Learning from the test (Arsenal vs Man City, Sunday, September 24th)

I’m not going to lie…I was straight up nervous going into this weekend’s game against Manchester City.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have faith in the Gunners, far from it actually.  I knew that win, lose, or draw, this one game wasn’t going to define us, and we could go on to have a great season no matter what happened here.  But I was still nervous the same way anyone gets before they take a test.  And make no mistake, yesterday was just that: a test.  Reactions to the Arsenal early season results went from being way overly optimistic to not taking any of it seriously because of who we’ve played.  Even the win at Liverpool was to be taken with a grain of salt because of the season ‘Pool are having thus far.  So the butterflies were kicking around in my stomach because I knew that this game meant something about our progress so far, and I wanted us to acquit ourselves well.  All in all the 1-1 draw wasn’t the best outcome we could have gotten out of that game, and that’s actually a good thing.  We looked like we were on very even keel with City, but I believe we should have won it.  Here’s some of the thoughts I had while watching the game:

1) Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey are really frustrating players.  And it’s for two different reasons.  Ramsey frustrates me because the issues I have with him seem to be his mental game.  He obviously has the skills to play well and be an important part of the first team, but he tries to do way too much with the ball.  He’s one of the few Arsenal players who doesn’t just play the simple option more often than not.  He tries to dribble out of trouble.  He tries to play tricky passes or chooses the fancy ball over the simple one.  He takes poor first touches because he’s not looking at the next move he’ll make.  He doesn’t go into tackles straight up, instead trying to flick the ball away or poke at it.  I’m not impressed with these parts of his game, and I get frustrated watching attacks stall at his feet and his passes going astray.  He’s not settled in when he’s playing.  He seems to me to be the nervous animal running around among the calm members of the team.

Gervinho’s touch let him down multiple times, but only in scoring position.  He made good runs, played good passes, and did well stretching and putting pressure on the City defense, but multiple times his final touch, final shot, chance to score was terrible.  The question he presents, and it’s a frustrating one for the team, is to figure out whether it’s just his game or if he needs to play through it.  This isn’t the first time this has been his M.O. and it needs to be given consideration that he might not be able to contribute as a regular starter in the attack.

2) There will be selection problems on the horizon.  With several players, including Jack Wilshire and Bacary Sagna, looking to be returning in the near future (some sooner than others), there will be some issue over who should be playing.   Carl Jenkinson has played well at right back, but should he stay in the side after Sagna is healthy?  Who should find the bench after Wilshire comes back, assuming he gets back up the best 11?  Which of the three center backs should be on the field once they’re all healthy?  Per Mertesacker has made a case that he should be one of the first considered, so what does that do to Laurent Koscielny, who showed very well yesterday?  How about the keeper battle going on?  And then there are the issues of fatigue.  Who can be selected to replace Cazorla when he needs his inevitable rest?  What about Arteta or Podolski?  These are the questions that will define Arsenal’s season as much as any playing style questions at this point.

3) Are Manchester City really the team to beat this year?  What about Manchester United?  Okay, so this isn’t really an Arsenal question directly, but it does affect the squad.  Manchester City did not look completely convincing to me on Sunday.  They struck me as (for lack of a better word) sloppy to be quite honest…I mean, as much as a professional squad can be at this level.  They were very individualistic, they didn’t take chances, they had passes missing the mark, they went on too many dribble runs that ended in nothing.  I just wasn’t as impressed (or as scared) as I’d expected to be.  Are they really the team to beat this year?  An for all of United’s win’s so far, they haven’t looked the part either.  They seem to be getting covered by (truly unfortunately) a few moments of luck (or whatever you want to call it) that comes along with being a good team…i.e.-getting calls, having a good bounce go your way, etc…  The obvious answer is that they’re still good teams that will be in the hunt and are finding ways to keep it together even when they’re not playing well, but the reality is that a team can’t ride that through an entire season, and how they handle the inevitable ebb of those moments will determine if they are challenging deep in the season, or just staying afloat.  For the moment Chelsea is the only team to actually impress me with their potential credentials, and even they have had their moments.




Thoughts on being a high school coach

I’m in my second season as the varsity girl’s coach at a Manhattan school, and a couple things are occurring to me that I thought I’d punch out in case anyone out there has anything to share in return…

The season is one week old, with three weeks of preseason had before that.  We are a private school, so historically commitment and attendance has been a concern, and in some regards is this season.  But we have new things to deal with that we didn’t last season.  Last season I had a roster of 15 girls, which would have been perfect if they’d all shown up at one time…ever.  I traveled to games often with 11, had no goalkeeper to speak of, held practice with 6-8 girls, had no field space, and struggled to build any kind of work ethic or tenacity with in the team.  They just didn’t take pride in their efforts.  This season I have a roster of 23 girls, and for the most part they show up.  They still aren’t the most tenacious group, but there are some who have caught on to the commitment and desire, and who respect the idea of working hard and it’s pay off.  I have a whole host of new girls, both to the team and to the game, many of whom are either freshmen or sophomores.  They don’t really have the internal drive to push themselves in drills, and often kinda half@$$ it through practice, gripe about the harder things they have to do, and constantly complain about what positions I want to use them in if it isn’t the one they had in mind for themselves.  I’ve got more girls than I can play, less pure talent than we need, and still have no regular field space to practice on.

But my biggest issue isn’t really with any of that.  My biggest issue is with myself.

I’ve been playing soccer since I was little, and had both moderate success and crushing failure.  The game has given me a lot, and taken a lot out of me as well.  I love being a coach now because it gives me a chance to be part of the game in a whole different way than I’ve previously been able to.  I think I’m a little bit of an over-thinker to be a high school girl’s coach at a school with a small program, but I’ll take it.  I’m not saying I believe I’d be more successful at a larger school or that I think I’m too “big” for the school I’m at (quite the opposite actually), just that I’m a strategy-junky amongst a group that hasn’t quite gotten that far in their understanding of the game yet.  But I think I have a shallow bag of tricks right now.  As I said, this is my second year, and my third year as a varsity coach over all.  I’ve been working coaching soccer on some level since I was in the 9th grade, but I’m discovering that my knowledge of drills, my ability to run a drill, to find just the right drill for a particular need, and how to build practices so that we’ve worked on basic skills effectively before they’re expected to use them to learn other things…is all still growing.  My practices this year are steps beyond my practices last year, but my preseason practices were all planned to a T, even if they didn’t all go off exactly that way, and now that I’m going more with the flow of what’s needed the practices are less effective I think.  Granted a lot of what I can do is limited by what amount of space I have that day (23 girls in a tiny gym isn’t exactly a recipe for successful practices) but the days I do have a field are below where I want to be both as a team and a coach.  I am still developing the finessed understanding of what it means to be a coach.

Darn…and other Arsenal thoughts (Arsenal vs Southampton, Saturday, September 15th)

Well, as I’d been fearing it would at some point, the “I-live-in-America-but-try-to-follow-European-soccer” bug bit me already this season.  I wasn’t able to watch the Arsenal-Southampton game on Saturday.  I was away from home all day, but I couldn’t even find the game listed in any of the 2000 channels I have at home…although there were plenty of other “exciting” matches on offer…there were three different opportunities to watch West Ham and Norwich battle it out to a 0-0 draw if I’d wanted to (insert sarcastic “woohoo”).  Aside from watching the highlights video, I didn’t see the play of the team, but 6-1 is a pretty resounding statement to make.  A 1-0 or 2-1 type score can sometimes be misleading, but unless Southampton mysteriously decided to send their first team on vacation and field a local youth team for the day, there’s nothing misleading about 6-1.  I don’t have to have seen much to have a decent idea of what the game must have looked like.  None the less, I will try to keep too much commentary about play out of my thoughts…you know, since I didn’t see it.

1) Patience is required despite these encouraging early results.  When we were sitting on back-to-back ties, there was some measure of skepticism floating in the air around this year’s version of Arsenal.  Now that we’ve won two in a row, racked up some goals, and only given up one goal in four games, there seems to be a lot of that ol’ good feeling floating around.  And it should be.  But there’s also a lot of reasons to shake hands, smile, and hold on to our wait-and-see reflex for the moment.  For one thing, none of the teams we’ve played are sitting in the top half of the table at the moment.  Their combined goal differences aren’t all that impressive, even if you take the Arsenal games out of the math.  The four teams have a combined -5 goal difference…and that’s NOT counting the scores vs Arsenal.  We’re playing well (in the three I’ve seen) and seem to be getting better, but there’s still bigger tests on the horizon.  Manchester City is up next, and we play them on short rest because of the Champion’s League tie verses Montpellier mid-week.  I’m not suggesting pessimism, just not ready to start applying our current run and form to our chances in the league this season yet.  I’ll be feeling much more ready to make pronouncements applying results to what they might mean for the rest of the season after the Man City game.  I think we have all the tools we need to go in there and hang one on the baby blue half of Manchester next weekend, but then lack of tools has never been the problem at Arsenal.

2) I may not have seen the game, but I did see the goal Szczesny gave up.  I know he’s been out for a little while, and is not ruled out of the CL match for health and fitness reasons, but that (imho) was quite the gaffe.  Can “embarrassment” be a reason to say someone isn’t match fit?  I don’t think anyone expected the clean sheets to last for ever, but that was a softie to give up.  I don’t know if his fitness played a role, but the root cause of it was mostly mental.  Let’s hope that goalkeeping doesn’t turn out to be our downfall this year, especially if Szczesny is going to be our #1 when fit.

3) Let’s just all stop talking about Oliver Giroud and see how that works out.  I have seen more tweets, commentary, posts, and articles that mention Giroud and his supposed trouble in front of the net than I care to admit having taken the time to read.  We’ve been a little spoiled in Gunnerland by the quick adaptation of Podolski and Cazorla, and the impact they’ve made in our early fixtures, that Giroud is under a little more scrutiny than he deserves…or is good for the relationship.  The man will score. I have no doubt of that.  In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion, given the intelligence of his runs, the positions he puts himself in, and his obviously high work rate (again, in the games that I’ve seen), that it’ll be a little like the olive and jar metaphor.  To his credit he’s dismissive of the idea that he’s struggling, and seems confident.  But then again, how do you expect him to react when asked about it over and over again?  Break into tears and talk about how hard it’s been?  Pressure creates expectation, and scrutiny creates pressure.  We have high expectations because of the player he’s replacing, but we disliked being reliant on that one player anyway.  As long as the rest of the team is stepping up and spreading out the scoring, we’ll be fine, and Giroud will get his chances, he’ll settle, and he’ll contribute.  And it’s better for us that way.  But for goodness sake, quit talking about it.

*Whew* (Arsenal vs Liverpool, Sunday, September 3rd)

I’m writing a day late because I wasn’t able to finish watching the whole game yesterday, and I didn’t want to comment too much on what I didn’t watch.  Regardless, I have now finished and have taken several things away from the game that I think are worth mentioning.

And there were a lot of things noteworthy during this game.  From the question of Vito Mannone, the play of Arteta, scoring, defending, and a lot more.  I’m only going to look at three of them, as per usual.

But first…

Lukas Podolski, Oliver Giroud, and Santi Cazorla.

There, I said it.

It seems like every single article I read about Arsenal these days has to mention these guys in concert.  They have to be put together and talked about because they’re what’s really new about the team.  Despite the return of Diaby, the formation shuffle, and the seemingly adaptive style of play so far this season (some of which I’ll get to in a minute), it’s those three that have to be mentioned together like they’re the three little pigs.  So despite the fact that I have things I could happily discuss about Cazorla’s continually impressive pin-point passing, Giroud’s trouble scoring despite bringing a much needed physicality and mentality to the front line, and Podolski’s deserved swagger that seems to be developing, from here on I’m leaving them out.  Just seems like the right thing to do.

1) What are the real questions about Arsenal this season?  Correct me if I’m wrong, but a lot of the questions that people tagged Arsenal with seem to slowly be getting answers.  No, things certainly are not perfect right now, but the game against Liverpool went a little further to answering some of those questions we were all so afraid of even just a week ago.  Where will the scoring come from?  Can we replace the massive haul of goals that came from one player last year?  No, but a more balanced approach may prove to be a more dangerous one.  This is a team that isn’t trying to force things in, even if the play is square and the opponent is round (so to speak).  Will the midfield hold together without Alex Song?  It may look different, but it’s working so far.  Mikel Arteta is taking his defensive responsibilities seriously and playing aggressively.  He’s still looking like the possition is a little against some of his instincts at time, but he’s been solid enough so far and seems to have formed a great partnership with Diaby, who’s playing extremely well.  What about the defense?  Three clean sheets in three games sounds pretty good to me.  Were Stoke and Sunderland ever expected to light us up?  No, but keeping Liverpool off the board, and doing what needed to be done against the other two is a positive start.  Per Mertesacker has looked solid, Thomas Vermaelen has been all over the place, and although Mannone has just done what’s been asked of him and looks like he’s being covered for the rest, it’s been exactly what’s needed.  There are much stiffer challenges to come, and questions will be asked of our defense, but Steve Bould seems to have brought a settled hand to a defense that has been much maligned in recent seasons.

2) Service has just been terrible for three games.  If there is a specific area that I have to point out as being absolutely, ridiculously, ludicrously, (other negative adjective)-ly bad for these three games it’s service from the wings.  For three games we have watched every player who takes a swing from out wide knock the ball ten yards over everyone’s head and past the box, or lob it hopefully in to watch it be easily cleared by lumbering defenders who don’t even have to stretch for the ball, or see the first defender clear it with ease.  No matter who has been out there, Gervinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Diaby on a wide run, Gibbs, even Walcott’s few minutes, the service has been a complete waste.  I don’t expect us to fill the net from the air, but if we can’t even get the ball into the box on a cross, that makes the defensive planning by opponents that much easier.  Even if it’s not a major component of our attack, it has to be better.

3) The times, they are a’changing…maybe.  It was a much more wide open game against Liverpool.  ‘Pool played very well I thought, but were too frantic in the attacking end.  They gave us a handful.  The possession was close, but did go to Liverpool.  The shots went to Liverpool.  It was a very different looking game from the park-and-counter teams we’ve seen the last two weeks.  And Arsenal seemed to be able to adapt.  Not that they didn’t have their moments of tiki-taka looking football, but they were sitting back more as Liverpool owned the ball, and took their chances on the counter.  They defended aggressively late in the game and our central defenders even did a little of their own bullying in the middle.  There was a physicality to the Arsenal side that we’ve been criticized for lacking in recent years.  We went after the net, we countered, we played tough and agressive, we defended well…these are not qualities Arsenal have been noted for.  In my notes on the first game of the season I said that this team looked like it was more of the same, referring to many of the criticisms leveled against us for multiple seasons now, and that I just hoped time would prove that this was a different kind of team.  Yesterday’s game was a sign that that hope might pay off.  It’s not that I don’t love Arsenal’s style of play, quite the contrary.  It’s a huge part of why I’m a fan, but there are times where being a slave to style betrays a team…what’s really needed is to step into the game and do whatever is required to win, adapt, fight.  This is something Arsenal have struggled with.  But yesterday was a different story and the result bears that out.

BONUS — 4) Luis Suarez is an ass.  Seriously, if you are blanching at that statement, go back and watch the game.  That guy’s an ass.