Arsenal 0 – 1 Manchester City: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

November 30, 2011

Arsene went with a 4-4-2 in a system that was designed to give games to players rather than a clear tactical move. Mancini retained his 4-3-3 but was surprisingly defensive in his approach with Kolarov playing as a left winger, at least for half an hour!

The first half was largely uneventful with neither side really creating many chances. City’s experience was being countered by Arsenal’s youthful energy and desire in the middle. Hargreaves and De Jong didn’t command the midfield as City fans would have expected whereas Nasri was anonymous for most of the game. Both sides were looking at their right-sided winger to create but the defences were mostly well organized.

Arsenal created two noteworthy chances in the first half. After a long range strike by Johnson that just went over the bar, the Gunners created what was probably their best chance of the game in the 12th minute. Oxlade-Chamberlain brought the ball forward before finding Chamakh on the edge of the box. The striker did really well to hold the ball and suck in three opponents before sliding it wide for Coquelin. The youngster played a superb early cross to the back post where Park arrived on time but couldn’t sort his feet out to generate enough power. Nevertheless, it drew a big save from the keeper.

Then in the 29th minute AOC unleashed a rasping drive from 25 yards after a neat one-two with Chamakh. It looked spectacular but the Keeper always had it covered.

At the other end there were a few dangerous balls across the box and one occasion where Fabianski had to be sharp to smother a through-ball from Nasri.

City were patient and waiting for their chance while ensuring their goal wasn’t always exposed. Around the 40 minute mark City had 60 percent possession but very little to show for it as most of it was at the back of middle.

When Arsenal did get a chance to go forward the players ran out of ideas in the attacking areas. There were a number of moments when the Gunners had three or more players on the edge of the box and a similar number 15 yards away from the box but in such situations the play got very static and lacked impetus/incision. It was a clear case of individuals lacking understanding due to lack of games and a need for a bit of functional, pre-determined play that Wenger seems to have abandoned completely.

Both teams upped their game in the second half. Dzeko curled one close to the goal a couple of minutes after the restart. Oxlade-Chamberlain forced a couple of punches from Pantilimon at the other end.

A clear warning sign came in the 54th minute when Johnson put Aguero clean through. Only a poor touch from the Argentine allowed Coquelin the chance to nick the ball away. But that moment, along with the number of times City were able to burst forward from Arsenal’s corners/crosses, highlighted the big weakness the visitors could exploit. Most of their efforts were foiled by a combination of errors from the visitors and/or excellent tracking/tackling by the Gunners but they just needed one move to fall in place.

Wenger made two good substitutions. Gervinho came on for Park in the 68th minute and Vermaelen for Miquel on 80. It looked like Arsenal had the momentum and were pushing forward in earnest.

The goal, when it came in the 83rd minute, was an all too familiar story. As Wenger has often lamented, “We were a bit naive. Corner for us, goal for them.” It started with a poor delivery at the near post, one of many from Oxlade-Chamberlain. Dzeko was able to attack the loose ball on the edge of the City box with Koscielny and Benayoun competing. Both Arsenal players went to ground and the field opened up for the Bosnian. On the centre line, Frimpong was marking Johnson while Djourou was on Aguero. The youngster attempted and ill-advised off-side trap allowing Johnson the chance to get past him. But the bigger mistake came from the experienced Swiss defender who let Aguero run past him unchallenged. He should have tracked the run better or could just have brought the player down before he got anywhere near the goal to pick up a booking. City didn’t have anyone else forward.

There were six or seven ways Arsenal could have prevented this goal. It was City’s first shot on target but you couldn’t say it wasn’t coming.

After the goal the visitors were confident in sitting back. Arsenal got into dangerous crossing positions but the players just didn’t know how to attack the ball in the box. It was surprising to see Squillaci staying up in the box when Vermaelen would have been a much bigger threat.

Arsenal’s criminal negligence of set-pieces was typified deep into injury time when even Fabianksi ventured forward. There were seven or more Arsenal players in the opposition box but the delivery went straight to the Keeper who, thankfully, wasn’t aware of the open goal at the other end or, perhaps, didn’t have the confidence to shoot. Interestingly, none of the Gunners showed the awareness to block the Keeper when he did kick it forward with the Arsenal goal gaping.

By and large I thought the defenders and the youngsters did very well against a quality opponent. But there are some basic problems/gaps in the way Arsenal play. Due to that the result wasn’t surprising and cannot be called undeserved.

Individual Performances:

Fabianksi: Had one moment when he came for the ball and flapped but it was a good game otherwise. His positioning was good and did really well to smother the through-ball from Nasri.

Djourou: Was very effective in defence and dominant in the air but made a major mistake for the goal. But why wasn’t he up for the Corner in the first place!? Tried to go forward occasionally but clearly not comfortable at that. Looked at ease in possession and helped soak up pressure.

Squillaci: Not bad, not bad at all. took up decent positions, got his foot in when needed, can’t recall any mistakes. Why was he playing as a striker late in the game?

Koscielny: Phenomenal defensive effort. Made a number of crucial tackles/interceptions. Was very confident on the ball and dominated his part of the pitch. A close second for MotM in my opinion.

Miquel: Struggled initially against Johnson but also made a couple of good tackles late on. Pushed forward surprisingly consistently, often ending up on edge of the opposition box. Crossing was disappointing.

Usually, I don’t blame the defenders but in this case Djourou blotted a good performance with a game-losing rookie mistake.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: Produced a number of driving runs and was involved with most of the half-chances Arsenal created. Touch and control was impressive as were some skills to get out of tight spaces. Was strong in physical battles. Needs better decision making and delivery. Corners were very disappointing.

Frimpong: Physically dominant and energetic, yet effectively disciplined performance. Good to see he didn’t get carried away. Won a number of individual battles all over the pitch against experienced opponents. Attempted a number of driving runs but didn’t really know what to do with the ball once he got forward. Could have done better for the goal.

Coquelin: MotM in my opinion. Very good awareness of space, wonderful touches and technique, solid defensive effort, could have unlocked the defence if there had been better runs up front. Should have taken the corners ahead of AOC, at least some of them.

Benayoun: Hard working game on the flank as he drifted inside in attack and dropped back to defend regularly. Expected a bit more guile and nuance from a player with such experience and skill set.

The midfield four didn’t get overrun despite being outnumbered. The work rate was exceptional, as was the desire to perform. The only criticism can be about the lack of creativity but it would be harsh on the youngsters.

Park: Ran a lot but wasn’t on the same page with his teammates quite often. Got on the end of the side’s best chance and should have done better.

Chamakh: Very effective with his back to the goal and played a key part in both the notable chances of the first half. Also won a number of headers outside the box. Shame that deliveries into the box rarely went anywhere near him.

The attack was Arsenal’s weakest area and unfortunately that’s what counts most. Chamakh was playing more as a link striker while Park just wasn’t making the runs his teammates could read and find. At the end it was disappointing to see so few crosses going towards the Moroccan.

Subs: Gervinho was lively but finishing and final ball were poor. Vermaelen should have stayed higher up the pitch. Arshavin didn’t get much time on the ball but his corners were rather aimless.

Wenger: Put out a fighting team and extracted a respectable effort. But the predictably poor goal and typically ineffective set-pieces leave a lot to be desired. Should be proud of the quality of the young players and must now take them to the next level.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Man City

November 29, 2011

This is a tough one to call. Arsenal are very strong at home in the Carling Cup – the last eight games ending in wins with a cumulative score of 23-3. On the other hand, City are probably the only club that can put out a second-string side that would not look far out of place in the Premiership.

For the visitors, Dzeko, Adam Johnson, Nigel De Jong, Kolo Toure, Kolarov, Zabaleta, Savic, and even Hargreaves might get a start. That would give them a decent back four but one that I wouldn’t find daunting if I were an Arsenal attacker. Still the spine will be quite strong and most importantly, Mancini’s men will have excellent quality in front of goal.

Wenger will have to pick a strong defence but with so many injured full-backs the manager has his work cut out. I didn’t see any of the defenders that played against Fulham in the training pictures. That would imply a centre back pairing of Squillaci and Koscielny with a couple of youngsters, quite possibly Miquel and Yennaris, on the flanks. I am not convinced that defence can keep City out, with due respect to their efforts against Bolton, so this could be another goal glut like the visit to Stamford Bridge.

The back five are likely to be shielded by the dynamic yet inexperienced duo of Frimpong and Coquelin. The choice of the four attacking players will determine Arsenal’s ability to compete in this game.

Interestingly, Arshavin was conspicuous by his absence from the training pictures and could be replaced by Gervinho. Chamakh and Park were both in training but I will be surprised if one of the two is not picked as the lone striker. The Korean is likely to pip the Moroccan to that post.

Probable starting eleven,

Fabianski – Yennaris, Squillaci, Koscielny, Miquel – Coquelin, Benayoun, Frimpong – AOC, Park, Gervinho.

Despite the bigger names in the City side, I won’t be surprised if Arsenal match the higher-rated opponents in terms of passing and possession. But that will also depend on Mancini’s midfield. The Italian will have to pick a couple of youngsters if he chooses to leave out the likes of Silva, Yaya Toure, and Nasri. Even Aguero might be on the bench or completely rested along with the suspended duo, Barry and Balotelli.

Such a City side will rely on Adam Johnson for creativity. Dzeko will be a threat in the box and his shooting from distance could test Fabianksi.

For the Gunners, Frimpong and Coquelin will have to produce absolute blinders. Their job description will include helping the full-backs, bringing the ball out from defence under pressure, sweeping in front of the centre of the penalty box, and tracking runs. It’s vital that they keep things simple, avoid mistakes, and not get caught upfield or out of position.

In attack, much is expected of Gervinho. The Ivorian has been in dazzling form, at least as long as he has been running towards the opposition penalty area. He now needs to add an end product to that. Oxlade-Chamberlain will probably find this his toughest start yet in an Arsenal shirt. The youngster will have to link-up with Gervinho and Park while also providing cover against the forward bursts of Kolarov.

Benayoun will have the unenviable task of guiding the youngsters and feeding the attack. It will demand a tireless effort and an impeccable sense of positioning. I’d prefer if he stayed deeper and let one of the wider players cut in from the wings.

Park must ensure he doesn’t cede possession by straying off-side and will have to show a greater understanding with the other attackers. One would also expect a lot of thankless runs from the striker to create space for the others.

When the Gunners do lose the ball in attacking areas they will have to prevent players like Johnson from running into space. Once a winger like Johnson get’s past the full-back, he can stretch the whole defence out of shape. That means the full-back(s), mostly Miquel, will have to limit their attacking runs and take up positions to intercept passes or close the run down. That’s a very tough ask against a quality player and even many seasoned defenders might struggle at it. Another option is to show him the channel and match him for pace while hoping for cover from a midfielder. I am not sure Miquel can do that right now so his best bet is to be intelligent with his positioning and decision making. It should be a fascinating battle.

I expect the result to be determined by Arsenal’s approach to the game. The visitors will have greater bench strength and will be very hard to beat if they take the lead. It could be a high-scoring encounter, and possibly and embarrassing score for the Gunners if Arsene is very adventurous in his tactics. But we could also see a tight game settled by the odd piece of individual skill if Le Boss matches Mancini’s pragmatism.

Arsenal 1 – 1 Fulham: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

November 27, 2011

This wasn’t the kind of game that I wanted to watch at midnight after an immensely enjoyable day with friends and their families who are visiting us for the holidays. And I get no joy in typing this report at quarter past two in the night but writing can also be cathartic at times and that’s just what I am hoping to achieve.

Arsenal blowing away points, while on a good run, in a game that’s there for the taking isn’t at all surprising anymore. Wenger gave the usual “explanation” of “lacking sharpness” citing the midweek battle with Dortmund. It’s a fair explanation but one that isn’t easy to accept when given every few weeks over the course of a few years.

I can understand Wenger’s point. This game should have been won 1-0 despite the tiredness. But the first half was just so soporific. Fulham weren’t really well organized and Arsenal were able to play the ball between the lines with relative ease. But the final pass or the attempted finish were just too lethargic.

I also felt the Gunners made a crucial tactical mistake. In the first half, Djourou rarely, if ever, ventured forward from his temporary right-back role. That in itself was not a problem as the swiss defender isn’t a regular and cannot be expected to run the flank as Sagna or Jenkinson do. But his reluctance to move forward meant Walcott stayed wide all through the game. This left the Gunners a man short in central areas on occasion. Ramsey tried hard but that effort forced errors at vital moments.

It might have been sensible to occasionally shift one of the midfielders, most likely Ramsey, towards the wide areas to free Theo to move inside. Djourou should have tucked in with Mertesacker and Vermaelen could then have moved into midfield alongside Song with Arteta pushing forward to cover areas that Ramsey was getting into. It would have put two relatively slower players in the centre of defence but a more compact attack would have scored against a crowded but rather static Fulham defence that wasn’t able to stop the Gunners from getting in behind as well as some others have.

I don’t want to go over too many events from the game. Arshavin was off-side when he scored early on. That set the pattern for the game. Arsenal were able to find plenty of space around the visitors’ penalty box but either the run, pass, or the finish wasn’t very good. When everything did fall into place, like the intricate move in the 7th minute, Schwarzer made a good save.

After the first 10 minutes the game was tighter but I believe that was more down to Arsenal dropping into second gear rather than a massive improvement from Martin Jol’s side.

It was good to see Fulham trying to build from the back with only the sporadic long ball. Zamora was very strong and prevented Vermaelen from making his usual tackles/interceptions. The visitors were able to get a number of snapshots in all through the half, with Dembele offering the biggest threat.

The second half was similar although it seemed Djourou was given instructions to push up when possible. Arsenal did have a good spell just before the hour mark. Ramsey should have won a foul when Hangeland barged into the Welshman on the edge of the box. Rambo’s sprawling figure inadvertently blocked a pass meant for RvP. The Dutchman then did well to create space for a shot that was cleared off the line a minute or two later.

Vermaelen’s own goal was inexplicable but not entirely surprising. Arsenal defending is not well structured and leads to more freak goals than any other team I have seen. In this particular case a good ball over the top from Murphy found the run of Riise. The Norwegian didn’t really control it well and there was no apparent danger when Vermaelen attempted a clearance that turned into a well placed shot into his own goal. I have no idea what the Belgian was trying. It should have been a routine kick away with the outside of his boot or his right foot. He probably tried to hit the ball away from the goal instead of knocking it for a throw on the right. By mistiming that kick, Vermaelen ended up side-footing it away from Szczesny.

Arsene brought on Gervinho and Diaby in place of Ramsey and Mertesacker. The Gunners played the rest of the game at a tempo that could have put them 2 or 3 up in the first half. But it was desperation stuff against a team that had visibly grown in confidence and were defending deeper and better.

Djourou forced a big save from a corner. Chamakh then came on for Arshavin.

Vermaelen put one in at the right end in the 82nd minute. The assist came from a peach of a cross by Theo who was just superb all through the game.

Arsenal kept searching for the winner but it wasn’t to be.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Made a couple of decent saves. Was a bit hesitant once or twice. Probably never expected the shot from Vermaelen so can’t blame him for the goal.

Djourou: Was strong in the air, made some excellent tackles, very strong defensive game.

Mertesacker: Made a good block, was reading the game well, can’t really fault his effort.

Vermaelen: Showed that just about anyone can make mistakes at the back and look daft. Took his chance well at the other end. Had a fascinating battle with Zamora throughout the game.

Santos: Very, very strong and skillful in individual battles. Got into very exciting positions in attack but the final ball/decision was unusually poor.

It was another sloppy goal to concede but once again it’s hard to blame the back five. I thought Fulham were allowed to get into dangerous positions more frequently than one would want to see. There were patches in the game when the team just slowed down and the pressing without the ball became dismal. The goal came during one such spell.

Song: Excellent tackling with an odd foul thrown in. Was also moving the ball well and got into advanced areas late in the game. Wasn’t able to find the final pass in this game but that’s  not his primary role.

Arteta: Wasn’t as effective as he usually is and sprayed a few passed uncharacteristically wide. But still created a few chances, for instance the one that was cleared off the line. Another decent defensive shift.

Ramsey: Apart from a few quality passes and his effort/movement, the Welshman disappointed with his decision making in the final third and the quality of his finishing and passing. The miss after Walcott’s scintillating run was just terrible.

The midfield was good but I thought they weren’t finding the attacking players well enough. Too many balls were being played down the middle to Van Persie even when he had four players around him. They must develop a better understanding with the likes of Arshavin.

Walcott: Outstanding in an otherwise mediocre team effort. Played a number of dangerous passes/crosses. Ran at the defender constantly and was the only one who could have produced the final ball. Deserves the MotM.

RvP: Movement and effort was top notch. Did well while receiving the ball in deeper areas and was constantly looking to create room for the wide players and supply the killer ball. Shooting was below par by his standards apart from the one effort that was cleared off the line.

Arshavin: Had one or two moments when he looked lively and likely to create but the final ball was poor. Didn’t get on the ball often enough. Needs a better understanding with RvP and the midfield.

Subs: Diaby looked strong on the ball but didn’t really know what to do with it in the final third. Gervinho produced an incisive cameo that led to a number of half-chances. Chamakh chased the ball well and showed some good turns but his passing was rusty.

Wenger: His explanation was valid but it’s an all too familiar storyline. Has to get a lot more out of the team. If the manager keeps playing the same starting line-up he cannot really blame fatigue. Squad depth is an issue that has to be addressed.

It’s 20 past 3 now so I will publish this article without giving it a once-over. Apologies for the tired effort but will you really blame me for emulating the team I dearly love.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Fulham

November 26, 2011

There are stats that could make Fulham’s visit to the Emirates look like a walk in the park for Arsenal. The Cottagers haven’t won away against Arsenal in any competition, losing 22 of the 25 games played. They are currently just 2 points above the relegation zone and have won only 2 of their 12 league games. In six away games, the visitors have scored only 3 goals.

But football isn’t a funny old game for nothing. Any team with players like Dembele, Dempsey, Zamora, and Murphy, among others, has to be taken seriously. Don’t forget Fulham are the only side to take points off of Man City this season.

Tactically, this game should not be very different from the Dortmund one from an attacking point of view. Fulham will probably form their first line of defence around the halfway line and make the game compact in the central areas in their half. I expect the wide players to again play a vital role in creating chances as Ramsey and the other midfielders will not get much time or space.

Offensively, on the break, the Cottagers will not move the ball around as well as the Germans did but will look to get in behind with balls over the top and diagonals for the striker to run on to. Danny Murphy has the skill to make such passes regularly. Zamora can be a big player for the visitors as he can hold the ball under pressure and isn’t afraid of creating shooting angles. In a way the next visitors could prove to be more dangerous than the previous ones as they will move the ball faster and over longer distances due to their relatively direct style. Fulham will also be a bigger threat down the channels and wide areas.

Dembele should be their most creative player on the ball in the attacking areas but I am not convinced Jol has made the best use of his talents. Song will nevertheless have to put in another tireless defensive shift in front of the back four to cut out the through-balls and disguised square passes.

This game presents another tough selection headache for Arsene. Should he rest some of his key players with an eye on the upcoming hectic period or does he start with his first eleven to have the best chance of sustaining this strong run.

There are two ways of looking at it. One could point to the next two midweek fixtures, City at home in the Carling Cup and Olympiacos away in the Champions League with top spot guaranteed, and suggest that the main protagonists of the Arsenal revival can be rested in these games. It’s a fair point and one that might fit Wenger’s modus operandi.

I would however, love to see Le Boss resting two or three main players in this game and then rotate the others over the next few games. Based on my observations over the last few years, I am not convinced Wenger gets the most out of his fringe (second choice) players and hasn’t been very comfortable with rotations. Last season’s debacle of sorts in the Champions League group phase highlighted the issues with wholesale changes. Starting 8 or 9 fringe players in a game does not suit Arsenal’s style as they lack the right level of understanding and focus after a long time on the sidelines.

With that in mind, resting the majority of players against City’s strong second string in the League Cup will not be a wise move unless a poor result is deemed acceptable. Arsenal would be better off playing a few regulars to give the kids a foundation of experience.

Furthermore, involving a couple of fringe players in an important League game is better for their confidence/motivation than introducing someone only when the first choice player in injured or in lower priority Cup ties.

Such rotations though, while interesting in theory, are hard to execute as finding the right balance is nowhere near as easy as writing about it on a blog. A disappointing result in this game followed by another one in the League Cup could undo the momentum generated by weeks of hard work.

I honestly don’t know Wenger is going to do. Most of his past decisions indicate the same side will be retained but every once in a while Arsene does try something different. Hopefully, this will be one of those days and the manager will succeed in resting players; in getting the best out of second choice ones; and consequently, in getting a result.

Injuries or physical state will also be an issue. For instance, Koscielny was reportedly taken off for fatigue in the previous game but it could be more than that.

I’d prefer one rotation in each of the three areas – defence, midfield, and attack. There are countless permutations possible but here are my suggestions,

Preferred starting line-up,

Szczesny – Djourou, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Santos – Song, Frimpong, Ramsey – Walcott, RvP, Arshavin.

Song is on fire and should be able to provide cover for the relatively slower giants on the right. Vermaelen can hold fort with support from Santos and Frimpong on the left. Arshavin could benefit with some minutes alongside the red hot Van Persie.

For the Carling Cup game I’d retain the likes of Djourou, Frimpong, and Arshavin. This will give them some continuity. Koscielny could play in the centre of defence against a strong City attack. Others like AOC, and Park could also come in for that game ensuring a rest for Theo and RvP. Similarly, other changes can be made. This way there won’t be 9-10 changes at once.

There can also be a debate about the players coming in. Many would prefer Benayoun to Arshavin and/or Coquelin to Frimpong. I find it hard to pick one over the other in both cases.

Having said that, I doubt Arsene will make many, if any, changes to the side that beat Dortmund. In that case a solid defensive performance and a momentum-enhancing win will suffice. Other bridges can be crossed when they are reached. Six successive wins in the League will be an achievement in itself.

Arsenal 2 – 1 Borussia Dortmund: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

November 24, 2011

The best team won. Simple as that.

It was a tough game. Dortmund are a top class side. Klopp set his team up to defend and play on the break. It worked for large parts of the game as the visitors limited Arsenal to just 3 shots on target. But such was the Gunners’ quality in the final third that two of those went in. Dortmund had more shots and a greater number on target but most of those, except the goal, were hopeful strikes from distance.

There weren’t many thrilling moments in the first half. Dortmund stayed deeper and defended in the area ten yards outside their box and up to the centre line. Arsenal had 61 percent possession at the end of the half but very little to show for it. Arsenal’s passing was slower and it allowed Dortmund to retain their shape. It also allowed the visiting defenders to intercept many passes played to the feet of an Arsenal attacker.

The Gunners also struggled a bit under pressure and lost the ball more frequently than is usual. It provided the Black Yellows some counter-attacking opportunities but they didn’t have enough quality in the attacking areas to trouble the Arsenal defence that was ably and consistently supported by Arteta and Song.

The lack of technical quality on the wings also made it difficult to bring the ball out as fewer passing options were available. Gervinho and Walcott were looking to make runs in behind but weren’t always available to receive, hold, and move the ball to stretch the opponents. This increased the work load of the midfield and full-backs who found an appreciable balance between defending and possession play.

Arsenal too were understandably cautious in their approach and the full-backs didn’t charge forward as often as they do in League games. Ultimately, most of Arsenal possession was at the back and in central areas. Dortmund must have been happy with their effort in the first-half, especially as they lost two players to injuries. Götze, in particular, was a big loss. It took away their biggest creative weapon.

Wenger must have asked his team to up the tempo as the speed of the ball from the passes seemed higher soon after the restart. But it was Dortmund who got in behind twice after delightful one touch passing. Szczesny made a save and the other move resulted in a corner that was well defended.

The big moment came in the 49th minute when Arsenal broke forward into space. It looked like impetus was lost when Ramsey held on to the ball and turned towards his own goal. His only passing option was back towards Song. The Cameroonian took it to the flank and was surrounded by three opponents with no support from his teammates. Song took on the challenge and beat the Dortmund players with a combination of tenacity and nifty footwork. His cross was perfectly measured and Van Persie’s header was as good as a striker can produce.

After the goal Dortmund pushed forward but the Gunners never lost their composure. Van Persie dropped deeper and Gervinho started playing as the striker with the hope of getting in behind the high line that the visitors now held.

Dortmund were now seeing more of the ball in the Arsenal half but the Gunners were chasing everything down and always looked a threat on the break.

On the hour mark Ramsey put Gervinho clean through but the winger’s first touch was poor and he was too indecisive thus allowing the defenders to come back and clear. It capped off another frustrating night for the Ivorian.

Arsenal got the second goal cushion after an Arteta free-kick was deflected back for a corner. The Spaniards delivery found the Belgian at the near post and his flick-on fell to a sharp Dutchman who showed good technique to guide the bouncing ball home.

To their credit Dortmund kept pushing forward but Arsenal always had things in control in front of the goal. The night didn’t end on a perfect note for the Gunners though, as a moment of indecision from Song and a daft touch from Djourou, wide on the right led, to a goal moments before the full time whistle. Song should have cleared the ball instead of running with it towards the Swiss defender who was boxed in. Djourou for his part should have shown greater determination to win the ball instead of poking it away from himself and his midfielder.

Such games show that Arsenal are superior to many of the highly rated continental teams that have won titles over the last few years but the somewhat predicable and hugely disappointing mistake at the end also suggests there is a long way to go before the Gunners can become the very best.

Qualification to the knock-out phase and top spot in the group have been secured. That is more than the other three English sides can say.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Made a few saves but most were hit straight at him. Showed good composure whenever the ball was played to him.

Koscielny: Very strong defensive effort. Didn’t go forward as often as Sagna or Jenkinson might have, and wasn’t as effective when he did venture forward, but played a part in rotating the ball. There were two or three occasions when he chased back with speed and prevented a dangerous situation from turning into an attack.

Mertesacker: Won a number of headers, was usually very well positioned, could have avoided a couple of fouls. Was confident on the ball and tried playing a number of forward passes down the middle.

Vermaelen: Another superbly dominant display from the Belgian in the air and on the ground. Had the measure of Lewandowski for most of the game. Picked up an assist from the Corner.

Santos: Tackling was very good but was vulnerable to runs in behind. Looked confident on the ball and wasn’t afraid of inviting a challenge.

All the defenders read the game very well. The central defenders pragmatically stayed deeper than usual for home games. Dortmund were able to play a few one-twos around the defenders but, along with the midfield, they covered for each other effectively.

Song: Struggled to bring the ball out in the first half against incessant pressing. Never gave up and his tenacity was invaluable to the defence. It also led to a memorable individual assist and a powerful, no-nonsense second half. Could have done better in the dying moments but dwelling on that would be harsh on his effort. MotM in my book.

Ramsey: Played a number of early balls in behind. Wasn’t always successful but the signs are encouraging. Work rate was again exemplary. He too struggled in the first half but looked a lot more composed after the goal. Wasn’t afraid of holding the ball under pressure and was looking to make things happen.

Arteta: Before the season is over we might see a new term ‘The Arteta Role’ enter the football lexicon. Always there to support the defence, always there to receive a pass, confident on the ball and rarely loses it, makes it look effortless and inconspicuous.

I thought the midfield wasn’t able to beat the pressure in the first half. Part of that was down to the speed of the passing but the team also lacked a player who could receive the ball under pressure and turn his man. But they never switched off and covered the pitch tirelessly. Looked a lot stronger once the game opened up and the score line could have been more impressive if Gervinho didn’t make as many mistakes.

Walcott: Had a number of half-moments sort of like that cross at the end of the first half. It was there but not quite. But he was always a threat and ensured Dortmund had two players ready to double up on him, which took away from their attacking threat. Also tracked back when needed.

RvP: Both goals were very well taken. The first would be obvious to most but the technique on the second one should not be undervalued. Dropped back to support the midfield after the goal was scored and linked play with the runner. Some of his passes were incisive. Offers so much more than just goals.

Gervinho: Probably the only player who had more negatives than positives. Once again his technique let him down at crucial moments. But his pace and intelligent running were always a threat. Needs to learn from Theo and take shots/crosses early and be more decisive (even if some of the decisions are not the right ones).

I thought the wide players weren’t offering enough in the first half as Dortmund cut out the passing angles efficiently. One of them should have come inside more often to help the midfield. They should also have made more of the space afforded to them in the second half. Van Persie’s quality was from a different planet and was the biggest difference between the teams.

Subs: Benayoun showed some neat touches. Djourou didn’t have much to do but made a mistake right at the end. It was nice to see Diaby on the pitch.

Wenger: With this first team he has found the right formula with a balance between defence and attack. Still would like to see the manager getting more from the pace he has at his disposal.

Ref: Just wanted to mention the ridiculous yellow cards given to Theo and Ramsey. Dortmund committed a number of fouls to break up play but weren’t punished. That is acceptable but giving cards for technicalities is daft when the game is otherwise being played in the right spirit. And the one for Ramsey was a joke any which way you look at it. I have seen this with other officials as well. They are trigger happy over inane issues and it can ruin a game like we saw at Barcelona. More common sense is needed over such issues rather than the blatant kicking, diving, playacting, and other disgraceful acts we see on the pitch.

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Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Borussia Dortmund

November 23, 2011

This home game against Borussia Dortmund could turn out to be tougher than the away visit to Chelsea. It probably won’t have as many goals and will be tighter in the middle, but from a physical and mental point of view the players will have to give at least as much if not more than that celebrated triumph.

The first thing many associate with the Germans is pressing. Arsenal got a firsthand experience of that at the Signal Iduna Park with a number of suffocating spells. Klopp has instilled superb structure and discipline in his side which helps their play without the ball. They start with a line around the halfway mark with one or two players ahead, pressing the defenders trying to play out from the back. If the defenders try to retain the ball, Dortmund players slowly but surely push forward cohesively to win the ball back. It either forces a mistake or the ball goes back to the Keeper for a hoof down the ground, usually resulting in a change of possession.

Arsenal will have to find a way of getting past this pressure and exerting their own when the visitors build from back. The Gunners have a similar approach to pressing but aren’t quite as well coordinated. This opens gaps for opponents to exploit and often leaves the players chasing the ball towards their own goal. However, in recent games the midfield and defence have been a lot more compact. It must remain that way without fail against a German side quite capable of punishing errors.

One simple way of judging how Arsenal are faring is to estimate the speed with which the ball enters the defensive third and the manner in which it goes out. If there are a number of panicky clearances resulting in frequent attacks, one can be certain Arsenal are in trouble. Dogged defending can work but Wenger will want to avoid giving Dortmund the initiative.

That means Arsenal have to hold the ball better under pressure. Ramsey and Song will have to ensure they are not caught in possession or lose the ball with a heavy touch. I expect the midfield to play deeper and for Gervinho to drift inside into central positions on occasion. The defenders will find it hard to move the ball if the midfield pushes forward. That will also leave the back four vulnerable if possession is lost when half the side is running upfield. Dortmund will force mistakes and get in behind if the distance between the defence and midfield increases in an effort to go forward. It’s a fine balance that Arsenal have to achieve. Song and Arteta in particular should be in positions that enable them to get between the ball and Szczesny when possession is lost.

Van Persie should also look to drop deeper into the gap between the lines and he will have to work hard to shake off the attentions of Hummel. This can create angles for Theo and Gervinho to run into and should cause problems for the Dortmund backline. For such a tactic to work it’s also important the wide players don’t get sucked too deep to defend. Again greater emphasis should be placed on the midfield’s role in front of the back four. Santana is likely to partner Hummel in the centre of defence. He is a good player but could err under pressure. Gervinho should be ready to pounce on loose touches or erratic passes.

I expect both teams to pose a threat from the wide areas. Arsenal have exceptional pace that can rip the Black Yellows to shreds if the passing is quick and players in sync. Dortmund have the skill on the ball to run rings around the full-backs with one-twos and incisive moves. Arsenal are vulnerable as the players are caught ball watching at times and don’t track the runs or intercept passes in behind as well as one would expect from a top team. Arteta and Vermaelen will have to be particularly alert to this threat if Götze starts on their right.

Both teams have gained form and confidence since they last met. This should be to Arsenal’s advantage if they can avoid getting pinned back. The improved understanding between the players will come in handy but the need to avoid basic individual errors cannot be overemphasized.

While Dortmund are a very good ball-playing side, they are also adept at kicking it long to Lewandowski who does an excellent job of holding it and bringing others into play. The visitors are also competent at set-pieces.

Wenger’s defenders will have to attack the balls into the box without hesitation and midfielders will have to sweep in front of the box to cut out shooting opportunities from cut-backs and square passes.

Arsenal are at the top of the group but cannot risk a reversal in this game as it would throw the group wide open. Getting three points in Greece will not be easy on the final matchday. A positive start with a fast tempo could give the Gunners the advantage. An early goal will force the visitors to be more expansive and will open excellent counter-attacking opportunities.

As far as the starting line-up goes, I don’t expect any changes from Arsene. There is a need to rotate but I am not convinced Wenger has enough strength (form and confidence) on the bench for such a game.

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

Some fans aren’t convinced by the big German’s efforts thus far but he knows the opponents better than anyone else. There isn’t sufficient cause for a change unless someone is physically struggling. Arsenal are on a good run and a sturdy performance in this game will add to the gradually renewing confidence.

This looks like a very evenly matched game and it’s hard to predict which side will blink first. The Gunners have to build on the fighting display of the second half in Germany and add some bite to go with the grind. The visitors must be flying high after a massive win against an impressive Bayern side. But they could end up paying a heavy price if they underestimate this resurgent and resilient Arsenal side.

May the best team win.

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Update: Just wanted to add this link to a stat-based tactical analysis of the Norwich game that I did for Epl Index.

Snapshot Based Analysis Of The Norwich City Goal

November 21, 2011

On Saturday, Arsenal conceded another ridiculous goal. Thankfully, It didn’t affect the outcome but brought back painful memories of other howlers in the recent past. Now the easy option is to blame Mertesacker and move on. There is no denying the fact that the German should have shown greater strength and could have passed the ball towards Santos or headed it back to Szczesny if he so intended. Bulk of the blame falls on the big man and he will have to learn to use his size to resist such opportunistic fouling that is almost always deemed legal in the Premier League.

Having said that, I believe there is more to this goal than just Mertesacker’s mistake. Let’s take a look at the sequence of events. The background was that Arsenal won a corner in the 15th minute and the defenders had gone forward. It was wasted and resulted in a goal-kick.

When Ruddy kicked it forward, Mertesacker won it unchallenged and headed it back into the Norwich half. A few headers were exchanged before Tierney hoofed it forward.

The first snapshot shows the German’s header. The bold red line below Song marks the area where I believe Arsenal’s high line would have been at the time the long ball was played from the back (moments after this snap was taken). It is just behind the centre circle, so around 12 yards inside Arsenal’s half. The yellow oval marks Morrison.

Mertesacker heads the goal-kick

The second snap shows Tierney kicking the ball from at least 20 yards inside the Norwich half. Considering the fact that Mertesacker and Morrison duelled just inside the Arsenal penalty box, this ball must have traveled 55-60 yards if not more.

An interesting aside is that Arsenal have put decent pressure on the ball. In the past it has been said that the Gunners didn’t press well while playing a high line but in this case that does not seem like a valid complaint. So it would seem that even though a key issue has been addressed, the goal could not be prevented. It must be noted that due to the pressing, this wasn’t a measured ball over the top but more of a hopeful punt under pressure.

Tierney long ball | Arsenal pressing fairly well

The third image is the most interesting one. I could not get a less blurry one, apologies for that. But based on the previous images (or you can check the replays) the players’ positions are clear. Mertesacker is marked by the Red oval while Morrison is in the Yellow one.

It seems safe to assume the players would have covered a couple of yards since the ball was kicked and the camera panned around. This provides a rough idea of their starting positions, which should be somewhere along the line marked below Song in the first image.

Morrison & Mertesacker chasing the ball

From here on we don’t need any more snapshots as the events were fairly clear.

Apart from the Mertesacker mistakes discussed above, one could ask why Szczesny didn’t come for the ball. When the ball was 20 yards inside the opposition half, he must surely have been a few yards out of his line. That means he’d have to travel around 15-18 yards to get to the ball while facing all the play.

In contrast, Morrison probably sprinted close to 30 meters from his position wide on the touchline about a dozen yards inside the Arsenal half. He ran at an angle and came in from behind and across the German defender. Mertesacker too would have had to cover 25 yards or so. Based on this evidence it can be surmised that Szczesny could have been closer to the ball than the attackers. Why then should the goalkeeper not take charge of the situation?

Don’t get me wrong, the point is not to blame Szczesny. That is a pointless exercise. The idea is to discuss the events and consider various possibilities. From that point of view I believe valid questions can be asked of the Keeper’s role in this scenario.

Regular readers would recall in the past I have observed that Arsenal’s keepers looked worse than they actually were because they were asked to come for almost everything. Szczesny has been relieved of that burden and the defenders have taken more responsibility over the last couple of seasons. But even then there have been a few incidents when the young Pole came out and botched it. Could it be that he now has strict instructions to stay on or near his line?

I have a feeling the coaches and the players haven’t been able to form a clear decision making process for such events. Of course, it’s not easy and remains a judgement call for the Keeper to make but training should hone his instincts. Recent events and disasters of past might have forced this policy of asking the Keeper to stay back even in cases where coming out would be the better choice.

Without knowing the details of what goes on behind the scenes in training, it’s hard to definitively say whether it’s a training issue or an individual’s lack of judgment. Considering the numerous bloopers that we have seen in recent years with a similar theme but involving different players resulting in various freakish goals, the balance tilts towards a coaching problem.

And since we are talking about this goal, it’s worth mentioning that when Mertesacker got near the ball Vermaelen could be seen gesturing towards Szczesny to stay back. The Belgian himself slowed down and didn’t stay in line with the German. One could also argue that if Vermaelen had anticipated a mistake (like many fans did!) he could have continued his sprint back and got in a position to tackle Morrison or get between the striker and the goal.

Again don’t mistake this as an effort to blame Vermaelen. In fairness, he probably thought there was no danger and eased off. That should have been the case if Mertesacker dealt with the situation.

So in conclusion, I do agree with most people who primarily hold the German responsible for the goal. But when there are three or four defenders around the ball and the solitary attacker manages to score such a goal, further questions need to be asked. Clearly, a lot of work has gone into redeveloping the team but such events do shake the confidence. Can anyone say when next or how often similar  errors will frustrate all Gooners (including the manager and the players)?

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