Manchester United 8 – 2 Arsenal: Quick Thoughts

August 30, 2011

Apologies for the delay in the post, but as I had mentioned in the preview this was a family weekend and, in hindsight, it turned out to be a good one to miss the game.

When I’d seen the team sheet I’d feared this would be a three or four nil kind of a game. No Vermaelen, no Sagna with Jenkinson, Traore, and Coquelin in the back five against an in-form United start was a disaster waiting to happen.

The result wasn’t a surprise and I don’t want to get into the analysis in detail because, honestly speaking, dwelling on the game hurts and I am sure many, if not all, of you would want to move on.

Since the start of the season I have been talking about the ease with which opposition teams have been bringing the ball to the Arsenal defensive third. They lacked the quality in decisive moments. United didn’t.

The number of defensive flaws in Wenger’s 4-3-3 are staggering considering the ambitions of the club. I am more convinced than ever that without a change/addition to the coaching staff there is little hope of challenging for the big titles.

In this particular game, the defenders made a number of mistakes but once again the load on them was unbearable. There are some basic issues that just have to be ironed out.

For the first goal, Djourou was trying to block the run of Welbeck hoping Szczesny will come and deal with the ball. Watching the replays it seems to me that Djourou was the closest to the ball and could easily have reached it before the United youngster. In 09-10, a lot was asked of the goalkeeper and it seems remnants of those errors still exist despite clear change in focus last season. That tells me the defensive coaching still isn’t good/clear enough.

The second goal was an excellent finish but one has to wonder why no one was tracking Ashely Cole.

Rooney scored the third and fourth with top class free-kicks. I believe Gooners, irrespective of their attitude towards the manager and the board, have all been wondering what prevents Arsenal from developing a couple of good set-piece takers from a bunch of so many technically gifted players. Again one has to question the coaching/training. Is enough emphasis put on this or are players left to work on it on their own?

Szczesny too has a weakness in defending set-pieces. Starting with the Henry kick in the Emirates cup, the one by Di Natale, and then these two kicks by Rooney, all show that Wojciech is rooted to his spot and is slow to react to his right. On the other end he tends to move early and leaves a gap that Rooney expertly exploited for the fourth goal. This too appears like an error the coaches should identify and correct.

The fifth goal came from ridiculously ineffective pressing after a corner was cleared and then an appalling lack of effort in tracking back which left the back four vulnerable just when they were running back to get in position.

Sixth was schoolboy defending from the team, the seventh was the price of having Walcott at right back (why couldn’t Arsenal play with a back three?), and the final goal was again an excellent finish with the defence all over the place.

The gunners did manage two at Old Trafford, for just the second time in the Wenger reign and the first time in a League game under Arsene (if I am not mistaken). The first one again highlighted how bad De Gea is at the moment as the Walcott strike went straight through the Spaniard. The second came from some dogged work by Jenkinson and a good finish by Van Persie. How the Dutchman managed to botch the penalty with such a clown in goal is beyond me.

I must say, looking at this performance, United look like they are stronger in attack than they have been for years. But they are also a bit more vulnerable defensively and once teams realize that, their games will be a lot more interesting. On current evidence though, it will be hard to stop the reigning champions from holding on to their trophy.

I don’t want to do much of an individual analysis here. Ramsey deserves a mention for his quality and effort, Rosicky for a couple of wonderful passes and a terrible overall contribution, Arshavin for being the barking dog that never bites (always threatened, never delivered), and the rest of the players for doing as best (or worst) as they could.

Most of the blame does fall on the manager because it seemed the team lacked tactical cohesion (something we have seen often enough in the past). He could have started with a guy like Lansbury instead of Arshavin just to have another defensive body if three youngsters were starting in the back five. The Russian is experienced but out of form and awful at defensive work. Lansbury would have at least ensured another body in the right areas.

The manager also went with an attacking approach even when his team is still developing an understanding. Playing deeper and inviting pressure would have been the right approach in such a game with Walcott and Van Persie left up to play on the counter. There are times when Wenger’s inability to modify the tactics to suit the realities reach hair-tearing levels.

Even his substitutions are hard to understand in such instances. Coquelin, while inexperienced and making his debut, was still working hard to get into the right defensive areas. Once he was taken off it became all the more easier for United to pass the ball in front of the back four. Did Wenger really think he had a chance of getting a point from this game by introducing AOC in place of Coquelin or had he given up on the game/final score and just wanted to see how the youngster did?

While it is clear Arsenal need reinforcements, something the manager and management have acknowledged, I strongly believe the need for a coaching addition is paramount. Some might ask, why bring in a new coach and not a new manager? My answer is that all evidence suggests a change in manager will guarantee a drop out of the top four on Arsenal’s budget. Wenger has a system that works but there are too many critical holes that need to be plugged.

It took Clichy a long time to settle in the role and he sacrificed a lot to keep the gaps on the left covered as best as he could. It is games like these that highlight how valuable his contribution was. Similar arguments can be made for some other players as well and of course, Cesc and Nasri are big losses. Arsene will have to sign the right players but that might not be enough. Let’s not forget Baines was part of the defence that was hammered 6-1 by Arsenal and players like Cahill, Jagielka, and others have always been members of teams that conceded more than the Gunners despite being more defensive minded.

There is no quick fix and there aren’t any players in the current market who are going to come in and perform miracles. The most important answers will have to be found on the training pitch even if four or five new players are signed.

I think for once the international break has come at the right time for Arsenal. The Gunners need time to strengthen and regroup as this season can easily slip away in the next few weeks.

I want to end with a word of appreciation for the away fans. Their support was the only heart-warming memory from an otherwise eminently forgettable game. Hats off to everyone who was there!


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Manchester United

August 26, 2011

This is a tough one. Easily the hardest fixture of the opening month. Let’s be real, if Arsenal had a full team with no injuries or suspensions and even with a couple of signings, this game would still have been the most difficult away game of the League. I am not trying to hype up United but they do have a more than respectable home record. And they have Howard Webb.

Sometimes, a good win sets expectations soaring. Some people lose track of the context and demand miracles in the next game. When reality bites, the pendulum swings to the other extreme and, along with the raucous rants of losers living off of misery, the general degree of despondency hits new heights, or is it lows. Can this be changed or is this an inescapable certainty that we must suffer through? I don’t know the answer to that but setting the right expectations can most definitely help.

Let’s not forget Arsenal have, under Wenger, rarely, if ever, scored more than one goal at Old Trafford. So can the current group, severely limited by injuries and suspension, break that trend? Doubtful. Is this side good enough to win 1-0? I promise not to utter a single criticism against the Arsenal defence all season if that result is achieved.

1-1 then? Now we are entering a more realistic, or cautiously optimistic, zone and this in my opinion is the best result Arsenal can get from this game. Other likely outcomes are not worth discussing before the match.

As I’d said prior to a couple of other games, the progress of the tactical adjustments being made will be of more interest than the final result. But does Arsene have 11 players to put together a tactically strong unit?

Starting line-up option 1 –

Szczesny – Jenkison, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Sagna – Djourou, Ramsey, Rosicky – Walcott, RvP, Arshavin.

This assumes the two centre-backs are fit to play.

Option 2 –

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Djourou, Koscielny, Sagna – Ramsey, Rosicky, RvP – Walcott, Chamakh, Arshavin.

If Vermaelen fails the fitness test, Djourou will have to drop back into the back four. Van Persie seems the most experienced and feasible option for midfield. Rosicky and Ramsey will have to show a great deal of defensive discipline. A considerable improvement in form will be demanded of Arshavin and Chamakh.

There are some other options as well – Traore could play on the wing to provide better defensive cover (with Jenkinson on the left) so that Sagna can do his usual excellent job on the right. Lansbury (if he is fit) could be played in the midfield for his engine and desire. After all, he has played with Cleverly and knows the youngster’s game well. Arsene could also thrust a young gun (AOC or Miyaichi) into the starting line-up for a baptism by fire. This could allow Arshavin to come inwards and take up a position in the hole. That way both teams might end up with a 4-4-1-1. It would make this an open and entertaining game. There are a number of other combinations possible, but these seem to be the most likely ones.

I think the single biggest test for Arsenal will be the quality of the collective defence. Other teams have been able to bring the ball from defence to attack quite often but have lacked the quality in the final third. That won’t be the case with this well-oiled United side that has plenty of pace and finishing prowess. Any lack of concentration or laxity in tracking back can be calamitous.

The first goal will, as is the case in such games, make all the difference. If United get one early they will get complete control over the game and will seamlessly transition into a counter-attacking style.

Last season at Old Trafford, Arsenal started with a cautious approach but didn’t have the right shape to transition from defence to attack. That meant the ball kept coming into the defensive third every minute or so. Eventually, it led to a freakish goal and gave the tie to the hosts. In order to avoid that, Arsene has to find a way to keep the defence solid while having options to break. Walcott can certainly make a big difference in this regard but his runs have to be tactically coordinated otherwise he looks highly ineffective and one dimensional.

Ramsey and Rosicky have the quality to provide balls from deep. Even then, without a clear tactic and practice, it’s hard to expect players to figure these things out on the go. Time will tell whether the Gunners have worked on this in the build up.

If United play with two midfielders like Anderson and Cleverly, Arsenal could get some joy in the middle and opportunities to unlock their defence. I will be surprised if Ferguson leaves that crack open. But if he does, this game won’t be as tight as some of the other encounters between these teams. I expect at least three goals in that case but can’t say which net they will be in.

Szczesny will have the opportunity to put in a MotM display and he has the talent to do it. I would love to know the odds on that one.

And won’t this be a great game for Arshavin to rediscover his shooting boots. Even Rosicky, Ramsey, and RvP should chance their luck at every opportunity. United have a keeper who, in current form, can also be the MotM for the Gunners. The attacking players need to be aware of and attack the second ball from every cross or shot that goes towards De Gea.

Oddly enough, Arsenal have just one win in the last nine League games. Guess who that came against 🙂

Another little tidbit that might interest you is that Arsenal won 49 percent of the games when Nasri started and 62 percent of those he didn’t.

Hopefully, the Webb effect will not come into play and we will get a fascinating tussle between the already presumed League winners and widely predicted no-hopers that will prove the gap isn’t as big as some would have you believe.

Ending on a different note, my folks have come from India and I will be very busy over the weekend. Apologies to regular readers who prefer a quick report after the game. I won’t be able to do one till late on Monday afternoon US Central time. Till then, enjoy the rebuilding phase with reinvigorated hope and tempered expectations.


Thoughts On The Champions League Draw

August 26, 2011

Group F: Arsenal – Marseille – Olympiacos – Borussia Dortmund.

That doesn’t look like a group of death to me but there is enough in there keep things on edge. Perhaps part of the reason is also that Arsenal will have to go on a long, consistent run before most fans regain complete confidence. The uncertainties on the transfer front don’t help matters either.

This year’s group is certainly tougher than last season’s where Shakhtar, Braga, and Partizan Belgrade provided the competition. Given that Arsenal failed to win that group – which played a big part in drawing Barcelona that led to the fateful second leg right along with the other Cup defeats – there is no reason to assume this season will be any easier.

If anything it will be much harder because the squad is undoubtedly weaker (at the moment) and the opponents stronger. In fairness, Arsene did try wholesale rotations in a couple of key away games last season which contributed to the second place in the group. If the first team plays all the games then first place should not be that difficult. The problem is, with fixtures piling up, playing without rotations is a sure-fire way of risking injuries and fatigue at the business end of the season if not earlier.

Marseille are a good team with an excellent manager in Deschamps. They will be hard to beat, especially at the 60K+ capacity Stade Velodrome. Many of their players are known to Gooners through the constant transfer speculation in the media with Lucho Gonzalez, Andre Ayew, and Mathieu Valbuena being the most recent ones. But, with due respect, I must say there were other much tougher teams in Pot B of the draw.

If we spin this around – which team would you rather have from the second pot – it’s hard to pick any other team over Marseille. Milan and Villareal are clearly stronger in my opinion while Valencia are always a challenge. We already know how strong Shakhtar can be. Benfica were no pushovers even if it was just a pre-season friendly. Arsenal don’t have a great record in Russia so CSKA might not be as easy as some would like to think. Lyon are probably in the same boat as Marseille. All-in-all Deschamp’s side are not the worst possible opponents.

From the timing point of view, Arsenal go to France, on Oct 19, between home games with Sunderland and Stoke. That should lessen the impact of travel considerably. The return leg at home is on 1st Nov after the visit to Stamford Bridge and before hosting West Brom.

Olympiacos will be the third team in the pool. Arsenal played them as recently as the group stage of the 2009-10 season where the home leg was won 2-0 but the return was lost by half that score. We must not forget that was a virtually meaningless last game and Wenger gave a chance to Tom Cruise, Bartley, Merida, and Kerrea Gilbert in that game. Or let me just say that Silvestre was the Captain on the night! A 1-0 loss doesn’t look so bad then, does it?

I think the two games with the Greeks can be negotiated well and they will certainly not be harder than the ones against Udinese. It’s a long trip though and that can have an adverse impact on the League games. Arsenal host the Greeks on Sept 28. That game is preceded by a visit by Bolton and followed by a trip to White Hart Lane. The long trip is the last game of the group phase on Dec 6 after a visit to Wigan and before a home tie with Everton.

Arsenal have definitely landed the toughest team from the fourth pot in reigning German champions Borussia Dortmund. They have a very young and exciting team with a talented manager so the two games should be spectacular. I have a feeling Marseille and Olympiacos will rue drawing the Germans more than Arsenal.

The Gunners kick-off the group stage with a visit to Germany on Sept 13, just after the home game with Swansea and before the visit to Blackburn. The home game on Nov 23rd is sandwiched between the visit to Norwich and the home derby with Fulham.

I think the draw has been kind to Arsenal in that none of these games have thrown up too many away games or tough ties in a row.

Before ending I want to briefly touch upon the other groups.

Group A is by far the toughest one with Bayern, Villareal, City and Napoli. It will be a good test for Mancini and could have a real impact on their League aspirations as well. The Italian has the squad that can work well despite rotations but in practice it’s not as easy as it looks on paper.

Group B is quite a boring one with Inter, CSKA, Lille, and Trabzonspor. I doubt I will watch any game from that one.

United have a mouth-watering draw in Group C with Benfica, Basle and the deliciously named minnows Otelul Galati.

Real and Lyon meet again, this time in the group phase. D also includes Ajax and Dinamo Zagreb. The Croatian side will be worth watching as they could have a future star or two in their line-up.

Chelsea’s latest acquisition Juan Mata will be reunited with Valencia in Group E. Leverkusen and Genk make it a relatively easy group for Andre Villas-Boas.

Porto, Shakhtar, Zenit, and APOEL make up group G. Any of those teams can qualify for the knockout phase.

In the final group, Barcelona got Milan, BATE Borisov, and Viktoria Plzen who were impressive against Copenhagen in the qualifier. The European giants should come through without much trouble.


Udinese 1 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

August 25, 2011

That’s more like it.

I expected a tough start with the hosts pressing Arsenal into a defensive shape but the Gunners surprised me and probably the Friulani as well when they came out in a very positive, energetic, and confident mode.

Walcott forced Handanovic into a good save in the second minute and that set the pattern for the opening minutes. Arsenal dominated possession and pushed the hosts back. Van Persie was dropping deep often and creating space for Gervinho and Walcott to exploit.

It was clear that this was a tactical move and a new one as the swift wingmen often got in each other’s way and made the same run on occasion. Nevertheless, they were threatening and the half-chances kept coming. Handanovic was a busy man all through the half.

Arsenal did create a couple of gilt edged chances and the strikers hit the target but found the goalkeeper a hard man to beat. Perhaps their shooting angles could have been better and is an area where continuous work will be needed.

At the other end, Udinese were getting the ball to the Arsenal box often enough. They scored a goal but it was correctly chalked off for off-side. Szczesny wasn’t being tested except by shots from outside the box. The Gunners also looked confident while defending the set-pieces.

As the half progressed the hosts felt more comfortable against the pace of Arsenal and started pushing forward. That created more space and Arsenal forced a double save from Handanovic after excellent work by Gervinho. Soon after, Szczesny was beaten at the other end.

The goal was again a result of a number of mistakes. The man on the ball wasn’t under any pressure. The midfield line wasn’t close enough to the defence considering Udinese had three men forward. The central defenders dropped back and allowed the attacker to receive the ball in front of them. He also got enough time to turn and pick out a pass as neither the defenders not the midfielders got tight on him. Worse still, Di Natale was able to get between Djourou and Jenkinson. The Swiss defender was probably covering for a run down the middle or getting in position to block a shot, and Jenkinson paid the price of his inexperience. The youngster should have read the situation and competed for that header against a man who isn’t renowned for his height or aerial prowess.

As things stood at half-time, Arsenal had a lot of the ball but also the deficit on the night and a nervous parity in total. The team looked like it lacked technique and vision in the final third.

Wenger, all credit to him, saw this and introduced Rosicky for the hard working but inexperienced Frimpong. Little Mozart looked lively when he came on and played a crucial part in the goal.

Because of his presence in the middle, Gervinho was able to stay wide when in the first half he was drifting inwards far too often. Rosicky’s shot was blocked and the rebound fell to Gervinho who got the better of his defender as he had done all day long whenever he got a chance to run at the right-back.

The Ivorian went to the by-line and cut it back for Van Persie to tap in. The run from Rosicky did enough to distract the keeper and the defenders. I doubt anyone will be surprised if this pattern is repeated often this season.

In the recent past the Gunners have shown a tendency to relax soon after scoring. The same happened in this game and Udinese had the ball around the Arsenal box within a minute of conceding. It led to a corner that was delivered low and across the face of goal. How it managed to reach the back post is beyond me. With the new zonal marking system, any of three players should have cleared it. As it turned out it fell to Vermaelen at the back post who was adjudged to have handled the ball. I thought it was a harsh decision as the Belgian also got a push in the back.

Udinese would have gained the upper hand had Di Natale converted so soon after the game was levelled. Szczesny came up with a big save. There can be argument that he was off his line before the kick was taken but almost all Keepers do that these days. There is no doubt that was the turning point as the Gunners gained confidence while Udinese must have felt deflated.

Considering the fact that all Arsenal Keepers are good at penalties, the coaching work in that area must be acknowledged.

The key point though, and one that I really loved about this game, was the composure that the Gunners showed after that moment. The midfield played really close to the defence and didn’t lose concentration. We didn’t see the ball being hoofed forward only to come back within seconds. The team was able to maintain a proper defensive shape and slowed the game down considerably.

In February I wrote this piece saying Arsenal need to develop the art of defensive possession. This display was just what I had in mind.

The midfielders didn’t rush forward every time possession was regained. The full-backs stayed at their posts and covered the wings. The players backed their technical abilities and passed the ball around just to frustrate the opponents and tire them. They moved well off the ball to provide more than one passing option to team-mates who were being pressurised. Eventually, they also found ways to convert this defensive possession into attacking opportunities without pushing too many men forward.

The second goal was an absolute delight. Most highlights clips or pundit analysis won’t cover this but it actually started down Arsenal’s right side. Jenkinson was in possession and under pressure. But he had Gervinho and Rosicky in support. Between the three of them they played five or six passes to absorb pressure. Normally, one would see a punt down the line in such a situation but that temptation was palpably avoided.

Jenkinson then played the ball in the space between Veramelen and Sagna. The Belgian got it and pushed it towards Sagna who’d moved wide on the wing. By the time the Udinese players moved from their pressing on the right to the left, Sagna and Walcott were able to play a wonderful one-two that put Theo in behind. There was no catching him after that and his finish was world class.

That really knocked the stuffing out of Udinese. Even the crowd was silenced.

The Gunners didn’t repeat the mistake they made after the first goal. The midfield dropped really deep and the full-backs maintained their position for large parts. Even Rosicky could be seen chasing and sliding just in front of the defence.

In the remaining period the visitors created more chances but the Handanovic was in top form.

I thought this game showed the perfect way for Arsenal to defend under pressure. They have to use their strengths because Wenger doesn’t have a group that can effectively park the bus. I believe this game highlighted the massive improvements that can be made in defence even without signing many players. This is exactly what I have been talking about for almost a year. Arsenal have problems in defence and not that many with defenders. These can only be solved with a collective effort just like this one.

That doesn’t mean new additions are not needed. Nor does it mean that perfection has been achieved. It’s just a start and a work in progress. The players will have to work hard in training to improve on this. But if they do get it right, Gervinho, Walcott, and the speedy youngsters will rip teams apart on the break.

I must also mention that coming from a goal down in a European tie away from home is no mean feat. It deserves special accolades. The players have shown exceptional mentality in hard times and deserve unconditional support from here on in even if the manager or the board are not appreciated for various reasons.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Superb save from the penalty. Made a couple of other good saves as well. Collection and distribution was consistent.

Jenkinson: Struggled a bit when an opponent was able to run at him but his doggedness helped him out even if he conceded a free-kick or two. Could have done better for the goal, he will have to learn to read danger earlier. Still not a bad game for a youngster who hasn’t been at this level for too long. Showed good composure and passing.

Djourou: Another one who did little wrong even if part of the blame for the goal could be ascribed to him. He should also have done better on the corner that led to the penalty. Maintained a good understanding with Vermaelen and the defensive line.

Vermaelen: I doubt he could have done anything to avoid the penalty as he was in a helpless situation. Did a good covering job behind Sagna. Should close his man down better and sooner.

Sagna: I thought he did better than the Liverpool game. Made a couple of intelligent forward runs including one that took him to the edge of the box. Only a timely interception prevented him from getting in behind. Udinese got some crosses in from the right especially in the first half but in the second Sagna stayed deeper and covered the flank well. Excellent work and assist for the second goal.

I thought the back five were exposed more than necessary in the first half and that led to a number of half-chances. They did well to cut out most situations but as we have seen, sometimes even one failure can look bad for the defence, especially if the attackers fail.

They need to communicate with the others and work on the way the team played in the second half to improve the collective defending.

They need to read the movement of the strikers better and have to get tighter on players who drop off to receive the ball in front of the defensive line.

Song: He was pushing too far forward in the first half and that left gaps for the counter attack. Did a sterling job in the second half. Won a number of physical battles and retained possession under pressure. Also nicked the ball away from the attackers on the edge of the box.

Ramsey: He wasn’t able to offer the kind of creativity we know he can produce. But his work rate was good and deserves credit for trying hard. He looked better under pressure in this game than in the previous ones. Will improve as the players develop a better understanding. Could have had a penalty if the officials had kept a closer eye on the deliberate trip by the defender after getting the ball.

Frimpong: Did a fair job of chasing the ball and breaking up attacks but the team was not balanced enough in the first half. Struggled a bit technically as some of his touches went longer than one would expect which disrupted the flow of the passing.

Rosicky: Looked lively in the attacking and defensive areas. Made some of his trademark sliding interceptions/tackles. He isn’t anywhere close to his best but the attitude in this game was right and he needs to sustain that for ninety minutes.

I thought the midfield lacked imagination in the first half but kept fighting. The change in approach in the second took the creative burden off them to an extent and they were able to retain possession better while covering the back four.

Walcott: Had a number of good shots on target. Finish was as good as it could be. Needs to develop a better understanding with Gervinho and the midfield.

RvP: Dropped deep often in the first half. Looked like the only real creative mind in that period. Some good set-piece deliveries and a couple of decent attempts on target but he can do better with those. His touch hasn’t ripened yet this season. Well taken goal nevertheless.

Gervinho: My MotM. Always looked threatening when he got a chance to run at the defenders. I thought he came in far too often and would have benefitted a lot from staying wide, especially in the first half.

It seemed there was a clear plan to create space for the wide players to run into. It seems like a tactic that will need time to mature but is definitely on the right track. Arsene has to tell the players to pick Van Persie’s runs better. Too many of his runs went unnoticed.

Subs: Traore an Arshavin didn’t have much to do.

Wenger: Boss deserves credit for the tactical adjustments and the key substitution. He should also be applauded for motivating the players under difficult circumstances.

I won’t be surprised if papers tomorrow contain stories of abnormal changes in the atmospheric pressure as millions of Gooners around the world breathed a sigh of relief after watching a pulsating encounter with bated breath. It was a great game of football and goes a long way in countering the negativity around the club. But it’s only a start and this will still be one of the hardest seasons under Wenger. Brace yourselves but with a smile on the face 🙂


Thoughts On The Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Udinese

August 24, 2011

A lot has happened in the last day or two. Nasri’s move has been officially announced, Wilshere suffered a relapse (anyone else worried – perhaps unjustifiably – that he will be this season’s Vermaelen?), and the summer’s most believable, intriguing, albeit a tad dramatic story claimed there was a rift between the board and the manager.

I don’t want to dwell on any of these issues for the moment as it’s hard to do justice to them when the focus is on a game that is financially worth in excess of £25M, and potentially a lot more due to its undoubted immeasurable impact on the mentality of the current players and those who might be close to joining the Gunners.

In the first three games of this month, which has been anything but august for Arsenal, the Gunners have shown they are weak but willing to fight through the tough times. The same spirit will have be to combined with a greater degree of tactical maturity and clinical attacking qualities in order to sustain the record of playing in the Champions League every year under Arsene.

Udinese showed their strengths at the Emirates with a positive, and at times dominating, performance. I expect them to do even better at home. This is similar to the difference in quality Arsenal experienced against the likes of Shakhtar and Braga last season, who were not that impressive in London but provided a much sterner test in familiar surroundings with the support of their fans. The Italians weren’t as easily dismantled as the other two sides so there is all the more reason to believe the second leg will be a tough ask.

It will be interesting to see whether Guidolin sticks to his 3-5-2 formation or modifies it to suit the occasion. He said at his press conference,

We have tried some alternative tactical solutions, but a team cannot change identity just like that. What we do require is a great performance, because we are facing a strong side.

I think the 3-5-2 can work in Arsenal’s favour due to the pace on the wings. But it can also work for the hosts if they are able to push the Gunners back for prolonged periods as they did at the beginning of the second-half in the first leg.

I’d really like to see Arsenal sit deeper in this game just as I have been hoping for tactical changes since the start of the season. Wenger does not have a squad that can effectively push a team back and break a well-organized defence. Nor does he have the squad that can be relied on to defend a one goal lead for ninety minutes in such a tie away from home. There is no doubt that Arsenal will have to score at the Stadio Friuli if they have to have any hopes of progress. And it can be best achieved by exploiting the space behind the Friulani defence. For that the space must exist in the first place and the best way to create that is by inviting the opposition forward and hitting them on the break with a quick exchange of passes.

For large periods, this game will be about individual battles. The players who will be able to resist the pressure put on them by the opponents will control the momentum of the game. This will of course be aligned with the off-the-ball movement of both teams. Arsenal’s wingers, Walcott and Gervinho in all likelihood, will have to time their runs better and the midfield will have to show an improved understanding of the forwards’ movement.

Such games are often decided by moments of outstanding quality. As we saw in the first leg, both teams had plenty of space and created some chances but the final ball or the finish were lacking. That routine might be repeated in this game but it would be naive to assume the Italians will be just as profligate at home as they were in London. Van Persie can make the difference but so can Di Natale, it’s hard to pick.

In the first leg, Arsenal’s central defenders allowed Di Natale to drop between the lines and play one-twos with his teammates. It’s a risky strategy but they are probably vary of getting caught out of position if they do track his runs and get turned. The best way to counter this is by having a defensive midfielder really close to the back four. Again this necessitates passing from deeper positions and the team will have to use the length and breadth of the pitch in an intelligent manner.

In order to provide better cover to the defenders, I would certainly prefer Song and Frimpong starting in tandem rather than the technique and experience, marred by the occasional defensive laxity, that Rosicky brings to the pitch.

Traore has been included in the squad and might be picked ahead of Jenkinson to restore Sagna to his usual Right-Back position. This will leave the Gunners weaker on the left as the youngster has a tendency to switch off in advanced areas of the pitch. While he does have the pace to recover, it might not be enough and could, at the very least, lead to dangerous set-pieces if not clear chances from open play. We have already seen Di Natale’s quality on free-kicks and it will be extremely risky to give him such chances.

I’m hoping both full-backs show more restraint in bombing forward. Instead of making predictable pre-determined bursts they will be better off biding their time and picking the right moments to provide width. This will give the wingers more space and will leave the full-backs in a position to provide better cover to the central defenders. It should also help them conserve some energy that can prove invaluable in the final minutes or if the game stretches into extra-time.

Di Natale said that qualifying for the Champions League will be akin to winning the World Cup for the Friulani. There is no doubt the Italians will give everything and more in this tie. Hopefully, both sides will be within professional limits and the Gunners will not suffer from any further injuries or suspensions.

Expected line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Djourou, Vermaelen, Traore – Song, Ramsey, Frimpong – Walcott, RvP, Gervinho.

Rosicky and Arshavin are tempting choices but both bring certain weaknesses that the side cannot really afford at the moment.

I believe Arsenal have the quality to see this one through. But given the current circumstances and the series of mistakes and unfortunate events, it is hard to be confident. Vermaelen and Van Persie are the two players who can make a difference in the areas that count on either end of the pitch. Others will have to support them with utmost focus and determination.

In the recent past, when Arsenal have struggled they have allowed the opposition to score more than one goal quite often. The players have to avoid panic and stick to their strengths even if Udinese start strong and score an early goal.

I am sufficiently concerned to have given some thought to the pros and cons of elimination at this stage, something I haven’t done in the past, but will leave that out for the time being. I feel the hosts will win on the night but the Gunners will advance on away goals.


Arsenal 0 -2 Liverpool: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

August 20, 2011

It was inevitable.

A lot of heart shown by all the players, the crowd – fair play to most of them – rose to the occasion, young guns despite their obvious inexperience performed admirably, those in a limbo showed their professionalism, but in the end it all came to nought.

Another once-in-a-lifetime freak goal conceded by Arsenal gave Liverpool the edge in the final quarter-hour of the game when it looked like the ten men might just hold on. And the visitors garnished the result with a neat little second as the Gunners went in search of the equalizer.

Arsene started with Nasri in the midfield with Jenkinson on the right and Sagna as left-back. The line-up looked fairly strong albeit not the kind one would wish to see as the first team.

The opening exchanges were even but there were signs of things to come. In the 6th minute Arshavin found himself unmarked on the edge of the box when a corner was deflected to him. His touch was disappointing and the opportunity was lost. The awkward height of the ball cannot be an excuse at this level. That extra bit of quality in moments that could have been decisive was to lack throughout the game.

A couple of minutes later Frimpong went into the Referees book for a strange offence. He squared up to Kuyt who was about to take a throw-in. Seemed needless and was perhaps the result of his youthful over exuberance. Even that early on, there were genuine fears a red card was coming.

Soon after, Koscielny hobbled off with a back spasm leading to the introduction of Ignasi Miquel. He was the only defender on the bench!

Szczesny’s first big save came in the 20th minute when a cross from the Liverpool left found Carroll in the middle. His header was powerful but not well-directed.

For the rest of the first half, Liverpool pushed Arsenal back and created a number of half chances. Thomas Vermaelen stood tall and virtually owned the penalty box. Other defenders did their bit in helping the Belgian. The visitors appeared to dominate without providing a genuine threat.

Arsenal had precious few chances in attack and on occasions when they did get a chance the final ball was missing. Starting with Van Persie very early in the game when he almost put Walcott through from deep in Arsenal’s half, too many Gunners either put too much or too little weight on their final ball/cross.

Frimpong tested Reina and Nasri went close with long range shots after powering runs down the middle.

That was it for the first half. Liverpool didn’t look great for a side with so many additions. Arsenal didn’t look that far away even with three youngsters in defensive positions.

The second half was played at a slower pace. It appeared to me that the visitors were sitting back a lot more. This provided Arsenal more time on the ball but once again there was no cohesion or incision to the attack.

The ball was moved wide after too many touches and the wingers were always crowded out. When they did get a cross in there was hardly anybody in the box. Not only that, it was far too easy for Liverpool to move from defending a cross to putting one in of their own.

On one such occasion, in the 55th minute an over-hit cross from Jenkinson led to a counter-attack with his Liverpool counterpart Kelly hitting the post.

There were one or two attempts at playing down the middle but the players were not on the same wavelength and their one-touch lay-offs were easily intercepted.

The game had fizzled out when Arshavin created an opportunity after a physical battle, which appeared to be a foul by the Russian, but Van Persie’s attempt was saved by Reina.

Moments later the match roared into life as Frimpong went into another needless tackle which brought him a predictable and avoidable second booking. From that point on it was all Liverpool.

Wenger introduced another youngster as Lansbury came on for Arshavin. Arsenal were working hard but Liverpool created a couple of chances within minutes of gaining the numerical advantage. The introduction of the wily Suarez made the difference as he first forced save from Szczesny and then set Downing up for another strike on target.

The first goal came in the 78th minute. Meireles played in Suarez who was off-side but only just. Miquel came back to intercept the ball but his attempted clearance bounced from the chest of Ramsey and over Szczesny.

How often have you seen the assist and goal both coming from the defending team that too from an off-side situation? It was really harsh on the players but one cannot deny Arsenal make themselves susceptible to such disasters more often than any other side. Therein lies the real problem.

Wenger introduced Bendtner for Theo but where 11 men failed 10 just had no chance.

Liverpool got the second in the final minute of normal time. The midfielders were tired and had given up on tracking back by then which made it easy for the visitors to pass the ball around a couple of defenders to open up the goal for a tap-in. It usually happens when ten men are chasing a game.

Individual Performances

Szczesny: Made some good saves, collection and distribution was spot-on, had a couple of lapses in judgement but those were minor ones.

Jenkinson: Struggled to prevent crosses coming in from his side but it wasn’t all his fault. He didn’t get as much support as he should have. Went up and down quite often at pace and that might have led to cramps in the 84th minute. Crossing could have been better and he could have read Suarez’s position earlier to prevent the second goal, but for a young player, having to deal with this kind of pressure is a tough ask.

Koscielny: Wasn’t around long enough to make a big contribution.

Vermaelen: Phenomenal. Won almost everything in the box, read the game well, even went forward when the opportunity arose, MotM in my book.

Miquel: Much better than his debut game against Ipswich. Seems to have matured well and looks stronger. His positioning was good, won the ball back on a number of occasions when the opponent had a loose touch, unfortunate part in the own goal but was caught out by Suarez due to his inexperience which forced him into a suicidal clearance.

Sagna: A fair fighting display in an unfamiliar position. Wasn’t able to contribute to the attack on his weaker side but that is to be expected. Positioning was good even though he struggled against Carroll’s height on a couple of occasions.

I thought the defence was shaky through the game but the defenders were not at fault. One just has to see how Liverpool blocked off Arshavin and Walcott whenever they got on the ball to understand how easy it is to attack down Arsenal’s flanks. The shape of the team is not good enough and the players are invariably chasing the ball rather than forcing opponents into a corner with their positioning.

Liverpool took very little time in getting organized when they lost the ball. Arsenal were indecisive and confused. Some players were pressing up the pitch while others were falling back. It was much easier for the visitors to play between the lines and that led to more chances for them. That they lacked the quality to make it count earlier in the game is a different matter altogether.

Frimpong: Powerful, energetic, dominant, and tenacious. But also inexperienced, over enthusiastic, and a touch out of control. The red card marred what was looking like a MotM performance. He will also miss the United game. Would like to know if someone told him to mind his tackling or not. With experience he will also improve his off the ball movement and won’t scuff the kicks as often.

Ramsey: Again can’t fault him for hard work but he was off the pace on critical moments like the time when Nasri found him in space in the middle of the Liverpool half, but Kuyt nicked the ball as Ramsey wasn’t aware. There were a number of such small details that prevented him from getting the best out of his technical abilities. It also minimized the chances Arsenal could create down the middle or the speed at which the ball could be moved.

Nasri: Have to appreciate his professionalism. He worked hard and looked like the only one who could create something. Went close after a brilliant box-to-box run. Could have done a lot more if his midfield partners moved the ball better and faster.

It was a make-shift midfield and they performed as such. Liverpool were able to force the back-five into kicking long far too often as the midfield wasn’t able to overcome the pressing. This in turn caught them in a no man’s land when the ball came back. Ultimately, there was a lot of ball chasing and not enough opportunities to move it forward in a manner that brought Arshavin or Walcott into play on their strengths.

In the second half, when the visitors sat back, the midfield wasn’t incisive enough but a lack of understanding and movement up front also contributed to that.

Walcott: Never got an early ball to use his pace. Was double-teamed every time he got the ball. Crossing wasn’t great but there were never enough targets. Should have been moved to a central position when the visitors were playing a high line.

RvP: Incredible work rate. I lost count of the runs he made without ever getting a good ball to match their quality. Put in some good corners.

Arshavin: His touch was disappointing on more occasions than one. Work rate was better and he was really trying to contribute in defence. Never got a chance to run at the defenders in a one-v-one.

I thought the system forced the wide players into a defensive position far too often. Van Persie could never win a ball in the air and hold it up. Given the struggles of the midfield, this meant the attacking opportunities were really limited. When the ball did get forward in wide areas there just weren’t enough bodies in support.

Subs: Lansbury and Bendtner could not make a big impact but it’s hardly their fault.

Wenger: He has to find a better system where the whole defence (not just the defenders) is more co-ordinated and there are clear opportunities to transition to attack. The current players just don’t suit this system which is still unproven anyway. Has also taken way too many risks and the future looks bleak when so many things go wrong at the same time. Deserves credit for picking Nasri and for motivating the players to give their all.


Thoughts On Tactis And Starting Eleven Against Liverpool

August 19, 2011

Arsenal have reached the midpoint of this pivotal opening month. The two games thus far have brought along gruelling performances and just about acceptable results, which in a way has been much better than what many predicted or secretly dreaded.

On Saturday, the Gunners will take on the Scousers in a fixture that should provide a real and reliable benchmark for both sides and an accurate initial assessment of their chances for the season. Arsenal are arguably the weakest they have been in years. Liverpool, on the other hand, are growing stronger with each training session as their new signings get a chance to gel together. They travel to the Emirates stadium with virtually a fully-fit squad and no suspensions.

By popular logic, Liverpool should win this game on a canter. Given the cumulative problems at Arsenal – due to the transfer of a number of players including the talisman Fabregas, the uncertainty over Nasri’s future, injuries to Wilshere, Gibbs, and other squad players, and a couple of suspensions picked up through irresponsible and borderline stupid acts – there is every reason for fans to be worried.

In almost the exact opposite scenario, Liverpool have signed a number of players for relatively big money. That is supposed to make them appreciably stronger than last season when they snatched a draw in added time.

Why then should anyone expect the Gunners to get even a point out of this fixture?

Wenger’s knowledge of the game and the spirit, desire, and the efficacy with which the Gunners can implement the chosen tactics will stand in the way of the visitors. Time will tell if it be enough to prevent their first win at the Emirates and first in North London since 2001.

The biggest poser for Arsene is picking a balanced starting eleven from the available players. There just aren’t enough midfielders available.

Unless Nasri is picked, which is a big issue in itself given his fractious relationship with the fans, Arsenal will not have three recognized midfielders on the pitch. Arshavin or Van Persie are the two most likely candidates to fill in unless Wenger picks a youngster like Lansbury.

With injuries at the back, it would be hard to see a defender moving into a midfield role but that is another possibility that can be explored.

The way I see it, Van Persie, Walcott, Ramsey, Frimpong, Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny, and Szczesny are certain starters unless someone succumbs to a late injury before the game. That puts three positions up for grabs and interestingly, they are all on the left side – Left-Back, Left sided CM, and Left winger/attacker. One can argue that Frimpong can play on the left side of midfield and Ramsey can play on the right or in the attacking position. Since the midfield triangle is often quite flexible, the issue in midfield is not completely positional in nature.

Wenger has to pick three players so that the defence is not exposed on the left, the possession game can be sustained, and there is a balance between attack and defence. All these issues are intricately related.

I have a feeling Arsene will go with Jenkinson at left back as the youngster did reasonably well after coming on at a difficult time against Udinese. Le Boss will also pick Arshavin on the left of the attack while starting Chamakh up front and dropping Van Persie deeper in front of Frimpong and Ramsey.

Expected line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Jenkinson – Ramsey, RvP, Frimpong – Walcott, Chamakh, Arshavin.

Personally speaking, that line-up is not well balanced. But it’s my best guess for Wenger’s choices based on what I have seen in the past. The keyword there is guess.

In my opinion, that team will struggle to keep the ball and the left flank will be hard to defend. Jenkinson – Frimpong – Arshavin can work but it’s too big a risk. Placing Ramsey on the left is also a possibility but the Welshman has a more attacking mindset and will not track back as well as Frimpong might do.

Even if one doesn’t include Nasri into the starting line-up there are some possibilities that can work.

First option would be to play Vermalen at left-back and Squillaci in the centre. Don’t jump out of you chairs it’s just a thought. And Squillaci can do well if the team does not play a high line.

The second option, and one that I would prefer, is to move Vermaelen in to the left-sided midfield role. Again Squillaci would have to come in at centre-back. Van Persie would move into the central striking role with Ramsey behind him. Jenkinson will perform the left-back duties.

The reasoning behind this is that Arsenal will have Jenkinson – Koscielny – Vermaelen to defend the left half of the pitch while Sagna – Squillaci – Frimpong cover the right. Those trios aren’t ideal but look a lot more balanced than any other than can be created with the players available. In this system Van Persie would be expected to drop deep quite often and play as an extra midfielder. The attacking impetus would come from runs by Arshavin and Theo. Ramsey would cover the central midfield and spread the ball from deeper areas. Jenkinson would be under strict instructions to hold his position and not charge forward.

I don’t want to be too critical of Chamakh but his contribution in recent games hasn’t been substantial. Nasri and Bendtner are other options amongst experienced players but it’s hard to predict how the fans will react to either of them. Then we are left with A.O.C or Miyaichi, both extremely talented youngsters but is this really the right situation for them to make their competitive debuts for Arsenal?

Preferred line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Squillaci, Koscielny, Jenkinson – Frimpong, Ramsey, Vermaelen – Walcott , RvP, Arshavin.

I know some fans can’t stand the mention of Squillaci and others would not want to break the central defensive partnership that has done well in the last two games. The latter in particular is a fair point and one that might convince Wenger to leave Squillaci out. I am just not convinced any other combination will have the right balance from a tactical point of view.

That brings me to the tactical aspects of this game. Liverpool impressed in the first half against Sunderland but lost their way after the break as the game ended in a disappointing draw from their point of view.

I thought they were too defensive and lacked fitness and/or cohesion as the game went on. But that defensive approach could work really well against the Gunners, especially if Arsenal make the mistake of playing a high line in this game.

Carroll and Suarez will thrive on open spaces in the Arsenal half and Charlie Adam can cause all sorts of problems with his impeccable delivery from free-kicks.

Liverpool have conceded a number of goals in their pre-season games and have a young player at right-back who has, in fairness to him, done reasonably well. Nevertheless, one would expect Arshavin to trouble the youngster.

They also play with two strikers so Arsenal should be able to find more space in the middle if they can move the ball fast enough. In order to achieve that Wenger has to start players who are comfortable on the ball and with the patient short-passing game. Van Persie and Arshavin are players who look for the killer pass almost every time they get the ball. Neither of the duo is particularly likely to move all over the pitch on a consistent basis just to offer himself for a pass in order to keep possession.

This is clear from the passing stats. Players like Sagna, Wilshere, Nasri, Ramsey, Song, and the likes move the ball well and clock anywhere between 60 to 90 passes per game. Others like Arshavin, Van Persie, Walcott, and Gervinho are usually between 20 and 30 passes. It is a good indicator of their tendencies and positioning and will limit the possibilities as far as the tippy-tappy style goes. Given their adventurous approach, these players are also likely to have a poorer pass completion rate and will lose the ball more often.

The tactics of the team will have to be tailored to the players picked for the game. If Arsenal play Van Persie or Arshavin down the middle it will be hard to dominate possession and suicidal to play higher up the pitch.

The possibilities are endless but I don’t want to dwell on minor details any further. From a football fan’s perspective, the issues surrounding Arsenal have made this game a very intriguing tactical battle. I won’t be too concerned about the result but will be interested in the way Wenger sets his team up. With the changes in personnel this summer, there is every indication that the playing style will have to change. We might get a glimpse of the future in this game.