Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Manchester United

April 30, 2011

One could say this is the best time for such a game because Arsenal have nothing to lose and can play without any pressure. On the other hand, it’s just as easy to say this is the worst time to play United because confidence of the players  must be really low and the visitors, who don’t need anything more than a draw, thrive in a defend and counter-attack environment.

I’m am pretty sure we are going to see the United bus parked at the Emirates with Nani, Rooney, and Hernandez looking for counter-attacking opportunities while doing their defensive bit. I don’t like this approach but in fairness Arsene can learn a lot from it to bring more balance to the way his Gunners play.

Arsenal will have to show significant improvement over recent outings in order to get three points from this one. We can be certain United will be much better organized than the likes of Sunderland, Blackburn, Liverpool, or Bolton. Any real scoring chances will come only if we can move the ball faster than we have been doing in the recent games. For that to happen, Cesc, Nasri, and Song will have to do much better.

As I had said a few weeks ago, in the final games of the season, it was going to be all about the performances of the big players. So far they have been disappointing. Even Djourou and Szczesny will have to offer a lot more at the back.

Walcott hasn’t played that often against United so it will be interesting to see how they stop him. I expect Park to be deployed on their left flank with instructions to double us as an extra left-back. That will mean that Rooney will play as an extra midfielder, a role he has performed admirably in the last few weeks of the season.

If Sagna can use the space that will be created for him by Theo, Arsenal can get some joy down the right.

I believe Nasri can offer a lot from the left against someone like O’Shea. But for that to happen, the Frenchman has to be prepared to take his man on and play in a more aggressive manner. He can and should test Van der Saar at every opportunity with RvP following up.

I’d also like to see Arsenal play a bit deeper than usual. It’s important to keep the possession in the middle third of the pitch rather than taking it to the wide areas in the final third. In such a game playing the tippy-tappy game in the wide areas is an open invitation to disaster. It leaves the middle exposed and United will inevitably get enough men behind to cut out the one-twos in those areas of the pitch. Even crosses from such positions will leave the team exposed down the middle. In order to use the wide areas effectively Arsenal will have to move the ball without too many touches or passes. Fabregas can be the key in this regard but Wilshere can also do the job.

Defensively, I’d like to see Song or Wilshere stay really close to Rooney. If Arsenal can reduce his influence during counter-attacks half the battle will be won. That will leave the central defenders to deal with Hernandez while Clichy deals with Nani.

The team selection should be pretty straightforward,

Szczesny – Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy – Song, Cesc, Wilshere – Walcott, RvP, Nasri.

As with all the big games, the first goal will have a big impact on how the match unfolds. If Arsenal can get one early this could be the end of the recent United hoodoo. Things could get a lot worse in the reverse scenario. I have a feeling this will be another dull 0-0 unless someone makes a blunder in either defence.

Interesting Contrasts Between Arsenal-Barca And Real-Barca

April 29, 2011

This is supposed to be the worst Arsenal squad in recent memory (some say Wenger’s era, some say last 20 years, and there are other such opinions floating around). Some Gooners claim Wenger has lost it and gone senile. He has no ambition, is tactically clueless, and the players show no spirit.

Real Madrid on the other hand have a squad assembled at a cost that would make the Galacticos look like a bunch of paupers. They’re also supposed to have the world’s best tactical manager.

Not many people gave Arsenal a chance against Barcelona. Despite a 5-0 trashing earlier in the season, Real were supposed to provide a tough challenge to the Catalans.

Arsenal won the first leg at home, albeit with some luck. One can argue Arsenal deserved the win. Real lost the first leg at home with some luck going against them. Can anyone honestly say Real deserved anything out of this game based on that performance?

In the second leg, Arsenal had a lot to play for. Mourinho has given up on the tie and says there is no hope in the second leg.

After the second leg when Wenger gave an honest opinion about the ref, many fans and pundits got on his back. Arsene was criticized, his tactics were ridiculed, and the Gunners were berated. When the Dark Lord released a calculated and probably rehearsed (he knew he will be needing something to divert the attention from his inept tactics) rant against the ref and Barca, all the attention was focussed on the Catalan side. Even the articles in the media that repeated Mourinho’s allegations didn’t have any mention of the number of times the Dark Lord has benefitted from the refereeing decisions. Not least of which was an off-side goal that saw his Inter side beat the same opponents!

The red card given to Van Persie was a joke by any interpretation of the law. The red card given to Pepe was a bit harsh but could still be given for the way he went into the tackle even if Alves had pulled his leg out.

The Gunners gave a lot mentally. In the end the exhaustion told and the disappointment from the ref’s decision turned into an overwhelming factor. Real didn’t even try to play and completely collapsed after the red card.

The Arsenal players were criticized for lacking spirit and for poor attitude even by some Gooners. Many have been conned by the Dark Lord’s diversionary tactics as no one is questioning the attitude and spirit of the ‘Proven Players’ at Real.

Hardly anyone, except some positive minded Gooners, talked about Barcelona players grabbing Van Persie, Nasri, and co by their throats. How many are talking about the playacting by Alves, Pedro, and Busquest?

I don’t have a problem with the media and others. They are who they are. But why is there so much bile and hatred in the Arsenalsphere? Where is the balance? Where is the perspective?

El Classico More Like La Abominacion

April 27, 2011

Many who don’t follow the beautiful game intensely would still have made time to catch a game of this magnitude with two teams as highly rated and with such cherished histories as Real Madrid and Barcelona. This game should have been a spectacle not only for the hard core fans of both sides but also for the lovers of football around the world and even for the casual observers. Instead we witnessed a spectacular disaster and innumerable examples of everything that is wrong with the game.

In fairness, Barcelona didn’t do much wrong except for the awful playacting by Pedro, Busquets, and Alves. I thought Guardiola learnt from his past mistakes and played a very safe game tactically. His teams have struggled in big away games when they have tried to attack. Pep kept 6-7 men in his own half and they just knocked the ball around inviting Real to come at them. A defensive but prudent approach that paid dividends at the end.

Mourinho, probably inspired by Wenger’s tactics of attacking Barca late in the game, kept his players back as the game meandered along. The first half was a pedestrian performance from both teams not only in terms of the speed of the game but also the quality of football. It’s hard to recall a single moment where the technique or skills of the players stood out. The highlights package during the breather most likely contained some dives, playacting, and rash fouls.

It can also be said that Guardiola outfoxed Mourinho by eliminating counter-attacking opportunities. One could also say the Real manager was extremely one dimensional and didn’t have a plan B when his team failed to get counter-attacks going!!

As far as two –legged ties go, I believe the onus is always on the home side to show some initiative. The Dark Lord of Anti-football failed miserably and his rough tactics backfired when his pit bull Pepe was sent off for an over the top, studs-up challenge. Alves’ antics were shameful but it’s hard to argue against the card. Real got away with a lot of rough play in the Copa Del Rey final and one would think it had to come back and haunt them at some time.

I wonder what the Winner Worshipers and Glory Hunting Apologists have to say about Mourinho now. Of course, the second leg is still to come but it will take more than the biggest upset in the history of the game if this Real manager is to win by two goals or more at the Camp Nou.

To my mind, the managers at the big clubs have a responsibility not only to their fans and club but also to the game in general. They cannot send such a talented bunch of players out with such abominable tactics. I criticized Mourinho when he won with Inter and I am going to criticize him now when he flops at Real. People like the Dark Lord set a horrible example for other managers and they tarnish the image of the game. Imagine if someone who doesn’t watch the football is introduced to the sport through such a game after all the hype and hoopla! Will that person ever watch football again!? Mourinho and his ilk might win some trophies and get short-term gratification for glory hunters or billionaires with new toys, but they hurt a lot of people who love the game.

It will be interesting to see whether the bosses at Real, renowned for their lack of patience with the managers, keep the Dark Lord in charge for the next season. Surely no one now fails to understand why they came to Wenger, a manager who hasn’t won a trophy for six years, before they went to Jose. Earlier this season I did an article saying Mourinho was jealous of Arsene and such games show why.

Thankfully, Messi produced a moment of magic that will stay in the memories of football lovers for a long, long time.

The events after the sending off also put into perspective Arsenal’s performance against Barcelona. Way too many fans lost the plot after that game as the bile and hatred directed towards the manager and some players reached new heights. Can someone tell me why Real didn’t have any leaders on the pitch? Where was the winning mentality? Why did they crumble after going down to ten men? Where was the commanding voice that can supposedly be bought by buying proven players? Barcelona didn’t really threaten the Madrid goal when it was 11-v-11 so why did the red card change the game so much?

Earlier I had mentioned that Arsenal were really unlucky to draw Barca in the Champions League, undoubtedly the best team in the world at the moment. If it had been Bayern, Schalke, or Real, the Gunners would have had a great chance of going through. If you pause and think about it, Arsenal are probably in the top four or five teams in the world right now. Not the best, certainly a lot to improve on, but really far from being a disgraceful shambles as many flippant fans like to believe.

To end on a lighter note, just imagine the Tiny Totts (disdainfully dismantled by Real) taking on Barca. Now that would be a spectacle.

Can Any Manager Win The Premiership On Arsenal’s Budget?

April 26, 2011

I realize this is a radical question that can easily be misinterpreted as being defeatist or lacking ambition. But that doesn’t take away the fact that apart from Wenger no one has come close to winning the Premiership on Arsenal’s budget. Even then if we accept for a moment that Arsene should go, it’s important to consider who can come in and deliver the big trophies.

Obviously, the key question is what is Arsenal’s budget?

It’s impossible to get official figures on this but my guess is that Arsenal can spend a net of about £40M once. It must be noted that this kind of spending cannot be done every year but once. Subsequent years will either see much lower spending or a high degree of churn and instability.

I noticed this table on the transfer league website.

Click on the image to view a larger version

It must be noted that some numbers are clearly skewed due to freak cases. For instance, Ancelotti’s Net spending is high but that is due to the signings from this January that have not had enough time to make an impact. Similarly, Fergie’s numbers are affected by the sale of Ronaldo and the length of his tenure. That doesn’t take anything away from his abilities but it’s something to be kept in mind while analyzing these numbers.

It’s interesting to note that plenty of managers have spent a Net amount in excess of £40M without coming close to the title. Of course, it hasn’t always been spent in one year but we can see there is no shortage of managers who have tried spending money with little success.

Hughes, Houllier, Benitez, Ranieri, among others have spent a lot without winning the title. Mourinho and Ancelloti have benefitted from the spending of previous managers. They haven’t won the title with the kind of budget that Arsenal have.

Fergusson is a special case and I don’t want to bring him into the picture as it will make it unnecessarily complicated. But he has spent considerably large amounts on a consistent basis.

In fact, there are far too many managers who have spent huge sums without even making it to the top four. Hughes, Eriksson, Ramos, Jol, Keane, and O’Neill are excellent examples of good managers who have failed despite spending money. Redknapp and Mancini are flirting with the fourth spot but both have the benefit of relying on their predecessors’ spending and have forked out significant sums themselves.

Considering these numbers it seems the only managers who have competed for the title are 1)Ferguson, 2) Wenger, 3)Some managers with a few hundred million pounds of spending, 4)Benitez in one year after a high degree of churn in his initial years, eventually left the club in a mess after constant demands for more money.

It must also be noted that no club has become successful after one season of spending. Abramovich splashed his cash for two years before tasting success. City have already seen three years of spending. Tiny Totts have spent £300M over eight years for one spot in the Champions League.

Based on this background the following questions seem relevant

1)      Can any manager win the ‘current’ Premiership with Arsenal’s budget?

2)      Can it be done in the first year of spending?

3)      If not how long will that manager be given?

4)      Since there is no sugar daddy at Arsenal (Kroenke is not in the same league as Abramovic or Sheikh Mansour, and the financial fair play rules are now closer than ever), can Arsenal risk giving all their transfer budget to a new guy and hope for the best?

5)      What is the contingency plan if the new manager fails to win the big trophies?

6)      What is the disaster recovery plan if the new guy fails to make it to the top four despite spending all the money?

I know some fans don’t like to get into so many details. For them it’s easy to claim Arsenal just need two or three players (take your pick from Goalkeeper, central defenders, left-back, DM, winger, clinical striker) and success is guaranteed (this assumption in often implied even if not stated explicitly). Those opinions are a waste of time. So leaving aside the simplistic claims that Arsenal just need two or three proven players to win everything and be a football superpower, can someone answer the above questions?

I’m not saying it cannot be done. I’m just curious to know how it can be done and what the contingency plans are. If we blame Wenger for not having a plan B how can we propose simplistic solutions without a plan B or C?

I understand the temptation to list out a few names and claim that they will take Arsenal to the next level. But if you want to do that can you also realistically factor in how many of the new guys will adapt to the league immediately, how many will need time and if so how long, how many will suffer injuries, how many will have attitude problems, and so on.

As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Anyone willing to take him on?

Botlon 2 – 1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

April 25, 2011

The busy weekend turned out to be busier than I’d imagined forcing me to miss the game and I wasn’t able to catch it till late on Sunday night. Apologies for the delay in this report but as you understand sometimes personal issues have to be prioritized.

Watching such a crunch game after knowing the gut-wrenching result is not a good thing. When you watch it live there is always some hope. Every good move brings forth a wave of positive emotions. Once you know the result you just wait for the chances to come and go. It’s heart-breaking in more ways than one.

Like midweek, I thought this was quite an open and entertaining game. The first half was evenly fought. Bolton had three decent chances and took one. Arsenal hit the bar, were denied what looked like a penalty, and wasted some opportunities by taking shots from distance.

The goal was conceded from a set-piece. It is difficult to pin-point the blame for this one. I wasn’t sure whether the team was marking man or space. Some players like Koscielny were marking their man while others like Van Persie were marking space (near post). Unfortunately, no one was marking Cahill or the area right in the middle of the box on the six yard line. The defender was able to get an unchallenged header on target and Nasri’s clearance was headed in by an alert Sturridge.

I have discussed Arsenal’s problems in defending set-pieces at length. It seems like a problem with the set-up that can only be improved by a fresh pair of eyes and a specialist coach. Earlier it was easy to blame the likes of Almunia, Squillaci, Sylvestre, or others for the defensive woes on set-pieces but I wonder how many fans now blame the likes of Szczesny and Djourou.

The second half was extremely encouraging from Arsenal’s point of view but that also made it that much more painful at the end.

It started with a horror moment when a Sturridge dive resulted in a soft penalty. Davies bottled it and Szczesny was able to save after guessing right. After that it was all Arsenal. The equalizer came moments later after some excellent work by Van Persie on the edge of the box. His one-two with Cesc and the finish were sublime.

For rest of the game the Gunners were camped in the Bolton half and created some excellent chances. The most notable ones all fell to Nasri who couldn’t score due to some good goalkeeping and poor finishes. I wonder how long before the misery brigade starts shouting Nasri is useless and should be sold!

The sucker punch came in the final minute of regular time. Djourou misjudged a header and that set Elmander through on goal. His strike at the near post was saved by Szczesny. From the resulting corner Djourou again missed his man who attacked the ball better.

A few weeks ago many fans claimed that Arsenal’s season was over because of an injury to Djourou who was supposed to be the best defender in the team. Now I have no doubt some of the same fans will change their tune.

Similarly, these fans were talking about Szczesny being a good organizer and a Keeper who talked to his defenders. Why didn’t he do it in this game?

I’m convinced the real problem lies in Arsenal’s approach to defending set-pieces. Wenger has a blind-spot here, and while his tactic of overloading the box might work on most occasions, it will leave the team open to such critical losses. I don’t buy the argument that buying a goalkeeper or defenders will change this because the new signings will still train the way Arsene wants them to and it will affect their performances. The only solution seems to be a change in the staff. The Gunners need a man who can bring in a different/better approach to defending free-kicks.  It’s not guaranteed to work but it is well worth a try.

The title hopes are well and truly over now, whether it affects the players in any way remains to be seen. They can play without fear and truly express themselves in the coming games or they can fold and crumble. In that regard there is nothing better than a game against United to see the response.

I do want to make a note of a couple of interesting and relevant points. The ref was not to blame for this result in any way but some of the decisions are worth discussing. Walcott didn’t get a penalty in the sixth minute when he was fouled by Taylor (not sure it was Taylor). Sturridge got one from a nothing foul. Muamba wasn’t booked for a shocking foul on Cesc just before the end of the first half but we have seen Arsenal players get a second booking for much lesser offences. For a supposedly big, strong man, Kevin Davies went down far too often at the half-way line and won a number of free-kicks. Van Persie and co get kicked and fouled from behind in each game without getting a call in their favour. Wilshere was booked for an intelligent tackle where he won the ball and kept his feet folded whereas Steinsson got away with a tackle from behind where he won the ball but caught Nasri.

To reiterate, I’m not saying the ref was particularly biased or poor in this game, or that he was the cause of the result, or that Bolton didn’t deserve their win. But one has to acknowledge  that the Gunners have to work/achieve a lot more than some other teams have to. If someone is able to do an honest analysis of decisions over the season, I’m convinced Arsenal will have lost at least 8-9 points due to the refereeing decisions when compared to the eventual winners.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Looked shaky on occasions and dropped a couple of easy catches. Made two or three decent saves including the penalty. Can’t be blamed for either goal.

Sagna: Usual effort on the right.

Djourou: Very disappointing. Made a number of mistakes. Lacked concentration at key moments. Unlucky to concede the penalty.

Koscielny: Can’t blame him for the goals. Was pretty decent for most of the game.

Clichy: Mirror image of Sagna.

I thought Djourou had a poor day by his standards. The others were not so bad.

Song: Not a great game but wasn’t very poor either.

Cesc: Has been off his game ever since the Champions League tie. Hit the bar, drew a good save, picked up an assist. For others it might be a good return but from El Capitan it isn’t enough.

Wilshere: Pretty much like Song. Should learn from the chip passes played by RvP for Nasri. If he can provide that from deep on a consistent basis it will add a lot to this team’s attacking potency.

The midfield dominated the ball but could have offered a lot more.

Walcott: Was very effective in the first half. Unlucky not to win a penalty. Put in a couple of good crosses. Bolton virtually played two left-backs to stop him.

RvP: Excellent game. Wonderful goal. Lovely passes for Nasri. Superb movement and work rate. Not sure why his free-kicks and corners have lost some quality.

Nasri: Can’t blame his for his effort. Could have done with better finishing.

I was happy that Walcott and Nasri tried to swap positions. The front three were moving well and that led to a lot of gaps but the finishing let them down.

Subs: Not sure why Chamakh was introduced after being on the sidelines for so long. Arshavin offered some threat down the left but most of the corners he won were ineffective. Ramsey hardly got any time to make an impact.

Wenger: Really has to find a way of defending set-pieces that is better than just crowding out the area.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Bolton

April 23, 2011

This will be a short preview as I’m quite busy over the weekend.

As far as the team goes I expect only one change, Wilshere to come in for the injured Diaby.

Szczesny – Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy – Song, Cesc, Wilshere – Walcott, RvP, Nasri.

Both teams undoubtedly have a lot of goals in them. This game could turn into another cliff-hanger as the Wanderers have a good record at home. They have also shown considerable improvement in their playing style under Owen Coyle but in this game I expect to see them revert to their tactics of yore.

Kevin Davies will receive a lot of long balls and once again winning the second ball will be the key. The same can be said about set-pieces. Not only do Arsenal have to win the first header, they also have to get men out to block a shot on goal or a cross from the clearance. Those two are going to be Bolton’s main goal threats. The hosts can also play football on the ground these days but I don’t expect serious threats on that front unless Song or Wilshere make major mistakes.

The front three should get plenty of chances to score. Bolton will try to push forward and there will be space behind their defence for Van Persie or Walcott to make a run. I’m not sure who is playing at left back these days at Bolton but if it is Paul Robinson, Walcott will have a great chance of going past him. At the same time the Englishman will have to be wary of some X-rated tackles.

Nasri will be most effective when he gets a chance to drift in. It will be hard to find the right balance between coming in and offering width.

Depending on the number of attacking player’s Bolton start, at least one full-back might have a man who won’t track him well. In such a case I’d like to see the wide attacker moving in often and the full-back overlapping at opportune moments. Arsenal haven’t quite worked out the timing of the runs by the full-backs so this might not actually happen.

Song and Wilshere will have to provide better cover and mistakes like the one by Diaby for the first Spuds goal have to be eliminated. They will also have to handle the pressure of the home side and bring the ball out for Cesc and the forward players.

Cesc has to offer more than his recent performances. It’s difficult to blame him but his work rate doesn’t seem to be at the level we see when Fabregas is fit and enjoying his game.

This is another game where I expect at least three goals. Both goalkeepers will have to make some saves and Szczesny will get chances to show that he is a quick learner.

Djourou will have to do better in the air and in one-v-one situations where he seems to get turned more often than I’d like.

Most importantly the players must play positively for ninety minutes. Self-doubt, hesitations, or nerves will only make Bolton stronger.

Holes In the Fabric Of The Arsenalsphere Must Be Plugged

April 22, 2011

I have read very few articles over the last week or so but some things have stood out. I didn’t know how to feel about these things. Part of me was amused, another part was annoyed, and there were moments when I was positively repulsed by what I read.

Let’s consider the draw against Liverpool.

I get the frustration at dropping the points at the last minute. Well not the last minute but the bonus minutes added on. I also get the exasperation at the vaguely repetitive nature of dropping crucial points. I also get the point that most fans don’t realize this is only a vaguely repetitive aspect because they don’t really pay attention to facts but respond emotionally.

Some guy says United would never have dropped points the way Arsenal did against Liverpool. But the facts say that Arsenal have dropped 13 points from winning positions whereas United have dropped 14. So even with all the winning mentality, with leaders like Vidic and VdS, and all the other obscure arguments in their favour, Manchester United have lost more points from winning positions. Whether it’s in the recent past or distant doesn’t really matter. In fact, it is only in the recent past that United have actually lost three games. In the early part of the season they were going unbeaten! Such issues have to be seen over the course of the season and in that aspect Arsenal are not too bad when compared to United who supposedly would never drop such points. More importantly, who can honestly claim that signing one or two players will change anything?

And in these 13 points that Arsenal have dropped from winning positions we aren’t even talking about the ones that have been stolen by the ref. We aren’t even getting into the discussion that it wasn’t a penalty against Eboue because Lucas clearly moved into his path and away from the ball.

We can also see the attempts by some fans to belittle the performance against Liverpool by saying they had some teenagers in their side. These fans failed to mention that a very similar Liverpool side had spanked Man City 3-0. So much for spending money on proven players! City had spent money on a proven English defender like Lescott. Can anyone guarantee that Cahill won’t turn out to be another Lescott?

I can say a lot more on this game but will move on to the North London Derby.

For years, many fans have been predicting that the Tiny Totts will overtake Arsenal. Last season I read many opinions claiming Spuds had better strikers than the Gunners. In the last game they had the Player of the Year and supposedly world class talents like Modric and Van der Vaart. They had full-backs who can cross the ball, a tall striker who can win it in the air, an English centre-half, and a fighter like Gallas. Plus they were playing at home.

So why isn’t anyone saying that the Tiny Totts dropped two points at home and it’s a disaster for them? Why isn’t it seen as one point won by Arsenal?

Wenger and his team are having a meltdown whereas the Tiny Totts are flying high after a 5-0 demolition by Madrid and a dogfight for fourth place?

If United and Chelsea are having an off season, and Arsenal are throwing away chances to run away with the league, Why aren’t Man City or Spuds leading the pack? They have spent plenty of money on proven players, leaders, English grit and determination, clinical strikers, wingers, defensive midfielders, and so on. The real beauty is that those who want Arsenal to be like Man City (while claiming they don’t want Arsenal to be like City) or Spuds will find ways of criticizing these teams as well!

A couple of months ago when some key players were missing, the popular argument was that Arsenal’s A-team is top-class but the real problem is with some of the fringe players. Well, the team that played against Spuds was the A-team. And the mistakes that were made were made by extremely reliable players. As I have said before, it happens. It’s happened to United often enough that they have dropped 14 points from winning positions. And it will happen to Arsenal no matter who plays or who is bought. That is the nature of the sport.

The issues can only be solved by actually identifying exactly what goes wrong, not by blaming players. The naivety of that thought process is mindboggling. Imagine if the same approach were used in the corporate world. If a company wasn’t the best at what it was doing it should sack half its employees and hire new ones at big pay. Wonder how many fans who want a clear-out at Arsenal would keep their jobs in such a scenario?

I don’t have a problem with criticism. I have a problem with mindless, unbalanced criticism that fails to acknowledge the facts; or worse, takes issues out of context and twists the facts. Of course, when so many fans are frustrated it doesn’t take time for a rant to take the shape of a popular opinion or for that popular opinion to masquerade as the hard truth.

It turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fans’ dissatisfaction is picked up by the media. The hacks twist all kinds of stories out of that. It also affects the players who end up questioning themselves and their mates. This could easily lead to another mistake at a crucial moment in a game leading to a vicious cycle. Some people might not get it but it is connected. Just as a positive, vibrant atmosphere is a genuine twelfth man; such negativity can be a massive handicap.

The only purpose this achieves is that it breaks the fabric of the club. All the key elements within the club move apart. The players, manager, administrators, and fans – all start moving away from each other. For now, someone like Wenger will have a strong enough gravitational force to keep the club United but everything will unravel the moment he fails in holding things together.

I don’t know how the next year or two in the Arsenalsphere is going to pan out, but 50 years from now Arsenal will be a case study for many students of the beautiful game and business. All the responsibility is not on the fans but they can still make a real impact on whether it’ll be a case study of astonishing and inspiring success, or a shambolic and disgraceful collapse.

Tiny Totts 3 – 3 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

April 21, 2011

What a cracker! Probably was the most open and entertaining game I have seen in the Premiership this season. Begrudgingly, I have to say congratulations to the Tiny Totts for putting up a performance like that. I lost count of the long balls and hopeful crosses but in between all that there was some good football from the hosts.

I thought one of the reasons the game was so tightly fought was that Modric was playing out of his skin and might have produced his game of the season. For Arsenal, Cesc was nowhere close to his best. The other reason of course was that Arsenal really struggle against the long-ball/cross-to-big-man style and the Tinies pulled it off pretty well.

To be fair no team should be criticized for a 3-3 draw in which either side could have scored more. I loved the similarities between the goals. Both teams scored the second from outside the box from a position one would not have normally expected the ball to go in. Arsenal’s first was a lovely through ball that caught the defence out and Spuds scored a similar one for their third. Their first and Arsenal’s third came from crosses into the box from the right and some defensive mistakes. Freakish!

I don’t think in this game anyone can say that Arsenal bottled it. That would be an extremely ignorant and lazy opinion based solely on the fact that a lead was lost. But in such games I find that irrelevant. We cannot be in denial about some of the weaknesses that Arsenal have. When the opposition exploits those we just have to say fair play to them. I’m convinced Wenger has some defensive blindspots that are about the system and not individuals. That’s the reason I have been talking about a new defence coach but now is not the time to get into that. One thing is for sure, if you think buying a goalkeeper or defenders would have changed anything in this game you haven’t been watching closely. It’s a complicated topic so more on this in the summer.

I don’t want to write about the goals and other aspects in detail as it would turn this article into a novel. I’ll just cover key aspects in the bullet point form.

Tiny Goals

  • First– Diaby should have read it better. Central defenders were doing a good job on the strikers. Szczesny should have covered his near post as Diaby would most probably have blocked a strike across the goal. Van der Vaart deserves credit for his opportunism and technique.
  • Second– System problem, too many players in the box no one outside. Have covered this in the past so will leave it for now.
  • Third– Stupid mistakes by Sagna and Szczesny. Sagna moved forward when that angle was already covered, he should have moved towards the centre. Szczesny could easily have pulled out. At this level the keeper should be aware that the attacker is at a hopeless angle and is most likely looking to go down rather than control the ball. Lennon anyway doesn’t have the control to take a soft touch in such a position.

Arsenal Goals

  • First – Another superb break at speed. Excellent finish from Theo.
  • Second – Opportunism and technique from Nasri. Awful tracking by Van der Vaart.
  • Third – Excellent cross by Sagna. Rubbish from Gallas. Wonderful chip by an alert Walcott. Powerful header by RvP, top class save by Gomes, good finish from Van Persie.

General Observations

  • The Tinies moved the ball from flank to flank really well. Even though my head was aching after watching some of the long balls, I must commend their general approach and the technique to successfully execute it on many occasions.
  • Arsenal seem to suffer an identity crisis at times, especially when the team is leading by a couple of goals. This team plays its best football when the pressing starts higher up. They can also do a decent job when they stay back with discipline (Wolves, Everton etc). But there are times when we get stuck with a couple of players in a no man’s land. That’s the time when the attack doesn’t have enough numbers to create or press and the defence doesn’t have enough bodies to cover the key areas.
  • The Gunners didn’t do a good job on the second ball on some occasions. I thought this was related to the identity crisis issue as the bodies were in the wrong areas of the pitch. It’s another issue that I want to expand on with snapshots, either next week or in the summer.
  • There were acres of space in the Spuds half but the system didn’t allow Theo the chance to run into those spaces often enough. That’s another example that the team/manager doesn’t have a clear cut approach in some cases. If you want to attack after three goals, press a bit higher up. Don’t allow the opposition so much time to pick out effective long balls. If you want to defend, change the shape and get the fastest man down the middle.
  • Arsenal should not have played the end-to-end game in the second half but slowed the tempo down a bit. This would have allowed the team to get back into shape and pushed the Tinies back. When a game is so spread out it favours the team that thrives on long-balls.
  • Redknapp brought on Sandro for Pavlyuchenko in the final fifteen minutes. Arsenal introduced Arshavin and Bendtner. Shows what both managers wanted to achieve.
  • Let’s not forget no visiting team has scored three at WHL this season. Nor the fact that United, Chelsea, and City have all drawn here. Arsenal might have played a more cautious game and come up with a 1-1 or a 0-0. People would have found other reasons to criticize the team then. But the simple fact is that it’s no longer an easy ground to get results at.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Made some good saves. Could have done better for the first and second goals. Should have done better for the third.

Sagna: Good game on the right, especially against Bale. But made a big blunder for the third goal. Put in a couple of good crosses.

Djourou: Had a few shaky moments. Didn’t look like he was prepared to attack the second ball after Crouch won the first, instead he was watching the ball.

Koscielny: Lost almost everything against Crouch in the air. Can’t really blame him but he needs to learn how to make an impact using his body to put the striker off.

Clichy: Did quite well given the fact that even with Nasri on the left he often had to deal with two attackers on his own. Could have done more in attack as Van der Vaart would not have tracked him that well. No one at Arsenal seemed alert to this option.

It was disappointing to see crucial mistakes from reliable players like Szczesny and Sagna. The back five did as well as they could considering how often the team lost its shape.

Song: Had to do a lot of chasing as the ball moved from flank to flank. Was a bit clumsy in the first half, lost his footing and control of the ball on occasions, needs to do a better job of holding his position in the defensive areas.

Cesc: Surprisingly poor touch in and around the opposition box. Tried some shots from distance late in the game that should satisfy some fans who keep demanding it. Was one of the players who was caught in a no man’s land quite often.

Diaby: Had a decent game but made some mistakes. Was lucky not to be punished for his tackle on Modric. Should have done a better job on Van der Vaart for the first goal.

In the second half, the midfield didn’t control the game as well as they could have done against a two-man opposition. I also thought the midfielders should have been closer to the back five. Only Song was staying deeper and that sucked Walcott back whenever the ball was kicked long to Arsenal’s right. It also left Clichy in difficult situations.

Walcott: Put in some amazing crosses. Excellent finish. Good assist for RvP. Did more than his share of defensive tracking as well.

RvP: Excellent movement, good goal, should have done better on certain occasions when he was in possession in dangerous areas.

Nasri: Opportunistic goal. Didn’t offer enough in attack or defence. Another player who was caught in a limbo quite often. Struggles on the left so it’s a bit of a sacrifice to play him there but that’s the best balance this squad can achieve right now.

The attacking players were incredible in the first half and extremely clinical. Struggled in the second half when the game was stretched. I would like to see Nasri and Walcott swapping positions during the game.

Wenger: This is the best team available to the manager, often called the first-team by some fans. Can’t criticize the team selection. Don’t know why Diaby was taken off so no comment on that. Wasn’t able to instruct the players to control the shape or the pace of the game. Individual mistakes came from usually reliable players so again tough to blame the manager for that. On the positive side his system was the only one that opened up this opposition so often in their own backyard. If you don’t believe me watch the opening day Spuds-City game to get some perspective.

Thoughts On TheTactics And Starting Eleven Against Tiny Totts

April 20, 2011

The Barcodes have kept United in check. There is still a lot to play for. Wenger is also getting some players back from the treatment room. I guess we can call this a good news day.

Tactically, there won’t be any surprises in this game. I expect a lot of long, diagonal balls from the Spuds defenders and midfield directed towards their speedy wingers. Sagna and Clichy will have their work cut out but in the past both have shown they can deal with pace. Even then, Arsene should not leave the responsibility of dealing with Lennon and Bale on his full-backs alone. The wide attackers and midfielders have to provide better support in the wide areas. If the Gunners leave the wings open often enough, the hosts are definitely going to score from one or two of their chances.

Redknapp, if he stays true to his notions, is quite likely to start Crouch up front. He will be the target of some long balls out from the defence and also a million crosses from either wing. Djourou and Koscielny will have to do a good job of marking him, and along with the midfield they will have to track the runners to the second ball. Song will have to produce a big game and he must keep his priorities on defending. There are times when Arsenal do this really well and on other occasions we have seen some players switching off. At this stage of the season nothing short of unwavering concentration will suffice.

The Tiny Totts will certainly play at a higher tempo at home and the initial phases of the game will make for an interesting tussle. The Gunners will find themselves trailing if the start is sluggish. On the other hand I expect good counter attacking opportunities in the early exchanges. Should Arsenal capitalize on at least one, it will make the rest of the game even more open and exciting.

I believe Van Persie’s movement and technique can really trouble Spuds’ central defenders. The Dutchman can pick up a brace or even a hat-trick in this game if he puts away the chances that are bound to come his way. Even Nasri and Walcott can get on the score-sheet if they are alert to the gaps that will inevitably appear in and around the opposition penalty box.

In some ways, Arsenal just have to play the steady style they have been using away from home. The midfield must stay deeper and focus on supporting the defence. The opposition must be allowed to come forward with most of the pressing, tackling, and interceptions being attempted in the middle third of the pitch. Of course, a number of tackles will have to be won on the wings and the defenders will have to win some headers in the box as well.

The final point that stands out is that the players should keep their focus on the game at all times. For instance, even if they score a late goal that seems like a winner, the thoughts should not be about celebrating but on concentrating in defence.

I don’t think picking the starting eleven will be a difficult task.

Szczesny – Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy – Song, Cesc, Diaby – Walcott, RvP, Nasri.

A point can be raised about including Wilshere in the starting line-up. It’d be a fair one but I think the youngster is very close to a burnout and a mini-break will do him good. Anyway there is another game at the weekend.

With that game in mind and considering the fact that Spuds have had a week’s rest while Arsenal played a gruelling tie againt Liverpool, some might suggest the need for freshening up the side with a couple of changes. I guess there is a case for picking Arshavin to start but I’m not convinced any changes to this starting eleven will maintain the right balance. The players just have to produce the performances at the business end of the season.

These kinds of games are difficult to predict. Arsenal can stamp their authority on the neighbour’s ground once more, they can make some mistakes and concede two points, and I can also see them gifting the undeserving hosts all three points. I expect some goals in this one, at least three, and quite likely more. Hopefully, the majority will be in the right net.

PFA Awards Disappointing + Mourinho Learns From Arsene + Original Cesc Interview

April 19, 2011

I want to start with a mention of the PFA awards and the Team of the Year. Congratulations to Wilshere for picking up the Young Player of the Year award, and deservedly so. Gareth Bale was chosen as the Player of the Year and Nasri came in second. And in case you haven’t seen it, the team of the year is,

Van der Saar – Sagna, Vidic, Kompany, Cole – Nani, Nasri, Wilshere, Bale – Tevez, Berbatov.

Rather uninspiring if I may say so. One thing that struck me about this seasons list, and by extension the performances of the teams, is that none of the players really stood out. Last year Rooney, Cesc, and Drogba had truly great seasons. I don’t think the same can be said for the likes of Nasri or Bale who have been good in patches but have had relatively little impact in terms of goals, assists, or match winning contributions when compared to their counterparts from last year.

Even looking at the whole team, it’s difficult to say anyone apart from Nani or Wilshere would have gotten into last year’s selection. So have all these players suddenly dropped their performance levels? Has the league got that much tougher this season? Has this season been more about grinding out results than mesmerizing displays?

I don’t know the exact reasons for this change but one thing is for sure, when any team’s best player doesn’t perform at his peak the performances of the whole team suffer. In that sense it is safe to say the top three teams have been a little below par this year, for different reasons though. Rooney has been moved to a different position where he is more useful to the balance of the side but does not have enough personal stats to show for it. Cesc has struggled with injuries while Drogba was down with Malaria and more recently Torresitis (an affliction where a good player cannot get enough games/starts because a more expensive one who plays the same position is in the squad).

One interesting question that arises is – Has Wenger been justified in promoting Wilshere rather than breaking the bank on Yaya Toure as many fans wanted?

The smaller teams have certainly improved a lot. This could have led to lesser space in attacking areas, better organization and marking, more competitive games, and consequently fewer chances for any individual to truly stand out. I don’t think this is the sole or main reason for the distinctly lower quality individual efforts but it is certainly a crucial factor.

Moving on to Spain, I was watching the El Classico last weekend and noticed something interesting. Real Madrid really had a go at Barcelona in the final 15-20 minutes and almost stole a win. This might never come out but I am fairly certain Mourinho saw the way Arsenal troubled Guardiola’s side and has adapted his tactics to follow in Wenger’s path.

Of course, we will know more in the coming days as there are three more Classicos to play. Many might not understand this or believe it but to me it is a great testament to Wenger’s tactical acumen that an evil genius like Jose is copying his approach as he can’t really deploy the Inter style at Madrid. Kudos to the Special One too for being such a quick learner.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Wenger is a tactical genius (regular readers know my reservations on this topic) but it is certain that Arsene is not a tactically clueless idiot as some would have you believe. As always the truth is somewhere in between. More on this topic at some other time.

While we are still in Spain, I wanted to share a couple of links from the Don Balon site. These look like the original interview transcripts but I am not sure. Can someone who knows Spanish please provide a better, more in keeping with the tone and context, translation than the one we have seen in the English media.

On this link you will see the interview about the need for Arsenal to choose between winning and training. On this one Cesc talks about the Champions League tie, his performance, and injury. I’d really love a good translation of the second one as it seems very relevant and is quite a short one. Unfortunately, Google translate didn’t do a very good job.

I’d also like to mention that fans should not fall for the sensationalism of the tabloids or the doom mongers. Cesc is an honest person and has given his genuine opinion. It is not an ultimatum to the club and I don’t think he is trying to talk his way out. It wasn’t the best thing to say but I have said this about Arsene and the players on more than one occasion – they don’t know how to play the media and often give intelligent answers that come to bite them in the backside because the words are twisted way out of context.

Nobody including Wenger denies that there is plenty of room for improvement at Arsenal. I don’t want to get into this discussion right now, it’s a never ending argument so will leave it for the summer. But we must respect Fabregas for saying what he believes to be true. We can criticize him for the timing and perhaps a little lack of tact but it’s harsh to say he is sulking or trying to force his way out. In fact, if anything, it seems he is mentally preparing himself for the long haul.

Finally, I wanted to mention something about the last article and the responses. One chap left ten or more anti-Wenger replies under different names. I just saw them this morning and have since removed them. I don’t know how people find the time and energy to write so many pointless comments but it’s not difficult to see why many Gooners consider such commentators to be Spuds in disguise. From now on if I believe that the same person is leaving abusive comments without any real contribution I will delete the comments without any explanation.

I have no problems with those who disagree with the manager, the board, or any other part of the club. I am also quite happy to allow comments that don’t concur with my opinion. But I will not tolerate an abusive person pretending to be ten people while not making a single meaningful effort to make a point.

Those fans who genuinely support the club should also remember that if it seems there are hundreds of people against the club and Wenger, it is quite likely to be a handful of disgruntled idiots and some Spud trolls polluting the sanctity of the Arsenalsphere.

That’s it for now, I’ll do the NLD preview a little later in the day.