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.