Glimpses of the old and shades of the new as Arsenal make Olympiakos suffer

September 30, 2009

I don’t know why but I kept feeling there was some joy in the air at the Emirates and it was coming straight into my living room from the TV set. I know it doesn’t make any sense. But I haven’t felt so happy seeing an Arsenal performance for a long time. Even when we were not scoring, there was something really positive in the body language of the players and the tempo at which they were playing. The goals had to come.

The runs into the box by Fabregas and Rosicky in particular reminded me of the way Pires and Ljunberg used to dart in. It was almost like watching the invincibles. Rosicky has something about his game that no one else in the team has. I can’t really pin point what it is. To be honest I don’t know what it is. But every time he is on the field he seems to find the right position without even trying. We have missed the midfield runs for a long time now and it’s fascinating to see an integral part of our attack coming back to life.

Yesterday was also the first time when we saw Arshavin and Van Persie link up so well. In the earlier games it always seemed to me that they were not exactly on the same wavelength but some of the one touch passing last night was breathtaking. It was interesting to listen to RvP’s post match comments, especially his assessment of how the team is playing

Quite well. We have played eight or nine games and lost two, and every other game we won, so it’s not too bad. We’re still not there yet, but we are on our way.

When you know that the players realize they are playing well but there is room for improvement it tells you two things; the confidence in the squad should be high and more importantly they know there is room for improvement that means they are constantly working on it. There is no complacency.

Olympiakos came into this game with a fantastic defensive record having conceded only two goals in the season so far. They also came on the back of five wins and clean sheets in the Champions League qualifying rounds and the first game against AZ. The way we opened up such an organized team and left them looking out of place and demoralized should eliminate any doubts about our ability to open up defensive minded teams.

Two wins out of two should also help us in securing the qualification for the knockout stages with a couple of games to spare. As I had observed after the champions league draw, our last two group matches precede a visit from Chelsea and a trip to Anfield. It will be very helpful if we have our second round pass secured before those games. The draw between AZ and Liege should also help in that. Even if we get four points against AZ we should be through.

Amongst all the positives from the game there was one worrying aspect. After we scored the first goal our game became sloppy. Too many players switched off. It’s very surprising but it happens so often. After dominating the game for so long how can we suddenly stop getting the passes right, how can we lose the ball so cheaply, why do we make the lives of our defenders and goalkeeper so miserable in the last few minutes. This is exactly the reason why we fail to defend a lead against the big teams. Olympiakos didn’t have the class in the final third but a lot of top teams make us pay. A lucky off side goal from Arshavin helped us last night but we really have to sort this issue out. The whole team has to learn to focus till the final whistle blows.

Anyway I don’t want to dwell too much on the negative after such a delightful performance. Our winning streak has started gathering some steam and with the likes of Blackburn and Birmingham lined up we should continue our forward momentum.


Another one of those supposedly easy games

September 29, 2009

Olympiakos are the Greek champions. But that’s been the case for over a decade. So it doesn’t mean anything, at least in the European context. They haven’t got a great European record but they haven’t got a very bad one either. Over the years they have troubled some higher rated teams like Werder Bremen and Lazio. But what they lack is consistency.

On the face of it, this should be an easy victory. So far we have only played four games at home in all competitions and won each of them with at least a two goal margin. Why should this be any different?

Olympiakos were among the third seeds during the draw. But they managed to beat the second seeded Alkmaar in the first match week. Standard Liege are no pushovers either. I have a feeling the second place in this group will be tightly contested between all the three sides. In such a situation, neither of them might have any hopes of getting points at the Emirates. But all of them would see this as a nothing to lose situation which can make all our home games a little tricky.

It remains to be seen whether the visitors turn up to give their best and enjoy themselves on the pitch without worrying about the result or they come here with the thought of stealing a point. There is some news about the team being tired and this being their fourth game in ten days. Whether this will affect them or not will be seen shortly on the pitch.

They have recently changed their coach. Zico is a legend. He has had some good stints as a manager with Japan and Fenerbache. But the Brazilian maestro might not have had the time to exert his influence on the Greek side as he took charge only a few days ago. But I am hoping he will bring a side full of positive intent.

I expect them to be a team that will be a threat on the counter and in the air. If we can keep them quiet on those fronts there is no reason why we shouldn’t pick up another confidence boosting clean sheet.

From our point of view we need to see Cesc enjoying himself again. Arshavin will always be a player of moments. He will not be around for the full 90 minutes. But every time he does get into action the game rises to a higher level. Let’s hope we get to see a couple of ‘Arshavin Moments’ in this game. He has had a relatively quiet start and this will do him and us some good.

I feel this is a game where Rosicky can play the full 90 minutes. Whether Le Boss chooses to do so or not is a different question. Playing with Rosicky in the center of the park could just be the catalyst that re-ignites our captain. It will definitely leave us a little exposed defensively but if we can’t manage against Olympiakos then we will really struggle against the bigger teams. If Arsene does not start Rosicky, I would like to see Ramsey get a start in stead. Anyone but Diaby – That’s my motif.

It will also be interesting to see a cameo from Vela towards the end. He has not been in the thick of action for too long. Recent rumors about him moving on a loan to a struggling Spainish side make me uncomfortable. I just cannot see that as a positive step in his career. He needs to start getting more involved in first team action. This could be a good start. It would also be interesting to see Wilshere get a run out in the last few minutes.

I hope we see the following starting line up

Mannone

Sagna               Gallas               Vermaelen                    Clichy

Song                Cesc                Rosicky

Arshavin           Van Persie        Eduardo

Let’s hope we avoid a Greek tragedy.


Fulham know how to defeat Arsenal but Mannone does a Casillas

September 27, 2009

“Oh no, not again” – that was my feeling for the first 50 minutes of the game. It was almost a repeat of last season’s meetings between the two sides. As expected Fulham closed us down and denied us any space in the middle. We failed to get our game going and Fulham always looked like they could nick one anytime.

But something changed. We nicked one. Surprise, surprise! I couldn’t believe it as the goal literally came out of nowhere. It also showed that Hangeland isn’t any more special than the players we have but that doesn’t mean much right now. It also showed that even a misfiring Cesc is a serious threat to the opposition and that means a lot.

I feel the best way to analyze this game is to look at certain distinctive aspects. Mannone is obviously the first. He has well and truly announced his arrival at the big stage with that single performance. Right from the moment he made his first double save I kept seeing glimpses of a young Casillas in him. The way he dived and more importantly the way he got up quickly to make the second reflex save. I have to confess prior to yesterday I didn’t have enough confidence in the young Italian. If someone had told me he was going to put in such a performance before the game I would have laughed them off. But all credit to him as Almunia and Fabianski now have serious competition.

The second aspect of the game was as negative as the first was positive – Diaby. The way he played yesterday it seemed to me that he had taken a free role. He was all over the pitch. Now I don’t know if he was given specific instructions about how to play or was given a free role. Unfortunately, with the formation that we are playing, a person like Diaby just cannot afford to be as adventurous as he was. Not with his skills. What is the whole point of freeing up Cesc when you have another central mid fielder roaming all over the opposition half?

Due to Diaby’s positioning the left side was left exposed far too often and Clichy had to play higher up. This left a big gap behind him that was exploited time and again by the opposition. Diaby also failed to drop back support Clichy.  Just see again how many of their crosses came from the left side of our defence and how many came from the right.

Diaby is a player who needs a lot of space. He needs the space to dribble past players and get his legs going. When most teams tend to drop deep against us Diaby becomes almost useless as a creative player. He neither has an incisive pass nor does he have the close control and speed to move past three or four challenges in a congested space. Add to this the fact that he tends to dwell on the ball for too long and we have a player who is hurting our offence as well as defence.

The third aspect is also a negative one. I am troubled by the fact that Fulham could play such a high line against us and we failed to get in behind them even once. The goal was the only time when we came close to doing that. But surely, if the opposition can be audacious enough to have their center backs playing close to the half way line at times, we have to get our attackers through on goal more often. I am not sure what the exact cause of this is but I do have the following suspicions

  • Van Persie is not a classical center forward and I have hardly seen him make runs on the counter which see him through one on one with the opposition keeper
  • The present formation and team selection is forcing Arshavin to drop deep to defend and he is nowhere close to making a run behind the opposition back line. Same goes for Bendtner
  • Apart from Cesc there is no one who can actually thread such a pass and even Cesc missed a few opportunities yesterday.

Another aspect that intrigued me was the fact that we weren’t able to close the game out with the chances that we had. I have a feeling the end of season standings will clearly reflect how clinical a team has been over the course of the season. We have the time to correct this but so far we have missed too many chances. I can understand someone like Eboue missing opportunities. But RvP and Bendtner have to do much better. I have a feeling they are both trying too hard. They have enough class to be lethal strikers. But the start has not seen a glut of goals for either of them and perhaps they are putting too much pressure on themselves.

A positive aspect was the substitutions. Wenger is often criticized for making poor changes late on. Yesterday he got it spot on. First he switched to a 4-4-2 and brought in Rosicky to offer more cover on the left. Then he switched to a 4-5-1 and brought in Eboue. He could have taken Bendtner out. Instead he moved the giant Dane to the center and offered him an opportunity to get some minutes there. Nicky B did well in the few minutes he got through the middle but a goal would have done wonders.

I have a feeling our ideal team would have a fully fit Rosicky playing alongside and inspiring Fabregas. Nasri can also do that job. Unfortunately, both are not quite fit yet. The likes of Denilson and Diaby have to make sure they perform the defensive duties during this period. The Brazilian had settled well into that role before his injury. Diaby needs to get some positional tips from him.

Its good to get a tough win and steal some points for a change. The signs are positive.


Give respect and take the points at Craven Cottage

September 25, 2009

Fulham troubled us in both the games last season. They stopped us from playing, hassling every player all over the pitch tirelessly. They also defeated United at home and held Chelsea for a draw losing only to Liverpool in stoppage time. They deserve a lot of respect.

The side they put out might be very similar to the one from last year. We, on the other hand, will have a new formation and more than half the personnel different. The return of Arshavin will certainly give us an edge.

I am really keen to see whether Wenger will go for a more attack minded starting eleven or will he play two defensive midfielders. The other interesting selection will be the choice of the front three. Will RvP get a rest? Will Bendtner make it back to the starting line up? Will Rosicky start?

Personally, I would like to see any 5 out of Cesc, Arshavin, Rosicky, Bendtner, Eduardo and Van Persie start. This line up is strong enough to continue our scoring streak. But for this to happen, either Arshavin or Rosicky will have to start in the central three along with Cesc. That would mean we would have to play Song as the lone DM. I see this as a good opportunity to test how the team plays with only one Defensive minded player in the middle. Fulham are certainly not the most attacking team in the league and if we can’t play them without worrying about our defence then one has to seriously doubt our title credentials.

The back four will pick itself unless Le Boss decides to rotate and plays Gibbs instead of Clichy. In his interview yesterday Arsene was not sure on who the goal keeper will be. I don’t know if he was trying to hint that Szczesny might get a chance. I think it makes more sense to continue with Mannone and let him build some confidence.

Won’t it be a delight if Vermaelen can continue his scoring streak and put one past Schwarzer after beating Hangeland with a giant leap. But I think our biggest threat will come from the speed of our passing and movement. If we are to get three points at Craven Cottage we need a high tempo right from the start. An early goal will force the issue and make the game more open. Far too often in the recent past we tend to leave it late only to suffer from a freakish goal by the opposition.

My ideal starting line up would be

Mannone

Sagna               Gallas               Vermaelen        Clichy

Rosicky            Song                Cesc

Bendtner          Eduardo           Arshavin

I believe Robin could use a rest. But strange are the ways of Arsene Wenger. Strange but mostly right. So let’s wait and watch. Hoping to see a football feast…


Embarrassment of riches, Time keeping and ATVO has some room for improvement

September 25, 2009

Wenger confirmed that Arshavin will be back this week. Walcott is back in training. Tomas is already inching towards full fitness. Eduardo has seemingly shaken off all ill effects of his horrific injury. Vela is getting fit. We are definitely the most dangerous attacking lot in the league. Add to it the goals that have come from the defence and anyone who looks at the game objectively has to take us seriously.

We haven’t had a quiver full of arrows for a long time. Let’s hope this stays for a while and Le Boss has more of a headache from selection worries than anything else. The prospect of seeing Cesc, Rosicky and Arshavin in the same team is mouth watering. Let me not jinx this stellar possibility by blabbering too much about it.

Curiously enough, there is no news on Nasri. I thought the six weeks he was initially given would be over by now and he should have been back in training at least. Hopefully, it won’t be another case where our initial estimate is found to be way off the mark.

The Fulham game will give us some idea about how the boss will use the cavalry at his disposal. Will the arrival of Arshavin and Walcott relegate Eduardo and Bendtner to the bench? Will Arsene rotate more often? There are a lot of questions but they are all certainly better – than is it the end of Rosicky’s career? When will Walcott get back to fitness? And so on.

In his press conference during the unveiling at Highbury, Arsene was asked about time-keeping by the referees. He gave his usual comments about strict and clear guidelines and even he knows that those are practically impracticable. In between all that there was a question from one scribe about a large clock ticking down. Arsene said that even then the added on time will be with the referee. I think this was one of those rare times when Le Boss didn’t get the point.

Perhaps, he is not too familiar with Hockey. I think Hockey has the best system. There has to be a large clock ticking down. It should stop every time the ref blows his whistle. It should start again when the play resumes. This is by far the most accurate way of keeping time. It also gives everyone a clear idea of how much time is left. The final whistle should come from a hooter linked to this clock. The whole idea of ‘time added on’ is archaic. We are part of a generation that can stop and start the time at will!

In other thoughts, I must commend ATVO for making the full match available online. They do have some room for improvement though. For instance, The Carling cup game against the Baggies was advertised as “as live”. Now, for people like me, it is very important that I don’t know the score when I want to watch something “as live”. Unfortunately, the moment I logged on to the website the score was almost like in your face. Even the video interface had the name of the scorers and the timing of the goals on the right. Fortunately, we had won and it was tolerable. It can get really difficult to watch a lost game knowing a score and knowing when we are going to concede.

ATVO should have provided a separate link for people who wanted to watch the match “as live” i.e. without knowing the result. They also mentioned that the match will be available as live “from” 10 pm. They should have said it will be available as live “at” 10 pm. I was watching the Barcelona game live and thought I could start watching the Carling cup game a little later. Unfortunately, the game was well underway when I logged on to ATVO. I know these are small things. But that’s what sets class apart from the mediocre. From everything Arsenal, I do expect top quality and not run of the mill stuff.


Arsenal through and through

September 23, 2009

Some thoughts popped into my head while watching the West Brom tie. First was that this team plays exactly like the first team and has pretty much the same problems.

  • Our defensive positioning was poor. Too often the opposition were able to build on a long ball
  • No one could put a good cross in
  • There was a lack of sharpness in the final third
  • The ball was given away cheaply quite a few times. Even dangerously close to our box at times.
  • Keeper was uncertain with aerial balls floated into the box

Well, I can make a very long list but that doesn’t make a difference. The point is not about finding faults with youngsters. They played well and it was an enjoyable game. There is a lot of potential for the future as well.

I remember the Carling Cup final we lost to Chelsea. I remember how Drogba troubled us. The worrying part is how the same thing still happens even after all the experience the players have gained. That makes me wonder if it has anything to do with experience at all or is it a more basic problem that we have not been able to identify and solve.

The second thought was that Wilshere resembles Rooney in more ways than one. He clearly has all the talent that the England striker has. Young Jack also has the diving ability of Rooney although he will have to hone it up to make it a little less obvious. He also has the ability to irritate opposition players and even get them sent off. Thankfully so far he has not displayed a similar rough streak himself and has not lost his temper as often as the United front man used to do. He also needs a little work on his shooting skills especially the power variety but that will certainly happen in due course. All said and done, Wilshere is a player who excites me every time he touches the ball.

A couple of other youngsters who impressed me were Coquelin and Watt. The young Frenchman made a few mistakes but also showed glimpses of his quality. There was a moment when Senderos had darted forward and Le Coq seamlessly drifted into the center back role and made an important interception. There was another moment when he put a lovely through ball for Watt. He looks very composed on the pitch and his touch looks like that of a pro. All the makings of a star I say.

Watt is another interesting player. The first word that came to mind was lanky. The second was quick. The third was hard working. He will grow up into a more powerful individual with time. There is nothing to be done there but he does have a lot of striking abilities. His instinct in front of goal is developing nicely. Right now he is the kind of a player who would thrive on counter attacks rather than setting up camp in the opposition half. But he does seem to be a better player than the likes of Barazite and Simpson.

Among the youngsters Szczesny looks promising. Sunu didn’t offer much. But he is not bad at all. He will take some getting used to stronger and faster players playing against him. Ramsey, Traore and Gibbs performed as expected.

The two experienced players did bring back some memories. Not happy ones either. Silvestre reminded me just how scary he can be. Senderos looked quite rusty. But he definitely has a lot more to offer. It might be interesting if we can give him 10-15 minutes of match time in some home games if we are leading comfortably. I have a feeling he needs that desperately.

Vela showed his class. He was on a different plane compared to the other 21 players on the pitch. I just hope that he recovers quickly and gets some first team action under his belt soon.

Final word goes to the crowd. It was great to see such a large turnout. It was almost as much as the Wigan game. Fantastic.


Too Left Footed Arsenal Host Championship Leaders

September 22, 2009

Carling cup always gets me excited. We get to see the fringe players and the younger players in action. Thanks to ATVO we do get to see them in the reserve games and the U-18 action as well but the intensity is not the same.

This year we will have more of a mix in terms of youth and experience. Wenger has already given away more than half the team. We should get our first glimpse of Szczesny in goal. If scoring against him is anywhere as difficult as pronouncing his name, he will have a fantastic future. The dreaded S&S combination will command the center of defence. As I have written before, both Silvestre and Senderos make me very nervous. But the Carling cup is the best chance for them to get match fitness and in spite of their perceived weaknesses, they should hold fort against a presumably weakened West Brom side.

Gibbs will probably get a run out at left back. Le Boss did mention that Eastmond will be involved by he may not start. The right back spot may go to anyone of  Eastmond, Gilbert or Bartley. Personally, I would be interested in seeing the boy who has been handed the reserve team captaincy get a chance.

If we continue with the same formation as the first team, the three in the middle would be interesting. Ramsey will certainly be one of them. I suspect Coquelin might also get a chance. He has been very impressive in the youth fixtures. The interesting part will be to see whether Rambo gets a holding role in the middle or a free and more creative role. If he gets a holding role we might see Merida get the creative responsibility. That would suit both of them. If, on the other hand, the young Welshman is given a Cesc like responsibility we might see someone like Randall coming into the holding position.

Vela will be the key man up front. This is an important season for him and the internationals almost always affect his first team chances in one way or the other. He needs to get his match fitness back. Wilshere will most likely start on the right side of the front three. If he can forget about all the hype around him and just enjoys himself, we will see some magical moments from him. That leaves the position on the left open. I would be interested in seeing Traore given a run there. However, Arsene might put him in the midfield trio in a role that would link defence and attack. In that case we might even see Sanchez Watt getting a run out on the left.

The team I would like to see would be

Szczesny

Bartley            Senderos         Silvestre         Gibbs

Ramsey          Merida Coquelin    Traore

Wilshere         Vela                Traore Bendtner

Interestingly, in this team, most of our offensive play will come from left footed players. Is there any statistic on the most number of left footed players starting in any team? This one might easily come close to the top.

WBA deserve a mention. They have had a flying start to this championship campaign. Di Matteo has reportedly brought in more steel to their play. Will be interesting if they chose to play most of their first team or not. With a busy schedule ahead for them, we might see their fringe players start the game. In any case, I expect them to keep it tight and physical. That is the only way for them to compete. But they must back themselves against a young Arsenal squad.

We are slightly inexperienced in attack without Bendtner or Eduardo and this will make it a real test for Wilshere, Vela and Ramsey. Can we break down a tight defence? Can we avoid making silly mistakes that give away soft goals? The same questions that apply to the first team will apply tonight as well. ATVO has the game “as live” and I just can’t wait to see the answers.

Update: I have just discovered, thanks to YW, that Merida is away with Spain U-20. That explains why Arsene didn’t mention him. We might see Bendtner come in to the squad to add a bit more experience. Not sure how he will take it though. It must have been disappointing for him to sit out after scoring against Liege. But a goal would be good for his confidence.