For my birthday my brother gave me Jonathan Wilson’s (author of Inverting the Triangle) newish book on goalkeepers, The Outsider. It’s good, a history churning with riffs on how fundamentally weird the position is, and how odd the characters inhabiting it often are. He begins it by recounting his personal best moment sporting moment, which he had while in goal for a hockey game.
“I remember thinking, as the ball rose to my right, that I ought at least to dive for it even if he were outside the D. Everything seemed to be happening very slowly. I even remember wondering what the rule was if he had shot from outside the D and the ball glanced in off my stick. I could also see the ball, its trajectory taking it a little above the stick. Apparently having all the time in the world, I moved my wrist, angling the stick to intercept the ball. The intersection of post and bar came abruptly into view and, about six inches in front of the top corner of the net, the ball slapped into the meat of the stick…
I could see the ball spinning loose and, for a split second, nobody seemed to be moving towards it. In that moment there was a glorious stillness, a silence.”
It’s not a sensation that frequents his sporting life (he admits to this being the first of a total of two such moments). He goes on:
“As the Ajax coach David Endt put it, ‘The second of the greats last longer than those of normal people.’ There is evidence to suggest the memory of control is false, that it is an invention of the brain to explain a reflex reaction that begins in the muscles themselves. Wherever it originates, that sensation of control over fractional changes happening extraordinarily quickly seems to lie at the heart of sporting excellence.”
David Bergkamp (alias God) has written a memoir called Stillness and Speed. Amy Lawrence interviewed him in the Guardian. She writes:
“Control is so much his obsession that he is completely frank when he says he prefers the first touch that started any of his most memorable goals than the strike that finished them. Others might say that, but it is doubtful they really mean it. Bergkamp does. The glory, for him, is all about control and touch.
Can that be taught? ‘The basics for me is the first touch,’ he says, as if a perfect first touch is some kind of alchemy. ‘First touch in football is so important. If you talk about Mesut Özil people say he is not marked properly, he always has a lot of space but he has got that space because he can create space by his vision and his first touch. With that you create your own time.'”
The Arsenal-Norwich game this past weekend is going to be remembered for its great goals. It wasn’t a particularly great game, and Arsenal were not as in control as the 4-1 scoreline might suggest, but the goals were the luminous type that do seem to occur in an elastic time. The seconds bend, the players understand exactly the geometry of their positions in a way that seems, as you watch, impossible. Then the replays begin and us spectators get a secondhand dose of slowed time- and the replays will continue, and continue.
The Arsenal looked better in yesterday’s game against Napoli than they have in years. The first half they played brilliant attacking soccer, in the second they played intelligent, patient defensive soccer, and were so confident that they actually looked relaxed- not a sensation recently twinned with Arsenal defense.
Napoli took the suckerpunch of the first 20 minutes hard, and looked disconnected and limp for the duration. This was an excellent side comprehensively outplayed… and the particular flavor of delight this brings is something I haven’t tasted as a fan in quite a while.
Özil was phenomenal. Ramsey, playing in the wide role in which he struggled a year ago, kept on being Ramsey, the guy announcers feel moved to describe as “swashbuckling” at least once a game. Flamini and Arteta were fantastic… actually everyone was good. It was, I think, a revelation of a performance, and while I doubt its heights will be reached frequently by the team, I was desperately happy to see where I’d been wrong in appraisal of certain players.
I always thought Ramsey would come good, but I never thought Giroud would be as good as he’s been lately- I thought he was a solid player, a good second choice, a guy you could rely on to put in consistent hard work, but his all-around game has made a massive leap from last year. He’s a bully, he has finesse, and he scores. It’s awesome. And despite the good streak at the end of last season, I didn’t think the defense, particularly the center backs, were capable of such an assured performance in the face of an attack like Napoli’s.
And the team isn’t near full strength: Cazorla, Walcott, the Ox sidelined, and Gnabry, a player everyone expected to be totally peripheral, has already begun to prove himself.
Wenger must be over joyed. More wins are on their way.
In the past couple seasons, there’s been a complaint about how Arsenal lacked a midfielder who could arrive late in the box and knock in a goal. It’s been Frank Lampard’s specialty for years: a well timed run to take advantage of an attack whose first wave has just crested. Arsenal’s attacking midfielders provided decent goal returns last year, but the deep lying players didn’t do much goal-wise beyond Mikel Arteta’s penalty kicks.
One of my major frustrations with the team last year was that transition to attack wasn’t fast enough. When the team eventually made it to the opposition’s 18, there was some pretty passing, but more often than not the time of maximum opportunity had already passed. A four man defense was suddenly five or six, and there wasn’t enough room for much finesse.
In order for a deep lying player to arrive “late,” the initial attack has to be fast, because he still needs space to run into. Otherwise, he’s just running into the opposing defensive midfielder. What I find most promising about Arsenal’s play early this season is the increased tempo of their counter attacks, which before the purchase of Özil must have been down to the team finally settling. Well, settling plus one player hitting outstanding form, and that’s Aaron Ramsey.
I’ve always liked him and I thought it was dumb and ugly when a section of fans turned against him early last season. I really don’t get how miserable some soccer fans are, actively hating members of the club they purportedly support- surely there must be a better mode of being a bleak, mopey bastard? Here’s a young guy, hailed as a brilliant prospect for the future- a guy we snatched out from under Alex Ferguson’s belligerent nose- who before his Shawcross-horror-leg-snap was seen as Wilshere’s equal and an able disciple of Fabregas. He was never nearly as bad as the haters said he was, and was always clearly working as hard as anyone on the team. Unlike Gervinho (and I really hesitated to make the comparison) the bile of the fans didn’t derail him entirely, and he progressed until he was centrally important to the late-season run that clinched a Champions League spot. At the the end of the season, opinion had turned and he was seen as a hard-working journeyman who would put everything he had into the game. Useful but not world-class, likeable. I still didn’t really think this was fair, as he was still really young and if he’d already become integral for his energy, why wouldn’t the next step be the further development of what had been in the past a very obvious talent?
So I had big hopes for him. I didn’t, however, expect to see him volleying in goals at the rate of an out-and-out striker. Praise has come pouring in for him from all quarters, and he’s more than earned his spot as a starter (which was his to begin with). The midfield is moving faster, in part due to his progress, and now he has the chance to be the guy arriving on the 18 to hammer home a beauty, as he did yesterday. The goal is being compared to one of Dennis Bergkamp’s, which is pretty much the best compliment an Arsenal player can get.
His success is also Arsene Wenger’s: without the coach’s faith in him, and belief in developing talent, he would’ve been left behind a year ago. Instead, he looks primed to be a standout player in the league and a cornerstone of the team.
It’s exciting because the attacking midfield is looking so good, and the option of someone coming from deep who can also score makes the team much more dynamic. It’ll be difficult enough to defend Cazorla and Özil, and their outlets Giroud and Walcott, but when you add Ramsey as well, the team’s ability to compete rises significantly. Özil, whose movement off the ball is superb, will make the team both faster and more unpredictable in attack, and he is very well served by having goal scorers both in front and behind him. It’s refreshing to see it moving in this direction: they’re going to be more an dmore fun to watch.
Now if only everyone could stay fit…
Arsenal signed Mesut Özil a week and a half ago and I’m still high on it. I would like very much for this feeling to last.
Arsene somehow turned it around. After a summer of uninterrupted embarrassment in the transfer market, in the last hour of the last day, he managed to sign Mesut Özil, one of the best number 10s in the world. There had been rumors that something like this was afoot for the week prior, as Real Madrid had to get rid of someone to make space for Gareth Bale, but it never seemed likely that they’d part with the most creative member of their midfield, who also happened to be a well-loved fan favorite. Why not sell Angel Di Maria, a talented winger, but not a lynchpin? Why not sell sullen Karim Benzema, who has been getting booed off the field by the fans? Or, what seemed most likely to me, why not just keep them all?
Well, maybe Madrid just couldn’t afford to keep them all. They’re going to get a cut of Gareth’s custom jewelry money, but perhaps at the end of the day his pendants won’t be a smash hit. But still, why sell slick Mesut?… I don’t get it, but then again I don’t care, not really, as Madrid’s loss is clearly Arsenal’s gain. Big clubs run by megalomaniac gazillionaires sometimes make mistakes. At such a late hour I didn’t think Wenger would, or could, capitalize on such a mistake, but boy am I glad to be wrong. The buy changed the narrative of the club’s summer, and indeed may change the narrative of Wenger’s Arsenal career.
The immediate reaction of much of the press was a combination of “Holy Cow! That’s actually exciting!” and “Arsenal need someone expensive, but not an expensive number 10. Now allow me to explain which expensive other person would have made more sense…” Obviously I agree with the first bit of sentiment (thank God, excitement at last.), and I think the second point- that Arsenal have more need in different areas of the team- is only half-true. We need another striker, and of course it would be excellent if this additional striker was super duper world class, the best ever, etc. However, Giroud is coming along nicely, and both Poldi and Theo aspire to play centrally, so while it clearly would be better to have another body there, it’s not the end of the world. We could also use another central defender, though this is less pressing with Sagna’s recent development in that role and Flamini’s signing as cover for the fullbacks.
One of Arsene’s old press conference saws, which grew over the years to be pretty aggravating, was how he was only looking for “top, top quality” players. Always the multiple “tops”. Always the not getting of “top, top quality” players. Instead, the getting of Gervinho. Well, now I believe we have a taste of what he meant all along, and it turns out he meant pretty much what anybody might mean by it: one of the best players in the world. It’s kind of shocking. Suddenly he doesn’t seem as intransigent. Suddenly everyone asks themselves whether, in fact, this sort of player is often available. They answer themselves with a no, not really. (The wicked ones think well, except when we sell them). This is what Wenger has been saying all along, in an increasingly annoyed manner, like a parent driving a load of tired kids to some distant delicious destination.
And boy is Özil delicious! What people miss when they say Arsenal don’t need another attacking midfielder is, well… how Arsenal have played since the loss of Fabregas to Barca. They need more creativity, they need to be quicker on the counter, and they need to create more goal scoring chances. Sure, there’s Wilshere ( no reliable form since his injury, needs more time, very well may play deep), Rosicky (alway injured, over 30), Chamberlain (injured, raw), Ramsey (excelling in a deep role), Arteta (injured, deep), and the effervescent Cazorla. Cazorla has been great, but does just as well wide as he does centrally, and the team need multiple reliable outlets. Wenger needs a couple of creative midfelders to build his team around, and he now has them, and with depth. Özil is an ideal Wenger player: quick, good vision, good one touch play, excellent through balls, unpredictable, and still young. I rate him as a better capture than any of the summer’s previous high end targets. Higuain is a great finisher, but while what he would give to the team would’ve been valuable-better conversion to than Giroud-it’s not as valuable as a faster attack and more chances created. Higuain would not have been a player to build a team around. Suarez is a goalscorer and a chance creator, but also a nutcase who bites people, and greedy with the ball. A team built around him would’ve been unstable as his ambition, quite transparently, was to play for Real Madrid. What we have with Özil is a player choosing to leave a super-elite team in order to play with Wenger.
I can’t really imagine a better scenario. Ok, fine, another striker. But that’ll come.