Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Risk Management

Arsenal lost to Barcelona last night because of individual mistakes. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain missed a clear chance to score in the first half and then over-ran the ball when we had a promising break. There was a collective failure of positioning and reaction on Barca's opening goal, while the penalty was a (literal) balls-up between Mertesacker and Flamini. Arsene Wenger was understandably frustrated that we had played well and contained Messi & co for 70 minutes before we "gave it away", suggesting that the players' ambition to win the game, rather than return to the Nou Camp with the advantage of not having conceded, had been imprudent. While some fans will gripe about Wenger himself, and others will question the lack of investment, particularly in strikers, the glaring difference between the two teams was that Barcelona did not make as many costly mistakes. For all the talk of their flair, what they have is efficiency: a quality that Wenger has long extolled as the acme for any team.

When managers complain of "unforced errors", or the team "throwing it away", they're not necessarily blaming the players so much as railing against the nature of a sport that leaves them feeling impotent on the touchline, their control over events limited to substitutions and shouted instructions that are often ignored. This is the reality of the Gary Neville experience at Valencia, where tactics-board theory is constrained by the practice of inherited players and his difficulty communicating with them. Coaching and motivation don't differ greatly between the top sides, despite the mystique around man-management and the increasing application of arcane science, not least because elite players are self-motivating and the backroom experts freely move between clubs. What marks out a great manager is the ability to envisage what a player might be capable of, much as a champion trainer does with a racehorse (Ferguson's interest in the sport of kings was always a busman's holiday).

This means that the fundamental job of a manager is the selection and hiring of players. The relative success of Leicester and Spurs this season owes more to buying players who fit into a particular team formation and style (and have avoided too many injuries) than to endless training-ground drills and pep-talks, something that Claudio Ranieri has been quite open about. Manchester City's failure to push on since 2014 reflects an uncertainty in their recent transfers, and perhaps now the expectation of a Guardiola clear-out. If Wenger is open to criticism at Arsenal, it isn't that he fails to buy players who are good enough for the club - Ozil and Sanchez are clearly world-class on their day - but that he tends to buy players who are error-prone. This is because he likes a risk, both in terms of the player's potential (think Overmars, Vieira, Henry etc) and playing style, and this is something that predates the financial constraints of the last decade. It is clearly a conscious trade-off and his frustration arises from the player's failure to manage it through self-awareness.

Many of Arsenal's players have strengths that entail vulnerabilities. For example, Alexis Sanchez has a tendency to take on too many players. This can result in goals, or more often chances for team-mates, but it can also lead to lost possession and damaging counter-attacks. Theo Walcott makes intelligent runs (disproving the "lacks a football brain" guff of pundits unused to the modern game), but the result is that he infrequently touches the ball, being dependent on others finding him. A consequence is that he's often out of position during a transition, which is why Wenger selects Oxlade-Chamberlain (or previously Ramsey) when a tighter formation is required. Laurent Koscielny is a supreme tackler and interceptor, but his eagerness risks fouls (ironically, his failure to deliberately foul led to Barca's first goal). This is why so many Arsenal players have a "Marmite" quality about them, which sees fans divided and sentiment fluctuate wildly, even within a single season: Giroud, Ozil and Mertesacker have all come in for criticism at times, while Flamini is an ever-reliable scapegoat.

It's also why opponents target their weaknesses. For example, Diego Costa's mauling of Koscielny in the first league match with Chelsea was intended to provoke him. Koscielny refused to take the bait but Gabriel then made an error by over-reacting to the provocation. Similarly, in the return match, Costa manoeuvred Mertesacker into a last-man foul and then threw himself to the turf (i.e. he denied himself a goal-scoring opportunity as he could easily have gone on with Mertesacker grounded) to get the German a red card. This isn't new. Vieira and Bergkamp were routinely wound-up by opponents, while Wayne Rooney hurled himself at Sol Campbell's thighs at every opportunity. I suspect that the affront of some Arsenal fans at such manipulation stems from the belief that we we place too much faith in playing our own game rather than undermining the opposition - i.e. we're too honest. Of course, when an Arsenal player does stoop to gamesmanship, e.g. Overmars or Pires collapsing in the penalty area, it tends to be treated as a national scandal.

In contrast, Barcelona have largely rid themselves of players of this risk/reward ilk - Carles Puyol was probably the last of note - and on the night their defence, which is not notably miserly, avoided any major errors. The consequence is that while the team is admirable in its discipline and cohesion, and individual players show great technical skill, there is something off-putting about them on the pitch. Outside of their theatrical response to tackles, this is an unemotional team, which is perhaps best expressed in the "reformed" character of Luis Suarez and the general lack of individual ego. Neymar in a Barca shirt does not look like Neymar in a Brazil shirt. I suspect that if the roles had been reversed in Jordi Alba's forehead bump of Giroud, the latter would have got a red card. This is not sour grapes, but recognition that Wenger's teams are always on the edge, from the excessive card-collecting of the early days to the occasional plot-losing of today, and referees are tuned to it, just as they anticipate fouls on Messi.

It's easy to forget that the Invincibles were rather un-Wenger-like in their avoidance of calamity over 49 league games, or rather that they saved the cock-ups for cup matches. Their escape from the Champions League group phase in 2003-4, after starting with two defeats and a draw, and including the famous 5-1 demolition of Inter at the San Siro, was much more akin to recent experience. Arsenal under Wenger has been like a rollercoaster rather than a relentless TGV, though clearly Wenger is searching for a combination that is closer to the latter in its consistency and efficiency. This is why the tie with Barcelona can't be said to be over, though a plucky 1-0 away win is probably the best we can hope for. In retrospect, a group-stage exit might have been the best for our season overall (it would certainly have allowed for an FA Cup replay with Hull this week), but equally the crucial away win at Olympiakos may yet reap rewards in terms of mentality. It probably helped the self-belief that saw us beat Leciester at home recently.

In the league, the season so far (broken into thirds) has seen 26 points from 12 games and 22 from 13. It looked like we'd weathered the traditional soft patch in November, but then we had a relapse, starting and ending with Southampton, which saw us secure only 9 points from a possible 21. In the final third, we have 3 from 1 so far. We'd need to get 29 points over the remaining 12 games to hit a total of 80, which means something like one defeat and two draws. Not impossible but suggesting an efficiency that has eluded us so far. That said, the winning figure for the title is now looking like it could be as low as 76, so dropping points in up to five games might still be bearable. It's Man Utd at Old Trafford next. Though they've been poor this season, you know they'll pull the stops out against us, though we're equally capable of over-powering them as we did in the home game. If we play as we did for the first 70 minutes last night, but with the addition of some chances taken, we should be capable of returning with maximum points.


  1. Re unforced errors, isn't that partly a matter of how close to the limit of your ability you're playing? Federer would make no unforced errors against me as he'd only have to play at 50% pace to blast me off the court. But I'd probably muff it on the rare occasions I got to the ball as I'd be under such pressure. See also batsmen who get out to easy balls after a spell of good or hostile bowling.

    Not so obvious in football, but similar. And the better the team you're playing, the more likely they are to punish errors.

    1. There's much in what you say, but I think recent events have proved your last claim doubtful. Against a very poor Manure we made 2 unforced errors that resulted in their first 2 goals. That's not to take anything away from the kid Rashford, but our errors were ones that any journeyman pro could have exploited. That's our problem: our errors are very damaging, not just marginal ones that only a very good team might exploit. The winner was a massive deflection, proving that our luck is right out too.

  2. Herbie Kills Children2 March 2016 at 20:17

    At least the myth of Wenger the great manager is being challenged here. He is a prime example of how image can trump results.

    Arsenal do have tactical problems, after all football is a team and not individual game. One virtue of a good team is how to play when you are 1-0 up, how to play when you are 1-0 down. Arsenal do neither of these very well. It amuses me how Wenger is considered a purist yet his teasm panic when they go 1-0 up! Especially the defence.

    Barcelona react well to being 1-0 up or 1-0 down.

    This mentality is instilled at the club, so is the Barcelona way.

    Teams are bigger than any individual player.

    As for risk, Barcelona have 2 of the worst defenders in top flight football in Alves and Mascherano. I wouldn't pick Mascherano for a mid table premier club let alone Barcelona. Yet Barcelona get the results. It does help having the greatest genius in the history of sport in your team I guess!