Chelsea 3 – 5 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 29, 2011

I can’t quite recall but somewhere on the internet there was this discussion about the game that mentioned the possibility of Arsenal winning by outscoring Chelsea. Did you also read it? ūüėČ

What a game! Amazing. That’s how football should be. Both teams started with a very positive intent and carried on in exactly the same manner for the duration of the game irrespective of the scoreline changes. It was as beautiful as a work of art and more thrilling than anything Hollywood has to offer. Although Chelsea fans would probably prefer a comparison with a horror flick.

Both starting line-ups were fairly predictable and the systems very similar variants of the 4-3-3.

The opening minutes were frantic and Chelsea started strongly. The Gunners were caught by an number of runs in behind that appeared pre-planned even for a team that would normally look to make such runs. Ashley Cole was in acres of space around the Arsenal box twice within the opening five minutes while Sturridge too got into a dangerous position at the other flank.

The Blues couldn’t make it count as their final ball lacked quality and the Arsenal central defenders did a good job of tracking the runs. Arsenal full backs were looking terrible but the keyword there is ‘looking’. It was more a structural problem than an individual one albeit exacerbated by some mistakes.

The best chance of the opening minutes was created by Walcott after he skipped past Cole and delivered an inch perfect ball. Gervinho failed to hit the target from six yards. A minute or so later Theo put in another great cross but Van Persie couldn’t guide the bouncing ball towards goal.

In keeping with the dizzying pace and pulsating nature of the game, Lampard scored at the other end after a good cross from Mata. It seemed to me that Mertesacker was caught a bit out of position as he moved towards the near post and wasn’t able to get his head on the ball.

Chelsea continued finding space in the wide areas and created a number of other half chances. Sturridge missed a gilt-edged opportunity around the half-hour mark.

The Gunners were there or thereabouts in the attacking areas despite Chelsea dominating 69 percent possession in that period. Soon after, Van Persie eased the ball into the open net to equalize. The chance was created by an excellent run by Gervinho but more importantly via Ramsey’s delightful turn and through-ball.

Arsenal conceded a corner in the final minute before half-time. Many Gooners would have had that sinking feeling in the pit of their stomachs as Lampard sent the ball into a fairly regular area that the central defenders should dominate. Once again Mertesacker was just a bit off and allowed Terry to attack ball. Chelsea went in ahead at the break and few would have argued it wasn’t deserved.

I would love to know what Wenger said during the break. Arsenal came out with greater desire and confidence in the second half but more importantly the team was a lot more cohesive. An early leveller helped.

Three minutes into the second half Santos, who’d been extremely poor in the first half, scored after excellent work by Djourou on the right and a quick, accurate pass from Song.

There was no letting up though, as Szczesny came out of his area and fouled Cole who would probably have been clean through. The ref gave a yellow card as Koscielny was getting back towards the goal but a red would not have been unprecedented. I thought in general the ref was consistently lenient towards the physical aspects in a game that was feisty but never dirty.

With 55 minutes on the clock, Theo put Arsenal ahead with a wonderful, and somewhat comical, solo goal. The English winger came in from the right and appeared to fall after tripping himself. Cole stopped playing and raised his arms to claim innocence in the matter. Ivanovic and Terry switched off as they too probably looked at the ref. The ball remained near Walcott’s feet who got up and moved past the defenders in a flash, with quick footwork, before hammering it past Cech who was again beaten on the near post.

Subsequently, Arsenal dropped deeper and looked a lot more solid in defence as the wide players supported the fullbacks better. I thought it possible that Wenger would have instructed his speed merchants to look for gaps left by the Chelsea fullbacks which would have led to a more open game in the first half on both ends of the pitch. After taking the lead Arsenal looked a lot more assured and the full backs were fairly composed. Santos made a number of excellent tackles all through the second half.

Chelsea got the equalizer after Lukaku fouled Santos. The ref let play carry on as he’d done all day. Mata got into space in front of the defence and his strike probably benefitted from a deflection off Song’s desperate lunge.

Buy now Chelsea had brought on a number of attacking players and were looking for the winner. Arsenal had always been on the edge of breaking through on the counter.

The fourth goal for the Gunners though, was a result of a terrible pass from Malouda and an untimely slip by Terry near the centre circle. Van Persie’s composure was commendable as we have seen plenty of players waste such opportunities.

With the home side going all out in search for the winner, Arsenal fashioned further chances and secured the game with Van Persie getting his hat-trick. Cech again looked culpable but I thought all the shots he missed were fiercely struck and/or well-placed. The final one swerved just enough to miss the strong part of his hand and went in skinning the fingertips.

I liked the way Arsenal kept the ball and didn’t hoof it every time the opponents put them under pressure. It can get better but they are clearly making an effort. I also appreciated the way central defenders in particular tracked the runs of the attacking players. In the past we have seen Arsenal players stand with their hands up when opponents broke in behind but in this game they stuck to the runners and covered for the mistakes of their teammates.

While Chelsea were undoubtedly the better side in the first half, there can be no arguments against the result as the Gunners bossed the game after the break. In individual moments of significance, the Gunners showed better composure and quality. That was ultimately the difference between two very attacking sides.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Another shaky game from the youngster. Couldn’t have done much for any of the goals but his decision making wasn’t very good and flapped at a few balls into the box. But one might also say he did enough to push the balls away from danger areas.

Djourou: Space behind him was exploited time and again. It was more an issue of coordination and tactical clarity as he wasn’t beaten in one-v-one’s but was caught out positionally. Looked assured in possession and moved the ball well. Big part in the second goal. Not sure why he was subbed. Hope it’s not another injury concern.

Mertesacker: Made a number of crucial interceptions/tackles and won a lot in the air. But he was culpable for both goals and will have to do much better to dominate his area of the pitch.

Koscielny: Absolutely magnificent. Another world class effort from the Frenchman. Joint MotM in my book. Read the game better than anyone else on the pitch, decision making was spot on, got his foot in at vital moments time and again.

Santos: Seemingly a game of two halves for the Brazilian. Struggled when exposed in large spaces or when the opponents got a chance to run at him. But his tackling technique is unusual and rather effective. Did much better once he got some support. Well-timed run and good execution for the goal.

I thought the defence looked very poor but the individuals didn’t make that many mistakes. Certainly higher rated and better valued opponents made more. As I have said for close to two years, when a team plays with an attacking mindset, defenders are exposed and suffer. That doesn’t make them bad players. Nevertheless, there is more than sufficient room for improvement at the back tactically and in terms of decision making, attacking the ball, etc.

Song: Very impressive in the defensive areas, particularly in the second half. Made a good assist for the second goal after a number of disappointing attacking passes in the first half. His tenacity was integral to the relatively solid second half.

Ramsey: Joint MotM with Koscielny. Didn’t have many headline worthy moments but overall contribution was exceptional. The assist for the first goal was sumptuous. Work rate was unquestionable. Showed a great deal of intelligence on the ball. Can do even better but on the right upward curve.

Arteta: Another player who worked his socks off with an appreciable defensive shift. Played some very promising passes as well when the forward players got into space. Picked up an assist for the final goal, is that his first for Arsenal?

I thought the midfield was caught in a no-man’s land in the first half as the pressing wasn’t cohesive which allowed balls in behind rather easily. Once the team dropped deeper in the second half they helped the defence look compact.

All three played a part in sustaining possession under pressure, the importance of which cannot be overstated. All three also got an assist each.

Walcott: Another excellent effort from Theo. He is lethal when the opponents give him a bit of space. Cole used to dominate battles against Walcott when he used to play deeper and with supporting players but was ripped to shreds in an open game. Put in a number of dangerous balls, scored a fantastic goal, worked hard on the flank.

RvP: Immense. On another day he would have walked away with the match ball and the MotM. His movement and positioning is a pure delight. Finishing was top notch.

Gervinho: Excellent movement and good awareness for the assist. Missed a great chance and misplaced some passes, especially in the first half. Was always threatening when he got a chance to run at the defenders.

The attackers showed their quality as they got space to manoeuvre. Both teams missed some opportunities but Arsenal’s front three made the decisive contribution.

Subs: Jenkinson was fairly solid in the few minutes he got. Rosicky looked good on the ball and put in an energetic shift. Vermaelen didn’t have much to do.

Wenger: He was aware Chelsea were going to be very expansive and set his team out to exploit that. It wasn’t as efficient in the first half as one would like but got it right after the break. Deserves immense credit for believing in the players and motivating them despite such negative circumstances. Just like Coyle in midweek, wasn’t AVB another manager who was deemed better than Wenger?

Wonder what the Chelsea  chairman will have to say about that. Will probably pass the buck I guess. At this point I must also say AVB deserves some time and the freedom to buy players he wants. I really liked the way Chelsea played. He needs more experience at this level to fine tune the details but the basics and attitude are there.

Arsenal are slowly and surely moving up with improved performances, better understanding, and indubitable spirit and determination. If you haven’t seen it already, do watch this speech that Arsene gave at the AGM.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Chelsea

October 28, 2011

We know it’s a big and extremely difficult game when Wenger himself calls it a real test and a Cup final. But I don’t want to spend too much time building this fixture up. Those visiting this blog know the significance well enough.

The stats pack on Arsenal website provides some interesting nuggets. Chelsea and Arsenal have played 10 and 9 games respectively since they were part of a score draw and 8 games each since a no score draw. The odds of this game ending in a stalemate would not look good based on those numbers. Oddly enough, I believe, and I guess many would agree, a draw is Arsenal’s best possible result in this game. Certainly, if we consider it’s been 33 games since Chelsea lost back to back games and throw Arsenal’s current away form into the mix, there isn’t much room for optimism.

But I can’t help it. What’s the point of predicting a defeat and watching the game hoping you’re right?

So I will instead focus on one stat that stands out. It’s been 8 League games since Chelsea kept a clean sheet – that was the opening scoreless draw away to Stoke – and 3 since Arsenal did. This could well be a battle where two teams try to outscore each other. That is a tussle the Gunners can win. But I have a feeling this will turn out to be another subtle tactical battle.

Andre Villas-Boas has made an impressive start to his Chelsea career even if he isn’t at the top of the league and his side hasn’t looked as dominant as the top two. I truly appreciate the way he has set his team up to attack. You just have to look at their line-up and tactics at a place like Old Trafford to see what I mean.

An interesting piece on Zonal Marking points out statistics for off-sides, fouls committed, and shots conceded in the context of Chelsea’s pressing tactics. While I don’t agree with the article completely (for instance a comparison of shots on target or clear cut chances conceded would probably paint a different picture), the stats for off-side are quite remarkable and I agree with the central opinion about pressing higher up the pitch based on what I have seen in some games. I think that is driven from the fact that Chelsea are playing a more liberated and ambitious game while trying to impose their identity on matches. It’s a lot like Arsenal in that regard. That again ties in well with the likelihood of a positive, attractive game that could suit the Gunners.

That said, Arsenal will have a very, very tough game defensively. AVB has done an exceptional job of using his midfielders and fullbacks. Lampard has 4 goals and 3 assists to him name this season and looks like a player reborn. Even Ramires has 3 goals and a number of near misses with well-timed runs into the box. Cole (2 assists) and Bosingwa (2 assists, 1 goal) have been very effective in attacking areas. Players often starting in wider positions like Mata (1 goal, 3 assists) and Sturridge ( 4 goals, 1 assist) have also made significant contributions. Not surprisingly, Chelsea are the third highest scoring team in the League averaging over two goals a game.

Furthermore, Chelsea have shown that they can score all kinds of goals – Slow buildup in the middle before a killer through ball, quick counter-attacks, set-pieces, and building from the back to name a few. The following images from the Guardian chalkboards are highly illustrative and I recommend watching the passing animation on Soccernet for some of their goals against Everton and Bolton (Click on the balls representing goals in the timeline).

Various goals scored by Chelsea

 

Clearly, Chelsea can score goals after stringing 15-20 passes together or from more direct routes like set-pieces and counter-attacks. Arsenal have got a semblance of defensive stability back but this game will demand an exceptional performance.

On the flip side, the hosts will leave more space at the back. Shane Long troubled their defence, surely Van Persie, Gervinho, and Co. can do better, no?

Wenger has a big call to make. Does he go for all out attack and take his chances at the back or does he make the game tight in the middle and wait for a mistake.

The intelligent approach for Arsenal would be to continue the current pragmatic style with the midfield playing closer to the defence and focusing on maintaining a solid collective structure for defending where one player covers for another to counter individual mistakes. However, Chelsea have shown excellent movement up front and it could turn into a very long 90 minutes for the Gunners if they get pinned back. Will the Arsenal midfield track the runs when Lampard and Ramires arrive into the box? Will the defence hold firm on set-plays? Will the full-backs struggle against pace and trickery? Will the off-side trap work against a technically gifted side with excellent understanding?

In fairness, some of these questions are applicable to the Chelsea defence as well. Gervinho and Walcott would love to play against a defence that pushes up towards the halfway line. The Blues haven’t been completely convincing while defending free-kicks and their defenders, Bosingwa in particular, are error prone when covering large spaces. Players like Lampard, Meireles, and Ramires will probably not be as defensively alert as Mikel or Essien would be. Indeed, I fully expect Obi Mikel – if fit – to start this one. It will also be interesting to see whether AVB is a proactive or reactive manager. For instance, another more defensive minded choice would be to play Ivanovic ahead of Bosingwa on the right side of his back four.

Both sides have also had a problem with bookings and red cards. The importance of clean tackling and a strong refereeing performance cannot be overstated.

Such games are often settled by the first goal because it forces the conceding side into a more open and aggressive posture. A manager could have perfect tactics but one mistake could spoil it all. Ultimately, it’s the players that have to perform on the pitch.

So who can Arsene trust for such a game? The choices aren’t difficult in most cases and barring a couple of positions the line-up should be straightforward.

The first big decision is the inclusion of Vermaelen who has declared himself fit after coming off for a cramp in midweek. I believe he hasn’t played with Mertesacker who has developed a good understanding with Koscielny, so a change is not justified. Moreover, despite his own opinion to the contrary, Vermaelen lacks match fitness and might lack sharpness at a key moment or would have to come off later in the game eating up one substitution.

Arshavin’s inclusion, and his position if picked, is the second decision for Wenger. The Russian had some impressive moments behind the striker in the Carling Cup game but I am not sure he can produce the same at the Premier League level without compromising Arsenal’s defence and ball moving options.

Finally, Wenger has to decide whether to pick Van Persie or to continue to rest him. After the Stoke game we were told there was no injury but a tightness of muscle(s). With Wenger, I have learnt to take such pronouncements with a pinch of salt. De Kapitein has played a number of games and Arsenal just cannot afford to lose him. If there is a risk it’s better to suffer for one game rather than having him on the sidelines for weeks. Without any real facts however, we just have to go with the manager’s choice on this one.

Probable starting line-up,

Szczesny – Djourou, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Santos – Song, Ramsey, Arteta – Walcott, RvP, Gervinho.

Here’s to a thriller in the offing!


Arsenal 2 – 1 Bolton: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 26, 2011

When I saw the starting line-ups, my initial reaction was that this was going to be a very tough game that will demand a special performance from the Gunners if they were to qualify. After the final whistle, I doubt anyone will argue that it wasn’t an exceptional effort from an interesting collection of young and experienced footballers in red and white.

Arsenal had Yennaris and Miquel in full back positions while Coquelin and Frimpong manned the centre of midfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain was the right sided winger. The other six players in the side were an experienced lot but most of them haven’t had enough games this season.

I thought the first half was a cagey affair as both sides were intent on keeping it safe. As we have seen in some of the recent games, the Gunners kept the midfield deeper and closer to the defence. This made the team fairly solid at the back. Rarely was a defender exposed. But it meant a shortage of numbers and runs in the attacking areas.

Bolton had similar tactics and dropped back when the Gunners were in possession. I must say that was a real surprise and is probably a reflection on their abysmal confidence at the moment. A more positive start from the visitors would have tested the mix-n-match selection that Arsene had to put out.

If memory serves, the opening period was just about shots from distance. Pratley was the first to test Fabianski with a blistering strike. That was Bolton’s first real attacking move after 20 minutes of Arsenal’s dominance. The Gunners though, weren’t really able to make the possession count till that time.

A couple of minutes later Park tested the Keeper from 25+ yards. Soon after, Kakuta beat Miquel with a stepover but then hit it straight at Fabianski. In the 33rd minute Benayoun fashioned a half-chance from a difficult angle on the left edge of the box but couldn’t get enough curve on the ball. Vermaelen then forced a big save from a set-piece that was rolled to him by Arshavin. Finally, shortly before half-time, Arshavin and Park combined to create an opening for the Korean skipper. His strike from the edge of the box was well directed but Bogdan was able to parry it for a corner.

There wasn’t much in it as the youngsters were working really hard. Bolton weren’t playing a dirty game and that helped.

Coyle, after sensing an opportunity, must have instructed his players to press higher up the pitch. Within a couple of minutes of the restart, Muamba caught Frimpong in possession halfway inside the Arsenal area and then went on to finish after exchanging passes with the impressive Pratley.

The visitors were able to pin Arsenal back but were caught on the break twice in quick succession. Less than five minutes after scoring, Bolton were camped in the Arsenal half and were threatening the goal from a corner situation. Fabianski was able to make the save and launched it forward towards Benayoun for a quick break. For a moment the throw appeared ill-advised as the Israeli was dispossessed. But Benayoun and Alex did well to win the ball back. The youngster lobbed it into space wide on the right for his senior teammate. Benayoun sensibly held the ball and waited for support. Arshavin accepted a pass and ambled into the box looking for options. With no real passing options available, the Russian placed his strike beautifully into the far corner.

A couple of minutes later Ju-Young Park scored the winner from another fast break. Coquelin did brilliantly to win the ball inside the Arsenal half and play it forward to the Russian with one touch. Park had strayed off-side but Arshavin held the ball long enough to give his striker a chance to adjust as the Bolton defenders backtracked. The Russian captain’s ball was perfectly weighted and the Korean skipper planted it into the far side with one touch.

Subsequently, Bolton tried hard and created a number of chances. Fabianski was a bit shaky but did enough to keep the ball out. At the other end Arsenal too had some opportunities on the break but couldn’t get the extra goal cushion.

Towards the end, worryingly, Frimpong and Vermaelen came off with injuries. Hopefully, it won’t be serious.

It wasn’t a sublime performance but the diligence and determination of the players was commendable. It was a physical and mental challenge, and one that the youngsters have passed with flying colours. And as Arsene said, credit to the experienced players for taking charge and making their quality count.

Individual Performances:

Fabianksi: Made a number of vital saves but had one or two iffy moments where Bolton fans would say he got lucky. Looked fairly confident and that is important.

Yennaris: Superb. Just loved his positioning, tackling, and tenacity. Best of the five youngsters on the pitch. A very pleasant surprise.

Squillaci: Looked better than Cahill to me! Definitely a more assured performance reminiscent of his good period with Djourou in defence. Won a number of headers, was present in the right areas, fairly composed on the ball.

Vermaelen: Very dominant at the back. Read the game well, made a number of vital tackles, great strike at goal. Did make a mistake of leaving a cross  for Fabianski once when Klasnic got in behind. Overall a very satisfying return. More is definitely expected.

Miquel: Struggled a bit in one-v-one situations but did well when he got tight to his man. Looks like he’s grown in confidence and physically. Has to improve his contribution in the attacking areas but that’s for a later date.

I thought the defenders did very, very well. The full backs didn’t bomb forward as often as their first team counterparts do. It was a safe approach and a shrewd one. Bolton still created some chances late in the game and there are gaps in the collective defending but individually it was fairly good.

Coquelin: A touch erratic with his touch and passing but looked technically better than some of the Bolton first-team players. Very energetic performance with appreciable defensive tracking and tackling.

Benayoun: Swapped positions with Arshavin and moved over the pitch seamlessly. Wasn’t as influential on the ball as I’d have liked but clearly it’s a matter of having the right understanding with others. That takes time and regular games. Also worked hard defensively, especially providing good cover on the left.

Frimpong: Was a beast physically and won a number of individual battles. Made some excellent tackles as well. But there was a lackadaisical part of his game that saw him caught in possession a few times and led to trouble. Needs more urgency even if just playing the ball out from the back. It’s a mental issue as he certainly has the ability to do better.

The midfield wasn’t as dominant as Arsenal’s usually is but that was to be expected. They still outperformed and, more importantly,¬† outworked their experienced opponents. Must have been a great experience for the young duo.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Probably the most erratic Arsenal player on the pitch. Has bags of talent but also a long learning curve ahead. Kakuta is an excellent example of how a talented player could struggle to make a big impact. Needs to listen to Arsene and continue working hard without paying any attention to unnecessary hype.

Park: Wasn’t in the game for the first twenty minutes despite Arsenal’s possession dominance. Got some confidence after his first strike on goal. Impressed with his shooting technique and movement. Good work rate.

Arshavin: Better physical effort than usual. Excellent finish, wonderful assist. His class was apparent and did well to guide the younger players constantly. MotM in my opinion.

The attackers were isolated for large parts of the game but delivered when they got a chance to combine. Their vision, passing, and finishing was a couple of notches above the visitors’ strikers.

Subs: Miyaichi showed exciting pace, determination, and footwork but needs to develop physically or he will be brushed off the ball far too easily. Ozyakup filled in efficiently for Frimpong. Boateng wasn’t really tested in the final five minutes as the Gunners had bodies back when needed and Bolton missed their half-chances.

Wenger: Hats off to the manager for getting a result with such a young side. He’s clearly taken a very conservative tactical approach in the last few games to rebuild the side’s confidence and it’s paying dividends even if at the short-term cost of flamboyance. In a way it was amusing to recall some people actually suggested last season that Coyle should replace Wenger at Arsenal.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Bolton

October 25, 2011

It’s been just over a day since I posted the match report for the Stoke game. It creates an uncomfortable feeling that this game is coming too soon after the previous one. Is it the same for most of the clubs? Somehow I doubt it.

This proximity of fixtures will make Wenger’s job tougher. Given the injuries, especially in defence, Le Boss would probably have appreciated a chance to use one or two regulars in a game like this. But he will just have to play the hand he’s been dealt. If you want a peak at that hand and make some guesses, these pictures of the Gunners training for the game might help.

In his pre-match interview with Arsenal Player, Arsene named Frimpong, Coquelin, Miquel, Alex, and Park as the players who are likely to start. No surprises there. And I will be surprised if Fabianski, Rosicky, and Benayoun don’t get a start. That’s 8 out of 11. It will be interesting to see Wenger’s choices and how he balances the starting line-up.

The back four is completely open for debate. Some have suggested that Vermaelen could make a comeback, others are dreading that Squillaci will get on the team-sheet, Miquel could move to left back, Coquelin might play as makeshift right back, Yennaris or Meade could get a promotion from the reserves to fill in at their respective full back positions, and so on.

Ideally, I’d have preferred a strong defensive unit. Bolton boss Owen Coyle might not play his first eleven but is quite likely to put out a team that has a number of international players and significant Premier League experience. But it would be foolhardy to pick any of the four that started against Stoke. Arsenal have three big games starting with next weekend’s trip to Stamford Bridge. If the injured don’t make a timely return these defenders will have a heavy work load. This game should not be added to that even if winning the Carling Cup seems like an attractive possibility.

For now, Coquelin – Squillaci – Vermaelen – Miquel seems like the strongest available combination. Arsene mentioned that Coquelin is more suited to the midfield role but I am finding it hard to see any other player starting at right back. Playing Yennaris, or the forgotten man Eastmond, would be a big risk.

Moreover,  I doubt there is a place for the youngster in the midfield. Frimpong, Rosicky, and Benayoun should start in the middle. If the French lad is drafted into the middle one of these three will have to move out of the starting eleven or shift to the wings, which will then affect the players who usually play on the flanks.

So, while Coquelin is more of an all-action, Flamini-type midfielder, he should show he can be versatile when the team needs him to perform a different role.

While the return of Vermaelen is an exciting prospect, many will surely be worried whether the manager has been forced into starting him sooner than advisable. In fact, now that I think about it, the Belgian will be lacking match fitness so he might not start at all. I won’t be surprised if a youngster like Boateng made the starting line-up.

Up front, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Park can be supported by Arshavin or Chamakh, depending on the role Arsene has in mind for Park. The Russian and the Moroccan are both in need of games so this will be a tough choice.

An interesting option for Arsene would be to go with a 3-5-2. This way he can have Vermaelen, Squillaci, and Miquel at the back. Pick AOC and Benayoun on the wings with Coquelin, Frimpong and Rosicky in the middle. Park and Chamakh can lead the line. I would love to see it just to see how it works out but I doubt Arsene will change the system.

Le Boss did go with a 4-4-2 last time out. He could do the same again with Benayoun and AOC on the wings, and Frimpong and Rosicky in the middle.

Possible starting eleven,

Fabianski – Coquelin, Squillaci, Miquel/Boateng(Vermaelen?), Miquel/Meade – Frimpong, Rosicky, Benayoun – AOC, Park, Arshavin.

I have left Chamakh out as I failed to spot him in the training pictures. The bench will have youngsters like Miyaichi, Aneke, Ozyakup, Sanchez Watt, Freeman, and others. In that regard the starting eleven will have to do the job. There isn’t much hope of a game changing performance from those with limited experience even if some like Ryo are highly rated. It’s not a slight on their fledgling careers but a simple matter-of-fact observation.

For the last couple of years I have believed Arsenal squad has been a man short in the defensive areas and a versatile player is needed. Emerging talents like Frimpong and Coquelin do add some strength in depth but in such games, and with the injury problems that Arsenal have, the squad does look a bit thin.

The Gunners have worked hard to create some defensive stability but that will be tested if a reserve level back four is put out. It will place a greater burden on the midfield and the attacking players will have to outscore the opponents as a clean sheet will be hard to keep. If nothing else, this could turn out to be a very open and exciting game.

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Arsenal 3 – 1 Stoke: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 23, 2011

No backward step this time. Well done lads. Slow and steady progress works fine. 7th in the table and within six points of third place.

The starting eleven was an interesting one. Van Persie and Rosicky, perhaps Arsenal’s two most creative players on current form, were on the bench as Ramsey and Chamakh got a start. Gervinho came in for Arshavin. I was surprised Walcott kept his place but Wenger must have his reasons.

The game went along predictable lines. Stoke stayed deep, remained organized, and pressed hard once the ball was a few yards inside their half. The visitors’ man marking in the defensive third was impressive for most parts.

I thought Arsenal showed good movement and understanding in the first half but lacked a bit of technical quality, especially from the wingers. Chamakh dropped deep often while Gervinho and Walcott took up interesting central positions. The midfielders were passing the ball well but the final pass was hard to find as the balls down the middle and from the wide areas were cut out well by the defenders. It is probably easy knowing one can knock it out for a corner without being in danger.

Chamakh had a great chance in the 9th minute from one such corner but failed to direct a free header towards goal. Three minutes later Arteta found space outside the box but his left-footed strike was well off the mark. Gervinho had taken up a great position centrally and I was wondering whether Arteta hadn’t spotted him or didn’t have the technique to chip it with his weaker foot.

Play progressed with Arsenal winning a number of free-kicks that would have been very dangerous at the other end but Begovic wasn’t being tested. Ramsey went close in the 22nd minute with a strike from distance but that too narrowly missed the target.

Gervinho scored five minutes later. Ramsey produced a chip that reminded many, perhaps himself included, of his forgotten skills. The Ivorian chested is into his path before blasting past the Stoke keeper. Arsenal will need more such moves against deep and narrow defences.

Thus far, I must note, the Gunners had done fairly well against whatever Stoke could throw into the box, sometimes literally.

It changed in the 34th minute when Lee Mason gifted Stoke a free-kick. Koscielny had done so well to win the header that the kindest comment about the ref would be to label him an utter imbecile.

However, that doesn’t excuse Arsenal’s defending from the resulting set-piece. Shawcross got in unmarked on the left of Arsenal’s box. The Stoke defender was able to play the ball across the face of goal. Walters was unmarked at the back post and his attempt at goal turned into an assist as Crouch finished from a yard out. Arsenal players looked around like headless chicken.

In his post match press conference Arsene said,

But I have to give credit to Stoke, they surprised us with the free kick, and after that we were a bit in no-man’s land on all the second balls.

There are two issues here. Firstly, why were the players surprised by such a simple routine? And that too after it’s been tried on Arsenal, with some success, by others (Birmingham?) in the past. Secondly, why were the players in a no man’s land for the second ball? It’s an interesting term that – no man’s land. Regular readers have probably read it more often on this blog than they would like to. Watch the goal again and see how Mertesacker moves away from back post, and how three Arsenal players get caught in between without getting close to either Walters or Crouch. Is it a problem with the players or the training? Looking at Wenger’s body language when set-pieces are conceded, I believe it all starts from the way the manager thinks, or doesn’t think, about set-plays.

But I don’t want to dwell on an issue that has been discussed to death.

The remaining period of the first half was nervy but credit to the players for hanging on. They deserve further plaudits for a strong start to the second half. It wasn’t easy. The chances weren’t coming but the ball was in the attacking third for long periods. Koscielny attempted a tough reverse kick from a corner. Chamakh almost got on the end of an Arteta cross. There were a number of “not quite enough” moments. Cue enter Robin van Persie.

It took De Kapitein around five minutes to restore the Gunners’ advantage. Arteta chipped it out wide to Gervinho who drove past his man to the byline. Robin’s movement to attack the cutback was exemplary as was the power he generated while off balance. Some observers will question the Keeper but I thought it was more down to the sting in the strike.

Stoke pushed up in search of the equalizer and they did get some generous free-kicks but Arsenal did enough to protect Szczesny and the goal behind him. The Gunners did well to slow the tempo and moved the ball around to frustrate the opponents. They also were alert enough to score the third. This time it was Arshavin who fed Gervinho’s run in behind a high-ish Stoke line. Once again the Ivorian cut it back, Robin guided it towards goal, and the Keeper couldn’t keep the ball out.

Soon after Kenwyne Jones got a shooting chance from inside the box but Koscielny made a crucial block.

I thought there were a number of positives to take from this game. The understanding between the players is definitely getting better. The defending from the set-pieces has improved in general even if one instance was rather poor. The players didn’t panic, kept going, and are showing their mental strength.

I also want to note my surprise that a team as bad as this Stoke side is actually playing above the third division in a major footballing country. Purely from a football lover’s point of view, Stoke’s attempts at passing the ball were cringe-worthy.

I wasn’t surprised by the ref but the officiating in this game reflects poorly on English football. Along with the way Stoke play, it shows an archaic mentality that should never be tolerated at this level and is undoubtedly one of the main reasons for England’s poor showing at the international level. I can’t believe Chamakh didn’t get a penalty after the defender climbed all over him or the player who smashed Van Persie, quite deliberately, with his elbow didn’t get a red. The ref didn’t even call it a foul! At the other end Koscielny was penalized for a fantastic aerial challenge. Stupid? Blind? Incompetent? Crooked?

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Again didn’t have much to do.

Djourou: Not bad, not bad at all. Got caught on the ball once or twice but looked quite comfortable at right back. I enjoyed the way he sometimes moved inwards with the ball. Made good use of his height and presence on most set-pieces. Didn’t bomb forward as often as the regular full backs do. I thought that was a pragmatic tactical choice.

Mertesacker: Questions can be asked about his movement for the first goal but overall it was a fairly dominant effort. Got into good positions, helped move the ball, won the headers that came his way.

Koscielny: Another excellent game for the Frenchman. Absolutely love the way he reads the game and his decision making is getting better. Made some vital interceptions/tackles and one critical block late in the game.

Santos: Looks like he is settling in. Still lacks the understanding needed to play in this system but didn’t leave the flank exposed. Has the technique to offer a lot more in attack but that will with time. Physical presence was helpful. Made a few tackles in and around the box that prevented dangerous situations from developing.

The defenders were bigger and stronger. They also looked a lot more confident while defending free-kicks and throws. Nevertheless, a great deal of effort is still needed as was shown by that one variation. In many games, a single moment can be the difference between a win and draw or a draw and a loss.

Song: Moved the ball well, excelled at tracking and tackling in the defensive areas, needs to do much better with his passes in advanced areas.

Ramsey: Topped the distance covered numbers proving his exceptional work rate. Good assist, threatening strike on goal, looked much more comfortable in possession.

Arteta: Very similar to Ramsey in effort and quality. Delivery from corners was decent. Also offered a strong presence at the back and in individual tussles.

The midfield saw a lot of the ball and did well in terms of retaining possession. However, more penetration is needed and the final pass hasn’t arrived often enough. Ramsey showed the talent is there, it’s a matter of unlocking the potential without losing the work rate or defensive contribution.

Walcott: Movement was good and got past his man on a few occasions but wasn’t able to produce quality crosses. Spent most of the time lost in a crowd.

Chamakh: Dropped deep regularly, decent technique and provided a number of layoffs. In form, he’d have scored from the free header. Needs more time and a few goals.

Gervinho: Will probably be the MotM for most people, a close second in my reckoning. Took up interesting positions, runs were good, goal was emphatic, assists were long overdue. Finally the exciting part of his game outweighed the frustrating one. Needs to produce more often.

The front three were moving around but the defence wasn’t stretched for large parts of the game. I thought the Gunners didn’t use width well enough in this game but Stoke also deserve credit for getting bodies between the ball and the goal.

Subs: RvP was the MotM in my opinion as he made the most of opportunities created in part by his own movement. Gervinho would not have looked as impressive if De Kapitein hadn’t finished off those chances, something only he can do for Arsenal right now. Arshavin played a part in the third goal and it was nice to see him tracking back and tackling deep in the Arsenal half. Frimpong only played in injury time and almost put the team in trouble when he was caught in possession.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Stoke

October 22, 2011

After two steps forward, the next one should not go backwards. That is the mantra for Arsene and his players this Sunday as they welcome, perhaps reluctantly, Stoke City to the Emirates.

At home the Gunners have generally done well against the Potters. But Arsene probably played his best eleven against Marseille while Stoke were able to rest a number of players for their European adventure. It could work against the Gunners in a game that will have high intensity and demand a lot physically.

Tactically, the two sides couldn’t be more apart. Under normal circumstances, Stoke would get bodies behind and sit back. Crouch would be their target man with Walters making runs in support along with one of the wingers. They’d try to score on the break or win a throw/free-kick, which is their bread and butter as far as attacking goes. It also happens to be Arsenal’s Achilles heel that has been having the kind of setbacks that Vermaelen did. While the last couple of games have been good from a defensive point of view, I am not taking anything for granted. Szczesny and Mertesacker will have something to prove in this game, as will Koscielny.

Interestingly, I have a feeling Pulis could be more adventurous in this game and push his players further forward to press the Gunners. Marseille, Dortmund, and other teams have shown they could trouble the Gunners with such a tactic. It would be risky but a lot more positive. Or the Stoke manager might just look at Arsenal’s visit to Blackburn and think there is a better chance of getting a result by playing on the counter. In any case, as with most teams recently, Stoke will feel this is their best chance of getting something out of a game away to Arsenal.

For the Gunners, I feel the current period is a bit similar to a part of the 08-09 season where the side played four 0-0 draws after a poor start. The current form and group of players is not the same as that season but the rebuilding phase is consistent. I won’t be surprised if this isn’t an extravagant display. In fact, I hope it isn’t because the risk of taking that backwards step would be too high if the Gunners go gung-ho in attack.

The midfield has to stay deeper even if Arsenal lack bodies in the box. The balance between midfielders arriving in the box or getting into advanced positions with the players providing defensive cover has not been achieved and in such cases a cautious approach is pragmatic. The front three should be able to fashion some good chances even with a patient approach.

If I am not mistaken, Stoke did have a relatively weaker record at defending set-pieces last season. It would be delightfully ironical if the Gunners were to nick this one via a solitary goal from a free-kick or a corner, which seems long overdue anyway.

Wenger has an unenviable task of picking the starting line-up after two gruelling encounters in the past week. As Le Boss said, he often thinks of resting Van Persie on a Monday but ends up picking him by the end of the week. Frankly, I can’t make up my mind about this one.

Stoke are always a dangerous opponent as far as physical injuries go although they aren’t quite as bad away from home where the referees are less lenient towards their thuggish ways. Should Van Persie be risked against such a side at a time when the Dutchman seems like the only real world class player in the side? What would happen to the recovery and the season if De Kapitein is knocked out for a few weeks, if not more?

On the other hand, without Van Persie, will this team have enough confidence to score? What will happen to the recovery if the side doesn’t even create a few good chances?

As I said, not an easy choice, and in such cases I’d support the manager in whatever decision he makes.

The back five should be the same that finished the game at Marseille. Djourou should show his recent shaky form is behind him. The Swiss internationals height and physical presence can be very useful in such a game but it will come to naught if mistakes aren’t cut out.

Song and Arteta should start in the middle but will Rosicky be able to handle three games in a week? Benayoun or Ramsey could come in for Little Mozart. One of them might even start on the wing if Wenger wants better technical quality on the pitch.

Wenger will probably have to pick two from Arshavin, Walcott, and Gervinho. The Russian didn’t have a particularly great outing against Marseille but deserves another chance alongside the Ivorian who impressed after coming on for Walcott. Theo might not be that effective against a team that is sitting back.

Preferred starting line-up,

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

I expect this to be a tougher game than the previous two and Stoke will certainly offer a bigger challenge than Sunderland did. In that context, even another hard fought win will be a sign of progress.

Limiting the number of set-pieces and throws conceded along with a better defensive performances in such situations will be a confidence booster not only for the squad but also for the fans. Needless to say it could just as easily go the other way if things don’t turn out as desired.

The most important part however, is that the players not make any silly mistakes due to carelessness or a lack of focus. That will be hard to take and will set the recovery back to square one.

I want to end by wishing Le Boss a happy birthday and many, many happy returns of the day at the Emirates.


Marseille 0 – 1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 19, 2011

One-Nil to the Arsenal. Thank you very much.

I would have been happy with a draw so a win, and that too in such a manner with a clean sheet to boot, has put me over the moon – which is a lovely place, you should join me. Ah! I see many are already here and some others on their way. Wonderful.

I need a few deep breaths before writing this so you aren’t blinded by all the moonshine. Ok, enough with the euphoria-induced stupid jokes, let’s get to the match.

I thought this was a very exciting tactical battle and Arsene won it with his experience.

For large parts of this game many Gooners might have been frustrated and nervy. Marseille were looking a lot more threatening while Arsenal weren’t really creating quality chances that one expects/demands.

Deschamps deserves credit for pushing his players up the pitch to press Arsenal and prevent the Gunners from bringing the ball out with ease. The approach disrupted Wenger’s side and possession was squandered time and again. When the Gunners did string a few passes together – which was a hard task mind – it usually ended in a unsuccessful cross from wide on the right. Jenkinson or Walcott the player looking clueless with only Van Persie a target against four or five defenders. I don’t blame the wide players despite the statistic reading 0 successful out of 28 attempted crosses at one point.

The problem here was that Arsenal kept the midfield deeper to provide better cover to the defence. This meant Marseille couldn’t really test Szczesny despite having the ball in dangerous areas. Wenger mentioned Marseille were lethal on the break and this would have been a tactic to counter that.

On the flip side, Arsenal couldn’t get enough bodies forward to support Van Persie. It’s an issue of finding the right balance and Wenger hasn’t achieved that on a consistent basis. When that’s the case, I’d take a strong defensive performance over a flamboyant but leaky effort.

I believe Arsenal need better structure/shape in such games but for now hard work and concentration will have to suffice.

Ultimately, the tactics of both sides meant there weren’t many highlights-worthy moments in the first half. There was a penalty shout in each box. Marseille might be aggrieved that Santos wasn’t shown a second yellow. But by and large I don’t have any complaints against the ref even though the decisions weren’t always to my liking.

The second half started where the first had finished. Marseille got the ball into the Arsenal box but the Gunners always had bodies to protect the goal. It was ugly at times, but effective. On the other side the Gunners only managed a couple of half chances.

In both cases, Walcott and Van Persie got chances from a difficult angle on the right and Mandanda did well to save.

I thought Wenger also won the battle with the right substitutions which were afforded to him by a stronger bench.

Djourou came on for Jenkinson due to an injury but the introductions of Gervinho and Ramsey gave Arsenal greater impetus whereas Gignac and Amalfitano couldn’t make much of an impact for Marseille.

In the final 15-20 minutes Arsenal looked like the team with the momentum and desire as the hosts tired and their pressing waned. Even then the Gunners were cautious not to leave the back door open which prevented a couple of perilous moments from turning into disasters. Song and Koscielny deserve special mention for their work at the back but others did a good job as well.

The goal, I must confess, came out of nowhere. It was however, a result of Arsenal’s greater desire and experience as Marseille lost their concentration and left the defenders without cover at a crucial juncture. It’s the kind of mistake Wenger’s sides have made in the past.

Djourou found himself in space halfway inside the opposition half on the right side after winning a 50-50. His cross was good but clearly directed towards the central players Gervinho and Van Persie. The ball shaved the Ivorian’s skin and fell kindly to Ramsey who’d sneaked into the box from a wide position on the left. The Welshman’s control, composure, and finished underlined his quality.

I wouldn’t say this was a great display from Arsenal. But it was a game which showed Wenger does make subtle tactical adjustments. It also showed the value of his experience and the overall fighting spirit of the squad.

Having said that, I will make my way back down to earth. Two wins on the bounce is just a start and we cannot afford to get carried away.

Individual Performances

Szczesny: Wasn’t really tested despite a number of balls arriving in the box. Was well placed and contributed towards soaking pressure by receiving passes and spreading the ball.

Jenkinson: Energetic performance from a willing worker. Could have done better with some crosses but looking up, he must have been disappointed with the lack of targets. Did win a number of corners though. Tenacious in defence.

Mertesacker: Was beaten by the skill of an opponent on more than a couple of occasions but mainly in a wide position just outside the box. Was strong and decisive in the central areas in front of goal.

Koscielny: Excelled at reading the game. Made a number of vital interceptions/clearances.

Santos: Some of his touches were classy but he also had a languid style which made him look tired and led to a few errors. Will have to buckle down and play with focus if he has to perform every three days.

I thought the back five were impressive. Marseille rarely got a clear look at goal despite having quality players on the ball and good runners. The defensive line was largely solid and they made up for mistakes by being tenacious. For instance, when Remy got in behind from a long chip and beat Mertesacker, Jenkinson got back to cover. Even the right back was beaten but still got back to put a foot in to deflect the shot away from goal. The players worked for each other and protected the goal. It wasn’t the performance of a dominant team but one of a determined side.

Song: Picked up a booking as early as the 4th minute after a loose touch ceded possession in a tricky area. Maintained his composure after that and produced quality tackles in and around the box. Needs to do better with his passing and decision making in advanced areas.

Arteta: Tremendous work rate, good technique on the ball. Provided good cover on the left, especially when Arshavin stayed up.

Rosicky: Looked good on the ball but nowhere near the kind of dominance he showed in the previous game. Fair contribution at the back.

I thought the midfield struggled against the pressing in the first half and for parts of the second. But their primary responsibility seemed to be that of providing cover and that was executed well enough. Usually, when the opponents press the midfielders push up as we saw with Song and Arteta’s positioning against Sunderland. The conservative approach in this game wasn’t easy on the eye but justified and commendable.

Walcott: Will probably be vilified for his crossing but I thought he did well with the limited service for his runs and the lack of options in the box. Honest defensive shift as well.

RvP: Continues to plug away with his work rate – dropping deep, working the channels, rarely a still moment. Didn’t get enough support from the midfield so his effort was even more impressive.

Arshavin: The only truly disappointing performance on the night. Tried as well as he could but wasn’t able to get past his man on the right or the left. Didn’t do enough in defensive areas.

I thought the front three were isolated and out of sync. This must have been a different experience from the usual camping in the opponent half. I would still like to see better tactical utilization of Walcott’s pace when the opponents are pressing so high up. Playing another midfielder on the left might have liberated the Englishman more often.

Subs: All three were involved in the goal! Djourou created the chance by winning the challenge and putting in a good cross, Gervinho got a crucial touch even if unintentionally, Ramsey produced the decisive finish. In general, Djourou looked more confident than in some of the earlier games and was extremely unlucky to get booked for a very good tackle. Gervinho was lively and troubled the defenders with his direct style. Ramsey put in a good shift.

Wenger: Put a strong team out. The repercussions of that will be known in the coming weeks but it should at least produce a confidence boost on the back of table-topping result. Sent his team out with a conservative approach and with a focus on avoiding mistakes. Used the experience, substitutions, and better fitness effectively.