Arsenal are clearly not playing at their best right now but the results keep coming. It’s important even if it’s not as enjoyable as all of us would like it to be. The performance against Fulham was much better than the one we saw at Villa Park and the three points weren’t in much doubt even during some frustrating moments of the first half.
It’s hard to say anything was wrong, per se, with the way Arsenal were playing except that the pace could have been higher. Fulham did make it harder for the Gunners with as many as 9 outfielders camped deep in their own half for long periods. It was a surprise because the Cottagers are generally a bit more of a footballing side than that. New manager and his attempts to get the team out of a mire I guess.
I thought Meulensteen missed a trick when he went with Berbatov as his lone striker at the start. The Bulgarian was too isolated and is not the kind of player who will make things happen for his team through sheer determination and hard work. Playing him deeper with Bent up top might have caused Arsenal more problems as the former United man would have helped keep the ball a bit better and is capable of picking passes out too. Bent’s pace in behind would have been useful to gain territory and create chances on the break. Then again, hindsight is always 20/20.
Arsenal’s main problem was again about lack of players going in behind. Way too much of the play was in front of the defence. But I don’t mind a patient first half when the team has an extra gear or two to hit as the game progresses. Not conceding early and wearing an opponent out is a good enough strategy when you have the League’s best second half record.
There wasn’t a novel tactical element to the game. Arsenal simply took a few more risks in the second half and pushed more players higher up the pitch. It pushed Fulham from the edge of their box or just outside to somewhere between the penalty spot and the six yard box. This in turn opened up more angles for penetrative passes and positions from which to take shots without having a slew of bodies between the ball and goal.
Cazorla’s decisive contribution was a delight to watch. Wilshere’s tendency to contribute to decisive moments is also coming along nicely. I did get a feeling at times that the youngster was too high up the pitch in the first half without really committing enough to get into the box. It might have been more productive had he stayed a tad deeper so Santi and Özil got more space, or if he pushed into the box and beyond these guys as he did at times in the second half.
Özil did seem a little below par in this game. Not in terms of work rate for the team but there were some uncharacteristic unforced errors in his game. I don’t think shooting or scoring goals has ever been his strength. That’s an area where he’ll probably need some help from Wenger and the coaching staff. It’s not just about willingness to go for goal, he needs to work on his shooting technique, awareness of the goalposts, and belief that he can contribute in that manner.
This was Arsenal’s league-leading 10th clean sheet of the season. It came about without much fuss and was probably among the easier games for the back four and Szczesny. Bent did have a great chance right at the end and that only serves to remind us how a momentary lapse in concentration can prove costly.
One interesting detail – something that I’ve seen quite often this season – was that Arsenal’s two goals again came in a short space of time. Earlier in the season I’d talked about the Gunners’ ability to raise their level and hit back if the opponents scored. This tendency was vital to the strong run that took Wenger’s side to the summit. It’s good to see the players haven’t lost it despite a few injuries and rotations. Most teams can’t sustain a high-risk, fast-paced approach for the duration of the game. But having the ability to hit that zone for short durations and making it count inspires confidence.
Coventry – Tough to take it easy
This articles does a good job capturing the contrasting states of the two clubs with useful details on Coventry’s plight. Almost all of that is off the pitch though, as Steven Pressley’s side have suffered only one defeat in their last eleven competitive fixtures. But for the 10 point handicap imposed on them, the Sky Blues would be in playoff positions.
Does that make this a massive test for the Gunners? No. But it remains a potential banana skin that could result in a painful stumble.
In football, defending remains significantly easier than attacking. And that means the relatively smaller teams always have a chance if they can produce the work rate and discipline needed to keep a clean sheet. Remember the dictum – if you can’t win, don’t lose. And the corollary of sorts – if you don’t lose, you can sometimes sneak a win.
For the visitors this game is mostly going to be about playing with a nothing-to-lose mindset coupled with a desire to prove themselves against the best. For them, and with all due respect, an upset in a game like this could be the highlight of the season. Losing won’t make much of a difference. Such a scenario can sometimes lift a team to great heights or it can result in an indifferent performance, particularly if the start is poor and they go behind. We’ll have to see how the patterns pan out.
Arsenal don’t have to do much different for this game, they just have to play their game. A steady mix of concentration, work rate, patience, and composure should do the trick. And, it goes without saying, avoid gifting goals.
It’s interesting that Wenger says Ramsey and Arteta are not available. It’s speculation but I think one or both would have been in the squad had this been a game against one of the bigger sides. That’s not to criticize the manager, I actually like the idea of giving his key players extra time to recover. Hopefully, he’ll extend similar courtesy to some others who are likely to be very busy in February and March.
I’d like to see,
Fabianski – Jenkinson, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Flamini, Wilshere, AOC – Gnabry, Bendtner, Podolski.
With Özil, Giroud, and Santi on the bench, Arsenal should have enough firepower to turn things around if they don’t go according to plan.
Of course, many will say that the club should not take the competition lightly and the players have had enough rest over the last couple of weeks. That’s true from a short term point of view but the miles logged in every game start having an effect as the season reaches the business end. I’d prefer if key players like Özil, Mertesacker, and Giroud had extra reserves at such times because the big games will come thick and fast after a couple of weeks.
The starting line-up mentioned above is not an ideal combination but the players should have enough to get the result. Many of them could use the minutes on the pitch anyway. They just have to avoid frustration if the combinations don’t click early on. Trying hard to force things can have unintended adverse effects.
Having said all that, I’ll actually be pleasantly surprised if Wenger does indeed rest so many of his big players. Last season’s disappointments are still fresh in memory and he’ll certainly want to avoid a repeat.Follow @goonerdesi