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 …