Those of you who aren’t long time readers of our blog may not realize that my day job is as a management consultant. Yes, it’s true. In the real world as well as the fantasy EPL world, I tell people what to do for a living. The reason I bring this up is because over the course of the last two weeks, I’ve been having a lot of conversations in person and via blog comments, SMS, Facebook, and Twitter about what’s wrong with Arsenal. I wrote a long post on the blog where I was essentially thinking out loud about some of the possible reasons. After writing that post and having some good conversations with some pretty smart people on the topic, I decided that I should go back to what I know best and am paid to know about – how to improve organizational performance.
This line of thinking has led me to two conclusions about Arsenal and why they are consistently failing on the big stage while a similarly or perhaps even less talented Manchester United team has been consistently succeeding on similar stages. The first conclusion is that there is no substitute for defensive excellence. If you look at the common thread between the Man United and Chelsea Premier League winners since Arsenal last won the title and the better team between the two has generally been the one with the better defense. As Cech/Carvalho/Terry/Makelele aged they gave way to a superior group of Van Der Sar/Rio/Vidic. Arsenal’s defenders aren’t bad. In fact they’re probably better-than-average especially once Szczesny took over in net. The problem is that they aren’t great.
The lack of defensive greatness leads us to the second Arsenal deficiency and that is one that I’m used to looking for in my day job.
That deficiency is the lack of a success rhythm. Organizations that attempt something complex – and I would definitely call beating Manchester United or Barcelona on their home turf complex – only tend to succeed when they have succeeded at small tasks and built to successively more and more complex activities. If people have a shared history of success they will tend to rise to the occasion and assume that the next task will go well even if it is a little bit more daunting than the last one. In this case, Arsenal’s defensive frailties have left them short of the necessary success experiences to be able to pull off the high profile win.
Think about this contrast. Arsenal turned over nearly their entire title-winning team from the early 2000s at once with Henry, Vieira, Campbell, Cole, Pires, and Ljungberg having very little overlap with the Cesc/RvP edition that has continued to blood more and more youngsters. At the same time, United STILL hasn’t entirely broken up the team that was challenging Arsenal in those days with Giggs, Scholes and Rio handing the success rhythms to Ronaldo, Rooney, and Vidic who are in turn handing that same blief to Nani, Chicharito, Smalling, Fabio, and Rafael. The overlap means that Sir Alex doesn’t have be the sole source of the success rhythm. At Arsenal, Wenger has put himself in a position where he, his style, and the Arsenal logo are the only real links to the shared sense of ability to succeed. When the going gets tough United’s players can look to some of the most decorated players in the history of English football who believe in the system and the fact that things will go well. Why? Because they almost always have. At Arsenal, all they have to look to is the failings that they have all experienced together as they attempt to grow into their collective talent.
Most weeks, Arsenal’s talent and style are enough to knock off those below them in the table. However, when the moment becomes big, even when the opposition is modest as it was in the Carling Cup, we’ve seen the meltdowns. If Arsenal want to get to the next level they need to do two things – take their defense to the next level and import one or two been-there-done-that winners who can still play a little, even if it’s just as a 20 minute reserve and occasional spot starter. And no, Mikael Silvestre doesn’t count.
OK, on to your regularly scheduled fantasy analysis.
Real Value – those matches that should improve the demonstrated value of some of the players involved.
- Spurs vs. West Ham – I’m a believer in the Hammers revival but I’m also a believer in the fact that there will be a lot of goals in this one. Stay away from defenders on both sides but look to load up on the attackers.
- Man United vs. Bolton – United have been incredibly strong at home this season and there’s no reason to expect that it won’t continue – especially if Vidic makes it back from his calf strain.
- Arsenal @ WBA – This match-up didn’t work out so well for the Gunners last time around but WBA were playing much better than and Arsenal will be THRILLED to be facing an opponent that isn’t one of the most celebrated in the history of world football.
- Suarez – I completely have a football and fantasy EPL crush on him – I see Robin van Persie but healthier.
- Chicharito – Hard to deny the form he’s in. The only concern is whether Berbs gets a start at his expense. If you’re nervous about rotation then Rooney is the choice.
- RvP – A huge surprise that he’s back but he’s been money when he’s played.
- Ba – I’m on the bandwagon in a big way.
- Defoe – He tends to be streaky and his two spectacular goals against Wolves in his last match seems likely to signal his return to the goals.
- Hitzlsperger – A revelation since he returned to health and started playing for WHU. Think Villa are bummed they gave up on him? They could really use someone like him right now.
- Meireles – He’s cooled down a bit but he’s easily been the most productive player in Liverpool’s midfield and the presence of Suarez and Carroll should provide more chances for the playmaker.
- Valencia – He’s looked very good since returning to the line-up and he’s a much better bargain that the miraculously healed Nani. If you have the money you should probably go with Nani though.
- Adam – Rovers seem to be in the process of packing it in – I don’t necessarily believe that Blackpool will win but I like the chances of Adam doing well and likely getting at least a goal on a PK.
- Wilshere – When I’m looking for a bargain I keep thinking this will be the week when he comes good from a fantasy standpoint.
- Smalling – Assuming that Rio is still out and Vidic is back as expected then Smalling is exceptional value especially since he’s playing at home.
- Walker – I’ve been impressed by Wolves recent run but away to Villa seems like a strong bet for a home clean sheet and Walker also brings a reasonable chance of some attacking points all for the low-low price of 4.0. Plus, you can only have so many players from Man United.
- Johnson – He’s been exceptional value all year so this pick isn’t exactly news but Birmingham have a better-than-decent shot of a clean sheet on the road even if they are just as likely to be blanked themselves.
- Alcaraz – A Wigan defender? Definitely when you look at Birmingham’s scoring record on the road.
- EvdS – Not a great week for keepers and you’re probably out of Man United slots at this point but if you have one left he’s the most solid play.
- Reina – The best of the rest of a mediocre field.
- Al-Habsi – See Alcaraz – I don’t love it but Birmingham have really been wretched scoring on the road (and in general really)
- Foster – Wigan is only slightly better at scoring at home than Birmingham is at scoring on the road. Can you say nil-nil draw?
- Suarez – Just a feeling combined with the fact that I know he’ll start.
- Chicharito/Rooney – Whichever you’re most comfortable with based on what you think about SAF’s rotation policies.
- Ba – Did I mention that I really like that Spurs/Hammers match to be a high scoring affair?