Context is King

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Recent events have thrust global media into a complex debate around freedom of expression. It’s a nuanced argument that often leads to contradictions and paradoxes. Football analysis is facing a similar, if considerably less grave, kind of existential crisis. At its best, football is coruscating and unpredictable. On the field, it’s a pretty unstructured game, much of its appeal lying in its volatility. A 90 minute match is largely a series of random events fused together by the brackets of the referee’s whistle.

The FA Cup 4th Round showed football at its most gobsmacking with a series of unforeseen results. It was brilliant, on that, most people seemed to agree. Yet against this background of glorious haphazardness, there is a pulsing mise-en-scéne of media scrutiny. The demand for content has never been higher, which is largely a good thing. The chaotic circumstances of the game itself multiplied by the regularity of fixtures and the demand for content is certainly of great benefit to somebody like me. It means I can have a weekly column on this website for a start, as opposed to a monthly or annual one. There is always something to talk about.

Yet with the demand for content, analysts are being driven towards the formulation of definite, sometimes infinite conclusions. Historically, this is most routinely demonstrated when a team wins the league in May. A slew of articles about the permanence of the current champions ensues. This team is always set to dominate for years to come, with their poor rivals left to an insurmountable rebuilding job. Long live the king for he shall reign forever and ever. But this desire for permanence in the football media stands at odds with football’s spontaneity – one of the cornerstones of its enduring appeal.

Within minutes of Bradford’s unlikely (and hilarious) 4-2 win at Stamford Bridge last weekend, we were being incessantly polled by the BBC [insert 1970s BBC disc jockey joke’ here] as to whether this constituted THE GREATEST FA CUP SHOCK OF ALL TIME! This of course is fluff driven by the desire to produce content, no matter how flimsy. Because not only is it totally impossible to decide such a subjective argument, but even if a definitive answer were possible, frankly, it would be totally irrelevant.

Would the knowledge that this is THE GREATEST FA. CUP SHOCK OF ALL TIME actually add to anyone’s appreciation of it? It’s subjective, so it’s an unquantifiable argument and the answer is superfluous anyway. Jonathan Liew wrote a very good piece in the Telegraph back in November about the increasing fetishisation for instant historical context. It’s a creeping trend in football analysis.

On a smaller scale, we are seeing something similar in Arsenal discourse. The Gunners form has been such that they were afforded the luxury of easing Mesut Özil and Theo Walcott back into the team this month. Both made a scoring return against Brighton at the weekend which has led to the reasonable and pleasant question as to what constitutes Arsenal’s strongest starting XI. Constructing starting XIs is part of the science of being a football fan, it’s our answer to the crossword puzzle. I am certainly not immune from indulging this sort of pastime.

Perhaps understandably, The Mirror ran a piece this week asking its writers to formulate their own Arsenal starting XIs. The piece was probably good fun to put together and it was a loosely entertaining read. However, it does rather elucidate this thirst for definite conclusions in analysis of the sport nowadays. In this day and age, a club operating at Arsenal’s level will have a malleable starting line-up. At the end of the day, it’s a squad game now, Clive.

Such discussions don’t take account of the shifting tectonic plates that will determine a starting XI from one week to the next. Factors such as form, fitness, frequency of fixtures and maybe even disciplinary matters (Szczesny) make choosing a preferred XI in even the medium term a fool’s errand. Arsene Wenger has some very good selection headaches now, no doubt. But at his pre Manchester City press conference, Wenger was faced with the stupefyingly stupid question as to whether Santi Cazorla’s form has rendered Mesut Özil a mere fringe player.

If I had told you in November that Arsenal would win four games on the bounce in January and that Ospina, Bellerin, Monreal, Rosicky and Coquelin would constitute the pillars of that run, (aided and abetted by Santi Cazorla playing some of the best football of his career), you would have been forgiven a dismissive snort. Many of us would not have had a single one of those players in our preferred XIs around six weeks ago. The landscape shifts so quickly, it is virtually impossible to form an impression of what the picture may look like in February or March.

Even the very respectable football365 website fell into this trap this week, with this piece suggesting that Danny Welbeck had become something of a forgotten man. Again, one must appreciate the context of the situation before drawing such conclusions. It is easy to formulate this kind of conclusion when a team is playing well. The most impressive football I have seen Arsenal play under Wenger occurred at the outset of the 2002-03 season. Prior to Wayne Rooney’s infamous last gasp winner at Goodison.

During that period, Arsenal were shorn of Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg through injury, whilst Tony Adams and Lee Dixon had retired that summer. Nobody would seriously suggest that shedding that kind of weight made Arsenal better in the long term. But momentum counts for a lot. In the spring of 2002, Arsenal embarked on a run of ten consecutive wins which carried them to the league title. Igors Stepanovs played five of those games in central defence. On current form, Arsenal have not missed Welbeck, that much is true. However, I dare say his absence would have been felt a great deal had it occurred in October or November. Context is important.

Likewise, precise conditions are often dismissed when discussing the form of teams or even individual players. Per Mertesacker has been no stranger to criticism this season, which is understandable because he played below his best for the first half of the campaign. The man himself spoke a little about how his exertions at the World Cup in Brazil had adversely affected him and that was largely where analysis of his form began and ended.

In absentia, Laurent Koscielny was talked up as the integral ingredient in the defensive partnership. Interestingly, on Sunday, Koscielny was faced with faced with similar conditions that Mertesacker has endured for much of the season. He did not play on his preferred side, with a centre half partner that did not compliment him, in an unfamiliar backline. It’s no surprise that he did not look nearly as imperious as usual and it suggests that he too would have struggled given the same scenario that Per has faced.

Football was once famously described as “the working man’s ballet.” Ignoring the slightly anachronistic gender reference, it’s a phrase that has never come close to surmising the appeal of the sport. Amazing though it is, ballet is structured and choreographed. Football has more of a chaos factor to it and it organically creates a kind of soap opera too, with heroes, villains and intriguing subplots binding it together into a natural narrative.

A maelstrom of split second decisions strewn across an abbreviated, 90 minute canvas. The best players and coaches are the ones that make the calmest momentary decisions amidst the anarchy. The game can continue to thrive and function and excite year after year, because perfection is not attainable, that is the only infinite conclusion one can draw from the game. For players and coaches, it is an eternal struggle to master random elements. It is a battle that can never be won.

Consequently, football does not lend itself to perpetual certainties. May that continue to be the case in perpetuity.

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