By Jonathan Blaustein
It’s a bright, sunny Monday here in Taos.
The good weather has come back again, after a week of freezing rain. No matter how attuned we are to the changing seasons, somehow, they still manage to surprise us.
That’s because, even when you know something’s coming, it doesn’t make the impact any less.
For instance, this morning, Tim wrote about the national nightmare that is mass gun violence. It was a heartfelt, excellent piece, and in a parallel universe, such screeds might have a role in creating change.
Unfortunately, there will be no change. I know this, because like you, I’ve lived through the aftermath of Virginia Tech, Orlando, Sandy Hook, and every other horror show I’m not listing here. If none of those scenarios moved the needle on our national dialogue, then Las Vegas won’t either.
Some patterns are so persistent that we’re lulled into thinking they might lead somewhere. Each time, we hope the end result will be different, but then, it isn’t.
Does that sound familiar?
I’m writing my first real column since the Liverpool destruction a month ago. I like to wait, before I write, because as a sports fan, (or fan-pundit,) it’s so damn easy to get caught up in the emotional reality that winning and losing creates.
After Liverpool, the sky wasn’t falling. It fell, and landed right on my face.
I quickly rescinded my Top 4 prediction, and suggested we’d be lucky to fend off Everton. It all looked so bleak. But, as is my role here, I offered ideas; suggestions for what Wenger might do to right the ship.
To be clear, I’m 100% certain he did not read my column. And I am equally certain that no low-level stooge, employed by the club, pointed him in our direction, with a little note that said: “Maybe try some of these, Boss? The American Jew in the Wild West has some good thoughts.”
Rather, as a life-long sports fan, I’ve come to understand that some things can’t be quantified. Arsene agrees with this. Sometimes, the moves one makes are more related to human nature, and power dynamics, than they are to tactics and numbers.
In my opinion, the post-Liverpool environment was such a time.
To be clear, I’m not letting my emotions get the best of me now. Even on the heels of a 6 game unbeaten run, with 4 straight clean sheets in the EPL, I’m under no illusions that we’ll catch Man City AND Man United, and win the league.
It’s too unrealistic, given their lead in points, money, and trophy-winning managers.
But I will suggest that we’re at least back on track for what I originally predicted: top 4, and maybe a win in the Europa League or FA Cup.
Trophies, perhaps, just not the biggest.
And rather than simply saying “I was right,” maybe I ought to clarify?
The reason we all felt sick during, and after the Liverpool debacle was the sense that the players couldn’t be bothered. That they cared so little for the Arsenal badge that they’d rather be on a buddy’s sofa, playing AS Liverpool AGAINST Arsenal on the Playstation.
Now, we’ve previously established that Wenger’s a gambler, and I believe he’s willing to gamble with early season points. Rather than seeing all points as equal, he will chance it, early on, knowing he can generate momentum when he needs it later on. (Normally, it works out for him. Last year, not so much.)
He played Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin, knowing what he knew, so it would be easier to sell him on a few days later. Wenger thought: if he plays well, and we win, perhaps I can keep him. If he tanks, as most would in that situation, I can sell him for big money, and everyone will say “Good Riddance.”
He also played Ozil and Sanchez together, both of whom wanted to leave, and likely still do. So he had 3 guys out there whose heads were elsewhere, and his wingbacks were mismatched, in that last-ditch attempt to keep AOC.
Once the game pattern was established, some, like Ramsey and Xhaka, played down to the level of the situation, and the rout was on.
Since then, Wenger has proven that he knows more than I do, but also that certain sports rules are worth respecting. One in particular: play the guys who are desperate to prove something.
In the aftermath of Liverpool, and even before, it was clear that Arsenal were not lining up with the requisite athleticism to compete, nor with the proper collective defensive will. Minus guys who have catch-up speed, and the willingness to use it, you’re toast.
So I immediately appreciated that Wenger has relied on Welbeck and Iwobi upfront, for those two reasons. In order to be effective at the highest level, forwards have to have at least some of the following qualities, and the more the better:
Speed Quickness Technical quality Hunger Defensive capability Quick feet Clinicality Intelligence Size
Now, the reason we haven’t seen Lacazette/Sanchez/Ozil thus far, I’d argue, is that the triumvirate lacks size, and defensive capability.
While Welbeck is not clinical enough, (and neither is Iwobi, though Sunday’s goal was promising,) they offer things that Ozil doesn’t. They’ve got height, which is important for winning headers when we can’t play out of the back, they’re fast, they track back, ferociously, and they’re very technical. (So they don’t lose the ball all the time, like Sanchez.)
Other than insisting that Ramsey check his runs at least some of the time, I’d argue the biggest component in the new winning run has been to play defense-first, technical, athletic forwards, while hoping that Lacazette and Sanchez have enough skill to make up for the offense.
Furthermore, as has been shown in the League Cup and Europa League, giving game time to hungry, desperate athletes, like Ainsley Maitland-Niles, means they’ll be able to deputize in the Premier League at some point, bringing those qualities into other parts of the team.
All of which is to say, now that the ship has been stabilized, and we look at the squad compared to all the others, I’m back to thinking this will be a “Groundhog Day” season.
Given where we were a month ago, and that our recent history has shown that SOME silverware is infinitely better than NONE, things could be much worse.
And even up in Manchester, where things ARE better, they have to live with two egomaniacs who will leave their jobs in the next two years.