Arsenal V Barcelona: A Football Lover’s Dream

March 30, 2010

I’m not sure what many people understood from yesterday’s article. So many felt that I was trying to claim Arsenal are far superior to Barcelona. Some tried to comment that almost every Barca player is better than his Arsenal counterpart.

Le Boss conveyed my thoughts with the perfect words in his press conference,

I do not deny their quality, because Barcelona have an exceptional team – but we are an exceptional team as well. The form of the day, the desire, the belief, how much we play for each other will make the difference. We have, of course, to cancel their strengths, but Barcelona will have the same problem. They are an individual and collective threat, but so are we.

No one denies the quality Barcelona have. In fact, if Arsenal don’t go through Barca are the only team I root for because despite their dirty politics their football is fantastic.

Arsene mentioned the keywords – form of the day, desire and belief. I would add that whichever team plays a better collective game will come out on top. Of course, individual moments of brilliance or blunders can always have a big impact on the result as we have seen in other big games this season.

Tactics

Barcelona overcame a resilient Chelsea defence on their way to the Final last year. In the Final they beat a United team that actually tried to attack them. Makes you wonder what is the best strategy against such a phenomenal team.

I think we need to stick to our game. If we put men behind the ball we will not survive for too long. Even when we play a positive game, we cannot afford to keep a high line like we do. If our central defenders are near the half way line there is just too much space for this Barcelona attack to exploit.

If we push really high up, we crowd out their defensive third and give them vast spaces to attack. If we sit too deep we will invite pressure and struggle to get out of our half. I think we need to dominate possession in the middle of the park and pull Barcelona out creating space behind their defenders.

For this to succeed our midfield needs to be really close to the defence. I wrote about this while analyzing Spain’s victory over France in this article. France had a lot of attacking talent in the likes of Anelka, Henry and Ribery. Spain played a patient game with a solid defence and exploited the mistakes by France. I’ve a feeling this is exactly what Barca will try at the Emirates.

Those with a sense of humour might call this a France V Spain game anyway! Let’s hope this French team knows how to deal with the Spaniards.

At any moment when we lose possession at least one defender and midfielder should be close to Messi even if we don’t man mark him. It will be interesting to see whether Clichy bombs forward or plays a conservative game. In the recent past his attacking contribution hasn’t been great so it might make sense for him to stay deep.

Our wingers will have to track the runs of their full backs. I don’t think they will come out all that often but Barca players are good at timing such runs and we need to be aware of it at all times. I’m not convinced Arshavin will be able to do this consistently and hence the midfield must be ready to cover, just like the visitors cover for Messi, Henry and Co.

The tempo of the game will also be important. If both teams show respect to each other the pace will be slow as the players are watchful and conscious of conceding possession. The team that raises it at the right moments will succeed.

Arsenal need to move the ball from flank to flank. I feel we don’t do this fast enough in big games. If we use the width of the Emirates in the right manner, Barca defence can be stretched and given a stern test.

We also need to keep the ball for as long as possible thus frustrating the opposition. Barca are not used to playing without the ball and if we can sustain this they will make some mistakes as the game goes on. I’m confident that Song, Cesc, and Nasri can keep the ball but Arshavin and Bendtner will have to do much better with their touches.

We need to be ready to counter the tactics of Guardiola. I’m not sure if he will go with an attacking line-up or will play a conservative game. I mean as conservative as you can be with the likes of Messi and Ibrahimovic in the team! The injury to Iniesta means that two out of Toure, Kieta and Busquets might start the game. I think that weakens them considerably and could lead to Barca relying on individual moments rather than the possession game.

Team Thoughts

I’m going with the assumption that Song will play in midfield. God forbid, if we have to play him at centre back, all tactics will be redundant and we will have to rely a lot on individuals carrying us through.

Another assumption is that Fabregas will start. Without Cesc in the middle, the whole approach would change.

At the back I have a feeling we will risk Gallas. Campbell doesn’t look fit enough to play two high intensity games in three days and it will be a huge risk to play Song in defence.

On the right I’d pick Eboue over Sagna as the Ivorian offers an attacking threat that will help us use the full width of the pitch.

Will Arsene pick Denilson or Diaby to partner El Capitan and the Cameroon hard-man? I’m praying it’s Diaby. I’d love to see Nasri or Rosicky in the middle but they just haven’t played there often enough this season and sudden changes might not work in a big game.

The other advantage with Diaby is that he has a unique style and Barca won’t find it easy to stop him.

The front three are quite likely to be Arshavin, Bendtner and Nasri with Walcott and Rosicky available as impact subs.

The team I’d like to see is,

Almunia; Eboue, Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy; Song, Cesc, Diaby; Nasri, Bendtner, Arshavin.

Bottom-line

For all the hype around Barca, they scored only seven goals in the six group games and drew twice and lost one of those six. Even away to Stuttgart they really struggled and a more clinical team might have finished them off.

We need to take our chances and we have to avoid blunders in defence. Almunia, Clichy, Arshavin, and Bendtner are you listening?!


Arsenal V Barca: Position for Position

March 29, 2010

I didn’t think I’ll get over the Birmingham sadness so soon. Yet, after a good night’s sleep, I’m quite positive about the first leg of the quarter-final at the Emirates. Fabregas’ injury worry does dampen the spirit but I’m sure he’ll play if he can walk.

Part of my happiness is down to the position for position analysis that I did for this game. Arsenal are not as far behind their more illustrious opponents and the gulf in class is nowhere near as much as the media would have us believe.

Goalkeeper: Almunia = Valdes

In spite of the flak that our Spaniard receives, I’m quite convinced that Valdes isn’t any better. It’s interesting to note that neither of them play for the national side, a point that Almunia haters often make. To me Victor Valdes is proof that a team can win trophies with a dodgy keeper!

Right Back: Eboue = Alves

Dani Alves is widely regarded as one of the best attacking full backs in the world. The amount of money Barca paid for him certainly implies so. Eboue has had his issues in the past but on present form I cannot see how the Brazilian is any better than the Ivorian. If anything Eboue is a slightly better defender and probably a better athlete.

Center Backs: Vermaelen = Pique ; Puyol > Campbell

Vermaelen and Pique are excellent ball playing centre backs. I find it difficult to choose between them. Puyol is slightly better than Campbell due to the fact that he has been playing at the top level on a consistent basis for a long time while big Sol is only coming back to this level. Technically there isn’t much of a difference.

Left Back: Clichy > Abidal/Maxwell

Clichy is another one who has come in for some criticism. On his day he is far superior to either of the Catalan left backs. And we need him to be on top of his game for this fixture.

Midfield:

Song >> Toure

I would pick Song over Ya Ya Toure all season long. The Barca man has been in the media spot light and many fans believe he will be a good addition to Arsenal. I doubt if he can take Song’s place in this Arsenal eleven.

Diaby > Kieta

They seem to be quite similar in build and playing style. Kieta has added some goals to his game this season but I feel Diaby makes a much better overall contribution.

Cesc > Xavi

I rate Fabregas as the best midfielder in the world. Xavi is a fantastic player but he isn’t in the same league as Fabregas. They do perform a slightly different role so this comparison isn’t completely valid.

Iniesta >> Denilson

Thankfully, the diminutive Spaniard will be missing this game so this comparison is redundant.

Front Three:

Henry = Nasri/Rosicky

Three years ago Henry would have been on a different planet and not comparable to anyone. Right now he isn’t. The former Arsenal great is still a more potent attacking threat but Nasri and Rosicky have a better balanced game.

Ibrahimovic > Bendtner

In due course the young Dane will become a better player than the Swede. On present form and abilities Ibra is a much bigger threat than Nick.

Messi >> Arshavin

Messi is on a different level altogether. While I love the talents of our Russian magician, there is no one in the world who can be considered on par with the Argentine phenomenon, not even Ronaldo.

Conclusion:

Our defence and midfield are stronger than that of the opponents, especially with Iniesta out injured. Their attack is far more dangerous than ours. We do score a lot of goals but a great deal of that comes from our midfield. We have to ensure that we keep their attack quiet and capitalize on their weaknesses.

Arshavin will be our key man. I did say he is not in the same league as Messi but he is a big weapon nonetheless.

Tactics will be important in this game and I’ll discuss those in the preview post tomorrow.


Birmingham Goal: Analysis Using Snapshots

March 28, 2010

I don’t think many would disagree with the opinion that Arsenal have a shaky defence and struggle to hold on to a lead. This doesn’t mean that we have a relegation quality defence, just that we are not as good as some of the other top teams.

The goal we conceded against Birmingham is a perfect example of how poor our defence actually is. We lack organization, our midfield doesn’t contribute and there is general sense of panic in the air. The snapshots below illustrate our problems.

It’s important to note the positions of our midfield when Diaby misses this header. They are more than ten yards away from the defence and there are four opponents between them and the defenders!

This was not from open play and the ball was in the Birmingham box when the foul was conceded. If the Birmingham players can reach so far before the free kick is taken, you have to wonder why our mid-fielders aren’t in better positions.

Kevin Phillips came on late in the game. Since Wenger didn’t bring on an extra defender one would assume that one of the defensive mid-fielders would be playing really deep along with the defence to counter the extra striker. Denilson is in no man’s land between Nasri and Diaby. Brilliantly reading the game from a distance!

Next see the amount of space Kevin Phillips has when he receives the ball.

I can’t understand why Sol backs away from Phillips. Song could have covered behind him as he wasn’t marking anyone. If Sol had been tighter he could have pounced on the loose ball as striker’s touch was quite poor.

Have you ever seen an Arsenal attacker get so much space in such a position, especially when chasing a game!? Can you imagine United or Chelsea giving the opposition player so much leeway. Interesting to note that Denilson is still ten yards away from the play.

Then Fabregas leaves his man alone. I don’t want to be too critical of El Capitan as he works really hard and has to carry the creative burden. In other teams the left winger would be closing this man down but Arshavin was near the Birmingham penalty area.

As the ball is played to the right, every Arsenal player is either chasing the ball or is caught ball watching. Kevin Phillips is left completely unmarked. Just look at Denilson’s position.

There are five Arsenal players between the guy who crosses the ball and the man who scores. None of them is in a decent position to block the ball, or to tackle the guy on the ball, or to mark the goal scorer. Denilson is perfectly placed to launch a counter.

After this Sagna tries a ridiculous 180 degree clearance instead of knocking it away for a corner. If he’d left it we might even have got an offside but that’s an impossible decision in such a big moment.

Ultimately, the mistake by the keeper was horrible. Almunia should have clawed it away if he couldn’t catch it.

I still think it was a freak goal. The ball somehow went in between five players and the clearance from Sagna hit Phillips in the perfect spot. Anywhere else and it would have fallen kindly for us.

The point is that as long as our defence is so shambolic, we will always run the risk of conceding freak goals. Blaming one or two individuals is a meaningless exercise. We need better organization and our midfield needs much better awareness. We also need to cut out ball watching and ball chasing habits. Most importantly, we need to overcome the panic that sets in amongst our ranks when a long ball is punted forward.

Guardiola must be scared to death!


Birmingham 1 – 1 Arsenal: Spirit Alone Not Enough

March 27, 2010

Birmingham were horrible in their tackling and Howard Webb’s refereeing was nothing short of woeful. Still it was quite expected and we should have overcome these challenges but it was not to be.

I’m concerned mainly because we have been struggling with our football. Apart from the home win over Porto we haven’t got our game going in most of the recent matches. Four men mid-fields of the quality of Hull and West Ham troubled us for large parts of the game, Porto away was tough and Stoke away wasn’t a great game. The wins over Burnley and Sunderland too were extremely hard fought.

The only reason we are where we are in the table is because we eked out results thanks to undeniable mental fortitude and the ability to fight till the end. But spirit can only take you so far and the real question is what’s happened to our football?

Focusing on the specifics of the game, I thought we got our act together only for a total of a quarter hour or so. A few minutes either side of the twenty minute mark and for ten minutes or so after the double substitutions we looked like the team all of us expect Arsenal to be. Birmingham had no answer to our movement, passing and pressing during these minutes.

At the end it resulted in a goal that was brilliantly taken by Nasri. For large parts the hosts succeeded in putting bodies between the ball and the goal but Nasri capitalized on one of the rare moments when we actually got a sight of goal.

The rest of the game was scrappy with neither side creating anything of note. There is a clear reason why only 25 goals had been scored at St. Andrews this season prior to our game. Birmingham don’t have any real attacking threat and they don’t let the other team play.

I thought our players were too isolated in attack. In the last few months we’ve done well when we got bodies into the box. Unfortunately, the midfield of Diaby and Denilson didn’t work and Cesc had to drop deep far too often. That left Bendtner isolated and rendered ineffective.

Our wide players struggled to contribute. Part of this was due to a lack of co-ordination with the midfield. The other reason was that the full backs had to stay deeper due to the lack of pace of Denilson and Campbell. The vicious tackle on El Capitan and persistent unpunished fouling didn’t help the cause either.

In spite of our problems the phenomenal spirit of this team saw us take the lead. As is our wont, we managed to self destruct. Arshavin’s miss was criminal, Nasri’s attempt to pass when clean through was dumb and the spirit which got the goal and the recent victories went AWOL at just the wrong time.

Almunia made a bad mistake for the goal and there can be no defending his error. Having said that, I feel much bigger mistakes were made by the defence in front of him.

Denilson was five yards away from the play and kept jogging around aimlessly instead of “reading the game” and “intercepting the pass”. Diaby, Song, and Campbell got sucked towards the ball and were caught in no man’s land. Not a single player was aware of Phillips’ run!! In the end Eboue Sagna was in a one v two situation at the back post even if one of the attackers was off side.

My point has always been that with such schoolboy defending any goalkeeper will struggle with his decision making and I’m convinced six months into the next season we will be cursing whoever is bought in the summer. Anyway, that’s a topic for the future.

Another big question is why didn’t we bring on a Eboue after the goal was scored? Surely, we were aware that Birmingham always fight till the last minute.

The only thing we can do now is look to the future. We cannot buy players and we cannot magically heal the unfit. What we can do is to keep our chin up and focus on playing football. One winning streak has come to and end and that means it’s time to start another.

Individual Performances

Almunia: Was having a decent game till the soft hand at the end. He really needs to work on the strength of his arms.

Sagna: Decent in defence, had a couple of good moments in attack, probably stayed in a deeper position because Theo doesn’t do as much for the defence as Nasri or Rosicky.

Campbell: Was turned by Jerome a few times. Clearly lacked pace but had enough in experience to handle the Birmingham attack. Not sure he can get away with it against a team like Barca.

Song: I’m very uncomfortable with him in defence. he struggles with his decision making when there are vast empty spaces in front of him (As was the case for the foul which got him booked), and we really miss him in midfield.

Clichy: Decent defensively, should be contributing much more in attack but I’m not sure it’s his fault. The team shape isn’t right and the full back’s primary responsibility is in defence.

Denilson: Had a really poor game. Didn’t supply the creative players well enough. Couldn’t win the midfield battle against the likes of Ferguson and Bowyer.

Cesc: Way off colour by his standards. Did play a few good balls but just not the Cesc we are used to. I have been getting a feeling that in the last few games he’s been mentally preoccupied. Physically he’s a a game trier but his mind isn’t in it.

Diaby: Was magnificent in one-on-one’s and rode the challenges well. Poor passing and decision making in the final third.

Walcott: Didn’t get much space to use his pace. Made a couple of good runs but the end product was missing.

Bendtner: Was isolated for large parts. Hardly received any supply. Touch outside the box wasn’t very good.

Rosicky: Looked lively in patches. Had some good creative moments but the team was generally asleep. Was our best player till he was substituted.

Subs: Nasri scored a peach, messed up a good chance. Arshavin missed a golden chance but showed more purpose than the last few games.


Birmingham V Arsenal: A Challenge In Itself

March 26, 2010

Arsenal fans, even those with the poorest of memories, will struggle to forget that fateful day at St. Andrews. Life though, has come a full circle and while that was a day to forget, this Saturday could well turn out to be a day to remember. All three title chasers have tricky fixtures. Will this be the day when Arsenal bury the ghost of Birmingham as United and Chelsea falter!?

Focusing on the game at hand, despite the obvious negative images associated with Brum, I do feel Alex Mcleish’s team is a decent footballing side. They have done well at home and will provide a stern test of our credentials.

Trivia

  • Of the 15 teams that have visited St. Andrews, only Villa and Bolton have won. Both victories came in Sept 2009. Birmingham are unbeaten in 11 at home.
  • The hosts have conceded 10 goals at home, a record bettered only by Manchester United. Even Chelsea and Villa have conceded more at home.
  • A seventh straight League victory for Arsenal would be the best run this season by any team. It will also equal our best in the last three campaigns from the early part of the 07-08 season.

Tactics

Birmingham have the ability to mix things up. They have a strong defence but they don’t always park the bus. At least against other smaller teams they have dominated possession. The Blues can attack from the wings and even through the centre plus they are good on set pieces. In spite of all this they still have a negative goal difference and I feel it’s down to the quality of their strikers.

If we avoid conceding many set pieces and restrict them to counter attacks, our defence should be quite comfortable irrespective of who plays.

On the offensive front we will need all our trickery to score at St. Andrews. Once again our biggest strength would be the speed of passing and movement. Against Hull and West Ham we weren’t in top form and such a performance could see us dropping points in this game.

Team Thoughts

I’m hoping Bendtner is fit for this game because we will need a central striker who is match fit and full of confidence. It’s an extremely critical position for our attack and we need to be at our best against this defence.

I also feel playing Rosicky down the right would be a better idea instead of Nasri. The Frenchman has been playing constantly while Little Mozart has had a good break. I think Rosicky offers better creativity than Nasri and we will need his incisiveness if we want to break a resolute Birmingham.

Many people have been negative about Arshavin and I can see their point, but the Russian offers an attacking threat like no one else. If he is fit, he should start.

In the middle we might see the trio that finished the West Ham game – Denilson, Cesc, Diaby. This is with the assumption that Song will continue in his role as centre back. If Le Boss chooses Silvestre and Campbell at the back we could see Song in the middle instead of Denilson or Diaby.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’d like to see Sagna at Center Back but Arsene might think that’s a little far fetched at this point in the season. If Sagna doesn’t play CB, he might come in at Right Back.

The team I’d like to see is,

Almunia; Eboue, Sagna, Campbell, Clichy; Song, Cesc, Diaby; Rosicky, Bendtner, Arshavin.

We should still have a very strong bench and Nasri, Vela, Eduardo or Theo can come in to make a difference later on.

Bottom-line

Wenger has a knack for hitting the nail on the head,

The best way to prepare for Barcelona is to win the game before.


The Center Back Conundrum

March 26, 2010

That headline sounds like the title of a Robert Ludlum book, doesn’t it! Arsene has done his bit to add to the mystery. This is what he said about Campbell in his pre-match press conference,

I will pick him for the next game because for me the next game is an important one.

Just after the West Ham game Le Boss had a different view,

Sol Campbell was outstanding but to repeat the games could become a problem for him so I think I have to give him a big holiday next week to recover.

Will he, won’t he? That is the question. My guess is that Arsene has had enough time to work out his options and has decided it will be best to play Campbell at St. Andrews. Sol and Song against Brum and Vermaelen and Song against Barca. In the absence of Gallas and with a ridiculous ban on the Belgian these options seem to be the best we have.

I don’t think I can take a better decision than Wenger but this is a topic worth discussing. I’ll go ahead with the assumption that Gallas will not be fit for the Barca game and we all want to avoid Silvestre to the extent possible.

We won’t need a big physical defender against the Catalans. Agility and technique might be more important qualities. If that is the case it certainly makes sense to play big Sol in the more physical League game against the Blues. That settles one position. Vermaelen will be back for Barca, so that should take care of one position in that game.

The question is who will partner them. Given Campbell’s fitness it’s safe to assume he cannot play both games. Song seems to be the obvious choice and he did hold firm against the Hammers.

Except the long term injuries we have most of our outfield players fit, which leads to a notion that we can play without Song in the midfield.

This is a point for debate. To me, Song is extremely vital in the centre of the park and performs a role no one else can. Of course, we can play without him just like we did in January. But do we want to make that choice when there is an alternative?

I’ve been wondering why Sagna has not been considered for the Central position. He is quick, reads the game well, tackles well, and can head the ball. With Eboue in top form we don’t really have to worry about the Right Back slot either. The only negative I can think of is that the French Full Back is a couple of inches shorter than Gallas. Another issue could be that he hasn’t played in that role before. But if we can play Silvestre there, surely Sagna can’t be all that bad. The likes of Carragher, Ivanovic and Toure have played in both roles with a fair degree of success.

If it were up to me I’d play Sagna with Campbell at Birmingham and then partner him with Vermaelen against the defending champions in the Champions League. This would give us an extra layer of security with Song in front of them. Not only that, I think Song has a physical game that works really well in midfield but could end up conceding a penalty inside the box.

I’m sure Wenger has at least tried these combinations in defence during training and I’m hoping it’s worked out fine. What do you think?


Fabregas Transfer Talk + Arshavin Talks Transfers

March 24, 2010

I don’t like reading transfer speculation at a time when the whole team should be focused on each game that is akin to a cup final. As I don’t like it I normally ignore the dross, but I’ve to sneak a peak. Amongst the regular load of tosh a couple of articles were quite vexing.

First was the rumour linking El Capitan with Inter spiced up with Balotelli and quite some money thrown in. Now, if you know any Indians you’d know that we love our spices. But using them is an art form and you can’t randomly throw a few together as was done with that rumour or you just end up with an unpalatable concoction. As far as the transfer goes, I’m not really concerned. The annoying bit is the last line from the agent,

Have we received proposals from Italy? Yes, but not only from there.

The agent has openly stated that they have received proposals. Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t they need approval from Arsenal before they can receive proposals? If not, wouldn’t this be a clear case of tapping up? Are agents allowed to speak with other clubs without the permission of the club that owns the registration?

To an extent this is considered normal, after all Barca have been at it for a couple of seasons now. Still it’s more through the media and indirect channels. I doubt if they have contacted Fabregas’ agent.

I’d be really worried if Arsenal have indeed given Fabregas the permission to speak with other clubs and I’d be completely pissed if our captain is being tapped. Let’s hope somebody clears this up.

In the next piece of annoying business Arshavin is reportedly talking down our title chances due to the lack of signings. I guess everyone must have read the comments by now but here they are just for reference,

I am still of the opinion that to win trophies Arsenal needs more players.

There is the simple fact that last summer we sold two players and bought only one. So there is an obvious deficit of at least one. Then we lost Van Persie, Gibbs and Ramsey for a long time. So for me it is natural we need new players.

Without the variety of players we have less diversity in attack. That allows our opponents to read our combinations more easily. Finally, it results in less ball possession for us and our defence comes under more pressure.

The Premier League is very interesting, at least as long as we continue fighting to win it. But without new experienced players, real stars, it will be difficult to achieve success.

Ideally we need three or four such experienced players and then among our youths there should be guys who are not only good at playing football but have real character.

Apparently, The Sun got these from an interview of Arshavin with Russian TV. Two things are conspicuous by their absence. One is the date of the original interview and the other is the actual question that put to our sharp shooting Russian.

I cannot believe Arshavin would have said these words in the last few days. He speaks his mind and I love him for that but he’s smart enough to know the impact his words can have. Of course, the mention of Ramsey means it has to be after the Stoke game. That is the reason I feel the original question is very important. The hack might have asked him about the long term and not about this season in particular. That would explain and to an extent justify these words. I think we all, including Le Boss, agree that we will need more players in the summer. Perhaps even established and experienced ones.

Just goes to show once you eliminate the context it’s too easy to create a controversy. Is this another vile attempt by the media to create further pressure on the ‘foreign’ team challenging for a title they never thought possible? Well, if the Shawcrosses and Atkinsons of this world couldn’t do it, I doubt if the hacks at Sun can break the spirit of this side.


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