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.

Thoughts On Tactics and Starting Eleven Against Olympiacos

December 6, 2011

Arsenal are visiting Greece for the final group game with top spot secured. Such games can easily become an unwanted, tiresome chore but they can also be an opportunity for the some of the players to show what they are capable of with a chance to perform in a pressure-free environment.

Of course, we don’t want the team to be frivolous and roll over but I feel the squad that Wenger has taken to Olympiacos is full of professionals who respect the badge on their shirt and the game/competition. All-in-all it should be a very exciting performance from a promising bunch.  Given that it comes so close on the heels of the Carling Cup tie, the players should feel some sort of continuity and be motivated enough to avoid back-to-back defeats (considering only the second string).

The home fans will undoubtedly create a raucous atmosphere but that should help the youngsters if they approach the game with the right mentality. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine tyros like Frimpong, Coquelin and the Ox being daunted by the occasion or the crowd. For the youngsters it should be about enjoying the game while expressing themselves with real belief and desire.

Interestingly, it’s just under two years since a similarly young Arsenal side lost against the Greeks in a dead rubber (this game is only half-dead). This time around I feel both sides will have greater quality and the game should be more of a spectacle.

Picking the starting line-up will not be easy for Arsene. He has a bit of a shortage at the back whereas Le Boss might have to leave one or two deserving players out in midfield/attack.

Vermaelen and Santos are in the squad but I will be surprised if either of them starts. Last time around Wenger fielded Kerrea Gilbert and Tom Cruise at full back positions. Yennaris and Miquel should be able to do the job in this game. Squillaci and Djourou can provide the experience in the centre of defence. The upcoming period is hectic and it’s important to rest first choice players whenever possible.

The aforementioned trio of Frimpong, Coquelin, and AOC should be in the midfield ahead of them but it will be interesting to see if Arsene retains the 4-4-2 from last Tuesday. That would mean Benayoun on the left with Chamakh and Park leading the line.

I am not against retaining the shape and these players but Oxlade-Chamberlain and Yenanris on the right might not be a good idea defensively. In that case we might see Djourou moving to the right with Vermaelen in the middle, or Miquel in the middle and Santos on the left. It won’t be ideal but will depend on the kind of confidence the manager has in his younger players.

Then there is the option of playing three in central midfield with Rosicky back to fitness. An extra midfielder could  compensate for the inexperience on the right. Such an option would see one of Park or Chamakh missing out.

Arshavin is another player who needs/deserves a game but Arsene will find it hard to fit him in the starting eleven. One option is to play him on the left with Benayoun in the middle as the third midfielder. Rosicky has just returned from (another) injury so starting him might not be a smart move.

A tweak to that side could see Arshavin drop into the hole with a four man midfield behind him and a striker in front. This would be very similar to the formation against Bolton.

As you can see, there is no shortage of options for Arsene but finding the right balance in the starting eleven and resting key players at the same time will not be easy.

Preferred starting eleven,

Fabianski – Yennaris, Squillaci, Djourou, Miquel – AOC, Frimpong, Coquelin, Benayoun – Arshavin – Park.

It will be harsh on Chamakh who has been working hard and is desperately in need of match-practice but I feel the incisiveness that Arshavin provides will be critical. The Korean captain makes a number of runs and having a teammate capable of finding them can work for the team and for the confidence of both players.

Olympiacos have a chance of qualifying and will give their all in this game. I expect them to press high up the pitch and put the Arsenal defence under pressure. They won’t ease off as City did, albeit tactically, in the Cup tie last week. The Gunners might have to play on the break and having a quick passer with vision, like Arshavin, behind a runner like Park can provide interesting counter-attacking opportunities. Chamakh and Park in tandem might not see enough of the ball. The Russian’s creativity can also benefit Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Given the performances of the hosts thus far in the tournament, it’s safe to assume this won’t be an easy game for any side that Wenger picks. A win will be an extraordinary achievement but is not impossible. A draw will be commendable while a defeat can also be respectable as long as the players prove they are willing to fight for the cause.

It’s not often that Arsenal are the only English side to qualify on top with a game to spare while the others have serious question marks over qualifying and/or getting the top spot. It’s genuinely an occasion to enjoy.

Wigan 0 – 4 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

December 3, 2011

I think that was the best Arsenal have played this season. Wigan got some joy in the opening 10-15 minutes but it was one-way traffic after that. The hosts also showed more of a fight in the second half but Arsenal were just too strong in all areas. I don’t want to do a event by event analysis of such a game but want to use Wenger’s post game interview as the foundation for this piece as the Boss’ summary was sublimely succinct and accurate.

The overall gist of the game

Wigan started well, created some dangerous situations and surprised us at the start. After that 15 minutes we took control of the game and never looked like losing that. Maybe a bit in the first five minutes of the second half.

On his side’s performance,

…we had a good team performance defensively and offensively. The confidence is there and you could feel that in the way we played today. I can only congratulate the team. They are growing and they are getting better and better. You could see there is something there to work on.

What I really liked was that Arsene didn’t get carried away with such a result. He knows there’s a long way to go and consistency will be the key.

When you look at the scores today from the teams who are in front of us like Chelsea, Tottenham and man City – they all won with two, three, four goals difference. That means it will be down to who is the most consistent out there.

I really liked the words, ” You could see there is something there to work on.” It tells me there is a strong foundation with this squad now and they are beginning to gel. But a lot more work needs to be done to achieve the level that will be needed to beat stiff competition. Sometimes, in the middle of a good run, it’s easy to forget that Arsenal are still outside the top 4.

Like most Gooners, Le Boss was also aware of the need for others to score some goals. It’s not that they were playing poorly but having goals against your name helps immensely. Gervinho, Arteta, and Vermaelen will continue to improve and the whole squad will gain greater belief.

I am happy that Gervinho scored, I am happy that we scored goals of course.  But I am also happy that other players scored, and that Robin van Persie did as well. It is good for the morale of the team and overall I know they can do it.

The single biggest observation and the reason I thought this was Arsenal’s best performance of the season thus far (in an attacking sense) was

We know we can do that (teamwork), and we can do that at a good pace. Today we have seen some outstanding combinations.

Just to cite one example, according to Opta stats, Gervinho’s goal was preceded by a 33 pass move that forced a spectacular save from a RvP shot. The football just flowed effortlessly as players interchanged positions and moved the ball fast. One would not be wrong in blaming Wigan for dropping too deep and lacking any sort of confidence but that should not take away from the way every single Arsenal player performed on the pitch.

Even the goal by Van Persie came from a good build-up from the back and involved around 11 passes with the key pass coming from Koscielny to put Walcott in behind. The goal by Vermaelen was Arsenal’s first from a corner after 179 attempts in the Premier League. The first goal was a howitzer from 30 yards after a nifty run from Vermaelen who picked up the assist. This game had everything from an attacking point of view. No amount of writing can do it justice. If you haven’t seen it make sure you do so as soon as humanly possible. If you have seen it you probably want to watch it again, don’t you?

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Should only be paid 1/9th of his match fee. Was busy and did well early on. Got the best view for the spectacle after that.

Koscielny: Was more mobile on the flanks that before. Whipped in some excellent crosses with pace. Fairly solid on the flank and in the air when needed. Joint highest interceptions.

Mertesacker: Keeps things simple. Won all his duels and tackles. Made at least one crucial block and one timely sliding tackle.

Vermaelen: Excellent goal, good assist, well positioned at the back. Quality defenders are rare and very valuable, but those who can contribute in other areas of the pitch so consistently are a class apart.

Santos: Joint highest in interceptions, won back possession more than others in the defensive third, is learning to time his runs, can do better in the attacking areas.

The defenders had to do their main jobs only in small patches. For the rest of the game they made good use of the space afforded to them. The full-backs moved forward and got involved in attacking areas, Vermaelen was supremely confident on the ball and carried it out more than once, and all this without really exposing the goal.

Song: Won 4 of his 5 tackles and was instrumental in regaining possession quickly to sustain pressure. Was a bit sloppy on the ball in the final third and lost it uncharacteristically on occasion.

Ramsey: Very efficient with his passing but not so with his shooting. Keeps getting into very good areas. Should focus on getting his shots on target rather than remonstrating with teammates when he doesn’t get the ball.

Arteta: Was looking for more penetrative passes. Not afraid to shoot from distance and made it count. That threat of scoring from distance can be vital to Arsenal. Ramsey can learn from Arteta.

The midfielders moved around seamlessly. Were quick to pounce on space and showed a much improved understanding with the attackers and full-backs.

Walcott: Wasn’t as influential as some of the other games but that was due to the quality of others (which led to a shared burden) and not a drop in his efforts. Put in some good crosses, runs were largely well-timed, another assist for Van Persie (11th in fact, equalling the number of Bergkamp’s assists for Henry).

RvP: Exceptional. My MotM, not for the goal but for the general work rate. Played as a midfielder for most of the game by dropping deep and linking play. Attempted a number of through-balls for Gervinho and others. Despite that effort was always getting into good positions in the box. Got an assist from the corner. Could have had another assist when he headed Walcott’s cross back across goal, or another goal if Benayoun could have generated a bit more power on his attempted lob. Just there everywhere to provide superb quality.

Gervinho: Good to see him get the goal. Made a number of excellent runs. Worked hard in the middle of the pitch to win the ball back. Needs to show more strength in the penalty box and has to work on some technical aspects like shooting and first touch.

The front three were very fluid in this game. Van Persie moved into midfield and the wide areas regularly. Gervinho came in just as often. Theo changed flanks on a number of occasions.

Subs: All three came on at the same time with just over 10 min to go. Coquelin was energetic and completed all 20 passes. Benayoun was unlucky not to score/pick up an assist as his lob was intercepted by a defender. Was fun to watch Arshavin’s sliding tackle on the edge of the box (thankfully the opponent was off-side).

This is a good period for Gooners. Cherish this win and enjoy the performance of youngsters in midweek. If you find some of the stats used in this article interesting, you can follow @Orbinho on twitter and check out Epl Index. Speaking of which, my stat-based analysis of the goalkeepers is now up on the site. You can read it here.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Wigan

December 2, 2011

Recent trips to Wigan have been eventful but the memories aren’t particularly pleasant for Gooners. Arsenal have dropped 5 points in the last two visits after conceding late goals in games that the Gunners dominated and should have won.

I hope the dominance continues but the ‘Be a Gooner, be a Giver’ mantra is not taken on to the field. Arsenal have already surpassed their season’s quota of charity on the pitch.

The starting line-up for the game should be straight forward.

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

The only possible change I can foresee is at Right Back. Djourou could retain his spot in the line-up if Wenger believes the Swiss defender has done better than the Frenchman. The chances for that are slim though as Djourou has already played against Fulham and City. It’s doubtful that Arsene will play him for the third time in 8 games.

This should be an open game. Wigan are a team I like. Martinez has set them up to play football and deserves credit for sticking to his principles despite going through some tough times. In a similar vein, I also admire the faith the Latics have put in their manager. Both are rare qualities and I hope they stay in the Premier League.

That said, it will be extremely disappointing if Arsenal don’t pick up the three points on Saturday. Martinez hasn’t been able to get enough goals out of his side, currently the joint-lowest scorers in the League, and they aren’t defensively as strong as teams that base their game on parking the bus and route one football.

The Gunners should score at least a couple. Van Persie will again be the centre of attraction but I am hoping some of the other attacking players – Ramsey, Gervinho, and Theo – also get their names on the score sheet. The Ivorian, in particular, should get a number of chances against the likes of Emerson Boyce and Gary Caldwell. Walcott probably won’t get that much joy against Figueroa.

After the departure of N’Zogbia, Wigan’s biggest threat will probably come from the runs of  Victor Moses and the movement of Rodallega who has been struggling for form recently. Ben Watson has scored in Arsenal’s last two visits to the DW and Martinez might pick him alongside Diame, Jones, and McCarthy if he wants more of a battle in midfield. I don’t know much about Conor Sammon who has started the last two games ahead of Rodallega.

Wigan will rely on counter-attacks, shots from distance, and set-pieces. As long as there aren’t any blunders at the back, the Gunners should get the desired result. But in the last three games we have seen a counter-attacking goal with a number of players at fault, an own goal from an inexplicable error from the highly rated Vermaelen, and a physically weak moment from the big German. Against Arsenal the opponents always have hope.

The Latics know that as well as anyone else and will not give up even if they are trailing by a couple of goals with 10 minutes to go. A solid effort with unwavering concentration will be needed for the whole duration of the game. Since most of the players have had a break in midweek and are likely to get another one in the Champions League, there can really be no excuses for a poor performance. No lack of sharpness, no naïveté, no nothing.

On an unrelated note, if you like stat-based analysis, watch out for a statistical comparison of goalkeepers – Almunia, Fabianski, and Szczesny – for the last few seasons. There are some interesting/surprising numbers in there. I will be posting that on Epl Index later in the day and it should come up on NewsNow and GoonerNews. You can also join me on twitter to get a link when it is posted.


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