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Occam’s Razor: Overthinking Arsenal’s struggles

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Amy Lawrence focuses on the wrong issues in her diagnosis.

Arsenal v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Amy Lawrence is probably the best Arsenal related journalist out there. Her inside knowledge and thoughtfulness is a rare combination in her business. That is why her article today about what she calls Arsenal’s “self-defeating cycle”, was so surprising.

The thesis of the piece is unclear. Maybe it’s located in the headline, which in modern journalism generally (but not always) written by an editor and not the author of the piece. The closest thing to a thesis in the article, located over halfway through it, is this quote:

“It is as if they suffer from some kind of repetitive, episodic, jerky-form syndrome: Arsenal are good at getting back on the bike after a fall but once they start to gather speed and look capable of catching some competition they crash.”

I don’t know what to make of that sentence, but it sounds like Amy is saying Arsenal play really well, then they have a disappointing performance or two, then they play really well again. That doesn’t really sound like a bad thing to me! Seems pretty normal for a good team. It’s the wishy-washy “typical Arsenal” line you’d expect from less nuanced writers than Lawrence.

Examining Arsenal’s performance this season doesn’t take vague references to previous seasons or concerns about the mental state of the side. There’s no need for those unknowable and unprovable hypotheses. It’s the midfield, stupid.

To preface this discussion, let’s take a look at Arsenal’s overall form this season in all comps:

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And Arsenal’s Premier League to date:

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Arsenal have had, to date, minimal slippage in their various campaigns. The Gunners won their Champions League group ahead of oil-rich Paris Saint-Germain. They’re currently level on points for second place in the Premier League (behind on goal difference) while locked in probably the most interesting Champions League-spot competition in recent years. Criticism of the results this season thus far ignores the context that the leaders, Chelsea, are having the second best start through 23 matchdays in the past 6 years, on the back of a near-historic 13 match winning streak.

We - sports fans, not just Arsenal fans - tend to overanalyze the issues and place blame on intangibles, in this case the psychological make-up of the squad. Lawrence does the same when she discusses the timing of Arsenal’s low points this season correlating with opportunities in the table, and when she mentions Arsenal’s efforts through sports psychology to break the trend she thinks she has identified.

While mental aspects of the game are certainly a factor, I believe fans overemphasize that area due to the ease of its arguability. After all, it’s impossible to actually prove or disprove an individual or team’s psychology from the outside, so why not just say something that sounds plausible and launch a discussion from there? In Lawrence’s case in this article, she goes down this road, drawing a connection to the timing of results where none exists.

The problem is the cliches don’t mesh. Is the ability to dig out late goals a sign of a championship side or a sign of weakness and luck (it depends on whether the result is a win/draw, or a loss)? Does the performance of a team on a given day correlate to the performance of another team in another match, possibly occurring at the same time (not really!)? If a team is doing better than it did the years before, and better nearly every other team so far, is it some sort of mental issue specific to that team over multiple seasons, or just that season (unknown!)?

We fall into these tropes because they’re comfortable like all rituals are, despite the fact they are often inconsistently applied and unnecessary, and also because the human brain is hardwired to look for patterns, even where none actually exist.

As for the timing of Arsenal’s slumps, instead of looking at interesting, if irrelevant, timing, maybe other factors should have been considered. Arsenal didn’t lose or draw matches because of where they could have ended up if they had won. Take each individual match, analyze it, and see for yourself based on things like player performance, team setup, etc., why they lost. The answer is not that hard.

The biggest shame of Lawrence’s piece is that she’s actually got the answer, but it comes off as a secondary point. She mentions Arsenal’s central midfield trouble two paragraphs from the end, when she should have started with it. Watford wasn’t a mental letdown, but a solid, tactical manager in Walter Mazzarri exploiting an obvious weakness in the side, the central pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin. Combine that with a couple of unfortunate bounces and, on the second, an embarrassing torero from both Coquelin and Mustafi after a slap-stick throw in combination of Gabriel and Ramsey, and you get a 2-1 loss.

The only cycle in this season is the cycle of central midfield pairings. This isn’t a “typical Arsenal” thing. Our issues have been elsewhere in previous sides. Arsenal’s issues this season have largely stemmed from the inability to find a lasting central midfield combination that works, excepting the rough start to the season with Euro 2016 wholly to blame.

The initial inversion of the effective “Coqzorla” pairing of recent years (against Liverpool) largely didn’t click. The combination of Granit Xhaka and Santi Cazorla looked largely promising but ended with Xhaka’s discreditable dismissal against Swansea City, and Santi’s subsequent injury in the next match. The pairing of Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny (in the Boro and Manchester United draws), like last year, was unsuccessful. Xhaka and Coquelin, with Coquelin in the no. 8 role, has been fine against lesser sides, but not up to snuff against top sides Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, as well as bogeyman Ronald Koeman’s Everton side.

Even Bournemouth attacked them well and got their first two goals on that pairing before Coquelin was subbed off. Xhaka and Elneny have looked good against lesser sides, but haven’t featured against even halfway decent competition. Xhaka and Ramsey looked every bit as promising as Xhaka and Cazorla, but Xhaka’s second red card and Ramsey’s recent calf strain have shelved that. Now, we’re left with only one true senior central midfielder, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alex Iwobi, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles as the only realistic participants in the Chelsea match this weekend.

As Lawrence points out, Chelsea have pressed forward on the weight of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic. With that enviable, reliable midfield base, Chelsea have run away with the league.

Sometimes, it’s as easy as the simplest answer being the correct answer.