the home of clownshoes defending

That would be the Premier League, says Jonathan Wilson. He cites several certain or possible causes, among them the uncertainties caused by rosters always in flux and basic “flaws in concentration and structure” — though the latter point is an explanation that calls for further explanation, because why in the world should such flaws exist at this level of player ability and coaching expertise? Are players not being coached well, or are they simply ignoring their coaches?

Two other major points that Wilson makes: first,

There’s not merely an expectation now that defenders should be able to pass, but a growing acceptance that if they can pass it may not matter too much if they aren’t especially good at more traditional defensive skills such as heading, marking and tackling.

And second,

To an extent, the defensive chaos is the result of changes in the laws of the game. It’s harder to defend now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Back lines cannot simply push up in the knowledge that any opposing player in behind them will be called offside. Shinji Okazaki’s goal against Arsenal, for instance, would not have counted under any but the most recent interpretation of the law: he was offside as the cross came in but not as Harry Maguire headed the ball back across goal. That means both that modern defenders have to be much more capable of reacting to specific circumstances and that they sit deeper, leaving more room in midfield for skilful players to create.

At the same time, cynical fouls are punished far more harshly now than ever before. It’s still possible for teams to break up games with rotational fouling around the halfway line, but it’s far harder than it used to be. There’s almost an expectation now with every foul that it will bring a booking. Intimidation has all but vanished from the game and it’s not possible for defenders to cover for a mistake by hauling down their opponent – or at least not more than once.

These are very important points, and I think they help us understand some of the major shortcomings, but I still have a few questions.

  1. If you look at the chart on this page, you’ll see the an actual rise in goals per game has been quite recent, and that the overall trend of the past decade has been only slightly upward (and of course remaining far below historic levels of scoring, established when defenders were free to intimidate attackers and balls were badly made but defensive tactics were primitive at best). So do we even have a truly meaningful trend here?
  2. Can we distinguish between errors made by defenders and those made by goalkeepers? On the Okazaki goal against Arsenal mentioned above, it’s true that the short back line Arsenal played that day couldn’t get above someone as small as Okazaki, but the bigger problem was Cech’s indecisiveness: he got himself caught betwixt and between and so could defend neither McGuire’s headed pass nor Okazaki’s headed shot.
  3. My personal observation of Premier League matches — I have no data yet — suggests that the most drastic defensive errors in the past couple of years have happened in set-piece situations. Liverpool are of course reliably catastrophic on set pieces, but Arsenal aren’t much better. Much of the time, it seems to me, the problem is that you get zonal marking schemes in which players understand the “zonal” part but not the “marking,” as when Arsenal players simply ignored Jamie Vardy as he ran to a point on the pitch where none of them happened already to be standing. I need to look into this more carefully when I have time, but if set-piece goals are indeed on the rise, it would be interesting to see how much of the recent overall increase in goals they account for.

Premier League clubs, west to east

The geographical placement of each club is determined here by the location of its current ground (which means Wembley for Spurs). Currently, no Premier League side may be found east of the Prime Meridian — though West Ham would be if they still played at Upton Park — and that situation is unlikely to change until Norwich make their way back to the top flight. It is difficult to imagine that we’ll see a PL club west of Swansea, barring an unexpected rise to prominence by Plymouth Argyle.

  • Swansea
  • Everton
  • Liverpool
  • Manchester United
  • Manchester City
  • Stoke City
  • Burnley
  • Leicester
  • Huddersfield Town
  • West Brom
  • Bournemouth
  • Newcastle
  • Southampton
  • Watford
  • Tottenham
  • Chelsea
  • Arsenal
  • Crystal Palace
  • Brighton
  • West Ham

Premier League clubs, north to south

  • Newcastle
  • Burnley
  • Huddersfield Town
  • Manchester City
  • Manchester United
  • Everton
  • Liverpool
  • Stoke City
  • Leicester
  • West Brom
  • Watford (Vicarage Road: 51.6500° N)
  • Swansea (Liberty Stadium: 51.6427° N)
  • Tottenham
  • Arsenal
  • West Ham
  • Chelsea
  • Crystal Palace
  • Southampton
  • Brighton
  • Bournemouth

One down, so, so many to go

“Well, that escalated quickly,” said Barney Ronay Indeed it did. As a devoted Fulham supporter, I attempted to look upon Arsenal v. Leicester with frigid tranquility, but come on, who could watch that match with anything approaching tranquility? What an electric encounter.

Post-match commentary has focused on the Gunners’ shocking defensive shortcomings, but, while I have long been sick and tired of the club’s tendency to make excuses for itself, I do have to agree that Wenger was in a tough place with his first three center backs unavailable — and then, when he took Holding off, he finished with two left backs (Kolasinac and Monreal) at center back, a right back (Bellerin) at left back, and an attacking midfielder (Ox) at right back. Under those circumstances, that the team shipped only three goals seems little less than a miracle — especially since in the first half Cech was mentally scrambled.

On the other side, the Gunners demonstrated enough individual and collective skill than four was a low result — quite a low result. They easily could have put up six or seven. When you consider that Lacazette had never before played a serious match with the club, and nevertheless managed a goal and a key pass and a general aura of threat; and that Welbeck was involved in several key combinations and scored a goal; and that Xhaka, despite some distressingly sloppy passing, ended up with two assists; and that Özil had a day of inaccurate passes and poor touches the likes of which I have rarely seen from him; … well, I think you can see why Ronay commented that “up front the combined craft of Lacazette, Olivier Giroud, Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott kept on suggesting … a team half-glimpsed, flickering just behind the fuzziness of late-Wenger Arsenal.” It may not happen; it probably won’t happen; but hope is flirting with me, and I find myself susceptible to her flirting. That minx.

So: in the last eight matches that mattered, Arsenal have six Premier League wins, an FA Cup, and a Community Shield win. Even if you think that only seven of those matter, it’s a pretty good run.

Fulham Football Club

My goal for the English soccer season: to leave behind the manifold miseries of supporting Arsenal and become a Fulham supporter. Yes, I know, there are plenty of miseries involved with supporting Fulham — fandom always brings suffering. But I’m ready for some different miseries, some other forms of suffering.

Why Fulham? I’ve always liked them, in part because of their history of American players: Bocanegra, McBride, Dempsey, and several others. They’re a London side — I am spiritually a Londoner — but not one with a huge international profile; they have the most adorable ground in all of English football, probably. (One that I might even be able to afford to visit one day.)

And right now they’re not in direct competition with Arsenal, which might make the transition easier.

I like the idea of supporting a team with more modest expectations. Cutting myself free from Arsenal’s constant almosts — for a while it was almost a title, now it’s almost the Champions League — might help me avoid inhabiting T. S. Eliot’s image of old age as “the conscious impotence of rage / At human folly, and the laceration / Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.”

It is possible that I am taking this too seriously.

In any case, as I’ve written before, it’s hard simply to choose in these matters. I did not decide to be an Arsenal supporter — I’m not even sure why I’m an Arsenal supporter — I am not happy to be associated with some Arsenal supporters, who shall remain nameless, though others are pretty darn cool. When I first seriously started following English football I decided I would support Aston Villa, because I too am from a city called Birmingham, and while I still keep track of Villa and wish them well, no strong attachment ever formed. I somehow drifted Highburywards.

But now I hope to change that. Arsenal begin the Premier League season this afternoon against Leicester. I shall look upon this event (certain to produce a loss, Arsenal always lose their first match of the season, what the hell is Wenger doing) with what Dr. Johnson called “frigid tranquility.” Frigid tranquility — that’s it. That’s what I’m after.

The Captain Class

I’ve just read Sam Walker’s book The Captain Class and mercy, is it a book to argue with. In a good way.

The project that led Walker to this book had two components: first, to identify the greatest teams in the history of team sports; and second, to figure out whether they have anything in common. That first one is where most of the debate comes in, especially since Walker does not think that Michael Jordan’s Bulls teams qualify. (Die, heretic!) Walker explains his reasoning here and here. The tl;dr: it’s pretty good reasoning.

But, for my money, it’s with Component Two that the book really gets interesting. What Walker discovered was that these wildly successful sports teams are also wildly divergent in character: for instance, some had innovative coaches, some had conservative coaches, some had mediocre coaches. But what they all did have in common was a Captain — an on-the-field leader. That might not in itself be wholly surprising, but what is surprising is that those captains almost never match the conventional picture of sporting leaders: they tend not to be dynamic figures, full of vim and vigor, cheerleaders, encouragers, sunny vocal outgoing types. Sometimes they’re grumpy and prickly, or quiet and reserved. How they managed to be powerful leaders anyway … well, you’ll have to read the book to discover that. And it’s very much worth your time.

Specifically for my fellow soccer aficionados: Walker is great on an obviously totemic figure like Ferenc Puskás — but he’s also illuminating on those who don’t get nearly enough credit for their leadership of truly great teams: Carla Overbeck for the USWNT and Carles Puyol for Barcelona.

It’s a book that gives you a lot to think about — expect more posts about it in the future.