Welcome Alexis Sanchez And A New Age For Arsenal

July 12, 2014

The Özil transfer took a long time before it felt real. And now this. Sanchez Signs. One big transfer can be – not that it should – dismissed as a freakish happenstance. More so because some of the other reported big deals (strikers) never came to fruition. With Alexis arriving though, I’m convinced Arsenal have taken a big step up towards the elite (in the financial sense) clubs.

In the past the big players moved between the great Italian clubs and those in Spain or Bayern Munich. Oil money has had some influence on that in recent years but very few truly world class players have moved to England in their prime or just as they were entering their prime. The likes of Henry and Bergkamp, of course, were big players and had massive careers but they didn’t really come to Arsenal with impressive numbers/form for their former club.

Obviously, the Gunners aren’t still at a financial level where they can spend absurd amounts we’ve seen lavished on Bale and Suarez, but I, for one, have this belief that Wenger will now be able to compete for many of the top quality players that were outside the club’s reach not too long ago. Given that this growth is organic and seems sustainable, everyone at Arsenal FC deserves commendations for their role.

This might be premature but I also get this feeling that the Financial Fair Play rules are having an effect. I’ve always believed this can only succeed if all the wealthy owners want to bring some order to the chaos of the transfer world. And while they will inevitably find creative ways of getting some things done, we are unlikely to see a few clubs hoarding all the big players even if they don’t truly need them.

Put it all together and it seems we are moving to a new age for Arsenal FC. What happens on the pitch will still be down to the performances of the manager, players and the staff (that’s a big, separate discussion) but we can say they have a fair shot now. In a way, even the detractors should be happy because one of the main excuses should soon be off the table if it isn’t already.

Time will tell us more, as it invariably does, so now let’s shift focus to the reason we’re all so excited.

Alexis Sanchez – How does he improve the Gunners

I enjoyed reading some critics, or haters as they’re amusingly labeled, belittling the significance of the transfer by saying the Chilean wasn’t a starter for Barcelona or that he was a discard/reject. Would you call a player whose 27 League starts were bettered by only 4 members of the squad a fringe player? Is a guy who is fourth in La Liga when counting goals and assists a failure?

At a club with a complex dynamic, the world’s best player, and many other exceptionally talented individuals vying for a handful of attacking spots, it’s understandable that Sanchez didn’t always get to play when or where he wanted. The arrival of Suarez – as Barcelona succumb to the tendency of signing a superstar or the demands of their new manager – would undoubtedly make things even more difficult for Alexis.

I also believe he hasn’t quite hit the heights his potential at Udinese promised. The Chilean is more composed and tactically aware now but he hasn’t hit the ceiling as far as the quality and quantity of his output goes. At least in part, this seems to be down to the fact that he couldn’t complete express his skills when Messi was the main man (understandably).

The fact that he has understood his position and took a swift decision is a big positive in my opinion. As with Özil last season, I think Sanchez comes to Arsenal as a world class player who can still get better.

Alexis already has many attributes that make him standout.

His finishing is exemplary, touch and close control are superb, dribbling is a joy to watch, pace and power can be terrifying for the opponents, tenacity and fighting spirit will be appreciated by fans of English football, and his selfless style will suit Wenger’s plans perfectly.

The fact that he is comfortable with both feet (scores most of his goals with the right foot I believe) and has played various roles at different clubs and the national team already means Wenger will have good tactical flexibility.

I can visualize him starting on the left in some games with Walcott on the right and Giroud (or another striker) in the center. He can go down the line to supply the other two, cut inside to shoot or slide a pass for Walcott, join the striker to offer another attacker in the box for attacks developing down the right, and make runs in behind if the space is available.

Sanchez could also start centrally or move there late in games if Arsenal are playing a more conservative game. The Gunners chose to sit on a lead many times last season and he could thrive on the space available if the opponents have to push forward.

Alternatively, Cazorla on the left and Sanchez on the right could give the Gunners good balance and opportunities for combination play in attacking areas. It’s not hard to imagine them interchanging positions seamlessly with the likes of Özil and Ramsey. On occasion, the Chilean can also play off the lead striker if Wenger wants to leave two up front.

This flexibility means Wenger can also rotate his players more often, assuming most stay fit. It would be great to have one or two players getting a rest in a rotating manner when the team is playing every three days. Last season one could pretty much predict the injuries to Ramsey and Özil from their early workload. Hopefully, this time Wenger will be able to offer most of his players a balanced distribution of work. It could be the single biggest decisive factor in what they can achieve but details of this probably belong in a different article.

Some Caveats

Sanchez has a good disciplinary record but he is an aggressive player and will have to be careful with his reactions to some of the gratuitous fouls and physical challenges he will undoubtedly receive. He’ll also have to quickly adapt to a different approach to refereeing where remonstrations, exaggerated falls (not that he is a serial diver), or waving of imaginary yellow cards could lead to him being vilified very quickly.

I’m not sure he is used to playing with his back to goal, a trait important for any central striker in Wenger’s team, so if (when) he does play down the middle, either he’ll have to show a very steep learning curve or the team will have to adapt. These things don’t always work out as smoothly as some of us imagine.

As a wide attacker, Alexis is more a striker than a midfielder. That means he won’t see as much of the ball as someone like Cazorla does, for instance, in that role on the left. Retaining the ball and circulating it is extremely important to the way Arsenal play. Losing it more frequently (Sanchez also has a relatively high rate of losing possession) can make the game stretched and uncomfortable. Furthermore, the strength of collective defending can be severely tested if Özil, Walcott, Sanchez, and Giroud all start together. In that situation, both wide players would be capable of surrendering possession cheaply (Even Giroud’s touch is not consistent) and neither will consistently track their opposing full back. Sanchez is a fighter and a hard worker (better than Walcott in that regard) but I think he would prefer to do more chasing in the opposition half than his own.

In that sense, Wenger will have a tough job in identifying the right balance for his starting eleven. It is not unthinkable that he might not know what his best eleven is at the start of the season and some trial and error could be needed. Hopefully, that phase will not have enough errors to cost the team vital points.

Bottom Line

I think Alexis Sanchez is a fantastic acquisition for Arsenal that gives further evidence that the work done to build the stadium and with the new deals is beginning to pay off, and promises to fill some of the vital gaps that led to dropped points and disappointments last season. Hopefully, this signing is only the start of good things to come this season as much of work remains to be done on and off the pitch.

P.S Here is a quick stat comparison that I’d done using the Squawka tool. The quality of each players’ teammates, opponents, etc. is different but it still feels like useful data. You can visit the link and compare the players on other stats if interested.

Sanchez Stats Comparison


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Hull City

May 17, 2014

The Norwich game ended up being a formality. Ramsey’s goal was immensely enjoyable and it was nice to see Diaby and Wilshere back on the pitch. Beyond that there isn’t much to talk about so I’ll come straight to the game we’ve all been waiting for eagerly.

Hull have picked up 1 point from their last five games and that was against relegated Fulham. They’ve lost 15 of their 18 games against the top 9 in the League. Arsenal topped the table when counting points taken against teams in the bottom half. The Gunners are coming into this Final on the back of five straight wins and have done the double over the Tigers scoring five unanswered goals in the process.

As far as any dictates of logic are concerned, Wenger’s side have to be the overwhelming favourites for this game with the usual caveats of the gap between teams being close and anything can happen on a given day being applicable.

There shouldn’t be any major surprises in this game. Hull are a competitive team and the game will certainly be very close till the first goal goes in. The two biggest factors that Arsenal will have to deal with are their own nerves and the opponents desire driven physicality.

Let’s cover anxiety first. I remember the tentativeness from the opening exchanges against Birmingham in the League Cup final. Szczesny was saved by an incorrect offside flag from conceding a penalty, and maybe a red card, really early in the game after the team failed to control the ball or its shape. Nerves can affect the decision making of players, their touch, and the speed with which they react. The resulting technical or tactical errors can level the game up in terms of the quality of the two sides and, if the mistakes are in dangerous zones, it can very quickly hand the initiative to the opponent.

That said, this time around I do have higher hopes. Arsenal have cut out many of their common errors from the recent past. For instance, in that penalty incident mentioned above, Song let his runner through when the team had a high-ish line that wasn’t straight. The frequency of such errors has definitely reduced off late. Those were still the days of struggling against the long ball but that’s another area where Wenger’s side have improved noticeably. There is more experience, greater composure, and a tendency among individuals to take responsibility to keep the vital defensive areas secure. All that should keep the goal relatively better protected even if the players exhibit a degree of hesitancy in expressing their game.

We did see a little bit of this against Wigan. Arsenal’s football wasn’t at the expected level, to put it politely. And Mertesacker’s uncharacteristic error reminded us that one potentially decisive error can come at any time. Nevertheless, over the course of 90 minutes, I have to say Arsenal were a lot more secure at the back than they’d have been a few years earlier. The equalizer that took the game to extra time was also a reminder of the fact that you can always get something from the game if you keep plugging away even when you’re not at your best.

The second factor is a little more complicated. Hull are not going to come up with a novel tactical approach that completely flummoxes the Gunners or produce technical football that will outclass Wenger’s side. What they can do is fight. When I say ‘desire driven physicality’, I don’t mean they’ll get violent. Commitment is the key word here. Most English sides don’t give up. And when it’s a Cup Final we can be sure the Tigers will have some bite. They’ve nothing to lose. All they’ve to do is stay organized – a strength of Steven Bruce, challenge for every ball, throw their bodies on the line when needed, and wait for their chance. They can score from a set-piece, a long range shot, or pounce upon a bad mistake by the Gunners. It’ll become easier for them if Wenger’s side are rattled or show some anxiety induced timidity early on. They’ll also gain confidence as time goes unless the Gunners take the lead.

As ever, the first goal will be very important. Arsenal have the highest PPG ratio (2.79) in the League when games scoring first are considered. Even though Hull are 11th in that chart, their 2.21 PPG is nothing to be scoffed at. Both teams have lost only 1 League game in which they’ve scored first. If we reverse that criterion, Wenger’s team have picked up 0.83 PPG from the 12 games where they’ve conceded first including two wins. Hull have 0.18 PPG (4 points) from the 22 games where they’ve let the first one in and just one win.

This will make the initial tactics interesting. Should Arsenal go for broke? Should Hull sit back and absorb some pressure to make sure they’re safe? What happens if both teams go for it?

The answer will lie as much in the tactical choices of the managers as it will in the way the players feel and are able to express themselves on the pitch. Nerves can be contagious. Just one or two players showing signs of tentativeness can drag the whole team down and that can change the entire tactical dynamic of the game. In this regard, Hull have a slight advantage because expectations are low and they have nothing to lose. It’s already a fairy tale run for them. They can enjoy the event and express themselves without fear. The ape clinging on to Arsenal’s back will have to be tamed quickly if the Gunners are to have fun. Respective fans can make a meaningful contribution. Groans from the Arsenal faithful, for instance, can be severely counter-productive.

One thing Arsenal absolutely must avoid is quick transitions from the central third of the pitch. That means players on the ball have to make the right choices even if it means safe passing that seemingly goes nowhere. Similarly, individuals will have to be stronger in possession. The likes of Santi and Özil have shown a tendency to surrender possession when harassed. This can really fire up the opponents while also opening the route to goal.

Control the ball, ride the challenges, and push the opponents back. Openings will come if they are willing to endure the grind. That doesn’t mean sharp passing and constant movement should be abandoned, just that it’s important to shield the ball in order to control the vital territories on the pitch.

Wenger should have no complaints as far as player availability is concerned. His biggest problem might be in deciding who to leave out of the squad.

I’d like to see,

Fabianski – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Cazorla, Giroud, Podolski.

While the choice of goalkeeper is debatable, the rest of that line up is Wenger’s best starting eleven on current form in my opinion.

To be honest, I’m finding it very hard to see why Arsenal shouldn’t win this game. Worryingly though, far too many times in the recent past, Wenger’s side have shown me how wrong I was when thinking like that. I’m sure many other Gooners are in the same boat and it’s really up to the players to take it to shore and settle the issue once and for all.

I’m amused by the thought of just how vastly different many peoples’ season reviews will be based on the result of just this one game. It has been a good season in my opinion with the potential to become an excellent one if the Gunners perform to their ability. Or it can become a nightmare with no place to hide. Among the many reasons I’d considered for the delay in the extension of the manager’s contract, one was that Wenger wants to give Arsenal the chance to change their mind should his team fail. It’ll certainly be very bad timing for any renewal should the Gunners stumble. Then again, announcing a new deal with monkeyless backs, and the FFP slowly making its presence felt, will surely shine a bright light towards the future.

One way or the other, this could be a historic day for Arsenal.


Quick Thoughts On West Brom And Norwich

May 11, 2014

Arsenal’s fourth one-nil win of the season took the Gunners to 76 points. Only seven times in the entire Wenger era (or the Premier League period for that matter, including the first three seasons that had 42 games each) have the Gunners picked up more points. A win against Norwich will make it the fifth best points haul in the same time frame.

It is still not where it should and can be, but it’s tough to dismiss the performances or the quality of the squad as substandard. Much of the results this season have been, as obviously noted by many, built on a strong defensive foundation. The same was the case against West Brom.

After a strong start and an enjoyable, well-worked goal – once again a good set-piece variation with quality delivery, and Giroud contributing with his head while using his physical strength – the Gunners became sloppy as time went by. They had enough decent-ish chances to score the second but the cushion goal never came. Collective defending in front of two strong central defensive performances was needed to hold fort and secure the points.

I liked Özil’s movement into the wide areas and his ability to find Podolski’s runs, Cazorla’s positioning and timing in the centre, and the fact that Arsenal built quite a few attacks down their left. But it’s impossible to shake the feeling that players of this quality can do much better. Maybe they were going through the motions because the result didn’t really matter. Nevertheless, it was good to see that the sloppiness didn’t extend to the defending.

Norwich – Momentum Matters

It’s unlikely that the Canaries will stay up. It’s hard to guess how a team will play in such a situation. Each player will probably react in a different way and that might affect the overall output of the team. Or they could all buy into the idea of bowing out with a positive memory and give it their all.

Arsenal don’t have much to gain except, as discussed above, taking the points tally to their fifth best in the Premier League era. That said, there might be something in this game for the Gunners from a psychological point of view. Going into the FA Cup final on the back of five wins will probably have a favourable impact on how the team starts that game, if not the whole performance.

Norwich have the 3rd worst defence in terms of goals conceded with 60 shipped in 37 games. But you’ll be surprised if you haven’t already noticed, the Canaries have the fourth best defence at home with just 16 goals conceded in 18 games. Liverpool had to fight for a win there recently while City and Everton have dropped points at Carrow Road.

Their problem is the League’s worst attack. And because of that I’ll be extremely disappointed if the Gunners don’t keep another clean sheet, which would be their 17th of the season. Never since 2000-01 have Wenger’s side kept that many in one League campaign.

Since it’s hard to guess the patterns of play, I’m just hoping Arsenal will be professional and focussed enough to get the job done. It’ll be nice to have more memorable goals and a repeat of the reverse fixture but it’s not a necessity. More variations on set-pieces and different attacking combinations should indicate that the team and coaching staff are using the time well.

Wenger could be tempted to start some of his fringe players but I’d like to see a strong eleven getting in the groove for next Saturday. Rhythm is very important for the Gunners.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Cazorla, Giroud, Podolski.

Fabianski in place of Szczesny would be an interesting choice. That would probably complete the ideal line-up for the FA Cup final based on current form and fitness.

Of course, Ramsey should not be risked if he is not fully fit. That applies to pretty much any player at this stage and, in that regard, I was glad the Welshman didn’t feature in the final home game of the season.


Quick Thoughts On Newcastle And West Brom

May 4, 2014

Happy St. Totteringham’s day to you. It was also made sweeter by the knowledge that 4th place is now safe. That certainly makes this one of the most enjoyable weeks of the season.

The football itself wasn’t great, but it didn’t have to be. Newcastle never really turned up as a team and there were enough individual mistakes to make this a comfortable win for the Gunners. Throughout the game it seemed like their players were trying, at least on an individual basis, but Pardew’s side failed to generate any form of cohesion in attack or defence. Sporadic moments of quality, coupled with Arsenal’s average performance, kept the game close for a while.

It was nice to see Arsenal score from a quality set-piece. Krul should have done much better but you can’t take anything away from Cazorla’s delivery or Koscielny’s desire and deft touch. In general, I enjoyed various variations on corners and free-kicks. The movement of players in the box and the pace and angle of delivery were mixed up rather well and often resulted in threatening moments. Hopefully, this won’t be a one-off.

There was still some tension in the air till the second goal went in. It was a clear off-side but I doubt anyone will argue this game would have had a different result had the flag gone up. Giroud has to finish some of those type of chances. I don’t know if he can improve on such details but it’s pretty clear that he will struggle to have a long career at the top level if he keeps missing as often as he currently does.

The second half seemed like a formality. Özil’s cross for the third goal was superb as was the French striker’s header. I don’t fully understand why Giroud doesn’t score more from more headers. He has all the attributes to contribute with his head in the box – to score and set up goals – but Arsenal haven’t really used that strength well and he’s come up short on a few occasions when the service has been good.

West Brom – Three points will still be good

Arsenal no longer need any points as far as the League table is concerned. Finishing 3rd is highly unlikely and 4th is in the bag. Nevertheless, winning the last two League games should still be a priority because it will affect momentum going into the FA Cup final and possibly even the preparations for next season. Imagine finishing 10 points above Spurs after all that was written during the last summer and at the start of the season.

The Baggies are not theoretically safe yet but they should most probably survive. It’s been a strange season for them because the individual quality in that squad is definitely better than the League position and points they’ve achieved. It’s partly reflected in the fact that they’ve drawn 8 of the 11 games against the top 6. Chelsea, Everton, and Spurs failed to beat them this season. Arsenal could be next on that list if the Gunners don’t turn up with their A game.

I find them quite unpredictable. They’ve scored some impressive goals but overall they’ve also struggled to put the ball in the net, even against the smaller teams.

Amalfitano has a bag full of tricks while Berahino has skill as well as pace. They can be troublesome if they get a chance to run into space. Sessegnon – remember the hype last season? – is another useful player for counter-attacks but has had an underwhelming season.

For the most part, Arsenal’s biggest defensive challenge in this game will be to minimize opportunities for runs in behind and avoiding isolating defenders in n-v-n situations. It should not be too hard as long as the midfield remains focussed and diligent.

Breaking down their defence is not always easy but they’ve conceded over 1.7 goals per game on an average in away games and have only one clean sheet in games against the top 8. Arsenal should break through as long as they are patient but persistent. Spaces should arise in front of their central defence and behind the lines if they push up. With Ramsey, Cazorla, and Özil clicking well in recent games, I’ll be very surprised if the Gunners don’t create some quality chances.

With the pressure off in the League, it’ll be great if we see Wenger’s side going out on the pitch to enjoy their game. Sometimes that can unshackle a team, particularly one that is so reliant on combination play.

The manager might be tempted to make a few changes to his starting line-up to see how some players fare. But given what I’ve seen from Arsene over the years, I have a feeling he will go with a very strong starting eleven so that they develop some rhythm building up to the Cup final.

We might see,

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Cazorla, Giroud, Podolski.

It seems Sagna has picked up an injury. Wenger does, at times, use injury as an excuse when he’s leaving a player out, but I don’t see the point in deliberately dropping the French full-back unless he’s in negotiations with another team and not completely focussed. It would have been good to see Sagna complete the season with his impeccable professionalism. Will he be left out for a couple of games and then brought back for the final? That’ll certainly be odd. Hopefully, it’s really just a minor injury and nothing else.

Before ending I wanted to mention this World Cup Prediction contest on Betting Expert. There’s over €10,000 worth of prizes to be won. Check it out if that sort of thing interests you.


Thoughts On Hull And Newcastle

April 28, 2014

The visit to the KC Stadium turned out to be a fairly comfortable one, as expected. Hull have not done very well against the big sides and their performance in this game didn’t merit any points either.

That’s not to say the hosts were pushovers. The first half-hour was competitive. Both sides had some half-chances and Arsenal had a clear penalty denied. Hull, as most Steve Bruce sides are, were compact an well-organized in front of Steve Harper. The Gunners weren’t getting a clear sight of goal and some individual quality was needed. It came in the form of a combination between Özil, Cazorla, and Ramsey. Their movement, understanding, and technique were excellent which put the Welshman in an excellent position to score. He was his usual efficient self.

I enjoyed the second goal a lot more. The counter-attack started with a feisty challenge – we’ve seen these called as fouls – and ended with a sublime finish. I loved the ground Ramsey covered and the way Podolski simply struck the ball instinctively. The German is such a natural finisher it’s a shame he doesn’t do more on the pitch or he’d be one of the best in the world. His assist provider again showed his uncanny knack for getting into the right spaces at just the right time.

That tendency was fruitful again for the third goal as Ramsey arrived at the top of the box at the perfect moment to meet Cazorla’s cut-back. When in full flow, these players make football look very easy. The kind of impact Ramsey’s had this season, not just in decisive moments like goals and assists, but also in making others better by his instinctively astute positioning, has made him practically irreplaceable in the side. It’s good, obviously, but also a bit concerning because without him the output of the whole side drops and there isn’t an equivalent replacement in the squad at the moment.

Hull, in fairness, did have some moments which could have gone their way on another day – Livermore’s shot that struck the bar, for instance. But on the balance of play this was a comfortable win for the Gunners and I doubt that would have changed even if Hull had scored with one of their attacks.

Newcastle – The vagaries of form.

The Magpies ended 5th in the League not too long ago. The very next season they also flirted with relegation. After the first 18 games of this season, it looked like Pardew’s side were back on track as they were 6th in the Premiership just 6 points off the top. Since boxing day though, they’ve lost 12 of their 17 League games while picking up just 13 points. Supporting the Toon should probably be prescribed remedy for any football fan found criticizing his club’s short term form.

The likely patterns for Monday night’s game, therefore, are a bit hard to call. There have been a couple of big scoring games between the sides (7-3,4-4) but four of the last seven encounters have also seen a solitary goal or less. The only common element has been that every game has been tight – even last season’s double-digit thriller was quite even till the final 15-20 minutes – and that Arsenal have not lost since 2010 when, if memory serves, Chris Hughton oversaw a win at the Emirates on the back of an Andy Carroll goal.

Life is not the same for Carroll, Hughton, or Newcastle but the Gunners are in a familar position of needing to win in order to ensure their spot in the Champions League qualifiers.

For the most part, I’m inclined to believe this should be a win for the Gunners. It could also be a comfortable one if the visitors fail to turn up as they’ve been prone to off late. But Pardew’s return to the touchline and Sissokho’s to the starting eleven might lift them. Wenger’s side should be prepared to grind out a result if things don’t work smoothly.

Having the decisive players back and the rest between games should help. The combination play in midfield and attacking areas is getting back to a high level and Newcastle’s main aim will be to disrupt Arsenal’s rhythm. Sometimes, with their manager’s encouragement, this can lead to the Geordies getting too physical. Arsenal might have to ride the challenges, so to speak, in order to establish their tactical will on the game. Part of that will also include not losing the ball when shoved and is applicable to the likes of Santi and Özil who aren’t still suited to such battles.

The defence has some standards problems to deal with. Remy has pace and finishing skills, Sissokho is powerful, and set-pieces can always be a problem. If Arsenal concede a goal it will most probably be linked to a terrible individual mistake or two.

Newcastle’s best attacking hope is to press aggressively in the central third of the pitch. Most teams don’t use these tactics against the Gunners, probably for fear of exposing their backline and goal, but bravery is sometimes needed on the pitch. With nothing to lose, given their position in the table, Pardew should take this chance to be bold and proactive. That could make this a very interesting game to watch and a truly challenging one for the Gunners.

The visitors will have to rely on luck if they let the hosts control the ball and the centre of the park.

Wenger should be able to pick a very strong team,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Cazorla, Giroud, Podolski.

I don’t like Cazorla on the right but he seems to have a very good understanding with Ramsey and Özil.

The importance of the first goal remains as high as it’s ever been.


Thoughts On West Ham And Hull

April 20, 2014

Arsenal’s win over West Ham wasn’t as comfortable as a 3-1 scoreline suggests, nor was it a great performance, but there were some genuinely pleasing moments which made it enjoyable and the points always help.

There were shades of early season form in this win, particularly in the way the team defended many tricky moments. Wenger’s side did very well to minimize the goalkeeper’s work even though West Ham got into the final third and the penalty box often enough by gaining territory through their long ball approach. The Gunners were vigilant, disciplined, and working for each other to snuff out any danger from the ball bouncing around in the box.

There was a bit of luck involved, as is always the case in such games. For instance, the ref might have blown for a penalty had Jarvis taken a tumble when Sagna’s foot made contact with his. I didn’t think the contact was strong enough for it to be a foul but we’ve seen even softer ones given. In that sense, Jarvis must be lauded for staying up even if the more cynical readers might wonder whether the winger was too slow to realize he could go down and the opportunity was gone before he could seize it.

West Ham’s goal was one of the few moments where Arsenal’s defence failed. There were more defensive players in the penalty box than were offensive ones but the Gunners, mainly Sagna and Arteta, didn’t show the same awareness and desire to get to the ball as Jarvis did. His opportunism paid dividends. In the build-up, Kallstrom was a tad slow to track the run and that allowed Nocerino a clear sight of goal, albeit from a tight angle.

By my count, this was the sixth straight game where the Gunners had conceded the first goal. They’d lost two and drawn three of the previous five (considering the Wigan game as a draw at full time). This time the response was quicker and that probably helped.

The equalizer came from a poor clearance which, one might argue, was forced by Arsenal’s urgency. In any case, the quality of Cazorla’s pass and Podolski’s finish were simply outstanding.

The second half performance was better in terms of ball and territory control but the number of chances was still quite limited. It was exceptional individual quality that made the decisive difference.

Giroud’s goal was just sensational. He had to win two physical battles – Reid backing in and Carroll shoving him from behind – while keeping his eye on the ball before producing a sublime first touch and a powerful finish with his weaker foot that went through the Keeper’s legs from a tight angle. It’s definitely a Goal of the Month contender if not Goal of the Season.

The vital cushion goal was again down to decisive individual brilliance. That lad Ramsey is back for sure. What a header that was. The ball was going away from goal, he had a tight space to hit, and had to get the weight of the pass just right. Podolski’s finish was nonchalant but hardly easy. The German’s a natural goalscorer.

I thought Vermaelen, Giroud, Cazorla, and Podolski had very good games. Others were at a good level too. I was particularly impressed by the way Giroud used his physical qualities to battle for the ball when the opponents had it or in 50-50 scenarios. In the past he’s done well to hold his ground in front of the opposition box or to hold on to the ball once he has control of it, but in this game the Frenchman showed a desire to use those qualities to win the ball back, or to shrug an opponent off the ball. It was fun to watch and very useful to the team. Hopefully, this won’t be a one off.

Working hard in defence and producing decisive moments when needed has been the story for bulk of the season. It was the approach on which the strong run was built and it has worked well against relatively smaller teams. Sustaining this for the rest of the season could still make this a pretty decent year.

Hull City – Rehearsal for the big one

Steve Bruce has done well at the KC Stadium. Many are saying this is Hull’s best ever season. An FA Cup final and safety in the League (not guaranteed yet but fairly likely) are commendable achievements.

That said, it’s worth noting that Hull have a P13 W1 D1 L11 record against the top 8 this season. And they’ve faced only one Premier League team on their way to the FA Cup final – Sunderland, who might not even be in the top flight next season.

They’ve done well but I will be extremely disappointed if the Gunners don’t win this game. Everton are also yet to visit the Tigers and dropping points here could help them get back in contention for that Champions League spot.

Of course, no team can be taken lightly at this level. League leaders Liverpool lost at the KC Stadium. It can happen to anyone. Nevertheless, there aren’t any standout strengths that Arsenal need to worry about. Like any Bruce side, they are well organized, committed, and disciplined. It’s hard to score against the Tigers. Huddlestone is a useful distributor in midfield and both their strikers – Jelavic and Long – can be a handful on their day. Curtis Davies has had a good season while names like Figueroa, Steve Harper, Elmohamady, and Livermore should be fairly well-known to serious followers of the League. It’s a competitive team.

A steady, cohesive defensive display supported by individual qualities in attack should see the Gunners return with the three points. The biggest challenge will be to overcome their own confidence issues and tendency to stop playing their game. Next in line would be defending crosses and set-pieces while ensuring the home strikers don’t get a clear sight of goal. It could mean some aerial battles and the need for tracking runs into wide channels. Nothing they haven’t done before.

Wenger has some options with players returning from injuries and suspensions. Arsenal also have the luxury of an eight day break before their next game.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen – Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey – AOC, Giroud, Podolski.

Özil and Rosicky should provide strong attacking options on the bench. Flamini can be called upon if an extra body is needed to chase the ball.

Gibbs should play if he is fit.

This was the kind of game Arsenal were winning earlier in the season. The last few weeks have been tough and, as noted above, the Gunners have developed a bad habit of conceding first. it’s important to break out of that. Hull have not been great against the top sides but they will be much harder to crack if they take the lead. Arsenal have not won a single game this season when they’ve trailed at half time. In contrast, the Gunners have won all 12 League games (and all cup ties?) when they’ve led at the break.

Clichéd though it may be, the side that scores first is most likely to achieve its desired outcome from this game.


Thoughts On Wigan And West Ham

April 15, 2014

Mission accomplished. It wasn’t a swashbuckling performance but it was a strong one. It wasn’t stylish but it was satisfactory.

This was never going to be a big scoring game. Wigan are the second lowest scorers among the top six Championship sides that are vying for promotion and their goal per game ratio is more comparable to the mid-table or bottom-half sides from that league than the top ones. Arsenal have also lost their rhythm recently and have lacked ideas, combinations, and clinical finishing in the final third.

Low scoring battles often boil down to mistakes. And they tend to even the game up because defending is very significantly easier than attacking, which means the gap between the teams becomes that much smaller. That said, Wigan deserve great credit for making a game out of this, and we saw further evidence that their success in the competition over the last couple of seasons was not a fluke. I expected energy and commitment from them but their discipline and superb organization surprised me. It did come at the cost of offensive qualities because they rarely troubled Fabianksi throughout the 120 minutes of action. But for Mertesacker’s error, this could have been a hard fought one-nil to the Gunners, which would have looked better and would certainly have been gentler on the nerves of millions of Gooners around the world. In that sense, I’m glad I did not watch it live and kudos to you if you did and enjoyed it!

Arsenal are going through a difficult phase right now and it’s not something they’ll break out of easily because it’s almost impossible to pin-point one or two issues as the source of all the troubles. Without proper diagnosis, symptomatic treatment is the only other recourse and that doesn’t always help. Just like doctors sometimes have to hope that a person’s will to live and his/her body’s internal immune system will have to win the fight over a disease, Wenger right now has to hope that his team’s mentality and the players’ inherent qualities will grind out results. That’s what happened in this game, make no mistake.

It is not ideal but the Gunners are extremely reliant on confidence and coordination for success on the pitch. If one part of the system fails it tends to drag everything else down and we get the appearance that the side lacks quality all over. Once it’s all back up and running, few people will be able to correctly tell just what changed. That’s why the Gunners go on strong runs that catch the popular media and many fans by surprise.

While it’s mostly about the unit, some aspects of individual play were worth discussing. Sanogo looked like a striker with good ideas. I liked the way he shifted the ball from one foot to another and tried to get his shot away on the half turn or pivot. He also showed a decent understanding of spaces in the attacking areas when he went between the defenders or tried staying on the edge of the box for cut-backs. Shooting technique remains his basic problem and it is a big one. The raw material is good but it’s hard to judge how much he will evolve as a striker because it’s fair to expect better technique from a player at his age.

Fabianski had a fairly easy game, for them most part. He came close to saving Gomez’s penalty but it was powerfully and accurately struck. The Pole did come rushing out once late in the game and must have been on the end of some abuse from rapidly beating hearts. His penalty saves were excellent as the ball just didn’t hit him and fly away. Fabianksi kept his eye on the ball till the end and made sure he got enough behind it. There was also an element of luck I think, not just in guessing correctly but also in the ref letting him get away with early starts. The first one wasn’t as obvious but the Arsenal goalie was well off his line before the second penalty had been struck. Sometimes little details work in your favour and help make you a hero. Few people notice and it’s soon forgotten.

I also liked the impact Gibbs made after coming on. Monreal is not a bad player but he isn’t as suited to the English style where a full-back often has to charge up and down the pitch while defending the zone on his own. A couple of factors that make a big difference here is that he isn’t as quick at turning as Gibbs, nor does he have the same power over a long distance run or in individual battles.

Ramsey was impressive, albeit not at his earlier decisive levels yet.

West Ham – Ugliest Game of the Season?

I don’t like Allardyce as a football manager and hate watching his teams. That’s about as polite as I can get when it comes to Big Sam and his ability to turn players into thugs.

Normally, at home, Arsenal would not have that much trouble against teams managed by a manager who uses fouls as a tactical attacking tool. But with their current creative struggles, the “rough them up”, “get in their faces”, and “charge the goalkeeper” set of tactics can prove to be a genuine nuisance.

All Allardyce teams are fairly decent at getting bodies between ball and goal with individuals working hard to track runners and mark their man. They also show enough commitment and desire to hurl themselves as the ball if all else fails. That means getting a clear path to goal – in other words, creating the best kind of goalscoring chances – will be hard. Arsenal will have to find a way rise above their current inefficiency levels in order to put the ball in the net. Small openings will inevitably arise as the visitors chase the ball but a side that isn’t on top of its game – players not linking instinctively, for example – will not be fast enough to exploit these openings. It’s little details like these that can be a difference between a free-flowing or a frustrating performance.

At the other end, the Gunners will have to work very hard to deal with West Ham’s aerial and physical qualities. Long balls, crosses, flick-ons, second-ball, crowd in the penalty box, blocking/fouling the goalkeeper, and relying on set-pieces – primitive tactics they may be, but we can’t argue against their effectiveness in being annoying and potentially harmful in terms of points. Usually, their tactics don’t work as well in away games. A big factor, in my opinion, is that referees tend to give 50-50s in the home side’s favour more often than against them. Nevertheless, it would not be wise to rely on the referee to bail them out of trouble, even if it’s caused illegally. That means redundancy in defence, players being close to each other and alert to possible threats, individuals taking responsibility, and a safety-first attitude will be vital.

I will never tire of saying this – if you can’t win, don’t lose. And if you don’t lose, there is always a chance of getting a goal because 90 minutes on a football pitch is a very long time.

Fatigue will be an issue. West Ham have not played since last Sunday and should be fresh and well-prepared. Arsenal’s fitness news is unclear.

Flamini, as he’d done earlier in the season with his reckless red card, is again suspended when the team could use him.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey – Rosicky, Giroud, Podolski.

Oxlade-Chamberlain should play if he is fit.

Giroud will be needed in the penalty box at both ends of the pitch.

It’d be tempting to start with two strikers in Giroud and Sanogo but I’m not sure this is the time to experiment.

Ideally, I’d like to see Ramsey given a rest and someone like Kallstrom starting the game. But the Swede didn’t look like he was up to the pace of the game when he came on against Wigan and a physical battle as this one might not be the best time for a full debut.

I doubt this will be a great game to watch. Arsenal are not out of the rut yet. West Ham have a poor record against the Gunners but this could be their best chance in a long time to change that just as Everton did. A bit of luck could make it or break it for either team. Fingers crossed.


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