Communication, Leadership, Organization – Is There A Magic Wand Somewhere?

December 30, 2010

In his post match comments after the defeat-like draw against Wigan Arsene talked about the lack of communication at the back.

We need to communicate much better. That’s something we need to rectify.

Nobody is taking charge on the organisation side, there is no voice when the focus drops a little bit.

You don’t feel that anybody takes charge on alertness and we need to communicate much better than that.

To those who follow Arsenal closely on the internet and the media these comments will not be hard to understand but they do come as a surprise as Arsene doesn’t always acknowledge the teams failings openly.

I’ve been talking about defensive organization and awareness for a long time now but to be honest I can’t see a simple or straightforward solution. It’s certainly not as easy as buying a new central defender or goalkeeper. Completely revamping the back five and adding another DM might be one approach but I’m not sure even Sheikh Mansour or Roman Abramovic will call it a simple solution.

If we just consider the second goal by Wigan, I find it hard to see how communication would have made any difference. Who should have said what to whom? Bearing in mind that the time these players have in such situations is in milliseconds, it’s really hard to see what exactly was missing in terms of communication.

One might say there could have been better organization before the set-piece was taken. Having seen a few replays I thought Arsenal had enough players marking the Wigan attackers and there were players like Eboue and Chamakh marking critical areas like the near post and the central area on the six yard line.

The problem was Sagna could not win the header against Rodallega. This is something we cannot really blame the Frenchman for as he doesn’t have the height to challenge for such a ball. Squillaci was made to run around by Caldwell and couldn’t really get into the right position. It would be easy to blame him but I don’t recall too many central defenders clearing such a ball when they’ve been running to mark their man. In either case could anyone have said something that would have made a difference?

The only answer I got was that someone could have asked Chamakh to move on to the line when the corner went to the back post. But was there enough time for someone to say this and for Chamakh to listen, process, and act on it? Should he not have known that he should drop back to cover that space given that Squillaci first went to the near post with Caldwell and then had to turn around without really knowing where the ball was? On the whole, doesn’t it look like something that should have been worked out in the training ground?

More than his comments about communication, one line by Arsene really struck me as odd. I don’t recall the exact quote but Le Boss said something like we should not have conceded the corner!

The corner came when Koscielny cleared a ball that was headed towards Rodallega. I don’t see how the corner could have been avoided. Perhaps Arsene was suggesting that Koscielny should have knocked it back in play somewhere?!

All through last season I noticed and commented on a number of incidents where Arsenal conceded a goal because a defender tried a difficult reverse clearance when he could simply have knocked it out for a corner. The most recent example that comes to mind is the last minute against Sunderland when Clichy tried to hoof the ball towards the touchline and knocked it against Koscielny giving Bent a tap in. Watching that incident in slow motion it’s easy to see that Clichy could have put the ball out for a corner without any immediate risk. This would have given the defence a chance to reorganize and if they could make more than 80 clearances that day surely they’d have made one more!

My theory based on these observations was that the defenders have been given specific instructions not to conceded corners. Now Arsene has come out and said something pretty much along these lines and I find that really worrying.

Most teams don’t mind conceding corners when the defenders are under pressure. If Arsene wants the defenders to minimize the number of corners they concede even when under pressure, he is just making their life that much harder.

It could be down to the number of shorter players in the side. Last night Arsenal had Sagna, Denilson, Wilshere, Rosicky, and Arshavin on the pitch when the corner was conceded. None of them is particularly great in the air. Add to it the fact that the strikers at Arsenal don’t really win defensive headers as often as one would like and we end up with a number of weaknesses in defending corners, crosses, and set-pieces.

One solution that Arsene and his coaching staff have come up with is to have enough numbers in the box. Arsenal often have all eleven players in the penalty area to defend corners. While having enough bodies in front of goal does work on most occasions, it allows the opposition to push right into the Arsenal half knowing there is practically no counter attacking threat. This puts sustained pressure on the Arsenal goal and often gives the opposition greater belief and at times a goal.

The other solution seems to be to minimize the number of corners or set-pieces conceded. Sometimes this puts the players, especially defenders, in a difficult situation and they end up putting the ball in a dangerous area of the penalty box. This cannot be a good approach because it acknowledges a weakness in defending and would lead to increased anxiety if the players do end up conceding a corner or set-piece in a promising position for the other side.

Arsenal face a unique conundrum because most other teams in England play a physical game with a distinct English flavour. For them defending set-pieces is not as big an issue.

If I had to guess I’d say someone like Pat Rice would be very good at the English style. He’s vastly experienced in that style both as a player and a coach. The problem for Arsenal is that the present team is not based on that style. There are too many technical players and not enough of them can win the rugby battles in the box.

Obviously, having such players has many advantages as can be seen by a much more consistent performance by Arsenal in Europe than compared to Wenger’s earlier teams. These players can with their technique compete with the physical players in most areas of the pitch but on set-pieces and corners their weaknesses are exposed.

Another point worth noting is that while this is an annoying issue it’s not the most important one as far as football goes. That is the reason plenty of physically strong teams in the League finish much below Arsenal.

Unfortunately, quite often these discussions tend to boil down to “X is not good enough, get Y”. But over the last two, three years Arsenal have had so many players in different combinations that it really cannot be about one or two players.

Buying one or two players isn’t going to change much because on a set-piece there might be seven or eight attackers in the box. How many big and tall guys can Arsenal get? In the Wigan example it seems that the hosts targeted the back post because Sagna was marking Rodallega. The opposition can always put the ball in an area where Arsenal don’t have a big defender. What then?

The more I think about this issue the more complex it gets. It’s easy to say there is no leader or not enough communication on the pitch. Solving that problem is not so easy. Sometimes I wish Arsene had a magic wand and could just get it right with a flick of the wrist. But in moments of sanity I know that’s not going to happen.

Well, MS Word is telling me that I’ve typed over 1400 words and I have a feeling I’m no closer to a crystal clear understanding of the situation than I was at the start. Obviously, we cannot talk about the perfect solution unless we get a grip on the issues. I’ll leave this topic open for the time being hoping for a magical solution from Arsene.

Wigan 2 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

December 29, 2010

If you want to understand why many fans think Arsene Wenger makes major tactical mistakes watch this game again.

Eight changes to the starting line-up from the win against Chelsea showed incredible squad depth but it also showed Wenger’s tactical weakness. There were just too many players who had either been out for a long time, or were out of form, or haven’t really gotten games this season despite being fit thus showing their place in the pecking order. It was a message to Wigan that they had a chance and the Latics took it.

Of course, there is a strong argument that despite all the changes Arsenal should have won this game. The team made a poor start but got the rhythm flowing as the half progressed, converting a goal deficit into a lead by scoring two wonderful goals in the process. Chamakh and Arshavin had good chances in the second half to make it three, Arsenal were denied a clear penalty, and Wigan never seriously threatened the Arsenal goal. If someone wants to defend the team selection there is certainly an argument to be made.

The problem was Arsene compounded his initial mistake by his half time talk. I don’t know what Le Boss said but the team came out in the second half as if they wanted to have a training session in defending a lead! The high pressing that worked wonders against Chelsea and in the first half was abandoned as the players retreated into their half and invited pressure.

Wigan when pressed high up just didn’t have enough quality to bring the ball out and create chances. They looked dangerous on a couple of counter attacks but a little tactical adjustment with Eboue staying deeper would have negated the threat posed by N’Zogbia. Instead Arsenal abandoned  the only style they’re really good at and allowed Wigan to grow in confidence. Surely if Arsenal had fresher players they should have been sharper and playing with positive intent?

To make matters worse Arsene didn’t make any substitutions. If he wanted his team to drop deep surely introducing Walcott for any one of the front three would have been a sensible choice? Why not have a real attacking threat even if defence was the priority? For large periods in the second half the gunners had no forward looking options and none of the players was able to take charge.

It seemed to me that Le Boss did make a tactical decision of moving Bendtner to the left to provide better support to Eboue. This seems consistent with an overall shift in focus towards defending in the second half. Unfortunately, and not for want of trying really hard, Bendtner couldn’t do much better. Wigan got into some dangerous positions without having the final ball and on one occasion forced a big save from Fabianski.

Once N’Zogbia was sent off for a daft head-butt on Wilshere it seemed to me that Arsenal players started taking it easy. The off the ball movement was poor as no one really knew whether to go forward or to hold back. One might say the need for a leader was evident but I feel the players at this level need to know what is expected from them. To me the uncertainty in the minds of the players shows a lack of tactical clarity in the manager’s approach.

With the likes of Arshavin, Denilson, and Wilshere offering no physical presence or height in the box Arsenal were always going to be vulnerable on set pieces. One good delivery took two points away from Arsenal.

The most frustrating part is that this game was there for the taking. With due respect to Wigan the hosts would have been swept aside if Arsenal had shown more desire and tactical decisiveness.

I thought this game can be distinctly segregated into a few parts.

In the first part, upto the time Diaby was on the pitch, Arsenal were disjointed and failed to get the passing game going. Wigan were able to press Arsenal high up and looked threatening. During this period they were gifted a penalty by the ref.

It came from a good break forward by the Latics when Denilson tried a shot from outside the box that was blocked. The ball fell kindly for a Wigan player and he found N’Zogbia with acres of space as Eboue was caught up-field in the opposition box. There can be an argument that Denilson made a bad decision when he elected to shoot.

The Frenchman was able to run right up to the Arsenal box. Koscielny did a decent job of holding his position and slowing the run. Diaby was able to catch up but his half-hearted attempt at tackling was beaten by some quick feet from the Wigan winger. Koscielny tried to nick the ball and then tried to pull his foot back when he realized he’d missed the ball. N’Zogbia got a faint touch that appeared to be outside the box. The utterly incompetent Probert pointed to the spot. Ben Watson scored with a fantastic strike that Fabianski couldn’t stop despite guessing correctly.

In the second part Arsenal completely dominated the game. Roughly speaking, this period was the time from the introduction of Wilshere till the end of the first half. In this period Arsenal scored two fantastic goals. The first one was a moment of magic from Arshavin after Al-Habsi had done well to keep Bendtner’s shot out. The second one came when the Russian set up Bendtner who got a bit lucky but finished with confidence. At this stage it seemed that Arsenal could go on and score more.

Then came the halftime break and a switch was flicked by someone somewhere. In the third part Arsenal had no real attacking intent and didn’t have the right players on the pitch for defending a lead. During this period Arsenal had a couple of good chances but nothing more.

The equalizer came from a corner in the 81st minute. It was a brilliant set-piece whipped in with pace and height towards the back post. Sagna couldn’t keep up with Rodallega who rose high to knock it back towards the middle. Fabianski was covering the near post and the centre of the goal was completely free. Squillaci had been tracking the run of Caldwell and grappling with the Wigan defender. The Frenchman couldn’t get a good jump in as he was off balance and only managed to knock it into his own net. But given his position and the manner in which he reached that there wasn’t much he could have done. When the ball is allowed to drop so close to the goal the defender doesn’t have much of a chance.

I thought Fabianski’s position wasn’t very good. He wasn’t anywhere close to the initial cross and he wasn’t able to block the ball back. The bigger problem I thought was with the positioning of Chamakh who was idle in the middle of the box. Once he realized that the ball was going to the back post he should have dropped back to the line knowing that it will be headed across and that Fabianski won’t be in the centre. Since he wasn’t marking anyone his position doesn’t make any sense. I’d not really blame the Moroccan because I’m not convinced Arsenal do this even in practice. It’s one of the reasons I feel a different defence coach is needed.

In the final part Arsenal introduced Nasri and Walcott. The Frenchman should have won a penalty when his free-kick was blocked by the hands of the defender a la Cesc against the Spuds. There were some other half chances but it wasn’t enough.

Overall it was an extremely disappointing performance in a game that should have been won.

Individual Performances

Fabianski: One good save, decent sweeping behind the back four, decent distribution, could he have done better for the goal? I’ll have to see how other keepers defend a corner to the back post. Can’t recall off the top of my mind.

Sagna: Without the support of Song he struggled on the right especially when Wigan moved forward with purpose. Good work rate, couple of decent crosses, could he have marked Rodallega better on the corner?

Squillaci: Will probably get a lot of flak for the goal but most of it will be unjustified. Didn’t make too many other mistakes but struggled a bit on the physical side of the game.

Koscielny: Conceded the penalty even if it was dodgy. Made some other important interceptions and tackles.

Eboue: struggled against N’Zogbia but didn’t have much support initially. Decent job in an unfamiliar role but it was a poor choice to play him there with Arshavin in front of him.

The back five were not convincing in this game and struggled a bit, initially due to a poor midfield in front of them, and later due to unnecessary pressure resulting from lack of intent and movement up front.

Denilson: To be fair he worked hard and gave his all. Tried to be physical and put in some tackles. Didn’t offer enough going forward and looked vulnerable at times when put under pressure.

Diaby: Didn’t last half an hour, didn’t offer much even when he was on the pitch. Made one decent run with the ball but his off the ball movement was poor and didn’t help in bringing the ball out of defence.

Wilshere: Brought energy and intelligence to the pitch along with the ability to get into the right spaces to receive a pass. Created the chance for Arshavin in the second half with a good run and pass, gave the ball away on occasion.

Rosicky: dropped deep quite often to bring the ball out of defence, didn’t have many options up front as the movement was limited, can’t fault him for effort.

I thought the starting midfield was a very poor choice and didn’t have the right understanding or balance. The arrival of Wilshere made it better but Song was missed in this game.

Bendtner: Big improvement in terms of effort as he ran a lot, even worked hard on the left in the second half. Good strike that set up the first goal, took his goal well, had a few good turns and touches.

Chamakh: high work rate as usual, didn’t have a good understanding with Bendtner or Arshavin. Should have done much better in the box for the second goal but that might not be his fault.

Arshavin: had a few good moments, exceptional goal, good assist, didn’t offer much in the second half, should have been taken off.

Subs: Wilshere I’ve already covered, Nasri had some good moments and should have won a penalty, Walcott never got the chance to get in the game.

Arsene took a gamble in this one and it didn’t work out. They can still salvage something if they win at Birmingham. Normally, I’d have thought this game can be won while that one might be a draw as Birmingham are really hard to beat at St. Andrews. Now Wenger and his players must show that resting so many will at least yield some positive.

Thoughts On The Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Wigan

December 28, 2010

Ideally, I’d have preferred a week’s break after the Chelsea win just to soak it in. That would have been a nice way to celebrate the festive season. I can’t quite take my mind off that game. Hopefully, the players will not be in the same state.

I guess the best way to move on from a big win is to win the next game. The visit to Wigan gives Arsenal the chance to go joint top after Manchester United blew another lead in an away game. A five goal win might even see Arsenal in pole position but I don’t think it matters at this stage. Three points most certainly do and Arsenal must perform with the kind of discipline we have seen away from home this season.

Wigan are a team I like and Roberto Martinez is a good manager. They do have physical players like Thomas and Hendry but their philosophy is to play football. Tactically that should make things easier for Arsenal. When the opposition tries to keep the ball on the ground and move it around, it just gives the Gunners that bit extra because Arsenal’s defending on the ground is much better than their work in the air.

If all goes well, we should see some high quality football. I guess neither set of supporters will have forgotten the corresponding fixture from last season. Arsenal blew a 2 goal lead in the last ten minutes but unlike many fans I don’t think of that game as a bad performance. It was 20 minutes of horror preceded by 70 minutes of quality. Since that team was a highly depleted one, I see no reason why this year we can’t see fantastic football for 90 minutes.

Nevertheless, Arsenal cannot afford to underestimate a Wigan side that hasn’t lost at home in the League since the middle of September. We must also be wary of the curse of the Carling Cup. Having beaten Newcastle and Tiny Totts in the League Cup away from home, Arsenal lost to them at home. In the last round of the Kiddie Cup the Gunners beat Wigan at home and are now visiting them for a League encounter. It’s not logical but neither were defeats to the Barcodes or Spuds.

In some ways this is a tricky encounter and picking the correct starting eleven will not be easy. I’m thankful I don’t have to make these choices. On one hand there can be an argument for having fresher players like Rosicky, Chamakh, Arshavin, Diaby, Denilson, and Eboue in the starting line-up. On the other, one might say that Wenger should not tinker with a winning combination.

Le Boss will have to find the right balance based on form and fitness. Personally speaking, relying on the same people to do the job and allowing players to build some momentum sounds like the prudent choice. Unless someone like RvP is not ready for two games in three days or a youngster like Wilshere needs a rest, I’d not change the starting eleven except bringing Rosicky in for the suspended Cesc.

Walcott needs a run of games to show some consistency and Wigan’s style will certainly be good for him. Van Persie too needs games to settle into the central striking role. I’ll also like to see a stable partnership developing at the back. There is an argument for playing Arshavin in the absence of Cesc as the Russian has been one of the main creative threats for Arsenal. I guess it will be a tactical decision. Does Arsene want a dribbler like Nasri or some like Arshavin who can unlock the defence?

The starting line-up I’d like to see is,

Fabianski – Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy – Song, Rosicky, Wilshere – Walcott, Rvp, Nasri

Since there are two really tough fixtures in seven days after the visit to the DW stadium, a strong start followed by three substitutions around the hour mark would be perfect. If Arsenal have a two goal lead, Chamakh for RvP, Diaby for Wilshere, and Arshavin for Nasri will be my picks. Of course, this can change based on the way the game pans out.

Having said that, I’ll be really surprised if Arsenal don’t make more changes. Wenger has been a lot more flexible in terms of rotation this season even at the risk of a poor result. He must have good reasons for making those choices and we certainly can’t argue with his experience in these matters even if the results have been frustrating. I’ll be happy with any starting eleven as long as they don’t play Santa for the Latics.

Arsenal 3 – 1 Chelsea: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

December 27, 2010

If you didn’t understand Arsene Wenger’s faith in this team, watch this game again and again.

If you didn’t believe the earlier games between the sides were close and the first goal made a big difference, watch this game again.

I don’t want to get too excited over one win. That’s not in my nature. I do however, wish to enjoy a fantastic performance to the fullest. And since I realize this wasn’t Arsenal at their best, my exhilaration is difficult to contain.

To begin with, Arsene deserves a great deal of credit for picking the perfect starting eleven. Nasri, Van Persie, and Walcott were a really potent attacking trio. Song, Wilshere, and Cesc formed a strong midfield. Starting Djourou at the back alongside Sagna, Koscielny, and Clichy was pretty much a masterstroke.

I must also say it was great to see the team play with real belief right from kick-off. There was no hesitation, no hand-brake as Arsene calls it. In contrast, it was easy to see Chelsea were set up to defend. The visitors didn’t really have the confidence of taking the game to Arsenal. Those who think Arsenal have lost the fear factor have to see how a team like Chelsea put 10 or 11 behind the ball right from the moment the ref blew his whistle.

The first forty minutes were tight. Chelsea were playing like Birmingham or Newcastle but with better players. Arsenal were trying to penetrate the blue wall while defending against long balls and counter attacks.

The first opening came for RvP when Song found him with a ball over the top. The Dutchman lacked match sharpness and was probably put off by the attempted challenge by Ivanovic. Van Persie produced an air-kick from eight yards. Moments later Drogba took a shot from outside the box after a quick counter but couldn’t find the target.

After that the teams settled into their respective rhythms and nullified each other. When Arsenal got a corner in the 39th minute I was wondering whether this will be the moment for Arsenal. To be honest, I also had a thought at the back of my mind that this is just the kind of moment when Arsenal could concede from a counter! The corner was headed out but only to Sagna who let fly with his left foot. Drogba got in the way but the strike was powerful enough to knock him down.

Arsenal were able to sustain pressure and a couple of minutes later Nasri had some space on the edge of the box. His attempted chip forced a great save from Cech. It reminded me of the kind of goal Bergkamp used to score from that area.

The breakthrough finally arrived a couple of minutes before half time. Nasri was being double-teamed on the left. The Frenchman took the ball to corner of the box before squaring it back towards Song. The Cameroonian passed it Wilshere and went for the return. For a moment it looked like the youngster had delayed his pass for too long but he was able to dink it back towards Song.

Arsenal had three or four bodies in the area and Fabregas was tripped as he was going through. I would have taken a penalty and a yellow card for Ferreira but Song was alert, calm, and clinical.

This is just the kind of sucker punch Arsenal have conceded against Chelsea in recent games so it was always going to be interesting to see how the second half panned out.

Wenger’s men (emphasis on men!) came out for the second half with the right approach. They started where they’d left off and pressed Chelsea high up the pitch. Unfortunately for the visitors, they didn’t have the comfort of a lead and couldn’t really sit back.

This resulted in a great deal of space behind their defence and Arsenal exploited that expertly. Once again showing how dangerous it can be for teams to push out against Arsenal.

The second goal came after some good work by RvP. The Dutchman lost his footing but was able to hold off the central defenders. Essien was forced to come back and his toe-poke nicked the ball away from the Arsenal striker. Walcott was on the shoulder of Cole and showed greater alertness and desire. The Englishman also showed good composure while squaring the ball to Fabregas who had an empty net in front of him.

Minutes later it was three. Once again the pressure high up the pitch paid off as Walcott caught Malouda on the ball. He passed it to El Capitan and sprinted forward. Cesc expertly lifted the ball over Terry’s attempted interception and Theo showed he is turning into a lethal finisher.

After this, there was a little bit of hesitation in Arsenal’s approach. The player’s didn’t seem certain about the tactical approach. Should they shut up shop or should they continue the attacking game?

Chelsea found a goal soon after as Arsenal conceded a sloppy free kick. Drogba lifted it into the danger area and Arsenal defenders didn’t attack the ball well enough. Fabianski was exposed and he couldn’t quite come for the ball in time. Ivanovic scored with a simple header and Chelsea found some belief. Ideally the defenders should have dealt with the ball better and Fabianski should have stayed on his line.

After conceding the goal Arsenal showed great mental resilience and worked hard as a team. Ancelotti’s side couldn’t really create any clear chances and were limited to shots from distance and hopeful crosses. All the adjectives that have been used to deride and ridicule Arsenal would be applicable to this Chelsea performance. Arsenal did have a couple of opportunities on the counter but Nasri rushed his shot when he had the time while Diaby took too long.

Arsenal’s defending wasn’t perfect and the players did concede some daft free-kicks in dangerous areas. Nonetheless, it was a strong all-round performance and a massive win.

Individual Performances

Fabianski: Didn’t have much to do in terms of making saves but marshalled his box well. Came for the ball when he had to and his distribution was quick and effective on most occasions. Some lazy and ignorant pundits and fans will blame him for the goal but I thought it was a collective problem.

Sagna: Took Malouda out of the game. Very solid defensive shift, lots of energy while running up and down for the duration of the game, put in some decent crosses.

Djourou: excellent physical presence, good interceptions and headers, composed on the ball, is beginning to fulfil his potential.

Koscielny: Read the game really well and his positioning was excellent. Looked composed while bringing the ball forward. Needs to improve his touch/ball control in and around the box, and has to do better with his passing when he moves forward and leaves a space behind. Made some minor mistakes but recovered well.

Clichy: Superb again. Took Kalou out of the game, reduced Chelsea’s threat on the break, made some important interceptions and tackles, went forward quite often and played a useful part in attack.

Overall the back five looked much better as they got good support from the midfield and the wide players. They’re doing a decent job of dealing with crosses and corners but set-pieces from the front seem to be a weakness. Newcastle, Tiny Totts, and now Chelsea have all scored from those angles.

Song: incredible work rate, well taken goal, excellent defensive contribution, good passes in the attacking areas. Gave away some silly fouls in the final quarter of the game.

Wilshere: worked hard, decent defensive contribution, had some good moments and some weak ones.

Cesc: had some amazing touches, a good goal, an excellent assist, but also gave the ball away uncharacteristically and his work rate wasn’t at the level we have seen from him. Still not quite there mentally and that can be a big positive if Arsene can get him back to his best.

The midfield dominated Chelsea for the first half and found a good balance between attack and defence. The desire of the players to track back was commendable.

Walcott: My MotM even though he wasn’t in the game all the time. In the first half his chances were limited as Chelsea denied him space. Destroyed Chelsea in a short spell early in the second half when he did get space. Loved his alertness, desire to win the ball back, composure when on the ball, awareness of players around him, and clinical finishing.

RvP: Not quite close to his best but offered a lot through his movement, ability to hold the ball under pressure, and intelligent passing. Another player who can make a huge impact on the season if he can get back to his best.

Nasri: Was double-teamed for large parts but did well in terms of holding possession, bringing others into play, defensive tracking, and forced three good saves.

The attackers were quick, skilful, and confident. They moved the defence around really well and forced Chelsea deep in the first half. Good defensive contribution by the wide players and RvP dropped deep quite often.

Subs: Diaby did well in defensive areas and it was good to see his loping strides on the pitch. Chamakh worked hard and forced the defenders into knocking it high and long. I was a bit surprised by the changes. I’d have moved Walcott down the middle, taken Cesc and RvP off and brought on Rosicky on the right and Diaby in the middle.

Thoughts On Starting Eleven And Tactics Against Chelsea

December 26, 2010

Arsenal can go up. Arsenal can go flat. Arsenal can go down. It’s that time of the season and the League table is set up nicely. Come April and May we won’t have five teams so close to each other at the top. One or two of the top teams are now going to push on, some will carry on with a stop-start season, and one or two will lag behind.

I don’t have to remind you of the awful recent record that Arsenal have against Chelsea or the horrendous run the visitors are on at the moment.  In many ways the next game will be indicative of the way Arsenal are going to go and the same can be said about Chelsea who are trying to arrest a free fall.

One of my complaints against Arsene has been the tactical inflexibility while playing Chelsea (or United). We did see a little change in the visit to Stamford Bridge and it was followed up by a similar change at Old Trafford. In both those games Arsenal defended better than they’ve done previously due to better defensive support from the midfield. It hasn’t been enough and after conceding a freakish first goal, the story – opposition defending, playing on the counter, arsenal struggling to break them down – has been repeated.

I don’t expect anything different in this game. The opening exchanges will be tight. The team that wants the ball more and wins the 50-50’s will shade it. An early goal, if it comes, will be from an individual mistake or a moment of brilliance. If neither team scores early we will have a cat and mouse game till someone gets a goal. I really hope Arsenal can get to half-time without conceding. Of course, going into the break with a lead will be fantastic but I’d say not conceding should be the priority.

I’m not advocating a defensive strategy, just a more balanced one. I’d also like to see a change to the system that Arsenal have been using. Most of Arsenal’s problems against the big teams have come while playing a variant of the 4-3-3. It just hasn’t worked. There are many reasons that complicate the matter but one of the key aspects is Arsenal’s failure to find the right balance between attack and defence.

At times, too many Gunners push forward and leave the defence exposed against teams set up to defend and play on the break. On some other occasions like the first half at Old Trafford, Arsenal are pinned back and can’t really create anything on the break. In both cases chances of conceding are higher than those of scoring.

In this game I’d like to see Arsenal play with a 4-3-3 when in possession of the ball and reverting to a 4-4-1-1 when defending. The starting line-up I’d have is,

Fabianski – Sagna, Squillaci, Koscielny, Clichy – Song, Cesc, Diaby – Walcott, RvP, Nasri.

With that formation, I’d like to see bulk of the short passing play on the left and centre with attempts to create space for Theo. RvP has the ability to produce a special moment in the box and Arsenal will need it at some stage.

The midfield should play closer to the defence and invite Chelsea out to create some space in behind. If Arsenal push forward in numbers they’ll inevitably give Drogba some chances and the Ivorian is sure to convert one or two. That strategy will also reduce space in the attacking third and make it difficult for the attackers.

When Arsenal lose the ball I’d like to see a 4 man midfield in front of the defence. Song should cover the right side, Cesc and Diaby in the centre with the Frenchman staying close to Drogba, and Nasri dropping back to provide support to Clichy.

I’d like to see Theo get a free role to make runs down the middle or on either flanks based on where Arsenal win the ball back. RvP to play on the shoulder of the last defender or even deeper in an offside position so he can keep up when Walcott gets a chance to run into space.

This can only be successfully implemented if RvP is back in the form we saw in the early part of last season, Diaby has the match fitness to perform in this game, Fabregas plays like the Captain, Walcott knows the runs he has to make and his teammates are prepared to find those runs, and everyone puts in a solid shift without any lapses in concentration.

Having said all that, I don’t honestly expect Arsene to make these changes. I have a feeling he will continue with the same system with Arshavin on the left that leaves Clichy exposed, although Diaby for Wilshere might make the left a little stronger. In that case, Arsenal’s best hope will come from a moment of magic by one of the big Guns. Thankfully, Arsenal will be very close to a full strength team.

All-in-all I feel Arsenal have a good chance in this game but I don’t want to keep my expectations high. This game is just as big for Chelsea as it is for Arsenal and they’ll no doubt have spent the two weeks working on making their defence impregnable. As always, I’ll be more interested in the performance on the pitch and rather than the result.


Benitez’s Woes Highlight Wenger’s Quality

December 23, 2010

Rafa Benitez is a very good manager. He’s won the Champions League, UEFA Cup, La Liga, FA Cup, and probably a number of other less significant titles. If my memory serves me right the Spaniard also had the upper hand in his battles with the Dark Lord of Anti-Football when the Portuguese was at Chelsea. Most games were tactical borefests but Liverpool held their own against the expensively assembled London side.

It would be safe to say that Benitez is amongst the top ten managers in club football right now. Fans of the Spaniard might claim that had Rafa been given the same amount of financial backing that Mourinsho was, Benitez would have bettered the Dark Lord’s record. I don’t quite agree with that but it’s difficult to dismiss the argument off-hand as it has some merit.

Despite his undoubted abilities, one negative aspect casts a shadow over the ex-Valencia, Liverpool, and Inter coach. He left all three roles “with mutual consent” after falling out with the board/owner(s) over a number of issues. In all cases lack of funds for signings and control over transfers were key factors.

Benitez has thus far failed in establishing a legacy at any club. It seems to me that a significant part of that was down to his inability to work within the financial realities of the club. This is a very critical part of management and very few, even at the top, have actually succeeded.

For instance, Ancelotti had a fantastic record at Milan. His teams played well and won a number of titles. But once they had some financial difficulties, had to sell Kaka, and couldn’t really buy the big names, the Italian struggled to win titles. If Chelsea don’t splash out in January or the summer, it will be interesting to see what Carlo achieves for the Blues.

Too many people tend to divide a football club into the financial side and the football side. As the X in “Arsenal haven’t won a title for X years” grows, this division gets stronger in the minds of frustrated fans. Thankfully, those who take the decisions at Arsenal understand how intricately linked the two sides are.

If we look at clubs around England and Europe this link is easy to see. Manchester United have had a big stadium and a strong brand for a long, long time. They have had more money than Arsenal for years. Chelsea and Man City have wealthy benefactors. The two Spanish clubs have their own TV deals and banks/governments have bailed them out of serious trouble. Moreover, immigration laws allow them to sign younger South American players.

In contrast, German clubs have a much better balance between finance and football. When was the last time a German team won in the European club competitions? Is it a surprise that a team like Werder Bremen crashed out in the first round of the Champions League? Obviously a German club will win the Bundesliga and their domestic cups so they all get a chance to win something and not fall in the “no title for X years” trap. But that doesn’t mean any of those clubs is much better than Arsenal. This balance between the two aspects, finance and football, also gives smaller teams a chance to win something as other sides can’t buy all their best players.

Similarly, even though Inter did bore us to death while buying the Champions League last season, Italian clubs, in general, have struggled in Europe after the scandal and the financial crisis. At one stage people talked of AC Milan with awe and admiration, now even Spuds have a good chance against them!

Why have I suddenly started talking about other leagues and clubs while talking about Benitez? To show a link between the financial and football sides of a club. Once that is established we can discuss the performance of a manager within the constraints of financial reality.

The Spaniard didn’t get the kind of funds that Chelsea gave to their manager. But he had a lot more than what Arsene Wenger had and was pretty close to Fergusson. Rafa certainly had a lot more money than most managers get. So what was the problem for Benitez?

I think the biggest problem at Liverpool was the manager’s failure to get the right signings for the money he had. This meant that there was a lot of churn at the club. He couldn’t really get a good squad together, which would be the key to creating a legacy. And that is where we have to see the parallel with Arsenal.

Many fans feel that having a £50 Million profit means the club can splash out on proven players. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way mainly because the “proven player” is probably the biggest myth in football. No one can guarantee how a new signing is going to turn out.

Robbie Keane is a perfect example. The Irishman had an excellent scoring record in the Premier League for a club close to the top. Who could have been a more proven striker for Benitez to buy for the money he had? For some reason, it didn’t work out. Liverpool recovered a large part of the money they’d spent but they lost 6 months when the money spent wasn’t delivering on the pitch and that killed their title hopes. This happened to Benitez far too often and is one of the key reasons for the churn seen at Liverpool.

Then there is the case of Daniel Agger. I’d say he’s a very good defender. But he’s had fitness problems almost as bad as RvP’s. The money spent on him is gone but the performance on the pitch is not there even if the player and manager are not directly at fault.

Benitez also struggled to convert potential into performances. Ryan Babel was rated just as highly in those days as Eden Hazard or Javier Pastore are these days. Benitez spent a fair amount on a talented player but where was the output?

We have three distinct examples here. One is a proven player who can’t fit in with a different manager/system (Keane, Ibrahimovic, Shevchenko, Berbatov, etc). Another is a top class player struggling with injuries (Agger, Woodgate, etc). Finally, a really talented youngster failing to fulfil his potential.

That doesn’t mean all signings are disasters. Benitez hit the jackpot with players like Torres and Reina. The point is, any new signing could go both ways but no one can predict in advance how it will turn out. Consequently, at the time of a new signing no player can be called a “proven player”. A player can only prove his worth after he is signed so any new signing is a risk.

People who have worked in any kind of a planning role will understand the importance of contingency planning. If you have £50M you cannot spend it all on one plan.

Arsenal could spend that kind of money on two supposedly “proven players” and might win as a result. But it could just as easily flop. If it flops not only do Arsenal lose the money, they also lose a year. Next season it would be no titles for X+1 year and very little money to spend. Obviously the flops would lose their market value.

This is precisely what happened at Liverpool. Even though they did get a couple of titles, mostly using the squad Benitez inherited, they couldn’t get out of the vicious cycle, buy – flop/injured – sell – buy again. Eventually, the owners ran out of money and their debt problems didn’t help.

These days Liverpool don’t have much money and they don’t have a strong squad. Arsenal could easily be in the same place if they go down that path. The other clubs who have gone down this path either have owners that can absorb hundreds of millions in losses, or have governments that bail them out, or have revenues far higher than that of Arsenal. This is also the reason I’m hugely disappointed that the successful move to the Emirates is not seen as the monumental achievement that it is for the club.

While Rafa Benitez won a trophy or two at Valencia and Liverpool, he couldn’t take the club to a stage where they could consistently compete at the top with or without him. That failure overshadows any success, even the Champions League win.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Arsene Wenger has been perfect with his transfer dealings, tactical decisions, etc. With the benefit of hindsight we can always find some better options, but taking small yet meaningful steps towards the top, while working in a constrained environment, is an extremely challenging task. As with anything in life, we have to accept some mistakes when they come with a largely excellent performance.

Of Man City, Shots From Distance, Crosses, And Defending

December 22, 2010

In India, particularly in the north, there is a saying, “sher kabhi ghaas nahin khaata hai”. A loose literal translation would be, a lion (no matter how starved he might be) doesn’t eat grass. For a football hungry person like me a weekend disrupted by weather spells disaster when the Arsenal game is postponed. Not having the makeup of a lion I ended up paying close attention to a game like Man City V Everton. Luckily for people like me that game was enjoyable in many ways including the result.

While Everton did get a win with some dogged, desperate defending, I was quite impressed with the way Man City played as well. So far this season Mancini’s men have not looked like a team capable of creating many chances but this game was different. According to the stats on Guardian Chalkboards the Moneybags had 34 shots on goal. They cannot be faulted for not trying their luck but it does give us an interesting discussion point.

There are times when pundits, bloggers, and commentators on the internet criticize Arsenal for not shooting enough. I did discuss this with some facts and snapshots in this article earlier in October. There are many who feel Arsenal can win some difficult games if they took more shots. I don’t completely agree with that opinion even though I agree Arsenal should do better with their shooting.

Against Everton, City had a total of 34 shots and if you have seen the game you’ll not be surprised when I mention that more than half, 19, came from outside the box. Those who’ve seen the game will also have noted that most of these were blocked and others were off target. Out of the 19 shots from outside the box only two forced a save from Howard and only one looked really threatening, the shot by Tevez in injury time.

The following image created using Guardian Chalkboards shows the shots on target (blue), shots off target (red), and shots blocked (grey).

City put the visitors under siege for large parts of the game. That’s not difficult to understand because Mancini’s side were two down before twenty minutes were up. They had to go all out for the win.

Ironically, despite so many shots from outside the box, the only goal that City managed to score came from a clever dummy by Silva as he shaped to shoot but slid the ball through to Barry who in turn passed it to Yaya Toure. The Ivoirian’s cross was deflected in. Steve McManaman in the commentary box acknowledged that he was about to say that was one pass too many!

Sometimes Arsenal keep passing the ball and don’t attempt as many shots as City did. I can understand why people might be frustrated by that especially if the result is a defeat like the one against Newcastle. But the key point here is that shooting from distance, while it adds to the pressure, doesn’t really guarantee anything as we saw from this game. On another day City might have won a penalty and they did score via a deflection but these are low percentage outcomes.

I don’t argue the fact that Arsenal can improve their shooting, players like Arshavin are performing way below their own standards in this regard, but the assumption that more shooting will result in more goals and improved results seems irrational.

Now let’s look at the Crosses put in by City. The hosts attempted 33 crosses but only 5 were successful! The contrast is really stark in the following image (created Guardian Chalkbaords).

It would be the understatement of the century to say City have spent a fortune on buying players. They also have plenty of players who can cross the ball well. But when a team parks the bus and gets the basics right, crossing is often exposed as an extremely low efficiency approach. I’d rather see one good through-ball rather than ten hopeful crosses.

I don’t really mind criticism for poor shooting (something Arsenal have been guilty of off late) or wayward crosses. These are important skills and are helpful in scoring goals. But it’s extremely disappointing to see opinions that say Gunners (Clichy, Sagna, Rosicky, and others) are useless because they can’t cross or don’t shoot from distance. That level of extremism is daft.

Worst of all is the naïveté on display when people claim Arsenal will start winning titles if they buy players who can shoot from distance or can put in better crosses. It can never be that simple and this game is not a solitary example. If you look at games in which Chelsea have struggled this season, crosses or shots from distance haven’t bailed them out of trouble.

Finally, I wanted to touch upon Man City’s defending. They have an excellent defensive record this season that is bettered only be Chelsea. They also have big, strong, physical defenders and generally look quite solid at the back. Yet they conceded two soft goals against Everton. Looking at those goals again one observation was that the defenders didn’t have much support from the midfield which allowed Everton players more space and time in the box.

For the second goal, Everton certainly deserve credit and it can be argued that Zabaleta being off the pitch affected the balance, but on the whole if you look at the way they’ve been playing over the season, it’s not difficult to see their midfield plays a critical role in creating an appearance of solidity in their defence. That is one area where Arsenal must improve.

Wilshere Makes A Telling Comment

December 21, 2010

The other day I read this article about Wilshere that had a few quotes. A couple of lines stood out.

You never get ahead of yourself, you just can’t. Take the boss, for example. He won’t say too much but he’s never completely pleased.

Even if you’ve had a good game he’ll always say, ‘You could have done this better’.

I’ve always believed that people who achieve greatness can only do so if they are constantly challenging themselves and those around them to do better. If one has real talent it’s not difficult to stand out from the pack of average humans (no disrespect to anyone, I consider myself pretty average). Moving from good to great is a much harder step.

If we take football for instance, most genuinely good players make it to the top leagues and the best clubs. The relatively ordinary ones play in lower divisions while many don’t even make the professional grade. But only those who really buckle down and challenge themselves to improve constantly can move from the genuinely good to the truly exceptional level.

Part of this process is acknowledging the areas of improvement and working on them. Unless mistakes are identified and acknowledged there can be no hope for betterment. This is where the above comment is so pertinent. When we add the fact that Wilshere is not the first Arsenal player to mention this, it shows that Arsene is rarely satisfied and is looking for more even from his best players and even on days when they’ve had a good game.

The reason I’m discussing this issue is that there is one criticism of Wenger and the players that really irks me. One of the great myths built by some bloggers and quite commonly seen on the internet is that the Arsenal players are a pampered lot and don’t care enough or get away without putting their heart and soul into games/training.

While I can see the observations behind these opinions – at times Arsenal players look disinterested, or lazy, or passionless – it’s really difficult to take them seriously. The main reason behind this is that judging based on appearances, and that too from a distance, without having any idea of the details involved is rather harsh. A player might be playing with an injury, there might be a tactical change that he could be struggling with, or the opposition might actually be playing really well. There can be so many reasons for a lacklustre performance that we cannot even imagine simply because we don’t know the crucial details.

More baffling is the persistent demand for using the so called hairdryer treatment. There are three inherent assumptions in this that are flawed. Firstly, it assumes that the players are not playing well deliberately or that they’re not trying hard enough. The second assumption is that just by shouting at the players the manager can change this. Finally, there is an assumption that all players will respond positively to a telling off irrespective of their personalities!

Can you really imagine any organization in the world, in any field, performing at the highest level if the leader/man in charge has to constantly yell at his co-workers/employees?

The way I see it, getting the best out of players from different nationalities and cultures, varying talent and experience levels, with diverse expectations and life goals, and unique personalities is a herculean task and should never be trivialized.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Arsene is perfect in the way he deals with the players. I’d not say that for any manager because there is always some room for improvement even if one wins all the trophies. So when the team is not performing at a level it should be there is definite room for improvement. But what we can see from Wilshere’s comment and those of others before him is that the manager is constantly looking to do better and wants more from his players. Without knowing actual details of what goes on in training and the dressing rooms, can fans really ask for more?

Unfortunately, too many fans can’t see beyond the ‘no trophies for five years’ curtain and in that blinkered approach any criticism seems valid and justifiable, but isn’t the view a lot different for those who can take distance and attempt to analyze individual issues objectively?

Is This The ‘Lucky Break’ Arsenal Needed?

December 20, 2010

While the postponement of the Stoke fixture has led to a rather boring week for fans, I feel it could just turn out to be the lucky break Arsenal needed.

In terms of personnel, Arsenal will probably have the best team available for the big one against Chelsea. I’ve not checked the details but it could be the first time in a long while that a full strength Gunners side will meet one of the rivals.

The game might be too soon for Vermaelen but I rate him on par with the other central defenders at the club so to me personally it won’t be a loss. On the other hand, a fully fit Diaby could address the weakness Arsenal have in the left midfielder role. Cesc and RvP can bring the potency that has been lacking against the top sides and makes Arsenal look toothless.

Van Persie in particular has been key to some rare wins over the rivals in recent years. The Dutchman will have to play in the central attacking role to make the most impact.

The other major advantage of this break is that it gives the team some time to train together and work out different tactical systems.

Earlier during the season Arsenal were playing every three days and that left very little time for making tactical modifications/adjustments in training.  So we saw Van Persie playing in an unfamiliar role and struggling, we lost a couple of games in the Champions League as the rotations didn’t quite work out, we saw a tactical change against United but the balance between attack and defence was missing, and so on.

This two week break should have given Arsene enough time to work on the tactical adjustments that are needed. Next Monday we cannot have the excuses about players lacking sharpness or too many injuries.

Hopefully, Wenger will have had the opportunity to work on the psychological aspect as well. The team has to find the balance between positive, aggressive play and solid, organized defending. This balance has to be in the players’ minds as much as it has to be tactical on the pitch. In the past, Arsenal have lost big games by throwing numbers forward and getting hit on the break. More recently, the losses have been due to lack of sharpness in attack after conceding a freak opening goal. The solution lies somewhere in between and this is the best time to find it.

Of course, the flip side is that the other teams also got this opportunity to regroup. Chelsea will almost have their best side back. And I’ve no doubt Ancelotti will be spending the fortnight ensuring his defence is as strong as it used to be.

In some ways it’s unfortunate that Arsenal don’t get to play the opponents when they are missing their key players. The point is not that Arsenal cannot beat the best side of their title rivals. The issue here is that a run of losses has been built when Arsenal have missed their best players and it would be fun to see how the game turns out if the tables were turned.

For now we won’t get to see that but I don’t mind watching both sides putting out their best elevens.

I also have a feeling that two teams out of the top four will push on when football returns after this forced break. If Arsenal start slow they probably won’t catch up with the others. So even if there is no football, I feel this will prove to be the most crucial fortnight in the League this season. Can Arsenal make it count?

JFK Would Have Understood Arsene Wenger’s Predicament

December 19, 2010

A few days back, during the course of some random web surfing, I came across a quote by former US president John F. Kennedy. It took a few moments to sink in but since then I haven’t stopped admiring the wisdom captured in just a few words. Moreover, it’s extremely relevant in the context of Arsenal FC.

I guess many of you might have come across this one earlier but this was a new one for me.


The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.


If we think about Arsenal, there are plenty of opinions around like “Arsenal lack a winning mentality”, “Arsenal goalkeepers are useless”, “Arsenal only lack two (pick your favourite number) world class players”, and so on.

These are not lies or to put it differently, there is a grain of truth in these and most other opinions. There are times when we can see Arsenal players are hesitant or nervous and lack confidence. The Goalkeepers have undoubtedly made some glaring mistakes. Buying world class players will improve any team.

Similarly, we can clearly see these are not absolute truths either. Many like to pretend that their opinion is gospel and will solve all problems the club faces but there is hardly any consensus and most often the doctrine changes based on the performances in the last couple of weeks.

To my mind, most of the “definitive opinions” that we hear about Arsenal fall under the ‘Myth’ category. They’re not completely wrong because most often they’re based on valid observations. No one can deny the mistakes made by the Goalkeepers or Clichy for instance. Wenger has acknowledged that at times Arsenal players look nervous or lack confidence. When the discussion is about buying players, Arsene never says that it won’t work. He just says that, “buying is not the only solution”.

It’s not difficult to see why these myths about Arsenal are persistent and persuasive. There are recurring patterns, mistakes that are repeated, and silverware that’s lacking.

Interestingly, that quote by JFK was followed by this line

Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.


These lines are not directly relevant to Arsenal as this has nothing to do with forebears. But we could replace forebears with pundits and it would make sense.

The last line is a classic so I’ll repeat it, in bold. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. Too many pundits and media men write clichéd opinions about Arsenal with complete disregard for, and at times a sinister manipulation of, facts. Unfortunately, we can also add a number of bloggers and supposed Gooners to this list.

The end result is that many fans who don’t have the time to look at the details end up buying these myths. If so many are saying it, it must be true! The cycle repeats and gains more strength.

There are times when the facts are so strong they can overcome the myths. For instance, at the end of the summer transfer window, a large majority of the Gooner community was crying out for a new goalkeeper. The myth had gone from strength to strength over the course of last season and the summer. But some strong performances by Almunia initially, and then by Fabianski, aided by a much improved defence, have countered this myth.

I have no doubt there are many who are just waiting for the Keeper to make a mistake before they launch another scathing attack but they are no longer in a majority.

In other cases, the facts alone are not strong enough or they are difficult to identify. Myths involving complex issues are often difficult to bust once they get popular acceptance. For instance, what facts can we use to have an objective discussion about winning mentality?

Let’s look at it from the “discomfort of thought” point of view. It’s easy to say, “Arsenal lack a winning mentality”. But what is the solution? How can we even think of a solution to such a vague problem? That simple, comfortable opinion does not say whether this is a problem with one individual player, all the players, coaching staff, and/or the manager. That’s why it’s such a vague problem.

Can anyone say Wenger lacks a winning mentality? Or that Fabregas lacks a winning mentality? How many players lack a winning mentality? Will buying one leader solve the problem? If not, how many do Arsenal have to buy? Will of those players gel together or will Arsenal face a Cityesque situation? What if one of the new buys flops? What if one gets injured? What will the contingency plan be?

I could go on and on. Clearly, once you actually think about an issue it always turns out to be a lot more complex than simple cliché’s would have you believe. It’s not difficult to see why thought can be discomforting. The more answers you seek the more complex it gets. That is the reason, in a sport followed by billions around the world, we only have a handful of top class managers. In the world of Football Manager there can be hundreds, if not thousands, of winners but not in the real world.

I’m not saying that fans have no right to criticize or that any criticism, per se, is wrong. The point is, criticism that is devoid of respect, especially towards the complexities involved, just generates myths – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Sadly, too many seem to choose the comfort of opinion over the discomfort of thought.

N.B. The quotes are from JFK’s Commencement Address at Yale University.