Blackburn play the English game with style, while Arsenal show mettle.
Blackburn, the brawny connoisseurs of ugly long ball, provided the first test of whether or not Arsenal had finally acquired the necessary mettle so lacking in recent seasons.
Arsenal’s most recent spring collapse was literally rubbed in their faces by a Blackburn side that successfully bullied them into submission. After going up 1—0, Arsenal gave up two second half goals largely by being generally outmuscled, and acutely so on set pieces. Beating Fulham 4—0 the following week to end the season, could not reverse the near three-month slide that dragged them into the summer. But Arsenal would have the last word on their season, answering their critics by affirming the criticism. When everything has gone wrong, it still can get postmodern in 2010. Either self-reflection can’t get away from this comfort zone or footballers just lag behind on the cultural curve.
The match was presented as a game where the stereotype of caveman vs. esthete would likely prove true once again, but both teams successfully set out to prove the assumptions false. Although Blackburn didn’t divert from their tough, direct style, they displayed how their branded pragmatism, all mechanics and function, could be raised to into style by playing quickly and sharply for 90 minutes. It was truly entertaining long ball.
Aside from Laurent Koscielny knocked off the ball (is it worse that it was by El Hadji Diouf?), which directly led to the equalizer, Arsenal showed consistent strength throughout, matching Blackburn on tackles, challenges, and balls in the air.
This was the first time Robin van Pesie and Cesc Fabregas started a game together since October of 2009. This lasted a generous 20 minutes when van Persie went down injured. The preliminary word is a few weeks sidelined. Really? Will it be that short? It’s puzzling that an athlete with a wiry strong frame could be so fragile. Did his parents forbid him flouridated water? Was hurting himself the only way he could get the attention he felt his parents withheld? Every time he touches the ball or falls to the ground there’s a hushed gasping and murmuring that maybe he won’t notice lying on the ground examining himself.
The occasion where Arsenal shows signs of real mettle could not avoid displaying another kind of frailty. There has been some talk about the psychological repercussions of long-term injuries. The results-driven religion of modern football has compressed the rehabilitation timeline. A player can be out for long periods (although shorter than they used to be), but is expected to regain form quickly once thrust back into the lineup.
A player may spend a disciplined half season or more contracted to a lonely, often grueling and tedious rehabilitation. Light, then full training follows, then a couple of appearances in the reserves, and it’s back into the first team. Then it’s real.
The mental and physical challenge of regaining form has no relation to highly targeted exercises or hours on a stationary bicycle. Eduardo is an example. Exorcising that brief hesitation to strike a ball or commit to a tackle can have an outsized effect, if now residing in the eastern end of Eastern Europe is any indication.
For van Persie, this fresh injury was due to the way he committed himself. He went in softly, leg limp, almost consciously with the thought that if he challenged as forcefully as the Blackburn player, he could injury himself. He had no intent to win the challenge with self-preservation in mind. It’s not uncommon to see a player injured when softly going into a challenge, but avoiding injury can invite it. A more equal force of strength and momentum bolsters all the joints and tendons on impact.
Blackburn provided the first real quiz of the season. It directly addressed the lingering issue of Arsenal’s physical and metal strength. One game does not reverse the long-term problem, but it does carry weight for the next physical encounter. In two weeks time, Arsenal will meet Bolton (a rich man’s Blackburn?), and the quiz will be readministered. But the real test will come in March and April, and if there is no customary collapse, this Arsenal team will look a little bit more like the ones of old.
Game Note: This was the last time I watched a game with my best buddy Will. We watched the entire game without once getting up off the couch. We had a great time.
Theo Walcott’s first Arsenal hat trick makes a case for disproving that he was born without a football brain.
Chris Waddle’s qualification of what kind of brain Theo Walcott does not have appears to be a deliberate statement for two reasons. After a poor international performance earlier this year, Waddle publicly dissected Walcott, saying, "I've never seen any difference in Theo Walcott since he was at Southampton and broke into the team at a very young age. I've never seen him develop.”
Walcott’s attributes—primarily pace, but also above average finishing—on which he is reliant, have not brought him the success people expected, while the weaker parts of his game—notably his first touch and crossing—haven’t improved, except in fits and starts. But for Waddle, Walcott’s deficiency off the ball proves he has no “football brain”.
Waddle’s claim makes Walcott’s football brain a distinct subset of Walcott’s overall brain, which is rightly cleared of criticism. It would be difficult to find another footballer, let alone another teenager, who has the maturity and intelligence that Walcott has shown as a human being over these same developmentally challenged years as a player.
The distinction between Walcott’s brains isn’t complimentary. If anything, it makes the criticism particularly harsh. Walcott’s intelligence, and the capacities that derive from it, are helpless when it comes to his football brain. The deficiency Waddle identifies is innate: Walcott’s football brain lacks instinct, which a footballer has or doesn’t. It’s not something that can be learned. No matter how hard he trains under one of the great football brains, instinct will always elude him. This impossibility is revealed in Waddle’s summary of Walcott’s development.
Waddle’s criticism was also deliberately timed on the eve of the World Cup selection. But was it necessary to publicly declare Walcott biologically unfit? Waddle may have believed that he had the national team’s interest at heart, hoping his two cents would be worth five. Long before the 2010 World Cup, it was clear that the current crop of England players had a much longer history of inescapable deficiency, which had to be ignored, because it was assumed that England’s youth provided no alternative. At age 21—regardless of slowed or stalled development— Walcott, among a few other U21s, is a bright spot. Throwing him to the lions (as opposed to including him as one) was counter-productive to England’s interests. Cannibalism seems to run through the national team and discussions of it. At the time of selection, Walcott wasn’t playing well, and given Waddle’s stature and connections, his message still would have arrived if sent quietly.
The players most often criticized for lacking characteristics that can’t be learned are the ones with destructive tendencies. Joey Barton’s rage issues, Adrian Mutu’s stupidity, and Mario Ballotelli’s angry sense of victimization come to mind. Walcott doesn’t deserve the comparison, which extends beyond the football brain. Waddle’s argument operates from a false perspective by assessing the small arc of Walcott’s career and extrapolating it to the end point, where apparently Waddle stood when making his comments. The fictional long view ignores the recent circumstances affecting Walcott’s development.
Only in the last two seasons could Walcott have been considered a starter. Unfortunately, this coincided with a series of injuries. Additionally—and it’s been said countless times—the England national team is made up of the best club players in the world who, defying explanation, become mediocre players for England. Walcott can’t be exempt from this.
Few 17-21 year-old professional footballers play every week on a top team, which is why Waddle compares Walcott to the instincts of Wayne Rooney and Cesc Fabregas who were rare exceptions. If anything, this indicates the distortion of expectation against which the assessment of the teenager is held.
He has been competing for a first team place on an Arsenal team with an abundance of skilled midfielders. If he wasn’t in the first XI, it was due to the preference of Andrei Arshavin and Samir Nasri.
From a more positive angle, his hat trick against an offensive-minded Blackpool—a game he started— is indicative of a fixture favorable to his skill set. His best opportunities come against opponents who have an open style of play as opposed to those teams who pack the defense and congest space.
The Blackpool game can be paired with the second leg of last year’s Champions League quarterfinal against Barcelona. Preceding the game, there were sensible calls for Walcott to start. His speed was an advantage. He started and was instrumental in Arsenal’s only goal. Both can be held as examples of development. In favorable circumstances he has done well.
Walcott’s first goal against Blackpool was an archetype. He burst into space on the right side and received a perfectly weighted pass from Arshavin and shot it low across Blackpool goalkeeper Matthew Gilks and just inside the far post.
The second goal couldn’t have been more uncharacteristic, unless the occasional claim about Walcott playing as a central striker isn’t immediately dismissed, for it sounds as absurd as a transfer rumor. Facing goal and lining up out wide, takes advantage of his strengths and compensates for his somewhat lead first touch and often manic directness.
He lined up against the last Blackpool defender like any central striker. Inside the penalty area, back to goal, he received a pass from Jack Wilshere, took one touch to settle the ball, a second to push it a few feet to his left, and took the shot.
The third goal combines the template of the first with the skill of the second. It marked the first hat trick for Walcott since the game against Croatia almost two years ago. But the feat is more important for it’s display of what looked like intelligence.
The first and third goals were products of short passing and well-timed runs. Walcott received the pass from Abu Diaby, in what was for a moment, tight space. Surrounded by two Blackpool defenders, he sprinted between them, gaining a step as the ball arrived. Two touches lined up the shot, which he scored with his weaker left foot. Again Walcott’s off-the-ball movement was perfect. His two touches preceding the shot read and managed the space around him.
Arguments about an athlete’s instinct are drawn from a set of criteria that constitute the performance—gesture, technique, patterns of movement, ect. When it looks natural, easy, or graceful, a player’s instinct lies behind it. We understand the comment he has an instinct in front of goal because we can identify the various ways it is customarily represented. But that gracefulness in front of goal represents instinct rather than being a mathematical proof of it; one can’t declare instinct with such certainty. For the most part, this is of minor concern, unless it calls into question a player’s entire character and value.
The point is instinct is so difficult to prove that we must resort to various representations that stand in for it. Instinct isn’t formed into measurable data. It’s not about the number of goals scored, but how and by what means they are scored. If Walcott visited the London Zoo (the world’s first zoo of scientific study), scaled the walls of the large cat enclosure, crossed the recreated landscape and casually petted the pretty kitties only to be eviscerated and devoured, then it could be determined that Walcott lacked instinct.
Blurring instinct studies neither proves nor disproves if Walcott has a football brain. The evidence of two hat tricks isn’t conclusive. Waddle the winger may be proven right; he is speaking about what he knows best, about what he has a deep proprioceptive feel for, which accounted for the uproar it caused. But if instinct manifests in any flashing expression that looks like “having a feel for the game”, then it is there, and has always been there, as convincingly as it isn’t, as far as one can tell.
Game Note: Lost in Walcott euphoria was Abu Diaby’s good game—a goal and an assist, both well executed. At the beginning of last season, I thought he would be one to watch, but it didn’t turn out that way.
This time it will take more than equine placenta to deliver a proper prognosis.
Liverpool is tangled in the loosening ends of its tradition. It’s hard to believe, despite the lengthy and cacophonous unraveling, which has cruelly dovetailed with Manchester United threatening to surpass them as most storied. The squad is strained by want-aways and a thin bench. The manager, Roy Hodgson, was appointed in the summer based on forty years of domestic and continental experience, which found a successful synthesis in Fulham, first by avoiding relegation and then two years later by reaching the Europa League final. With this résumé, the first task is to stabilize the club—hoist it on his shoulders and take a measured approach on all fronts.
There is also the persona. Mr. Hodgson looks old-fashioned, but cool—more a great uncle than grandfather. His paternalism is authoritative and comforting. He’d be great company on holidays—gregarious and engaging even after the big dinner, telling tipsy-length stories and occasionally offering prescriptive suggestions for one’s life.
Opinions on his appointment generally split when it comes to his managerial role. One position argues that Hodgson is a great choice to bring calm and begin the retrofit. The other argues that he will not bring about Liverpool’s restoration, which is the only objective. Stability will be an inevitable result of the highest aim. Considering the state of things, this is blind zeal, which means there are big blind spots too.
The strength of the institution and the immovable necessity of Liverpool circumscribed by its supporters, constitutes a belief to be envied, except when it’s delusional. The inevitable return to the top has included calls for the new owner to be a multi-billionaire—Chinese, Middle Eastern, American, Russian, sovereign-owned doesn’t matter. Someone like Roman Abramovich or better. Despising the current American ownership has led to what sounds like welcoming a Manchester City-like takeover.
This is a strange flexing of muscle. What does this rescue fantasy say about the strategic return to the top? Come save us with your billions because we are Liverpool inadvertently says much about the sense of abjection.
Hodgson’s purpose may be so tightly fitted to stability that the attribute becomes a potential failure. Toss in the disadvantaged timing of his hire by owners who will almost certainly sell the club. Hicks and Gillette reflected their panic by installing calm, and possibly passed on all the traits of a lame duck. A new manager often follows new ownership.
The elements for a short tenure are there. However Hodgson’s role is determined, the priority is to buy time as much as to stabilize the club until sold to a solvent entity bringing immediate financial security. If Liverpool has a distinguished new fan base this season it’s the anxious bank creditor.
At best, expectations will be met or exceeded and Hodgson will have secured a conditional future. At worst, he is a tourniquet.
The image of stability is also projected outward to supporters and media. Of the many sedimented layers of anxiety, Hodgson has to offer at least phyllo-layers of hope—just enough for media and the angry and despairing supporter to grip. Media coverage continues to highlight the meltdown and coagulation on and off the field. Hardly a day passes without out seeing the photographs of Tom Hicks and George Gillette’s performance as enshrouded, true supporters in articles detailing their transgressions. Each subsequent time one encounters the image, their smiles look more sinister.
Then there is Steven Gerrard’s on-field grimace-face. Over the last year, his expression looks increasingly like he is suffering from brighter and brighter sun in his eyes. Or, there is Javier Mascherano’s petulance—valuable when contained in the role of an imposing defensive midfielder— has soured into infantile tantrum. Then, this weekend, after David N’gog’s goal, a camera cut to Hodgson captured the man searching for any remaining bit of fingernail to chew. This last image is the most foreboding.
Kickoff—Liverpool could have crumbled under the weight of their problems. The initial moment of a defining season sent all pressure into bottleneck. It almost seemed possible that the house of cards would catch the wind off the opening whistle.
But Liverpool was up for the game. With an empathic, but tense home crowd behind them, the game could have been a temporary release and therapy, an aroma that takes them back to the happy place. The sensory experience would be restorative as it amplified through the tunnel as the team took the field.
Yet the fact remains that the only issue solved by opening day was the appointment of a new manager, a sliver of optimism to put the summer behind them. A tie would preserve an edge on the pinky finger for later scratching in the ear—the survival of another week. A win could sustain core beliefs of the easily excitable during power struggles and back room negotiations.
Liverpool played fairly well, and probably should have won the game. Joe Cole’s sending-off didn’t have a bearing on the match’s quality or outcome, but a three-game ban is a soluble stain on what stands as on-field proof of Liverpool’s enduring power to allure top players. It’s easy to see the red card as portentous and another symptom of decline.
Pepe Reina’s mistake, which allowed Arsenal to equalize in the 90th minute, was called a “howler” by many, and it may qualify as one as much as it may be over-reach. Howlers come out of nowhere. They are inexplicable. They are very specific to a moment made up of an unpredictable confluence of variables, some from beyond the three dimensions. By contrast, every expression of Liverpool’s dysfunction is systemic and predictable. Reina is solely responsible for the goal, but when a howler comes to mind in August 2010, it is Rob Greene’s at the World Cup.
Marouane Chamakh’s header-ish shot ricocheted off the post. The rebound didn’t have a lot of pace, but it can’t be easy controlling a rebound off a curved post while wheeling around out of the sun (Reina doesn’t have hair and doesn’t wear a cap). Off his hands, the ball bounced back into the goal. Calling it a howler tries to make the whole crazy Liverpool crisis crazier than you think, because it’s getting crazier all the time. It is hardly necessary to have another sign that the rot is everywhere. It’s already classical drama and crazy crisis. Nothing about it is prophetic.
The Cassandras, ignored because everyone sees what they do, have returned to belting out Anfield anthems. They swing from the storm to the golden sky and back. But the October 6th payment deadline to the Bank of Scotland is quickly approaching, and with default unimaginable, one can fall back into disbelief, which is how one feels seeing a holwer or recognizing a mistake’s inescapable connection to remarkable circumstances.
Both sides rue the loss of an opening day win, but can consider results positive.
Liverpool: who are they at this point? With almost nothing coherent emerging out of the disarray, no one could predict what kind of team would show up.
Liverpool’s recent history could be used as an aid for teaching children the concept of entropy. At the same time, having earned the reputation as a consistently dull viewing experience, Liverpool looks closer to a sclerotic version of itself than to a wounded animal or scorned spouse. They could have stepped on to the pitch and into disaster, the plaster nose breaking off without warning, followed by a finger, then a limb at the elbow, or—if one sees the current state of things as emasculation—something far worse.
It seemed equally plausible that they could make compartments in their minds and play the game without burden, put everything aside and crawl into the quarter harboring the Liverpool identity of two seasons ago, in a time before all that has happened or at least before it was visible.
The 1—1 draw turned out to be a little disastrous and somewhat inspired. Given the circumstances, this was a positive result. Liverpool surrendered the three points in stoppage time through an uncharacteristic goalkeeping error by Pepe Reina, but for nearly the entirety of the second half, a 10-man Liverpool held Arsenal scoreless.
No team would like to open their season against a Liverpool team in the midst an identity crisis. How does the opponent figure out whom these guys are when preparing to play against them, if these very same guys don’t know themselves? For Arsenal, the answer is simple: have a complete faith in the application of a philosophy regardless of opponent, or as Arséne Wenger often puts it— we just want to play our game. Precedent has shown that this wholesale fidelity carries along its shadow of pathologies and alter egos.
The result was a bit flat for Arsenal, but the draw can be considered a positive result as well, considering Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie were (still are) out, Laurent Koscielny was shown a red card on his debut, and Manual Almunia was blamed (a little unfairly) for David N’gog’s superb goal.
Of course, the most positive result needs little parsing and qualification. An opening day win is three points, a good start, and little else. After five years without a trophy, Arsenal supporters are anxious and increasingly impatient—hence the reiterations of faith. They seek signs in anything to indicate that this is the year potential will be fulfilled and the shadow exorcized. A truly good result would have been closer to last season’s 6-1 opening day win away at Everton. This can hardly be considered a credible measurement of improvement, but the urgent search for answers uses a microscope and casts a wide net.
There is nothing conclusive to take away from the season’s first match. Premises remain intact and questions unanswered. There are only projections and inferences to take away, which may later prove one’s ability to correctly read the hieroglyphics surrounding both clubs.
Liverpool’s star players must be unsettled— Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, and Pepe Reina have never won a league title, and all are in their prime or somewhere post-prime. They’ve started to fear that they will never win a league title, at least not with Liverpool. This sense of mortality is further leaden when considering the two Englishmen are Liverpool lifers.
Understandably unsettled, each in turn has publicly reaffirmed commitment to the club. They have earned the empathy of supporters, but it is far from clear how they will respond over time.
Javier Mascherano is a separate case for two reasons. Signs indicate that unsettled has become discontent (childishly expressed at times). He has not tempered or withheld his feelings as the others have, and looks the most likely to leave despite recently signing a new contract. He is also the only player in this group who has won a league title (twice in South America).
What will now be Joe Cole’s slow start of the season delays assessment of what kind of player he still is. Milan Jovanovic and Christian Poulsen, two shoestring signings, have not played in the Premier League and how they will fare is anyone’s guess.
Roy Hodgson’s task to bring stability to the club has found expression in the noble but masochistic absorption of everyone’s anxiety. It may prove too much to bear if his demeanor on the sideline is any indication.
Statistically, Laurent Koscielny’s red card will neither reflect the misdemeanors committed nor turn him into a fledgling Nigel de Jong. Further, it doesn’t expose him as a whistleblower for those seeking to brand Wenger’s tackling crusade hypocritical.
Almunia, beaten on his near side, has been indicted with poor positioning. Arguably, his positioning could have been better, but this diminishes N’gog’s achievement, which could have made a better positioning irrelevant. More importantly, the criticism attempts to add to the story of Almunia’s failures, but ignores the fact that the goal came from a defensive mistake at the edge of Arsenal’s penalty area. In truth, Almunia should never have had to face this shot and the goal points to systemic issues larger than any individual position.
Arsenal prefers to pass the ball out of defense rather than boot it aimlessly upfield or safely play the ball out of bounds; backed into the corner and under pressure doesn’t change this. Often Arsenal is successful, but in the case of N’gog’s goal, the margin for error was incredibly small. Andrei Arshavin made a good short pass to Wilshere, setting the outlet pass, except that Wilshire let it roll past him instead of taking possession. From here it was easy for Liverpool to take advantage; the setup and shot took place in a flash.
Playing out of the back is determined by Arsenal’s strategy of keeping as much possession as possible. In Arsenal’s system, possession is a key principle of their power, a means to expressing its greatest capacities. Possession simply denies it to the other team. After 70 minutes of chasing the ball around, opponents become physically and mentally fatigued, and their vulnerability exposed.
Arséne Wenger’s affinity for possession lies in the imposed deprivation that serves the offensive-minded structure, an advantage that suffocates rather than kicks or punches. But possession is equally a strategy of defense for many of the same reasons. Possession provides a strong ground from which to operate. It controls the game’s primary objects—ball, space, time, and pace. It also has a protective and conservative function, particularly in the middle of the pitch or with a lead late in the game. But it can become risky when it takes the form of playing out of the back. Possession comes into contradiction with sensible defensive decisions.
Retaining possession by playing out of the back may have another, albeit unwanted function, and one Arsenal hopes to disable. Opponents are well aware of Arsenal’s vulnerability to set pieces. Conceding corner kicks, and in some instances, throw-ins forces them to uncomfortably defend. In the conservative and risk-averse effort to avoid these situations, Arsenal attempt to keep possession, which becomes a risky compensation for defensive deficiencies.
Citing positives for each team draws a promising horizon dotted with fluffy little clouds. But one must be wary of stretching the connection of dots. At any moment the sky could gray and shape-shift into something warily recognizable.
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