By Tony Attwood
If you are a regular reader of Untold Arsenal you will know that one of the fundamentals of our approach is that football opinions are fine, but there is also space for evidence based football reporting to balance out the opinion based reporting. Indeed there is so much opinion based reporting around, that when, for example, people write in after a referee review and suggest that (as several readers did in response to the referee review of the Arsenal v Tottenham game that “Tottenham were the better team, get over it”) I didn’t bother to publish it.
Like I said, there are enough places where football opinion is all that matters, but very very few where evidence is considered.
Which is why I was pleased that the Sun, even though its coverage was trivial, thought that it was worth commenting on referee performances with a few examples of referee misdemeanours. At least they recognised there was a subject to be considered.
But they are not the only newspaper (I use the word in its broadest sense) to take up the issue of evidence of late. The Independent has been doing it too.
Now I do find this worth commemorating, because we have had so, so many years of opinion based commentary that even a twitch in the direction of evidence based football reporting is worthwhile.
Two days ago the Indy announced that “midfielder Santi Cazorla stands head and shoulders above his rivals as the best passer in the Premier League this season. The Spaniard, 30, can claim to be the division’s most influential puller of strings after becoming the first player in the top flight to complete 1,000 passes this season, according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index.
“Cazorla, who also has three assists for the Gunners, is 222 passes ahead of the man in second place and is the only player in the top 10 to have a 90 per cent pass completion rate; he also completes more passes per 90 minutes than any of the other players to qualify.”
“He also does all of that while making 69.5 per cent of his passes in the opposition half. Cazorla completed a whopping 74 passes in the 1-1 draw with Norwich City on Sunday.
“Chelsea rival Cesc Fabregas doesn’t get close to his international team-mate at the moment, Fabregas has completed 810 passes, third most in the Premier League, with 68.7 per cent of these coming in the opponents’ half…
“Ozil is also way in front in the assist charts, with 11 already this season – four players are joint second with only six.”
Now this comes on top of the Telegraph’s Revealed: Arsenal are not the most cursed Premier League club when it comes to injuries which I referred to in the story concerning the work of Des Ryan, in reducing Arsenal’s injury levels among junior players, so dramatically.
The argument is that, “The problem for Arsenal and for their manager is that the latest injury crisis to strike the club appears to have been all too predictable. They have been here before. Not just in the number of injuries – 10 players now out – but in the nature of them. Soft tissue damage has again highlighted the apparent soft centre in Wenger’s approach.”
Now what this article lacks is any comparison between Arsenal and other teams. Instead we have the most bizarre comparison of all: “There have been more injuries than points for Arsenal in November – two from a possible nine in the Premier League plus three in the Champions League against six injuries – in what has traditionally been a difficult month for them. Why?”
One simple answer is that the speed of football and the way teams play against Arsenal, plus the lack of protection that Arsenal get from referees (as revealed week in week out by the referee reviews on this site) means Arsenal are likely to get more injuries.
That is certainly one answer to the Telegraph point, “the biggest question of all right now is why Wenger is continuing to oversee a regime in which these injuries occur despite the fact that Arsenal have made significant investments, as much, if not more, than any Premier League club, in sports medicine and sports science?”
One of the most surprising aspects of Arsenal’s continuing poor record with injuries is that it contradicts Wenger’s reputation for being analytical….
Wenger will talk about what is termed the ‘red zone’ – when a player is fatigued or in danger of breaking down through injury and therefore needs a rest. It is a phrase he has used for several years, it was often applied to Robin Van Persie, and gives the impression that he is fully across the sports medical science and is attuned to fitness and conditioning.
So how does a belief in the existence of a ‘red zone’ square with the weekend claim that injuries cannot be predicted, after Alexis Sanchez (hamstring), Laurent Koscielny (hip) and Santi Cazorla (knee) were all injured in the 1-1 draw away to Norwich City?
That for a start is a clever bit of non-evidential argument. If the case is going to be made that Mr Wenger contradicts himself it needs to be done across all the players mentioned – not just one. But no, because of the writing style we are led to forget that there is no suggestion that other players were in the red zone. Sanchez was the only one – so this is an example of just one player, used to explain everything – a typical bit of Telegraphic writing.
Worse, Mr Wenger did give an answer as to why Alexis was played while in the Red Zone. “A break makes him tired,” was part of Mr Wenger’s reply. But the article quotes only that bit and then dismisses it as “flippant”. Yet actually the only thing that is flippant here is the Telegraph.
As anyone with an involvement with psychology will tell you, the links between physical and mental are strong but complex. The answer Mr Wenger gave was to the effect that when Alexis stops playing, but feels he can play, his competitive edge drops somewhat. While there are many players who can be taken out of a team for a match to give them a rest, and then come back stronger, there are other players who for psychological reasons can’t do this.
Now this dismissal of psychology as being any part of football is commonplace in the UK. I have seen managers reported as saying of a footballer who is suffering from the debilitating illness of depression that he is simply not trying. “How can he be depressed having a job that most young men would give body and soul for?” he asked, ignoring the level of psychological problems among all areas of the rich and famous, from sports people to musicians, film stars, dancers, artists…
Because the Telegraph in common with most British institutions do not recognise the mental side of life as being equal to the physical in terms of importance, (if you break your leg you are a man, if you get a mental illness you are a wimp, is their attitude) they don’t get what is going on. The NHS in England for example spent £12bn in 2014 on mental health issues – twice the amount it spent on cancer treatment. And they spent it because very slowly in England people are realising how widespread and debilitating mental health issues are.
Now I am not saying Alexis has a mental health issue, but rather that he brings his own unique vision of life and himself to football, as much as he brings a physical approach and if you want to get the best out of him as a player, you need to consider both. There is no point resting him for a few matches to avoid a muscle pull if all you get in the next match is 50% Alexis.
From this one simplistic and faulty vision of Alexis the Telegraph then lays the blame on Mr Wenger for Aaron Ramsey’s hamstring, and Mikel Arteta’s injury at West Bromwich Albion.
And so the Telegraph reach this amazing concluding question, “Why, again, take the risk?”
The answer is that all football is risk, and risk management is what everyone does in all business ventures – and indeed in life – all the time. Suggesting that Wenger is somehow contradictory and so stupid that he can’t actually see what is blindingly obvious sadly takes us back into the dark ages of football journalism.
So there was a glimpse of evidential based journalism, just for a moment. But for the moment the forecast is patchy.
4 December 1909: Arsenal beat Tottenham 1-0 in first ever league encounter. Lawrence scored in front of 18,000. It came as part of a five match undefeated run – the best run of form in the 1909/10 season which almost saw Arsenal relegated.
4 December 1968: Tottenham 1 Arsenal 1 in the second leg of the league cup semi-final having won the first leg 1-0. Once again Radford scored for Arsenal to win 2-1 overall and go on and face Swindon Town in the final.
The Untold Books
Woolwich Arsenal the club that changed football, is now available on Kindle at £9.99. For more details and to buy a copyplease click here or go to Amazon Kindle and search forWoolwich Arsenal.
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Arsenal’s early years
- Making the Arsenal – how the modern Arsenal was born in 1910
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal
- The Arsenal Yankee By Danny Karbassiyoon
- Arsenal: The Long Sleep 1953-1970. By John Sowman. Introduction by Bob Wilson.