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Friday, 30 June 2017

Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Arsenal

I mentioned in an earlier post that I'm quite keen on soccer. Indeed, I even brought up the notion that I was a fan of Arsenal. But I've never really ever written anything about soccer per se. Nor, for that matter, any of the other sports which I follow.

The thing with being a fan of any European club when you're not from Europe or, in fact, the cities they're based in is that your dynamic, as a fan, is quite different. Some will, for instance, choose to dislike, say, Tottenham because they like Arsenal and you're meant to do this, but from thousands of kilometres away and the opposite side of the world you really need to question why you're doing this. And if it happens that Spurs play an interesting brand of soccer, then it should happen that one can have a soft spot for Spurs and Arsenal. But if it happens that a side, e.g. Chelsea, do not, then one's impression should reflect that. I mention this because I think the distance also means peripheral fans can be less blinkered about the teams they actually do like.

I've generally had more than a soft spot for Arsenal for three reasons. One, when they're playing well, they look better than any of the other teams in England's top tier. Two, they line up with my personality in the sense that when I started paying attention to soccer, Arsenal were good but not bullies (a la Bayern Munich). Three, my grandfather is actually from the Arsenal supporting part of North London. I also have to say that I dislike fair weather fans: the point of being a fan is that you support the team regardless of the results... if Spurs stopped playing well, I would stop liking them. (Note I am an anti-fan of Chelsea... they're never going to play well enough for me to like them.)

Now, as it happens Arsenal have had an indifferent campaign in the season just finished, finishing fifth. If you listened to certain media pundits, you'd think this was a complete disaster and while it is not a good thing, it's not that. A disaster would be relegation. A disaster would be being left completely out of touch with the rest of the teams competing for where you want to be... which in Arsenal's case is first and the other teams of Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham. Sure, Manchester United are into the Champion's League and Arsenal are not but they spent an entire season not playing as well, have a propensity to buy players rather than team-members and raised expectations that will be let down by the style... the forgiveness period for Mourinho is over. Manchester United are the sixth club that is in the running for the "tolerable" spots of 2, 3 and 4.

The simple reality is that Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City were separated by a single goal... a goal that was scored in the first ever game of the season in Arsenal's 3-4 loss to Liverpool. If Arsenal scored that goal, the whole dynamic of the season would have been different... but even if it had played out otherwise identically, it would have put more pressure on City and Arsenal would have pipped Liverpool to fourth. United wasn't in the last ditch run for fourth, even before giving up... and Spurs and Chelsea were too far ahead. So, the question is: how much will these teams improve and/or worsen?

United have the most ground to make up. Even if they play better and actually add to the team, they can reasonably only expect to be about where Arsenal-City-Liverpool were this season... so I'm suggesting Arsenal only need to not worsen to be at least this good. Liverpool's problems are complex: they're reliant on scoring goals but break down against teams they should smash. Again, expect this season to represent basically where they are now. City are more interesting. They were unlucky, like United, but are really just a slightly better performing version of Arsenal... the issue is that they were unlucky in a game which Chelsea won during their "getting out of touch psychologically dominating" run. Had they been more lucky in that match the entire season would have played out differently. Luck is hard to fix but is not so intractable as Liverpool's oscillation. The corollary of City is that Chelsea have the most work to stay where they are. They were better than teams this season, but will be known quantities next time around... and won't have the psychological weight of that winning run unless they make another one. Spurs have probably topped out and will ultimately look better and/or worse dependent on how well the other teams play... they have to be favourites, followed by Chelsea and City. But what about Arsenal? Will they get better? Or will they get worse?

There's a popular theory that Alexis Sanchez is Arsenal's main man. This isn't true. Far too often he runs no-where and does nothing. What he is good at is running, and has sufficient an aura of quality that he is allowed to do this... although unlike Eden Hazard, because his strength is running, not possession running, running at Sanchez yourself doesn't nullify him. Apparently, Sanchez is also a bad influence behind the scenes and in this sense, it doesn't matter so much if Sanchez is allowed to leave (after this season) or sold (this season). If that isn't true, then Sanchez is sufficiently good as part of the machine that losing him would be a problem. He may be wasteful in attacking runs, but in a sport where 1 goal can make all the difference, this is less important (in cricket, for instance, a wasteful bowler is a disaster) and he's not a glaring defensive liability all the time. But it wouldn't be a disaster to lose Sanchez either... he's not Cazorla... and if there is one issue with Arsenal is that they have spent two seasons now wondering how to play when Cazorla is injured and may only just have figured it out (i.e. 3 at the back, a la "tolerable-to-watch" Chelsea).

When people talk about Sanchez it's often in terms of "grab games by the scruff of the neck". I don't believe that... this seems to be more the function of Olivier Giroud. Wait, what? The much maligned striker? You mean the one who was criticised for failing to turn a 3-1 defeat into a 3-4 win after having dragged it kicking and screaming to its 3-3 ending? That guy? Yes, that guy. He is the only Arsenal player at the moment who actually changes the machine. When Arsenal don't play Giroud they play in three ways. They kick balls into the air for no-one to head, they run around and create space and win comfortably or they run around and make you wonder how Bayern and Dortmund never seem to run out of space. When Giroud is on they don't play like this. Whether because they have one of the best target men in England (if not the best) or because Giroud is actually rather good at releasing the ball and rather good enough that giving him rope (as a defensive team) is just as likely to hang you as him. He also works well with Oezil and Cazorla, to the extent that you'd need someone who is essentially a better version of Giroud rather than a better striker to improve Cazorla-ball.

Losing Giroud would be a big problem for Arsenal. Losing Sanchez would require using probably worse, but not bad, alternatives to him that are already in the team. The issue is that both Giroud and Sanchez are in "transfer sagas" and that losing Sanchez, without the Champion's League, is a credibility issue. As I said, he has an aura of quality... so if he goes, then you need to bring in some people who will make players like Mbappe (but not Mbappe himself) who are young and know they're thought to be that good, think: yes, Arsenal would work for me. The counter-argument is that what is needed is a new Cazorla, but such a player probably doesn't exist and if he does then he's sufficiently obscure that Sanchez's presence isn't going to change the appeal of Arsenal. Finding another Giroud could possibly be easier, but why would you do that? You have Giroud.

There's one thing that has to be said in Sanchez's favour versus Giroud: it matters to Giroud's performance if he has to do it all alone. When Leicester won two seasons ago, they probably shouldn't have. For one, Spurs were clearly the better side. For another, Arsenal were in prime position but Giroud was the only fit striker for the extant system... and Giroud does a lot better when he has some sort of competition and isn't the guy. Sanchez has shown he can be the guy... although, obviously, he didn't kick it up a notch when Giroud and Oezil needed him to?

Expect Arsenal to be about as good as they were this season: better than Manchester United and a "lucky" result or two (either for or against) away from Manchester City and Liverpool. If Cazorla's fit for the entire season, then it's legitimately like bringing in a big new signing whose place in the team is already clear. I don't think that will happen, so Arsenal need a striker to be signed (for credibility), Giroud to stay (to preserve the flexibility of the team*), Sanchez to be seen to not be in control (i.e. that wherever he is this season, it is because Arsenal willed it so) and some other players... another left back, someone Cazorla-like and a versatile mid-fielder who can fit in Cazorla systems as well as the Ramsey-Xhaka-back three system in multiple positions.

Oh, and I'll do a pre-season, too early to possibly be able to tell, top six prediction:

Spurs (1-3)
Chelsea (1-3)
Manchester City (2-5)
Liverpool (4-5)
Arsenal (3-5)
Manchester United (4-6)
Everton (6-8)

I will give myself 1000 internets if the above is exactly correct, 500 internets if the final results are consistent with the brackets and 250 internets if the half-way table is consistent with the brackets... which means no other teams. So, I can get 0, 250, 500, 750, 1000 and 1250 internets altogether. Any other teams at any of these points means 0 points. Unless it's Newcastle, just to troll. If Newcastle are in it, I get the points.

Oh, and if you're wondering, I am suggesting that Arsenal have a negative/left skewed shot at places 3-5 and Liverpool a right skew. Manchester City are more varied than the others because luck is hard to fix and I said Chelsea will have difficulty staying where they are... United end up where they are because one part of fixing one's luck is making your own luck, and they're not good at that this last half-decade. Basically, I think 4-6 will stay as they were with respect to each other, but entertain the possibility of City breaking out.

*If the new striker fits in and multiple Giroud-less systems develop, Giroud would no longer be critical.

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