Friday, April 2, 2010

The Arsenal Machine

Football is a beautiful game, rooted in history, ingrained in the lives and communities of the fans who watch the game. Brazilian kids dream of becoming the next Pele, English boys swoop their hair into Beckham-esque faux-hawks and swing tasty crosses into the box. No team plays the beautiful game better than Barcelona, the Catalan giants that stormed through La Liga and the Champions League last year.

This year, my beloved Arsenal, the former proprietors of the beautiful game, drew Barcelona in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. After years of blessed draws, and years of talent recession within the club, Arsenal's luck finally ran out.

We drew the defending champions, the expected champions, the best team in the world.

The game itself, played Wednesday night in London at the Emirates, harked back to the great boxing matches of the 1970s and 80s, with Muhammad Ali squaring off against Joe Frazier, the collective sports world holding its breath with every jaw-shattering punch. Arsenal survived the punches, sustaining an incredible statistical disparity to pull out one of the most memorable 2-2 draws in the history of the competition.

Barcelona had 62 percent possession, 14 shots on goal (to Arsenal's two), and a four to nil corner kick ratio. On the road. It was a breathtaking performance from a team that always comes out swinging under the brightest lights. But Arsenal survived, mostly on the broken leg of Cesc Fabregas who, despite cracking his fibula winning a penalty kick from Barca centreback Carlos Puyol, stepped up, adrenaline fuming, and thundered home the penalty with all his might. He limped forward, grabbed the ball out of the back of the net, our beloved Captain, still thinking of a winner in stoppage time, before collapsing to the field clutching his broken leg.

He stayed on the field for the remainder of the match, limping into defensive positions and fighting through the pain to keep his team from having to go down to 10 men. I found out the next day he would be out for the remainder of the season. Cracked right fibula.

At least he went down in style.

It was the performance of a lifetime, one I will be proud to tell my children about someday. Cesc Fabregas, already an Arsenal legend at just 22 years old, firmly cemented himself into the grey matter of the collective red and white brain.

But the same can't be said for the rest of the team, and that's what needs to be discussed going forward. Barcelona didn't just carry 62 percent of the game's possession because they pass well, because they're creative and trained to play in-tune with one another. They build that possession not solely from offensive work, but through defensive determination. Most people consider the beautiful game to express itself going forward, but Barcelona proved on Wednesday that it can be just as beautiful going backward.

BBC columnist Phil McNulty wrote after the match that "Manuel Almunia had the half of his life to keep Messi, Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic at bay. The latter also missed an open goal, but Barca were beautiful to watch. Pace, power, poise, artistry, movement. And world-class players willing to work as hard off the ball as they did on it."

Arsenal is often accused of not giving full committment to both sides of the ball. I think about it like this, a football team is a machine, each player is a piece on the machine and the style passed down to the players from the coaches is software. Now, a team, as a machine, can be constructed in a lot of different ways. When Burnley made their fantastic ascension into the Premier League this season, they were built with one switch: On. It was survivalist programming. Burnley lacked the talent, the individual machine parts, to compete with many of the other teams in the Championship. But Burnley played with full committment every match of the season and won promotion into the most-prestigious league in the world.

Arsenal, however, is constructed differently. Filled with well-forged, well-programmed individual pieces, Arsenal is one of the architectural jewels of the footballing world. The problem with the Arsenal machine is that it's built with too many switches. Each player seems to have his own series of switches, all plugged into the overall mainframe of the team. When Arsenal is switched on, all individual pieces flipped up and the total machine humming away with perfection, they are unstoppable. But Arsenal rarely plays like that. The programming is there, the construction of the players is there, but the machine itself is overcomplicated.

Barcelona has the same type of engineer, only Pep Guardiola finished off his incredible machine with a single switch.

We've been beaten so many times in the last five years or so because of that apathy, because there are ALWAYS players on the other team willing to outwork us at every level of the field. Our forwards get outworked by defenders, our midfielders and wingers get outworked to the ball, and our defenders get outworked by pacy forwards. It's been discussed ad nauseum by Arsene Wenger and the hounds of the British press. But the point itself continues to be validated and vindicated. The reason it's brought up so damn much is because the team never changes. They haven't unlocked the right combination of switches to play consistently at their best.

If Arsenal wants to win a trophy this year, or really any year in the conceivable future, that has to change. The machine needs to be stripped down and rebuilt. When we become, as a team, determined enough to not sit on our asses and expect possession, expect goals, and expect wins, we have the ability to be beautiful. When this team decides to KICK and FIGHT for every single ball, for every ounce of possession, we can win a championship.

We treat the game like it's our right to play it our way and be successful. We treat possession like it's a right. Barcelona showed the Gunners, on their own turf, that it's not.

It's time Arsenal starts treating the game, the beautiful game, like a privilege.

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