Game of the Week: Swansea 3, Arsenal 2
Sunday saw a wonderfully inventive young team adhering to an aesthetically pleasing football philosophy — one that pays tribute to the great sides of Barcelona and Ajax — preached by their excellent manager. In possession they kept the ball as a form of defense, swapped positions with ease, exquisitely put together short passing movements, and found a multiplicity of angles from which to attack their opponents. Without the ball, they ferociously closed down the other team, making it impossible for them to get settled and forcing them to make silly mistakes. When they were losing they looked steady and dangerous. When they were winning it never looked like the opposition had a chance. They were technically gifted, entertaining, and easy to cheer for.
Oh yeah. And Arsenal played too.
Zing. Sunday’s score suggested a hard-fought game of two sides exchanging body blows. And yes, like most matches, if a couple of bounces of the ball (Robin van Persie should have had a second goal early in the first half, but aimed at Michel Vorm instead of the net) and blows of the referee’s whistle (dubious call on Aaron Ramsey for the penalty, which led to Swansea’s equalizer) had gone the Gunners’ way, they may have come out of the Liberty Stadium with a point or three. But based on their performance, Arsenal hardly deserved it. Swansea, on the other hand, deserved everything they got.
When it was all over, a track-suited Arsene Wenger watched another batch of points slip away as his spent midfielder Aaron Ramsey retreated from the bellowing crowd that had ridden him all day (Ramsey is a product of Swansea’s Welsh rivals Cardiff City) and the Swansea players celebrated the best result of their inaugural Premier League season. I was surprised by how little surprise I felt, because I’m often sitting around gauging how surprised I am.
Last week Arsenal defeated Leeds in the FA Cup in storybook fashion, with club legend Thierry Henry coming on and scoring a late winner. In what has been, putting it nicely, a trying season for the North London club, they were bound for something of a come-down, if only emotionally.
In seasons past, Arsenal’s players would have been salivating at the thought of playing a passing and attacking opponent like Swansea. Typically, the Gunners had the most trouble against teams that set out to nullify them (see Stoke, teams managed by Mark Hughes or Sam Allardyce). If anyone, short of Barcelona, tried to play with them on the ground, on their own terms, Arsenal would (on their day) tear them to pieces.
This is not your barely older brother’s Arsenal. Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas have moved on, and Jack Wilshere has spent the season tweeting and watching X Factor and tweeting about watching X Factor in an air cast. And in their absence (or departures), Arsenal has seemingly lost what made them such a special football team over the last few years. This season the Gunners have been honestly dull. And nobody made that more abundantly clear this season than Swansea did on Sunday.
We can and will talk more about what’s wrong with Arsenal, but first a song for the Swans.
Last May, I watched Swansea as they beat Reading at Wembley Stadium to win the nPower Championship’s Premier League Playoff match, gaining entry to the top flight of English football. Like Blackpool before them, Swansea were bringing an attractive brand of football to the Premier League. And like Blackpool boss Ian Holloway had, Swansea’s Brendan Rodgers insisted he wouldn’t sacrifice his principles for results. They would play against Manchester United the same way they had against Leeds United: pass and move, keeping the ball on the ground; defend from the front and play it out from the back.
Those terms have been really hot coach-speak clichés ever since Barcelona began its three-year reign of terror. They probably look good on a dry-erase board in a changing room, but how do they get put into practice? If you’re Barcelona it looks like a bunch of tiny Spaniards and Argentinians bending time and space. But in the absence of superhuman individuals like Messi and Xavi, it should look like 11 players moving, thinking, and playing as one.
Swansea’s second half against Arsenal, following Rodgers’ introduction of Gylfi Sigurdsson into the midfield, was one of the best team performances I’ve seen all year. Perhaps a lot of it can be chalked up to the passionate support they received from the home crowd, and perhaps that home crowd sensed that, at 1-1, Arsenal were there for the taking. But owing this result to something as nebulous as fan support when so much evidence was on display on the field feels wrong.
Swansea’s frontline of Scott Sinclair, Nathan Dyer, and Danny Graham scored the Swans’ three goals, but it was their midfield that won the match. Joe Allen and Leon Britton looked positively Xavi-and-Iniesta-like, hounding Ramsey and Alex Song all day, switching the play from defense to attack in no time. Dyer’s goal, Swansea’s second, was a result of this kind of aggression and vision; Allen dispossessed Ramsey easily, in the Arsenal half, and quickly found a streaking Dyer, who was dusting Ignasi Miquel, his gassed marker. Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny threw his hands up in disgust, but all the Swansea fans (and I would bet any neutrals who were watching) were elated with what they just saw.
The Xavi-Iniesta bit might sound like hyperbolic hot air, but Leon Britton, now famously, has a higher passing accuracy percentage than old “Chamelon Eyes” (as Ray Hudson calls Xavi) and Swansea are, statistically speaking, one of the best passing sides in Europe.
If Swansea looked at times like the Total Football dream come to life, Arsenal was some kind of waking, walking, occasionally kicking nightmare; players out of position looking tired, cranky, and not up for the challenge.
After their 1-0 loss to Man City in mid-December, Arsenal had a run of five very winnable games against Villa, Wolves, QPR, Fulham, and Swansea. Fifteen points were up for grabs and they came out with seven.
Moving forward, assuming that Arsene Wenger is unwilling or unable to bring in any January reinforcements, the best thing the Arsenal boss can do is shuffle the deck he already has. Aaron Ramsey does not look suited to play at the tip of an attacking three (he also looks like he could use a sandstorm-free Dubai vacation). Why not move Andrei Arshavin, who had some lovely, weighted through balls on Sunday (and is kind of useless covering his fullbacks anyway), into that role? If there’s such a striker drought, why not give Theo Walcott a shot at playing in a central role up front? Then bring the promising Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain into the side on the wing. And maybe somebody should tell Alex Song that where he is most needed is screening his slow and shaky back four, not bombing forward and trying Zidane-esque passes.
Most unnerving for Arsenal and its fans will be the lack of steel and grit on display Sunday. Despite captain Robin van Persie scoring another goal and despite past captain Thierry Henry confronting/rallying some Arsenal supporters to be more constructive in their criticism, there was something missing in the middle of the park: a lack of will, a lack of ferocity. That could be found in the Midlands, where Wenger loaned out one of the club’s most passionate and enigmatic players
With all their defections over the last few transfer windows (Nasri, Fabregas, Alexander Hleb (LOL)), Arsenal need some players who truly, honestly love playing for the club. Ramsey and Wilshere seem ready to assume that mantle, but neither play with the kind of wolf-protecting-its-territory abandon that is sometimes needed to take over a game. Emmanuel Frimpong, in the few appearances he made for Arsenal this season, does just that. On Saturday, playing on loan for Wolves against Tottenham, he seemed to be playing for Arsenal by proxy. He busted up Spurs’ highly vaunted midfield play (a.k.a. he kicked Scott Parker), intimidating, hassling, tackling, and harassing at every turn. Yes, Spurs should have won, Emmanuel Adebayor looked onside, and Luka Modric missed the goal a few times, each closer than the last, but Wolves took advantage of all the luck they got. As they should: There hasn’t been a lot of it to go around this year for Mick McCarthy’s team.
Wolves are a really feisty team, especially against decent opposition. Steven Fletcher is a great target man, even if his presence seems to have derailed Kevin Doyle’s once promising career. They have a great winger in Matt Jarvis, and if you want to get through the center of the park on them, you better be at peace with your maker. Frimpong partnered well with his brother in ankle abuse, Karl Henry.
The rap on Frimpong is that he lets his heart dictate his head, but Arsenal could have used more heart on Sunday. It’s not like they didn’t make mistakes anyway. Besides, if you’re a Gooner, how could you not want a guy on your team who does this to Rafael van der Vaart:
Earlier in the week, van der Vaart was talking up Spurs’ title hopes. I wonder if he even knows how to find White Hart Lane after that incident.
The Hissing of Mid-Winter Fax Machines (a.k.a. Transfer Rumors)
Sir Alex Ferguson was recently asked about the possibility of bringing in players during the January transfer window. He muttered, “The thing is, what can you get in January? I have said this all the time. The players who are available that we would like, we won’t get. What do you do? Do you take a second-rate player? No, of course you don’t.”
That’s not going to stop me and every other football fanatic from fantasizing about signing-on bonuses, failed medicals, helicopters leaving Newcastle for Liverpool and changing direction mid-flight, the exact longitude and latitude of Christopher Samba, and all the other hysterical speculation and innuendo that comes with a transfer window:
• Gary Cahill got the ball rolling, as he finally agreed to a contract with Chelsea. This was a protracted negotiation that seemed to take place somewhat in public, much to Cahill’s chagrin. Now on a rumored 80,000 per week, you wonder whether his move to Arsenal last summer was really about the low offer the Gunners made Bolton rather than Arsenal’s unwillingness to break their wage structure on the defender. By the way, and grab your hand fan for this one, I don’t think Cahill is all that. He might have been going at half-speed for some time now, in anticipation of a big move to a top-four club, but he hasn’t looked very steady this season.
• Right as they got themselves out of the relegation zone following a victory over Fulham, Blackburn now must deal with a possible January exodus. Defender Samba turned in a transfer request Monday (which essentially made public his desire to leave and will give up any contractually owed bonuses to facilitate a move). This makes Harry Redknapp’s incessant tapping up of the longtime Rovers player a little less nauseating (“Samba’s a good player. A real good player”). Blackburn won without Samba over the weekend, but if they want to stay in the league, they’re going to need to hang on to him, as well as to Mauro Formica and Junior Hoilett, all of whom have been rumored to be on various clubs’ January shopping lists.
• U.S. players have been making news in the gossip column and on the field this winter. Landon Donovan has played very well for Everton since joining the club on loan from L.A. Galaxy, and he may have talked up his onetime Galaxy teammate Edson Buddle, at whom the Toffees are currently taking a look on trial. Meanwhile, Red Bull defender Tim Ream looks poised to join Bolton. He’ll get a chance to play against Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester City before Bolton get relegated and he is mucking it up on a cow pasture in Barnsely next season.
• While big names like Wesley Sneijder and Eden Hazard are bandied about (neither are likely to be sold), I’m actually most excited to see Chelsea upstart Josh McEachran go on loan to Swansea. He’s a ton of promise wasting away on the Blues bench. It will be great to see what he can do in Brendan Rodgers’ pass-happy side.
• Speaking of Chelsea, I’m really pulling for Andre Villas-Boas, but he should avoid saying things like, “There’s an obvious stigma around Stamford Bridge which is present for everybody to see.” Chelsea got a decent win against Sunderland over the weekend and Fernando Torres was three inches away from one of the goals of the season, but sometimes I wonder if Villas-Boas isn’t his own worst enemy with some of the stuff he spits to the press.
• The jury may still be out on Liverpool’s rebuilding project, but it’s pretty clear how their (now former) kit sponsor adidas feels. When it came time to re-up their deal with the brand, adidas boss Herbert Hainer simply said, “Scoreboard.” Okay, here’s what he really said: “The gap between their performance on the field and what the number should be is not in balance. Then we said, ‘Okay, we will not do it.’ That’s the end of the story.”
• QPR’s Shaun Derry put in a nasty tackle on Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye this weekend. The Frenchman’s reaction reminded me of the time Jamie Carragher almost took off Nani’s leg. Nani got up to protest, then looked at the huge laceration on his leg and fell down. Cabaye, similarly, got up to get in Derry’s face before collapsing. He was stretchered off the field, but it looks like he’ll be okay.
After the game, Alan Pardew had this to say about new QPR manager Mark Hughes’ style of play: “Hughesy’s teams always have a bit of steel and a few heavy tackles.” I don’t have my copy of Hughesy’s Teams, but if you ever watched Blackburn last decade, that sounds about right.
Goal of the Week: Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Tottenham
From January 11. Ekotto is a good player. A really good player.
Quote of the Week: Brendan Rodgers, Swansea
“When people start getting the names of our players right we’ll really be making progress.”
Chris Ryan is an editor for Grantland.
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