Magic, Mistake ,Madness and the Wayne Rooney master class for a guaranteed penalty

August 30, 2009

In the preview yesterday, I mentioned that the game will boil down to individual moments of magic or mistakes. What I didn’t think of was the 12th man. How very stupid of me!

Arshavin, as expected, provided the sublime. There was a time when I used to wonder how God created the universe out of nothing. The little Russian demonstrates how. There were so many times when he got it wrong, a dribble that fizzled, or a pass that went astray. But we knew the masterpiece was coming when Dean failed to award the penalty. How could he have generated so much power? Surely, he must have seen the referees backside reflected in the ball.

Almunia, somewhat sadly and unexpectedly, provided the ridiculous. Well, Rooney dived and I will write about it in detail later, but Almunia was plain stupid to leave his arms out. If he had been watching the ball till the last moment he would have realized that Rooney had over committed and was going to fall anyway without getting control of the ball. Almunia later realized the mistake as was evident from his gesture.

Diaby, of course, will plead not guilty by temporary insanity. There can be no other reason. Unless the referee told him to score an own goal if he didn’t want three of his colleagues sent off. Diaby must have thought that if we got three guys sent off we would most likely lose. On the other hand, even if he scored an own goal we would perhaps have a fighting chance with 11 men on the field. He also saved three of his team mates from getting a minimum of three match bans then. Pretty smart thinking on his part and certainly no insanity there. In which case, his defence would perhaps be, not guilty by coercion. I had temporary insanity while writing that paragraph, but having come to my senses, offer my complete support to lanky Frenchman.

Ultimately, we created the magic, we made the mistake and we had a moment of madness. The only thing we didn’t have were the points. If I try to be objective, I am not sure we dominated the game. I don’t think anyone dominated the game. It was a crowded midfield and there were hardly any clear chances for both sides. Diaby tried hard but couldn’t generate much in the final third. Song and Denilson are perhaps as creative as Carrick and Fletcher. So we didn’t expect much there anyway. To top it off, most of our set pieces had poor delivery.  Apart from AA there wasn’t any real spark in the game. Sparks flew though. However, they were contrived and of the diving variety. Real Spark? Wasn’t any.

That brings me crashing down to the Wayne Rooney master class. The word cunning comes to mind. If you have to dive, you have learn to dive in a manner that makes the whole world fall for it. The head master showed, in a live project, how it’s done. Firstly, you have to know that the goal keeper is coming for it. If you don’t have that kind of intelligence, it’s not a game for you. Once you see the goalkeeper coming you have to switch your mind back to the warm ups. Remember how you stretch your legs. Once you have accomplished these, the trick is in the timing. You have to practice your stretch and kick the ball away. Thankfully, you can kick it anywhere. It doesn’t matter. Then you make sure you linger in the same position enough, so that the keeper comes very close to you. If you are lucky, he will be a fool and crash into you. See ridiculous above. If not, you lean into him and fall. This last part is the most difficult and would need special training from Steven Gerrard or Rafa Benitez. If you work on your leap and facial expressions also, there is no ref in the world who won’t point to the spot. So there it is, the Wayne Rooney master class to a guaranteed penalty.

Rooney practicing his dive

Rooney: practicing his dive -- pulling it off


Another big test of the new formation

August 28, 2009

Arsene has already said the right words regarding the Eduardo controversy – Disgraceful, illogical and unacceptable. So I will just focus on the game tomorrow.

Le boss has said that we have used this formation before in last years champions league semi-finals. He also conceded that it failed miserably then. With big changes on both sides since then, there are reasons for Arsenal fans to be optimistic.

United are without Van der Saar, Ferdinand and Ronaldo. It clearly weakens them. Arsenal had started that game with a back four of Sagna, Toure, Djourou and Gibbs. With the first choice back four available and in great form, it will definitely give us more confidence.

The Red Devils had scored their first on a counter and the second from a Ronaldo free kick. Can they produce a similar performance again? Nani has previously troubled us in an FA cup game. Will he be able to step up? Will Berbatov step up? If we play a 4-3-3, our full backs tend to be exposed more. Nani will definitely be dangerous in that case. Will Arsene change the 4-3-3 to a more defensive 4-5-1 to provide cover to the full backs?

From an Arsenal point of view Arshavin is the key man. Even though he has been relatively quiet so far and the midfield trio is getting all the accolades. I can’t see the likes of Denilson and Diaby opening up a strong United defence. Defensively, the partnership of Vermaelen and Gallas faces the first real challenge in the form of Rooney and Berbatov. I am more worried about Gallas than Vermaelen. He is more likely to make a mistake or be found wanting. So far luck has been with him – he has scored a couple of really freakish goals and avoided getting sent off.

I suspect Arsene will start with the following line up – Almunia, Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy, Eboue, Song, Denilson, Diaby, Van Persie, Arshavin. This will leave us a little vulnerable on the left if Diaby continues to drift in and go forward. Bendtner was able to slot in to the left against Celtic but the same cannot be expected of Arshavin. Clichy might stay back a little more to counter this.

All in all this looks like a cracker and it will boil down to a couple of individual moments of magic or mistakes and the tactics of the managers.


Luck has done its bit, now we have to do ours

August 27, 2009

This was the first time I saw the draw live. It was quite boring but just the right names came out for group H. Or should I say group H came out for the right names as the group name was plucked out after the club name in the draw process. The process also seemed very easy to rig, but more on that in some other post.

Group H

Group E

Group D

Group B

Arsenal Liverpool Chelsea Manchester United
AZ Alkmaar Lyon Porto CSKA Moscow
Olympiacos Fiorentina Athletico Madrid Besiktas
Standard Liege Debreceni Apoel Nicosia Wolfsburg

Based on the above draw, we might be the envy of all the other English clubs right now. All four clubs consider themselves as title contenders and none would be overly worried. But who doesn’t want an easier path if it’s available. Having said that, I also have to note that, taking things easy is the surest way of making them difficult.

We start with an away trip to Belgium, right after the two Manchester visits. Having seen Liege trouble Liverpool in qualification last year and with players like Steven Defour in their line-up, they certainly cannot be taken lightly. I suspect they will provide a Celtic like test but hopefully nothing sterner. Olympiacos at home shouldn’t offer any great threat.

Then come the two games with AZ. Ronald Koeman will have something to prove after his Valencia fiasco. Dutch teams have previously troubled us in this tournament. In the 02-03 season Ajax beat us to the second spot in the second round resulting in our elimination at that stage. Both the games with Ajax ended as draws and it is interesting to note that Koeman was their manager. PSV knocked us out in the second round in 2006-07. Guess who their manager was :-). Needless to say, these two games will be the highlight of our first round fixtures and an exciting tactical and technical battle is in the offing.

Matchday 5 sees Standard Liege at the Emirates just preceding a visit from Chelsea. The final group game is away to Greece three days before a trip to Anfield. If we can secure qualification in the first 4 games, which seems quite possible, it will give Arsene another chance to give starts to guys like Vela and Ramsey. It will also allow him to rest some key players before a couple of crackers in the premier league. And if either the scousers or the blues have not secured qualification by then, it will be an added advantage.

So far so Good. Now its down to the boys to do their thing.


Wily Wenger and an efficient performance

August 26, 2009

Arsene has finally started rotating players more regularly. Over the last two seasons, I felt, he persisted with the same starting eleven for too many games, resulting in some tired performances and niggling injuries at crucial moments. Perhaps, he has more confidence in the squad now. Certainly, the likes of Denilson, Bendtner, Diaby and Song are better players now than they were two years ago.

Wenger has tactfully avoided calling it rotation. He knows only too well, the mess that media can create, if things don’t go well when players are rested. He’s skirted the issue by calling it ‘picking the most efficient team’ :-). And efficient it was.

This was our most fluid performance so far this season, although I am not too sure what the formation was. In a mixture of 4-4-2, 4-5-1 and 4-4-1-1, the movement up front between Diaby, Bendtner, Eboue and Eduardo was delightful. Song and Denilson were excellent in a more supportive role, as were the fullbacks. The sight of center backs heading the ball clean out of the danger areas was like icing on the cake.

Celtic worked hard, were well organized and gave their best. But they just didn’t have enough in the final third. It was almost an encore right up to the most crucial moment. There definitely was contact. Not enough in anyone’s books but the referee’s. Dudu made the most of the contact and the resulting penalty. Contest over. Eboue then finished off a move that showed we always had an extra gear. Arshavin got of the mark with a classy finish.

Sadly, the talking point of the match has been the penalty incident. I can’t believe Eduardo is at fault here. The ref saw Boruc’s knee clipping the outside of his right shoe. It was clearly visible from two angles. One angle was that facing the Celtic goal which was also similar to the view of Mr. Gonzalez. The other was from a camera almost parallel to the ground right in front of the place where the Crozilian fell. Claims that he should be banned and that it was a blatant dive are silly and wide off the mark. Frankly, if Eduardo is banned retroactively, Madrid risk losing ₤ 80 Million as Ronaldo could just end up getting a life ban from cumulative punishment for all his offences!

There are plenty of blatant dives in modern football. Theatrical falls when the defender is nowhere near the artist. This certainly wasn’t. I am a firm believer in punishing simulation. It is unfortunate that the authorities have not been stricter on such issues. If the video evidence is clear that the player has dived, a 10 match ban across competitions should be handed out. Stringent action would automatically reduce the number of such incidents. This would also make the referee’s life easier, the game cleaner and fairer for the fans. But, unless the likes of monsieur Platini have any accountability, there is very little hope.

On the other hand, Arsene is accountable and there is a lot of hope this season 😀


Between complacency and over-commitment

August 25, 2009

Portsmouth game was easy. But it claimed a victim in Cesc. Given our injury issues, especially the recurring nature, I am just hoping that he will be back soon and this will not develop into another one of those ‘fit today, missing tomorrow’ kind of situations.

Arsene says that we can cope without Cesc. Well, if we want to have title aspirations, we better deal with the likes of Celtic without him. No disrespect to Celtic, but on a difficulty scale of 1-10, they won’t come higher than 6. With a 2-0 home loss, they fall down to perhaps 4.

I fully agree that we have to avoid complacency. Arsenal were complacent after scoring two goals against Portsmouth. It’s a long standing predicament.  Arshavin, on his website, has stated that AW warned the team against complacency at half time. We got a result while in second gear. But that does not mean much. Complacency can hurt, especially in knock out games with so much riding on it.

Interestingly though, I feel, over commitment can hurt just as much. While complacency could hurt in terms of qualification and the related financial losses, over commitment could hurt in terms of injuries which would certainly affect our title hopes. Continuing lack of silverware has its own financial implications, morale issues and other problems.

Ultimately it is like a straight line with complacency and over commitment at two extremes. One end would be where each and every player takes it easy, the boss doesn’t put in enough effort to bring them out of their stupor and the whole team crashes. Over commitment would be playing the best 11 in spite any injuries and playing at a high tempo all through the game.  The reality will always lie somewhere in between.

In such a case, it is extremely baffling to see Le Boss risk someone like Cesc for a Portsmouth like game. He was carrying a niggle and the boss knew it. Isn’t that over commitment. If AW has genuine confidence in his squad, why would he risk a player for a relatively easy game?

That, to me, is the most important question. Does Arsene have genuine confidence in his whole squad? Some of his decisions betray the confidence he always mentions in his interviews.

Focusing on the game at hand, Celtic need to take a leaf out of Fulham and Aston Villa’s books if they are to have any hopes of troubling us. They did the hassling bit alright in the previous game. But they were badly let down in the final third. Starting with Fortune in place of Samaras could help. They would also have to try and win more set plays and corners. Unless the whole team switches off, or we make a couple of major individual mistakes, I can’t see Celtic coming back in this one.


Arsene Must Rotate

August 21, 2009

There are enough cliché’s in football. “There are no easy games in the premier league” is one such. If you can, by some great inner resolve, ignore that then the first home game of the season is perhaps as easy as it can get. Portsmouth are struggling both on and off the pitch.

They are not a bad team, no pushovers certainly. So what is an easy game? I prefer to define an easy game as one where Arsenal decide the result. If we play well we win, if not then we draw or lose. Whether we draw or lose would also be down to the other team but it is contingent to us being poor on the day.

I ask myself, can our carling cup team beat this Portsmouth side? The answer is, why not. They did beat Wigan last year. That doesn’t mean Wenger should send the carling cup kids out for this game. Some members of that team aren’t available right now anyway.

But this is the kind of game where we need to show the depth in the squad. Not on paper but on the pitch. Portsmouth have started both their games with a back four of Wilson, Kabout, Distin and Belhadj supported by a midfield of Mullins, Mokoena, Diop and Krancjar. With James in goal and Piquionne upfront, 10 of the 11 players have been the same in both their games. Utaka and Vanden Borre starting one game each. If you look at their bench, there isn’t anything special there except perhaps a cameo from Kanu.

It is clear that they will be more defensively oriented than either Everton or Celtic. But they will also have lesser threat at the other end. This game will also be more physical than the previous two. So what can Le Boss do?

There are two options. First would be to go with the same starting line up as the first two games, score a couple of goals in the first half and rest three players. The problem is what happens if the goals don’t come?

The second would be to start with Cesc, RvP and Song on the bench and have Eboue, Eduardo, Diaby or Ramsey take their place. At present, the squad is light. Injuries have taken their toll and the bench doesn’t have any other options. This is also why it’s imperative to avoid any further casualties, especially, with the Celtic game and the trips to Manchester coming up.

I chose Cesc and Song because they seem to have worked the hardest. They are also the most important central players we have. Arshavin needs a strong performance after a couple of ordinary outings by his standards. Bendtner is gaining confidence and winning over the crowds. They both need to play. Unfortunately, neither of the center backs can be rested. Hopefully they will just have a relaxing stroll in the park.

In the past, I have felt that Wenger has been guilty of not rotating enough on such occasions. To some extent our injury problems are down to that as well. Let’s hope this season is different. Here’s to three well rested points…


Celtic 0 – Arsenal 2 : A strange feeling

August 18, 2009

It is very rare that two top teams go out on the pitch with a positive attitude and you don’t get to see any clear chances over 90 minutes. This is not to criticize either team at all. In fact, if anything, both teams were excellent.

Celtic gave their all. Sadly for them, they didn’t have the quality in the final third to break a resolute Arsenal defence. Song, Gallas and Vermaelen were excellent. The Hoops got into promising positions but were always snuffed out. Even Bendtner and Fabregas put in decent defensive performances. Mowbray might have missed a trick in starting with Samaras over Fortune.

The gunners were not as clinical as on Saturday. The passing in the final third was a bit casual. It is also likely that the players are not fully used to the new formation. Arshavin, especially, has been strangely missing for large parts in both the games. But the game was always in control and I got a feeling that the level would have been raised if Celtic had scored.

The fact that both teams defended well without parking the bus in their own penalty area highlights the beauty of defending, not with numbers, but with continuous pressing and positional sense. There were hardly any defence splitting passes or great goals but the game was enjoyable for the technical battle in the middle of the park.

If this were last season, both the goals might have been in the other net. Such was our luck a few months ago. The way the team is playing and with the rub of the green going our way, I am wondering whether we can win all our fixtures in August. Won’t that be a statement!

The spine is a tingling…


First Unconvincing, then Clinical and ultimately Marauding Arsenal thrash Everton

August 16, 2009

The day started poorly as Fox Soccer Match Day program reported a last minute strike by Drogba. It felt ominous.

As it is, I am a nervous starter. During the first 15 minutes, Gallas and Denilson made it much worse. Denilson gave the ball away thrice in that period while under no pressure. Gallas passed it back to Almunia for a long punt countless times, only for the ball to be back in the Arsenal half within seconds. Cesc and Arshavin completely invisible. The team, seemingly in an amorphous state, gave the crowd a lot to cheer about and egg the blue half forward.

Against the run of play, Bendtner controlled the ball well on his chest. Given the way the game was going, I thought the referee will blow for hand ball. Before my negative thoughts went away, the big Dane displayed some great close control and it seemed more unreal than the early Everton domination. A simple sideways pass to Cesc and my eyes lighted up. Cesc had been found and delivered to the ground.

Just to warm up, he rolled it to Denilson in a manner that left Cahill cursing the effort wasted on his sprint to close down the Spaniard. Then something weird happened. Denilson tried a sideways pass but mishit it and it rifled into the back of the net. Being a nice boy, he kept laughing and shaking his head to say “No, I didn’t mean it. No, No, don’t be fooled”.

Everton continued to apply the pressure. Fellaini was difficult to control. But so was Bendtner. Baines fouled him and it gave RVP a second chance to deliver from that distance. The first had ended up straight in Tim Howard’s hands. But as he chipped this one I said out loud “lovely cross!” I know it was not exactly a cross but those were the words that came out, however technically incorrect they may be. In the instance that I realized the technical mistake, there was a speck of red and white towards the back peeling away. And I said “beauty”. A goal made in Holland. It looked like it was well worked. Whether at the Arsenal training grounds or the Dutch ones, I do not know.

The header was real class and it just added to a highly impressive debut for Vermaelen. This man is … wait… no, I don’t want to put a curse on him.

By this time Everton were so dazed that they just stood and watched as Gallas rose to nod home from inside the six yard box, unchallenged as if he had a divine right to be there. Moyes was shaking his head in disbelief and honestly, so was I. Whilst the Everton boss was dismayed, I was overjoyed. The game was well and truly over at half time.

Only a few Everton players turned up for the second half. They too were half hearted. The fourth goal was a story of footballing intelligence manifested in nutmegs. Arshavin – Hibbert, RVP – Yobo and finally Fabregas – Howard. Simple, Elegant, Heart-warming.

There was only on thing to note about the fifth. The ability of Fabregas to place the ball anywhere he wants to. It was not a thunderbolt like one would see from a Gerrard. It was a perfectly angled sharp pass to the inside of the net near the left goal post. I am sure the nets around all the grounds where Arsenal play would love to receive such a pass from the King of Barcelona. He should be more considerate towards their feelings. Someone has to tell him that.

The sixth goal was special on two counts. Firstly, Arshavin looked like he was feeling itchy at missing out on the action. He wanted his name somewhere in this massacre. After having tried a couple of attempts from distance, he was still getting into the box regularly. The skill Arshavin showed when Eduardo found him is very hard to describe. He just took two touches but mesmerized 4 defenders and a goalkeeper enough to get a clear toe poke at the goal. Unfortunately for him, the goal post was also mesmerized and just stood its ground as the ball came and hit it.

The second interesting bit is the class of Eduardo that sets him apart from most others. He had received the ball at the left edge of the penalty area. When he passed it to Arshavin he was still outside the line of the left goal post. When he finished from two yards out, it was just two yards from the still shocked right post. He had moved around 5 defenders and reached the right place at the right time. A man born for scoring goals.

The introduction of Saha had, meanwhile, added some spark to the fluttering Everton story. It also added a consolation. It makes me wonder why Moyes didn’t start with Saha. It also makes me thankful. If ever there can be a divine conspiracy to instill confidence and re-ignite self belief in a team faced with constant criticism, this is it.

Game on.


Can Arsene find the balance with this squad

August 15, 2009

A lot of Arsenal fans seem to agree that Fabregas and Arshavin are the most important players for us this season. I am convinced about that. But in order for them to be most effective, they also need a lot of freedom, especially Arshavin.

A couple of years ago, Ruud Gullit was talking about Rijkaard’s Barcelona. He said that the most important thing was for Rijkaard to find a place for Ronaldinho, where he would cause the least damage – to Barca. With players of such skill, it often happens that a stunt doesn’t come off, or they make a mistake or lose the ball in some other way. Did anyone see Arshavin play a cross field ball, during the pre-season, from the left touchline right in front of our own penalty area and straight to an opposition player? (I am not sure what game that was)

The idea, here, is not to fault a magician, but to say that he should not have any defensive duties, if he is to flourish into a Ballon D’or candidate. If he plays on the left wing in a 4-4-2 formation he will invariably end up supporting the defense. I think Le boss is trying to move to a 4-3-3 partly due to this reason. But do we have a squad that can succeed with that formation.

In order for it to be a Barcaesque formation we would need someone to play Iniesta. Cesc can play Xavi, Arshavin can play Messi and any of RVP, Eduardo, Walcott, Vela and Bendtner can play the other two strikers. Those who have seen Barca play would have noticed that the front three hardly came back to defend. The five attacking players pressed high up the field, well supported by the full backs and a defensive midfielder. Song is no worse than Kieta or Toure and our full backs are collectively comparable. The only missing link is Iniesta. If Rosicky can return to his best and stay fit he could slot into that role. He has the body movement, intelligence, passing range and vision to excel in the central role occasionally switching with the wingers as well. But apart from the Czech maestro, I am not convinced about anyone else who can provide the incisiveness. Moreover, this formation demands phenomenal positional intelligence from the players at all times as it can easily turn into a defensive nightmare if the ball is not recovered quickly.

Perhaps that would necessitate a more orthodox 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1. In either of these, if Arshavin is given a free role, the attack will have more penetration and the chances of nil all draws will significantly reduce. A 4-4-2 with Arshavin as the second striker would mean that the left wing would be occupied by Nasri, Diaby, Denilson, Rosicky, Eduardo, Vela, Bendtner or RVP, although I am not a fan of putting a striker out on the wing in this formation. The right would be Theo, Eboue, Nasri or Denilson (leaving out the strikers). This to me looks like the weakest formation. The moment we have Diaby, Denilson or Eboue on one wing the attack loses something.

The 4-2-3-1 formation would see Song and Denilson sweeping horizontally on the pitch while the front 4 had complete freedom to interchange upfront. If Song and Denilson can pull it off, this could turn out to be the most devastating attacking formation the premier league has seen in recent years.

In any case, as long as Arshavin and Cesc stay fit we have a good chance of defeating any opponent. If one of them goes down with injury the squad can still challenge. I am afraid of speculating what happens if both were unfortunate.

In the short term, for the Everton game my guess is that the boss will go with a conservative 4-4-2 bordering on 4-5-1

Almunia

Sagna               Gallas               Vermaelen        Clichy

Eboue              Fabregas          Song                Denilson

Van Persie        Arshavin

My ideal starting line up would be a more attacking one

Almunia

Sagna               Gallas               Vermaelen        Clichy

Song                Denilson

Fabregas

RVP                        Eduardo                       Arshavin

Here’s hoping for a flying start…