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 FA Cup Semi-Final

April 12, 2014

It should be spring but for Arsenal it seems like the fall season is here. Arsenal have picked up 22 points in 2014 – the same as West Ham and one less than Man United. And that is largely down to the three wins at the start of the year as the last 11 games have resulted in just 13 points.

It’s not just a matter of points. The team seems bereft of ideas in attack and regressing to defensive errors they’d worked very hard to solve. The struggles of the unit/system are also having a noticeable adverse effect on individual performances. Far too many players are underperforming. This drop in performances is the bigger concern because it hasn’t felt like the Gunners deserved anything more than they got. If anything, they’ve been lucky to get away with a few points when not playing particularly well.

In a way, Everton really benefitted from Arsenal’s slide. I thought the Toffees actually played better in the game at the Emirates than they did in this one. But they produced more decisive moments at home and deserved the three points even if it was made easy for them. It seems the ‘Be a Gooner, Be a Giver’ campaign is back as Wenger’s players were quite generous with their gifts.

The spacing between the lines going awry, opponents getting a lot of time on the ball in dangerous areas, defenders not taking responsibility, individuals conceding possession cheaply and running into blind alleys, and other chronic issues have all returned in varying degrees.

I still can’t believe Vermaelen let that ball run across the face of his goal. What was he thinking? Was he thinking?! Monreal has struggled in individual battles throughout the season and was again exposed repeatedly. Flamini lacked discipline, Arteta pace. Both made many poor choices. Podolski had moments where he sparked to life and large phases of being a deadweight. Almost everyone else was also below par.

At the moment, my biggest concern is that Arsenal seem incapable of getting much from a game if they don’t score first and the possibility of things getting even worse is very real. It’s intricately linked to the inability to defend higher up the pitch. Either the opponents get in behind or the lines are stretched. In either case the goal is exposed. And more often than not it’s been pretty easy for any team with decent quality that most of the top sides possess.

Ramsey’s return was the only positive but it may yet turn out to be a false one. Hopefully, the Welshman hasn’t been rushed and will remain fit till the end of the season. Fingers crossed.

Wigan – The season depends on the Cup

Winning the FA Cup can still make this season a memorable one. If nothing else, it will get a very pesky and constantly growing monkey off Arsenal’s back. It’s been big enough for the last few seasons that it can make getting up after disappointments that much harder. It also slows the team down drastically when they lose momentum.

Ergo, even though I generally don’t care much about results in domestic cup competitions, it’s definitely something that can salvage this season to an extent.

I haven’t seen Wigan play a full game this season but did catch most of their triumph over City and parts of their close win over Leeds last weekend. They are not very different from the side that won the Cup last season and many of their players are still there. In that sense, the Gunners might find it relatively easier to prepare for this game than if they’d come up against a completely unknown opponent from the lower divisions.

Last season’s loses to Blackburn and Bradford were extremely disappointing. Wenger’s side found it very hard to break through a couple of deep-lying, organized, and committed defences. This game will be similar but I doubt Wigan will have the same quality of organization. I think they make up for it through more energetic defending that involves a lot of chasing but Arsenal should be able to get past their first line of defence more often than they did against the two lower division sides last season.

That being said, the Latics will have no trouble defending their goal if the Gunners don’t gel as a unit. The attack needs more ideas, coordination, and invention. Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey could be vital.

Wenger also has to find a way to ensure his team does not concede the first goal. It’ll mostly be about avoiding individual mistakes but they must also remain compact as a unit. Hopefully, the central defenders will feel a tad more confident when defending higher up the pitch because if they are able to push up and compress the field, it makes the pressing job that much easier for other players.

Wenger will probably have to go with his strongest eleven and hope that they can deliver. There isn’t much scope for resting players.

We might see,

Fabianski – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey – AOC, Giroud, Rosicky.

Kallstrom is an option. I don’t know how he’s done in training so it’s hard to say he should start. Sanogo could also be an interesting, if risky, choice as Giroud has been off the boil. Gibbs or Koscielny being fit would help.

A win in this game can still set up a decent-ish end to the season. I don’t think the team will recover from a defeat and the run in could become unbearable. Unfortunately, both outcomes seem equally likely at the moment because first of all the Gunners have to compete with themselves (lack of confidence, individual errors, etc.) and win that battle. It could be a bloody one that isn’t pleasant to watch. So, to be on the safe side, I’m going to skip watching this live. Good luck to the Gunners and everyone who’s decided to brave it out.


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.


Thoughts On Everton And Bayern Games

March 11, 2014

The FA Cup seemed like Arsenal’s best trophy chance before the game against Everton. After the win and City’s subsequent loss the Gunners are now the favourites. It seems like fate but we probably shouldn’t tempt it.

Even if we hold our horses and don’t think about results at Wembley, the win over the Toffees was, in itself, quite enjoyable. Not surprisingly, Wenger went with a good combination of pace and skill with sturdy defensive base behind them and, along with notable contributions from the substitutes, that proved strong enough for a convincing win.

I thought the start of the game was pretty similar to the League fixture between the sides. Everton were energetic and made things hard for the Gunners in the central third. The key difference this time around was in Arsenal’s ability to play past that pressure.

The build-up to the goal was superb. Starting with Sagna hassling Pienaar and Arteta chasing Barry, Arsenal forced a turnover in the central third. The Gunners then played 9 passes before Özil slotted the ball into the net. 9 players were involved in the move that lasted around 20 seconds. What I liked most was the ability to the players to deal with Everton’s pressure without panicking or losing sight of their own attacking intent. It always helps when teammates are constantly showing to receive the ball.

See the way Flamini calmly dismissed the attentions of Barkley, or the way Arteta received the ball while facing his own goal and found a way to pass forward. Chamberlain’s flick was a tad ambitious but a slip by McCarthy helped Cazorla get a chance to run into space. A bit of luck is sometimes needed for such a move to succeed and you can also argue the speed of Arsenal’s passing played a part in that mistake.

As discussed before the game, both teams were going to struggle with their high lines if the opponents got past the initial press. So it was no surprise to see Everton stretched and in no shape to defend a simple enough run and finish from Özil as he passed the ball into the net without flinching under the pressure of two defenders sliding in front of him.

The visitors’ best hope of troubling the Gunners lay in their ability to press in the centre of the pitch and control possession but once Arsenal showed, through the goal and a few other attacks, that they could break past that congested centre, it was clear Martinez’s side had lost their plan A. After the first 15 minutes or so they spent most of the time till the half time whistle camped much deeper in their half with very rare meaningful forays forward. This meant the game was now completely different from the League meeting.

That one of those occasional breaks resulted in the equalizer was hugely disappointing and a timely reminder that there’s plenty of scope for improving the defensive thought. We are often told players like Flamini ‘break play up’ but this was an excellent example that individuals don’t make that big a difference because the Frenchman was the primary culprit for the goal.

Arsenal had so many bodies forward that any counter-attack was going to be risky. Flamini should have just held his position behind Barkley and forced him to pass the ball backwards. The couple of seconds or so such an  action would take would normally be enough for a couple of players to get into better defensive positions. Sagna, although you can question why he wasn’t a few yards deeper in the first place, would most certainly have appreciated that opportunity to move back from his advanced position. Having picked up a booking for a trademark lunge earlier in the game, Flamini wasn’t in a position to tackle Barkley either.

He did do reasonably well to slow the youngster’s burst and pushed him wide but the back post remained wide open and Mertesacker was taken out of the picture by Lukaku’s movement. One might argue that Özil could have done a bit more to help Flamini but the Frenchman is in the side to ensure the attacking players have more freedom.

Early in the second half there was another scare when a classic Vermaelen catastrophe moment led to a gilt-edged chance for Barkley, who shot over the bar. I did feel in this game one of Everton’s weaknesses was the inexperience of their talented but raw youngsters. Even Lukaku, for instance, had wasted a promising moment after Chamberlain had gifted the ball to him in a dangerous area. In contrast, the Gunners showed experience and composure that led to precision and efficiency.

The three goals Arsenal got in the second half were also very interesting. Did you notice they all came from Baines’ side with mistakes from Barry as well? The full-back was done in by a simple one-two for the second and lacked the pace to recover. Barry made the obvious error but Baines’ positioning and choices were poor. The third goal was again a one-two down the flank with the full-back again left high and dry. This time Barry didn’t even bother going to the by line and Sagna had ample time to pick his pass. For the fourth, Baines again did not have the pace to track back.

I’ve often noted the fact that his attacking contributions have covered up for his limited defensive contribution and this is augmented by the fact that he’s played most of his games under Moyes whose tactics meant he was rarely left without protection. Just as Barry has showed he isn’t exactly suited to starting roles at top sides, Baines too will struggle if left to man the flank on his own at a big club with very high expectations.

Arsenal’s fourth goal was simply outstanding and one that I enjoyed watching more than Rosicky’s goal against Sunderland or Wilshere’s against Norwich, which came against clearly inferior opposition. The precision of the move and the intelligence of the players was top class. The weight on Cazorla’s pass, and the subsequent one-touch actions by Rosicky, Özil, and Giroud were about as perfect as football can get.

Santi gets my vote for the MotM. Özil was just as good. I don’t think anyone had a poor game, although there were individual errors from more than one.

It was good to see Arsenal use width well in this game. I really enjoyed some quick passes out to a wide player hugging the touchline. But Everton were fairly open throughout the game and that makes a big difference as spaces are more readily available for people to get in behind or when receiving the ball on the touchline.

One way to judge whether the Gunners are close their best or not is to see the number of multi-player moves that are created. As we saw with the first and last goal, and numerous other attacks in this game, four or more players combined to break forward. That can only work when the passing is crisp and accurate, virtually telepathic. In that sense, this was an immensely enjoyable and inspiring performance.

Bayern Munich – Go for broke or play for pride?

This is a tricky game. Arsenal came very close to knocking out the eventual champions last season and, in the process, showed that the difference between the two clubs’ quality was not that big. The first 8-10 minutes of the reverse leg also corroborate that. It’s understandable then if Wenger wants to go for another upset in Germany with hopes of doing one better this time.

The flip side is that Bayern will be much better prepared this time around. As much as Arsenal’s win last season was down to their solidity and efficiency, it was also down to the hosts’ mental state and slackness on the pitch. I don’t think we will see a repeat of that and as a result the Gunners could really get caught out by some clever counter-attacking football by the Germans. If the scoreline becomes embarrassing – and we’ve already seen against City and Liverpool that Arsenal have the potential to crumble against such an attack – it will put pressure on the team before the upcoming big games.

An early goal can work wonders for either team. If Arsenal score they can then settle into the game and Bayern will get a bit nervous because it would mean any other goal from the Gunners and this game would be level. Imagine 80 minutes of play left and Wenger’s side within one goal of forcing extra time? That would certainly make the game very exciting, even if it becomes tense and cagey.

The hosts taking the lead will probably secure the tie for them and they can then perform with greater comfort and look to pick gaps as Wenger’s side are forced into extra risks with passing time. It’s the kind of situation where the score can look bad for the visitors.

I think the best approach for Arsenal would be to go for it in the opening exchanges just as they did at home. Bayern are an excellent team but they are not at the same technical level as Barcelona were and that means they can be hassled into mistakes. Doesn’t happen often, of course, but if anyone can do it a Premier League side can.

The Gunners must be wary of Bayern doing to them what they did to Everton, i.e. play through the pressure and expose the high line. To me the role of Flamini in front of the defence and the two full-backs in tracking the tricky wide players will be vital. Vermaelen, if filling in for injured teammates, can come in under extreme pressure through individual skills, overloads, and well-timed runs of opponents. He will need a fair amount of support.

There is also a good chance that Arsenal will spend a lot of time without the ball deep in their own half. The usual tendency against big teams is to defend the central areas with numbers and surrender the flanks. I’m not convinced that’s a good approach, certainly not if they don’t get close to the ball.

Guardiola is likely to be more aggressive in this game and I won’t be surprised if Lahm starts in midfield. Pressing him and limiting his options on the ball will be important if Arsenal want to defend while having attacking options open.

Team selection will probably be down to one or two choices,

Fabianski – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen – Arteta, Özil, Flamini – AOC, Giroud, Rosicky.

I think Santi could do with a break and Rosicky can provide better cover for the left-back. That would give the Gunners a chance to play their recently favoured 4-4-2 without the ball wherein Özil stays a little higher up the pitch.

Another option is to put Sagna at left-back and bring Jenkinson in at right back. I’m not sure that’d be a very clever choice. Same can be said about starting Flamini at left-back.

Finally, Wenger can also play Rosicky on the right and Cazorla on the left with Chamberlain on the bench. Based on the current winds of hype this is likely to be the least popular option but it can work if the individuals execute their roles as they’re supposed to.

This should not be a high priority game for the Gunners and I don’t have many expectations from it. Any result would be alright as long as Wenger’s side doesn’t crumble defensively. If the players also go with a nothing to lose mentality then who knows…


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