Monday, November 12, 2007
Reading 1 - Arsenal 3
The Gunners were back in action today with a comfortable 3-1 win at Reading. As a practical matter, the upshot is that Arsenal earned three League points and returned to the top of the table. But the game also illustrated a few things that are worth mentioning in their own right.
First of all, some Arsenal fans have deluded themselves for a couple of years now that the Premier League alsorans have to put "eleven men behind the ball" in order to keep from being dominated by the Arsenal attack. This is just plain wrong on many levels.
First of all most teams, even the ones just trying to hang on a scrape out a nil-nil draw, don't play eleven behind the ball, because that's a terrible defensive formation. It just about guarantees that your team will be under constant pressure the whole game. There's not enough guys who can get forward to catch the opponent on a counterattack. And furthermore, there's often times nowhere to outlet the ball to maintain possession if you're lucky enough to get it. Today's game was actually an exception. For the first half, while the game was scoreless, Reading was completely negative. And during that half, they barely touched the ball. Most importantly, it's not the other team's responsibility to play in a way that makes Arsenal comfortable. It's Arsenal's responsibility to figure out how to beat the other team no matter how they line up.
Related to that, for as succesful a season as Arsenal has had, I still worry about the team's ability to generate chances from possession. If the opposition tries to pack the penalty area, there are at least two things to do. First is to send in crosses from the wing for headers. Second is to blast the ball at the goal from 25 yards or so and poach rebounds. But so far, Arsenal hasn't shown the desire or aptitude for either one.
I believe this is mostly down to coaching and training methods, but it also at least a little bit related to personnel. Emmanuel Adebayor either needs to play better or the team has to find some other options at forward. This is a bit of a hidden problem. As a team, Arsenal leads the League in goals scored and Ade is second among players with seven. But of those, only one from open play either tied the game or gave Arsenal the lead (another was a penalty). Most of his goals come when Arsenal already has the lead, and those are worth a lot less. Fortunately for the Gunners, the midfield is pouring them in. But I'd like to rely on that a lot less.
Finally, Reading's consolation goal essentially served as comic relief for both teams. As a rule of thumb, 90 minutes is long enough and the skill level in the Premier League is high enough to figure that you might give up one goal against the run of play. Therefore, the typical strategy of trying to score a goal first and then go back to the castle and pull up the drawbridge doesn't work in must-win games. And for a team like Arsenal, that's almost all of them. Therefore, Arsenal has generate enough chances to get at least two a game. When you're up three-nil, you don't have to sweat a bad bounce here or there too hard.