The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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Lost in Space

Sometimes your team is just beaten by a better team. Sometimes the opponent is stronger or faster or more technically skilled, and you just have to take your beating with the best grace you can muster. Thus the equanimity with which Alex Ferguson accepted Manchester United’s loss to Barcelona in last season’s Champions League final: Barça was simply and obviously better. (Sir Alex trudged home and took out his checkbook.)

But then sometimes your team loses not because the other team is better but . . . well, for some other reason. And the other reasons vary from sport to sport. A whole baseball team loses confidence at the plate and enters a collective slump; basketball players cease to trust one another and start doing everything one-on-one.

These afflictions—loss of confidence, loss of trust—can happen to soccer teams as well, but there’s also a distinctive way things go all pear-shaped in soccer. Let’s call it spatial disorientation.

Soccer can’t be played well without good spatial awareness, which has three elements: self, teammate, opponent. Only the best players perceive all three with absolute precision: those stunning threaded passes that players like Xavi and Pirlo specialize in depend on the instant and intuitive coordination of all at once. So too the prescient defending that I’ve celebrated in Cannavaro. When Cruyff would do his traffic-cop thing, holding the ball at his feet while irritably waving his teammates to different locations on the pitch, you could tell that he just didn’t understand why they hadn’t assumed the proper positions of their own accord.

But Cruyff was the only one who knew exactly what the chessboard was supposed to look like. For lesser players, it seems, the maintenance of accurate spatial awareness is hard work. Strikers drift offside; midfielders get too close to one another, usually clumped in the middle of the pitch so that two defenders can mark four men, prompting Jonathan Wilson to moan about “lack of width”; defenders fail to keep a straight line and end up playing forwards dangerously onside. Happens all the time.

During the flow of most matches the players’ spatial awareness comes and goes. After a couple of offside flags the striker starts watching the defensive line more closely and adjusting his position; the midfielders make proper room for one another; the back four eyeball one another to get their line straight and keep it that way.

As I say, that’s how it goes in most matches. Sometimes the disorientation sets firmly in for a whole match—or even longer. Which brings us to the Arsenal defense.

“Shambolic” is, I believe, the term of art for how Arsenal has been defending for the last couple of years, but especially this season. Eight goals to Manchester United; four to Blackburn—Blackburn—though Arsenal’s defenders managed two of those themselves. It seems that no matter who Arsène Wenger puts in his back four, the selected players are immediately deprived of even the most basic powers of spatial awareness. I suspect that the team doctors, when they examine the newly signed, are using some hypersophisticated technique for removing the exteroceptive faculties. The Daily Mail ought to look into this.

After all, Per Mertesacker has never had much pace or quickness of reaction, but until quite recently, if you looked for him within a few yards of where he was supposed to be on the pitch you would typically find him there. Yet the Blackburn match treated observers to frequent sightings of Mertesacker lumbering towards his own goal, some several yards in arrears of the opposing forwards. In a similar vein, when a Blackburn attacker misplayed a pass and left it at the feet of Johan Djourou standing all alone just outside the box, Djourou just stared at the ball for a few moments as though it were an unfamiliar object before finally deciding that it ought to be kicked. This he did, though only as a Blackburn player arrived on the scene, which led to a collision that left Djourou kneeling on the grass in pain for a few moments.

The strangest and worst moment of all came early in the second half, with Arsenal leading 2-1. Mauro Formica stood over a free kick for Blackburn a couple of yards outside the area on the right wing, and lofted a chip so gentle that, had it landed on a butterfly, it would have done little damage. But it did not land on a butterfly. It landed on the knee of Alex Song, who seemed to have no idea that a game was being played in his vicinity, and rolled peaceably into the net. No Blackburn player was in the neighborhood.

Among Arsenal defenders spatial disorientation has set in with a completeness that I don’t think I have ever seen at the highest levels of soccer. Player after player stands bemused, gaping at his surroundings as though Scotty has just beamed him down to an unknown planet. Where am I? Those people wearing the same shirt I’m wearing — are they related to me in some way? And why are people running past me kicking a ball?

I don’t know how to account for this phenomenon. It is obviously true that injuries and other personnel changes have made life difficult for Arsenal, but that should primarily affect a player’s sense of his teammates’ positioning; it shouldn’t have him chasing down the opposition from a dozen yards behind, or leave him unaware that someone almost within spitting distance is taking a free kick.

So there’s something deeply mysterious, at least to me, about the completeness and universality of Arsenal’s defensive dislocations. I don’t know what Wenger is doing to address these problems, but I hope he’s having his people work on he most elementary of defensive drills, and working on them hour after hour after hour. In addition to that, he needs to think seriously about whether his players are choking or panicking, because the psychologies of the two conditions differ dramatically. And finally, I think it’s time to call in a shaman.

Unless his name is Ibrahimovic.

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Lost in Space

by Alan Jacobs · September 17, 2011

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