Arsenal 3 – 2 Aston Villa: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

January 30, 2012

If you carefully select portions of this game you can make a video highlighting many of Arsenal’s major problems. With another selection you could also show the reasons that make the Gunners such a great team to watch and support. It was a classic Cup tie and one that will remain in fans’ memories for years to come if it can spark a run of form.

The first half effort was disappointing, to put it mildly. Arsenal had a lot of possession but most of the passing was safe and slow as the ball was rotated in the area 15 yards either side of the centre line. Van Persie was isolated, the winger’s stayed wide and rarely received the ball in space, the midfielders were too cautious, as were the full-backs.

Vermaelen tested Given with a thunderous strike early on. Rosicky then did well to give Walcott a chance to run at goal. Theo did well to ride a challenge but then blazed over when a moment of composure was vital.

Just after the half-hour Villa took the lead from a soft, soft goal. The corner was taken short. Ramsey did well to charge out but had not support at all. He was easily bypassed as Villa played a one-two around him. Keane was able to loft the ball towards the back post where Dunne rose highest to head home. Arsenal’s defensive organization for the corner was poor. The man-marking in the box didn’t work either.

After the goal the Gunners raised the tempo to an extent. Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain had pops from distance that were spilled by Given. Ramsey forced a save from a tight angle. But the sucker punch came just before the half-time whistle.

Oxlade-Chamberlain’s deep cross was easily cleared. Koscielny Vermaelen made the mistake of getting sucked deep into the Villa half. He had to chase back and was always a yard or two behind, first Keane then Bent. When Keane received the ball in acres of space around the centre-circle, he only had Bent upfront while Arsenal had Coquelin, Song, and AOC back defending. All three didn’t really know how to defend such a situation as Ireland was able to receive the ball in space before feeding the run of Bent. The striker’s initial shot was parried by Fabianski but he fired home from a narrow angle.

The second half was a completely different story. Arsenal raised the intensity significantly. The tackles were more purposeful. Midfielders made a number of forward runs. This offered Theo the chance to move around in dangerous areas.

The first of three goals in seven minutes came after Ramsey made a strong tackle just around the halfway line. Song powered forward and pierced the ball through a crowded space for Ramsey to run onto. The Welshman might not have done much with it as it was too close to the Keeper but Dunne lunged in and gifted a penalty. Terrible defending, clever from Ramsey, incisive from Song. Van Persie, of course, put it perfectly in the corner with Given diving the wrong way.

A couple of minutes later it was Theo’s turn to celebrate. Rosicky moved up the pitch and into a wide area. This allowed Walcott the chance to move inside. Little Mozart played a soft ball in behind. Theo skinned Warnock with pace and a couple of deft touches. He looked up, and not seeing any meaningful options he tried a cheeky poke past Given at the near post. It almost worked at the Keeper didn’t know what hit him. The ball only staying out after hitting the underside of his outstretched hand. It was still bouncing in a dangerous area a yard out of goal. Hutton tried a hasty clearance that bounced in off Walcott. In this case it must be said the winger made his own luck and deserved the goal.

The third goal again came from a tackle, this time by Oxlade-Chamberlain, again around the centre-circle. Koscielny received it and played a neat one-two with Song while bursting forward. The defender charged into the box only to be bundled over by a clumsy tackle from the retreating Darren Bent. RvP was coolness personified.

After the third goal Arsenal eased off. This led to some nervy moments, mostly from set-pieces but the Gunners did enough to keep the ball out. They also had some half chances at the other end but Given was able to keep the ball out of his net.

It was a rousing comeback but Wenger must find a way to keep his team from digging such holes for themselves in the first place.

Individual Performances:

Fabianski: Had a couple of shaky moments in the first half. Wasn’t at fault for the first goal. Made a good initial save but should have been quicker to react to the second strike. He’s made tough double saves in the past. I thought in this case he probably wasn’t expecting it to come back. Caught the ball well in the final 15-20 minutes.

Coquelin: Was enthusiastic but went to ground a bit too often for my liking. Conceded a free-kick or two and was caught out of position at times. Did well to push forward but wasn’t able to produce the cross at the end. Clearly not as effective as he is when playing in midfield but that should not be seen as a major negative.

Mertesacker: Keane got in behind him to win the corner for the first goal. He was probably marking Bent so can’t be faulted for the dismal way the corner was defended. Was in the box at the other end for the second so no blame there either. Did win some crucial headers. Also forced a goal-line clearance from a corner.

Koscielny: Was he marking Dunne for the first goal? Got sucked too high up the pitch for the second goal. Had a fairly good defensive game otherwise. Also made a telling contribution for Arsenal’s winner.

Vermaelen: I wasn’t able to see who he was marking for the first goal. No blame for the second. Got sucked too high up the pitch for the second goal. Kept the left pretty solid as Villa generated near to nothing from that side.

The back five were not very comfortable on set-pieces as Villa had some well-practised routines. Apart from that it was good work from the defenders. The counter-attack was a poor one to concede but that’s down to problems with decision making by a number of players.

Song: Played the passes that put Ramsey and Koscielny in positions where they could win the penalties, the first, a through-ball, was especially delectable. Also had a good game defensively, did a lot of chasing, was composed on the ball, was a tad slow with his passing in the first half. Could have done better to track Bent’s run for the second goal.

Ramsey: Had a dull first half with only one or two noteworthy moments. Got into dangerous positions in the second half. Won the penalty, could have done better with his shot on goal, linked play well. Work rate was good as ever.

Rosicky: Was probably the only bright spot in the first half. Most of his touches were classy. Played a number of quality passes. The only negative was that he was looking to pick Van Persie too often in the first half and didn’t bring the wide players into the game effectively. Also could have done better when he got into shooting positions more than once.

It’s hard to judge whether the midfield was under tactical instructions to keep it safe early on or it was just a sluggish effort. There was a lot more urgency in the second half, they got into forward areas and in between the lines more often, thus helping the forward players make a greater impact.

Walcott: Was trying hard in the first half but lacked composure at key moments. Had better support in the second half and was troubled Warnock on numerous occasions. Deserved his goal for the effort.

RvP: Was isolated and rather wasted in the first half. Took his penalties well but wasn’t that involved in the build-up to any of the goals, which is interesting and encouraging as that shows others can do it as well. Dropped deep and shared the load of the midfield on a number of occasions.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Made a number of good runs on the ball but wasn’t able to produce much when it got crowded around the box. Needs a lot of work on his decision making as he repeatedly conceded possession by running into defenders. Essentially, he still comes across as a very good individual talent – which in itself is commendable – but he needs to learn to use others to generate greater collective value. Anyway, this won’t happen overnight. It’s a process and time on the pitch will be an immense help.

The front three were in their own areas of the pitch for large parts of the first half but made purposeful contributions in the second.

Subs: It was good to see Henry, Sagna, and Arteta eased back into action. They didn’t have a major part to play in this game but the minutes will come in handy. Those who are harsh might say Henry lost the ball more than once to loose touches while Sagna miscued a clearance and sent the ball into a dangerous area of the Arsenal box. Both looked a bit rusty and off the pace.

Wenger: The chaos on set-pieces, the easily conceded counter-attacks, and lack of impetus in the first half make him an easy target for criticism. Deserves credit for inspiring the comeback and for not rushing any of the main returning players back into the starting line-up.

Update: Sorry, Koscielny was in the Villa box when the cross came in for the second goal. It was Vermaelen who went high up the pitch on the right before chasing back. Dodgy stream and and all that!

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Aston Villa

January 29, 2012

There is a glimmer of hope amidst the sea of negativity that Arsenal have been swimming in recently. Some players are close to making their return after serious injuries. Of course, as we have seen with Wilshere recently and with others in the past, getting hopes up when it comes to injuries and Arsenal is not a smart choice. Nevertheless, when Wenger says Sagna, Arteta, Henry, and Coquelin have a chance to be involved on Sunday, it does give the tormented heart some respite.

This game didn’t have a midweek tie preceding it – and with the benefit of hindsight I feel it was just as well the Gunners didn’t reach the Carling Cup semis as those games would have really stretched the threadbare resources available to Arsene – but it does have two quick League fixtures soon after. With those in mind, I’d prefer to see the returning players eased back with caution. There is no point giving someone a start in this game only to lose him for a few weeks after that.

I’d like to see the same side that took the field against United in the second half.

Preferred line-up,

Szczesny – Yennaris, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen – Song, Ramsey, Rosicky – Walcott, RvP, Oxlade-Chamberlain.

There are a number of other options that Wenger will have to consider but most involve returning players and it’s really hard for us to judge their fitness situation without all the facts. For instance, Coquelin could come in at right-back or even in midfield. Arteta could return to the position he’s made his own in a short period of time at the club. That would be a particularly tempting choice for Arsene as his side have missed the technique, composure and defensive contribution of the Spaniard. Wenger might even stick with the experience of Djourou ahead of Yennaris, especially as Villa are not likely to have the same level of threat up front that United posed. Park or Henry could also have a case for starting but I’d go with Van Persie. Wenger could pick Park in place of Ramsey – who really needs a breather – if he thinks the Korean can offer the kind of work rate required in that position or that Van Persie could drop deep and play, at least partly, as a midfielder. In that case the wide players will have a much bigger defensive responsibility. These are just some of the choice Arsene will have to mull over.

With N’Zogbia likely to miss the game, we could see Agbonlahor on the left and Albrighton on the right of Bent. McLeish will probably start with a defensive approach and make attacking substitutions late in the game if it’s still winnable. That would imply a wall of five players in front of their defensive line and 70 odd minutes of long balls down the channels.

Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain can really have a field day in this game but for that the Gunners have to move the ball fast enough to find them in space. The tempo of the game will be vital and the hosts have to ensure they don’t allow Villa a chance to settle. In the recent games, Arsenal’s defending has buckled under pressure but it all starts when the side fails to hold on to the ball and endures sustained spells of pressure. If Villa manage that away from home they will deserve to win and Arsenal’s season will get much worse. Somehow I doubt that will happen but with a depleted squad and the air of negativity in the stadium, you never know how things will turn out.

Villa fans, players, and the manager cannot be faulted for strongly believing they have a good chance in this game. Hopefully, that will draw them out and they will leave spaces behind their centre-halves who can be caught by pace.

The Gunners, for their part, have to find a degree of tactical cohesion that we haven’t seen consistently in the last few weeks. Arsenal have to avoid the loop where two players are seen pressing up the field, another three caught in a no man’s land around the centre-circle, with the defence dropping deep. Such situations inevitably lead to a freakish goal and Bent has a history of scoring against Arsenal. Even on set-pieces, the players can’t afford to switch off.

Arsene must also ensure his team doesn’t ease off if they score an early goal. As we saw in the Swansea game, that give the opponents a way back into the game and that sometimes forces the tactical issues discussed earlier in the post.

Most other teams would probably be happy to return from such a fixture with a draw but Villa have surprisingly done very well at the Emirates and have been quite a disaster at home against the Gunners. It’s a different side under McLeish though, and the Scot probably has a much better record at home against Arsenal than he has away. In any case, I don’t think anyone in the Arsenal camp would want to see a replay. It’s important to settle this at home. The draw does not have that many big names any more – although given the luck Arsenal have had I will be surprised if they get anything other than an away draw against Liverpool or Chelsea in the next round –  so this game has to be seen a big opportunity.

I expect a tough game for Arsenal and one that won’t be settled till late in the game. The side that makes fewer individual mistakes and one that can impose it’s tactical will on the game over large periods should walk away with the result.

Arsenal 1 – 2 Manchester United: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

January 22, 2012

A predictably disappointing result will largely overshadow an effort from the Gunners that was valiant and respectable for most periods of the game. Ultimately, poor defending from Arsenal gifted the win to United after a closely fought battle in which the sides shared spells of domination.

The starting line-up for Arsenal had a couple of pleasant surprises. Oxlade-Chamberlain was preferred over experienced players like Arshavin and Benayoun. Vermaelen was passed fit to bolster the defence.

The Gunners started strongly and controlled possession for the opening 20 minutes or so. But United were very well organized and limited the hosts to hopeful or rather wasteful attempts from distance.

Arsenal really could learn a lot from the way Ferguson’s men got bodies between the ball and goal. they fell back to the half-way line and cut off the passing angles. When Arsenal did managed to get past that initial line United almost always had players marking the forward players in Red and White. Van Persie didn’t get any space at all, neither did Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Even when an Arsenal player found some space, like Walcott did when Jones went to ground with an injury, United always had covering players in excellent positions. To an extent the Gunners were also playing a cautious game and weren’t committing bodies forward which curtailed the creative options.

Around half-way through the first period United mustered their first shot on target from a corner that was laxly defended. Giggs was in acres of space in the Arsenal box after playing a simple one-two. His shot, from a very tight angle, was more hopeful than threatening.

After this shot though, the visitors found more confidence and were able to pin the Gunners back for sustained spells. Arsenal fell into the trap of crowding the penalty box and losing their shape in front of it. This meant the ball kept coming back and led to moments of desperate defending, even if the goal wasn’t being threatened that often, as United got into dangerous crossing positions rather easily.

When Arsenal did punt it long they weren’t able to put sufficient pressure on the ball and it came back into the defensive third in no time, often through a simple long ball towards Nani who was tormenting Djourou.

Up front Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain switched sides regularly but couldn’t produce much in terms of penetration. Theo was trying something different and was cutting inside regularly only to run out of options and into a crowd. AOC had a couple of good runs but also had anonymous spells in the first half. Van Persie was marked closely and looked lost without support.

Ferguson’s side took the lead towards the end of the first half by capitalizing on Arsenal’s woeful shape created by out of position players. Nani was able to find Giggs wide on the left with hardly any pressure on the ball. Ramsey did well to track back and got between the goal and Nani but that left Giggs alone. Djourou was nowhere to be seen as he was too narrow – again reinforcing my theory that Arsenal tend to crowd the centre when under pressure. Giggs had ample time to pick out his cross and Valencia was able to attack the ball better than Vermaelen at the back post.

It was poor defending from Arsenal but the problem wasn’t limited to the positioning of the defenders or their ability to attack the ball. It’s more of a tactical issue that the manager has struggled to solve. Arsenal look fairly solid defensively when they hold on to the ball but look like a school side when the opponents pin them back and sustain a period of pressure. We have seen this often enough and with different sets of players in Red and White. The positioning of most of the players, their decision making on the ball, the runs off the ball, and other details affect the performance of the unit as a whole culminating in goals that make the defenders looks very ordinary.

To their credit, the Gunners came out with greater purpose and cohesiveness in the second half. The game should have been level inside five minutes of the restart but Van Persie missed a glorious chance after Rosicky latched on to a slip by Smalling and found De Kapitein in an excellent position in the box. The Dutchman’s first touch wasn’t at its usual impeccable level and his strike was uncharacteristically sloppy. Just shows even top players make mistakes when they feel the pressure.

Arsenal created a number of chances – Ramsey hit a shot just over from the edge of the box and Rosicky could only hit Evra from a good position – but didn’t find the goal. At the other end United too were getting space and time in the box. Valencia hit one well wide when unmarked around the penalty spot while Welbeck forced a desperate off-the-line clearance.

The game was more open as Arsenal were working hard to press the opponents and were also getting more bodies into advanced areas. But the gaps in the structure meant United always had a chance on the counter.

Arsenal’s equalizer came with less than 20 minutes to go. Koscielny did superbly to win the ball with a clean tackle in the box. He then found Rosicky around the centre circle. Little Mozart wasted little time in spreading it wide towards AOC who was able to dart inside before sliding it down the line for Van Persie. The Dutchman finished with an exemplary strike that went between the defender’s legs and nestled into the corner despite a touch from the Keeper.

It’s interesting to note that Rafael was high up the pitch when Koscielny tackled him. This meant AOC was able to run at the United defence without the full-back’s attentions. It was a rare moment when an Arsenal winger got a chance to run at the opposition goal without being tightly marked.

Then came a strange substitution from Arsene. He took of Oxlade-Chamberlain who’d looked threatening in the second half and brought Arshavin on. It was hard to understand because it upset a system that was working for Arsenal, at least relatively. The only reasonable explanation seems to be that of a fitness concern. It’s hard to comment on that without all the facts.

Of course Arshavin’s attempt at tackling Valencia in the build up to the second goal don’t help his or his manager’s cause one bit. But I thought it was again a structural problem and it would have been the same even if Arsenal had Oxlade-Chamberlain on the pitch (Indeed, Evra went past him in the first half as if he didn’t exist). Valencia is a skilful player and you can’t seriously expect a winger to defend that kind of space against him. I have no idea why Arsenal didn’t have a second man coming out to support the Russian. United often had midfielders getting back into defensive positions to thwart such runs from the wings. Arsenal were too keen on crowding the centre but that doesn’t always work. One must also ask why everyone was looking at the ball instead of marking the strikers. Welbeck was completely free when he got his shot away. It’s just poor defending from the team as a unit.

After that Arsenal had a couple of half-chances but United had the skills and experience to waste time and kill the game off. They also had a couple of counter-attacks of their own but couldn’t add the cushion of the second goal.

On the whole it was a fighting display ruined by defensive errors that stem from the way Arsene, his staff, and his players think about that aspect of the game. United looked more dangerous in the attacking areas and were always going to score a goal or two. One could blame Arshavin, or Van Persie for his miss, or Djourou and Vermaelen for their parts in the first goal, and so on. It’s not going to make a difference.

Injuries obviously had a big impact but the manager has to find a way to get a result with the players that he has. In the end United won 60 percent of the ground duels and 73 percent of the aerial ones. Walcott won 25 percent of his ground duels whereas AOC managed 27 percent. Nani clocked 79 and Valencia 50. That was a big difference. All this made United looked relatively more comfortable in defence despite making fewer tackles and interceptions. It was close but not good enough. That’s been Arsenal’s story in the recent weeks.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Made a couple of good saves, but also looked shaky on occasion. Distribution was poor.

Djourou: Had a very tough time against Nani. Didn’t know whether he should get tight or back away. At least partly at fault for the first goal.

Mertesacker: Should he have been tighter on Welbeck for the second goal? Did struggle against the youngster’s pace but also made up for it by not giving up. A good goal-line clearance and also hit the target at the end. More is needed when he stays up the pitch towards the end of games.

Koscielny: Monstrous tackle, excellent composure, and a good pass to start off the move for the Arsenal goal. Was energetic and adventurous in the second half.

Vermaelen: Could he have attacked the ball better to prevent Valencia from getting a clean header on goal? Otherwise it was another battling performance from the Belgian and he was involved in the most ground and aerial duels. Also made a team high 3 interceptions and won back possession 7 times in defensive areas.

Yennaris: Had the best pass percentage if we leave the crosses out, which weren’t great but not too bad either. Won 3 of his four tackles and 4 of his 6 ground duels. An impressive effort from the youngster.

The defenders had their moments but they also made a number of mistakes. The question here is, as we saw with Van Persie at the other end, were the mistakes forced by the sustained spells of pressure? Why can’t Arsenal find a way to sustain such pressure at the other end – simply holding on to the ball without incision is not the same – and why can’t the Gunners find a way to hold the ball when the opponents are on top?

Song: Used the big-match fouling license effectively to break up play. Had the most touches and made the most passes for the Gunners. Won back possession most often, 6 times, in midfield. Also won 4 of his 5 tackles. Decent game from the Cameroonian.

Ramsey: Got into a number of useful defensive and attacking positions. Should probably have done better with his strike that went over. Won all three tackles he attempted and had the best passing success among the midfielders and attacking players. His weaknesses aren’t going to disappear overnight so no point in repeating them.

Rosicky: A big improvement over Benayoun from the previous game. Won 4 of his five tackles and had the best success rate in ground duels, 55 percent. Second highest in terms of passes made and a fairly respectable 86 percent success rate. Put in a strong defensive shift although probably not at the level Arteta would have been.

The midfield wasn’t bad but they were a touch too cautious in the first half and that left the attackers isolated. They should also be providing a lot better defensive cover. Certainly for the second goal Arsenal needed a player who would have doubled up on Valencia. Similarly, Arsenal needed better coverage on other occasions when United found a lot of space in and around the Arsenal box. Again this is part of some long-standing issues so I don’t want to dwell on it at the moment.

Walcott: Looked like he was trying something different and was cutting inside more often. This wasn’t the game to try a different approach but he might have been forced to do that because of lack of support in the first half. Was marked out of the game for large periods. Still had some moments that were impressive like the time he pulled away at the back post and headed the ball across the face of goal or the time he rolled Evra to draw a foul in a dangerous area. But that isn’t enough at this level.

RvP: Worked hard all through the game but looked lost on the pitch in the first half as he hardly had any support. Really should have scored from “that” chance. Took his goal really well.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Very impressive second half from the youngster. Had a few moments in the first half as well. Has to improve his passing and decision making in the final third but does provide a threat with his pace and control. Was dispossessed more often than any other Arsenal player but will improve with time. Should start more games and hopefully will last till the end in most of the them.

The front three looked a bigger threat in the second half but weren’t very effective in the first period even when Arsenal were dominating the ball. It is, of course, linked with the kind of support they got from the midfield and the general link-up play between the players.

Subs: Arshavin didn’t offer much and will be an easy target for many irate fans. Park didn’t get enough time to make an impact.

Wenger: His decision to substitute AOC for Arshavin will obviously be the biggest complaint against the manager but I would like to hold that judgment till all the facts are available. The second goal certainly wasn’t down to Arshavin but more to the structure of the defence, for which Arsene is indeed responsible. Similarly, the first goal was too easy for United and the Arsenal manager has to find a way to stop teams from getting to the attacking third with such ease. But he also deserves credit for the fighting display in the second half. Few teams can put up such a battle against United despite so many injuries.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Manchester United

January 22, 2012

On the back of two games where Arsenal  have lost after taking the lead, and with hardly any positive news on the injury front, a game against Manchester United is the last thing many would want. But that’s the game on the fixture list and the Gunners will just have to do as best as they can with diminished resources and wavering confidence. Liverpool lost again, embarrassingly some might say, while Chelsea have been held to a draw. At least one of Spurs and City will also drop points on Sunday. This is another opportunity for Wenger’s side to pull away from the teams immediately below them in the table and inch closer to those in front.

Unless one of the injured players recovers in time, Arsene will have very limited choices in terms of picking his starting line-up. The back five will probably be the same that started against Swansea. In the middle I would like to see Rosicky get a start if he is fully fit.

Up front there is no reason to leave Van Persie or Walcott out. The only position that seems debatable is wide on the left. Arshavin can make incisive contributions but those only make up a few moments in the game. For large parts when the team is defending he seems like a liability on the left and in this game especially, Miquel could struggle if he doesn’t get sufficient cover. Starting Benayoun on the flank might provide a better defensive option. The Israeli didn’t contribute enough in the previous game in midfield but he would be more comfortable on the wing. With Rosicky providing more and better movement/passing, Ramsey and Song won’t be overworked in midfield and will be less likely to make mistakes.

The problem with this selection is that Arsenal’s creative threat will not be as strong. United will mark the Gunners closely and it will be tough to find a way through anyway. Without enough players who can break them down Arsenal could struggle to score in this game. I have a feeling Arsene will start with the more creative option and make changes if a lead is to be protected late in the game.

Probable starting line-up,

Szczesny – Djourou, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Miquel – Rosicky, Ramsey, Song – Walcott, RvP, Arshavin.

My personal choice would be Benayoun on the left ahead of Arshavin but that seems unlikely considering Wenger’s generally attacking choices in the past. I’d also like to see the positions of Song and Rosicky swapped so that the Cameroonian stays more to the left. This will help the side defend better when Nani cuts inside. Miquel should have clear instructions to cover down the line and leave the job of defending the central runs to the midfield.

It will be interesting to see if Ferguson goes with Rooney and a striker or he plays an extra defensive midfielder. I haven’t watched some of their recent games so it’s hard for me to guess their current form based tactics.

United are a very competent counter-attacking unit and Arsenal will have to ensure they don’t leave the defence exposed against players who are comfortable running with the ball and have the skills to finish from distance or go past defenders in a one-v-one.

It would be wise to adopt the approach that Arsenal took in the tougher Champions League games. Keep things tight and hope for a mistake. Van Persie might be able to create some space for himself or Walcott might find a way to use his pace. Those are the options Arsenal should rely on in attack. The midfield should not push forward unless a clear opportunity presents itself and never in a manner that isolates the back four.

The Gunners are prone to making fatal mistakes or conceding freakish goals and it won’t surprise me if we see one or two hit the net behind Szczesny. A score draw seems the best possible result that Arsenal can realistically get from this game. That should at least keep the gap with Chelsea to a manageable four points. Wenger’s side will need a generous dose of luck if they are to win this game.

Before ending, since I have received a few queries about this, I want to add that everyone is welcome to send their articles for publication. I don’t have any guidelines or rules for that but would only like to publish articles that fit the general theme of the blog. Essentially, any article that provides some food for thought will be appreciated. You can also write to me and discuss your thoughts before sending in any articles. My email is mentioned in the sidebar on the Right.

Here’s to a Manchester side winning the first game of the day and losing the second one. Here’s to hope – the quintessential human delusion!

Swansea 3 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

January 17, 2012

A family event at a nearby city took me out of town for the last couple of days and is the cause for the lateness of this post. It really was unavoidable but I don’t want to trouble you with the details.

The result of the game, more so the manner in which the goals were conceded, was quite upsetting but after having a day to think it over I find there were a lot of talking points from the game.

The sight of Benayoun in the starting line-up wasn’t a complete surprise due to the rumours circulating on the previous day but I wasn’t quite sure what his role was, and given his performance it would seem he wasn’t either.

Arsenal started brightly and pressed the hosts high up the pitch in the opening few minutes. That led to a number of errors and Swansea couldn’t establish any rhythm to their game. The Gunners were off the mark much quicker and took the lead as early as the 5th minute after a delightful move. It started with an interception by Benayoun on the left just inside the Swansea half. He played it wide to Miquel who routed it back towards Koscielny. The centre-back found Ramsey who’d dropped deep. The Welshman looked up to see Arshavin directing him to pass forward towards Song, who just angled the pass into the path of the Russian who was free between the lines. His weighted ball was perfect for Van Persie who delayed his shot and probably caught everyone, including Vorm in goal, by surprise.

At that early stage Arsenal were in complete control but the goal probably worked against the Gunners. Swansea love to pass the ball around but Arsenal’s pressing was troubling them. After scoring, the Gunners eased off and that allowed the hosts back into the game. Having nothing to lose they pushed men forward and established control over possession.

Since last season Wenger seems to have instructed his side to drop back to the halfway line when possession is lost. That tactic worked wonderfully in the away games last season and some of the big ones like Barcelona but it has been a massive flop this time around as the defence has been exposed far too easily by all and sundry.

I think a major part of the problem is that Arsenal have lost two players who were excellent at holding the ball under pressure. While Arteta does compensate for that to a large extent it isn’t always enough. And with the Spaniard missing the Gunners just didn’t have enough players who played the possession game well. Thus the Gunners found it hard to hold on to the ball and had to deal with sustained spells of pressure.

Arshavin, Benayoun, and Walcott are all very direct players who don’t offer the kind of work rate needed to move the ball around to absorb pressure and create passing angles for moving the ball forward in a controlled manner. In this game Arsenal were rushing forward when under pressure. Swansea’s pressing and lack of passing options meant the Gunners lost the ball far too often (either hoofed forward, or given away with a misplaced pass, or a player was caught in possession as he searched for passing options, and so on) and were then forced to track back without really getting a chance to get into a solid defensive shape.

Despite that, it must be noted that Arsenal were not really threatened in the first half. Swansea scored from a dubious penalty that looked like a foul on Ramsey upon closer inspection, although it’s hard to blame the ref given his angle. One does wonder why the Assistant Ref didn’t spot Dyer’s foot landing on Ramsey’s leg. Apart from the goal the hosts only managed one shot on target in the first half that was a Dyer effort that went straight at Szczesny.

Arsenal had much better chances in the first half. For instance, soon after conceding the goal Ramsey went close from a tight angle. Around the half hour mark Van Persie was through on goal but his effort was saved by the keeper.

Swansea did manage to put a lot of balls into the Arsenal box but they weren’t really offering a creative threat. Arsenal could have won this game if they’d set up deep to let the hosts play in front of them.

Both sides created a lot more in the second half but Arsenal’s structural issues – too many players sucked back without the right shape, players rushing forward after winning possession/defending without providing the angles for out-balls, Miquel in particular went forward at times in an ill-advised manner – and too many individual mistakes proved costly as was the profligacy in front of goal.

For instance, the second goal came when Ramsey was caught in possession. But it’s far to easy to blame the Welshman for that goal. Looking at the sequence of events one would have to say Arshavin delayed his pass to Ramsey which allowed the opponent to close him down. Song was between the goal and Dyer when the ball was lost but was caught ball-watching when the goalscorer got behind him. Song only chased hard once he saw the ball being played towards the winger. This is a fundamental problem with Arsenal and one that can be seen with many players among whom Song is supposed to be one of the better defensive ones. Once he saw Miquel rushing forward after intercepting the ball initially – which in itself was a debatable move – Song should have been more alert to the danger posed by the Winger. But a lot of Arsenal’s defending is very, very reactive and that opens them up to such mistakes more often.

Of course Ramsey deserves his share of criticism as well. When Arshavin played the ball to him the youngster didn’t really have a pass on the right and his body shape was such that coming inside wasn’t an option. He tried to take the opponent on when the smarter option would probably have been to knock it wider for a foot chase.

Errors committed in central areas are a lot more likely to lead to goal as it open the play up for opponents. When in trouble the wise option is to take it wide. Ramsey should also have the technical ability to shield the ball from an opponent so that one of his teammates can get into a better position to receive a pass. He also needs to show more caution and patience in such a situation. But in his rush to move forward he committed a fatal mistake. These are the kind of mistakes that highlight issues with tactical awareness and to me the Gunners are severely lacking in defensive tactical thinking when compared to other top sides.

Even for the third goal, Henry’s flick that went straight to Sigurdsson was extraordinarily clumsy for a man of his experience but not one that would surprise those who have followed his career. Koscielny dropped a fraction deeper when he anticipated the through-ball. Szczesny was all over the place. It was just too easy for Swansea.

The hosts’ defensive performance at the other end wasn’t very good. Their backline was often a shambles as Arsenal got in behind regularly, none more telling than the second goal. They also conceded a lot more chances. Mertesacker showed he had no attacking instincts in the box when he spurned a gilt-edged opportunity. Ramsey, Rosicky, and Koscielny all forced decent saves from the Keeper. But Swansea didn’t lose their shape that often, a lot of the chances were a result of Arsenal’s quality. If the Gunners can learn to get into a defensive shape when under pressure they will collect a lot more points but for that there have to be additions to the coaching staff.

On the whole this was a very disappointing game with a number of deep-rooted issues coming to the fore. Injuries are definitely a part of the problem but they cannot be used as an excuse. Why did Arteta play against Leeds, just to take one example?

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Didn’t look assured or confidence-inspiring at all. Positioning for the second goal was questionable, for the third was poor. Distribution wasn’t good either. Needs to focus on his game rather than gimmicks like singing with the fans and kissing the boots of the striker. He has a lot to prove.

Djourou: Swansea didn’t create too many chances from his end but the Swiss defender also curbed his attacking instincts to a large extent. Was fairly involved in the passing and had a respectable success rate. Also picked up a very good assist.

Mertesacker: Wasn’t as involved in the passing as he usually is, probably as a result of being pushed back. Made the most number of successful clearances. Should have done much better when the ball fell at his feet. It was as if he was on his heels and just not expecting the ball to come to him at that height.

Koscielny: A fighting display from the Frenchman. Made a fair number of passes and clearances, 4 interceptions, and also had an acrobatic strike on goal.

Miquel: The youngster had a very influential game in a positive and negative sense. He had the most touches and the most passes of any Arsenal player, which is commendable for one his age, especially in a game of such intensity and pressure. He also won the ball back most often in the defensive and middle thirds including his five interceptions. It would be harsh to blame him for the second or third goal even if he was caught up-field.

I thought the defenders did reasonably well under pressure and considering the injuries to regular full-backs. Graham’s movement was intelligent and Dyer’s pace and skill were tricky. Sinclair too was a handful. Their passing wasn’t at the usual level but many of the errors were forced by the opponents’ pressing and Arsenal’s tactical issues.

It would be worth knowing if Miquel’s forward bursts were based on instructions from the manager or just a result of  his own exuberant initiative. He did make a big contribution on the left flank in terms of passing and possession, which also facilitated Arshavin’s inward movement but would Benayoun have been more effective if Miquel had stayed back more often?

Song: Worked extremely hard but also made a number of mistakes. Received and made a fair number of passes. Had the second highest number of ground duels – 13 – but won only 5 of those. Joint highest on the Possession Won in Midfield stat. Wasn’t able to contribute in attack. Should have done much better to track Dyer for the second goal.

Ramsey: He was the easy villain for many and it’s not hard to see why. Conceded possession for the second goal and was the highest on the Total Loss of Possession stat. Some will also blame him for the penalty even though it wasn’t his fault. But he was also the player who worked hardest on the pitch. He made the most interceptions and had the joint highest Possession Won in Midfield figure. He also was the second highest in terms of passes and touches. He got into attacking areas and created three chances and hit two good shots on target. At the same time the Welshman was also putting in a strong defensive shift with a team high 19 ground duels. All-in-all the youngster was everywhere and tried really hard. Some of his mistakes were forced as the weaknesses of the side were exposed. That’s not to say he had a great game, just that he put in the best effort among the players Arsene sent out on the pitch.

Benayoun: He probably didn’t look bad to the casual observer. Made four interceptions, two of which led to good chances, and didn’t lose the ball cheaply. But given the current system Arsenal need a lot more from the third midfielder and Benayoun failed because of what he didn’t do rather than what he did. He was at least a yard off pace on many instances and wasn’t really helpful in attack or defence. Also tended to drift to the left far too often. He only received 18 passes and attempted only 25. That shows he wasn’t really getting into positions where his teammates could find him. The fact that Rosicky made 23 passes in less than half the time showed just how little Benayoun offered on the pitch. He also attempted only 4 ground duels compared to 13 and 19 from his midfield partners.

The midfield failed. Song and Ramsey had to do the job of three players as they were stretched in attack and defence. Benayoun was out of sync and off pace. Ultimately all of them made mistakes; some obvious, others not so evident without a closer inspection. But it’s hard to think Arsenal would have lost this game with Arteta in the side. It’s not an excuse but an indication of what was missing. Benayoun might improve to an extent but I don’t see him having a meaningful career or even a memorable season at Arsenal.

Walcott: His limitations were exposed as the possession game failed. Made far too many early runs and wasn’t really helpful as an outlet for an out-ball. For instance, if he had been on the right touchline, Ramsey would probably not have attempted a take-on. Did score a good goal and put in dangerous crosses late in the game. Kind of a mixed game for the Englishman.

RvP: Goal was deft. As always work rate was exceptional and there was a moment when he brought the ball out after beating three of four players in the Arsenal half. Put in an excellent cross for Henry and created the maximum number of chances, 4. Should probably have done better with his second chance which went straight at the Keeper.

Arshavin: Another player whose weaknesses were highlighted by the game. Can’t really fault his effort as he was chasing the ball but he doesn’t have the ability to contribute to a pressure-absorbing possession game that can help the side control the tempo. Received only 21 passes and made only 20. The assist did show his quality but it wasn’t enough.

The wide players weren’t able to contribute meaningfully in attack or defence despite picking up a goal and an assist between them. I don’t blame them completely as the manager has to find a tactical system that can use their skills better while masking their weaknesses. The reverse usually happens when the current possession game fails and Arsenal don’t seem to have a good alternative.

Subs: Rosicky was lively and made a much bigger impact on the game than Benayoun as he received 21 passes, completed 22/23, and had 3 shots on goal. Henry’s movement in the box was interesting but he didn’t get enough balls. He did show the ability to receive and hold the ball. Partly at fault for the third goal as he gifted possession in a dangerous area with an ill-advised flick. AOC was energetic but couldn’t make an impact.

Wenger: The manager is handicapped by the injuries and his side certainly deserved more from this game. But a lot of the issues discussed here are long-standing ones and it’s up to Arsene to find the solutions.

January 15, 2012

Arsenal visit the Liberty Stadium with a chance to pull away from Liverpool and get within a point of Chelsea in fourth. But Swansea’s impressive home record suggests a win will be a commendable achievement. The Welsh side have only conceded 4 goals at home – Joint lowest in the League on par with City – and lost only once with United sneaking a 1-0 win back in mid-November.

That defensive record has been vital to the hosts’ survival campaign thus far as Brendan Rodgers’ side have adopted a ball-playing approach to the game but have only managed one goal per game in their 20 matches thus far. The stats, therefore, suggest this will be another tight low-scoring fixture.

Wenger captured Swansea’s style perfectly with the phrase “Conservative Possession”. The hosts do have a lot of the ball in most of their games but they tend to play it safe at the back with central defenders and other defensive players dominating the passing stats.

Brendan Rodgers relies on his wingers for attacking impetus and that will make this game very interesting as Arsenal really are running out of full-backs. Swansea will hope to win the individual battles in the wide areas for getting their goal. But Arsenal should be able to keep a clean sheet in this game if the full-backs get adequate support. The hosts won’t commit too many bodies forward regularly and that should keep the Gunners relatively safe at the back.

In attack, the Gunners will have to rely on their pressing. When opponents try to play the ball around at the back, co-ordinated pressing can result in errors that can result in gilt-edged chances. It won’t be easy obviously, as few teams have been able to beat Vorm in the Swansea goal and none more than once, but United did capitalize on an error at the back to take the three points and that’s the template Arsenal must look to follow.

Arshavin can be a very handy player to have in such a game as he has the ability to pounce on errors and provide the incisive pass even if his shooting ability has currently abandoned him. It’s worth noting that Arsenal’s win at home against the same opponents was also a 1-0 win that resulted from a defensive error that gave Arshavin his only goal of this Premiership season.

Djourou should be back for this game so Arsenal will have sufficient quality and experience on the right. But the Swiss defender will have to do better with his positioning and decision making. Miquel will start on the left and will be more in need of support. Koscielny will have to put in some covering tackles and track the runs behind the youngster. The midfield will have to cover for him when he does bomb forward, which he does more frequently than other make-shift full-backs.

Arsene will give late fitness tests to Mertesacker and Rosicky. Hopefully both will come through, especially the German, otherwise there is a good chance Squillaci will partner Koscielny at the centre of defence. The Frenchman with Djourou and Miquel will result in a defence very vulnerable against the clever movement of the hosts. Song and Arteta’s defensive contribution will take on added importance in such a scenario.

Up front, some will want to see Henry in the starting line-up but I feel his best role is as an impact sub. Just the sight of Henry coming on can give the players and fans a lift if things aren’t going according to plan. Putting the legend in from a start can have the reverse effect if he fails to perform at the required physical levels and has to be taken off at a difficult stage in the game.

Probable starting line-up,

Szczesny – Djourou, Mertesacker/Squillaci, Koscielny, Miquel – Song, Ramsey, Arteta – Walcott, RvP, Arshavin.

I dearly hope there is an early goal in this game. That will open the game up and the style of both sides will make it very entertaining. Without the early goal we might see a lot of patient football from both sides that will enthral the purists but not many others.

In completely unrelated news, I read that legends like Pires, Cannavaro, and Crespo will be joining others like Jay Jay Okocha, Juan Pablo Sorin, and Robbie Fowler in the Indian Premier League (no, not the Cricket one). More on that here. Is this the start of a very interesting period for Desi football fans!?

Should Arsenal Sacrifice One Or Both The Cups?

January 13, 2012

It’s a question that can make some people uncomfortable but I think it deserves some consideration.

Many seem to agree that last season crashing out of all three Cups in a short span of time flung the squad into a confidence depriving free fall that the manager could not curtail. It had a massive impact on the players’ psyche, Arsenal’s league position at the end of the season, and quite possibly played a part in some of the summer’s transfers.

I’d suggested at the time and still can’t help but wonder whether the Gunners would have had a better season if they’d not given their all in the Champions League second round tie against Barcelona. As of now and in the years to come, few will remember that Arsenal were the club that came closest to knocking the reigning European Champions out. A much larger number will find the disappointments, to put it mildly, of the last few weeks of the season hard to suppress in their memories.

Now that Arsenal are in three tournaments at the beginning of the second half of the season, a similar question seems rather pertinent. I doubt Wenger, given his competitive nature, will give it serious consideration. Nor do I have any hopes that members of the staff or some of the players will try to reason with the manager on this topic. So I do expect Arsenal to challenge on all fronts but that shouldn’t prevent us from discussing the merits of this question.

Let’s look at Tottenham for a start. They’ve had an impressive League campaign by their standards. Undoubtedly, their relative (and limited I must add) success thus far is based on a number of factors. Adebayor has been the striker Redknapp missed all of last season. Modric didn’t leave in the summer. Bale and Van der Vaart have sustained or improved on their efforts from last season. And so on. But apart from the obvious player and manager related issues, one factor seems to stand out. Tottenham have competed for only one trophy in the first half of the season.

Spurs were knocked out in the first Carling Cup game they played. And the fact that they couldn’t even get through their group in a competition like the Europa League says enough about their efforts in that particular tournament. The impact of this is not immediately obvious but let’s explore this further.

How often have you heard Arsene Wenger complaining about his players lacking sharpness or being tired after the efforts of a midweek tie? The Gunners have played 8 matches in the Champions League this season and their record in the League games immediately following these ties is P8 W3 D1 L4.

It would be naive to put the entire blame of that dismal record on the strains of the Champions League. The first couple of losses against Liverpool and United came under difficult circumstances. Arsenal might have lost those games even if they hadn’t played the qualifiers. Suspensions and transfer related issues were a big factor at that time. But would the result against Spurs have been a little different if the players had an extra 10 percent energy in their tanks with a midweek rest? How about the loss at Blackburn or the home draw with Fulham? It’s not hard to see the Dortmund games took a lot out of the players physically and mentally. We can’t really quantify the impact of that but should we completely deny it?

City or United have not had similar problems in the League but their managers’ attempts at balancing the load with some rotation has clearly failed as is evident from their early departures from the Champions League. Chelsea lost two of their three away games after Champions League encounters. It’s not as bad as Arsenal’s record but it does make a difference at the end of the season.

Another interesting way to look at it is to compare the load on key players. For Arsenal, Van Persie has made 25 appearances so far this season in all competitions. Ramsey and Theo are on 24 while Arteta and Koscielny are one behind that. At United, Nani has clocked up 29 appearances, Jones 28, Evra 26, and Rooney 25. Silva and Aguero have made 28 appearances for City with Yaya Toure and Kompany chipping in with 25 each. For Spurs though, Bale has 21 while Modric and Van der Vaart have 20. Their full-backs and a couple of other fringe players have more but most of their key players have only played in one competition. The difference is not big but it’s undeniable that a breather in just two or three games over half a season can have a substantial impact on a player’s performances and fitness.

It can also be argued that some of the Gunners who have played a fewer number of games have done so in a much shorter period of time as injuries often reduced or completely eliminated the chances for resting players, especially in defence. For instance, Santos made a total of 14 appearances in a very short span of time. In fact, when he got injured against Olympiacos the Brazilian was making his 10th consecutive start in seven weeks. That might not seem like much, but for a guy who probably never played at such intensity regularly, or at least didn’t look like he did, it obviously proved to be a strain his body couldn’t handle.

Now some might argue that appearances in themselves are not a very good stat to use as some of the substitute appearances are very short ones and other counter arguments can be made. I agree. But they do, to an extent, reinforce the point that Spurs have been able to keep their key players fresher than the big teams. How much of an impact that has made is anyone’s guess. I like to think it’s been significant.

Any such discussion would also bring issues like squad depth and rotation to the fore. Broadly speaking I’d want greater depth and a lot more rotation but it’s not as easy as it can sound.

Mancini has had no shortage of funds or squad players but wasn’t able to rotate his players in a manner that they could perform in the Champions League and the Premiership. Last season we saw Spurs struggle in the League when they had to balance it with Europe’s elite club competition. In the past Liverpool too had their share of issues and Dalglish hasn’t found sufficient consistency this season despite a fair bit of rotation. Clearly, it’s not as straightforward as swapping one player for another. That said, I do feel Ferguson has achieved this balance better and more consistently than other managers and that has been one of the integral aspects of his success. But this issue is complex enough to deserve its own discussion at a later date. For now I think it’s safe to say that simply blaming incorrect or insufficient rotation cannot be a valid argument against the manager.

Similarly, squad depth is a tough one to crack. Given the spate of concentrated injuries that Arsenal seem to get, it would be imprudent to assume that buying more players can be a solution. For instance, How many full-backs can one buy? Given the way Coquelin joined the near exhaustive list of injured full-backs at Arsenal, can anyone guarantee that a new January signing will not succumb to the same fate in probably his first match?!

Nevertheless, when one sees players like Park or Benayoun being used so sparingly it does raise valid questions about the depth of the squad at least in terms of the quality available. But quality of players is a really tricky topic. There is no such thing as a proven player. For every Mata there is a Reyes, for every Aguero a Carroll or Torres. Sometimes the same player can be a success and a failure within the same season. The point of course is not that no signing should be made for fear of failure but that fans should not assume a player will succeed if signed. Such assumption driven assertions are the chief cause of opinion-pollution on the internet/media. But I don’t want to get caught up in that discussion right now.

So to come back to the topic of the post, I do broadly agree that better rotation and squad depth can help but these solutions are not as obvious as a cursory analysis would have you believe. I think it’s a challenge every manager grapples with constantly and Wenger does better than most even if it’s far from ideal. With that in mind I don’t see either of these coming to Arsenal’s rescue as far as the performances of the rest of the season are concerned.

It could be that Arsene finds a couple of good deals in the market and it could also happen that the injured players return while few or no others enter the treatment room with serious complaints. In that case Arsenal could very well have a squad to compete on all fronts. But the recent track record just doesn’t fill me with confidence.

Then there is the issue of the trophy drought. Some might think the Gunners can get past the likes of Aston Villa and Milan. After that who knows, the luck of the draw might work in their favour. The Premiership title is out of reach this year but there is hope in the Cups. I don’t deny the possibility but it’s hard to see the odds work out. A couple of poor results in the League due to the travails of midweek games can easily bring back the self-doubt that was so palpable at the end of last season and hasn’t been buried irretrievably deep enough just yet.

Once we put together all these factors – the importance of resting players, the complexities of rotations and squad depths, the psychological impacts of fighting hard for the Cups/losing points in the League, and so on – I strongly believe sacrificing at least one of the Cups would be an astute move for Arsenal.

That’s not to say Wenger should play kids against Milan or Villa and chuck the games. It doesn’t have to be so blatant. All Arsenal need is fractionally lower mental and physical involvement in the Cup ties. The manager can rest one or two players for these games and those who do take the field can play with a nothing to lose attitude. The basic idea is not about throwing games away – although “sacrificing the Cups” does make it sound that way – but about balancing the mental and physical effort being put in. By sacrificing I mean playing with a certain liberated nonchalance – neither frivolous nor intense. And if they do go out of one of the Cups they can raise the level in the other one depending on the draw and the fitness/form factor at that point in time.

For this to materialize everyone at the club would have to have a very clear idea of the priorities for the season. For me that’s finishing in the top four. Everything else is secondary. It’s not a thought that delights me but it does seem like a pragmatic approach given the current circumstances.

Arsenal 1 – 0 Leeds: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

January 10, 2012

In a way this was a fairy tale return for Thierry Henry. Wenger acknowledged as much in his post-match press conference when he said,

It was like a dream when he scored, it was the story you would tell a kid. It is not often like that in our game.

But one could as well say there was an air of predictability about the football and the result. It was all Arsenal for most of the game with the only missing ingredient being the finishing quality in the final third. Henry was most likely to provide that given the form of some players in a line-up depleted by injuries.

The first half was rather dull and eminently forgettable. Arshavin had three shots in the opening four minutes and should really have scored with his third. Apart from that the Gunners were restricted to a number of half chances as the visitors sat back to defend.

I thought Leeds came out with a very diffident approach in the opening period while Arsenal weren’t really able to get the creativity flowing despite dominating the ball with ease.

Arshavin was lively but lacked the precision that comes instinctively when a player is in form. Chamakh linked play well but never looked like he would get into scoring positions. Oxlade-Chamberlain was stuck on the flank and didn’t get any space to run into. The industrious Ramsey got into interesting areas and displayed some tricks but again his final ball or finish wasn’t at the required level. Song and Arteta were playing it safe while the young full-backs bombed up and down without really getting in-behind. I don’t think Lonergan had a save to make in the first half.

The Gunners were also disappointing with their corners although Squillaci did go close from a set-piece.

At the other end Leeds were completely reliant on set-pieces and long balls. Their only half-chance came from fighting for the second and third ball after a free-kick wasn’t cleared by the first header.

At the beginning of the second half I got a feeling Grayson became a bit more adventurous as Leeds were sending more players forward to press and contest for the loose balls after every hoof. This opened space up for the Arsenal wingers and both started influencing the game in their own way.

It wouldn’t be surprising to learn Arsene specifically instructed AOC to be more adventurous with his movement as the youngster drifted in regularly in the second half. Song and Arteta too joined the attack more often as Arsenal pushed for a goal. The Gunners created much better chances and forced a number of saves/blocks in the opening 20 minutes of the half.

With just over 20 minutes to go, Arsene took AOC and Chamakh off and introduced Theo and Henry. The patterns of play didn’t change significantly after the substitutions but there was hope that chances can be finished off better with these two on the pitch.

The King took ten minutes to settle the tie with a trademark finish. The intelligence of that run behind the Right Back, quality of the first touch, and deftness of the finish all re-established the class of the man.

Arsenal endured a nervy finish to the game as some of the players stopped moving and it became difficult to hold the ball. Leeds created two or three good chances but Szczesny was in the right place to keep them out.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Very good positioning and caught the ball well. Almost conceded a calamitous goal when he went all the way to the touchline only to clear the ball straight to an opponent.

Coquelin: Was aggressive in defence and worked the flank enthusiastically. Unfortunately, he seems to have stretched himself and will now miss a few weeks of football with a hamstring injury.

Yennaris: The youngster matched Coquelin’s aggression and attacked the ball intelligently. His positional sense was appreciable as were his tenacity and technical skills. Had a couple of nervy moments but that is to be expected.

Squillaci: Played a couple of iffy passes but was largely in control. Went close with a header.

Koscielny: Performed admirably in a physical duel, bordering on grappling, with the striker all day long. Was fairly composed on the ball but didn’t take too many risks in terms of venturing forward.

Miquel: Got into very interesting attacking positions and also tracked back energetically when caught up field. Looked impressive technically and wasn’t unnerved by the pressure towards the end. Can do better in the attacking areas. For instance, he should have scored or set a goal up when Arshavin found him in acres of space in the Leeds half late in the game.

The back five were mostly in control but conceded a few chances, especially at the end, when the team entered a patchy phase of play as the midfield and attackers seemed unclear about their roles. The ease with which McCormack and Forssell found room in the box was worrying but the Gunners did well to limit such instances.

Song: Had a pragmatic first half and a more influential second one. Picked up the assist with a delightful defence-splitting pass. Created some other chances as well. Could have done better with his shot at goal. Made a big contribution in defending the second balls.

Ramsey: Put in an excellent shift in the middle with a number of runs in the wide areas and the box. Also played a big part in pressing the visiting defenders. Seemed a bit overenthusiastic with his shooting and took a fraction too long over some of his passes in the final third. It was nice to see some of the flicks and tricks work out.

Arteta: Very confident on the ball, got involved in the attack in the second half and got into shooting positions in the box, some of his set-piece deliveries were good but could do with more consistency and better understanding with those in the box.

It was a typically dominant effort from the midfielders. They had to do more to support the defence and were also stretched in the attacking areas. On the whole it was a hard-working display that was efficient and effective, only just but that’s enough.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Was somewhat anonymous in the first half but made a much bigger impact in the 20-odd minutes he got in the second half as he abandoned the flank and drifted all over the pitch. Some of his dribbles at pace were exciting but needs work on his decision making, finishing, and crossing.

Chamakh: I would love to know the number of chances he created with layoffs. A striker has to get into scoring positions but the Moroccan suffered on that front . Offered more in the second half when some balls were aimed at his head. Work rate was good and chased what seemed like a lost cause to good effect more than once.

Arshavin: Very hard-working display, ran at the full-back regularly but couldn’t really produce the finish or the killer ball despite a number of clever touches. Got into good positions to receive the ball and most of his first touches and turns were excellent.

Subs: Henry brought back memories of his heyday but also looked rusty at times. This role of an impact player will suit him the best in the first couple of weeks at least. Walcott put in a few good crosses but wasn’t very effective once Arsenal scored and lost their tactical bearings.

Wenger: Picked a fairly strong side, got the substitutions right, deserves credit for the quality of the youngsters’ performances. But in the end this was a game Arsenal should win so it was just a regular day at the office.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Leeds

January 9, 2012

Many fans were hoping for early activity from the Gunners in the transfer market, especially to bolster the defence, but things have largely been quiet. Given that Ferguson had to go back to Paul Scholes and Chelsea are taking so long over the Cahill deal, one can assume this is going to be, at best, a tricky month for football business. In that context, Arsenal’s loan deal for Henry seems like a good start and one that could have an impact as early as the Cup tie against Leeds.

Last year Arsenal needed a replay in the Third round to get past Leeds. Wenger played a second string side in that home game and I won’t be surprised if he goes down a similar path in this one.

The problems at the back are well documented but Arsene does not have the luxury of hiding behind injuries as an excuse. It’s his job to put out a respectable back four and while it is an unenviable task, most fans will expect Arsenal to be defensively strong at home.

Having largely missed last week’s news, I am not sure whether Fabianski is fit for this game or not. In his absence it would be wise to keep Szczesny in the line-up. I have defended Almunia often enough but if a Keeper is going to make a mistake I’d rather it’s the Pole who gets the chance to learn from his mistakes. Almunia is not going to revive his Arsenal career so it’s best to keep him as the last option. In any case, there is no real need to rest the Goalkeeper as he isn’t among the busiest players at Arsenal.

In front of Szczesny, Wenger has some decisions to make. He could bring someone like Squillaci into the centre of defence with Mertesacker and put Koscielny on the right and Coquelin on the left. I’d prefer a stronger pairing in the centre with Koscielny and Mertesacker – who could both do with a rest – holding the fort with support from Coquelin and Miquel on the flanks.

Arsene can also drop Song back into the defence if one of his regulars is “in the red”. I think it’s important to have the Cameroonian in the midfield as Arteta deserves a breather, probably more than anyone else. Rosicky and Benayoun can provide technical quality in the middle.

Up front Wenger has more options. Obviously, the name many people will be interested in seeing is that of Henry. Since his physical qualities are not likely to be at the required level, it would be wise to keep him on the bench.

Arshavin has shown glimpses of a return to form and can benefit from a start. Oxlade-Chamberlain is another who needs time on the pitch. If Arsene does go with the Russian and the youngster, he will have to pick between Chamakh and Park at the centre of the attack.

Another issue worth considering is that such a line-up will leave the flanks fairly weak. Neither the Arshavin-Miquel axis, nor the Coquelin-AOC one on the right will have sufficient defensive experience or nous.

One way around this is to have Benayoun on one flank to support the full-back. Le Boss might have to play a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1 in order to accommodate that.

Preferred line-up,

Szczesny – Coquelin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Miquel – AOC, Song, Rosicky, Benayoun, – Arshavin – Chamakh.

I don’t really know how to pick one from Chamakh and Park at this stage but have gone with the Moroccan as he has been asked to delay his trip to the ACN. It would be strange to hold on to a player and then not give him sufficient time on the pitch.

The side mentioned above will give Leeds more than a glimmer of hope but risking Arteta, Walcott, or Van Persie for such a game could prove to be suicidal in the longer term.

The visitors have lost their talented star man Max Gradel – who won the penalty at the Emirates last season – during the summer transfer window along with Kasper Schmeichel whose heroics in goal earned them the respectable draw just over a year ago. Influential players like Snodgrass and Howson are likely miss out through injury. So it’s quite possible this Leeds side is much weaker than the one Arsenal eventually defeated at the second attempt last time around.

Their top scorer, McCormack, is 5′ 7″ but I still expect long balls over the top and set-pieces to be their biggest threat. That’s the reason Arsenal need a strong central defence and can make do with relatively weaker flanks as long as goals aren’t gifted to the opposition.

If Oxlade-Chamberlain does get a start, he will have a vital role to play in the attack. That means the youngster will have to demonstrate better tactical awareness than he has done in the limited time he’s had on the pitch thus far. Players like Rosicky, Benayoun, and Arshavin can thread the defence but AOC will probably be the only one who can make the incisive runs (unless Henry/Park are also on the pitch). The Ox will also have to display better defensive awareness as a four man midfield can be severely handicapped if a wide player doesn’t get into the right positions.

The Gunners have not conceded more than one goal at home except in the loss against Liverpool, if memory serves. However, the draws against Fulham and Wolves at home have also highlighted a problem of not scoring enough goals in games Arsenal are realistically expected to win. I will be surprised if there are more than two goals in this Cup tie. The end at which they are scored will depend on individual quality in the final third and you very well know who can provide that! On such days one should be forgiven for believing in fairy tales. Here’s to one titled The Return of the King.

Quick Thoughts On QPR And Fulham

January 3, 2012

I want to start by wishing everyone a very happy new year full of peace and contentment. My trip has been a real delight and by visiting town like Amherst and Northampton in Massachusetts I’ve been reacquainted with the meaning of the words Quaint and Idyllic. Back in India, I used to enjoy living and working in town like Udaipur a lot more than I did in places like Mumbai, Bangalore, or Delhi. This trip has rekindled some of those memories and it’s been very relaxing and refreshing. I hope you too are having a good time, even if the last result was a bit of a dampener.

Coming to the football, I haven’t had much time but the results on New Year’s eve were just so exciting that I couldn’t live without watching the QPR game and the highlights of the other games. But when I saw the result of the Fulham trip it seemed best to just take a quick look at the highlights and forget about the game, at least till a later date. By now you must have read many excellent reports/analyses of both the matches so I will just mention some observations that stood out. Please note the thoughts on the loss in the London derby are just cursory and based on highlights so are quite possibly incomplete or in need of revision.

Against QPR I saw a number of balls being played over the top for runs in behind and it led to a number of chances. This was expected and an extension of a tactic that we also saw against Wolves. Arsenal’s have, at times, struggled against high pressing, something that was also seen in the game against Fulham, and I have been looking for some tactical adjustments from Wenger to counter that. The ability to play balls in behind can come in very handy but so far the Gunners haven’t really been able to capitalize on it. Part of the problem has been individual mistakes and poor finishing but there are some structural issues as well. For instance, against Fulham Arsenal just didn’t have the ability to get out of their half for phases of the game. Wenger has to find a way to use the pace at his disposal to create outlets that relieve the pressure on the defence. Unfortunately, dragging the wide players back into Arsenal’s half seems like a self-limiting tactic that is neither very effective defensively, nor is it efficient from an attacking perspective. This topic needs a lot more detail so will leave it for now.

Among the positives, I was really impressed by the work of Ramsey. After creating 6 chances against Wolves in his substitute appearance, Ramsey put in a couple of vastly improved performances when compared to his recent games. Against QPR he put Walcott through, hit the target with an excellent volley, and was in general looking a lot more composed, confident and involved. In the highlights of the Fulham game I noticed a couple of powerful strikes on goal that hit the target (something he was struggling to do earlier) and also picked up the assist for the goal (although I am not sure whether it will be officially assigned to him or not based on the technicality of the deflection). Performing in Fabregas’ shadow has not been easy for the Welshman but he is slowly developing his own style that doesn’t quite have the same level of vision/incision (it would be unfair to expect it anyway) but offers relatively more solidity and work rate. Arsenal need better efforts from Ramsey and he has the talent. He needs a bit more time to develop confidence, composure and other little details that often are the difference between very good and world class. But he seems to be going in the right direction.

Another joy has been the emergence of Francis Coquelin. One must remember that he is by no means a fully developed professional, but in that context his efforts have been excellent. Regular readers know I have been expecting the Frenchman to move above Frimpong in the pecking order. With his more physical teammate moving to Wolves on a much needed loan, Coquelin should get more opportunities in the first team even if it’s in unfamiliar full-back positions, which are further weakened by the injury to Vermaelen and Djourou’s suspension. The youngster has a certain grace in his movement and passing which makes him look like a natural football player. His technique on the ball, ability to tackle, and tenacity are encouraging qualities. With more experience the lad will be able to improve his positioning, decision making, and such other (often intangible) performance enhancing variables that can eventually turn him into a well-rounded and defensively versatile player who can confidently hold down a first team spot.

One glaring problem in the two games was Arsenal’s finishing. Gervinho in particular has been a serial-culprit on this front but it was expected when he was signed. He has this tendency to be exciting and frustrating at the same time as his pace and awareness of space often put him in excellent positions but his technique in front of goal is a massive let down. It can be improved with regular practice  but I don’t expect any overnight miracles as he’d have to put in a lot of hours in training to work on his technique.

Walcott’s miss was a bit surprising as he tends to hit the target more often than most players who get through one-v-one. This season I’m getting a feeling that Walcott is struggling to get into as many scoring positions as he did last year. Could it be that Gervinho is now making a lot of the runs that Walcott used to make and thus Theo is not getting enough chances to get on the score-sheet? This would, over a period of time, affect his confidence and result in some scuffed chances and rushed attempted. By no means is Walcott a technical genius but he does have respectable shooting skills. That said, he could regress if he doesn’t get enough goal-scoring chances as it affects confidence and perception. Arsene will have to look at the way he is using his wide players and see if it would not be more impactful to give Theo the opportunities to run in behind more often, especially in the central positions. There can’t be clear-cut task definitions in such cases but Wenger can make a difference depending on the kind of defensive responsibility being put on the player. For instance, he could give one of the two a license to lurk around the half-way line instead of tracking back deep in the Arsenal half. Similarly, he’d have to give one player more freedom to make central runs – if he gives it to both they would get in each other’s way – and this liberty can be better shared.

Arshavin had a decent game against QPR. It was a typical effort from the Russian where he had a few moments of real class interspersed with those where he went AWOL. Nevertheless his assist was ultimately he difference between three points and one. The fact that it looked so easy must not be allowed to dilute the quality of that pass. Hope this signals the start of a better phase in his Arsenal career.

Szczesny wasn’t very convincing against Fulham but it doesn’t really surprise me. This has probably been one of the few blogs, if not the only one, that has been clear and consistent on the goalkeeping issue. When the Keepers have to come for balls in a crowded box they will, occasionally, make mistakes and struggle under pressure. Having not seen the full game, I don’t want to form any hasty conclusions, but this was a worrying observation.

A win and a loss in a short span put the Gunners in the top four and back out immediately. This is going to be a topsy-turvy ride till the end as Chelsea and Liverpool also struggle to find consistency. Wenger, in his pre-match interview before the QPR game, did mention that the League is now back to a level where any team can beat any other on a given day and it no longer has the predictable air that it had at the start. Consistency, as many have noted, will be the key. I strongly believe Wenger needs to find a way to strengthen the squad in the Winter. And while I do understand the difficulties involved, it’s hard to see the current group achieving the desired level of consistency. Arsenal might have to rely on the woes of Chelsea and Liverpool rather than controlling matters with their own performances and this could make for a very nervy second half.