Archive for the ‘Arsenal’ Category

Juventus' Pepe and Bologna's Gillet and Casarini lay on the ground after colliding during their Italian Serie A soccer match at the Juventus Stadium in Turin

Right now, the Daily Mail is leading with four stories on today’s Copa Del Rey final between Real Madrid and Barcelona. This is how we know it’s a big deal. Real Madrid face a Barcelona in canned crisis, while Carlo Ancelotti are without Cristiano Ronaldo, opening up the requisite British angle with the heart-shaping Welsh anime character Gareth Bale.

This means a lot of English journalists and fans will witness Pepe and Busquets attempting to lessen our collective faith in humanity in their quest to win a football match. There will be Tweets about “rolling around on the carpet,” and about simulation and Spanish football and staying on your feet and the same, stale debate which continues to permeate football, and define it outside its confines, particularly in America.

It seems Gary Neville is tired of this moralism. Last night on Sky, the former Manchester United defender railed on West Ham’s Matt Jarvis for failing to fall on the ground when challenged in the box against Arsenal.

The video has been taken down, but 101GG has the transcript:

He should have gone down. Well done, your team haven’t won a game.

You can either be an angel and do what Matt Jarvis did and get a pat on the back off his Nan when he goes home tonight, or he can win his team a penalty.

The referee won’t give it if you don’t go down. Sam [Allardyce] said it, if you don’t go down you don’t get a penalty. It’s a foul.

I suppose in some ways people can say ‘It’s disappointing to hear you say that Gary’ – well then, be disappointed because ultimately that’s the game.

What can one write about diving that hasn’t already been written? Disregard that: h
ere’s a quick lesson about football:

1. It is very low scoring compared to other “team invasion” sports.

2. Clear cut chances, like that of a player taking a spot kick, come at a premium even in the best of times.

3. Referees are naturally reticent to award fouls in the box, because penalties convert at around 70%, and goals completely change games.

4. This means that even if a player is technically impeded in the 18, chances are if they doesn’t go to ground they’re not going to get a call (Allardyce was right!)

5. “Real vs simulated fouls” is not a real binary. Embellishment might mean something as simple as an extra roll on the floor after a legit foul.

6. What constitutes a “true” foul is in many ways subjective, despite deep post-match TV hermeneutics.

6. Players who are obvious divers are also bad divers. The point is not to get caught.

7. Defenders also “simulate,” particularly when it comes to disguising shirt pulling, raising their hand when an opposing player is onside, calling a goal kick even when the ball clearly last came off a defender, elbowing, hair pulling, you name it.

8. In fact, deception and subterfuge are all built into the sport in any number of ways.

So, there are two ways of looking at diving. One is to see it as a “moral issue”, and that doesn’t just mean the view that players who do it are bad and players who don’t do it are good. Neville’s take for example is also on the moral spectrum: players are morally obligated to dive because “winning is everything.”

There is another way to see simulation, however: the inevitable result of football simply being the sport that it is. Diving, rather than a moral choice, is a heuristic response to the circumstances of any given football match. You can try to resist it, but there will always be a tendency to go to ground with goals as valuable as they are. Diving for pens is just the extreme end of a spectrum of deceit which also includes moving the ball in free kicks and falsely claiming throw-ins.

I prefer the latter view (in case there was any doubt), simply because anything that gets this tired “debate” out of the headlines is a good thing.

Arsenal's manager Wenger points during their English Premier League soccer match against Manchester City at The Emirates Stadium in London

The Telegraph’s Matt Law has a bizarre piece on the site now, which begins with this saucy paragraph:

Arsenal players believe that manager Arsène Wenger’s refusal to work on the opposition has cost them a shot at the Premier League title this season.
The defeat at Everton last weekend meant that Arsenal have lost away from home against all their immediate rivals, conceding 20 goals.

This alleged difference of opinion between players and manager is reiterated throughout, except there isn’t even a “sources say,” just a vague reference to “a section of Wenger’s squad” (does this include any members of the first team?).

Far more interesting is the example of football’s wider echo chamber resonating (we presume) within the club walls. First articulated by Gary Neville in his Sky Sports 1 commentary, and generally agreed upon in the journalistic Twittersphere, it seems Spring of 2014 was the moment when the world agreed: Wenger’s problem isn’t his nose for players or his ability to motivate—rather, it’s his failure to adjust tactics based on the quality of the opposition.

This isn’t an implausible explanation for Arsenal’s faults this season, either. However, there is some argumentative ballast provided in the fact that if Arsenal had drawn or lost against all of their top flight competitors this season but, at the same time, picked up all three points against lesser competition, they’d be in first place.

Even so, Wenger is not a man usually associated with tactical versatility (the “passing it into the net” jibe still applies now as it did ten years ago). Many of the best sides in the world weren’t either, and maybe that’s the bigger problem. If Wenger isn’t going to pay for a World Beater, he shouldn’t drive his Corolla as if it’s a Ferrari.

Liverpool's Sturridge celebrates with teammates Gerrard and Henderson after scoring a goal during their English Premier League soccer match against Sunderland at Anfield in Liverpool


Devang Desai, Richard Whittall and James Bigg sit down to talk about another Manchester Derby dominated by City, the future of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal and Bayern Munich’s latest triumph.

You can download the podcast here and subscribe on iTunes here. You can also find the RSS Feed here.

Manchester United players celebrate the goal of Robin Van Persie during their English Premier League soccer match against Swansea City at Liberty Stadium, Swansea

The problem with inferring general claims about teams based on single matches is that they’re often not representative of how well a team will do across the entire season. That’s an easy concept to understand, but even so, we can’t help ourselves.

I don’t think this is a media issue, either. In fact, picking on professional media for this habit is silly; they are us. They reflect back at us what we want to read, think, see in the games we watch on the weekend. And if anything, many media figures are, as a rule, more cautious than most in reading too much into single 90 minute games. We’re all victims of recency bias.

That said, I think it would be instructive for all of us to have a look back—waaay back—to see in context some of the things written about Man United and Arsenal in the papers after their first games this season, which were generally inverse to their performances to date. I’m posting these anonymously because all of us, myself included, were and are guilty of this. And it should be said not everyone leaned toward the temptation to make predictive statements (it should be mentioned too the idea for this post came from Joe Ross).

It is telling that the least interesting match reports were also the least predictive. And here is the central conundrum for the narrative-bashers sitting on the sidelines: if you don’t want to make extrapolative claims, how do you make football writing interesting? Maybe all of us know deep down that these exciting portents are just flourishes, baubles. Maybe mainstream sports writing is just fine. Anyway, here is a sample.

Swansea 1-4 Man United August 17 2013

“United were effortlessly good. Those hoping to exploit the vulnerabilities caused by regime change will have to wait.
Many feel that change might be afoot in the English game – and maybe it still is. But when your starting XI includes Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs and Robin van Persie it is clear that not so much has really changed.


It was, of course, just the first three points in a long season. But it felt a whole lot more significant than that.”

“The names on the pitch are still the same, and the team are playing in the 4-2-3-1 system that Sir Alex Ferguson eventually came to favour. Giggs is still there at the age of 39 and Van Persie is still greedily accumulating goals from any distance or angle. So maybe we should not be surprised that it felt so much like business as usual. How many times, for example, have we seen this United team suddenly come into their own and ruthlessly punish the opposition as they did here with two goals in as many minutes? That was the period when the game lurched away from Swansea and, from then on, there was an air of inevitability.”

“Cesc who? United have been superb after an iffy start. Remember how good Swansea are. Ominous.”

“Taking point: Does this result show that Manchester United should still be regarded as favourites to retain their title?”

“Welbeck offered up the final flourish on what ended up as a routine victory on this highly-significant day for Moyes.”

Arsenal 1-3 Aston Villa – August 17 2013

“If you are not prepared to pay the price, there is a price to be paid. Arsenal’s miserly summer, which finds them in transfer profit, ended in an opening-day loss. Aston Villa were organised, determined, took advantage of a couple of controversial calls by the referee, Anthony Taylor, and inflicted upon Arsenal a defeat that was both damaging and damning.”

“It was Arsenal’s first home defeat on the season’s opening day in 20 years and only Villa’s sixth victory in 28 league trips to the Gunners.
It was a indication of Arsenal’s lack of transfer activity that their starting line-up was identical to the side which finished the final match of last season away to Newcastle.

In contrast to Wenger, Paul Lambert has recruited six new faces in the off-season and, although only Luna and Leandro Bacuna featured on this occasion, there was certainly a sense of freshness about their play.”

“Even Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert agreed it was a shock, but this was no fluke result…last season’s strugglers look like this year’s emerging force.”

Maybe this is just an excuse to post this story on Kolo Toure’s trial at Arsenal, which is great. But there is a lesson here about the shifty nature of talent, and a big problem with the idea that the Data Will Set Us Free when it comes to identifying future stars.

Please watch first before reading, but in case you don’t want to, essentially Ray Parlour says Toure played a game as a trialist and subsequently tackled Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, and then ARSENE WENGER, the manager. Parlour finishes the story with the inevitable conclusion: Wenger, with an ice pack on his swollen ankle, signs Toure because of his ‘desire.’

Now, even keeping in mind this story could be apocryphal, you might be inclined to say something stupid here like, “See? Even stuffy economist Wenger knows the importance of passion in the game!” But obviously Wenger didn’t sign Toure just because he tackled everyone like a maniac. He already had something of a career at ASEC Mimosas (best team name ever), and likely played pretty well. Moreover he was cheap at £150,000 and was a full international so could secure a work permit. Wenger didn’t have much to lose.

But even with the low cost to Arsenal should Toure have failed, the element of desire indicated something vital: a commitment to improve. Any manager, particularly one of Wenger’s experience, wouldn’t sign a player without the expectation of growth and improvement.

There are probably several good reasons to be skeptical about the power of data in transforming the player recruitment process, but I think the chief trap is to view numbers as essential characteristics of a player, without looking into which qualities can be improved upon, or are inflated or deflated by their teammates, and which are, well, in-born.

Keep in mind, we haven’t even scratched the surface of decent predictive metrics for non-strikers, and I’m willing to bet nothing of the sort existed in 2002 when Toure, the centreback, was first signed. All Wenger had to go on was this little trial and a subjective impression which could have turned out later to be dead wrong, though Wenger certainly didn’t overpay.

Yet Wenger certainly didn’t sign Toure as a finished product either, but a hope—based on previous experience—that his personal qualities would translate to success. And indeed, Toure played on the Invincibles side that won the 2003-04 Premier League.

This is why recruitment will go beyond a single set of elements. Decent stats might point to underlying, essential qualities that exist in players regardless of team, qualities that are a clear sign of talent. But that is merely a layer…there is also the prospect of improvement, and part of that requires a certain disposition from the player, great first team coaches, and the knowledge that it might not work out but that’s okay, because you paid the right price.

Wigan Athletic's Perch celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against Manchester City during their English FA Cup quarter final match in Manchester
Devang Desai and Richard Whittall sit down to discuss the Wigan’s repeat against Manchester City, Arsenal’s trophy chance and the knives coming out at Barcelona.

You can download the podcast here and subscribe on iTunes here. You can also find the RSS Feed here.

Arsenal v Bayern Munich - UEFA Champions League Second Round First Leg

Devang Desai, Richard Whittall and James Bigg sit down to talk about this week’s Champions League action, including red card misery for a pair of Premier League clubs, PSG’s chances of winning it all and Adel Taarabt’s rejuvenation.

You can download the podcast here and subscribe on iTunes here. You can also find the RSS Feed here.