Thoughts On Debuchy, Ospina, Chambers, Jenkinson, And Emirates Cup

August 1, 2014

The last couple of weeks have been good for Arsenal as some of the obvious holes in the squad have been plugged with quality players who are, for the most part, comparable to the ones they are replacing or even somewhat better.

This being a late article, here are some quick observations that stand out about each of transfers including comparisons with departing players.

Debuchy

Even though the new Arsenal right back started over his predecessor for France at the World Cup, I’ve a feeling he will have to prove himself all over again at Arsenal. It’s not because his quality is questionable, but more due to the important role that Sagna played for the Gunners.

Wenger’s team uses the flanks as an outlet almost all the time when they are trying to build from the back and the opponent is working hard to close the options down in the centre of the field. Sagna’s technical ability, the willingness to receive the ball under pressure, composure in holding and passing it, and other skills like concentration, physicality, and tenacity made him a vital cog in this process. Debuchy is coming from a team that didn’t pass the ball as much as Arsenal. According to stats on Squawka, there is a clear difference in their passes per 90 (Sagna – 53; Debuchy – 36) and pass accuracy (S- 85%; D- 73%).

It won’t be a surprise if Debuchy improved his numbers just by virtue of being in a technically stronger side this season but this is an aspect I’ll be watching closely in the first few competitive games. His passing accuracy for France at the World Cup was just below 78% but total number of passes was still close to his Newcastle number. Any breakdown in the buildup play can lead to defensive problems as well as that situation of the attack being separated from the defence without a link in between. The adjustment here has to be very quick.

It’s interesting that the two are very close to each other in terms of aerial duels contested and won because that’s another outlet for Arsenal when the opponent is somewhat successful with their pressing.

Debuchy seems busier of the two when comparing some of the defensive metrics. He wins more tackles, loses more tackles, makes more interceptions and blocks, and commits more fouls. Again, it’s hard to pinpoint just how much of this is down to the playing styles of the two teams rather than individual qualities. That said, I do get the feeling that Debuchy is slightly more aggressive as a defender and is looking to break forward and get into attacking areas compared to Sagna who was more about providing width and options on the flank even when he got into advanced areas.

Despite his relatively reserved style, fighting spirit, tendency to chase back at full tilt, and endless stamina, there were enough instances in the last couple of years when we all have thought the full-back was not where he should have been. Part of this is down to the manager’s instructions and this is another area where I want to see how Debuchy performs. I’m not convinced he has some of Sagna’s aforementioned qualities and there could be trouble if he keeps getting caught higher up the pitch.

On the positive side, there is a greater chance of getting decisive attacking contribution from the man who’s come to London than the man who’s gone to Manchester. A clever and quick interception just inside the Arsenal half, for instance, could provide a great launch pad for the pace that Wenger could have at his disposal if key players remain fit. I’m also hoping for slightly better crossing, timing of overlapping runs, and attacking contribution on set-pieces from the former Newcastle man.

All-in-all, Debuchy seems like a reasonable replacement for an important player with some risks that will have to be identified and mitigated, and the potential to be a little more exciting and decisive.

Ospina

Fabianski’s Arsenal career has been crazy. From some unbelievable howlers to keeping goal in the title-drought-ending FA Cup win, he’s evoked all kinds of extreme emotions. I thought it was nice that he left with a trophy, but it also felt like something that was good for all concerned. There was something about Fabianski, maybe just the multitude of mistakes from the past, that made it very hard for me to trust him as main goalkeeper at the club.

Given that I’m not a big Szczesny fan either, it seemed essential that the club brings in someone who can do better. Wenger’s answer is Colombian international David Ospina.

In case you haven’t read/seen these already, here are a couple of interesting articles on the Nice guy

And here are a couple of videos…

I haven’t seen much of him outside of the World Cup and some video YouTube, but even in this limited watching experience a few qualities are immediately obvious.

He seems like a goalkeeper with great reflexes and one who keeps his eye on the ball till the very end. That latter part is a big improvement on Szczesny who has this tendency of committing far too early. Training with the Colombian can help the Pole improve. Arsenal’s latest Ligue 1 import is also better than the current goalie when it comes to recovering after making the first save. It’s another crucial detail because both have the tendency to put the ball back into the danger area from the initial save.

None of the Arsenal goalkeepers in recent years have been particularly good in the air and Wenger has finally found some degree of control at the back in such situations by getting his outfield players, mainly centre backs, to take more responsibility. The Colombian does seem the aggressive type but I’m not convinced he will be any better than Szczesny at commanding the air in the penalty box. In that sense, this will still be a work in progress for the coaching staff as they have to ensure the ‘Keepers don’t drop the ball, so to speak, on set-pieces and crosses.

The Colombian’s aggression will also be worth watching when it comes to one-v-ones. Szczesny is adept at giving away penalties and been lucky to get away without a red card on more than one occasion. Fabianski’s wanderlust has given many a gooner a nervous breakdown. Can Ospina do better? I don’t know the answer to that but I’m very eager to find out. He can offer a marked improvement to the Gunners if he combines his concentration and ability to watch the ball till the very end with intelligent decision making, something which might take a bit of time to develop in a new, faster, and more physical league.

While I don’t encourage drawing direct conclusions from it, the following stats comparison using the Squawka tool is quite interesting.

Ospina Stats Comparison

click to enlarge

All things considered, it’s hard to make a case for Szczesny being the first choice. I hope Wenger is ruthless and decisive here.

Chambers and Jenkinson

There has been a need for a versatile defensive player at Arsenal for at least a couple of years now. Wenger has tried to sign a few such players during this period including the likes of Smalling and Jones, who are, in part, comparable to the latest young gun that Wenger has signed.

Calum Chambers seems like a talented prospect with potential to be a very good multifaceted defensive player. He seems to have composure, technique, and game intelligence, which should provide a solid foundation. He lacks experience, obviously, and his mental attributes haven’t really been tested yet to the fullest extent. This will happen over the next season or two as he takes the field in high pressure games. I’m hoping to see a steep learning curve along with the burning desire to get better with every game.

In recent years I’ve felt that a lot of young players have hit their performance ceiling just after or shortly before starting their top flight Arsenal careers. Afobe, Aneke, JET, Miquel, Frimpong, Coquelin, Eastmond, Eisfeld, and others have been on the fringes without quite making the cut in a convincing manner. At this moment, it’s hard to say even the likes of Szczesny, Wilshere, and Chamberlain deserve to be first choice for Arsenal even though they came in with much higher talent than their aforementioned young teammates. The likes of Djourou and Senderos didn’t fulfill the promise shown in their younger years either. Exploring this in depth calls for a separate article so I won’t get into the merits and demerits of the observation.

Nonetheless, Jenkinson is another example. I can’t say he’s improved a lot during his stay at the Emirates. There is a common misconception – Even leading to amusing suggestions that he should start ahead of Sagna after the Frenchman returned to fitness – that he did very well in a phase when Sagna was injured but the reality was that he was used in a more conservative role to hide his weaknesses. His performances were effective but hardly excellent. This was covered in various articles on this blog during that period and was pretty evident once the Frenchman got back to fitness and showed everyone what Arsenal had been missing.

Chambers is undoubtedly an improvement on the West Ham bound Arsenal fan in almost every aspect, except maybe pace and stamina but we’ll have to watch and see on that. That said, I hope Jenkinson has a good time at West Ham leading to a respectable top flight career and potentially bringing a substantially higher chunk of change to the Arsenal coffers than the 3 Million reportedly offered by Hull recently.

I’m also hopeful that Chambers will have a better time at Arsenal than many of the young players listed above mainly because of his better game intelligence. It should allow him to absorb more from his teammates and coaches, which in turn should result in a higher yield from the same hard work.

Emirates Cup

To say that the World Cup has been disruptive to Arsenal’s preparations for the upcoming season would be a massive understatement.

From the first choice eleven that I’d pick, Koscielny, Giroud, Debuchy, Sanchez, and Ospina have only come back to training in the last week or so. Mertesacker and Özil are still on vacation while Walcott is injured. Even if Szczesny starts in the first few games, that’s seven first choice players with little or no preseason training.

Furthermore, those who have been training didn’t quite look up to speed in the last game against the New York Red Bulls. Even with the caveat that it’s relatively early days in preseason, there is some cause for concern in my opinion because Arsenal have a tricky start to the season.

With those thoughts in mind, the importance of the Emirates Cup cannot be overstated. I don’t mean that they have to win the trophy. That’s pointless. But the players have to click together and find their sharpness/rhythm back. Wenger’s teams are generally extremely dependent on flow/momentum because so much of the play is instinctive and interlinked. Mertesacker and Özil might not be physically ready for those games and the lack of a centre back signing along with the uncertainty around Vermaelen only makes things more complicated. Arsene Wenger has to figure out his starting line-up for the first couple of games, at least, and he doesn’t have too many friendly games to suss his options out.

The training camp in Austria was a permanent fixture not too long ago and I believe bringing it back on the itinerary instead of a prolonged overseas visit was a good idea for this season. The performance of the team in the Emirates Cup will tell us if I’m right in thinking that. And more importantly, it’ll give us a good idea about the team’s readiness for a serious challenge.


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.


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.


Thoughts On Everton And The Predictably Disappointing March

April 6, 2014

Ever since the fixtures were announced, it was pretty clear that the Feb-March period was going to give us a the real picture of Arsenal’s quality and improvements this season. Starting with Southampton at the end of January till the game against City last weekend, the Gunners have picked up 13 points from 10 games. Crystal Palace have done better, as have eight other teams. Of course, some of them had easier fixtures and Wenger’s side had some injuries to contend with but it’s hard to argue this is the performance of a side deserving to be champions.

The thing that rankles most is the sheer predictability of poor performances and the nature of mistakes made. I cannot understand how a man as brilliant as Wenger chose the side he did at Stamford Bridge, and this is not the first time he has done it. The desire to go there and perform with style in search of a win is, in itself, commendable. Chelsea certainly haven’t been in the kind of form that would warrant extra caution or diffidence of any sort. But handing the game to the hosts with such an unbalanced starting eleven beggars belief. In most games it’s hard to argue any one individual could have turned the game on its head but Flamini alongside Arteta would have done so in that one. Anyway, I’d better not dwell on this too much as you’ve probably worked hard to put it out of your mind.

The draw against Swansea was another poor result. The team probably had some soreness from the previous thrashing that prevented them from playing close to their potential. The Gunners have won such games often this season but when you’re defending that deep there is always the risk of a freakish moment taking points away.

At home against City the team did better, in relative terms at least. And if they can build on that the season can still have a very good finish. The best case scenario is simple – eight wins. That would mean an FA Cup trophy and 82 points in the League. In my opinion that would make this season a resounding success irrespective of the actual league position. Here’s the problem though, I just can’t see it happening.

The Cup remains a lottery and much will depend on the kind of pressure the players feel going into the game. For instance, a bad defeat at Goodison park will create a negative pressure while a solid win will create positive pressure/momentum.

In the League, six wins out of six are doable based on the quality at Wenger’s disposal but unrealistic given current form, injuries, and mental state.

Everton – A Must Not Lose At Any Cost Fixture

Arsenal were 9 points ahead of Spurs and 11 of Everton at the beginning of March. Both those teams had a game in hand. While Sherwood’s side have now fallen behind (form worse than Arsenal’s over the last 10 games), Everton have won their last five games and cut that lead down to 4.

Both teams will feel they have the final top four spot in their hands. The Toffees have a slightly tougher run in but Arsenal are perfectly capable of dropping points in games they should be winning. This is a classic six-pointer and could set the tone for the rest of the season. Arsenal’s priority has to be to avoid defeat. It won’t be easy.

The last time Martinez’s side dropped points at home was on boxing day. That surprise reversal against Sunderland remains their only defeat at Goodison Park. Everton have picked up an impressive 2.4 PPG at home. Arsenal have the second best away record in the League but Wenger’s side have won two and lost three of their last six on the road.

The patterns of play will be governed by the intensity of Everton’s pressing and the control Arsenal can show when dealing with it. They won the Cup tie at home by playing through that pressure to take the lead. In this game, I feel, the Toffees will come harder. Breaking their resistance could result in a sweet win but any lack of sharpness is likely to lead to a bitter disappointment.

Arsenal will also have to find a way to prevent the hosts from controlling the ball in the centre of the park. Martinez’s side will consistently find spaces between the lines and in wide areas if the visitors sit too deep or lack cohesion in their pressing. We’ve seen both problems often enough this season for it to be a genuine worry. In fairness, the Gunners did a decent job of pressing in the centre of the pitch when the sides met a few weeks earlier but I expect the tempo to be much higher in this away game.

Everton have good creativity and attacking diversity in their squad along with energy and power. The main ingredient they lack is experience and that has resulted in a somewhat inefficient attack. In other words, they haven’t scored as many goals as their attacking qualities actually merit. The positive for them here is that if the attack does click as well as it can they have the potential to score three or four goals in such a game.

Their defending is very reliant on the midfield pair of McCarthy and Barry. Neither is particularly quick but both are disciplined, read the game well, and work hard. Nevertheless, getting behind that pairing is Arsenal’s best avenue for creating quality chances and it is possible if the passing has that bit of crispness. It’s not beyond the Gunners from a technical point of view but the players’ mindset plays a big part as well. It’s very hard to create the attacking flow if even one or two players are slow with their off-the-ball reactions or if the defence is demanding greater protection in deeper areas. Often these are linked because laborious possession can invite the opponents forward and make pressing easier for them.

Wenger doesn’t have too many options right now. I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Arteta, Cazorla, Flamini – AOC, Giroud, Rosicky.

Gibbs would be the first choice for left back if fit. Apart from that, Podolski on the left with either Chamberlain, Santi, or Rosicky on the bench is the only other option that seems feasible. The selection of the German could lead to a counter-attacking approach, which is not a bad option if the team is tactically prepared.

A late cameo for Ramsey will be interesting but I hope he is not rushed.

Unlike most other games the Gunners have played, a steady first half followed by a win in the second is not likely to be a good tactic for this one because Everton themselves are adept at gaining points late in the game. Arsenal have to cause some early damage and build on it instead of sitting on it. Conceding first is always a problem.

Over the last few years, one of the most frustrating aspects of supporting the Gunners has been the knowledge that they are good enough to win almost any game and, at the same time, the awareness that they can make a spectacular mess with little warning. I don’t know how the game will pan out but I doubt anything will surprise me.


Thoughts On Spurs, Chelsea, Swansea, And City

March 21, 2014

I am leaving for a trip in a few hours and will be away from a computer for the next week. With limited time the best approach seems to be to note key points from the win over Spurs and the three upcoming fixtures.

Grinding a win

This season has been about defending. And it’s worked reasonably well as far as results are concerned. Thus there was no surprise when the Gunners battled with focus and determination to eke out another away win in a difficult fixture.

The game followed, broadly speaking, the patterns that we’ve seen from both sides throughout the season. Spurs had a lot of control but very little penetration. They were physically strong but lacking in ideas. They had a high line that was suspect and there for the taking. It was easy to see why they’ve been at the receiving end of big defeats against the top sides.

Arsenal got the first goal but lacked decisive quality on the counter attacks subsequently, which meant the game was always in the balance. They defended resolutely and collectively but ended up too deep as time went by. The goal might even have handicapped the team but right now the safest bet is on the Gunners holding on to a lead against a side that has been toothless quite often rather than them coming from behind to secure the swashbuckling comeback wins of seasons past.

The Szczesny blunder and the subsequent blocks by defenders typify this Arsenal. When one individual fails miserably, others are there to save his blushes. Chadli’s miss provided the archetype of Spurs’ season.

Was it fun? No. Was it vital? Yes. It gives Arsenal a little buffer from the teams chasing champions league qualification and keeps them within touching distance of top. I still think the Gunners are fourth favourites for the title (bookmakers also have pretty long odds on Arsenal winning the League) but they have the next three games to change that perception.

Chelsea – Can be historic, can be Déjà Vu, can be a boring goalless draw

Wenger has never beaten Mourinho and Chelsea haven’t lost at home with the Portuguese at helm. It’s also Wenger’s 1000th game in charge. You could say the stage is set for a historic, season-defining game that could set the course for a bright future for Arsenal football club.

Then again, the Frenchman’s record against his counterpart, spread over a few years and a fair number of games, is not an accident. Nor is Jose’s home dominance.

His tactics will be quite predictable. Even though they probably can, Chelsea’s priority will not be to dominate possession or produce high quality football. They’ll start the game with the basic approach of not losing. That means controlling the vital central areas in their half and defending the penalty box.

Occasionally, and we might even see that at the start, they will press with intensity. They’ll build on it if the Gunners make mistakes or drop back into a solid defensive shape if the visitors hold their own and play past the pressure. Chelsea’s biggest goal threat will come on quick breaks. They create many chances, probably same as Liverpool or more, but their finishing has been inconsistent. Arsenal will need a bit of luck when the hosts break forward, as will inevitably happen.

When the game is very tight and a single goal can be decisive, a strong defensive side’s goal scoring potential from set-pieces and long range shots can also make the key difference. Arsenal, if they drop really deep, will have to ensure the opponents don’t get a clear sight of goal. Coming back into this game after conceding the first goal will be very tough.

At the other end, the Gunners offer a much more limited threat, particularly with injuries to important players who can produce the big decisive moments. They’ll again need a little bit of luck to go with a brilliant individual moment if they’re to carve the Chelsea defence apart. I think the best approach for Wenger’s side is to make sure they don’t lose. After that, 90 minutes is a long time for something to click in attack.

Arsenal should back their ability to win the second half and make sure the game is not beyond them before the first half ends.

The hazardous nature of Eden’s talent is not lost on any opponent but few have been able to contain it. Sagna will have a big role to play in the game and history tells us he can do it, but it won’t happen without sufficient help. Hazard is very good at stopping and starting abruptly with a change of direction and when coupled with his excellent initial acceleration, he becomes a slippery customer for any one player because the defender can only react to what the opponent is doing and that happens after the proactive player makes the choice. Often the milliseconds spent in understanding what just happened and then reacting to it are enough for a guy like Hazard to burst into space. After that it can be a wreck of dominoes if the other defensive players are not in the right places. As long as Sagna has enough support to discourage inward movement, the Frenchman should be able to do a good job defending the flank and the outside channel going towards the byline.

Chelsea might try to overload that flank with Oscar drifting towards that side and that will simply redouble the importance of getting the defensive bodies in the right areas. Arsenal cannot afford to be as deep as they were against Spurs and cannot allow Chelsea to see as much of the ball in their penalty box.

It might be interesting to put a player like Chamberlain on the same flank as he would offer similar challenges to the Chelsea left back and can possibly limit his forward forays. Just as it proved against Spurs, that area could be Arsenal’s way in.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Flamini – AOC, Giroud, Podolski.

This remains a must-not-lose six pointer in the title race and avoiding a defeat will also help consolidate the place in Champions League spots. Chelsea don’t have too many big games left but they do have a trip to Anfield coming up. With other Champions League distractions still to come, a wobble at home could see them slip further down in the League. It’s a low probability event but Arsenal can get three points if they play their cards right and get a bit of luck.

Swansea – A tricky game between the big ones

The Swans were flying high last season but seem to have come back down to earth this year. Nevertheless, and their current relegation-threatened existence notwithstanding, the Welsh side remain a formidable opponent who, on their day, can upset any of the big sides.

That this fixture will be played when the Gunners are bruised and battered by some seriously big encounters and still looking forward to other decisive battles in the near future is not be ideal. It could lead to a little bit of lack in focus or concentration. At this level such drops can be decisive.

Otherwise, the game should be a pretty standard fight between two technical sides. Arsenal’s advantage will be that the opponents lack consistent quality in the final third. It’s the biggest factor in determining where teams end up in the table and those very close to the bottom are usually struggling for goals or balance or both. It could be another game where Wenger’s side will have to rely on a patient and professional display. Goals should come if they are persistent as the Swans won’t have as strong a defence as the major challengers Arsenal have come up against this year.

The result and performance against Chelsea could also have a direct bearing on how this game is played. A positive one at Stamford Bridge could make this game a lot more comfortable. A negative one could induce the handbrake and make life harder than it needs to be.

Manchester City – Can Arsenal make the home advantage count?

Pellegrini’s side are out of the FA Cup and the Champions League but that could give them further motivation to win the Premiership. It should also help with their scheduling from here on in. They have games in hand and are capable of winning those, which makes them title favourites.

Arsenal have to win such a game to convince many fans and most neutral observers that they remain serious contenders. Of course, that will also depend on the results from the previous two games but, even assuming the low-probability best case scenario of six points from those ties, it’s such home matches that the Gunners haven’t won often enough over the last few years, and that provides sufficient grounds for doubting their title aspirations.

Wenger’s side will not be crowned champions at the end of march but they could drop out of the reckoning. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily a bad thing as the players can focus more on the FA Cup, but the nagging pull of negativity can result in Cup disappointment too if these types of games produce adverse results and poor performances.

It’s hard to predict this one tactically. Wenger went with a very proactive approach in the corresponding away fixture but suffered a bad defeat. Despite some refereeing decisions going against his side, it’s hard to argue the teams were on the same level. City simply have a much better attack and the Gunners could be on the end of another tennis score if they go all out in attack.

Holding firm defensively and playing for one or two big chances during the course of the game will again be the pragmatic approach. Arsenal have found an extra gear against the smaller teams but it’s not always clicked in place against the top sides. Part of it is linked to the nature of their defending as many players are pulled back deep inside their territory. It remains this side’s biggest area of improvement on the collective front.

Can the team defend well a little higher up the pitch? The answer to that question will have a direct bearing on their result against City and maybe even against Chelsea.

The two central defenders and their supporting cast have done very well but a lot of that is linked to redundancy in defence that comes at the expense of options in attack. Mertesacker and Koscielny have been exceptional in and around the Arsenal penalty box but eventually they’ll have to prove they can do it higher up the pitch. Till that happens the bigger trophies will always be a distant dream.

I’ll write more about this once I’m back and get a chance to watch all these games. That should happen at the end of the month or early in April.


Thoughts On Bayern And NLD

March 16, 2014

Sometimes seemingly redundant games also have their share of tense bits and entertaining moments. Arsenal’s visit to Germany certainly did. Bayern didn’t have to win that game, they didn’t even need a draw because they’d go through as long as they avoided losing by two goals. Arsenal had very little realistic chance of achieving the kind of win that would see them through but a bad defeat could potentially hurt them for the rest of the season. So it was understandable that neither side was looking to force the issue.

The first half was tepid. I couldn’t understand what Wenger’s plan was. While it’s inconceivable that he’d deliberately go with high school tactics – Everyone get behind the ball and when we have possession give the ball to this wonderkid who’ll run through the opposition to get us a goal – that’s how the Gunners seemed to be playing. Chamberlain had some promising individual moments but they were the kind that rarely result in a meaningful shot or goal against such a quality side because there was no cohesiveness in attack. Dribble, dribble, dribble, fizzle. Team selection suggested a counter-attacking approach but most of the time was spent in chasing the ball deep in their own half. There was no urgency in pressing higher up the pitch and that negated any possibility of threatening transitions. Özil’s injury must also have played it’s part but it’s a bit strange that a decision to replace him wasn’t taken earlier.

Bayern, for their part, were lackadaisical and risk averse. They got to the penalty box quite often but rarely had a clear look at goal. Fabianski had a lot of touches but very few, if any, significant saves to make in that period. In fairness, the onus was not on them and they were extremely efficient at controlling Arsenal’s offensive forays. They were also up against a very determined and focussed Arsenal defence.

The second half was a better. The Gunners showed more desire but it was the hosts who went ahead. Schweinsteiger’s run from deep was excellent. Both Chamberlain and Cazorla are not used to a central midfield role and were caught napping as the German international ghosted past them to arrive in the box unmarked. His finish was composed and intelligently placed.

Arsenal got the equalizer almost immediately and it was immensely enjoyable. While watching live, Podolski’s push on Lahm looked like a clear foul to me, but slow motion replays brought a seed of doubt. There were no misgivings about the power and placement of his nonchalantly taken shot though and Neuer’s evasive action in goal was priceless. Guardiola’s disgust on the sidelines added to the effect. The controversial aspect would have been much bigger and the entertainment one limited had this goal, in any way, had an impact on the result of the tie over two legs.

It was interesting to see Bayern rattled for a few minutes after they conceded the equalizer. It just shows that when the tactical rhythm of any team is broken the experience and mentality of the players on the pitch doesn’t make a difference. This was Arsenal’s chance but they didn’t have enough quality to take it. The hosts got back into the groove and regained control after that.

There were some promising moments for Arsenal as the game progressed but they seemed the type that the likes of Norwich and Cardiff would produce against the Gunners in the League. Gnabry breaking forward with one or two options in the box and the rest of the team way behind, or Giroud in a situation where he has to make a 20+ yard pass (not a flick or chip) between the defenders to find a teammate in the box is hardly a situation that will consistently result in a goal against opposition of this quality.

In the end the result was acceptable for both sides. Arsenal got a creditable draw that should help sustain the team’s confidence after the win over Everton. Bayern went through to the quarter-final without getting out of second gear. I enjoyed sporadic moments but not the game per se because it never felt like a real contest.

NLD – 3-pointer in title race, 6-pointer in battle for fourth.

At the start of the tricky period in February, the Gunners had a nine point lead over Spurs in 5th place. Now that is down to six and a defeat at White Hart Lane would bring it down to three. With two massive fixtures coming up, there is a very real possibility that Arsenal could end up outside the top four by the end of March. Some fans think that a domestic cup is more important than finishing in Champions League spots and it’s not unreasonable to think of that as a realistic outcome this season.

In order to avoid that, this game becomes a must-not-lose-at-any-cost fixture as even a draw would keep the buffer at six points. Things could get interesting if United beat Liverpool.

The best case scenario, obviously, is a win for Wenger’s side that will help close the gap with Chelsea and could, at least temporarily, place the team in second spot. We’d have to go back to 2007 to find Arsenal’s last win in this fixture, which doesn’t bode well for a positive result tomorrow. On the other hand, this is Tottenham’s performance against the current top four this season,

  Home Away
Chelsea

D1-1

L0-4

Manchester City

L1-5

L0-6

Liverpool

L0-5

?

Arsenal

?

L0-1

They’ve conceded twenty goals and scored once in four games since that draw against Chelsea at the end of September. Arsenal’s win though, while it came early in the season when Spurs had the excuse of not having had the opportunity to gel together, was a much more closely fought encounter where the visitors had decent possession while the Gunners had many chances on the counter-attack after taking an early lead.

There have been phases in all their big games, even the ones with humiliating defeats, where Tottenham have competed with the opponents on a level footing. But they’ve not found a way to score in these periods and their defence has invariably yielded, often without much pressure.

Is this game going to be different? To be honest, I don’t know. At the moment, Arsenal don’t have the same goal scoring potential that City or Liverpool have. Even Chelsea create more on the counter-attacks than the Gunners. This should give Sherwood’s side a greater chance of protecting their goal.

Arsenal’s collective work in defence has also been their biggest strength so it’ll be a big surprise if Spurs get over their scoring struggles. Individuals like Adebayor can prove decisive on their day but it hasn’t happened often enough for Tottenham this year.

All things considered, unless there are crazy individual errors, this should be a relatively low scoring affair. Three goals or less in total would be my guess.

It’s hard to predict the patterns of play in this game. Spurs played on Thursday so it’s quite likely that Sherwood will rotate some of his side. They do have enough players in the squad and fairly good variety, but neither of their managers has found the right balance this season.

Their biggest offensive threat will possibly come from pace and runs in behind, although a cross that finds Adebayor in the box can also prove lethal. Defensively, the main weakness could be at left-back and just in front of the central defence. A quick transition can also expose the space behind their high line.

Wenger doesn’t have many choices given the spate of injuries.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Cazorla, Flamini – AOC, Giroud, Podolski.

Chamberlain could pose a serious threat down the right against any of their left-backs. Cazorla could have fun in the centre with two direct players on the flanks and a central striker who can play one-touch in a forceful, physically imposing manner.

I’d like to see Flamini stay deeper and Arteta play with greater vertical freedom. The Spaniard was very good in that role when playing alongside Song in his first season at the club.

The full-backs should be a bit more conservative with their positioning because Spurs have the pace to trouble the Gunners when breaking forward. Monreal, in particular, can struggle because he is a slow turner and doesn’t always get his body shape right. Sagna is faster at responding but his adventurous positioning can, at times, leave him with a lot to do.

In the recent past, curiously enough, this fixture has consistently defied the odds when it comes to the side-scoring-first-takes-the-points theory. Even two goals leads have been dangerous! But if it’s a low scoring tie, the first goal could again be decisive.


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