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.