70% accuracy with his long passes, but only attempted 6.2 per match. But of those 6.2 per match, he created 0.8 key passess off long balls. 13% of his long passes resulted in shots. Xhaka averaged 66% accuracy on 7.4 long passes per game last season. But just 0.4 key passes per game off long balls. That’s 5%.
I don’t want to belabor this point (though I’m not stopping!) but Cesc Fabregas also averaged 1 throughball key pass *per game* the next season for Arsenal. Granit Xhaka had 1 throughball key pass all season for Arsenal last year.
Guendouzi and Fabregas are not the same. The point I’m making here is that Guendouzi has a much more incisive way about him than we are used to seeing from our deep-lying midfielder. His passes are onto toes, not just lumped into the corner. And he makes those throughball passes that we rarely see from Xhaka.
Good lord, calm down, I’m not saying Xhaka should be replaced. The point I want to make here is that I think this is why people are calling for Guendouzi to start the match against Man City. I see what you see: over the last few matches, he has shown a rare talent for midfield play and could possibly blossom into a player of Fabregas’ caliber.
But at the same time, you have to say that starting Guendouzi against a Pep Guardiola side that will press him like starched shirt is also a crazy suggestion. I understand where it comes from but he’s still so raw, so prone to hold onto the ball too long, that he could be targeted by Guardiola’s ruthless system. (edited: he was also at fault partly for the first goal, he went in with a wild tackle to win the ball back, leaving the back line exposed and on the corner he didn’t challenge for the ball at all, so defensively he’s very raw).
At the same time, Xhaka and Torreira haven’t played a single competitive match since the World Cup and there is only one more match (against Nazio) before Arsenal play City to kick off the Premier League season. So, I don’t know what Emery is going to do in that first match of the season. It’s a big game for a lot of reasons: the start of a new era, a new manager, a ton of new players, a new system, new physical training methods, new methods on the training ground, playing at home, and the fact that Unai has never beaten Guardiola in 10 tries. Starting Guendouzi is a huge call.
Arsenal also had a number of players either leave the pitch with injury or not start the match with injury. Ramsey, Kolasinac, and Bellerin all had knocks. Fullbacks are a serious problem with this team. Could you imagine the glacial pace Arsenal will have in their back line if they have to start 34 year old Licht, the lead-footed Mustafi, Sokratis, and Monreal in the first match of the season against Man City and players like Sane. I wonder if someone said that would be a nightmare situation? Who would have said that? I can’t think. Who would have said it? Hmmm… Anyway, let’s hope that’s not the starting lineup.
In my golf game, I eventually got the ball back onto the fairway. But by then I was so frustrated that I hit my next shot straight into a water hazard. While my friend was laughing at my calamity, I calmly walked over to the bag of clubs, picked it up, and threw the entire bag of clubs down the fairway. Like Hulk. HULK SMASH GOLF. I remember scoring a 10 on that hole. A perfect 10.
PS: Sarri is known as “Mister 33” because he supposedly has 33 different det pieces that he drills into his players. One special aspect of Sarri’s set plays is that they take advantage of man-marking. What happened on those two corners where Emile Smith Rowe was exposed was that Sarri targeted Rudiger/him with these specialized set pieces he runs. I do not blame Smith Rowe for getting caught out on that. Also, Guendouzi was kind of being pinned by Luiz. Anyway, let’s not mention it any further.