Thoughts on Arsenal's UEFA Champions League Victory over Olympiakos
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The movement of sentiments demands that since Arsenal won a victory in Wednesday's match against Olympiakos, we should all be flushed with praise and declare how wonderful this team is and how, on the scale of one to 10, each of Arsenal's players was excellent: an eight, in the least, and above, on the scale of rating.
Subsequently, were this a loss, the same wave would engender condemnation—declarations of how woeful this team is—and, as far as player-rating goes, how pathetic each player was and how this or that player isn't worthy to be on the Arsenal team.
Such is the reactionary response to the fortunes of a club that must compete every week. Champions (or a team with the potential to be) manage to win more times that they lose, but it ought to be clear to common sense that it isn't possible for a team to always win its games.
If this should be so, it would mean being more moderate and measured in our reaction to the team's weekly fortunes, whether these be victories, ties or losses.
The reality, though, is that most critics swing with the tide of fortune. We do, of course, want to measure our team's capability, as far as its chances at winning the competitions in which it is engaged are concerned.
Through this alone we can determine whether or not we have any business hoping for any trophy. If the ratio of victories outweighs the ratio of losses or ties, we can know to hope, but we do so with full cognizance of other teams' performances.
The point, then, is that critique is natural, but what isn't is lack of temperance while at it. In the end, the person who swings like the pendulum in his or her criticism is reduced to nothing more than a fool.
With this in mind, then, I should like to say a few things about the Arsenal-Olympiakos match.
Victorious! Getty Images.
Three major things were responsible for this:
Tree Versus Forest
In the first place, the focus on close and one-touch passing was generally in lieu of the overarching purpose for this.
That is, although, Arsenal generally looked good in possession—attempting with varying degrees of success to move the ball quickly and to keep possession through strategic close positioning—transiting from localized possession to a globalized employment of the same in cogent and devastating attack was often problematic.
In other words, attention to details did not often translate to a global and purposeful whole.
More precisely, Arsenal would segment and zero in on a particular portion of the field and proceed to exchange neat passes, but when it came to moving away from this and progressing to Olympiakos' danger area, the attempt often broke down.
Akin to this problem was the fact that, whereas in a number of sustained periods Arsenal would keep possession at the back, an attempt to move away from this (to put Olympiakos under real pressure) did not always succeed.
Skimming the Surface
After a while, I noticed that Arsenal tended to attack through the flanks.
I realized that this was the result of a lack of a dominant central person in the middle of the midfield, and the fact that Mikel Arteta and Francis Coquelin played more or less as a double pivot from the base of the midfield meant that a cohering element was still missing in the middle. This made it difficult for the team to attack through the center.
Moreover, the fact that Arsenal weren't entirely comfortable pressuring high meant that their normal habit of constricting the area of skirmish wasn't always in play, making it difficult to keep possession in a fluid and sustained manner.
Arsenal need to add to beauty, control. Getty Images.
Solving the Problem
In view of the foregoing, then, the team needs to work on translating localized possession to a global telos, where the local is a means to a definite and pre-rehearsed whole.
That is, every team member should know what the next move is to be when close possession is in play.
Secondly, a little more fluidity between the three central midfielders is required, so that the "gap" in the middle can be eliminated.
The second major problem in play in this match is closely related to the first. The issues highlighted above meant that the team did not keep possession where it could be disconcerting to the opposition.
Whereas sometimes it is useful to keep possession at the back and build from there, unless this is done with firm assurance—angling for a chance for the forward players to move into advantageous positions to receive an opportune pass—such a possession is often harmless to the opposition.
Whenever Arsenal managed to work the ball forward, they always looked dangerous. The trick for the team, then, is to find a consistent way to keep the ball higher up the pitch where this can be disorganizing to the opposition.
The third problem in this match was the defensive fragility that was still evident. Had Olympiakos been more clinical in their finishing, the result of this match could have been different.
What worried me the most, though, wasn't the occasional individual errors that handed back possession in dangerous areas, but the manner in which a number of Arsenal players flew into challenges.
Quite apart from the fact that this is a sure way of earning a red card for reckless challenge, and the fact that the player doing the flying in could get himself injured, there is the fact that flying in means that if you don't win the ball, you leave the team severely exposed. Here, Arsenal players didn't always win the ball in these "flying in" challenges.
There is also the fact that this manner of tackling gives away needless set pieces, a fact that was Arsenal's undoing against Chelsea last Saturday.
Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny (and, to an extent, Kieran Gibbs and Francis Coquelin) were guilty of this problem.
The coaching staff and these players need to figure out a way to tackle without flying in. This is dangerous, not only to the player being tackled but to the player doing the tackling as well, and in the long run, the result of this manner of playing is dangerous to the team as a whole.
So who is going to "die" this time? Getty Images.
Harnessing the Front
There's something else I observed here. While it is true that both Gervinho and Lukas Podolski scored in this match, it is clear that Arsenal still lack a true striker-type player.
What I mean can be surmised from the presence of Olivier Giroud on the pitch when he came on. His positioning is purely of the striker type. Plus, he is a good shielder of the ball.
In saying this, however, I'm not implying that Arsenal have to play with a striker type. I am only making an observation regarding the difference in dimension between, on the one hand, Gervinho and Podolski and, on the other, Giroud.
Positively, although Giroud isn't scoring as yet, he does add a great deal of dimension to the team whenever he comes on. This should be heartening to those who are apt to be impatient with and discouraged by Giroud's inability as yet to score freely for Arsenal.
The general point of this article is that, while we may celebrate the victory over Olympiakos (and we deserve to), we should realize that a great deal of work is required still to translate this team from where it is at present to a team with a genuine chance of winning something this season.
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