Analysis Of Some Interesting Situations From The West Brom Game – Part II

March 30, 2011

Before I begin, I just want to take the opportunity thank everyone who sent me supportive emails over the last couple of weeks. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to reply to everyone individually. The Gooner empire is going through a difficult period and everyone has their own way of dealing with it. There was a time when I got actively involved in the discussions but now it seems pointless to go through the same arguments over and over again. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing but just that I’ll try to keep it about football and analysis of the details of the game rather than opinions on individuals even though that seems to be the popular thing to do at the moment.

Coming back to the game against West Brom, I wanted to talk about a couple of other observations I had.


Click on the image to view a larger version

The first image is from the build up to the moment when Van Persie hit the bar and Ramsey couldn’t score from the rebound.

What I noticed about this move was that Clichy actually made a run on the inside channel. Full-backs these days don’t do this on a regular basis and I guess there must be a good reason for that. But there are times when I feel such runs can be extremely useful in opening the opposition up. Evra is one player who does create and utilize such situations rather well.

I was happy that Clichy moved in with the ball from the Arsenal half before playing it to Arshavin on the wing and continuing on his run. Hopefully we will see more of this from Sagna as well. Both Frenchmen did use this tactic and excelled in the 07-08 season but that used to be in a 4-4-2 formation.

In that year the understanding between the wide midfielders and the full-backs was impeccable. If this game is a sign that those movements are coming back it can only lead to a massive improvement in Arsenal’s attacking options.

There was another move in that game which gave me some food for thought. This came just after the half-hour mark. Clichy got the ball on the left inside the Arsenal half. He moved forward with it and played it to Van Persie who had come deep and wide. The Dutchman rolled it first time to Arshavin, who squared it to Ramsey in acres of space. The following snapshot captures this moment.


Click on the image to view a larger version

It’s interesting to note that when Ramsey is about to get the ball there is a great deal of space behind the WBA left-back and central defender. Nasri is free, wide on the right but is also pretty static. Sagna is jogging forward.

Now I’m not sure why Nasri didn’t make a run into this space. It should not have been too tough for Ramsey to find a pass into such a vacant area. Granted, at least one of the defenders would have gotten back to track the Frenchman, but with this kind of space who wouldn’t back Samir to dribble past his man?

I’m fairly certain if it had been Cesc in place of Rambo, Nasri would have been off in a flash. We have seen that combination work quite often. So was this opportunity missed because Ramsey hasn’t played regularly and Nasri didn’t know what to expect?

It’s difficult to say exactly what went on. There are many players involved and each has multiple decisions to make. Any one, if out of sync, could break the move.

In this case what eventually happened was that Rambo took a couple of touches while running square. Then he passed it across to Sagna who’d moved forward. Ultimately the winger and full-back were hemmed into a blind alley.


Click on the image to view a larger version

Arsenal get into such positions on the wings quite often. Very rarely does something come out of it and when it does it’s usually due to some individual magic by Cesc, who always seems to be around when needed.

Those who’ve been reading my match reports regularly will know that I often talk about switching flanks at pace or moving the ball at a faster tempo. The above situation is a classic example where moving the ball from the left to the right without many touches could have led to an incisive attack. But for that to happen all the players need to be on the same page and that’s not easy to achieve when there are so many changes to the starting eleven due to injuries and other reasons.

In such cases the functional approach of Fergie and other managers could come in handy. It’s not easy to get in behind teams that are defending deep. If the wide players are under instructions to be alert for such runs when the ball is on the other flank it could speed up the moves. Not only would it lead to more threatening moments, it will also create space for the full-back to run into thereby creating two good options for the man on the ball. As I said in the previous article, Wilshere, Ramsey, Cesc, and even Rosicky are capable of finding the runner when they have that kind of space and time on the ball in the middle of the park.

While it can’t be completely eliminated, such tactics will also reduce the number of times the Gunners run into cul-de-sacs on the wings before passing it backwards.

I want to end with a disclaimer which seems very important in the current climate. Such articles are not meant to prove that Wenger is tactically clueless or that some players don’t know what they are doing. They’re certainly not intended to imply that I can see certain things on the pitch that the manager, his staff, or the players can’t. Only the extremely ignorant can fool themselves into believing such self-indulgent notions.

Football is a dynamic game and a lot goes on that we tend to miss. I’m just trying to discuss some observations and I have no doubt the coaching staff and the players do the same. It could be that what they try doesn’t always work out. It could also be that they might have a genuine blind spot somewhere or a completely different way of looking at these things.

Personally, I’m off the opinion that Arsenal could do with some changes/additions to the coaching staff. I also feel there is room for the team to improve on the tactical front. But I try not to disrespect the people who have been at the club for years and have worked hard sincerely. And I never assume it’s as simple as saying “use more width”, “put in more crosses”, and stuff like that. That only works in pundit-land not in real world football management.

Analysis Of Some Interesting Situations From The West Brom Game – Part I

March 27, 2011

I have been away from football and the news for the last few days but yesterday I got the chance to watch the West Brom game once again. I wanted a relook as I’d noticed some moments while watching live that seemed worth analyzing. This article is a quick discussion based on one of these observations.

In the image below we can see Arsenal get into a very exciting position just before the hour mark.

Click on the image to see a bigger version

Wilshere is on the ball. Arsenal have three players on the edge of the box and Van Persie in a good position just outside. Clichy is hugging the far touchline and is completely unmarked. The full-back has his left arm up but Wilshere doesn’t see it or sees it but decides that a pass down the middle is a better option.

The lines I have drawn represent what I was hoping to see. The thick line would be a bent run from Clichy as he comes into the box unseen and unmarked. The thinner line would have been a chipped pass from Wilshere, something he excels at. Such a pass would have allowed Chamakh and Bendtner to get into extremely dangerous positions at the near and back post. Arshavin could have made a run to the centre of the box while RvP could have positioned himself on the edge of the D for a cut-back. West Brom would have been scrambling to tackle Clichy and defend against four attackers in the box. As we can see the hosts had four or five players on their left side and would have struggled to get enough bodies back. We’ve seen Barca create and exploit such situations quite regularly.

Now this is just a single instance and the pass down the middle wasn’t a bad option in itself. So I don’t want to criticize any player based on this. But it does give us a few points to ponder.

Why don’t Arsenal create such situations more often? Do the Gunners prefer shorter passes and attacks down the middle? Is this an issue with the philosophy of the manager and the training routines? Is the longer pass over the top much more difficult to execute?

These questions don’t have straightforward answers. For instance, we’d all like to see Arsenal attack in numbers, stretch the play, get bodies into the box, and ultimately score a lot of goals, but it’s pretty obvious that the above situation leaves the defence completely exposed as both full-backs are really high up the field and there isn’t a defensive minded midfielder on the pitch.

Another point could be that such an instance can only arise if the opponents are not alert to the man on the wing. Once the Gunners start using this tactic, the other team will learn to cover for it. Of course, it can still be done but it’s so difficult that only one team in the world is able to pull it off consistently.

However, I do feel that Arsenal should try to use this tactic a lot more often and it has to come from the training pitches.

If you watch this particular play on video, you’ll notice that Clichy barely moves on the touchline. That tells me he is not alert to the possibility of making a run in behind and into the box but is looking for a pass out wide. As an extension, I’d think that his instructions are to hug that touchline and offer width. A decent approach no doubt but one that can be tweaked to make better use of such moments.

If the Frenchman had made the run, even if the ball had been played exactly as it was to Arshavin, the Russian would have had better options.

Click on the image to see a bigger version

As we can see in the snapshot above, there is a great deal of space behind the West Brom right-back. Clichy’s run – if he’d bent it and stayed onside – could have distracted the defender, it could have created more space for Arshavin, and the Russian might have been in a position to play Clichy in on goal.

Don’t be fooled into believing that Clichy isn’t good enough to make that run. Running into such a space would be a piece of cake for the Frenchman. He does many more difficult things on the pitch. In fact, that is another reason I feel it’s something the Gunners aren’t doing enough in training.

One could argue that it is up to the players to make such choices but I find it difficult to believe the manager and coaches don’t have a big say in it. Arsenal have had some trouble getting the balance right in the full-back areas since the change to the 4-3-3 formation. I’m sure a lot of work goes into studying their positions and instructing them on their movements.

I do agree that the long pass over the top is not an easy one to execute. But with the likes of Cesc, Wilshere, Nasri, and now Ramsey in midfield, Arsenal have plenty of players who can make it work.

I don’t wish to imply that Wenger doesn’t train his players well but it seems to me that Le Boss either doesn’t like this trick much or hasn’t been able to mix it well enough into an undoubtedly arduous training regime.

When the first eleven is fit and firing this might not be needed but when we have the likes of Chamakh and Bendtner on the pitch I’d feel this is a better tactic than playing it down the middle so often. Hopefully, we will see more incisive use of such moments in the near future. Such subtle issues can be the difference between one point or three.

In the coming days I’ll discuss some other moments from the game.

Of Television Sets, Marriages, And Football Teams

March 22, 2011

If your TV isn’t working you can go out and buy a new one. As long as the cable connection exists, you just have to plug the new one in and it starts working. In short, you can spend money and fix the problem almost instantaneously.

There are a lot of things in this world that work on the same principle. You could buy a new phone, a razor, pretty much any product. In some marketing classes I read the concepts of a consumer’s willingness and ability to spend. As long as those two exist, the salesman’s job is not too difficult.

But what if your marriage isn’t working? Can you just discard the old one and go out to buy a new one?

I’m just short of my third wedding anniversary but have had enough experience to say that making a marriage work is not easy. Even when both parties are madly in love, want to do the right things, and try hard to live for each other; there do come moments when things get rough. Often it is due to unforeseeable circumstances and external factors beyond one’s control. In other instances it is due to complex issues beyond one’s understanding.

For those who aren’t able to make it work, it’s not often a case of being blind to the issues, or of missing the obvious, or of being too stubborn or arrogant. Sometimes things don’t work despite one’s honest and best efforts. People are not stupid but things go wrong in virtually everyones lives.

Even if one has the ability and willingness to spend whatever it takes (time, money, etc), can they simply get rid of one marriage and find another. What is the guarantee that the next one will be better? How long will it last? Will it actually bring the level of happiness that the heart desires? How many times does one have to try to get it right? Not easy questions to answer, are they?

These thoughts came to me while reading some of the pollution on the Arsenalsphere.

Many people seem to think that football teams work in a plug and play fashion. Pay good money for new players to replace the old ones that are not functioning as desired and everything will improve instantly and dramatically.

It is a logical way of thinking no doubt. If something doesn’t work – fix it. But as we saw with the two examples above, something issues are easy to fix while the others are not.

This is precisely the reason why the likes of City, Spuds and others have spent hundreds of millions without going past Arsenal. It is not easy to buy players and make a great team. Some transfers work while others flop. If someone actually analyzes the success and failures of transfer, it is quite likely the number of flops will be higher.

In the Arsenal context, Déjà Vu is a two way street as well. I have never denied the fact that many of Arsenal’s errors have been repeated far too often and it can get annoying. I’d say I truly understood terms like ‘gut-wrenching’, ‘mind-numbing’, etc. only after certain horrendous bloopers by some Gunners.

At the same time, it’s been four or five years now, perhaps more, since I’ve been hearing comments like “Next season Tottenham will spend more and go ahead of us”, “Aston Villa are improving and will go ahead of Arsenal next year”, “City will continue spending and will overtake Arsenal”, and so on. Every year there is a different kind of Déjà Vu when these statements are proven wrong.

It’s not that these teams don’t have the ambition, ability, or willingness to improve. They give it their best every year but it doesn’t work.

It just highlights the fact that creating a football team and taking it to the pinnacle is not the same as buying products off the shelf. This is corroborated by the fact that there are millions of fans and pundits with an opinion on the game but barely a handful who can actually create and manage winning teams.

Real Madrid have spent insane amounts in search of glory. But even they had to come looking for a manager who hasn’t won a trophy for a long, long time. Why didn’t they go to the likes of Alan Hansen, Emmanuel Petit, or scores of other pundits who seem to understand Arsenal’s problems better than Wenger? Surely if they know more about Arsenal than Wenger, they’ll make better managers than Arsene, no? Perhaps, they did so because they understand the difference between having an opinion and actually achieving something? After all, they’ve tried hard enough with all their might/cash.

One obvious reason for the dearth of quality opinions and actual understanding is that too many people rehash the same lazy statements. To be fair, very few have the time or the resources to look at all the details but at least they should temper their opinions to acknowledge this. Very few actually do.

In this wonderful piece 7amkickoff analyzes some telling stats. It busts quite a few myths around Djourou and other misconceptions surrounding Arsenal. Unfortunately, most people will just continue to propagate the misguided notions till the point their universality seems like proof that actual facts are wrong.

Of course, players and pundits are just as guilty of this as the fans. After the West Brom game Mulumbu repeated the tired line that Arsenal lacked mentality. He went on to claim that Manchester United would have come back to win the game but Arsenal couldn’t.

It comes down to mentality. Manchester are very strong. In a game like Saturday’s, I think they could come back and equalise and then win the game. I believe that’s what Arsenal is missing a bit.

Now if we look at the facts, this season Arsenal and United have both won 9 points from losing positions. More interestingly, Arsenal have dropped 9 points while winning whereas Manchester United have dropped 14!

If mentally could be accurately ascertained from dropping or gaining points, not that I think it can, these stats would contradict the popular opinion. But it does show that those who think the games like the ones against Tottenham or Newcastle show Arsenal’s weak mentality haven’t paid much attention to the relevant details.

I guess these perceptions get built over time. If a team has been winning regularly the perceptions about them will tend to be glorifying. It probably comes from the human tendency to put the winners on a pedestal. Similarly, if a team has been struggling or has been thereabouts without actually being ‘there’, the negative opinions gain strength. These aren’t always based on facts and don’t really offer practical and usable insight, but they do have the strength of popularity.

In the case of Arsenal one could also say the negativity in the media is driven by other factors like xenophobia, jealousy, etc, while that of the fans is fuelled by a fixation with trophies and the banter of their mates who support other clubs.

There is a lot that can be said on this topic but as I’ve said before I don’t have any interest in making people change their opinions. It’s a futile exercise and I’d prefer to put my time to better use. And since I don’t want to spend every day going around in circular arguments there will be fewer articles on the blog during this international break and the coming weeks. Arseblogger and some others do a fantastic job of covering the daily happenings and I can’t add much to that. I’ll post only when I find something worth discussing.

Have a good one…

West Brom 2 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

March 20, 2011

Is it two points dropped or one point gained?

To most fans, including myself, this draw against WBA is two points dropped. There is an argument that with 20 mins to go and a two goal deficit it could easily have been a loss. I agree with that too.  In the final twenty minutes the team showed great character and fighting spirit. The likes of Chamakh and Bendnter, who have not been getting regular games, came on and did the job that was asked of them.

Unfortunately, it took Arsenal an hour and two goals to get going. The starting line-up had Ramsey as many fans had demanded. It turned out to be a disaster. The youngster lost his man and jumped underneath the ball while defending a corner thereby allowing Reid to head home unchallenged. At the very least Ramsey should have been physically in contact with the West Brom defender as that would have put him off his jump.

Neither team created much but the Welshman missed a sitter when a Van Persie header fell to him after bouncing off the bar. It’s difficult to blame a player returning after such a horrific injury but he looked way off the Premier League pace.

I’d not have worried about the mistake for the goal or the miss, these things happen, but Ramsey was disappointing with his movement and passing. Add Denilson into the mix and the Gunners had a midfield that just wasn’t able to move the ball in the first half.

The tempo of the game was so slow that the home defence didn’t even break a sweat. West Brom were able to get bodies behind the ball and sit back on their early goal. With Denilson sitting in front of the defence the number of counter attacking chances were reduced but the hosts did get a couple of set-pieces. Thankfully, the mistake from the first one was not repeated.

Arsenal went one down at the break and came out with Chamakh instead of the Brazilian. It was a positive, decisive substitution like the fans have been demanding. But with Denilson out there was  little cover in front of the back four. West Brom created a good chance on the break ten minutes after restart.

Soon after they were two up after the world’s most predictable mix-up saw Almunia coming out and confusing Squillaci. Both lost the ball and Odemwinge guided it into an open net. It was such a horrible mess that some might even consider it a deliberate act of sabotage but I’ll refrain from going in that direction. The sad part is that Almunia’s biggest weakness is in coming out for balls that are not his responsibility but the coaching staff haven’t been able to sort it out. Of course, the player himself is to blame more than anyone else but once they know there is a weakness, why can’t they find a solution?

This is where I have to begrudgingly respect Ferguson. He can send out guys like Johnny Evans, Wes Brown, and Gibson on the pitch but still get results by adapting the rest of the team to cover their weaknesses. With Arsene there are many loose ends.

Bendtner’s introduction for Ramsey was another positive move. Arsenal then had Nasri and Wilshere playing in a deep role in a loose 4-2-4. The final half-hour was all Arsenal and no one would have been surprised if the Gunners had turned it around.

Arshavin got one back with a wonder strike following a neat one-two with Chamakh. Van Persie scored a poacher’s equalizer as a West Brom player was caught on the ball in his six yard box. The chance came after a good back post cross by Arshavin was played back across by the big Dane.

There were other chances and some corners but the winner didn’t come.

There were problems with the way Arsenal played as discussed above but there were a couple of aspects that impressed me.

In this game, once it was clear that the passing game wasn’t working too well, the Gunners tried putting in a lot of crosses and many of them were quite good. It showed that they have been working on this. It wasn’t perfect and isn’t something that can be developed overnight but it is the right start.

Towards the end Chamakh, RvP, and Bendtner were all getting into the box and attacking the crosses. They really did rattle the West Brom defence. I can’t remember the last time Arsenal strikers collectively troubled the opponents in the air in their own box.

I’d still like to see better crosses to the back post, especially when Bendtner is in the box. He can win a number of these headers and play them back across in dangerous areas. The Gunners will also have to learn to play the lay-offs with their headers when they’re getting bodies in the box. I cringe while saying this but watching some Crouch videos will help.

The most impressive aspect of the final twenty minutes though, was the work done by Nasri in a deeper role. The Frenchman collected the ball from the defenders and did a good job of spreading it around. Arsenal really missed this in the first half as their laborious passing was squeezing the play on the flanks and down the middle.

Such passing also brings the best out of Arshavin as he is able to receive the ball in space and run at the defenders rather than getting it in crowded areas.

Wilshere will have to learn from Nasri. The youngster has the talent to control the play from deep with his passing but hasn’t been using it. His driving runs end up with loss of possession when the opponents have so many players back.

If the two defensive midfielders can stay in deep positions it will also give more confidence to the likes of Squillaci who will then have someone to win the second ball. That doesn’t excuse his mistake but the point is not to get lost in the blame game but to think constructively.

Anyway, this is a good time to have the international break so long as the ones going on duty for their countries come back in one piece. Hopefully, a couple of regulars will return along with them.

Arsenal are unbeaten in 12 Premier League games now. It’s hard to believe but it’s not a bad run. It can turn into a great one if the Gunners can string together a few wins after the League resumes.

Individual Performances:

Almunia: One customary howler. Someone has to tell him to stay in goal and come only if a striker is through on goal down the middle, not if the ball is miles away and a defender near it or if it’s down the channels.

Sagna: He got too close to Nasri in the first half and there was no space down the flank. It was better in the second half as he stayed a bit deeper and went forward only when there was space.

Squillaci: Joint culprit with Almunia for the second goal. Made a big block to deny Fortune and later made a massive tackle against the striker in the box. I don’t know if he didn’t attack the ball because of a call from the keeper or for some other reason but there is no way a defender should let that kind of a ball bounce. There was only one attacker and if he’d knocked it anywhere it would have been safe.

Koscielny: Did a decent job on Odemwinge despite the striker having some pace on him. I like the confidence he shows on the ball even under pressure. Some of the midfielders should learn from him.

Clichy: Did really well on the left. Got involved with a number of attacks. Put in some decent crosses but will have to do better. Very good strike towards the end that almost crept in at the near post.

It wasn’t a bad defensive performance if one considers the ninety minutes of play and only four shots on goal. But it was a woeful performance if the manner of the second goal is seen. On this point I agree with Wenger’s critics. It’s a déjà vu no one likes. ‘Decisive’ is a word Arsene likes and he has to teach his back five to be more decisive in key moments. The defenders, especially Squillaci, did well after the team shape changed to a very risky 4-2-4.

Denilson: He’s lost confidence big time. Looked too nervous on the pitch and got some simple passes wrong. But while he was playing West Brom didn’t create much on the counter.

Ramsey: Not a game he’d like to remember.

Wilshere: Wasn’t able to take charge or make an impact in the opening hour. Has to learn to make better use of his range of passing.

The midfield just didn’t offer any kind of incisiveness in the first hour. Only after two of the three left the pitch did Arsenal move the ball with any kind of purpose.

Nasri: Was ineffective on the wings as the ball came to him wrapped by four defensive players. Good to see him taking charge late in the game.

RvP: Another player who struggled to get involved for two thirds of the game. Did manage to hit the bar with a good header in the first half and scored a classic fox-in-the-box goal.

Arshavin: Pretty much like Nasri, only that he was involved more on the left and in the box late in the game whereas the Frenchman was playing in deeper areas. Excellent goal. Wenger has to find a tactical approach that gets Arshavin in the game more often and with quick switch of play.

The front three were virtually invisible in the first half. All did well in the final twenty minutes.

Subs: Chamakh made himself useful and got a good assist. Bendtner played a key part in the second goal but I’d like to see more balls played to him in the box.

Arsene: Hindsight tells us it was a poor choice to pick Ramsey. Did well with the substitutions. Looks like he is working on getting his players to cross more and adapt the playing style. I’ve said this often enough – tactics will be the key in the remaining games.

Thoughts On The Tactics And Starting Eleven Against West Brom

March 18, 2011

There have only been a handful of games this season which I thought were going to be easy. The home game against WBA was one of those. Such experience can make one respect a sentence like – there are no easy games in the Premiership – instead of ignoring it as a cliché. So Arsenal travel to the Hawthorns in what is another potential banana skin against a side battling relegation.

I haven’t seen West Brom play after the change of manager so I’m not sure if there have been any major changes to their tactical approach. Going by Hodgson’s style at previous clubs I expect to see a well organized defence with persistent pressing by five men in the middle in a manner similar to Sunderland. It will not be easy for Arsenal to bring the ball out from the defence in the absence of Song and Diaby so Wilshere will have to play in a deeper role and take more responsibility in terms of holding off the pressure to link the defence with the offence. His excellent experience against Barca will be handy.

Arsenal will also need to move the ball as a fast tempo to break the rhythm of this pressing and to create openings. That means the players will have to play with a high level of confidence and energy. After a week’s break there should be no room for excuses like ‘we lacked sharpness’.

The other major tactical points worth noting are in defence. The West Brom attackers use the spaces between the midfield and defence, and between the defenders themselves fairly well. The two centre-backs will have to track their movement without fail and should not allow the likes of Odemwinge, Brunt, and Morrison to get in the gaps unmarked. They also have players in the middle who can play some defence splitting passes. That means the midfield and forward players will have to do a good job of closing down the man on the ball.

Even the full-backs will have to do better with their positioning because the West Brom wingers are definitely better than the likes of Fabio and Rafael playing on the wings. Sagna and Gibbs were quite poor against United. Hopefully it was a one-off blip for Sagna and with Clichy back both flanks should be better protected.

The big question for Arsene will be the attacking midfield role. He could pick Nasri, Rosicky, or Ramsey for that role. If Rambo is fully fit he’d be my choice but I’m not convinced about his sharpness.

These days Arsene starts Rosicky in the middle and Nasri on the flank but in this game I’d swap the two. The main reason for that is to have Nasri on the ball more frequently.

The reason for picking Rosicky on the right ahead of Bendtner or Eboue, the only other options, is that he can play the tippy-tappy game. If the Dane is picked in that role Arsenal will struggle to deal with West Brom’s pressing and will not be able to bring the ball out to the attacking areas that often.

I’d also instruct Wilshere and Denilson to play much deeper than usual and not stray too far in front of the defence. Arshavin will leave the left exposed so having only one deep-lying midfielder will leave too many vacant spaces for the defenders to cover.

With so many second string players in the starting line-up the tactical focus has to be on a patient and cautious approach. I don’t expect Arsenal to pile on the goals in this fixture but a grinding win with a couple of telling moments created by Arshavin, Nasri, or RvP should suffice.

Probable starting line-up,

Almunia – Sagna, Squillaci, Koscielny, Clichy – Denilson, Nasri, Wilshere – Rosicky, RvP, Arshavin.

I know the likes of Denilson and Rosicky are not popular figures but at the moment this seems to be the best possible line-up. If things are tight, Ramsey could be introduced at half time or the hour mark.

I expect this game to be settled with a one goal margin. If the tactics are right and there aren’t any glaring individual mistakes it should be at the right end.

Thoughts And Predictions For The Champions League Draw

March 18, 2011

Before I proceed I want to mention that this article is mostly speculation about the Champions League draw and the teams in it. There won’t be much about Arsenal.

Ok with that out of the way I thought I’ll jot down some thoughts I had about the Champions League quarter-final draw. While the draw is held live and involves some big names associated with the game, I often get the feeling that it is, at least partially, rigged. Do you get the same feeling?

The way some teams keep bumping into each other (Arsenal – Barca, Real – Lyon, etc), the way it throws up some exciting rematches like the repeat of last season’s final in this season’s second round, and the way some of the relatively smaller teams always play each other so that one of them can get through to the latter stages makes me wonder if it’s all a matter of luck.

Of course, one argument is that there are so many permutations that some patterns will always emerge no matter what the outcome. It really could be that simple. On the other hand the reasons behind fixing the draw could be twofold; firstly, it would allow some of the smaller teams a chance to go one step forward and break the hegemony of the big sides while earning some fame and highly useful cash; and secondly, rematches and the likes add more glamour and increase the chatter around the games.

So going by my theory I’d expect two out of Spuds, Schalke, and Shakhtar to meet in the quarter-finals. That way one of the lesser fancied teams is sure to advance to the semi-finals.

Similarly, there is a chance that Real get paired with Inter. This could lead to a great deal of media coverage about Mourinho’s return to the San Siro, how everyone feels about it, and stuff like that. Essentially, it keeps the Champions League in the limelight for a longer period, for free.

Personally speaking, I’d love to see Real meet United. The battle between two highly intelligent managers who both rely heavily on tactics will be fun to watch at a tactical level even if the football isn’t inspiring. It will also put extra pressure on United in their mid-week fixtures. And of course what could be better than having Barcelona meeting them in the semi-final after disposing off the Spuds in the quarters.

Seriously though, Barcelona-Spuds can be an immensely entertaining fixture with a lot of goals, mostly at one end but one or two at the other as well. I’m really hoping for this tie in the draw even if everything else I’m saying falls flat. ‘Arry’s comments, before and after the games, alone will be worth their weight, or should I say font size, in gold.

On the other side Chelsea could then have a rematch with Inter, a tie they lost in the second round last Year. This will nicely set up the small team fixture between Schalke and Shakhtar.

Well those are just some thoughts I had about the draw and a bit of light-hearted speculation. Even without Arsenal I’m going to watch most of these games as these days I’m trying to control the emotions a bit more and focussing on the tactics and other details.

By the way did anyone catch the Europa League games today? Man City really know how to cure a Gooner’s disappointment. I’d say Liverpool too did their bit by huffing and puffing to a goalless home draw with Braga, a team that did well against us in the Champions League. Interestingly, both these ‘giants’ lost to a couple of teams that have dropped down from the CL to the EL. Does that mean neither of them are really ready for the Champions League? And if so, how far behind Arsenal are these teams? I’ll leave you to ponder on that.

The Importance Of Lehmann + Football’s Most Impotent Punishment

March 17, 2011

It’s official then. Mad Jens has come out of retirement and is back at Arsenal on a short-term deal till the end of the season. Will it turn out to be a masterstroke, a disaster, or be irrelevant in the title race? That is the question.

I’ve seen a broad range of opinions covering pretty much every possibility.

Those craving for a leader in the dressing room will be happy, at least for now. Lehmann obviously brings the experience of being a winner. He also brings an impeccable work ethic and an insatiable desire to succeed. Those are tremendous qualities to have in a football dressing room no doubt. Then there are added factors like his love for and history with Arsenal, his relationships with some of the senior players, and the fact that Arsene knows his strengths and weaknesses in detail.

At the other end of the spectrum one might say that Jens has been out of the game for a while, is 41 years old, has virtually no match fitness, and he was known as Mad Jens for a reason. With Lehmann a moment of lunacy is never far away.

I think both perspectives are partially valid but I honestly don’t believe it matters much either way. Lehmann might, or should I say will, inspire the others to an extent no doubt. He might also end up coming on the pitch only to struggle due to match fitness. But I don’t see the title being won or lost due to either of these scenarios. The title will be won or lost by the likes of Cesc, RvP, Koscielny, and other first choice players along with the manager’s tactics.

I do agree with regular reader Aussie Jack who suggested it was time for Cesc to stand up and deliver. Last year he was conked for the season after the Barcelona game but this year El Capitan has a chance to show why he is the best player not only at Arsenal but in the Premiership. He has to produce a run of form capable of highlighting him as player of the season, something he certainly has the talent for. Along with Fabreas, Nasri has to make that final push to actually win the accolade. No team can win major titles without at least a couple of individuals in the running for such honours.

Of course, at the end of the season people will have their opinions, many of them based on the end result rather than actual details. Those who are praising Lehmann’s qualities right now could easily turn on him if he flops on the pitch. Same fans will then criticize the manager for signing a 41 year old. On the other hand those who don’t believe in the team right now will change their tune if Arsenal do go on and win it. Over the years I’ve realized there aren’t many things in football more fickle than fans’ opinions and browsing around other clubs’ blogs I’ve noticed this is a universal quality.

In order to avoid being wise after the fact I’ve put my opinion in public in advance. No matter what happens at the end I’ll not credit or blame the decision to sign Lehmann.

In a different story, the FA have handed Fergie a 5 game touchline ban. A lot has been made of the whole incident and many have said the punishment is too harsh but I feel the touchline ban in itself is the most impotent punishment in football. What is it that a manager does from the touchline that he cannot do from the stands?

Obviously, being in the stands is not exactly the same as being in the dugout with the rank and file. There is a degree of loss, perhaps in communication more than anything else. Maybe the way one views the game, the positions of the players, etc might be a bit different too. But I just don’t see it as a punishment as severe as the degree of crime committed to earn it. At the very least it should be a ban from the stadium. It might be difficult to implement but that doesn’t mean it should not be considered.

Moreover, whether it’s a touchline ban or one from the stadium, it should also include a ban on any form of communication between the manager and the dugout. When players are banned they cannot take part in the game. Essentially, their ability to contribute their best in a game is taken away from them. The same should be done to the managers. The banned manager’s team must be made to play without the influence of the manager for the duration of the game. To me, that is the only way to actually make an impact on all the managers who cross the line.

I’m not saying this because it’s Ferguson and right now his influence could have a big say on the title race. My point is more general and in the interest of fairness and betterment of the game. I’d say the same if Arsene got a touchline ban.

Anyway, we have two, at least notional, events that could have an effect on both title challengers. The positive way of looking at them is that Lehmann could bring something to the Arsenal dressing room while the absence of Fergie might take something away from United’s dugout. Will either matter in the end? I think not.

Two Factors That Will Decide Arsenal’s Premier League Title Hopes

March 17, 2011

Now that Arsenal’s title aspirations are singularly focussed, it will be interesting to see how the League unfolds.

Arguments can be made both ways. Some people have already given up on the squad and the manager. They don’t expect anything but will probably continue to whine after every game.  Others might feel that playing one game a week offers a good chance for putting up a sustained assault towards the summit. I’m in this group and believe that the Premier League title is winnable.

Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t think Arsenal have the easier run-in. Away trips to Bolton, Stoke, and Fulham along with home games against United and Liverpool will not be easy. There is no way Arsenal are going to win 10 out of 10. I’d love to see that happen but football just doesn’t work that way. All factors would have to go your way for something like that to materialize and we’ve seen enough going against Arsenal to know that will not happen. United have relatively easier fixtures but also have the challenge of playing in other competitions. I hope they get to the finals of both Cups while losing some players to injuries.

Anyway, I should probably not worry about what United will do or what will happen to them.

Thinking about it from Arsenal’s point of view there are, in my opinion, two factors that will decide the title challenge.

The first is the fitness of key players. Unless Cesc, Song, and Walcott come back immediately or soon after the international break, and the likes of Nasri, Wilshere, Koscielny, Clichy, Sagna, and RvP stay fit for the rest of the season, Arsenal will not win the title.

Any team that wins major titles needs its best players to perform in a large percentage of games. Squad players can fill in at one or two positions and make a contribution but they cannot win the titles. As long as eight or nine first choice players are available for each game Arsenal will have a chance.

The second factor, and one that will probably be even more important that fitness, is tactics. And to be frank this is where I’m a bit concerned. Arsenal will have to adapt to the requirements of each game. Over the course of the next ten games, the Gunners will have to overcome some parked buses, physical assaults, aerial attacks, counter-attacks (especially against United and Liverpool), and unrelenting man-marking.

Wenger will have to adapt his tactics to suit the situations within games. Again there can be arguments both ways. The easier one is to ask, he hasn’t done it too well for a while now so why believe he can do it now? The tougher one is to believe that there have been subtle improvements to the team shape and the style/balance of play over last season.

After 28 games last year, Arsenal actually had one point more than this season, i.e. 58 points. But the Gunners had also conceded 31 goals in this period. Interestingly, the goals conceded last year were more evenly spread out but this season 10 of these goals have come in three freak games. Again one can argue that the freakishness will be repeated at least a couple of times before the end of the season or one can believe that the team will perform consistently.

The Squillaci-Koscielny partnership does ring some alarm bells in this regard, as it would if any team had to play the fourth choice centre back for long periods. This again emphasizes the need for the rest of the first team squad to be fit and the importance of tactics to make the defence stronger.

I just looked at Manchester United’s form post February for the last four years. They average close to 2.3 points per game. At that rate they will end up with 81 points. In order to better that Arsenal will need 25 points from the next 10 games i.e. 8 wins, 1 draw, 1 loss. I expect Arsenal to get 21-22 in this period but the Gunners can get 25 if the two factors mentioned above work out.

It is difficult to quantify but I feel the supporters can also make an impact. Positive support could add those extra 3-4 points that Arsenal need. Constant moans and groans could take those points away.

The referees will also be a factor no doubt. But I didn’t want to include them in this analysis as what they do is out of our hands. Arsenal will have to win despite the refs. There is no other way.

As I’ve said in some of my recent posts, there is still a lot to play for.

Disappointed? Yes. Despondent? No. Denigrating? Never.

March 15, 2011

I had a feeling Arsenal won’t win the Carling Cup final. I said that before the game. I never expected Arsenal to get past Messi in the Champions League, certainly not without Walcott. And I didn’t have high hopes from the FA Cup game as it was an away game to Old Trafford, a ground where Arsenal don’t score too many goals.

Despite that the exit from three competitions and the manner of some of those defeats left me really disappointed. I didn’t expect someone as good as Szczesny to hand the cup over to Birmingham. I didn’t expect the ref to kill the game in the manner he did at the Camp Nou. And while over the years Wenger has struggled against Ferguson at the tactical level, I expected a better performance at Old Trafford.

The disappointment was worsened by some of the asinine vitriol on the net. I know this is not a popular opinion right now but I’m not despondent about Arsenal’s squad or our chances for the League. Actually I’m quite happy with the squad as a number of issues from the past have been addressed. That doesn’t mean it is perfect. Those who have read this blog regularly will know there are plenty of issues that I’ve talked about and continue to discuss. But the key point is that Arsenal are not miles behind any other English club. If fact, they are miles ahead of most.

Over the last couple of years of blogging I have realized there are periods when the Misery Brigade will be out in full force. There can be no rational discussion with them at that time. That doesn’t mean people don’t have a right to question or criticize the manager but there has to be a degree of consistency and perspective in what is said.

For instance, somewhere in the earlier part of the season Clichy-bashing was the in thing for the doom mongers. They wanted Gibbs to start ahead of the Frenchman. After the youngster’s performances in the last few games, in stark contrast with the solidity shown by Clichy, I’d love to see someone make that claim with a straight face.

Last season there were plenty of commentators on the internet who criticized Walcott and even said Nasri doesn’t offer much. If you have a short memory you might want to revisit the past to read those opinions. This season those two have suddenly become irreplaceable!

The same thing can be said about Goalkeepers. In the summer everyone was going crazy about the need to sign a Keeper. But if you look at the performances across the whole season, Arsenal Keepers have probably been more consistent than any other. Reina has certainly made more mistakes than all three Arsenal Keepers combined. What happened against Birmingham could have happened to anyone in any game. Just because it happened in the final with two minutes to go doesn’t mean much. Van der Saar conceded at the near post from a toe-poke in a Champions League final. It happens.

After their performances this season I honestly cannot see how someone can complain about Szczesny and Fabianski. Even Almunia deserves a great deal of credit for his displays against Barcelona and United despite all the flak he has received. Why don’t people appreciate his professionalism and mentality? And what can one do about injuries? If Fabianski and Szczesny can get injured, is there any guarantee that a new singing would not have been injured? Would Szczesny have signed a new deal if Arsenal had signed a new keeper? That doesn’t take anything away from some issues that have been there in goal, especially last season, but it does show the issue is a lot more complex.

Then there is the case of Koscielny. I don’t know how anyone who actually watches the football can complain about the Frenchman. Laurent Blanc certainly isn’t complaining. Some people don’t realize the handicap of playing for Arsenal. For instance, watch the second booking Koscielny got against Liverpool. It was extremely harsh. But there are fans criticizing the player for that. Then watch how David Luiz got away with some shockers against United. Do you honestly think Luiz would have gotten away with those challenges as an Arsenal player? Or look at the penalties conceded by Koscielny and then the challenges by the likes of Neville, Vidic, or Rafael in the penalty box. Do you really think anyone at Arsenal can get away with those kinds of fouls?

I remember how many doom mongers wrote Vermaelen off last season when he was signed just because of his height and weight. Now the same people talk of the Belgian as a world class defender. They’ve forgotten the details. Vermaelen actually made a lot more mistakes in his first season than Koscielny has done so far this year. That doesn’t make TV5 a poor defender it just shows that Koscielny has been doing well as he has been adapting to a new league at a rapid rate.

What I find amusing is that people think buying big will solve everything. Some assume buying one or two players will do the trick. Others want to offload 7 or 8 players and make wholesale changes.

If you actually think about it, that is what Tottenham have done. They’ve spent around £300M pounds gross and over £130M net in the last 8 years. That has led to constant buying and selling, no stability, one Carling Cup and one top four position.

Similarly, this is not the first year that City have spent big. They’ve been spending for four years now. But what have they won?

Of course, it is not a black and white situation. Sometimes buying works and sometimes it doesn’t. One certainty is that making 7 or 8 changes to the squad rarely works.

There are those who want Arsenal to buy expensive, experienced proven internationals. Often these are the same people criticizing the likes of Arshavin.

Some blog writers and fans can’t tolerate a couple of lines of criticism but they feel qualified to talk about a winning mentality. How many players do Arsenal need to buy to get a winning mentality? One, two, half a dozen? Last season the club had a leader like Sol Campbell and even Vermaelen was talked about as a leader. But it didn’t affect the result. So two leaders doesn’t seem to be enough. Someone can ask how many leaders has Man City bought and where has it taken them? Losing against the likes of Lech Poznan and Dynamo Kiev in the Europa League after all that money spent!

Criticism is easy. Spewing venom mindlessly is even easier. There is no accountability. Today one can launch a scathing attack on a particular player. After a few weeks the target will change as someone else drops his form. The internet is a fast moving place and few have the time or memory space to remember how tunes have changed over time.

At the start of the season many said Arsenal will finish outside the top 4 if Wenger doesn’t buy a Keeper. Where are these people now? Instead of acknowledging that they were completely wrong these people have now changed the targets of their attack to suit the flavour of the week/month.

Another insanely amusing argument is that it’s the same story for the last six years. As a matter of fact, apart from the moaning fans, it’s not the same story.

In 05/06, it was Lehmann who was sent off and Henry who missed a crucial chance. Let me repeat it, Henry who missed the chance not Bendtner. It was experienced, world class internationals with a winning mentality that cost Arsenal the trophy.

In 07/08, Arsenal were running away with the league title. A horrendous tackle and a shocking, biased refereeing decision led to a meltdown. Once again it was Gallas, a proven international with a lot of trophies, who lost the plot. As we saw last season at Stoke, the players have learnt from that and responded magnificently to a similar situation.

In 08/09, it was Adebayor who flopped and it was also the year when injuries hit hard. Now If Adebayor had scored his 30 odd goals at another club in 07-08 and Arsene had signed him for big money in 08, would it have changed anything?

This season Arsenal have shown noteworthy improvement in performances against Chelsea and City. Again that is something that wasn’t there in the last couple of years.

The end result over six years is the same and I can relate to anyone who is frustrated, angry, or disappointed. But that does not mean it’s the same story. That would be the case only if one is talking like the emperor of trivialization. Over the years the club has faced serious challenges and has done well to overcome most. It’s not been enough and there is certainly an argument that it could have been better. There is no denying that. But the benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing.

I guess that is the key word – trivialization. That is where most fans lose the plot, not the manager. Of course, Wenger has his faults and weaknesses but that doesn’t justify the excessive vilification. Perhaps it’s more a reflection of the helplessness and hopelessness in some fans’ lives rather than an actual opinion based on objective reason.

Anyway, as I said, I’m not trying to reason with anyone nor am I trying to change anyone’s opinions. If you want to be miserable, it’s your life and your choice.

One thing you might want to remember is that even when Wenger goes, he’s most likely to pick his successor. So don’t dream of drastic changes. It will only lead to further suffering. If that doesn’t suit you stop watching, cancel your ticket, do whatever you think is right. I don’t have any issues with individual opinions or decisions. Those who think supporting the team is the right thing to do have my full backing. There are some big games still to come and Gooners have a chance to show they aren’t mentally lacking.

Manchester United 2 – 0 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

March 12, 2011

I was hoping a draw will be a good result but it was not to be. Both teams had a number of key players missing. Wenger sent a mixture of first team players and second stringers to play in their usual style while Ferguson sent a similar group out with a clear plan. In the end the man with the plan won, once again.

I wasn’t surprised when I saw the Manchester United line-up that had a lot of defensive players and quick runners. Their plan was predictable and quite simple – Don’t concede, keep trying to create something on the counter attacks. Sooner or later there will be a mistake as the defenders have to constantly cover a great deal of space. One goal is enough and might even lead to more.

Now if I’d been a United fan, I’d have been embarrassed by the way my team was playing hopeful long balls from the first minute. But that does not take away a couple of facts. First is that there is no law against such a style and second that the percentages are in favour of this approach more than the one used by Wenger.

What annoys me is that Arsenal continue to flop against these tactics again and again. If the Gunners had just moved the ball all day in this game it would easily have ended 0 – 0. A replay at home would have suited us after United played a midweek Champions League tie. If Arsenal had been patient and maintained their defensive shape chances would have come as the game went on. But such a simple level of tactical understanding seems to be missing from the players but more importantly from the manager.

How can Arsenal get into a situation with 4 United attackers against 4 or 5 Arsenal defenders from a virtually harmless position? Diaby takes a harmless shot. Van der Saar catches it and is able to release a long throw. Low and Behold it become a 4-v-4 situation within a few moments.

Both Djourou and Koscielny made mistakes. It is easy to criticize the defenders in such a situation but they had to cover the space in front and behind them with hardly any support. United never got into such a mess at the back as they always had midfield players tracking back. Even Rooney was doing his bit.

To be fair, this season Arsenal have improved in this regard and the midfield usually does get into better defensive positions. But in a knockout game away from home with a midfield of Denilson and Diaby, what were Arsenal trying to do? Why not just stay deeper, hold positions, and play in the middle of the park inviting the opposition out in an attempt to create some space in behind?

The other predictable aspect was that United will force us wide and will defend the crosses. What’s the point of putting crosses into the box when you have one guy in there against five opponents? If you’re going to commit forward why not get more bodies in the box? Arsenal did it but only in the final twenty minutes or so but by then it was too late.

On the positive side, at least in this game Van der Saar had to make a number of good saves. In the past, the United keeper hasn’t really been troubled.

Arsene has to find a better system to suit the players that he has. I don’t expect Arsenal to have 10 great midfielders. Looking at the United team today even Denilson didn’t look out of place. But given the way Arsenal played there was just too much space around the Brazilian and it was like playing to his weaknesses rather than strengths.

Once again the left axis of Gibbs-Denilson-Arshavin was quite woeful. Brown hardly ever got forward but United still got a lot of joy down their right. Sagna wasn’t doing too well on the right either, which made matters worse.

Even in terms of attacking runs the home side players always seemed to have a clear plan whereas there were many occasions when the Gunners were running into each others’ spaces thereby reducing passing options and space. The fluid approach can work when you have your best players on the pitch but not when you’re playing a number of squad players.

One important point to note is that if United can win with the likes of O’Shea and Gibson in midfield then Arsenal can win with Diaby and Denilson. But just like Ferguson showed, Wenger has to learn to adapt his tactics to the players he can start. Until he can do that, or get in another coach who can help him do that, there will always be something or the other that goes wrong.

Individual Performances:

Almunia: Made some good saves. I don’t blame him for either of the goals. Was exposed way too often.

Sagna: Disappointing. Got his positioning wrong at times. Seemed too keen to go forward but didn’t offer enough in defence. Knocked his own man out as he was late in recognizing the danger.

Djourou: Might have done better for the first goal. Made some important interceptions. Extremely unfortunate injury.

Koscielny: Just like Djourou he could have done better for the first goal. I liked the fact that he went forward and tried making a contribution at the other end.

Gibbs: Very poor.

The back five wasn’t impressive but they were also in a difficult situation too often. The players in front just didn’t do enough and United found it easy to bring the ball from their Goalkeeper to the Arsenal penalty box.

Denilson: He is a limited player and if the team tactics don’t cover those then it seriously affects the attacking and defensive options.

Wilshere: Not very effective in an advanced role. Didn’t make the right runs, didn’t have the final pass, needs at least another year in a deeper position.

Diaby: Another one like Denilson although with different kind of limitations. Didn’t offer anything in the final third. Did do a fair bit of defensive work but it wasn’t enough.

Even with Fabregas, Arsenal have struggled to break down United as there is virtually no space in the middle. Things did get better late in the game but that was down to a high number of bodies getting forward in desperation. It’s difficult to see what Arsenal were trying to achieve by playing the same style with this midfield against such a defensive United side. Defensively the midfield was decent for large parts and that’s the reason United had few chances but the moment they tried to be adventurous the balance was lost and the door at the back was opened. After that it just got worse.

Nasri: Probably the only really impressive player in the side. Skinned Evra on a couple of occasions but rarely had enough options in the box.

RvP: Almost always had two men around him in the middle. Looked useful when he moved to the inside channels or wide. Had a couple of decent shots at goal. Struggled with the lack of bodies and movement around him.

Arshavin: tried to create something on a number of occasions but it didn’t work for him. Was double-teamed whenever he got close to the box.

I thought the attacking players were grossly outnumbered on most occasions. They struggled to get any incisive balls or runs from the midfield and also due to the lack of a clear attacking plan.

Subs: Chamakh and Rosicky had some chances but couldn’t put it in. It was good to see Ramsey back in action. He will be like a new signing next year!

Wenger: I was really disappointed with the tactics or the lack thereof. Ferguson probably doesn’t even have to think much before playing Arsenal these days as Arsene makes it all too easy for his side.

Now it’s just a matter of getting a positive result at West Brom and then hoping to see some keep players recover from injuries during the international break. This season can still get much worse if Arsenal don’t get their act together.