Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Man City

December 18, 2011

We should have higher expectations every week… I don’t think it’s clever to be excited by fourth, fifth, sixth or whatever. This is not now, we still have to play many games… Lots of stuff will happen that is surprising so we have to make sure that we are on the good side and actually surprise people with our results.

While Robin van Persie has been sensational the with his performances on the pitch, I have also been mightily impressed with a lot of sense that he has spoken. The words above capture Arsenal’s current state beautifully and succinctly.

The side is on a very strong positive run. There is good reason to expect more and more as confidence returns to the players and fans alike. But there is also no need to set targets just yet. The league has seen plenty of surprises and it’s up to the Gunners to show they can repeat the magic we saw at Stamford Bridge earlier this season.

City have not scored against Arsenal in the League since ‘that’ game where Adebayor once again endeared himself to the Gooner faithful all over again! Interestingly, Mancini’s side haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last 8 games. A continuation of these two trends can see Arsenal return from Manchester with a result that would have the exact opposite psychological impact from their recent forgettable visit.

It won’t be easy though. As was discussed in this article, City have improved considerably over last season and have moved the ball as well as Arsenal do. This can turn into an immense possession battle between two sides that have exceptional pace, movement, and finishing in the attacking areas.

It will be interesting to see the way City approach this game. They have been very aggressive with their pressing in many games and often get good value as we saw in their last game against Chelsea. In that game the Blues struggled when they were trying to push forward against the visitors’ pressing but regained control of the game once they sat back in an organized manner. After the early opportunities, Mancini’s side clearly ran out of ideas even when they were allowed to sustain possession. I’d like to see Arsenal take a cautious approach at the start but my experience watching Wenger teams in recent years suggests that the Gunners will try to impose their style right from the off.

In that case, it will be vital to avoid conceding many chances on the counter attack. City have the players who can punish a team even from half-chances. The central defenders will have a massive test and cannot afford to make mistakes in positioning or reading the game.

If Mancini goes with Aguero and Balotelli or Dzeko, Arsenal could benefit from having an extra man in midfield. It’s something the Gunners will have to capitalize on. Furthermore, Yaya Toure is not the best at tracking players – just watch his casual attempt at tracking Meireles for Chelsea’s first goal – so Ramsey could be a key player for Arsenal in attack. Even Arteta could find some spaces in the central areas just outside the City box.

Gervinho will have a tough physical battle with Richards on the left. The Ivorian has been brushed off the ball rather easily in the penalty box thus far and will have to show some strength if he has to make an impact. He will also have a bigger defensive role to play if the Gunners don’t dominate the ball.

On the right Walcott will be a real threat as Clichy and Kolarov are both injured. Zabaleta is a good player but one that Theo can beat if he finds some space. It will be interesting to see the kind of support Mancini provides to his full-back by his choice of the wide player. I won’t be surprised if Milner is given that flank but it could also be Nasri.

Arsenal will again have two central defenders in full-back positions. It should not be that big a problem as long as they are disciplined and get the basics right. Djourou should stay deeper for most of the game but Vermaelen can be a threat in advanced areas. In the last game it took him a while to realize there were opportunities for making runs but specifically concentrated work in training all week should be helpful.

Patience is an essential virtue in such a game. City will not be as open at the back as Chelsea were. Making a comeback after conceding a goal will not be easy. Moreover, Mancini’s side have clearly demonstrated they can be lethal when opponents are chasing a game. I’d like to see the kind of measured performances we saw in the Champions League. Arsenal have enough talent to find a goal from somewhere as the game goes on. So for the Gunners, it’s about retaining the right shape and probing without exposing their own goal.

On the other hand, as discussed in the previous article, the Gunners have a lot more resolve and defensive desire so a lead can be protected, dare I say, despite Phil Dowd.

If both sides play as well as they are capable of, this could be a game with few chances as they’ll cancel each other out. The ability to produce a moment like Van Persie did against Everton or an absolute blunder at the back might just decide this game. It’s not hard to imagine either from this Arsenal side. Individual mistakes, indecision, or shirking of responsibility can be fatal.

Defensively, the Song V Silva battle will also be massive. But the Spaniard will move all over the attacking areas so Song alone won’t be able to control him. It will have to be a team effort demanding impeccable understanding and unwavering focus at the back.

Probable starting line-up,

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

All-in-all this has all the makings of a tantalising encounter that can be more cagey than it is cavalier. Based on the wisdom of the pundits, and perhaps even the bookies, Arsenal should have very little chance in this one. So a defeat will not be a disaster by any stretch but the Gunners have a real chance of showing just how far they’ve come as a unit.

Are Arsenal Showing Greater Resolve This Season + Comparison With Top Sides

December 17, 2011

The recent strong run by the Gunners has created this impression that they are a hard lot to beat. I am among the many Gooners who have noted and commented on the doggedness of this Arsenal squad. With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to see if some numbers back the new found resolve that is being widely perceived and how other top teams stacked up when compared to Arsenal.

The stats for Points Gained From Losing (PGFL) positions and Points Dropped From Winning (PDFW) provide an interesting, if not definitive, benchmark of a team’s fighting spirit.

The following table compares the top six on these two measures over the last five seasons including the current one.

Arsenal are league leaders, including all teams and not just in the table above, when it comes to winning points from losing positions this season. And in terms of holding on to leads – i.e. not dropping points from winning positions – the Gunners haven’t done badly either as only Tottenham are above Arsenal among the top six. Chelsea match the Gunners closely on both parameters but the numbers for City, Liverpool, and United are surprising.

Simply looking at the above table it would seem strange that the team leading the Premiership and dominating most games is the one that is dropping the most points from a winning position. But instead of jumping to the conclusion that Mancini’s side is not quite as good at holding on to leads as other teams, one must delve deeper.

The explanation seems to be that City have the highest PDFW figure because they have been in winning situations much more often than the other teams. This is corroborated to an extent by looking at the sides which have done the best  in terms of holding on to leads. Along with Newcastle, Bolton have dropped 0 points from winning positions. Clearly, this is not a indication of Bolton’s defensive strength but of the fact that they’ve rarely been ahead in games.

By extension of that logic, it seems safe to say that directly comparing the figures will only lead to illogical and baseless conclusions. So while Arsenal have gained more points from losing positions than any other team, we can’t really draw any meaningful insight from that alone.

In order to get some sort of a baseline I thought it would be interesting to compare the percentage of points gained and dropped. In other words, how many points were won from the total points that were being lost and how many points were dropped from the total points being won.

Mathematically, this would work out to Points Recovered (PR) = PGFL/(PGFL + Total Points Lost) and Points Surrendered (PS) = PDFW/(PDFW + Total Points Won). The following table expresses these metrics in percentage form.

Intuitively, this table makes a lot more sense. Even though City have only won three points by turning one loss into a win, they have recovered 30 percent of the points they were losing. Arsenal have a similar percentage because the Gunners have been behind in games more often.

It’s not easy to measure intangibles like the resolve shown by a football team but this table does give us some talking points.

First, let’s look at United as they have been in the top two in all the five seasons under consideration. It’s interesting to note that Ferguson’s side have rarely surrendered over 10 percent of the points they were winning. Last season was the only time they did so but that was due to the fact that most teams struggled in a highly competitive league. This resulted in the title being won with a relatively meagre 80 points. They Red Devils have also consistently recovered 25 percent or more of the points they were losing. The current season seems an aberration on that front but the number of games seems to be a factor.

Similarly, Chelsea have done well in terms of recovering points by clocking over 30 percent in four of the five seasons. Their numbers for surrendering points aren’t too bad either. Interestingly, Chelsea failed to hold on to the leads most often in the season when they actually did win the league, 2009-10. This tells us that there can be no simplistic linear correlation between these figures and the final League position. I think that particular aberration is explained by the fact that the Blues dropped many points towards the end of their League winning effort, which, indeed, allowed United to come within a point of the title. Chelsea would have run away with that title, as it appeared most of the way through the season, if they’d held on to the leads in keeping with their defending in other seasons.

Looking at other numbers in the table, it’s worth noting the outstanding recovery percentages that Arsenal (40.4) and Liverpool (44) achieved in 07-08 and 08-09 respectively. It’s not surprising that these were the years both came closest to winning the League. On the other hand, Liverpool’s form in the last few years has been poor and their rather disappointing recovery percentage neatly coincides with the drop from the top four.

Arsenal’s numbers are interesting when seen in the light of this analysis. This season the Gunners have surrendered only 9.4 percent of the points. This is distinctly better than the previous occasions. The five odd percent gap might not seem that big but one can only imagine where the title would have landed if Arsenal had kept this figure below 10 in 07-08. I believe it’s safe to say the numbers do support the notion that Arsenal are putting in gritty performances this season.

Even in the Champions League, in the eight games played thus far, Arsenal have recovered three of the six points from the only two occasions they were behind to get a PR of 50 percent.  That includes a defeat against Olympiacos which came with the second string. And Arsenal have dropped only two points while winning 17 (including the qualifiers) for a PS value of 10.5 which is consistent with the League figure.

On the whole, I am convinced the Gunners are fighting harder in defence. It would be a stretch to label some of the performances as defensively solid but the number of mistakes, particularly of a casual nature, have gone down significantly. The defensive shape of the team has also been better largely due to the work rate and positional intelligence of the midfielders. Sustaining and indeed improving on this through the course of the season will be vital.

That won’t be enough though, and Arsenal must reduce the number of times they’re going behind. In the fifteen League games, Wenger’s side have conceded a lead on 6 occasions. That proportion has to come down or the percentage of points recovered will have to reach the 07-08 levels in order to have any title hopes or even to cement a position in the top four.

The Cup ties will be knockout games so percentages will mean little but tenacity and the ability to recover from losing positions will be needed in order to progress to the later stages.

There can be an argument against the way I have used the numbers. Some might say including the total points lost, for instance, brings in the element of drawn games where a side wasn’t behind so it might be better to include only points gained and lost from losing positions. That would certainly be another interesting way of looking at the numbers and probably not the only one. I don’t think this analysis conclusively proves anything but there are sufficient indications that justify an optimistic view towards the rest of the season. Revisiting the numbers at the end of the season will tell us more.

Thoughts On Arshavin’s Form And Situation At Arsenal

December 13, 2011

Sometime during the last week there was this article on the Arsenal website with a few comments from Benayoun. The Israeli skipper said that he can understand the reasons for not getting regular starts and was happy to contribute whenever he got a chance.

They say you don’t change a winning team and we are on a good run so it is very difficult to get into the team.

The only thing I can do is to wait for any chance I get – it doesn’t matter if it is 15 minutes or I get to start. I have to prove myself any chance I get and I am sure I can do it.

There isn’t anything particularly striking about these words and one would expect any intelligent, mature footballer to voice such a sentiment. But they reminded me of other words I’d read a month or so ago and it provided a very interesting contrast.

Some of you might remember this in-depth interview (in Russian) given by Arshavin in early November. It was loosely covered in the media and by some blogs. The usual out of context twist was about Wenger being stubborn and stuff like that. Others took a light-hearted view. I want to talk about a different portion of that interview. Here is the excerpt I am interested in (with thanks to Google translate),

Q: What a man feels, whose team plays “Chelsea” with a score of 5-3, and he sits on the bench?

A: That game at least it was fun to watch. And when the score 3-0, you let out 10 minutes prior to the end and you just want to play myself because everyone else already see out … Not the most pleasant sensations.

It’s not difficult to see Arshavin is not particularly happy about coming on late in the games. He seems to be saying that playing the final few minutes is not enjoyable as the teammates are often just going through the motions (when the result is in the bag).

The contrast in the thoughts of the two players could not be starker. One wants to prove himself every time he gets on the pitch while the other doesn’t really appreciate coming on for the final few minutes.

If I am not mistaken, the current typecasting of these two Gunners is that Arshavin is lazy and can’t be arsed whereas Benayoun is a hardworking player who gives his all for the club. The opinions quoted above will probably do nothing more than strengthen these stereotypes if I stop at this juncture.

But I want to delve deeper. Partly due to the fact that I like Arshavin and he seems like one of the most misunderstood players. And in part because it provides an opportunity to discuss how personalities affect performances and the issues they must cause for managers.

I have always seen the Russian talisman as a very intelligent person whose honesty is at times misconstrued. In the same interview, in fact as a continuation of that discussion on playing as a substitute, Arshavin had this to say,

Q: When staying in the reserve, the success of partners rejoice?

A: Hmm … Before this season, remained something not too often. But I can remember, “Zenit” The lawyer.That’s when it was with this in order. Each knew the other possibility, no one had demanded from the partners of the impossible. The main thing was to appear as one. It does not matter who scores, just to win.In fact, now and in the national team since. Similar biorhythms.

Clearly the same as someone on the field better get one, someone else. There are those who in the locker room after the game thinks: “I brought victory.” But there are others. For them the main thing: “We won.” In his youth, often occurs first thought, with experience comes the second.

The translation software doesn’t quite hit the target there but we can make some guesses. I believe he is saying this is a new situation for him but previous experience at Zenit under Advocaat (The lawyer!) and with the national side has taught him that cohesiveness in the squad is most important – “The main thing was to appear as one”.

The second paragraph is even more interesting and shows his maturity that has come with experience. The translation might not be very good but “I brought victory” and “We won” are two clearly distinct ways of thinking. Clearly, Arshavin knows the second approach is more important. So it would be safe to say he understands why he is on the bench and that’s the reason we don’t see him coming out in the media talking against the manager.

Just as words, when not seen in their entirety or the right context, can lead to unjustified opinions, I believe a player’s performance on the pitch can also be misread without the right background.

I would not argue with anyone who’d say there are many instances where the Russian appears to be slacking on the pitch and doesn’t really contribute enough in defence. However, I am not convinced that is enough to jump to the conclusion that he is lazy and/or doesn’t care.

Every interview that I have heard or read suggests to me that Arshavin is a very creative person who wants to produce and share beautiful, magical moments on the football pitch. But such is the nature of the sport that any player, no matter how talented, cannot really thrive unless he gets a) regular games, and b) the right system and teammates. The performances of Messi for Barcelona and Argentina should be an obvious example. There are many others.

So in order to analyze a player’s performance one has to look at the kind of system he is playing in, the quality of teammates, and such related factors. Are they suited to bring the best out of him?

If we just go back to the start of last season, Arshavin was having a major impact. Nasri and Walcott were scoring a lot of goals but the Russian was picking up a number of assists and was the creative hub of the team in the absence of Cesc and Van Persie. Believe it or not, the mercurial Russian had 10 goals and 18 assists in all competitions last season, which bettered the Goals + Assists totals of Nasri, Cesc, and Walcott and was just one behind the 29 (22+7) that Van Persie managed. That’s not to say he was better than all the others, but merely to highlight the kind of contribution he can make.

That team was set up to give the Russian his creative freedom with players alongside who could thrive on the chances he created.

Sometime last winter Andrei lost a bit of form and that led to a combination of Nasri and Walcott on the flanks. That team managed a strong run of results forcing the Russian on the bench for long periods. That meant he rarely got a chance to recover his form and when he did get chances it was often with the second string where the players were not really at the same level. For a player with his talents and personality, that isn’t the ideal way to regain his mojo.

The last game against Olympiacos provides a good example of what can happen when a relatively disjointed unit goes out to play. It might surprise you to know that Arshavin covered the most distance in that game. That certainly does not sit well with the “lazy” theory. But those who have seen the game will argue he was largely conspicuous by his absence. So why are the stats giving such a different account of the game that most fans saw?

I think the answer lies in the Russian’s game style. He makes a lot of early runs, keeps on getting into spaces between the lines, and is rarely static when off the ball. This adds to the yardage over the whole game but is often not noticed because most eyes are on the ball and the surrounding areas. Now if the other players can’t read those runs or find them with their passes, a player making such movements would go widely unnoticed. That way he would cover a lot of ground but will not have much to show for it.

Is that good or bad? Would you rather have another player who can do the donkey work and help out the defence or have someone who can produce a bit magic? ? It’s hard to say definitively but given the style that Wenger prefers, Le Boss will need players who have vision and flair.

Some might think Arsene is a fool in persisting with an aging player who is past his best. It might be the case. But I think the manager sees a few things that are hard to find in players – a) Has inherent talent to make things happen, b) Is professional enough to accept the fact that he cannot start regularly, c) Works hard (in his own way) when he does get the chance even if it appears that the player doesn’t do enough.

Look around and you will see that few players do well when they are on the bench for long periods and for the big games. Anelka, Drogba, and Torres have all struggled at some stage or the other when they haven’t got starts at Chelsea. Berbatov has a great start last season but hasn’t really contributed at the same level once his star declined. Dzeko wasn’t making any impact for City when playing in Tevez’s shadow. He might struggle again later in the season if he is kept on the bench for most of the big games. Van der Vaart and Sneijder were not doing that well at Madrid but subsequently excelled for their new teams when put in the spotlight. There is no dearth of examples when it comes to talented players struggling to perform when they don’t get regular starts with the strongest team.

Obviously a man with Wenger’s experience and depth of knowledge would understand this. He’d also know that anyone else coming in is also as likely to struggle on the bench as the Russian is and that the only way out of a rut is by playing through it. He has to give Arshavin as many minutes as possible and hope that the work being done in training can bring the spark back. I believe that explains why he keeps playing Arshavin when many fans and pundits have already written him off.

Players like Benayoun are good, hard-working individuals who have their fair share of talents. But even a guy like Benitez, under whom the Israeli arguably had his best years in the Premiership, thought of Benayoun as a very good impact player from the bench rather than a starter. So it would seem the deadline day loan from Chelsea was to add some strength to the bench more than anything else. In that light it’s understandable that Wenger wants to get more out of Arshavin rather than Benayoun.

Don’t get me wrong, the point is not to berate the Israeli who puts in an honest shift whenever he gets on, nor is it to defend the Russian who isn’t always busting his guts. The idea is to explore the various dynamics, on and off the pitch, that affect a player’s performance. And with that background, to see whether Wenger’s penchant for picking Arshavin is justified or not. There is no way to definitively argue that AA23 is not past his peak. It could be that Wenger is flogging a dead horse. But when you consider all the factors discussed here, would you rather trust Wenger’s instincts about a player he watches everyday or do you want to go with the hastily formed opinions based on limited evidence that seem stronger than they are simply because they are repeated ad nauseam?

A better system of rotating players is an alternative that deserves a separate, detailed discussion. As does the tactical switch of putting Arshavin in the hole. In a way these two are also linked. Will try to cover them, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Arsenal 1 – 0 Everton: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

December 10, 2011

One-Nil to the Arsenal seems like an apt score to mark the 125th anniversary of the club, although there is an argument it doesn’t really represent the Arsene Wenger era.

This game was anything but typical though. David Moyes took a surprisingly brave approach and attacked Arsenal from the kick-off. Everton were pushing as many as four players forward to challenge for the second ball from their well-directed long punts. These players did try to drop back when the ball was lost but it gave Arsenal a great deal of space to play with.

Often there is a fine line between bravery and stupidity. Some would argue Arsenal’s wastefulness in the first half kept the Everton manager on the brave side of the fence but it could easily have been disastrous for the visitors. At the other end, the Gunners showed a remarkable improvement in attacking the long ball and in dealing with the second ball/crosses. It was by no means perfect but one hardly sensed any panic or hesitation at the back.

Ultimately, this game boiled down to Arsenal taking one of their chances and/or making a mistake at the back. With the sublime, unstoppable talent of Van Persie at one end and a cohesive, confident defensive unit at the other, the result was secured, albeit with a few tense moments.

The first half was frustrating for Arsenal. A number of opportunities to play a teammate in behind were missed. Despite that the Gunners got clear regularly. When they did, either the final ball was lacking or the finish lacked the required quality.

In the 15th minute, Theo was clean through and did well to square it for Ramsey/Gervinho (I strongly believe the commentators were daft to suggest he should have shot himself). His teammates should have attacked the ball better but a defender was able to sneak between them to make a sliding, last-gasp interception.

Five minutes later Van Persie strayed off-side in a 2-v-1. Indeed, the number of off-sides showed that the Arsenal machine was just a bit out of tune. Van Persie too was struggling with a number of his touches.

Just before the half hour mark, excellent physical strength by Song and a well-executed through-ball put Ramsey in behind. The Welshman’s shot on the turn went just over.

The Gunners also won a number of corners as defenders got desperate blocks in. They didn’t result in goals but I would say they weren’t wasted as badly as we have seen in the past. Vermaelen in particular, always looked like a threat.

I don’t know whether Moyes realized he was flirting with fire or for some other reason, Everton did take a more conservative approach to the second half. Arsenal weren’t getting as much space in behind but also didn’t have to deal with as many balls in their defensive third.

Walcott, who had been the biggest threat in the first half, continued to torment the visitors in the second. A first-time volley across the face of goal set Van Persie up but the Dutchman couldn’t guide the ball towards goal. Then he forced a save from Howard after utilizing space and speed to beat a couple of defenders.

At this point it’s worth noting that Leighton Baines really struggled against Walcott. Many people have been caught up by the hype created by the largely ignorant English media. Baines is a very good player but he rarely has to defend the flank on his own because Everton usually get bodies behind in the big games. I am yet to see enough evidence that he can perform that role for a big team where he’d have to defend large spaces against quality wingers. Arsenal’s left-backs occasionally appear to be poor because of an odd mistake but they make the many difficult parts of the game look so easy. Furthermore, Baines wasn’t really effective in attack despite a number of quality balls into the box because that attacking approach itself is so inefficient. Even though Everton are set-up to put and attack crosses into the box, they rarely looked like scoring.

Coming back to the game, the visitors sustained a spell of pressure in the 65th to 69th minute period but the Gunners were getting the bodies in the right areas to challenge for the balls into the box. Wenger was preparing to introduce Arshavin and Rosicky when the goal came from almost nowhere.

Arteta found Song in some space just inside the Everton half. The visitors backed off and allowed the Cameroonian the opportunity to move forward  and pick a pass. Fabregas would have been proud of the chip that Song produced. Any striker in the history of the game would be proud of the finish Van Persie delivered. A first-time volley, that hit the corner giving the Keeper no chance, to a ball dropping over his shoulder while moving away from the defender to create space – impeccable, exquisite, emphatic.

After the goal Arsenal eased off but didn’t switch off. That was the difference between a point and three. Everton pushed forward and created a number of half-chances but their night was well summarized by a simple stat – 0 shots on target.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Caught the balls that he came for, didn’t have a save to make, could have come for a couple of other crosses that he left for the defenders but it’s better to be confident with one approach than getting caught in between.

Djourou: Very respectable effort on the right. Didn’t offer much in attack but that gave Theo greater room on the right. Won 6 of his 8 duels and performed a steady tactical function.

Mertesacker: He has this invisible giant kind of approach that contrasts the all-action style of his partner very well. Only gets involved when he has to and did get a couple of vital touches to thwart dangerous situations. Kept things simple and moved the ball well for the rest of the game (best passing accuracy). Also swept well winning possession in the defensive third most often.

Koscielny: Won 8 of his 12 duels. Was the proactive central defender. Made the most touches – 90 – and was confident on the ball (most passes 68/79) and got tight on his man in and around the box which denied opportunities for free headers.

Vermaelen: Everton tried to target him, partly also because they had Coleman on that side. That meant Vermaelen had the most tackles and duels which he excelled at winning 3 of the 4 tackles and 11 of the 17 duels including a crucial header in the box. He too didn’t get forward that often, although he did try more in the second half, but handled pressure well and was able to make tough passes in tight spaces.

I thought the back five were alert, confident, well-organized, and played for and with each other. Given that two centre-backs were playing out of position – and clearly a perceived weakness Everton tried to exploit – this was a very encouraging defensive display. The technical quality of the players and their positional play also deserves immense credit.

Song: His passing (77% accuracy) wasn’t at the level we are used to but that was probably down to the fact that he was pushing forward and trying a number of defence splitting passes. This is clear from his 27 attempted passes in the final third, by far the most in the side. Created an excellent chance for Ramsey and picked up a sumptuous assist to justify the manager’s tactic of pushing him forward. Defensive work to go with the attacking bursts was commendable.

Ramsey: Made a number of very good runs but needs to be more aggressive (Walcott’s square pass) and finish better (Song’s through-ball). I also thought some of his passes were delayed a bit that led to off-sides. Can improve his decision making. Was invovled in a number of duels (13) but won less than half (4).

Arteta: Played the ball that put Walcott through early on. Also got the pre-assist for the goal. Very efficient with his passing (although a couple of mistakes that could have been dangerous spring to mind) and completed 19 of his 20 passes in the final third. Won 8 out of 12 duels and 2 of the three tackles.

I believe it’s fair to say the Arsenal midfielders are doing the job of 4 players, 3.5 at least. They are always around the ball – this demands a phenomenal work rate as they have to make runs to join the attack and track back to support the midfield. Song and Arteta were again immense. Ramsey is thereabouts but needs some fine tuning to get there.

Walcott: MotM in my opinion even though he didn’t get the assist or the goal. Was a constant threat down the right. Unlucky not to get at least an assist. Forced a good save but could also have done better with a left-footed strike that went well over.

Van Persie: Was a tad off colour in the first half. The movement was there but the touch wasn’t. Shooting wasn’t in keeping with his current form. It came back in the second period. Goal should be in the strikes of the season. Work rate was good and he helped the midfield by dropping deep regularly.

Gervinho: Looked good on the ball but was regularly double-teamed on the edge of the box. Should learn to cut inside and shoot better. Must also develop a better understanding with teammates in and around the box.

The front three could have done better in terms of their decision making and in hitting the target. They will not get as much space in many games.

Subs: Rosicky was tidy on the ball and moved well. Showed good understanding with Van Persie in the box. Miquel looked assured but wasn’t really tested. Frimpong just got a few minutes.

Wenger: Got good value out of a makeshift back four. The players could have done with a bit more functionality on the counter-attack as a number of off-side and other issues could have been avoided if the teammates had been on the same page. With the current approach they will have to play together for a long time to get that understanding and it will be lost if there are a few injuries. But it’s a delicate balance as it shouldn’t become too functional like Everton were.

In the end it was a well-deserved clean sheet and a great goal that earned the Gunners three points and a spot in the top four, at least temporarily. A week long break should help in recharging the batteries before the critical holiday period.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Everton

December 10, 2011

The present is very important for us. We are in the middle of a season where every point is important now… we are in a position where we just want to collect points because the pace of the Premier League is dictated by the teams in front of us. And it is a tremendous one.

Wenger has hit the nail on the head there. It’s time to forget about the Champions League and concentrate on the exceptionally competitive Premiership. Arsenal now have six straight League games and these will play a large part in determining the flow for the rest of the season.

So far the Gunners have recovered well after a torrid start and are progressing with minor hiccups. Will the run continue? Will law of averages hamper the progress of Arsenal (or other teams for that matter)? Will injuries take their toll? We will find out before the turn of the year. But it all starts with Everton on Saturday.

David Moyes’ side are currently 10th in the League just above the congested bottom half and only 6 points away from the relegation zone. Over the last few seasons this seems to be the pattern with Everton who finish their season strongly after poor starts.

The visitors are missing Mikel Arteta more than their fans had claimed when the transfer was made. Interestingly, Arteta is still the joint second highest scorer at Everton this season with 2 goals. Only Vellios with 3 has more. The Spaniard has already scored 3 more for Arsenal since his deadline day transfer.

Moyes has, in the past, caused Arsenal some problems with his tactics. I expect the Scot will pull him team back to the halfway line and defend from there with the hopes of catching Arsenal on the counter with Tim Cahill most likely supporting the solitary striker. They might also come ten yards or so into the Arsenal half to press the Arsenal full-backs, well the centre-backs who will be playing as full-backs.

I don’t expect Everton to have two banks of four. Instead they will try to cut out the passing angles and push the play wide where they can double-team the attacking players. Gervinho and Walcott will have to win a number of individual battles in order for Arsenal to create many chances.

I also expect this to be a physically bruising encounter. The Gunners must be ready for a high-contact game and will have to hold the ball under that pressure to make the passing game work. Song whenever he is receiving/bringing the ball out from back, and Ramsey when he drops deeper, will have to be particularly careful about conceding possession.

In attack, Everton are likely to aim a number of high balls towards Tim Cahill. It should make for an interesting tussle with Koscielny and Metesacker. Vermaelen will have to cover for the runs of the striker if Koscielny duels for the aerial balls, the German might not have the pace to track the runs. Alternatively, if Mertesacker drops deep to compensate for speed, Arsenal will have to ensure the defensive line is in sync.

For the visitors this game will be a lot about physical effort with a bit of hit and hope in the attacking areas (long balls, free-kicks, etc). Arsenal should be comfortable if there aren’t sequential mistakes by a number of players.

The team selection is pretty obvious except for the choices at the back. Wenger has to find the right combination of centre backs or gamble on a youngster like Miquel starting at left back.

Preferred starting line-up,

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

Vermaelen has the pace and technique to make a meaningful contribution in the attacking areas. He can also play some interesting diagonals from the back if Everton are pressing well. Djourou will have to show better composure and decision making at right back, especially when on the ball. The Swiss defender will also have to do a much better job of tracking the runs in behind if Mertesacker is sucked forward in an aerial duel. That is an area where Moyes will sense a weakness.

There is an option to play Koscielny at right-back but I don’t see Djourou or Squillaci making the right partners for Mertesacker. And Miquel does not seem completely ready for such intensity.

Song, Arteta, and Ramsey must continue the excellent defensive work they have been doing. That can cover for individual errors by the defenders in most cases. The Cameroonian, in particular, should be most vigilant on the right to support the big but somewhat cumbersome defenders.

All-in-all this will be a battle that will be settled by one or two moments at either end of the pitch. Usually, Arsenal have greater consistency and get the better of Everton. Here’s hoping for more of the same.

Thoughts On The Champions League Group Phase And Second Round Possibilities

December 8, 2011

After a long time, Europe’s premier competition has thrown up a few surprises and plenty of excitement. At the time of the draw few, if any, would have expected United to bow out. Fewer still would have expected the Gunners to qualify from a tough group before the other three English clubs and with a game to spare. City had a tricky set of fixtures so their plight is not that big a surprise, although, given their scale of investment, it sure seems shameful. Looking back, this opening phase does put a lot of things in perspective.

Not that long ago there was all this talk of Arsenal being in a crisis and some even suggested the Gunners will first, struggle to get past Udinese, and then after they qualified, fail to get out of the group. These thoughtless opinions fell flat as most doom and gloom predictions usually do.

The problem with many pundits and the misery brigade is that they jump from observations to conclusions without going through a due analysis phase. I doubt even the staunchest Wenger fans or positive Gooners will ever claim this was a great summer for Arsenal. The squad was stretched at the beginning of the season and the start for far from ideal. Observations along those lines were valid. But people form erroneous opinions because, among other things, they don’t realize just how important Wenger’s experience and football knowledge is.

Last season Lille, Porto, and Borussia Dortmund were flying high. They were collecting accolades, deservedly so, from all and sundry for their domestic title winning exploits, and in the case of the Portuguese side it also included the trophy that will be coveted by the Manchester clubs this year. What I want to know is, how many of those showering compliments at these sides have noticed that all three have been dumped out of the group phase this year? Dortmund and Lille finished bottom of their group while Porto came in third behind APOEL and Zenit!

The point here is not to berate these clubs. Their players, managers, and staff must be trying their best. And there is no shame when it doesn’t work out because sensible people realize being consistent at the highest level is extremely tough. And that is why Arsenal’s consistency has to be acknowledged and appreciated. Winning trophies in Portugal, France, or Germany is commendable. But that does not mean those teams are better than Arsenal. So even though the Gunners haven’t won anything in ‘whatever’ years, they have been doing better than many of the trophy winning squads around Europe. If the recent Arsenal sides had been playing in one of these leagues with lesser competition, they’d have won the titles. It wouldn’t have made them better than what they were but the perceptions of many would have been different. So if you think about it calmly, it would seem the problem is more with the perceptions than with Arsenal FC. That is the reason Arsene calls it “artificial pressure”. Sadly, when fans get so caught up in it, even the players get afflicted.

Don’t get me wrong, the idea is not to say everything is fine and the Gunners don’t have any cause for concern. Those who have followed this blog for a while know I always voice my opinion about problems that I believe are hampering the Arsenal title challenges. Indeed, just yesterday a number of regular readers told me I was becoming too negative!

Criticism per se, is not wrong. But those wishing to voice their concern must demonstrate that they are at least trying to understand the developmental work being done. Unbridled negativity is detrimental. Problems, whatever you might consider as one, should be discussed within the right context. For instance, I would say the first half against Olympiacos was embarrassing. You may agree or disagree but nothing can take away the achievement of the team that provided the cushion for that disappointment. There is no sense in jumping from the observations about that half to predictions about a disastrous season.

One just has to look at Arsenal’s games against Marseille and Dortmund to get an idea about the amount of effort being put in the by the players and the manager. Those were not flukes. And looking at the performances of the other English sides, I can’t believe any of the three would have gone unbeaten in those four games. Throw in the current run in the League and one can see the foundations of a strong side building.

Of course there are areas of improvement. Games against Fulham, City, and Olympiacos have showed just as much. There is an issue with depth, especially given the injury problems that Arsenal invariably have. One can also ask questions about tactics and the defence. Some of you might have other complaints as well, I have just pointed out thoughts at the top of my mind. It’s fair to raise these questions but they should always be discussed while keeping the progressive effort in the background.

As I discussed in this article about Arsenal’s So Near Yet So Far predicament, the positives far outweigh the negatives at Arsenal. They always have. One just has to learn to see the broader picture.

Moving forward, the second phase throws up some interesting possibilities for the Gunners. Napoli, CSKA Moscow, Basel, Lyon, Bayer Leverkusen, Zenit St. Petersburg, and AC Milan are all likely opponents. If all the key players are fit I would be glad to take any of those sides on, but if I had to choose I’d go with Basel or Lyon.

From the quarter-final stage onwards, if Arsenal get through – let’s not be presumptuous, it’s a lot about luck. Barcelona could draw Madrid with Bayern in the same segment of the draw. Who knows how things might turn out. Only one team can win it and a bit of fortune will certainly help. It’s worth noting that I am not claiming Arsenal are as good as the other sides mentioned. A lot more needs to be done before the Gunners can reach the level we have seen from these European giants this season.

Speaking about luck, fitness will be a key factor. Wilshere and Diaby are to come back and hopefully the full-backs will also return one by one. As long as the Gunners don’t lose more than they regain things should be fine. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a one-to-one relationship though. Arsenal could have everyone back but losing Van Persie will still be a massive blow. That’s just the way things are. You cannot get players of that calibre easily.

In fact, the struggles of Chelsea and City (and Liverpool in the League) again prove that buying can never be a quick fix. It’s taken close to a Billion petrodollars and over three years for City to build a team that looks like it can win the Premiership. But they still can’t hack it in the Champions League. Chelsea tried going for youth in the last few years and failed miserably. Now they’re back to buying big but it hasn’t worked out so well thus far. Finding players better than the ones at Arsenal is not an easy task. I know people can throw names of Squillaci, Djourou, Arshavin, and the likes at me right now but these things are just not that straightforward. Anyway, that is a discussion for another time. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to see Arsenal getting a world class striker, playmaker, and a versatile defensive player. Just that when it doesn’t happen I will still respect the work being done.

Olympiacos 3 – 1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

December 7, 2011

Arsene surprised and to an extent disappointed with the selection of Vermaelen and Santos in the starting eleven. In fairness though, the performance of the team showed it was a necessary evil because the manager’s tactical blindspots created a vulnerable mishmash of talented but inexperienced players and seasoned professionals lacking match sharpness/form.

To be honest, and I hate saying this, the first half was embarrassing. That Olympiacos came out with purpose and pressed the Gunners higher up the pitch, sometimes with as many as six players in the Arsenal half, was no surprise. The Gunners’ failure to counter that was a letdown.

As I have noted in the past, there are clear signs to observe when Arsenal are struggling. The midfield and defenders fail to beat the press. Consequently, the ball goes back to the Keeper who is forced to hoof under pressure regularly. This long ball invariably leads to a loss of possession and the ball comes back into the defensive third within moments as the Gunners struggle to control the flanks and inside channels. That was the story of the first half and some might say the two goal deficit flattered Arsenal!

The lack of a functional approach can put the side in trouble when the players don’t really have the kind of understanding or experience that a fluid, dominant style demands. In the first half, Coquelin and Frimpong struggled to get free and couldn’t really hold the ball under pressure. Benayoun didn’t drop deep often enough while Arshavin and Oxlade-Chamberlain offered little in terms of possession play. This put immense pressure on the back four and the Keeper who ended up looking like clowns time and time again.

Interestingly, both goals in the first half came when an Arsenal player lost possession under pressure just around the halfway line. Because the team was trying to play out from the back without really having a stable shape in front of the back four, it was really easy for Olympiacos to get in behind for the first goal. All the three midfielders were easily bypassed. The player attempting the through-ball was under no pressure and Djourou made the mistake of not tracking the run. This is a mistake Arsenal make far too often. Defenders attempt to play off-side when chasing the run and forcing the opponent to beat them would be the safer option. As things turned out, Squillaci and Djourou unwittingly played the ball into the path of Djebbour who rounded Fabianski to score with aplomb.

For the second goal, Frimpong was caught on the ball and the attempted tackle turned into a delightful lob over the Arsenal back four. Mannone rushed out of his line but his header was weak and towards the center when the better option would have been to go for as much power and angle as possible. The Italian also lost his bearings and tried to kick a weak attempt towards goal instead of catching it. I don’t know why Vermaelen hadn’t rushed back to the line to cover when he saw Mannone coming out.

Apart from the goals there were a number of opportunities for the hosts but they lacked individual quality in the final third.

Arsenal had very little to show at the other end. There was an occasion when a neat interchange of passes between Arshavin and Chamakh put the Russian one-v-one but the angle was tight. The only other noteworthy moment was a cross from the Ox that invited a shot but Benayoun took it off the foot of Arshavin and couldn’t direct it towards goal on the swivel.

The second half started in a similar vein but Arsenal showed some tactical flexibility. A number of balls were being played towards Chamakh and the wide players were coming narrow towards him. This approach brought the Gunners back into the game when the Moroccan did really well to control a long ball with his head and lay it back into the path of Benayoun. The Israeli captain spread it towards Miquel who swung a good cross in towards Chamakh. The striker again did well to chest it into space for Benayoun to finish it off with a classy volley. Arsenal used Chamakh’s strengths well in that move and it paid dividends. It’s a shame the manager couldn’t set his team up to use these strengths more frequently.

Just before the goal Santos had gone off injured. That could prove to be a bigger loss than the game was.

Around the hour mark Olympiacos eased off. They were always going to find it hard to sustain their intensity for the duration of the game. Rosicky came on with just over 20 minutes to go. Benayoun and Little Mozart created a couple of interesting combinations but couldn’t really find the finish. Nevertheless, the game was more even after the break.

At the other end, the hosts were always a threat on the break and scored the third with a minute of normal time remaining. The goal came from a free-kick conceded by the physical enthusiasm of Frimpong that works so well in English Cup ties. The youngster and Benayoun were also guilty of ambling up as they played Modesto onside. But one must also ask how Mellberg was able to head the ball when there were four Arsenal players around him. It seemed like a goal conceded out of tiredness.

It wasn’t a pleasurable game to watch but I am glad this happened. If nothing else, it should show the youngsters just how much they need to improve. A player like Frimpong can end up at the level of Muamba or Wilson Palacios (good players in their own right but not quite top class) or he could develop into an Essien or Song. It’s up to him to understand his weaknesses and work on them diligently. Similarly, Oxlade-Chamberlain could turn into a Shaun Wright-Phillips (who has his mercurial moments) or he could develop like Nani or other such attackers who deliver for big teams on a consistent basis. At this age one must not be harsh on the young players as they have a lot to learn. But only they can do the work day in, day out. It’s important to see the desire and willingness to improve.

Individual Performances:

Fabianski: I don’t blame him for the first goal. If he’d stayed on his line it would have given Djebbour a good angle to hit, coming off gave the attacker a chance to go around. Keepers can’t do much in such cases.

Mannone: Should have done better with the header. Could have caught the strike. Made a number of other mistakes. But again, as I have said in the past, Keepers will make mistakes when the players in front of them are so disjointed. More so if the guy in goal rarely gets to play.

Djourou: Should have tracked the run for the first goal. Ended up chasing back far too often and should have gotten into and stayed in better defensive positions but that is more of a coaching issue.

Squillaci: Made a number of mistakes but was overworked. That moment when he left the ball for Mannone (which led to a header that went wide) brought back memories of defenders not taking enough responsibility.

Vermaelen: Even he looked nervous at times as was seen with a back pass that sold Fabianski short. But his work rate was superb and even went forward whenever possible.

Santos : Very strong in individual battles. Made one very good forward run that led to a shot from Arshavin.

The defence had that old headless chicken feel to it and the goalkeepers didn’t look convincing. But the keywords there are feel and look. I thought the real problem was in front of the back five as the ball kept coming back at them. They didn’t have enough options when they tried to play it out from the back and the ball came back within seconds whenever it was hoofed forward. No defence can handle such incessant pressure unless the players in front are set up to support the back four.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Very impressive when he got a chance to run with the ball. Very little off it. It might be harsh but I am not sure he got any worthwhile tactical education at his previous club. Doesn’t really get into good defensive positions and doesn’t know the runs he should be making. This was most evident at a moment when Rosicky had to point to the space and ask him to run which allowed the defender to come across and cover.

Coquelin: Struggled to receive and pass the ball. Movement and positioning wasn’t great either.

Frimpong: Very strong and energetic but lacked awareness of players around him. Physical abilities are very important but an understanding of space and defensive positioning is critical. A loan spell at the right team seems essential for his development.

Benayoun: Looked like he played on the left in a 4-4-1-1. This meant he didn’t always get the chance to drop deep in central positions but even on the left the Israeli wasn’t offering an outlet for receiving the ball. Looked much better in the second half when he came in more frequently and was able to combine with Rosicky.

For large parts, the midfielders struggled in attack and defence as they kept getting caught in a ‘No man’s land’. That affected the shape of the team and left the back five exposed. The right side was particularly weak defensively with Djourou getting little support from Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Arshavin: Very disappointing to say the least. Was anonymous for large parts. Lacked confidence/form when he did get into dangerous positions. Also struggled due to a lack of understanding with teammates as some very interesting passes were just not read by them.

Chamakh: Had some good moments when he held the ball up of brought others into play like the goal or the chance for Arshavin. But those were few and far between. Arsenal failed to use his abilities to get the ball out and he lacked striking instincts on half-chances.

Subs: Miquel was very impressive on the ball and played a part in the goal. Was caught up the pitch regularly but that might have been due to tactical instructions to push up. Rosicky looked classy at times but was also erratic with his passing.

Wenger: There are a number of tactical issues that one can raise. For his part the manager might say it is important for the younger players to experience the game in this way. If he set it up in a manner that the team sat back and defended the youngsters might not have discovered just how much they need to develop. But there are structural problems with the way Arsenal defend that come to the fore every time the possession game fails. These need to be addressed and I can’t see the current coaching staff doing that. His team selection is also questionable.I dread to think what the result might have been if the first-choice defensive duo had been on the bench but one could say even a right battering would have been better than having Santos injured.

It’s not necessary to dwell on this game as it was largely inconsequential but now Arsenal have 5 League games in 22 days, 4 in 14, with all four full-backs injured and the centre-backs being stretched across the back four. Given that a spot in the top four is the only realistic target for this season, this is going to be a nervy and vital period.