Does Anyone Know What Song’s Role Is?

October 31, 2010

Alex Song has now scored three goals in three games. Excellent for a midfielder and astonishing for someone supposed to be a holding midfielder. Add the fact that all were crucial goals – first one against a determined Shakhtar side, game-killer against City, and the winner against the Hammers – and we have to acknowledge Song has been immense for us in the last couple of weeks.

The transformation of a player deemed useless by the Misery Brigade just a couple of seasons ago seems to be a continuous process. Last season he made the holding role his own. Many could not think of a team without Song in it. People thought our defence would be shredded to bits if Song wasn’t there in front of them. Such was his impact that there were demands for signing another Song like player as a back-up or even as his partner.

This season we have seen the Cameroonian add an adventurous streak to his game. It started with a few bursts up field and has slowly evolved into regular runs in attacking areas. It seems Song is graduating from the Holding role into a Box-to-Box style.

When Song scored against Bolton I was a little cautious and wrote that I’m not convinced by this approach. We saw him continue his attacking forays and even paid the price in a couple of games, most notably against West Brom. The experts on the internet had seen enough and passed their verdict. Unsurprisingly, there was a clamour for Song to stick to his defensive duties.

As regular readers will remember, we had a discussion on this topic a short while back and the consensus seemed to be that this seems like a strategic/tactical change. Most people who commented here were not against Song bursting forward as long as someone else was there to stay behind.

In recent games we’ve seen Denilson, Wilshere, and Cesc perform that role admirably. Our midfielders have shown better understanding and at least one, if not two, tend to stay closer to the defence. The results are there for all to see – three clean sheets in a run of five wins. Obviously we are doing something right.

In his post-match press conference after the win over the Hammers, Arsene made a very interesting comment about Song.

He has got the taste to go forward, even if I think a little too much sometimes for a holding midfielder!

By and large, Le Boss was praising Song but there is more to it. To me that comment shows Song’s transformation is a work in progress. This can be further seen from these comments attributed to Arsene,

He sees there is a big competition in midfield and that helps, because nobody is guaranteed a place.

Song has improved his engine. Before he was less mobile, now he does not need a breather when he goes and comes back, that has added something to his quality.

Since he has more stamina capacity, when we win the ball, he is on the move straight away and, when his timing is, he arrives at the right moment in the box.

That makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Obviously all our players can see there is plenty of competition in midfield even when Ramsey is injured. Many thought Cesc was joking when last year he said that his place was under threat due to the emergence of the Welshman. But the fact is we are building a phenomenal midfield (as a part of a fantastic squad) and it will motivate everyone to continuously raise their game.

What we must understand is that improving as a player or adding a new dimension to one’s game doesn’t happen overnight. While it is largely down to the player to make individual improvements that alone is not sufficient. Football is a team game and one player’s movement and work affects the others around him.

Some fans analyze the game in isolation. They think if the manager tells someone to shoot they can get up and start shooting more from the next day. Or if the manager tells them to sit in front of the back four then they’ll just be able to hold fort. It doesn’t work that way.

Adding something significant to one’s game takes time and effort. Players mature over time and not overnight, even if it seems that way to those who are quick to judge based on short memories.

Similarly teams mature over a period of time. City have signed plenty of proven players but it’s not working out for them. That doesn’t mean the players they’ve signed are useless or that their manager is a fool. Just that bringing so many players together, even of high quality, and making them perform in unison is not as simple as it would be in Football Manager.

It seems to me that we are in phase II of Song’s development. In phase I he moved from being a clumsy, rough tackling, unreliable defender to a hard-working, strong, physical defensive midfielder who could hold his own. But he knows there is more in him physically, technically, and mentally. And so does the manager.

As Arsene said, he has a better engine and stamina these days. It was one of the things I’d noticed. Song was able to go up and down the pitch almost effortlessly. In a few moments this season, we’ve also seen that Song can pick the final ball or provide the finishing touch with his head or feet. He has the vision and the instinct.

Of course there are some rough edges. It will take time to sort them out. I’m sure the Cameroonian works on them in training under the watchful eye of Arsene. But the major differences can only be made in match situations. In effect, what we are seeing right now is an effort to harness the latent potential that Song has.

Obviously, as I said earlier, it cannot happen in isolation. That means the others will also have to adapt their game. This will be a process of improvement/adaptation and will take its own time. In the interim, we might see some mistakes, lost opportunities, or even absolute blunders. That’s part of the game, so to speak. It will be up to the manager to ensure that we minimize the negatives while we develop the positives.

I’m one of those who really loves watching these transformations. At times the negatives can be frustrating and the results depressing. But at the end of the day I can learn so much about the game and witness something truly magical. We can all appreciate a beautiful flower but watching the transformation from a bud to the full bloom is something else. Certainly beats the joy one gets from telling a mate that the team you support is better than the team he supports!

At this point if someone asks me what is Alex Song’s role at Arsenal? I’d say I don’t know exactly but he is immense for us right now and on his way to being among the world’s best. And watching him blossom will one of the most cherished memories of my lifetime.

Arsenal 1 – 0 West Ham: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 30, 2010

Determined and disciplined West Ham. Inspired Robert Green. Atrocious refereeing. Lacklustre Arsenal. 0-0, game heading towards a lame draw.

Arsenal hit the turbo boost in the final stretch. 1-0, 3 points on the table. Good enough.

I know many fans expected a big win in this game. A run of good results can have that effect as it raises expectations. I was not that gung ho because West Ham have a habit of making things difficult for the opposition when they look down and out.

I’m really happy with this result because it showed we can raise our game by a couple of notches when required. The strength we had on the bench also made a big difference at it gave us better variety just when the visitors were tiring. It’s also good to see that the mentality we had last year when we won a number of games late on is still there.

As I said about some of the earlier games as well, this wasn’t a perfect game. We were a bit slow off the blocks, the movement up front wasn’t at the level we’ve come to expect, and consequently the final ball was difficult to find. For their part, the Hammers were extremely disciplined and worked hard in the defensive third, credit to them for making a game out of this one.

In total, Arsenal had 23 shots on goal with 10 on target. Two rattled the woodwork, Green made 4-5 excellent saves, and the rest were snapshots or off target. I thought in this game we lacked a little bit of composure and took too many shots, especially in the first hour.

Our best chance of the first half came in the 24th minute when Song found the run of Sagna with a perfectly weighted ball just inside the right side of the West Ham box. The full-back squared it towards Cesc who was unmarked and El Capitan bent it towards the far corner. Green saved it with a full length dive; I was a bit disappointed that Chamakh wasn’t anticipating a rebound.

Apart from some half chances and plenty of possession, Arsenal created two good chances in the first half. First Song forced a good save as he burst into the box after a one-two with Cesc. Then Squillaci came close with a header from a corner.

There was no doubt Wenger was going to motivate and send the team out for a better second half. Arsenal played the second half at a faster tempo. Nasri rattled the crossbar with a phenomenal, Alex like, free-kick. I thought this matter of a few inches is just where luck plays a big part. Alex was able to put it in against us but Nasri was unlucky as his strike just skimmed the bar. Nonetheless, it was a very pleasant surprise and it was great to see the Frenchman had the confidence to have a go. The power he generated with just a couple of steps was astounding.

Arsene made The change on 66 minutes as Theo came on for Denilson. Many would say this should have been our starting line-up but let’s not focus on that right now.

Soon after, Walcott was in behind as Fabregas found him with a perfect ball. Once again the woodwork came to Green’s rescue.

There were plenty of other chances in the second half but Green was keeping everything out. Arsene made the second change with just 10 minutes to go when Bendtner was introduced for Arshavin.

The goal when it came was a thing of real beauty. Arsenal were passing it around, trying to force an opening. Song spread the ball from the centre to the left with an outside the boot pass. Clichy did well to control the ball and beat the defender with a neat dummy. The left-back put in a measured ball with his right foot and Song arrived just on cue to head it home.

Heart-break for the Irons but a deserved goal for Arsenal.

After that it was just a matter of seeing out the remaining minutes and I thought we did a decent job of defending. In fact, I don’t remember any serious chances created by the visitors who were happy to rely solely on set-pieces during the entire game.

Individual Performances

Fabianski: Dominated his area well. Communicated with the defenders – I remember on one occasion he dragged Cesc to a spot while defending a corner and Fabregas was the one who headed it clear. Punched well and swept behind the defenders. Excellent distribution.

Sagna: Solid defending. Good work rate down the right channel. Some high quality crosses (but we rarely had enough players in the box). One excellent pass to set up Cesc.

Squillaci: Read the game well, had a good understanding with Koscielny. Kept it simple and effective. Almost scored from a corner.

Koscielny: Similar to Squillaci. Did well on set-pieces. Once again excellent in tackling.

Clichy: mirrored Sagna in many ways. Excellent work for the goal. Looked like the Clichy of old.

Song: My MotM. Was involved with almost everything offensively and defensively. Classic box-to-box display. Excellent timing of the run and good finish. His passing in the final third is also getting better.

Denilson: Did the simple things effectively. Was weak when put under pressure. Has to do more, at least defensively and in terms of holding his own under pressure.

Cesc: Off-colour by his standards but a decent game nonetheless. Had a couple of good attempts on goal. Created the chance for Walcott. Dropped deep often to collect the ball and free up Song. Was fouled far too often.

Nasri: Took him a while to get in the game but was impressive every time he drifted in. Linked up well with the others. Surprisingly, he took most of the free-kicks and corners and it was good to see he did well on most. Amazing strike that rattled the bar.

Chamakh: Once again his work rate was top class but I’d like to see him attack the ball a bit more once in the box. He should have attacked the back post when Arshavin created a cross out of nothing, should also have followed up on the Cesc strike. I’m sure he’ll learn as he plays more.

Arshavin: Much better work rate than before. Probably our most threatening player in the first half. His shooting has been a bit off this season and let him down on a couple of occasions.

Subs: Theo looked dangerous whenever he got on the ball. Excellent run and strike but was unlucky. Bendtner made his presence felt in the box. Eboue didn’t have much to do.

Thoughts On Starting Eleven And Tactics Against West Ham

October 29, 2010

West Ham come to the Emirates on Saturday for our first home derby of the season. Johan Djourou says, “… they are the games that can finish your season”, and I agree wholeheartedly.

Home games against the smaller sides are a must win. Such a statement can be considered clichéd but that doesn’t take away the intrinsic truth. Last season we lost at home to the two sides above us and drew with City and Everton. Those were the only points we dropped at home. Tougher tests at home will be coming later in the season and we’ve already conceded three points to a sloppy display against West Brom. There can be no doubt about the importance of the three points at stake in this game.

The visitors have had a difficult start and are already feeling the pressure of a relegation battle. No doubt they will work hard to get at least a point. We will just have to do better than them and with Cesc back in the side I’m confident we won’t slip in this game.

Tactically this game will be interesting because the Hammers can mix it up. They have a big target man in Cole and can use him to hoof balls up-field. With the likes of Parker and Noble in their team, they can also play a decent technical game on the ground. In the past we have seen them do a good job of pressing us and making things difficult.

This can be seen from the following chart made using the Guardian Chalkboards,

Earlier this season they went to Old Trafford and played a good passing game as is evident from the chart on top. It’s a different matter that they lost convincingly. In stark contrast, the chart on the bottom shows they can go route one and eke out a win as they did against the Tinies. Kudos to The Irons for that by the way.

A lot will depend on the way we play. If Arsenal can keep the tempo high and make the visitors chase the ball we should create some chances. Given the fragile nature of their confidence right now, that could lead to an early goal and open the floodgates.

Obviously, Arsene will have get the balance of his starting eleven right. Amongst the back five, I think only one place is up for grabs and one of Squillaci or Djourou will get the nod alongside Fabianski, Koscielny, Sagna, and Clichy.

To be honest, I’m not sure which of the two would be the appropriate choice. Squillaci is the more experienced and solid defender. He also had a decent partnership going with Koscielny before the latter got injured. Djourou on the other hand, is bigger and stronger and could do a better job of dealing with long balls and Carlton Cole. I have a feeling experience will tilt the balance in favour of the Frenchman.

For the first time in a while Wenger is spoilt for choice in the central and attacking areas. If Arsene sticks with the midfield that did the job at Manchester, we will see Cesc, Song, and Denilson. That would mean Nasri and Rosicky will have a battle with Walcott and Arshavin for the wide roles.

We could see Nasri, Chamakh, and Arshavin coming back into the starting line-up after a good rest. Walcott and Bendtner could be on the bench, and perhaps get a start in the mid-week Champions League game. I’d prefer that Walcott starts this game and Arshavin gets the nod in Ukraine. The Russian does better in the European games and will have better experience of the conditions. Theo could continue his hot streak and have some fun on the big Emirates pitch.

The side I’d like to see is,

Fabianski – Sagna, Squillaci, Koscielny, Clichy – Song, Cesc, Denilson – Walcott, Chamakh, Nasri.

With a strong bench including the likes of Arshavin, Rosicky, Bendtner, and Vela.

Arsenal should win this one but it won’t be a walk in the park. The difference between success and failure at this level is really small and Fabregas will have to ensure others can match his levels of focus and concentration. Another clean sheet will be fantastic.

Szczesny Has Expressed His Desire To Stay

October 29, 2010

After a long time, it seems, a vast majority of Gooners actually want a Keeper to stay at Arsenal. Many believed in young Wojciech largely based on glowing reports and rave reviews but his performance against Newcastle clearly showed he has the potential to be a future great.

Obviously, everyone is concerned about his contract situation as it expires at the end of this season. Arsene was asked about this in his press conference before the West Ham game. Le Boss was positive and his words reassuring,

Yes [an offer has been made]. We are negotiating with him and try to extend [his contract]. He wants to stay and I want him to stay. So plus, plus plus, should be plus!

Spontaneous Laughter all round.

Wenger was also asked about Szczesny’s earlier comments where the youngster showed his frustration at the lack of game time,

I want to play him. Our job is about competition. He has the qualities to fight for the position and that’s what I wish. He’s a very young goalkeeper, very talented goalkeeper. We brought him here at the age of 16. He made the effort to come at the club at the age of 16. He wants to be successful here and I want him to be successful here. So normally it should work.

Asked if he was concerned about the contract situation Arsene said,

There is always a concern; we are not scared of that. I just told you he expressed his desire to stay, I want him to stay and you know my famous rule of the plusses!

Even if we take all the football out I would be a fan of Wenger just for his sense of humour and the way he deals with repetitive, mind numbing questions. These are the kind of moments that make me watch every single interview or press conference that Le Boss gives.

Coming back to the point, I’m happy that Szczesny has expressed his desire to stay. As I’ve covered in a couple of earlier articles the youngster seems to have a great deal of respect for Fabianksi and knows that he will have to work hard and wait for his chances.

I’m guessing the negotiations are mainly on the length of the contract and the wages. I hope we give him a good 5-6 year deal. I believe players like Wilshere, Ramsey, and Szczesny among others should be on long terms deals. We’ve all seen the advantage of that this summer when Farca couldn’t force our hand. Having these players on 3-4 year deals will put us under pressure almost every other year.

Off-topic, I wish to share this article. It’s a good read that I’d missed and would like to thank regular reader/contributor Shashi for sharing it with me.

Overall, the article has many insights but I was particularly interested in this line.

Wenger lists desire, competence, courage, audacity and the capacity to question yourself constantly as vital ingredients for any manager in whatever field.

Note the words, “capacity to question yourself constantly”. To me, this is a very important quality that all leaders and visionaries must have. The world changes constantly and no one can survive at the highest level without adapting to these changes.

I’ve always found the criticism that Arsene is stubborn completely baseless. He has a method to his madness and doesn’t respond in a kneejerk manner or based on short term performances/issues. Some people don’t get this but that probably shows they’re too stubborn in their own views?!

The Curious Case Of Carlos Vela, New Defenders, Arshavin Impressive

October 28, 2010

I don’t know the general opinion about Vela but I’m a fan. That’s the reason I was looking forward to him getting a chance and it’s also the reason I was quite disappointed with his effort against Newcastle.

I don’t wish to criticize the youngster. There is no doubt he has bags of potential. And if my memory serves me right, he is also the second quickest player at Arsenal behind Theo. But we are not seeing that potential turning into big performances on the pitch. He’s scored a few goals this season, and that is certainly an improvement, but those have been late goals in big wins.

We’ve not yet seen him score that game changing goal in a difficult game. The young Mexican could have done it against Newcastle in the first minute but just didn’t get himself in the right shooting position and ended up scuffing his shot.

Vela’s weaknesses are highlighted by the relative success of Hernandez at United. One could argue that Vela hasn’t played as a striker that often but he didn’t really impress when he started against the Tiny Totts.

Given his apparent talent, it’s difficult to understand what exactly is going wrong. My best guess is that the loan spells in Spain didn’t help him at all and over the last year and a half he has been struggling because of injuries and lack of game time at Arsenal. A couple of years ago the kid had a lot more confidence than what I saw yesterday.

The Mexican team plays with a slightly different style where he doesn’t have to put in that much of a defensive shift. That role is very different from what he has to do at Arsenal. It could be that Vela is having a hard time adapting.

In fairness, I would say Arsene is trying to give him some chances even if it is with late cameo appearances. Will this be enough? I don’t know.

I feel what he needs is a run of games in a team that plays an attacking style. With Bendtner coming back, Chamakh in top form, and RvP not far away, I can’t see Vela getting a long run of games at Arsenal. Could a two-three month loan spell to a side like Blackpool help him?

He can develop into a left sided version of Walcott and we have seen the havoc caused by Theo in full flight. Vela seems to be technically a little better than Walcott and not much slower in terms of pace. If we can get the Mexican to a level similar to Theo, we will have even better options for the starting line-up and more genuine threats on the bench. I really hope Arsene is able to get the best out of the Mexican.

Moving on, I’d like to mention our central defenders. This season, based on what I’ve seen, the four central defenders look much better than our last bunch in many ways. They seems just as strong if not stronger, better readers of the game, far superior at attacking the ball in the box, much better at tackling and intercepting, really confident, and more alert.

I wonder where are those who were doing all the math about the defenders going out and those coming in? Or those who wanted Arsene to spend on big money proven defenders? Wenger has gone out and bought players who fit a specific profile, defenders who are perfect for us.

Our central defence isn’t perfect at the moment. But we can’t realistically expect it to be. The two newcomers have barely had any time to adapt, a third one has just come back from a season long lay-off, and the one who played almost all of last season has missed a large chunk of games this season.

Despite that, the central defenders did really well especially against the likes of Sunderland when the midfield completely went to sleep. So far, I can remember only one game where the defence can be criticized and that was against West Brom.

Hopefully, they will get even better as the season progresses and they develop a better understanding with each other and the Keeper.

I’ll end by mentioning this analysis of effectiveness (minutes per goal or assist) of midfielders in Europe. Unsurprisingly, Cesc is at the top. Last season I’d showed how Fabregas was far superior to Rooney who eventually won the player of the year in the Premiership.

What is more interesting is that Arshavin (87.10) and Nasri (89.75) are ahead of the likes of Van der Vaart (105.5) and Malouda (118.5). Yet we have some Arsenal fans hurling all kinds of abuse towards Arshavin while others are going crazy over VdV! I also vaguely remember many were criticizing Nasri last year and were calling him a useless signing. I guess the only really unfortunate part of being a gooner is that we have to put up with some absolute idiots.

Newcastle 0 – 4 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 27, 2010

Within 10 minutes the gulf in class between the two sides was clearly established. The first thought in my head was, how did a Chelsea side consisting of players like Anelka, Terry, Benayoun, Zhirkov, Ramirez, and Ferreira lose against Newcastle at home? The answer seems to be that their kids were not very good and they didn’t play with the right mentality.

Arsenal didn’t have either of those problems. The fringe players, it seems unfair to call talented players like Rosicky that, at Arsenal are probably better than those at any club in England and there is no doubt everyone was fired up and ready to perform.

The game started at a high tempo and our pressing forced Williamson into an error within the first minute. Vela had an excellent chance but couldn’t really get a clean strike on goal. Before the clock could show a minute on the board Arsenal had a couple of good chances from a Corner. Bendtner’s initial shot was blocked and his follow up effort was easily collected by the keeper.

In the first ten minutes Arsenal created three or four other openings but the finishing didn’t match up to the quality of the build up play.

After that period the game settled into a rhythm that one would have expected from the start. Newcastle were better organized and Arsenal had to work hard to open their defence. The hosts managed to create a couple of chances of their own with the help of the long ball.

Arsenal Centre Backs were caught napping when the youngster Ranger burst down the middle to latch on to a long punt. Szczesny came out but didn’t get the ball. There seemed to be a foul on Ranger either from Djourou and/or from Szczesny but he tried to regain his balance. That allowed Koscielny the opportunity to get between the striker and the open net. An excellent interception by the Polish Frenchman thwarted the Arsenal supporting Newcastle kid from opening the scoring.

Soon after, Alan Smith tested Szczesny with a thunderbolt and my stream wasn’t good enough to see whether the youngster got a touch or not.

On the other end Arsenal were creating plenty of chances but most of them resulted in simple saves or Corners.

It looked like a stalemate will be carried into half-time when Arsenal got a goal out of nowhere. Walcott sent in a deep Corner and the Keeper came out for it but missed. The ball was headed by an Arsenal player (couldn’t really see due to the quality of the stream) towards Bendtner who got an excellent header towards goal. Eastmond, or was is Koscielny, did enough to distract the goalkeeper and the ball went through his legs. The man on the line headed it back out but it went in off the back of the Keeper’s head. Cruel on Krul perhaps.

It was a funny/scrappy goal to watch but gave us an advantage going into the break.

It was good to see Arsenal come out focused and motivated to score more. We got the reward for our efforts under controversial circumstances when Walcott doubled the lead eight minutes after the restart.

A long ball (goal kick?) was headed forward by Sagna and that allowed Theo to get in behind the Newcastle defenders who were pushing forward. There is no doubt Walcott would have scored but there was some controversy as Bendtner collided with Williamson who was trying to chase back.

I think the ref did a good job of letting it go as he’d allowed the defender to get away with a similar collision early in the game when Bendtner was making an attacking run to support Theo who had gotten in behind on the right. One could debate that both decisions were incorrect but I was happy the ref showed a great deal of consistency.

I’m not sure Walcott himself was onside as replays showed he was marginally behind the defender when the header was made.

After the second goal Chris Hughton brought on Gutierrez and Carroll. Arsenal continued to play the tippy-tappy game and frustrated the home side. After the hour mark I thought our level dropped a bit and it allowed Newcastle the opportunity to build some pressure.

There was some anxiety in the way Arsenal were playing/defending and the crowd were urging the hosts forward. They created many half chances but our defenders did really well on most occasions. Szczesny was barely tested until the final few minutes.

Despite being down to second gear Arsenal created a number of counter attacking opportunities but the final ball was lacking. The game was settled in the 83rd minute when an alert Cesc stole the ball just inside the Newcastle half and played it out to Bendtner. The striker scored with a sublime finish bending the ball into the far corner. It reminded me of “The Curler” that was discussed in the comments section of a previous article.

Late on Walcott ran on to a through ball from Koscielny to pick up his second and Szczesny made a couple of impressive saves to keep a clean sheet.

Just like the previous game against City, this wasn’t a perfect performance but it was much more than good enough. You don’t win by 4 goals and keep a clean sheet in a tough away game if you don’t play well. Some players made mistakes but others were there to cover for them, we missed some chances but we created a lot more, that’s just what we need.

Individual Performances

I’m afraid I didn’t have a good enough stream so there might be some mistakes here. Please let me know if I missed some events or got some players wrong.

Szczesny: Confident display from the youngster with a couple of excellent saves. He did look uncertain when he came out early on and didn’t get the ball, but we can’t blame him for that. Defenders put him in a spot and then they bailed him out. I don’t want to make long term statements from one performance but I won’t be worried if he has to come on from the bench in a big game.

Eboue: Made some excellent runs but the finish/final ball was poor. Did a decent job defensively. With a little more concentration and better decision making he can be a big player but I’m not sure if he will be able to achieve that. Looked at ease in an unfamiliar left back role.

Djourou: Looked a bit shaky initially and had trouble with some long balls. Settled well as the game progressed. Made some important interceptions as the game went on. Won a number of important headers. Strong defensive presence on set pieces.

Koscielny: Another one who had a shaky moment or two early on. Exceptional reading of the game and we can see why he topped the French league interception charts. Brilliant defending in one-v-one situations. Very composed and confident on the ball. Played some intelligent and accurate long balls as well. I know it won’t be a popular choice but he was my pick for MotM.

Gibbs: Started well but picked up an injury early on. Hopefully it won’t be very serious.

Eastmond: Worked hard and chased the ball well. Also made some decent tackles. Didn’t look very confident in tight areas and should have helped the defence better when we were under pressure. Gave the ball away on a few occasions.

Denilson: Did a good job of keeping the game ticking but it was a patchy performance. Went missing for a while when the defence was being tested. Another one who lost the ball under pressure on more than one occasion. I thought playing with Eastmond left him exposed as both of them have similar weaknesses.

Rosicky: Was pulling the strings for the first hour or so. Looked at a different technical level than anyone else on the pitch in that period. Dropped deep often and played some good forward balls splitting the defence. Good to see him complete the 90 minutes.

Walcott: two excellent finishes (3 shots, 3 on target, 2 goals), some amazing runs, a couple of misplaced crosses, decent defensive tracking – Theo is back. Probably will be the popular choice for MotM.

Bendtner: Looked hungry and sharp. Worked harder than we’ve seen in the past. Used his physical presence well. Made a couple of excellent runs from the left with excellent close control. 6 shots, 5 on target, one fantastic goal.

Vela: Didn’t look very confident in the initial part of the game. Did a decent job on the left but could have done better with his crosses and runs.

Subs: Sagna made some uncharacteristic errors, I’m not sure he’s fully recovered from his injury. Cesc got a good run out and picked up an assist in the process. I thought Arsene made a good tactical substitution by bringing him on as Newcastle were beginning to dominate at that time. Fabregas brought in a strong presence in the middle and a great deal of composure. JET didn’t get enough time.

Again on a side note, I’d like to mention that all our goals in the second half came from uncomplicated football and minimum passes. It happens when we get wide open spaces. These are times when you realize some people are too eager to jump to conclusions or to form theories about the way Arsenal play.

Time For Arsenal’s Strength In Depth To Shine Through

October 26, 2010

Arsenal are building up some momentum. A hard fought win against Birmingham was followed by an emphatic one against Shakhtar. Subsequently, a massive win over City has put us in the second spot in the League and the vibes that were highly negative at the time of the last international break just after the defeat against Chelsea, are certainly quite positive.

What we need now is consistency so that we can go into the traditionally tougher winter months of November and December with a highly positive mindset.

Thankfully, with some players returning from injury, Arsene seems to have a large enough set of players to choose from. This means he can rotate the players without making a big compromise in terms of quality of the starting eleven.

Of course, I don’t expect us to field a team anywhere as good as the one that won at the City of Manchester stadium but we should have a starting line-up good enough to win a tough away fixture against a physical, hard working side that knocked Chelsea out in the previous round.

I’m finding it difficult to comment on the tactical aspect of this game because a lot will depend on the choices of Chris Hughton. Broadly speaking, I expect us to continue with our style irrespective of who starts for either team. Similarly, we can be fairly certain Newcastle will rely on their physical game and aerial strengths. The details will depend on whether they have enough quality in midfield and attack and their approach to the game. I hope the hosts won’t play for a draw hoping to get lucky in a shoot-out. I don’t have to remind anyone that we could do without the extra minutes.

Arsene has said that he will send out a strong side with a core of first team players. It’s not surprising because we have guys like Denilson, Gibbs, Eboue, Vela and Rosicky who need games and others like Bendtner, Walcott, and Koscielny who also need playing time as they are returning from injury.

I won’t be surprised if we see only two or three youngsters in the starting line up. Having said that, I can see it’s not a completely valid statement. Walcott, Gibbs, and Vela are all still youngsters; just that they are well advanced in their development.

Many of us have been looking forward to seeing Szczesny in goal and it looks quite likely that the youngster will get his first big chance on Wednesday. I’m looking forward to his performance. Having heard a lot but seen very little, I’ve not formed an opinion on the youngster and so I’m excited at the prospect of seeing him in action in a tough away game. Arsene hit the nail on the head when he said, “Let’s not make stars before they prove they are.” For the young Pole, the process of proving he has what it takes begins at St. James’ park.

The back four should be fairly strong. I expect our regular full backs will get a rest with Eboue and Gibbs coming in. If Koscielny is fit enough to start that should also see Squillaci getting a well deserved break. Djourou needs more games as he has not played as much as the others.

Wenger’s real headache will be in the midfield and attacking positions. If Walcott and Bendtner are fit to start, the striker and right wing positions would be reserved for them. That leaves an opening on the left and three in the middle.

Denilson could start as the holding midfielder and Rosicky as the attacking one leaving one spot in the middle and one on the left.

I’m not sure what’s going on with Diaby but if he is fit he should play. If not I’d like to see Lansbury get a start in a central midfield role. Vela could come in on the left but that might leave us a bit exposed on either wing.

The other option would be to have Diaby and Lansbury in the middle and Rosicky on the left.

Such a line-up would mean that the unbelievably (in Wenger’s words) talented JET will have to be content with a spot on the bench. The problem for him is that Bendtner and Walcott need to play and they take up his best positions.

I expect the following line-up,

Szczesny – Eboue, Koscielny, Djourou, Gibbs – Denilson, Diaby, Lansbury – Walcott, Bendtner, Rosicky.

On paper that looks like a very strong team. However, I’m not sure these players will be able to play together as well as the first team does. The main reason for that is that many of them haven’t played regularly and will be rusty. They will also struggle to understand each other on the pitch and we won’t see the instinctive understanding we see when Cesc, Nasri, and others play.

That should give Newcastle some hope, especially considering the fact that they have decent depth of their own and will be playing at home. Let’s also not forget they went away to a place like Stamford Bridge and won after scoring 4 goals. That too after making 10 changes, if I’m not mistaken. That said, I still expect Arsenal to win this one but it won’t be as comfortable as some might suggest.

We will have a strong bench and that should help us recover if things don’t go our way. Apart from kids like Eastmond and JET, I expect regulars like Arshavin, Chamakh, Cesc, and Song on the bench.

A strong display will set us up nicely for the game against West Ham. We don’t have to think too far ahead; small, emphatic steps will do just fine right now.

Pass, Pass, Pass Or Shoot At Sight – What Should Arsenal Do?

October 26, 2010

Gooners all over the world know that a common criticism of Wenger’s team is that they try to pass the ball into the net and over complicate matters. This was used even after the impressive win against City.

To be honest, I completely understand why some might feel that way about Arsenal. There were a couple of moments early in the second half when we passed the ball in and around the opposition penalty area when many expected, or should I say demanded, a strike on goal. I get it, it can be frustrating.

Before I go further, let’s look at a couple of facts.

  • Arsenal with 134, have the most shots on goal in the Premier League so far this season. Chelsea are second with 133 and no one else comes within 20 shots of that number.
  • Last season Arsenal scored the most number of League goals from outside the box. I’m writing this from memory so I might be wrong, but I think it was 18 goals.

These facts seem strong enough to refute the argument that Arsenal don’t shoot enough, or the subsidiary argument – don’t shoot from distance. Nevertheless, we all have seen moments in many games when we felt a shot was on but wasn’t taken.

Considering these thoughts, the truth seems to be somewhere in between in a gray area.

It’s not surprising. Football is a simple enough sport to watch but when we get down into the details it can get quite complex. Players have to make split second decisions and even the best don’t always get it right.

We can assume that most who play for Arsenal have the technique to shoot from distance so let’s leave that out for the time being. Inside or on the edge of the box, a player would have very little time to consider many factors.

The most important would be the angles available to him. When we see a player running into space we feel he has a clear shot. Often, a defender sees that and throws himself in front of the strike. On other occasions the defender is already there.

If you’ve played football you’ll know that having a man a couple of yards in front of you takes away a lot of shooting options because the chances of a block are very high. This is similar to the reason goalkeepers try to come a yard or so out of their line while defending a penalty, it narrows the angles and allows them to block a wider range of shots.

For instance, let’s look at the opportunity Chamakh created after winning a physical tussle with Boateng. When Cesc got the ball there was a defender in front of him and the Keeper was in a good position. If he’d taken a shot the chances of scoring would have been minimal.

Naturally, given the fact that Arsenal are a team that doesn’t like to give the ball away cheaply, Fabregas found Nasri on top of the box. In the above image it seems like Nasri is in a lot of space. But by the time he gets the ball, the defender has done a good job of closing him down.

Once again, chances of scoring with the defender right in front of him were quite low. The Frenchman created some space with a quick dummy and found Cesc who was now free. El Capitan did get his shot away but couldn’t quite get it right. It happens.

Similar analysis can be done for other situations as well.

To me the key here is that Arsenal don’t play a low percentage game. We are good enough to create clear chances. No team takes all their chances so sometimes it doesn’t come off. On other occasions the opposing defenders do well.

When it does come off we score amazing goals like we’ve been doing for years. If you think back to the three goals against City, you’ll notice that there was no defender between the ball/striker and the goal/goalkeeper for all three of our goals. This was quite evident in the goals by Nasri and Bendtner but even when Song got his shot away, the defenders were to the side and he had a clean sight of goal making it a high percentage chance.

Of course a team can have a different approach. Consider Carlos Tevez in the last game. He tried to shoot at our goal on two or three occasions. They were lame efforts from distance and didn’t really trouble Fabianski. In the end all he achieved was giving possession over to us. But that’s his style and he scores a lot of goals by doing that. Some would say he’s a striker and that’s his job.

The only problem is that such a striker often hogs the goal scoring charts but his teammates don’t get enough chances. It could happen that team ends up relying on such a striker and struggles when he is out of form or injured.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of a team’s philosophy and the choices made by players on a given day. We have Arshavin who does try his luck from distance quite often. It could be that the manager encourages him because he has the best technique as we’ve seen on countless occasions. In the same vein, it’s quite possible that Wenger wants players like Cesc and Nasri to control possession because they can do that even in tight areas and have the vision and talent to create better chances.

In conclusion, I’d say I understand why fans can get frustrated, there are times when I share that feeling. Commentators don’t help either as they belt out one cliché after another. But taking that frustration and making a theory that Arsenal don’t shoot enough seems a touch too harsh. Taking that theory and pretending that it is gospel, unduly criticizing players and the manager in the process, is naive and daft.

The game is played at a really fast pace and the players have to make difficult, instinctive choices. We should respect the fact that they are doing the best they can.

On an unrelated side note, how many noticed that Arsenal scored the third goal with 2 passes? Fabianski to Nasri to Bendtner and Goal!

Man City 0 – 3 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 24, 2010

Wooo Hooo!

What a performance! This is the kind of game that gives an Arsenal supporter a high like no other. It’s been coming for a while but we couldn’t really know for sure unless it arrived. Now that it has, we can say a mental barrier has been crossed. It’s not the final frontier but a major challenge nonetheless.

It wasn’t a perfect game but it didn’t have to be. That just shows how much better we can get.

The game started at a high tempo. City created the first chance in the opening minute when Tevez got in behind down the left and squared it. Silva made an excellent run and got a great flick towards goal. Fabianski made a superb save. We knew at that moment this game was going to be fun.

City had some joy down the left in the opening minutes while Arsenal were trying to play down the middle. I thought Arshavin was harshly flagged off-side early on when he made a run past Boyata. The big moment however, came in the fifth minute when Chamakh timed his run brilliantly and was found by Cesc with an inch perfect ball. Boyata lunged and the ref had no choice but to send him off.

I know there will be many Arsenal distractors and City apologists who will point to this moment and say it made it easy for Arsenal. I don’t buy it. When you play a youngster at this level there is always the risk of a big moment going horribly wrong. As Arsenal fans we know it all too well. The fact that City were forced to do so just shows spending big isn’t always the solution. If a team spends crazy money on a big, strong, English defender like Lescott only to realize that he’s not good enough, one cannot have much sympathy towards them.

The game clearly changed after this moment as Yaya Toure was moved into a central defensive role and this gave Arsenal a numerical advantage in midfield. From this point on the hosts were always going to struggle against the passing and movement of Arsenal.

We had a lot of the ball but Barry and De Jong were doing a good job of closing us down. Some cynical fouls and the ref giving them almost all the 50-50 decisions helped.

The first goal came almost out of nowhere. Nasri had the ball on the edge of the box. Arshavin, who was inside the penalty area, came towards him and played a delightful one-two. The finish from the Frenchman was the definition of clinical and composed.

It was interesting to note that Yaya Toure looked like a joker in central defence as he didn’t close the Russian down and allowed the ball to go through his legs for the one-two. What a waste of money! Yes it wasn’t his best position, but how many times have we seen Arsenal players being criticised even when they’re playing out of position? At this level, and with the kind of hype around him, he should have done much better.

City did try to come back into the game after that. Arsenal, for a while, looked confused. We didn’t know whether to go for the kill or to hold back. That meant players were not in perfect sync and we kept giving the ball away.

Luckily for us, Mancini’s team didn’t have any creative threat except Silva, and were restricted to taking the ball out wide and crossing. Our defenders did a good job of dealing with the balls in the box.

We should have established some comfort level when Kompany conceded a penalty with a daft tackle on Fabregas. But the hesitancy in our play was also evident in the way El Capitan went for his penalty. It was a decent strike but he almost telegraphed it to Hart who made a top class save to his left.

City got some heart from that and came forward. Arsenal dropped deep and defended with numbers to see out the game till half time.

Straight after restart we had a good chance when Chamakh outmuscled Boateng. The Moroccan found Cesc who exchanged passes with Nasri in the box but his finish was not of his usual standard. There was another moment a few minutes later when we overcomplicated things around the edge of the box.

We could see that Arsene had calmed the team down at half-time and we were doing the right thing tactically. If there is any time that can be considered a good time to play tippy-tappy football, this was it. In the second half we did it well and made City chase the ball.

Meanwhile Adebayor had come on in place of Tevez who might have picked up an injury. City had a few minutes of sustained pressure on either side of the hour mark. Most of the times, they were trying to play the ball wide and then get in behind. Arsenal didn’t do a very good job of reading these situations but dealt with it by having enough numbers behind. On the odd occasion when the hosts did get in, Fabianski handled the situation with a save from a Silva strike standing out.

Song was moving forward quite often. We weren’t exposed because Cesc and Denilson did a decent job of covering for him and we had a man advantage. The Cameroonian finally made an impact with an exceptional finish. The ball was played in towards Chamakh who almost got in but Bridge intercepted with a toe poke. Song was first to react and smashed it into the far corner with one swift movement.

After the second goal, City looked almost clueless as Arsenal players made them chase the ball. We created some chances but didn’t score the third. Mancini’s side were tiring and didn’t have any creative edge. Their only hopes were some balls over the top but our defence dealt with them fairly well. Fabianski came up with an excellent point blank save from an Adebayor header but we all knew the striker would be off-side. It’s what he’s best at.

Wenger brought Rosicky on with twenty minutes to go and it helped us control the ball even better. You could sense the moneybags had given up. Even then, in such situations a goal can lift the struggling side and we did extremely well to maintain our focus for the duration of the game.

Le Boss introduced Bendtner and Walcott for Cesc and Chamakh, both of whom had put in an incredible shift. The Dane got his reward with a couple of minutes to go. Nasri controlled the ball just on the touchline and played him through. Bendtner scored with another superb finish.

City has some late pressure as Arsenal took it easy but we always had enough players back to protect the goal.

Individual Performances

Fabianski: Excellent. Was on top of his game from the first minute. Made some good saves, swept well behind the defence. In the preview I mentioned that it will be nice if he is forced into action and delivers. That’s the perfect way to get the confidence high.

Sagna: Back to his solid self. Excellent defending on the right. Made some good runs forward. Put in a couple of top class crosses (Djourou should have scored from one).

Squillaci: Did everything he had to do. His positioning was excellent. When Richards had a good chance it was his positioning that forced the shot wide.

Djourou: Looked a little shaky at times. Got turned on a few occasions but did well to cover up. He has to improve his reading of the game and the way he stands. Did well against the balls over the top, won almost everything against the midget Tevez! Good covering on the left when Clichy was outnumbered.

Clichy: Good game. I know City created some moments down the left but that was mainly due to more numbers. Rarely lost a one-v-one, and ran back well to cover when he did. Very important in terms of our possession game and put in a couple of good crosses.

Song: Big game. Unbelievable work rate, excellent defensive reading and tackling, good contribution in attack and a fantastic goal. He did make a couple of rough tackles early on but controlled himself well after the booking. Another guy we know will get better and better.

Cesc: his performance was a classic example of pulling the strings. Was all over the pitch, dropped deep when Song went forward. Picked some excellent passes. Maintained his composure despite being on the end of some deliberate rash tackles. Worked hard defensively. Penalty miss was the only blot.

Denilson: I was surprised he was picked for such a big game as he’s rarely played. Did the simple things well. Understated performance, but that’s what we needed with an extra man in the middle.

Nasri: It took some time for him to get in the game but made a huge impact once he did. Amazing work rate, good defensive tracking, always looked like a threat, beautiful finish. Assist for Bendtner showed he was alert and focused even at a late stage. My man of the match, just ahead of Song and Cesc.

Chamakh: insane work rate, excellent run that got us the man advantage, tracked back quite often and made some good interceptions as well.

Arshavin: started off slowly but got involved as the game went on. Wonderful assist for Nasri, also did some good defensive work when Clichy was up-field. In a way you could say his work rate meant the man advantage was not that big but Arshavin is not in the team for doing the donkey work. As we’ve seen, De Jong, Barry and others did a lot of that but to no avail. The first goal is so important and most often in big games, the Russian provides the inspiration.

Subs: Rosicky kept it ticking, it was good to see Theo tearing down, Bendtner’s finish was heart-warming.

It’s funny pundits are already saying the score-line wasn’t a true reflection of the game. We had 65 percent of possession, created more and better chances, scored three wonderful goals but it’s just not enough for the distractors.

Man City V Arsenal: Can We Finally Cross The Line?

October 24, 2010

I’m not sure how I’m feeling about this game. Before some games I’m a big anxious, before others there is complete confidence, but right now I just don’t know. Perhaps, a better way of putting it would be to say that I’m shuffling between various states.

I guess it’s down to the fact that there won’t be many surprises in this game. We know how it will be played out. City will be compact, defensively strong, and looking for counter attacking opportunities. Arsenal will play the possession game as usual. The only point I’m not certain of is whether the hosts will be happy to absorb pressure in their final third or will they come out in the central third.

If this goes like the way the game progressed at Stamford Bridge, and it should considering the fact that big clubs have been successful against us with that tactic, we can expect an early battle in the middle of the park. Once again the first goal will be very important because it will determine how much space we get. I don’t expect City to concede easily or early against us. That would mean we also have to keep things tight at the back.

Interestingly, out of the eight games both sides have played, Arsenal have kept one clean sheet and City only failed on two occasions. That those two occasions were their last two games can be considered as a good sign for us but let’s not kid ourselves, scoring at the City of Manchester stadium will not be easy by any stretch. After all, Chelsea with all their quick attacking, physical presence, crossing, heading, set-piece talents, shots from distance, and goal-machine Drogba couldn’t score a single goal and barely troubled Hart.

I’ve a feeling we will need a clean sheet if we are to win this game because I don’t see us scoring two or more unless Cesc, Theo and Arshavin are in peak form.

Needless to say, mistakes at the back will be extremely costly against the likes of Tevez. We also have to do keep the likes of Adam Johnson and Silva in control. The hosts haven’t really dominated any of their games so far but have been doing enough to get results. Part of that is down to the fact that guys like Tevez never give up and are always ready for even a half-chance. That means we will need unwavering focus and all-round awareness from kick-off till the final whistle.

It will be interesting to see the starting eleven that Arsene picks. Amongst the back five there isn’t much choice. If Sagna is fully fit he will surely start. I suspect he’ll start even at 70-80 percent fitness. On the other side some would like to see Gibbs but I can’t see Clichy being rested for such a game. To be honest, I’m hoping Fabianski is really tested on a couple of occasions and comes up with good saves. He’s been doing well in the last few games but nothing affects the mood and confidence as much as a performance that has a big impact on the result.

Will Arsene pick an attacking front six or a balanced bunch? Frankly, I’ve no clue. My best guess is that Diaby will drop into a deeper role alongside Song and Cesc will be in his usual attacking position. This will give us some physical presence against the likes of De Jong and Toure.

Arshavin will probably get his place back with Chamakh central and Nasri on the right. A lot will depend on whether Theo is ready to start or not. If he is, I would prefer Theo on the right and Arshavin/Nasri on the left, difficult to pick between the two. One gives us more of an attacking edge while the other provides more balance.

I’d like to see the following starting line-up,

Fabianski – Sagna, Squillaci, Djourou, Clichy – Song, Cesc, Diaby – Nasri, Chamakh, Arshavin.

Keep it tight till the final twenty minutes and then bring on Theo.

A win tomorrow will be a massive result and should not be taken as par for the course. A draw, while not good in terms of the gap at the top, will not be a bad result. A loss, especially one with mistakes at the back in a game that we dominate, will once again raise some serious questions about what this team can achieve. I have a feeling this will be a 1-1 draw or a 2-1 win for the side that takes its chances.