Arsenal 2 – 1 Olympiacos: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 29, 2011

How many teams can miss that many first choice players and eke out a fairly comfortable win in the Champions League? I think that is the big question and one that many might have missed when entangled in observations pertaining to Arsenal’s defence, which undoubtedly needs a lot more work.

As expected, Wenger rested a number of key players. Being at home helped. It’s good to see that the manager can rely on the youngsters and some of the out of form players in such a game. It helps the others get a much needed breather.

On the whole this was an open game with both teams looking for goals. Olympiacos must have felt they could get something from this one as they pushed higher up the pitch and played with belief. That meant the attacking Gunners found more space in the forward areas.

After scoring his first competitive goal for the club in the Carling Cup, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain took just eight minutes to become the youngest English goal-scorer in the competition. Arsenal were camped in the Olympiacos half with Song, playing at centre-back, just inside the half-way line. Sagna had pushed really high up and had taken over space normally marked for a wide attacker. Against Shrewsbury AOC struggled when Jenkinson took up such positions. In this game he made an intelligent run from a deep-ish position on the inside right channel. Song picked it out with a wonderfully floated pass. The youngster was  bit lucky as the ball came back to him after his touch took it towards a backtracking defender but such luck is created by good movement and passing.

I really enjoyed the finish, especially the placement, with his weaker foot. This move also showed the lad is learning at an exponential rate. Of course, there is a long way to go before he becomes one of the world’s best but the potential is there.

The Gunners doubled the lead in the 20th minute when another player scored his first Arsenal goal. This time it was Brazilian full-back Santos who finished with his weaker foot after latching on to a loose ball from a desperate defensive lunge that resulted from his run down the left and a delightful exchange of passes that also involved Rosicky and Arshavin.

Thus far I have focused only on Arsenal’s goals but there were a number of chances at the other end in the first half. There was a great deal of space in front of Arsenal’s defence and in the wide areas that was exploited well by the visitors. They also came up with intelligent variations on the set-pieces.

One such resulted in a goal in the 27th minute when Arsenal were caught completely unawares. The corner was played short and a simple one-two put Ibagaza free down Arsenal’s right. He had time to pick the run from Fuster who arrived unmarked into the box and scored without a challenge. Looking at the surprise on the face of most of the Gunners it was clear they had no clue. The coaches have to do a much better job of getting the organization right. And it’s not limited to organization alone. The change has to start from the way the manager, coaches, and the players think about defending. This is an area that worries me no end but I don’t want to dwell on it in this post.

Both teams created a number of half-chances. It would be fair to say the visitors shaded it in that regard. Having been there as a Gooner, I sympathize with every Olympiacos fan who thinks his team deserved more. But it’s hard to take anything away from the Gunners, especially after a much improved second half performance. By now most of you must have seen the match and the highlights so I am not getting into the details of other events in the game.

On a side note, I was wondering if the visitors have a specialist set-piece coach. Following on from the earlier discussion on the topic, I believe this is an area where most teams can make an immediate improvement because variations on set-plays shouldn’t necessarily lead to a philosophical conflict with the manager’s approach or the requirements of other coaches, say the defensive ones. With the technical quality that Arsenal have, I expect a lot more from free-kicks of all sorts. Even if it doesn’t lead to a dramatic increase in goals, the opposition should at least feel pressurized and threatened. It can lead to errors at the back as we see from time to time in Arsenal’s penalty box. And it should make the opposing defenders think twice before knocking a ball out. This topic deserves a separate discussion so I don’t want to extend it in this article.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: I don’t blame the keeper for the number of times the ball flashed across his area (just as I have not done with other keepers in the past). Wojciech made decent saves, his positioning and handling of the ball was good, couldn’t have done anything for the goal, and looked comfortable even when the ball was played back to him in tight spaces.

Sagna: It was a typically hard working effort from the Frenchman but it wasn’t as solid as it is when he gets better cover from Song in midfield and the wide attacker on the right. Made a few mistakes like getting caught in possession or up the field, but also averted danger by chasing back on numerous occasions. Put in a couple of good crosses.

Mertesacker: Very impressive with his reading of the game and got a fair few vital touches at moments that could have been decisive. As I have said before, one big defender cannot cover the whole box so it’s hard to blame him for the structural issues at the back.

Song: Immense. Absolutely loved his confidence. It was as if he just knew he was much better than the opposition and it reflected in his individual battles which he rarely, if ever, lost. His positioning wasn’t bad at all despite this being a role he doesn’t play often. Played a number of eye-catching passes. MotM in my opinion.

Santos: Congratulations to the Brazilian for opening his account. Would be interesting to know when was the last time two different left-backs scored for the club in quick succession. I thought he looked defensively competent, controlled the ball well and has quick feet, showed a good burst of pace, and I really liked the way he applauded his team-mates even when their passes were over hit and forced him to chase a lost cause.

In continuance of the running theme on this blog, I don’t think the defenders were at fault even though the defence wasn’t at a level one expects from a side that wants to win the Premiership or the Champions League.

For now I want to reserve judgment and watch. Clearly, a lot of work is being done. The results will not come overnight.

Frimpong: Another powerful, energetic performance from the youngster. Got back into the defensive line quite often and helped out at the back just like Song does in that role. Still needs technical improvement as his passing and touch aren’t as consistent as Arsenal need.

Arteta: Movement was impressive, linked up well with Rosicky and Arshavin, took a few pops at goal, worked hard at the back, taking rapid strides towards becoming a feared Arsenal midfielder.

Rosicky: Little Mozart made some delightful turns and some of his touches/passes were at a level higher than anyone else on the pitch bar Arshavin. Unfortunately, he lacked a bit of pace when he did get past his man. Good versatility as he did a fair job on the right once Ramsey came on.

The midfield has been showing signs of better co-ordination in the last couple of games. The cutting edge in congested areas is still not quite there but things are improving.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Well-taken goal, made some quick, powerful runs down the right and put in a few good crosses. Will offer a lot more as he learns to use space better. Also needs better defensive awareness.

Chamakh: Exceptional work rate, some touches looked good, needs to develop his instincts inside the box.

Arshavin: Looked threatening in patches. Speed of thought and related touches were matched only by Rosicky. Might have offered a lot more with a more experienced winger and a better finisher alongside.

Subs: Ramsey and Robin provided work rate and bodies in the right areas. Gibbs was effective on the flank and his pace was useful.

Wenger/Rice: Fairly balanced team despite the rotations. Good adjustment in the second half. Substitutions were handy.

I thought the wide players didn’t offer enough support in the wider areas and the midfield wasn’t set up to account for that. This made the job of the full-backs much tougher and almost all the moves from the visitors originated down the flanks.

Nevertheless, in such a game it’s important to see key players getting some time on the pitch and youngsters showing they can learn. A satisfying win with some encouraging signs.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Olympiacos

September 28, 2011

Arsene says there are no easy games. We have heard that often enough. But I am not sure the manager is very concerned about this game. Despite his statements to the contrary, I think Wenger uses his key players in big games as much as possible, not always but more often than not, even at the risk of aggravating an injury.

Gervinho, Walcott, and Koscielny have been declared unfit for this game. These days I don’t bother with the recuperation forecasts but I won’t be surprised if all the three players return for the North London Derby at the weekend. That would mean they are not too seriously injured. I am not saying they should be used if that is the case, just that it shows Wenger seems confident of winning this game without the services of a number of key players. I think it’s a positive sign and a good win with a weak-ish side will boost the recovery process.

It will be interesting to see the starting eleven. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might make his Champions League debut. With Vermaelen and Koscielny out, Song seems the most likely option for the central defenders role. That would mean Frimpong or Coquelin could get another start. I am not sure Miquel is quite ready but it’s hard to guess Wenger’s opinion about young players. With Gibbs having played twice in a row, Santos should get a start in this game.

Preferred starting eleven

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertersacker, Song, Santos – Frimpong, Rosicky, Arteta – AOC, RvP, Arshavin.

There are a number of changes possible. Many have been impressed by Song’s performances in midfield and would not want to see him shunted to a makeshift defensive role. There is an argument that a slightly modified version of the Carling Cup line-up can do the job but I think this game will be much tougher.

Olympiacos will be well organized and Arsenal will need genuine quality in the final third to win this game. The Gunners will also need a decisive and determined defensive performance. Tactically I don’t expect anything different from Arsenal (with a line-up similar to the one mentioned above) but would not mind seeing another 4-4-2 variation (with a starting eleven closer to the one from the League Cup).

I don’t have any expectations as far as the starting line-up or the formation are concerned. It’s clear the manager is trying a few things and the players are working hard. There is a lot of work to be done – tactical cohesion has to improve, defensive consistency must be achieved, the younger players need to develop – and this game should be a part of the process.

The only concern I have is that Arsene doesn’t always get his rotations right. Last season the Gunners struggled against Braga and Shakhtar in the Champions League and against smaller teams in the domestic cups because the starting line-ups weren’t strong enough or balanced. If Wenger doesn’t get it right, this game could be much harder than it should be. Much of the progress from the last few games will be lost as it will be a case of taking one step back after two steps forward.

I expect a hard fought game with just one goal separating the teams.

Before ending, I want to apologize for the delay in the previous match report. I realize some readers like it soon after the game but right now I am on vacation and the schedule has to suit the rest of the activities. I won’t be able to catch the game live and will be able to do the report only after watching it later in the night. Those who visit the blog to see if the report has been posted can follow me on twitter or on wordpress via email (a new addition on the bottom right of the page). That should make it easier to know when a new post has been published. I plan to be back home on the weekend so normal service should resume after that.


Arsenal 3 – 0 Bolton: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 25, 2011

Three goals. Three Points. Three Cheers.

Well, I am sitting here in a cabin at the smoky mountains and everyone with me is keen to move out into the forest so I will keep this short.

I thought both teams started brightly. Bolton came with a plan to press Arsenal all over the pitch, a plan that has worked for many teams, and a high-ball strategy (let me not call it long ball) that almost reaped instant dividends.

Koscielny went for a high-ball aimed at Ngog. The Frenchman never got close but bumped into the striker with the duo clashing heads and needing treatment off the field. The free-kick was stood up on the right side of Arsenal’s box where Sagna was supposed to  challenge Wheater. It was a no-contest as the Bolton defender headed the ball into the danger area.

The visitors didn’t have many bodies in that area and Arsenal could have cleared it easily. But Gibbs was waiting for the ball to drop so that he could kick it away. Pratley attacked the ball better and stuck out a boot to direct it goalwards. Szczesny reacted well to palm it away for a corner. It seemed like an ominous start but Arsenal managed to ensure that was the visitors’ best chance.

Bolton were pressing well but just didn’t have the right organization to back it up. Inside ten minutes a simple ball from Arteta put Gervinho in behind. But the Ivorian kicked it too long allowing the Keeper to smother it.

After that the game was hard fought in midfield. Arsenal were moving well but Bolton were effective with their chasing and pressing. Arsenal created a number of half-chances, like Van Persie going close with a free-kick, in the first half but Jaaskelainen wasn’t being tested much.

The first-half ended on an even keel with Arsenal dominating the attack while Bolton respectable in defence.

The second period started with a bang. Koscielny kicked one to Gervinho who played an intricate flick just as he was fouled. The ref played advantage when Ramsey pounced on to the ball from the winger. The Welshman played a simple pass to RvP after advancing towards the Bolton box. Van Persie took it in a central area just outside the box and advanced to a tight angle on their right. After beating Muamba’s attempted block with a dummy the Arsenal skipped notched number 99 with a blast past Jaaskelainen on the near post.

Just like the first period, about eight minutes into the second half Gervinho got another chance as he cut inside and played a one-two with Song that put him in behind. Once again his touch was poor and the ball trickled out.

Soon after, as Bolton were committing men forward, Ramsey found a wonderful through-ball for Walcott. Wheater pulled Theo back and was sent off for DOGSO.

Then the game became a one-sided affair with Arsenal creating numerous chances and scoring two. Van Persie reached his ton with a deft tap-in of a Walcott cross that had been created after a one-two with Ramsey.

Song scored his finishing qualities with a wonderfully curler from the edge of the box.

Jaaskelainen made a number of saves and the other defenders made some blocks to keep the score respectable.

At the other end Szczesny was only worried when Bolton were able to break on a counter. This happened when Arsenal had four or more bodies down the right wing but lost the ball to a poor touch/pass. As I’ve discussed before it happens often enough with Arsenal. Thankfully, Chris Eagles didn’t have the skill to finish. Conceding such an equalizer against 10 men at home would have been embarrassing.

On the whole this was a good game from the Gunners and there were some encouraging signs as far as the movement goes. The understanding and final pass quality is still not at the level desired but it should come with time.

Despite the clean sheet I would not call this an example of good defending. This was more like a game with little or no defending to do. As I have said in the past, Arsenal look really good when they can pull the opponents all over the place and pin them back. But that does not mean the defence is good. When the ball movement fails, the defence is challenged and we haven’t seen any consistency on that front. I am not saying this was bad defending, just that much should not be read from such match.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Largely untroubled. Made the saves when he had to.

Sagna: Looked like he was a bit restrained with his forward movement in this game. Struggled against Wheater in the air but at least provided some sort of a physical tussle. Played a part in the third goal.

Mertesacker: Had very little to do but looked very composed on the ball. Passing seemed flawless.

Koscielny: Struggled against the strikers in the air but you could see he was trying. Moved forward with the ball on a few occasions which is an art he has to develop.

Gibbs: I thought he had more of a license to venture forward compared to Sagna. Decent performance on the left without any outstanding moments.

I thought the defenders weren’t very comfortable in the air but Bolton lacked creativity and never got enough bodies forward even when they won the first high-ball. This and the presence of the Arsenal midfield in support made the defence fairly solid.

Song: Spent a lot of time higher up the pitch. Provided some interesting passes. Goal was really well taken and the wingers could learn a thing or two from that. Good work rate and was present at the back on most occasions.

Ramsey: In a role reversal with Song, Ramsey spent  a lot of time in deeper areas especially in the first half. Picked up two assists even if those particular passes (one just bounced of his shin) weren’t special. Did play some a couple of quality through-balls. Lacked a bit of pace while chasing back.

Arteta: Was the most impressive passer in the game. Can create a lot of chances from deeper positions as he seems to be getting a better hang of the movement of the wide players. Also hit the target with a couple of well-taken shots.

I thought this was the best midfield display of the season. Bolton’s midfielders were working really hard and it was a tough battle that the Arsenal trio won. Passing can be better, some go short while a few are over hit, but it’s headed in the right direction.

Walcott: Good assist, excellent movement up front. Won the red card, if that’s the right way of describing it. Produced some good passes in the final third. Should have finished when he got into a one-v-one. The strike was well-directed but the Keeper was able to read it. Needs to work on his finishing, which has improved but has to be a couple of notches higher if he wants to play centrally.

RvP: This time I think I am with the popular choice for the MotM. Was popping up all over the pitch. Both goals were well-taken. Another inspirational effort.

Gervinho: Good movement and had some nice touches. But his technique let him down twice. Exciting and frustrating as ever.

Subs: Arshavin and Rosicky showed some good touches when the pressure was off. Chamakh didn’t see much of the ball.

Wenger: I won’t be surprised if Arsenal have been doing specific work on their movement and co-ordination. More of the same please, with steady improvement. Starting eleven was good and did it’s job. The subs were given a few good minutes.

I thought the forward players showed much better co-ordination in this game and the midfielders were able to find their runs more often. It will take a  few weeks to get at the level Arsenal need in order to challenge for the bigger trophies but the signs were encouraging.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Bolton Wanderers

September 24, 2011

This will be a battle between teams placed 17th and 19th with the two leakiest defences in the League. Bolton have shipped just one less goal than Arsenal’s 14. Neither team is on a particularly good run either and both have a Cup result to blame, at least partially. Arsenal have been unrecognizable since the Carling Cup loss while Bolton haven’t been able to recover from the 5-0 hammering they got from Stoke in the FA Cup semi-final. With just one win in their last 9 League games, Bolton are closely matching the relegation form that Arsenal have produced. Both clubs are desperate to move forward so this game should be a feisty affair.

I am one of those who believe Bolton have improved their style under Owen Coyle. However, given their current form and Arsenal’s recent troubles, I will be surprised if they don’t regress to their hoof-n-hunt style that has achieved some success against the Gunners.

Even if the ball isn’t kicked long towards Kevin Davies at every opportunity, the visitors will certainly try to win as many set-pieces as they can. Arsenal are using a combination of zonal marking on corners and mixed approach on free-kicks from other angles. It seems to be a work in progress at the moment and opponents will get some chances if they are not wasteful. A clean sheet for Arsenal in this game will be a big achievement but Wenger knows his team must get that and more in the coming weeks.

Arsenal should pose a great deal of attacking threat down the wings especially if Gervinho is picked on the right against Robinson. Wenger is probably facing a dilemma – whether to pick Theo or Arshavin. Both offer some exciting qualities but also bring along some weaknesses. Arshavin would be more of a creator while Walcott would be more of a runner/finisher. Against the current opposition I’d prefer Arshavin on the left with a completely free role so that he spends most of his time in central areas just behind the striker.

In order to achieve that, Santos will have to do an excellent job of defending the flank. The Brazilian’s biggest challenge will be his decision making – when to go forward, when to attack the ball, when to charge for an interception, etc. He will also have to show improved understanding with the  other defenders. I don’t wish to single out a new player who deserves more time to adapt but I won’t be surprised if Arsenal’s left side is targeted by the visitors.

The other choice for Wenger will probably be the role of the attacking midfielder. Ramsey and Rosicky have both been passed fit but only one is likely to join Arteta and Song in the midfield. I am tempted to include Little Mozart who has, in the past, shown a better understanding with Arshavin and should be able to create more for Gervinho but I think Arsene will make a sensible choice in picking the industrious Ramsey who will regain his form as he gets more games.

Probable starting line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Santos – Song, Ramsey, Arteta – Gervinho, RvP, Arshavin.

Some fans want to see Arsenal return to a 4-4-2 in a manner similar to the Carling Cup game in midweek but I will be surprised if the first team moves to a different system at this juncture.

Arsenal can win this game as long as they cut out individual blunders and deal with the aerial balls aggressively. Chris Eagles and Martin Petrov are decent players but should not trouble the full-backs. Bolton don’t have that much creativity in the middle and should not be allowed to open Arsenal up.

Song and Koscielny have to show Blackburn was an one-off. A repeat of that performance or anywhere in that vicinity is just not acceptable.

While both teams have conceded a number of goals, Arsenal haven’t let in many at the Emirates while Bolton are more susceptible at home so this game might not be a goal fest. I expect two goals in this one, hopefully both will be in the same net that isn’t behind Szczesny.

Redknapp’s Opinion, Group F Jinx, Wenger – Gazidis, and More!

September 23, 2011

These days I have limited blogging to the pre-match and post game pieces. There are a number of reasons for but the most important one has been the shortage of actual talking points. An agitated mental state due to some mind-boggling bloopers didn’t help as it prevented me from delving into stats and chalkboards. Even reading headlines has become a testing task. Some guy cooks up fake quotes and a gazillion headlines pop-up on Newsnow and Goonernews. I envy everyone who can get their daily Arsenal fix these days while maintaining their sanity.

In the last few days there have been some interesting comments/interviews which brought forth thoughts that felt different and refreshing. So I thought I will do a post covering some of those.

First up, I want to touch upon ‘Arry’s opinion, as expressed in The Sun, about the value of specialist coaches. Redknapp asks two very relevant questions – Should we have them? And what would they do?

Regular readers know that I have been talking about the need for a defensive coach at Arsenal for close to two years now. The more I watch the Gunners self-destruct the more it seems like a coaching problem rather than an individual one. Arsenal have tried four goalkeepers and almost a dozen central defenders over the last few years. They can’t all be useless. Indeed, we have seen both extremes from some players. Fabianski looked awfully amateurish at one point but recovered well enough to convince most, if not all, fans. Djourou seems to be going the other way at a rapid rate of knots. Similar observations can be made for others as well.

It just cannot be about the individuals.

However, saying a defence coach is needed and someone actually making an impact are two different things. As ‘Arry mentioned in his article, Newcastle once experimented with Mark Lawrenson (what were they thinking!) as a specialist defensive coach. The results were not so good.

On the other hand, there is some evidence (Thanks to Sameep for digging up that link) that the presence of Keown helped the defence during that solid Champions League run.

I believe defence, per se, is a very broad term. It’s hard to say what a defence coach is supposed to do. Unless it’s a very activity specific, like attacking balls into the box – which should ideally be something elementary at this level, having a coach can complicate matters.

Events in football are so intricately linked that any part cannot be isolated. For instance, a coach might train the players on organization, movement, and tackling when 9 or 10 players drop back to park the bus. But can the same coach then teach transitions into attack? Or does a team need a different coach for that? If a different coach is needed, there would be communication problems and both might have a different way of looking at things.

I have often felt that Arsenal pull Walcott too far back when the team tries to defend. It reduces counter attacking options significantly because he cannot quickly break into space in the opposition half. Now a defence coach might want an extra body behind and insist that the wide players drop back. But the offence coach might want to have the fastest player up front along with the striker. How does one find the balance? Will both coaches produce sub-optimal outputs in case of a conflict of interest?

I guess this is where the manager comes in and everything must be driven through his vision of the game. Such vision and understanding of the game is what separates Ferguson, Wenger, Mourinho and other great managers from the average ones. All managers know most of the formations and related details. It’s the subtle variations and attention to relevant details that only a few can achieve.

Managers like Alex McLeish or Tony Pulis, just as examples, might create a well organized defence that is hard to break down. But they use players in such a manner that transitions are harder and eventually end up forcing players to punt it long. One cannot argue against their ability to organize a defence but I can’t see them making a valuable contribution to a team like Arsenal with Wenger in charge. And let’s not forget these coaches eventually concede more goals than the Gunners in the league even with supposedly more focus on defence and better defenders (at least according to perception among fans who are tired of Arsenal’s woes and don’t really want to exert themselves mentally).

Ideally, Arsenal need a coach or manager who completely understand Wenger’s approach to the game and can add something to it. I agree with Le Boss when he says it’s not easy to find such a person but I remain convinced Arsenal will continue to struggle without such an addition.

Having said that, I also feel Arsenal lack a bit in terms of certain basics like tracking a run or attacking a ball into the box. These are activity based issues and coaching these would not lead to philosophical conflicts.

If we watch the Shrewsbury goal again, there was no pressure on the throw; there was no one close to Marvin when he received, looked up, and crossed the ball; and there was absolutely no one attacking the ball when it came in. The Gunners had more than sufficient bodies behind. But they just weren’t prepared well enough, or at least that’s how one feels when such a goal is conceded. I don’t think it should be too hard to find a coach who can add some training routines for closing down opponents, making it harder to cross, and for attacking balls into the box.

This might not lead to an earth-shattering improvement but could lead to a few extra points with and odd loss converted into a draw and occasionally a stalemate into a win. It will certainly lead to more confidence and who knows where that positive cycle can lead to.

Anyway, this issue about the defence is a difficult one to write about if one wants to do justice to the many aspects involved. I don’t want to dwell on it further at the moment. As far as Redknapp’s suggestions go, I believe there is room for specialist training but it has to be intricately linked with the managers. To an extent this is already the case. An assistant coach who works well with a particular manager might not do so well with another. Often managers take their staff with them when they change jobs. The extent of possible specialization is virtually limitless and a pioneering manager will develop a strong, diverse team soon enough.

Moving on to something completely different, I want to share an interesting titbit. In Arsenal’s group in the Champions League (Group F), three teams are really struggling in the domestic competition. Marseille only just got off the bottom of the table after their first win which took them seven games. Their record is P7 W1 L3 D3. Dortmund are 11th in the table with – P6 W2 D1 L3 – a sequence Arsenal can match if they win at home against Bolton. Olympiakos have only played one game in the Greek League so their form is not that relevant but what’s up with all the other teams?

It’s must be a random coincidence but there is something eerily sinister about that.

Then there was this comment from Wenger’s press conference.

I am completely focused on doing well. I can understand that people are unhappy and criticise but people are very quick to go overboard. I accept critics and I don’t say it doesn’t matter. I prefer it if people say I am good but I cannot complain when we lose a game and you are criticised. When we do well, we take all the plaudits so we have to take the blame when it doesn’t go well. But we have, on both sides, to take a little bit of distance.

It’s not quite Kipling’s –

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

But I think that’s the closest anyone actively involved in competitive sport can realistically get.

Many people have read a lot into Arsene’s demeanour on the touchline over the last few months. More often than not it has been a twist that suits their version of the ‘Arsenal in crisis’ story. The basic observation that Wenger is in pain and cuts a frustrated figure (exact words might differ but the gist is the same) is quite valid. But the only time I felt someone has captured the reality beautifully was when I heard Ivan Gazidis’ interview. I don’t think anyone can explain it better and there could be no better response against misguided, lazy, and/or spiteful opinions. Once you listen to the man it’s clear he is very closely involved and his understanding is based on real knowledge of all the work that’s going on behind the scenes. I’m desperate for the club to share more but even with limited information they deserve a lot more respect and appreciation. Well done Ivan, wonderfully articulated.

With those who are still with me ( 🙂 ) I want to share this link to a statistical comparison I did for the EPL Index website. I have taken some year on year averages for passing, crossing, tackling, etc to see how the current form looks. Those who enjoy some fact based analysis might appreciate that. I would also like to thank Mean Lean (@arsenalvision) for the introduction that led to this article and hopefully I will be able to do more such stat based pieces on a weekly basis.

Finally, I wanted to share this delightful compilation of Francis Coquelin’s performance against Shrewsbury. In case you haven’t seen the game or this video it will give you a good idea about this lad’s talent.

More, including a compilation of AOC’s performance, can be seen on the video maker’s excellent blog.

Arsenal 3 – 1 Shrewsbury Town: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 21, 2011

Strong start. Eased off. Conceded a sloppy goal and some chances. Regrouped. Equalized. Pushed on and closed the game out by adding a couple more. Entertaining. Encouraging. Much needed.

It was a youthful line-up and an even younger bench. Le Boss also started with a fluid 4-4-2 giving Park and Chamakh having a great deal of freedom to move. Wenger took a gamble and it paid off. Credit to the man for believing in his squad players at a time when a win was imperative.

In the first ten minutes or so, all the play was deep in the Shrewsbury half. The tempo was high and Arsenal were pressing effectively. It led to a couple of glorious chances in quick succession. Park was in possession just outside the right edge of the Shrewsbury box. Gibbs made an overlapping run and the Korean skipper found it with a simple yet efficient pass. The full-back delivered an excellent ball between the defenders. Chamakh attacked it but couldn’t direct it away from the Keeper who made a good save.

From the resulting corner the ball went beyond everyone. Coquelin collected it, again just outside the right edge of the opposition D. A step-over and drop-of-the-shoulder later the youngster was at the by-line cutting one back. Once again Chamakh got on the end of it and attempted a well-directed side-footed strike. The Keeper did well to keep it out as it came at him through a crowd of legs.

The visitors were just trying to play it long with the hope of fighting for the ball in the Arsenal half. It led to a free-kick in the 10th minute that wasn’t defended particularly well. Djourou attacked the ball but didn’t get it but the ball fell kindly for Fabianski and the danger was averted for the moment.

The League Two side did grow in confidence from that point on. They pushed forward a bit more as Arsenal eased off. I thought the Gunners were unsure about their pressing which was neither here nor there.

A couple of minutes later a number of individual mistakes allowed the visitors to cut right through Arsenal. Collins got in behind and hit the post with a scuffed strike across the Keeper. Fabianski did well to cover the ground just in time to make a save as Morgan got on the end of the rebound.

Graham Turner’s side took the lead in the 16th minute. It was simple. Throw-in, cross, header, goal. Number of Arsenal bodies back but no pressure on any opponent. Schoolboys would have been ashamed of conceding a goal like that.

The game slowed down and lacked quality for a while after the goal. The atmosphere at the Emirates seemed to be edgy. The players were trying hard and there was a lot of movement but the level of understanding was well below par. For instance, Jenkinson kept getting really high up the pitch and that left very little room for Oxlade-Chamberlain who was forced into questioning the defender about his positioning around the 20th minute.

Coquelin then tested the Keeper from distance but it was a routine save. At the other end another corner was inches away from going in. Fabianski, it appeared to me, was being blocked by an opponent and a foul should have been called. But the Gunners should know better than to expect such decisions from a ref who plies his trade in the lower divisions in England. The defenders must take a lot more responsibility.

Just after the half-hour mark, Shrewsbury again went close. This time from a counter-attack. Coquelin initially made the mistake of going to ground while attempting an interception inside the opposition half. This opened the field up for the visitors who had a 3-v-3 situation. The youngster made up for his mistake by sprinting back to make a timely interception just as an opponent was lining up a clear strike at goal.

Soon after, Arsenal equalized from an unlikely source. Jenkinson whipped in a good cross that was only deflected towards the back post by the Shrewsbury centre back. Gibbs was well placed and his header was immaculate despite the difficult angle.

Both sides produced some excellent crosses with the best one coming from Ainsworth. Collins almost directed it into the goal.

Coquelin, who had been the best Arsenal player, then produced a wonderful long pass after bringing the ball out from the edge of the D. Park got a shot off but wasn’t able to keep it on target.

The first half ended on level terms.

After the break Arsenal came out with greater purpose. The Gunners pressed higher up the pitch and played at a higher tempo in a manner resembling their strong start in the first period. That led to a number of half chances and one could sense a goal coming. The visitors were tiring and the gulf in class was finally beginning to tell.

AOC was a lot more involved in the second half after a rather quiet opening half. His runs were powerful and threatening, often getting the better of two or three opponents. The final ball and overall impact would have been greater if the teammates had been on the same page.

Deservedly, the youngster put Arsenal ahead with a blistering strike that came out of nowhere. I thought it took a deflection but there was enough pace to beat the Keeper. By now the players and crowd were buzzing and there was a more settled feel to the football.

The visitors were limited to long punts but still got some joy as there were a few iffy moments from the Arsenal centre backs and Fabianski.

At the other end, Arsenal might have had two penalties. After a strong run, it appeared to me that a defender knocked AOC without getting anything on the ball. In another incident, a square pass from Benayoun struck the arm of a defender who fell while trying to intercept a pass. But this was one of those games where the ref was in no mood to make big decisions. Wonder how people would have reacted if the result had been different.

Arsene introduced Ryo for Park after 70 minutes. Ozyakup came on for Frimpong a few minutes later and picked up his assist soon after. Benayoun got his first goal for the Gunners.

The home side created more chances, most notably Benayoun going close from distance, but the score remained unchanged.

If I am not mistaken, Gibbs, AOC, and Benayoun got their first goals for the club while Frimpong, and Ozyakup got their first assists. Jenkinson already had an assist against United.

It was a good recovery from Arsenal and a highly positive result in the current climate. The overall defending, especially on set-pieces and crosses is still suspect and it was too easy for the visitors to break on the counter in the first half. It’s a complex problem but Arsene will have to find a solution if much is to be made of this season.

Individual Performances:

Fabianski: Looked shaky but I don’t blame him. The defence in front should be doing a lot better when simple balls are put into the box.

Jenkinson: Amazing stamina, some wonderful crosses, decent defending on the flank. Needed better understanding with AOC as they got in each other’s way quite often.

Djourou: Poor performance from the captain on the night. Should have attacked the cross better. Didn’t look very comfortable on the ball at times and put Fabianski under pressure. One would expect a Premier League defender to dominate his area in such a game.

Miquel: Surprisingly, he did better than his experienced partner. Was put under pressure and had to deal with some physical battles but came out with a strong display. Played some delightful long passes. Still not quite a Premiership defender and needs to improve his positioning but looks like he is improving at a steady rate.

Gibbs: Excellent goal, superb engine, played a key part in the third goal, put in some quality crosses, and fairly strong defensively even though he was caught up the pitch a few times. Most encouraging part is that he can become a lot better.

The defending has to be better. Many players were at fault. Overall shape of the team wasn’t good enough to prevent counter-attacks in the first half. But it wasn’t all down to the back five. They should have dealt with the aerial balls better but looking at the troubles while defending corners, I find it hard to accept this is anything but a coaching issue.

AOC: Jenkinson’s runs unsettled him in the first half and he didn’t know where to go. Often ended up being deeper on the right flank behind the full-back. Presumably, some instructions from the manager at half-time must have changed all that as he took more liberties with his movement. Very dynamic and forceful second half performance with a well deserved goal. Probably the popular choice for the MotM but a close second in my reckoning.

Frimpong: Another physically dominant effort from the youngster. Moved the ball well, offered good protection to the defence in the second half, and tested the Keeper with a couple of well taken shots. Was caught in possession three or four times. That must not happen in the big games. Should contribute more while defending balls into the box.

Coquelin: MotM in my opinion. Simply a delightful performance from start till finish. Made a number of tackles and interceptions, passing was almost silken at times, technically accomplished, looks like a naturally gifted football player. Will have to be stronger in physical battles in order to get more chances in the League.

Benayoun: Looked like the classiest player on the pitch. Struggled with the movement of the others, especially in the first half when he got into good positions but there weren’t enough runs into the box. Still managed to play a couple of excellent through balls. Got a bit greedy towards the end. Good to see him get off the mark.

I thought everyone in the midfield worked hard. But they pushed forward a lot and made some errors in judgement which opened the counter-attacking opportunities for the visitors. When better understanding develops, all of them will offer a lot more.

Chamakh: His movement and work-rate was top notch. Tested the Keeper twice in the opening few minutes but didn’t get much joy after that. I believe his instincts in the box need improvement as he doesn’t anticipate chances, mostly from second balls or deflections, as well as a striker should. Should also offer more while defending set-pieces.

Park: Was moving to the wings all through the opening period. He lacks sharpness at the moment but effort was good. With practice his touch and positioning will get better.

I got a feeling that the front two would have been better off staying more central or dropping a bit deeper rather than moving to wide areas. The full-backs were effective in those areas but often when they got into good crossing positions, there weren’t enough targets in the box. Chamakh would have been unplayable if more crosses came in his vicinity. Fair effort on the whole.

Wenger: All credit to the manager for sticking to his guns! And for being flexible in the formation at the same time.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Shrewsbury Town

September 19, 2011

When it was first announced, not many would have thought an Arsenal V Shrewsbury tie in the third round of the Carling Cup will take on such significance.  I shudder at the thought of elimination but given the recent form, and with the team finding new ways of gifting goals, it’s not too hard to imagine. Certainly, from the oppositions point of view, this is the best time to play Arsenal.

Many, including this blogger, believe domestic cups are the only realistic title hope for this season and Wenger should focus on them more than the main competitions. At the very least he should use this game as an opportunity to provide the new players a better chance to gel together. Some people have said that Arsenal are only now having a proper pre-season. It’s an unfortunate situation but can anyone really claim the Gunners are playing like a side that is on top of its game?

Le Boss faces the unenviable task of finding the right balance in this game. He is likely to give a chance to youngsters like Ryo and AOC. He also has to give a start to Chamakh, probably Frimpong, Djourou, Jenkinson, and Fabianski as well.

That leaves four places up for grabs, a couple on the left side of defence and a couple in midfield.

Arsene might prefer Gibbs, Coquelin, Benayoun, and Miquel for these roles but, to be honest, I am not in favour of starting too many youngsters in this game.

Koscielny has been inconsistent and should start to get his rhythm right. He didn’t play much in the international break so fatigue should not be that big an issue. Moreover, Vermaelen is likely to return in a few weeks so the Frenchman will get another chance to rest.

I’d also pick Santos in this game as he needs a lot more game time to adapt to the system that Arsene is using. He, too, hasn’t played much so tiredness should not be a factor.

Frimpong and Coquelin, despite their age and inexperience, should make a strong midfield duo if they are not too adventurous. If the defence behind them is strong they will be able to play with confidence. These young guns have an important part to play this season and starting in such games will be an immense help.

Up front I’d pick Park ahead of Ryo on the left. Or Benayoun can play on the left and Park can be in the hole. Miyaichi is an exciting talent but the two experienced players will be involved a lot more with the first team and both need time on the pitch. The Japanese youngster can come on later in the game if things go according to plan.

Preferred line-up,

Fabianski – Jenkinson, Djourou, Koscielny, Santos – Frimpong, Benayoun, Coquelin – AOC, Chamakh, Park.

I’d also have a strong bench to avoid further embarrassment.

Arsenal should have technically superior players and they will have to make their quality count in individual tussles. That means the players should be able to keep the ball on the ground and bring it out from the back through the midfielders even if the opponents are pressing them higher up the pitch. In some games this season it hasn’t worked quite so well but there can be no excuses in this fixture.

Shrewsbury Town will try to use width and pace to score on the break. It’s a simple enough tactic but has worked for some teams against the Gunners, especially when the defensive players are in a generous mood. There aren’t many tactical surprises in such matches but one cannot always account for outright bloopers or lack of concentration at key moments.

In the above mentioned starting eleven, I’d like to see Park given a free role to drop in behind Chamakh or take his position when the striker moves in to deeper areas. Santos should get the left wing all to himself. The Brazilian has the speed and skills to dazzle on the wing. Coquelin or Frimpong, whoever is on the left side of midfield, should cover for the attacking full-back.

I’d also like to see Jenkinson playing a conservative game instead of pushing forward at every opportunity. Of late I have felt that the full-backs, especially on the right, tend to get in the way of the wide attacker. They should move forward only when the winger makes a run on the inside.

A good result will not change the mood overnight or instil confidence in a deflated squad. Far too many errors have crept in and only a long, strong run can bring the belief back. But this game can at least be a start. It’s a chance to prevent things from getting worse and to take another step forward. That is the only option right now. Everything else will come later.

Pick a strong line-up to give new players more playing time. Get a result. Keep a clean sheet. Then go back to the training ground and focus on the next game. Sounds simple enough but …

Blackburn Rovers 4 – 3 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 17, 2011

Ok,  before getting into the match analysis I just want to congratulate Blackburn Rovers and Steve Kean. They worked hard, took whatever came their way, and fully deserve to move up from the bottom of the table.

Now let’s get on with Arsenal. What does one say after a performance like that? If the Gunners took all the excellent chances they created they’d have scored half a dozen or more. As it was, five Arsenal players entered the scorebook with only Yakubu replying twice but such is the nature of the game that the scorecard and points table doesn’t quite reflect that.

There can be some arguments that the third goal was off-side and that was the turning point. Without seeing the replay it’s hard to say but Walcott was upended in the last minute so that is another talking point. But the bottom line is that one cannot excuse such a defeat even if an element of bad luck was involved.

Arsene started with Santos at left-back and surprisingly, Ramsey made a sufficient recovery to make the starting line-up. Theo moved to the bench for Arshavin. Benayoun and Gibbs also made way. It was a strong enough line-up to win this game.

The start was predictable. Arsenal had most of the ball while Blackburn tried to defend. But there were warning signs as early as the second minute. Hoilett got past Sagna on the right but his cross from the by-line went straight to Szczesny.

The Gunners were getting some joy down the right and Sagna was putting in good crosses. The goal came in the 10th minute. Van Persie dropped deep while Gervinho took up a central striking position. Song found the Ivorian’s run with a deft through-ball. A slight deflection off Samba’s attempted sliding block was enough to take it past Robinson. It looked like this could be a good day for the Gunners and Kean must have been worried.

Wenger’s side continued their domination of the ball but Blackburn were naturally more purposeful after the goal. Another warning sign came in the 18th minute when a free-kick was floated to the back post where Samba and Dann were completely unmarked. The Congolese defender must have been disappointed with his header that was well wide off the mark.

Arshavin then had a couple of shots on goal in quick succession. One was deflected for a corner while the other drew a good save.

In the 24th minute Gervinho wasted a gilt-edged chance after Sagna found him completely free inside the edge of the box. It was a terrible strike given the time and space he had.

As if in some sort of punishment by footballing gods, Yakubu scored at the other end a minute later. Arsenal’s back line was all over the place. Santos was too deep even when he could see the others. Koscielny let his man run presumably attempting to play off-side. There was no pressure on Hoilett who was able to slip a simple pass through. Szczesny came out and was beaten with a simple flick of the boot.

A couple of minutes later there was another long free-kick and Szczesny came flying out to collect it. The Arsenal Keeper looked like a clown as he missed the ball and only a desperate header from Koscielny prevented Samba from connecting with an overhead kick six yards out. The giant defender again won the header from the resulting corner but couldn’t keep it on target.

Around the half hour mark Dann clattered into Sagna while making a clearance and that might have been the reason the Frenchman had to go off later in the game. Hopefully it won’t be too serious as the Gunners really cannot afford to lose Sagna at this stage of the season.

The lead was restored in the 32nd minute. Song played another excellent ball forward that found the run of Ramsey whose cut-back was perfect for Arteta arriving late at the edge of the box.

Arsenal squandered a couple of glorious chances to score the third goal. In the 41st minute Gervinho played a terrible, terrible pass when there was an opportunity to go 4-v-2 on a counter. A couple of minutes later the Ivorian didn’t pick Van Persie who was free in the box. His head was down as Dann blocked his strike. Extremely poor choice and for the third game in a row Arsenal have missed that extra pass in front of goal!

At half-time Steve Kean must have told his team to get the ball into the box. Arsenal had shown enough weaknesses. There was every reason to believe Blackburn could get something out of this one but even the most optimistic of fans must not have expected such generosity (or rank incompetence) as we saw from the Gunners in the second half.

It didn’t take long. Four minutes into the second half, Arshavin committed a foul just outside the left edge of Arsenal’s penalty box. The set-piece looked innocuous enough as Van Persie and Samba challenged for it. Both missed. It went in off of Song’s knee with no Blackburn player around him. The Cameroonian was having a great game thus far but was caught on his heels. He should have been anticipating the ball to come through and should have been prepared to clear it or at least control it better.

Song then hit a header over at the other end from a corner while Formica was able to get through one-v-one following further defensive shambles. Szczesny got a strong hand on the ball but the game was more even now with the home side in ascendancy. Around that time, Djourou came on for Sagna.

Arsenal looked a bit lost and struggled to move the ball under pressure. A bit reminiscent of their midweek troubles but not forced back to that extent. Hoilett was troubling Djourou and that was forcing the Gunners back.

In the 57th minute the quick winger won a corner from Djourou. The resulting delivery went deep at the back post. Arsenal didn’t have anyone in that area. Nzonzi struck it back across goal between the outstretched leg of Koscielny and the extended arm of a diving Szczesny. Yakubu, who tapped it in from two yards, was off-side. Just. But the goal stood. Again Arsenal’s zonal marking was found wanting and linesman, even though he made a mistake, was not the main problem for this goal.

After the hour mark Walcott came on for Arshavin.

In the 68th minute the Gunners conceded another own goal. This time from a counter-attack. Olsson got away down the right as Santos and Gervinho were high up the pitch in search of an equalizer. Arsenal still had enough bodies back. The big mistake came from Djourou who didn’t read the danger well enough. He was ambling across when he realized Olsson was going to go past him. A quick burst and an attempted sliding tackle weren’t enough. The Swiss defender didn’t get enough on the ball or the man. Even then Song was there covering but was beaten but a simple drop of the shoulder inside the box. Szczesny then made a daft attempt to get a hand on a cut-back he was never going to reach. Either he got fingertips on it or distracted Koscielny enough that the defender couldn’t sort his feet out. Another own goal. More calamitous defending.

In 23 second half minutes the Gunners had managed to convert a 2-1 lead into a 4-2 deficit.

Credit goes to the players as they kept trying and created a number of chances. It was good to see Chamakh finally scoring as he got on the end of a delightful Van Persie cross.

The off-the-ball movement was good in this game. Some of the crosses were superb. There are some positives if one tries to look at the bright side. But there is just too big a question mark over the defending and I am finding it hard to concentrate on anything else. Unless there is an immediate addition to the coaching staff – and I know it will be extremely hard to find the right person – I don’t see things improving. It is not an issue with individuals but is more of a problem with the way Arsenal think about defending which leads to systemic errors.

I also feel it is important people stop talking about title challenge. It just adds an unnecessary pressure. There is no way this squad is winning the Premiership or the Champions League. The focus must be on a top four spot, which will be hard enough to achieve, and one of the domestic cups starting this Tuesday.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: I thought he was uncharacteristically edgy in this game and transferred a bit of it to the defenders. Came out more than once when he had no chance of getting the ball. Was partially at fault for the fourth goal. Can’t blame him for the second or third. I have to see the first one again.

Sagna: Struggled against the pace of Hoilett but was dogged enough to get back. Put in some good crosses. Not at fault for any of the goals.

Mertesacker: Missed a great chance in injury time. Can’t really blame him for the performance. Won the balls that came his way but he can’t cover the whole box.

Koscielny: Uncharacteristically slack all through the game. Passing was sloppy as was his positioning. Decision making wasn’t very good. Probably his worst game in an Arsenal shirt.

Santos: Looked competent on the ball but didn’t have a great understanding with the rest of the defence. That’s not his fault though. Should get better with more game time. Put in a couple of good balls and will add more of an attacking threat as he settles.

Djourou: Didn’t read the game well enough, wasn’t decisive at a key moment, poor crossing. Struggled against pace.

When a team conceeds four goals and looks so vulnerable on set-pieces there is a natural tendency to blame the back five. To an extent that is valid as there were a number of individual mistakes. Some might say that a commanding English centre-back like Cahill (so dominant and effective against United a fortnight ago!) is the answer. I strongly disagree.

If you look at the number of chances Arsenal got from crosses and set-pieces, it’s clear that even with players like Dann and Samba it’s not easy to defend good balls in dangerous areas. It just cannot be about individuals.

There are technical mistakes, errors in judgment and positioning, but most of all the thought process related to defending needs a serious revamp.

Song: Looked brilliant in the first half. Was impressive in attacking areas and played some delightful passes. Should have done better for the second and fourth goals.

Arteta: His movement was better in this game as he got more time on the ball. Good timing for the second goal. Passing was effective but he will have to produce a lot more if the Gunners have to challenge for a Champions League spot. Set-piece delivery was impressive.

Ramsey: Some of his passing and movement was amazing like the run and pass for Arteta’s goal or the pass to Arshavin that led to a great chance in the 43rd minute. Some of his touches were loose and struggled a bit under pressure. Tired towards the end, which was surprising.

The midfield was better in this game when compared to the last few. But the errors in defence were just too many. The midfielders should also create a lot more when they get as much time and space as they did in the first half.

Gervinho: Well taken goal, good movement and work rate, messed up three excellent opportunities. Typical Gervinho – exciting and frustrating.

Van Persie: Tremendous effort once again. Good assist for the third goal. Got into great positions but the passes didn’t come.

Arshavin: Had a few good moments on the ball but overall another disappointing game. He too got into good positions but the midfield didn’t find him often enough. Conceded a needless free-kick for the second goal.

Walcott: Looked lively, put in good crosses, no complaints.

Chamakh: Good to see him get off the mark for the season. He can be a real impact player if Arsenal use him well.

The attack, Gervinho in particular, should have done better. There were more goals in this game for the Gunners.

Wenger: I don’t think he did much wrong in this game per se. But the problems are long standing and the buck stops with the manager.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Blackburn Rovers

September 16, 2011

It’d be hard to find many teams that have had a more difficult start to the season than the Gunners. But few will argue that the next club to host Arsenal isn’t facing desperate times.

As a Gooner one can sympathize with another club that is looking to do things the right way. The new owners don’t seem to be very popular amongst the Ewood Park faithful but won my approval when they sacked Fat Sam. Since then the club have backed a rookie manager but have struggled in the transfer market. The results are not exactly surprising. Kean has managed only five wins in 25 games, just one in the last nine. Without a win in four games and propping up the Premiership table, their players will be motivated to turn things around but this is a good time to visit Blackburn.

The priority for Arsenal though, must be to rediscover the tactical balance and rhythm of play. I am not sure Arsene knows what his best eleven is at the moment. The Gunners have enough flair and individual talent but it hasn’t worked as well in the last two games. While the work rate has been commendable, the understanding is lacking. Arsene will want to move his team away from hard fought results, which provide a fair and acceptable foundation during a period of change, and towards dominant and assured wins that re-establish the Gunners as a team to be feared.

This game should provide better opportunities for passing and establishing a style of play. Blackburn are a fighting unit but I doubt they can match the energetic, synchronized pressing we saw in Germany. Arteta, and Benayoun if he is selected, should get a better opportunity to express themselves. Indeed, the Spaniard has already played at this venue this season with his former side Everton in a game where he scored the winning penalty in the closing stages.

It is quite likely that this game will be about breaking down a parked bus while shutting the door on rapid counter-attacks. Mertesacker will be tested by the pace of Junior Hoillet. If Dunn and/or Pedersen play, Szczesny will have some long distance strikes to save.

In order to score against a well organized defence, Arsenal will need a better contribution from the midfield. Arteta could be the key if he can arrive late or test the keeper from just outside the box.

Wenger’s team selection will be interesting. The midweek game must have been physically draining so will the manager pick many of the same players again? None of us really wants to hear “We lacked sharpness” in the post match interview anymore.

I guess the back five will not change. Song. Arteta, Gervinho, and Van Persie also look certain to start. Wenger then has to pick a the third midfielder and a wide attacker.

I’d like to see Frimpong and Arshavin in the starting eleven as that will bring energy, power, and guile to the side. Perhaps that combination will make the team technically weaker so Wenger might not go for it.

Benayoun, even though I was disappointed with his performance, did put in a solid shift at Dortmund. In such a game he might be rewarded for his work rate, especially if Arsenal are playing around the opposition box. He thrives in those areas.

Then it becomes a direct choice between Arshavin and Walcott. Both have their set of fans and detractors. I would go with the Russian who would be fresher and has a good record against Blackburn. Walcott’s pace will be neutralized by a deep-sitting defence but Arshavin’s vision and creativity should be handy.

Expected line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Song. Arteta, Benayoun – Gervinho, RvP, Arshavin.

In this game I will be looking for a more cohesive performance – pressing together, better runs and corresponding passes, players and the ball arriving into the box instead of passing it around in a semi-circle connecting the wide areas via the centre line, and playing out from the back in a controlled manner. If that happens the result will follow because the individual quality is undoubted.

Blackburn too, deserve respect. Their performances have not been reflected in the results and they are a better side than a sure-shot relegation contender that one might assume after a cursory glance at the table. In the last game Arsenal showed they can defend deep under pressure. This time around the challenge will be to cover vast open areas as the opponents sit back to pounce. The understanding at the back and the support from the midfield will be critical.

With United playing Chelsea and Liverpool taking on Tottenham, this should be a good opportunity to gain points on at least a couple of rivals.



Borussia Dortmund 1 – 1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 13, 2011

Oh God! What does one say after a game like that. Great fighting spirit and a gritty display for a well-earned away point at a difficult venue? Terrible performance that shows the Gunners just aren’t good enough anymore? I guess it depends on one’s mentality and the spin that suits it. As mentioned in the preview, I wasn’t expecting a win but a more assured performance would have been encouraging for the future.

I was worried when I saw Benayoun in the midfield with Gervinho and Walcott on the flanks. That meant Arsenal had two wide players who are too direct and can’t really contribute to the possession game and two midfielders who haven’t had much time to understand what is required of them.

Thankfully, Dortmund showed a lot of respect and didn’t pin the Gunners as far back as they could have, and indeed did in the second half once they figured out the game was there for the taking.

The first half was fairly open and both sides created a number of half-chances. Arsenal’s defence was constantly under pressure but Dortmund were pedestrian in the attacking third in one-v-one situations, when they got to the by-line, and when they had acres of space around the box.

The thrills and chills started in the 5th minute when Gervinho got half a chance only to be denied by some good last gasp defending.

Minute or so later, at the other end, Großkreutz hit one over the bar when well placed. Just as the clock reached double figures, Kagawa got in behind clean with Koscielny attempting an ill-advised off-side trap. Hummels was able to find him with absolutely no pressure on the ball. Clear lack of tactical cohesion from Arsenal and a sign of things to come, for both sides, as Kagawa’s attempt was terrible.

A couple of minutes later Goetze was able to lift one over for Lewandowski who rounded Szczesny but his lame attempt was cleared off the line by Sagna. Credit must go to Sagna and Mertesacker (was it Koscielny?) who got back on the line but the ease with which the defence was opened up was disappointing.

Arsenal were really struggling to bring the ball out from defence as Arteta and Benayoun just weren’t able to deal with the pressure effectively enough. Their off the ball movement wasn’t very good either and with Walcott and Gervinho on the flanks the out-ball was proving hard to find.

For a few minutes the game descended into a midfield tussle and neither side was able to create anything. Arsenal won a corner in the 18th minute. The Keeper was able to punch it out and Goetze sparked a counter after a neat drop of the shoulder was enough to leave Gervinho stranded. Again the shot was disappointingly wayward from the hosts’ point of view.

Arsenal were getting some glimpses and openings but the home side got enough bodies behind to keep things tight once the ball reached their defensive third. Their Keeper wasn’t being tested and looked comfortable.

Benayoun’s first meaningful contribution came after the half-hour mark when he found Van Persie with a lovely ball. The Dutchman’s strike was saved resulting in a corner.

The goal came after a sloppy pass by a Dortmund midfielder (Bender?) that sold Hummels short. Van Persie was able to slide and nick the ball away. Walcott pounced on it as  RvP got up and made an intelligent run. The hosts were caught unawares and the gap in their defence was finally exploited. Walcott had all the time in the world while Van Persie had all the space. The assist was simple but effective. The captain’s finish with his chocolate leg was emphatic (Anyone else thinks RvP’s right can no longer be considered his weaker foot?).

It was a completely different game after half-time. Dortmund came out and pressed even higher up the pitch. They kept pushing the Gunners back and most of the half was one-way traffic. Arsenal couldn’t keep the ball. There was some excellent last gasp defending with Song putting in a monstrous shift. Arteta too was handy but Benayoun was chasing shadows.

I got a feeling the ball was coming into the Arsenal box every minute but Szczesny wasn’t being tested as much. Cramping the central area with a number of bodies was working for the Gunners even if it looked ungainly (from a neutral’s point of view) or scary (from a Gooner’s point of view).

The only threat to the hosts’ goal was coming from long distance shots and free-kicks that couldn’t beat the wall.

Arsenal did get a golden chance to double the lead just after the hour mark. I don’t recall who it was that played a wonderful ball over the top (probably Sagna or Mertesacker from deep on the right), but it fell kindly for Gervinho after Subotic’s outstretched boot couldn’t take it away.

The Ivorian stumbled, regained his balance, beat a defender, and then hit a powerless strike straight at the Keeper while struggling to find his composure. Walcott was free on his left and a simple sideways tap would have given the Englishman an open goal to shoot at. It was typical Gervinho – exciting and frustrating at the same time.

After that it was a familiar routine of a hoof from the defence coming back into the defensive third within moments. The team just didn’t have the right shape to transition from defence to attack. Even when the defenders tried to hold the ball and look up there just weren’t enough options. Arteta and Benayoun were quite poor in this regard whereas Walcott and Gervinho were getting sucked too deep to defend. Song was trying hard but he too lacked options to pass even after he won his individual battle.

Dortmund were excellent with their pressing but Arsenal were making them look like Barcelona, till they got to the final third that is.

With under than ten minutes left, Dortmund got an excellent chance from corner as a ball dropped at the feet of Subotic. His tap lacked venom and Szczesny was able to save as the ball got stuck under his feet.

By now some must have felt that it just wasn’t going to go in while others would have been thinking it was just a matter of time before the equalizer came. I thought the former every time a chance was wasted and the latter as soon as the ball came back into the danger areas. Not good for the heart I tell you.

With two minutes of normal time remaining, Dortmund finally scored from a wonder strike. Once again the Gunners cleared a free-kick only to be beaten by a delightful volley from outside the box. When a team pulls so many players back that there is no pressure on the man shooting, it is always a risk.

Szczesny then made a big save and the hosts looked like the only team that could find a winner. In the end, Arsenal’s grinding display was enough for a point.

Individual Performances

Szczesny: Excellent with his collection, rushed his distribution on occasion when the team needed a moment to regroup, made a couple of decent saves, can’t blame him for the performance or the goal.

Sagna: Worked hard, got in some valuable last gasp touches, wasn’t able to contribute going forward but that was not his fault.

Mertesacker: Won a few headers but not as dominant as one might expect, read the game well, showed a good understanding with other defenders, made the blocks/interceptions/tackles when the need arose.

Koscielny: Another brilliant display from the Frenchman. Apart from the initial mistake where he let Kagawa through, he was almost flawless. Read the game well, cut out a number of dangerous balls, blocked a couple of ferocious strikes, could also have created a goal but Van Persie was just off-side. Struggled to get the ball forward in the first half as Arteta wasn’t moving well enough.

Gibbs: Gave the ball away on a few occasions with misplaced passes or poor touches but did well to recover. His pace was immensely valuable. Needs to read the game better.

I thought the back five were under pressure for large parts of the game and must be commended for holding out. None of them was culpable for the goal and they’d be right in demanding more from the players in front. More importantly the manager has to find tactics that suit the players he has.

Song: MotM in my opinion. Was the only midfield player who dominated nearly all his individual battles. Made some vital tackles in and around the box, chased the ball all over the pitch, wasn’t as effective with his passing but lacked options far too often.

Arteta: Defensively his contribution was quite good. Tracked back, put his foot in when needed, and won some headers in the box. But he offered very little in terms of transition from attack to defence. Off-the-ball movement wasn’t that great, won some individual battles but should be offering a lot more. Looked more like a hard working Everton player rather than a dominant Arsenal midfielder but I don’t want to blame him this early in his Arsenal career as he deserves some time to adapt.

Benayoun: Sorry but awful is the only word that comes to mind. Ran a lot but rather aimlessly, gave the ball away in dangerous areas, lost a number of individual tussles, wasn’t able to shake off his man to become available for receiving passes. He too needs time to adapt but I am disappointed with the decision to pick him in such a role and then leaving him on till the end.

I thought Arsenal got steamrolled in the middle of the park. Dortmund were better at pressing, at retaining the ball, with their movement, and only lacked the final pass. Only redeeming aspects for Arsenal were the work-rate, defensive concentration, and tackling.

Not only did this put the defence under constant pressure, it left the attack isolated and toothless.

Walcott: Wasn’t able to get on the ball often enough and ended up spending too much time deep in the Arsenal half. Good alertness and composure for the assist.

RvP: Tremendous effort, superb finish, must be disappointed with the service.

Gervinho: Very energetic and lively on the ball. Also did a fair bit of tracking. Wasn’t able to use the ball very well and ran into traffic far too often. Should have been aware of Walcott’s position around the hour mark.

There are some weaknesses in the attack when players like Gervinho and Walcott are picked. They aren’t the best of defenders and can’t be expected to contribute towards the tiki-taka part of the game that is essential to control the tempo and soak up pressure. Gervinho is arguably a bit better than Walcott in that regard but they aren’t at the technical level that current tactics demand.

When combined with the midfield issues, this gave Dortmund complete control of the game in the second half.

Pat Rice/Wenger: I thought Benayoun in the starting line-up was a big mistake. Frimpong should have been introduced earlier for the Israeli and Santos for Theo. But the real issue is with the overall tactical set-up of the team which has caused problems against all the teams thus far. I am hoping Arsene will be able to adapt the tactics to suit the lack of technical quality in the team and to exploit the direct threat that has been added. So far it hasn’t happened.