Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against QPR

March 31, 2012

Arsenal are on the cusp of something special. No Premier League side has won 8 in a row this season and only two have done so across the big 5 leagues in Europe. Granted it’s not title-winning special but if achieved, it will certainly play it’s part in shaping the summer’s internal and external transfer business.

QPR will try to stop the Gunners and it is probably a bigger game for them given their battle against relegation. Once again, theoretically, this should be a comfortable game for Wenger’s side. But we all know in practice it’s never as straightforward.

The hosts have had a difficult season but they do have genuine quality in their squad. It’s worth noting that two of their three home wins have come against Chelsea and Liverpool. Another interesting fact is that most of their games have been very close. In the first seven games – a juncture I seem to have developed a fixation for – they played four games, losing three, where the result had a gap of two goals or more. But 19 of their last 23 games have seen a goal difference of one or less. That includes Arsenal’s hard-fought 1-0 win at home earlier in the season. To me it says they aren’t a team that has been played off the park as often as their league position might suggest to some.

In terms of individual talent Zamora, Taarabt, Wright-Phillips, Barton, and others are quite capable of holding their own, at least on their day. Perhaps consistency has been their problem and maybe an inability to click as a team, but one must definitely expect a fighting display from Mark Hughes’ side. Speaking of whom, I am also a tad worried this could turn ugly at some stage but let’s not focus on that.

The aforementioned talent in their ranks can hurt Arsenal’s defence. They’ve some pace to burn and players who can take opponents on. QPR also have players who can score from distance and tight angles. But their biggest threat will come from their aerial ability in the box. I haven’t had the chance to check but I won’t be surprised if they’re among the top teams when it comes to scoring headed goals.

In that regard it will be good to have Koscielny back. He isn’t as tall as Djourou but I think he attacks the ball better.

Apart from the centre of defence it’s difficult to see too many changes to the line-up. Wenger will probably pick one of Gervinho or Ramsey but the other areas seem well settled. I am not convinced Santos is at the right fitness level and there is really no reason to dislodge Gibbs just when he’s started gaining some form and fitness.

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny (Djourou), Vermaelen, Gibbs – Song, Rosicky, Arteta – Walcott, RvP, Gervinho.

We will see whether the recent trend of a midfielder in one of the wide areas for away games continues in this fixture. Gervinho did well in the last game and brought the left side into play a lot more than we’ve seen recently. So even though I prefer a possession-based player on one of the flanks, especially if he has the knack of getting into good positions in the box as Ramsey does, I also feel this Gervinho-Gibbs axis also deserves a run of games.

While most of QPR’s recent games have been settled by a one goal margin or less, I do expect the Arsenal attack to trouble their back four. For that the Gunners need to challenge them through constant movement, interchanging of places, and combination plays that involve many players. The hosts are conceding over 1.5 goals per game at home and I’ll be surprised if Arsenal don’t manage to get at least two. That might not be enough, as Liverpool found out, but it should make the game very interesting for the spectators.

Before ending I want to mention that this is a busy weekend for me as Mrs. D and I are helping my sister and brother-in-law with their apartment move. There probably won’t be time to catch the game live so the match report will be delayed till Sunday afternoon or evening here in the Midwest. Apologies to those who like a quick one. Also, if the result doesn’t quite work out you know who to blame for breaking the pattern 😉


Arsenal 3 – 0 Aston Villa: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

March 25, 2012

That was easy then.  Arsenal completely outplayed Aston Villa and won comfortably while cruising through the second half in second gear. The macro-level stats provide a good picture of the game. Arsenal completed 534 or their 608 passes that led to 72 percent possession as against Villa’s 152/226 passes and 28 percent possession. The hosts managed 19 shots that provided the game’s 3 goals. Villa couldn’t find the net with their 3 attempts. Indeed, the Gunners attempted and completed more passes in the Final Third (209/247) than Villa did on the entire pitch.

While Arsenal are clearly the League’s form side and their performance was expected, part of the dominance was also down to the timid and rather archaic approach that Alex McLeish adopted. In his post match interview, the Villa boss said he’d considered playing Weimann up top but went for Heskey because he felt they’d be a bit “lightweight” with Weimann and Ireland. Furthermore, it seemed he was criticizing his players for trying to play the ball out from the back – obliquely citing Arsenal’s second goal as an example – when he wanted them to lump it forward. Of course, he didn’t say it in so many words but the team selection and his thought process in that interview tends to betray his tactical luminosity.

Arsenal too had a surprise in the line-up, not Gervinho for Ramsey – that was to an extent predictable, with Djourou taking the place of Koscielny who woke up with tendinitis. That didn’t affect the defending or the style of play at all as Heskey was hardly a threat. Even though the former English international won all 4 of his aerial duels, he only received a total of 10 passes and completed 8 of his 12 pass attempts in 66 minutes on the pitch. With the lead opposing striker barely involved with the play himself or able to bring others into the game, Arsenal’s defence had a relatively comfortable outing.

In the first half it would not be a stretch to say corners for Arsenal were Villa’s only real attacking opportunities as they broke forward in numbers on more than one occasion. Except an ambitious strike from Albrighton though, the Villains didn’t have much to show for their efforts.

All the action was at the other end of the pitch. As expected, Villa’s full-backs were their weak link that  Arsenal exploited adroitly to get the first  two goals.

Gibbs opened his Premier League account after a delightful exchange of passes on the left between the full-back, Rosicky, and Gervinho who picked up the assist. Gervinho beat Albrighton with clever body movement to create half a yard for the pass. Hutton lost track of his opposing full-back when Gibbs ventured into the inside channel. His shot might have taken a deflection of Collins and there can be arguments that Given should have done better but it would be harsh to take anything away from the young man’s composure or finish.

The second was funny in some ways. It started with a long punt from Szczesny as he aimed a free-kick towards Van Persie in an uncharacteristic manner. Collins easily won it and headed it back to his goalkeeper. Given then rolled it toward Cuellar, again an aberration one might say. There was nothing surprising about Arsenal’s high pressing though as Rosicky charged forward while the other players were tight on their men. This forced an panicky pass from the centre-back. Of course, the quality of Song’s delivery, and that of Walcott’s first touch and finish was simply sublime.

In the second half it did seem like Arsenal had eased off. Villa saw a bit more of the ball while Given wasn’t being tested as often. The Gunners also seemed too casual in the attacking areas as some decent counter-attacking opportunities were squandered.

Arsene introduced Ramsey and Santos with just over 20 minutes remaining. It didn’t change the patterns of play significantly but an error from the Brazilian could have brought Villa back into the game as he gave the ball away to an opponent inside the penalty box. But Weimann, somewhat surprisingly, opted for a square ball across the face of goal rather than a shot.

On the whole Villa looked more secure at the back and were able to push the Gunners into their own half but it wasn’t enough. As is typical, Arsene summed it up well,

It was a controlled performance in the second half, we controlled the game and managed not to concede a goal. Our fatigue came in a bit because we gave a lot at Everton on Wednesday night to win the game.

In injury time, Arteta scored the third with a bullet of a free-kick. Wenger again had something interesting to add,

I prefer it when he takes free-kicks with his laces because he has short feet. Usually the guys who have good inside [of the foot] have bigger, longer feet, and when a guy has short feet like that they are very talented at hitting the ball with their laces. The ball floats a little bit when they take it and I think he is more built to hit the free-kicks like that.

The “floating” free-kicks do remind us of the type that Ronaldo and Juninho specialized in and recently Drogba too has scored from. But as this video by @cwdcomps so lucidly captures, Arteta has himself scored many such goals in the past. Having a dead-ball specialist in the side adds a different threat to the Arsenal. Teams will not find it convenient to foul the Gunners in the Final Third if Arteta and Van Persie build on their abilities. Then again, we must not get carried away by one such blistering strike. Let’s see if the Spaniard can repeat it before the season is over, especially in a crunch situation.

Along with the free-kick there were a couple of other attempts from distance by Arteta and Rosicky that must have stung the palms of Given. Both the players picked the right moments to shoot from distance and executed it well even if it didn’t result in goals. It was an encouraging sight to say the least.

Finally, if I heard it right, the commentator said something about Arsenal winning every Saturday afternoon 3 pm kickoff at home in the last 18 months or so. That, if true, is some stat.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Another comfortable game for the young custodian. Didn’t have a save to make but did take a couple of vital catches and made a timely punch. Again there was the odd occasion where his distribution gave the ball away in a semi-dangerous area but it’s getting better.

Sagna: After the battle in the previous game, this must have been a walk in the park for the Frenchman. Again saw a lot of the ball and was joint highest in passes completed (63) as well as passing accuracy (94%). Also won all his ground and aerial duels and the only tackle he had to make.

Djourou: Did well to fill in the boots of Koscielny whose stock has risen steadily over the last few months. Won most of his individual battles (5/7 GD, 2/3 AD) and was strong when needed like the time Ireland was looking to get in behind in a one-v-one but Djourou just shrugged him off. Also made the most clearances, using his height and presence to good advantage.

Vermaelen: Didn’t have as much success in his duels (1/5 GD, 1/4 AD) but was always busy and forced the strikers to work hard. Very composed and dynamic on the ball. It was his pass that found Rosicky between the lines in the build-up to the first goal. And who can forget that delightful diagonal hit that had put Walcott in behind in the 20th minute. Was again involved in the attack with a header that went off target and a couple of chances that he created.

Gibbs: The goal obviously stands out but he has been getting into very good attacking positions and it wasn’t a surprise. Saw a lot more of the ball as Arsenal’s attack wasn’t as skewed to the right side but is still in a learning process and will get into the game more and more as he evolves.

The defenders didn’t have to face many major threats. Even when Arsenal had taken their foot off the gas Villa just didn’t create enough.

Song: Another chip, another assist. Another one who saw a lot of the ball but didn’t have to push forward as much because Villa rarely put him under pressure. Put in a controlled defensive shift in front of the back four winning all 3 tackles and 7 of 11 ground duels.

Rosicky: Was heavily involved in the build-up to the first goal including a simple-looking yet clever pass that registered as another pre-assist to his name. His sprint forced the error from Cuellar that led to the second goal. Overall it was another dynamic effort from Little Mozart.

Arteta: Again clocked the most touches and kept the game ticking. But in this game he also seemed more intent than usual on testing the Keeper. Had four shots and scored a cracker with his last one.

The midfield wasn’t really challenged by Villa. The led the forward momentum in the first half and contributed to the calmer approach in the second.

Walcott: His first touch in this game deserves special mention as it’s usually cited as a weakness. Controlled some long passes really well. His finish showed awareness of the goalposts and technique to place the ball deftly in a way that gave Given little chance. Was a constant threat in the first half but faded away as the play got slower and more casual.

RvP: His work-rate was again top notch. Was a bit unlucky with a goalline clearance and a good save by Given. By his standards it is tempting to nitpick but it doesn’t seem fair.

Gervinho: Got into very good positions and used the ball intelligently. Also tracked back when needed. Should be a confidence boost for him after a difficult time following the Africa Cup of Nations.

Subs: Ramsey was efficient with the ball. Santos looked rusty. Oxlade-Chamberlain was lively.

Wenger: Seems like he is still working on his best attacking combination or it could be that Le Boss wants to wingers at home and an extra midfielder in away games. It’s ok if the players ease off after taking a two goal lead but if they had some predetermined ways to attack they might not be so casual in possession. It’s an area where Arsene can help his team improve.

Before ending I want to share a snippet from an email I received from a friend.

This might probably come as expected to you. But it would come as a surprise to a lot of people I know. Taking inspiration from your Scott Parker post, I just pulled out stats for how premier league table would look if we were to keep the disastrous start (the first 7 games) aside.

Would you have guessed City, Arsenal, and United (game in hand) have picked up the same number of points since the time the Gunners hit rock bottom at White Hart Lane!? No one can simply wish away the start but that table tells it’s own tale, doesn’t it?


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Aston Villa

March 24, 2012

I will be surprised if anyone reading this doesn’t know Arsenal have now won 6 in a row in the League. Most will also know that only Barcelona can match that winning streak on current form in the top 5 leagues across Europe. That’s impressive. And it looks even better if we see that only 5 teams have had better runs throughout the season. Inter, Manchester City, and – this might surprise some readers – Levante have managed 7 game winning runs earlier this season while Dortmund got 8 and Madrid 11.

With a win against Villa at home Arsenal could go joint third on that list and retain their top spot in the current hot streaks category. But the interesting point to note here is that few teams can sustain a winning run. It ends sooner rather than later. The last time the Gunners won 7 in a row was in October 2007. Unbeaten sequences can go on much longer but getting three points game after game is much tougher. Just as a side note, the longest unbeaten streaks of this season are 28 games (Real Madrid) and 20 games (Borussia Dortmund).

So the question is, how long will Arsenal’s winning streak last? At the moment we don’t need to look past the next game for the answer. The question can be posed again if the Gunners get the three points on offer.

On the face of it this should be a banker. Villa are in 15th place on the table and have won only 3 away games all season. They’re without Darren Bent and Richard Dunne, arguably their two most influential players at either end of the pitch. Agbonlahor hasn’t scored in 13 league games. Yes, Villa have picked up the most points at the Emirates than any other visiting side but this team is quite different than the ones that have troubled Arsenal. More importantly, on current form, this Arsenal side does not seem comparable to the ones that lost points at home.

But we all know football is rarely so cut and dried. There is a reason winning streaks are not very long. Many reasons in fact. The games at this level are so close that a refereeing decision, or a momentary lapse in concentration, or a heroic effort from the opposing Keeper, or even a fluke pinball goal for the opponents can convert a win into a draw. A team could perform really well for the majority of the game and walk away losers. Just ask Liverpool. Aston Villa have only lost 3 away games thus far so the Gunners will have to produce a performance that 11 other teams failed to do.

As far as the specifics of this game go I think it will be very similar to the Everton game barring a few minor differences. Villa have greater pace and individual skill on the ball in the attacking areas. But they don’t have the same kind of physical presence as Everton do. This means their threat will mainly come from players like N’Zogbia taking defenders on. If they succeed they can create higher quality chances and will have a better chance of scoring. That doesn’t mean they won’t be a threat from crosses or set-pieces. Just that they have a better chance of getting in behind Arsenal than Everton had and a higher probability of scoring if their players can get service in the final third. Ireland and Petrov have the ability to play some defence splitting passes. Villa will also be a bigger threat on the counter-attack and with shots from distance.

In defence they will be just as well organized and committed as Arsenal’s other recent opponents have been. The Gunners have found a way to score and win those games and should be able to do the same in this one if they can sustain a high tempo or find a few bursts that are hard to defend against.

Villa have relatively weaker players in the full-back positions. Hutton, for instance, is prone to making rash tackles and can be troubled in one-v-one situations. Warnock too can struggle for pace and positioning. McLeish will try to get them support from the wider areas but the wings can be Arsenal’s big creative channel.

Their central defenders could dominate the box in the air but Van Persie can trouble them with his movement as they are on the slower side.

Due to their Bolton game being postponed, Villa have had a midweek break and will be fresh. Arsenal, on the other hand, just won a gruelling tie at Everton and some players will surely be feeling the effects of that. Wenger has been tweaking the tactics in the last few games and his selection for this fixture will give us further insight into his thought process.

In an ideal scenario rotating a few players would help. Arsene does have some choices for his team selection. Santos could come in for Gibbs. I am not in favour of that as the Brazilian hasn’t had enough minutes on the pitch since his recovery to start a game. Gervinho and/or Oxlade-Chamberlain could light up the flanks with their energy and pace. There is some merit to this but that would mean leaving out Ramsey and/or Walcott, or even Rosicky.

Since Arsenal don’t play again till next Saturday one could also argue the players don’t need that much of a rest. I’d go with the same players that did the job at Everton,

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Song, Rosicky, Arteta – Walcott, RvP, Ramsey.

But something tells me Wenger will have a surprise or two in store for us. At home he might go with two quick and direct wingers. That could mean a start for Gervinho on the left. Certainly from the point of view of attacking the full-backs this would seem like a positive choice. Let’s see if Arsene wants more technical balance or greater thrust.

Broadly speaking, I expect goals in this game, at least three. Depending on when and who scores the first there could be more, but I will be very surprised if there are fewer. I don’t wish to dampen the spirits of anyone but Phil Dowd is in charge so fingers crossed.


Everton 0 -1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

March 22, 2012

That was something different, wasn’t it?! After a record run of come-from-behind victories, Arsenal showed they could also hold on to a lead under pressure against a side that had a very good home record in recent weeks.

This was a curious game in many ways. Arsene started with Ramsey and that too on the left side of the attack. It would seem Le Boss is serious about reverting to last season’s tactic of using a ball-playing midfielder on one flank instead of two direct wingers, at least for the away games.

It was a starting eleven that raised some eyebrows but the Gunners came out firing and killed any debate on that before it could even start. In the opening 25-30 minutes or so Wenger’s men produced some of the best combination plays that we’ve seen all season. The players were interchanging positions seamlessly, their understanding was almost telepathic, and Everton looked like they didn’t know what hit them.

Few would have been surprised if the score had been 0-3 at the half-hour mark. But it wasn’t. From a corner, Vermaelen scored what proved to be the match-winner, but Ramsey’s miss and a couple of vital blocks kept the hosts within touching distance.

And somewhere in the middle of the first half the game began to change. It’s difficult to say the exact moment when this change came about but a few factors made a difference. Moyes pushed Fellaini higher up the pitch and pulled Cahill deeper after his team had conceded. The Blues also started getting tighter on their man. Arsenal’s inability to add to the lead must also have given them some confidence. By the half-hour mark the game was a different beast altogether.

Arsenal’s combinations weren’t working as well. While earlier they were opening Everton up at will, now the Gunners were struggling to get past the midfield. Fellaini on the other hand was getting more and more involved, bringing Pienaar and Baines into play quite effectively down their left hand side.

Since the transition happened over time and it’s tough to pin-point to one moment, I have roughly selected the half-hour mark to compare some stats. The following table make the distinction fairly clear.

 

Legend: A-FTP: Total passes attempted in Final Third. S-FTP: Successful Final Third Passes(%). TS: total shots. A-TP: Total Passes attempted. S-TP: Successful Total Passes(%).

As a matter of fact, Arsenal completed more Final Third passes (62) in the opening half-hour than they did in the remainder of the game (59), which was at least twice that amount of time. They also completed 212 passes in total in the first 30 minutes as against 217 in the other 60+. No surprise then that they managed 8 shots in the initial burst but only 6 in the rest of the game.

In contrast, Everton only managed 1 shot in the opening half-hour and it’s not hard to see why. They only succeeded with 26 passes in the Final third in that period but more than doubled that (63) in the other hour or so which led to 6 shots on the Arsenal goal.

Essentially, the game became a lot more even. Both sides saw a drop in their passing success as there were a lot more duels. For Arsenal this was a lot more noticeable. The pressure from Everton also forced Arsenal into a number of long balls. The Gunners attempted only 7 long balls in the first 30 minutes but another 33 in the next hour. While the other passing numbers took a big hit, this was the only related stat that showed a remarkable jump.

The ball was hoofed up the pitch regularly but returned within moments. This created an impression of pressure, and the raucous atmosphere added to it – Kudos to the home fans, but the next interesting fact tells its own story.

Everton only managed one shot on target in the whole game. It’s been a problem for them all through this season as they’ve played a number of games where the opposition Keeper hasn’t had to make a save. A significant reason could be their reliance on wing play and crosses which are easy to cut out and are an inefficient attacking weapon, relatively speaking. Ironically, even if a tad harsh on the hosts, it would mean they were too one-dimensional in their attacking approach – a criticism usually leveled at Arsenal.

The Gunners too were not very efficient with their shooting as only 4 of their 14 attempts forcing a save. Of course, the Blues also protected their goal well with 5 blocks including a couple of vital ones early in the game. Ironically again, it was Arsenal who scored from a cross/corner!

In the interest of fairness it must also be said that the hosts had a perfectly legitimate goal ruled off-side. It’s hard to say whether that would have changed the result of the game. Everton fans will argue that their side would have gained in confidence but one must not forget Arsenal have responded superbly after conceding in recent games. At the other end, Rosicky too had a very good penalty should denied. All-in-all this will probably go down as one of the worst refereeing (including the assistants) performances of the season.

As expected most of the play was down one flank. For Everton Baines had the most touches, 72, followed by Pienaar with 63. In contrast Hibbert and Drenthe only managed 46 and 27 respectively. Arsenal too were keen to play through the right. Sagna had the most touches for the Gunners with 109. Koscielny also pushed out towards the touchline when the full-back went forward and the central defender had the second highest (90) touches. This included the most attempted and completed passes.

Arsenal had an interesting style of play at the back. Vermaelen usually held his position in a central area slightly towards the left. But Koscielny often moved all the way towards the touchline. Song or Arteta dropped between the two of them when the pressure was high. Arsenal were clearly more comfortable playing out through the right, as they’ve been for most of the season if I’m not mistaken. It’s was a bit surprising because Ramsey offered a good technical outlet on the left. Perhaps it was because the Welshman hasn’t played in that role before and the players naturally gravitated towards the area they’ve used before and are relatively more comfortable in. It’s understandable that instincts kick in when the pressure is high. But over the longer term one would hope the Gunners will develop other ways of bringing the ball out.

Arsenal’s back-line also deserves credit for its impeccable discipline that caught the visitors off-side on 10 occasions, often thwarting dangerous situations from developing further. Here too, there can be some questions raised about the officiating, certainly for the disallowed goal, but I haven’t seen the replays of most of the incidents from the appropriate angle so will give the assistants the benefit of the doubt.

On the whole this was a tough test for the Gunners, as one would expect at a venue like Goodison Park, and they did enough to secure the points. There were some breathtaking moves early on but mostly it was about fighting for the result. Just ask City, Spurs, or Chelsea what they’d give for a win away to Everton.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Was largely untroubled despite the intensity of the game. Distribution has improved a lot and it seems to be the result of some dedicated work on the training ground, particularly the balls out to Sagna. Had one iffy moment when his attempted chip towards Koscielny hit the striker but faultless except that.

Sagna: As noted earlier was the player with the most touches as he was constantly involved with the play up and down the flank. Won 14 of his 17 aerial duels, many of which were long balls from Szczesny. Also engaged in a stunning 27 ground duels winning 18 of those. As an aside, his opposing winger Pienaar won 1/10 Aerial duels and 4/23 Ground duels. Also made a team high 4 interceptions while winning 2 of his 3 tackles. Sagna’s performance was also one of the main reasons why Everton couldn’t convert their pressure – which was largely on that side of the pitch – into something more meaningful. MotM in my book.

Koscielny: He too saw a lot of the ball and made good use of it. Made a number of vital interceptions and clearances, and a couple of very interesting forward bursts with the ball.

Vermaelen: Wasn’t far behind his defensive compatriots in the passing stakes. Also made a number of crucial clearances and blocks. His forward runs and movement in the box are always a threat and, apart from the goal, he did produce a couple of testing crosses.

Gibbs: Does have a tendency to get caught up the pitch and the off-side goal was partially his fault. In some ways he’s still learning on the job as this is a tricky position. Wasn’t as involved as Sagna but did show the ability to take on and beat his man in the attacking areas. Won 3 of his 4 take-ons and 6 of his 8 ground duels. Also did a good job defensively for most of the game when he was in his position. A number of important headers/touches in or around the box stand out in memory.

I wouldn’t call this a great defensive performance as a unit but the back five were very, very good. Vermaelen and Koscielny seem to be developing a very good understanding and it’s good to see they’re taking responsibility in the box instead of waiting for the Keeper to come and bail them out.

Song: It was a more controlled effort from the Cameroonian and he did his bit in helping the defence with 5 tackles (3 successful), 2 interceptions, 12 ground duels (9 successful) and 3 clearances. The moment at the end when he took the ball to the corner was commendable.

Arteta: Nowhere near his usual near-perfect standards but still a solid shift from the player visiting a ground where he’s given a lot over the years. Kept the ball ticking but wasn’t able to influence the game as much. Another midfielder who provided good defensive support with 2 interceptions, 4 tackles (3 successful) and 9 ground duels (6 successful).

Rosicky: Was quite influential in the attacking areas and made the most passes for Arsenal in the Final Third. Didn’t have too many individual battles but work rate was good and offered himself to receive passes that relieved the pressure.

The midfielders were in complete command in the opening half-hour but they had to dig deep for the rest of the game. It was an industrious and battling display that helped the back four. I’m not convinced about the positions they take up at times but that’s a complicated discussion.

Walcott: Theo wasn’t as influential as he has been in recent weeks. Baines did a good job of marking him tightly. Everton also cut out the through-balls quite efficiently which took away his strength of getting in behind.

RvP: Finishing was not at the current otherworldly level. Work rate was again superb, dropped deep regularly in the opening half-hour. Also made a good contribution in the box while defending set-pieces.

Ramsey: He played as an auxiliary midfielder rather than a winger. Had the most shots of all the players and showed exceptional ability to take up dangerous positions in the box. Finishing will improve over time. Saw a lot of the ball and his movement created interesting angles early on and opened up passing opportunities later in the game when the side was under pressure. Decent defensive shift as well.

The front three were threatening in the initial phase of dominance but it reduced over time. Still the movement and understanding up front was encouraging.

Subs: Gervinho put in a decent shift running up and down the flank and showed good composure on the ball. Djourou had very little time on the pitch.

Wenger: Looks like he’s working on some tactical tweaks. In recent weeks we have seen the reintroduction of a midfielder on the flank, the long ball out to Sagna, Walcott making more runs in the inside channel and central areas, and so on. Has also created or facilitated a good spirit in the squad which is coming out in every game. Furthermore, small details like taking Walcott out towards the end and putting Ramsey on Baines show he’s always involved and reading the situation.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Everton

March 21, 2012

Robin van Persie makes a lot of sense every time he speaks or pens his thoughts. Here are some of his recent nuggets of wisdom as told to Arsenal Player,

After the two defeats to Milan and Sunderland, everyone was like ‘this is going to be a tough couple of weeks’ because we had games against Spurs, Liverpool, Milan and an international week and then Newcastle. Yet we won every game, so we showed lots of character. We can be proud of that.

Now we need to show that over a period of a whole year. That is very hard and only the best of the best teams have that in them. Look at Barcelona for example. They have a special team there, they are playing most games – 9 out of 10 – really well and working hard. We need to have a run like that for months and even win the ugly games.

That’s the blueprint for the rest of the season right there. Arsenal have 10 games to go and they must show they can perform in at least 9 of those starting with Everton. The pride is back. Now it’s time to build on that pride and construct a strong foundation for the next season.

In order to achieve that though, the Gunners will have to get past this habit of conceding the first goal. In simple terms, they’ll have to defend much better. No matter how much character a team has, no matter how hard they fight till the end, no side is going to keep on winning games if they keep on letting the first one in. The run of comebacks will end sooner rather than later.

Arsenal’s record against Everton is encouraging to say the least. The Gunners have a 9-game unbeaten run against the Toffees. But make no mistake, this will be not be a walk in the park. Everton have won their last three Premiership home games without conceding a goal. City, Chelsea, and Tottenham were the opponents. They might not have outplayed their visitors but they found a way to grind out the results. Arsene and his players will have their work cut out for them when they take the field at Goodison Park.

In those three games, City had 68 percent possession, Chelsea 67, while Spurs managed 62. All these sides also had more shots than Everton but crucially, Moyes’ men managed the same shots on target as their illustrious opponents did.

Essentially, Arsenal should be prepared to come up against a very well-organized defensive unit that has only conceded 31 goals all season with just 13 of those coming at home. That averages less than a goal a game. At the other end the Arsenal defence will come up against an opportunistic, even if slightly inefficient, attack.

In the reverse fixture, a Van Persie special was needed to break the deadlock and settle the tie. This game could be just the same but something tells me the hosts will be more adventurous this time around. If that is indeed the case, and/or if we get an early goal, this could be a very open and entertaining encounter.

The big battle will be on Arsenal’s right flank and down Everton’s left. Theo and Sagna have combined to create a lot of chances for the Gunners while Baines is the hosts’ big weapon. I can see Walcott troubling his English compatriot if he gets some space to run into i.e. if Everton come higher up the pitch and if he isn’t double-teamed. At the other end Baines too should get some joy as Theo isn’t the best at tracking back. With Cahill in the box – 3 goals in last 4 games against the Gunners at home – Everton have a good chance of scoring at least one if they can get some quality balls into the box against this Arsenal defence.

Fellaini’s battle with the Arsenal midfielders will be equally interesting. He has the physicality and power to dominate the individual duels and decent technical ability to do something with the ball.

Moyes could take a leaf out of Pardew’s book and set his team up for an aerial assault with Cahill and Fellaini looking to win the second ball. Pienaar and/or Drenthe could offer pace and trickery in the wide areas to go with the duelling midfielders and an imposing striker, most probably Jelavic.

This is an old-fashioned approach but does sometimes work against Arsenal. For the Gunners it will again be a question of the midfielders supporting the defenders when they’re under said aerial attack. Newcastle, in the first 20-25 min or so, were able to get bodies between the Arsenal lines. Everton, if allowed to do the same, will surely find a way to score. The quality of the defenders will not matter if they’re continually exposed.

Barring that, set-pieces and counter-attacks will be Everton’s other weapons of choice. But I can also see them cancelling Arsenal out in the midfield, particularly if they can cut out the passes to the wide players. That could make it a very frustrating night for the Gunners with little creativity on show.

It will be interesting to see whether Moyes has noticed Arsenal’s inability to create much from the left, especially in the recent games. He could adapt a more defensive approach on his left side with Pienaar supporting Baines while leaving Drenthe higher up the pitch to exploit the space behind Gibbs when the youngster pushes up. Essentially, the Everton manager would have to gamble on giving Arsenal more of a chance on that side while hoping that his players can utilize their opportunities. In such a case we might see a congested Right wing frustrating Arsenal while both sides get some joy down the other flank.

There really is no shortage of possible tactical permutations in this game but the patterns of play will largely depend on the tactics that Moyes chooses because Arsenal are fairly predictable in that sense. Hopefully, we will see a more positive approach from the hosts.

Everton have played two games since Arsenal last played in the League. Theoretically, the Gunners should be fresher but I doubt we will see fatigue playing a role in this one. But Arsene should have the luxury of picking the same starting eleven as last time if he so chooses.

The only real debate is for the role on the left. Oxlade-Chamberlain is in a learning phase and that means he doesn’t always know when to offer himself for a pass, the run to make, or the decision to take when on the ball. Gervinho has been inconsistent throughout the season but more so after his return from the Africa Cup of Nations. Benayoun hasn’t performed at the required level either. Arsene has the option of putting Rosicky on the wing with Ramsey coming into the middle but that does not seem like a wise option.

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Song, Rosicky, Arteta – Walcott, RvP, Oxlade-Chamberlain.

I’d go with the same starting line-up for the sake of continuity. Arsene should have had the chance to work with AOC on the training ground and, hopefully, that will result in greater and more intelligent involvement from the youngster in this game.

Santos could come in for the final half-hour or so if the situation of the game permits. There probably is a school of thought that says Arsene should play both his full-backs on the left but I’m not in favour of that unless it’s the final few minutes of the game.

On the whole I expect a very tough game with individual moments proving decisive.

Before ending I want to link to this well-constructed discussion examining the merits and demerits of Arsenal’s right-sided attacking bias by the Gingers For Limpar blog, highly recommended if you haven’t already read it.


Arsenal 2 – 1 Newcastle: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

March 13, 2012

Wow! What a finish. What a feeling. Arsene, as usual, summed it up with an insightful nugget,

…the pleasure is even more intense when you win in the final minute of the game where you have given everything.

There is something about scoring the winner so, so late in the game. My guess is, and I’m no expert on human psychology, the mind prepares itself for a disappointment even if there is some hope. And as time goes by the hope dwindles like the dying embers of a fire while the disappointment looms like the engulfing cold darkness. Then, when the last gasp of breath – read a rampaging Verminator – rekindles the blazing fire, it’s as if life’s fought back with spirit, strength, sustained belief, and desire … the stuff of champions.

By now you must have read this was the fourth successive game the Gunners had won after conceding the lead – a Premier League record. Inspirational, and hopefully just the beginning of something magical.

However, amidst all the euphoria I must say there is also the point that Arsenal have conceded the opening goal in their last four League outings. It’s a dangerous game. There can be no doubts there are certain weaknesses that need to be addressed.

Looking at Newcastle’s approach, and they deserve credit for that, I got a feeling Alan Pardew sensed some of the defensive issues at Arsenal and came with a positive approach that few bring to the Emirates. While the Toon manager dropped one striker for a midfielder or sorts in Obertan, he did push his players high up the pitch, at least early on.

The first 20 odd minutes of the game were quite intriguing and not at all comfortable for Arsenal. The Magpies were looking to exploit the gap between Arsenal’s midfield and the back four, and were quite successful at that. Dembe Ba was a handful in the air and with his physical presence. Tiote and/or Cabaye were getting in between the lines to join Obertan. Ben Arfa offered some threat on the wing.

Their tactic was simple. Play it long to Ba, win the second ball, attack the back four in numbers. If they could isolate the defenders in a one-v-one they’d have a good chance of scoring given the quality of their attacking players. That’s exactly what happened. On one of the numerous occasions when they won the second ball, Arsenal had to defend against three players in front of the defence. This sucked the full-backs narrow and opened up an easy pass towards Ben Arfa. The Frenchman was skillful enough to create a yard for himself and buried it at the near post. Szczesny should probably have done better and the manager might ask Gibbs why he didn’t take the winger down the line, but defending open spaces against tricky players running with the ball is always difficult.

At the other end, Arsenal were getting some joy against Newcastle’s relatively high line. Walcott saw a lot of space and was a harassing Santon consistently. Pardew either made the mistake of not doubling up on him or just couldn’t find the balance between attack and defence. From the second minute on, when Theo played a delightful cross between the defence and the Keeper, the speedy winger looked like he was enjoying himself while making an impact on the game.

Van Persie, uncharacteristically it must be said, somehow managed to completely miss that cross. Minutes later another delightful chip from Song found the De Kapitein in the box but the ball, in his attempt to chest, fell onto his knee and ran away from him.

At the other end, Newcastle were pressing hard after kicking it long and it was building some pressure. Arsenal’s only outlet seemed to be on the Right but the visitors had it relatively well covered.

Even then, quick passing from Walcott, Sagna, and Rosicky put Theo into some space on the Right. His early cross came to Van Persie who made up for his earlier misses with a delightful trick. First he moved his body towards the ball to suck the defender that way, and then allowed the ball to roll past him to leave Williamson on the floor. The placement of his finish too was superb as it gave Krul no chance.

The time between the two goals was recorded at 40 seconds. It must have dented the visitors’ confidence as, for the remainder of the first half, Arsenal slowly but surely got a better grip on the game and pinned Newcastle back. The Gunners now saw a lot of the ball but the creative threat was limited to crosses from the Right and a couple of free-kicks.

Arsenal’s best chance of the remaining period fell to Theo from a corner but his attempt was scuffed and easily cleared. Newcastle didn’t provide any real tests to Szczesny either as they weren’t able to sustain the “pushing up, dropping deep” routine.

At half-time I took a quick peek at the stats on EPL Index. Predictably, as everything for Arsenal came down the Right, Theo had 34 touches to Oxlade-Chamberlain’s 13 while Sagna clocked 51 to Gibbs’ 25.

This is an area where the Gunners need to improve i.e. use both flanks effectively, but it’s a complex discussion and deserves its own post.

Arsenal’s dominance continued in the second period. Newcastle were now not able to get as many bodies forward to attack the second ball by virtue of having to defend really deep. The visitors did have a number of opportunities to counter-attack but failed to find the final pass. Obertan was arguably their most wasteful player and helped out the Arsenal defence with his poor choices and touches. But in fairness, the others weren’t playing an extraordinary game either.

The Gunners, for their part, created a number of quality chances all through the half. Rosicky forced a save with a bullet header from a sizzling Walcott cross (a couple of weeks ago some people would have laughed at the thought of such an event occuring), the Ox fired a blistering volley over from outside the box, Arteta’s goal-bound shot from the edge of the box was then deflected away for a corner, Van Persie then got in front of the centre back but could only direct his Right-footed shot straight at Krul, and so on.

Midway through the half the possession for that period read 75-25 for Arsenal. In the 67th minute Rosicky missed a glorious chance after his tenacious tackling and eagerness to be the first to the ball had put Theo in a great position to cut-back. In the 79th minute Gibbs pounced on a dawdling Simpson near the Left goal-line. His cut-back came to RvP who again missed a good chance, this time with his Right.

The game was becoming edgy and frustrating. There were some physical challenges in the centre of the park and that suited Newcastle just fine.

In the 83rd minute. Gervinho missed a gilt-edge chance at the back post as the free-kick somehow reached him. Ramsey’s strike was then deflected back for a corner before Vermaelen forced a big save with a header. In injury time Walcott shot was blocked by Coloccini’s shoulder.

Despite the five added minutes, it felt as if the Gunners had run out of chances when Newcastle managed to push forward and kept the ball in the Arsenal half for a couple of minutes.

In the last minute of time added on though, which probably resulted from Krul’s time wasting in the first place, the script had its final twist. Arsenal broke forward in numbers. Van Persie seemed to have miscontrolled the ball on the centre-line but Song was there to tidy up. He spread it out to Theo who ran at the defender and produced a quality ball under pressure. Imagine the reaction if that cross had been wayward! It was still a tad higher than Van Persie or Ramsey would have wanted but fell invitingly to Vermaelen who’d made his umpteenth burst forward in a purposeful manner.

Newcastle came with some interesting ideas and executed them efficiently for a quarter of the game but in the end Arsenal’s class shone through. On another day it might have been a more comfortable win but this one was special in its own way.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Obviously questions have to be asked about the near post goal but other than that it was a quality effort from the youngster. He was more composed on the ball, his distribution was better – particularly the kicks out to the Right, and his catching was calming.

Sagna: Superb effort on the Right in attack and defence. Newcastle created very little from his side. Had the second most touches and was a constant source for bringing the ball out. Linked beautifully with Theo. Crossing was on and off.

Koscielny: His positioning and decision making was quite good, especially when he had to deal with one-v-ones on the break. Regularly won the ball back, including team high 4 interceptions, and also made the second highest passes enabling better control on the game.

Vermaelen: Made a number of galloping forays into the Newcastle half and justly picked up his reward. Sound positional play and committed duelling. Pretty close to Koscielny in passing quality.

Gibbs: Was exposed early on in the game against Ben Arfa but did well apart from the goal. Was like a panther at the other end, always looking to pounce on the loose ball. Had the best ground duel success rate(5/7) to go with 100 percent tackles success (2/2). But he didn’t have sufficient understanding with AOC and wasn’t as involved as Sagna.

I thought the defenders did well under pressure when Newcastle got bodies forward. After that it was more about control and attacking contributions while snuffing out the few counter-attacks.

Song: He wasn’t as close to the back four as I’d have liked at the start but improved his positioning later in the game. That allowed him to challenge for the second ball more effectively. Curbed his attacking instincts for most parts but still produced a sumptuous ball over the top for RvP and a cross from the by-line late in the game for Vermaelen.

Rosicky: He wasn’t as involved as the other midfielders – completed 34/40 passes as against Song 54/64, or Arteta 83/88; touches 55 compared to 75 (Song) and a whopping 110 (Arteta) – but he brought greater drive and penetration to the side. Of course he played fewer minutes and that made a difference but he should have dropped deeper in the opening 25 min when Newcastle were pushing up, he only attempted 7 (compared to 22 (Song) and 29 (Arteta), even Theo attempted 14 in that period) passes in that period. Good pre-assist for the first goal and an excellent header that tested Krul. Should have done better with his chance midway through the second half. Won 4 of his 5 tackles and 9 of 16 ground duels in a battling performance.

Arteta: Another monstrous effort from the Spaniard. Most touches, most passes, best passing accuracy, second highest number of chances created, 100 percent tackles success (4/4), second highest interceptions (3), and second highest ground duel success rate (7/11). Another super-efficient balancing display that made everyone around him perform better.

The midfield was again caught in a no man’s land for the first quarter of the game but they did much better after the equalizer. Once again Arteta attempted and completed more passes than the best two opposing players combined (Tiote and Cabaye 72/86 between them). Rosicky continues to regain some of his best form with his turns, vision, incision, and scoring attempts.

Theo: MotM in my book. Terrorized the left-back from the word go. Produced a number of quality crosses, created 5 chances including the assist and should also get the pre-assist for the second goal, was a lot more involved than usual with 37 attempted passes (29 completed). Could probably have done better with his shooting.

RvP: An off day by his standards. Intelligent and clinical for the goal but missed a number of chances as well. Work rate was top notch as ever and also made defensive contributions by getting his head to some set-piece deliveries.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Wasn’t able to influence the game for large parts. Had a good run or two and a couple of shots that went off target but not much more. Is in a tactically developing phase and will have to learn to integrate himself into the team game. Right now he looks more like an individual who is always looking to either dribble, run, or shoot. Given that Ronaldo and Nani took over two years to reach their peak and considering his age, it’s excusable, but can prove costly in certain games.

The front three were a mixed bag. Theo was sensational. RvP was good by normal standards. AOC was learning on the job. More will be needed in the coming games, especially from the left.

Subs: Gervinho’s game will be remembered for that miss. Ramsey was efficient in the minutes he got on the pitch.

Arsene: Has to find a way to use the left side better and must ensure the defence gets better cover. Kick long -> push bodies forward should not put the back four under so much pressure. Szczesny’s balls out to the Right hinted towards some sort of premeditated or trained tactic against the high line. Future games will show if that is indeed the case. Once again full marks on motivation and commitment.

For those who might have missed it, I want to end with a link to this post from Saturday. It is an attempt to look at this season’s efforts of Spurs and Arsenal in a balanced and objective manner, with some details on Scott Parker’s performances, and a discussion on how the narratives have been so different for both sides.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Newcastle

March 12, 2012

Arsenal host Newcastle on Monday with a chance to go within a point of 3rd. The weekend’s fixtures, barring the Chelsea win, have been kind to the Gunners and now it’s up to them to make the most of it. They haven’t always taken their opportunities in the recent past so the doubts are still there in many Gooner minds for sure. But there also seems to be a new-found belief that has strengthened with every remarkable win.

Speaking of wins, it’s interesting to note that Arsenal have achieved them in very different styles. Against Spurs, the Gunners completely dominated the game but conceded twice before producing that rampaging comeback. At Anfield, it’s fair to say, Arsenal were outplayed for large parts of the game but still hung in there and stole a win with a couple of moments of real inspiration. Milan saw more of the ball at the Emirates but the Gunners blew them away with an electric tempo in the first half before tiring and fading away in the second. Based on these efforts it’s hard to predict which Arsenal side will turn up but one must hope it’s energetic and purposeful one.

Speaking about the intensity his players have found in recent games Arsene said,

We can play at a pace that, at the moment, maybe nobody else can sustain.

That could very well be the key against a determined, well-organized, tenacious, and opportunistic Newcastle side which has some recent history with the Gunners. Arsenal have seen Red in their last three meetings with the Toon which include a home loss and two draws of distinctly different varieties. Come to think of it, that actually means Arsene Wenger hasn’t beaten Alan Pardew in the League since Newcastle’s promotion last season. Clearly, this game cannot be taken lightly as the results haven’t been complete flukes.

A Monday night fixture did allow a couple of extra days of rest for the players. Some of those with niggles are also back (Arteta, Ramsey, Benayoun) while Santos is ready to return after his recuperation. That means Arsene can pick a strong side for this game and there can be no excuses for tardiness.

The back four were sensational against Milan and should not be changed. In the middle Arteta should take his place alongside Song and the reborn Rosicky. Van Persie will lead the line and the side. Arsene’s biggest decision is the choice of the wide players.

Does he go for two quick and direct wingers or will he sustain the recently renewed policy of playing a more technically adept midfielder on the flank? It’s a tough one.

Normally I’d go for the balance offered by a player who is more comfortable on the ball and can come inside to drift between the lines. It leads to better angles, better ball retention and movement, extra protection to the full-back, more control, and more intricate combination play. But Benayoun hasn’t really adapted to that role so playing him there doesn’t offer as many benefits. Plus it reduces the opportunities to go in behind as some pace is lost.

On the other hand, Gervinho has been inconsistent to say the least while Oxlade-Chamberlain is still developing and prone to making rookie mistakes.

In the end Arsene has to consider how Newcastle play and which qualities are more likely to be beneficial against them. I’d go with the following line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Song, Rosicky, Arteta – Walcott, RvP, Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Having said that, I won’t be surprised if Arsene goes for Gervinho on the left or even Benayoun. Le Boss might even make the unpopular choice of starting Ramsey in the middle and shunting Rosicky to the left. I believe any side he picks can do the job if they can produce and maintain the tempo that we have seen in the last few home games.

Of course, a lot of that also depends on Newcastle’s approach. In Tiote and Cabaye, the Toon have combative and competent midfielders who can not only frustrate the Gunners but also pass the ball well enough to create chances for their attackers.

It will be interesting to see if Pardew picks two strikers for this game. That could give Arsenal greater space in the midfield but their forward pair does have the ability to test Arsenal’s back four. Ba in particular, but even Cisse based on recent evidence, has shown the ability to pounce on half-chances and to make the most of the space afforded to him.

Pushing both the full-backs up against two striker outfits has caused Arsenal some problems in recent games. And while the Gunners would back themselves to make another comeback, it would be prudent to play a tight game defensively.

Newcastle have conceded 24 goals in their 13 away games this season at nearly 2 goals per game. But those numbers are inflated by the 10 they’ve shipped on their last two visits to London. You could say it bodes well for the Gunners or you could believe they’re usually a tough team to score against. I’m more inclined to go with the latter thought. It won’t be easy to crack them open.

It’d be easy to say the Gunners should get more bodies into their box. But often it doesn’t work out when the opponents are on top of their defensive game. I strongly believe Arsenal’s ability to enter the Newcastle penalty box in numbers will define the nature and result of this fixture. Obviously, moving the ball at speed, pressing up the pitch, runs of the wide players, the midfielders’ influence on the game, and the contribution of the full-backs will all count towards the attacking impetus that the hosts can build.

Equally, Newcastle’s ability to retain their shape, to keep the ball in front of them, to slow down the forward passes by cutting the angles, and to break at speed will also have an impact on the quality of football that Arsenal can produce.

Howard Webb is the ref and that could mean a relatively ugly first half is in the offing. He’s the kind of official who lets certain fouls go unpunished early on before getting stricter as the game progresses. Such an approach sometimes makes it hard for sides to score early goals as play is broken up by opponents taking advantage of the ref’s leniency. But I also believe it doesn’t make a big enough impact to make it a valid excuse for a poor performance.

In defence, to state the obvious, Vermaelen and Koscielny will again have to perform at their best. The Frenchman, in particular, has had some struggles in recent games against physically strong strikers. He will have to hold his ground against an imposing guy like Dembe Ba.

This is a game where both young, upcoming goalkeepers could also have a say and as always set-pieces can make a difference.

When you put it all together though, there is little reason to believe this game will hold any major surprises. The side that can impose its tactical will on the game will get the result it deserves.