On Scott Parker’s Talents And Related Misconceptions

March 10, 2012

Take a look at the table above and try to guess the two teams and the context. If you read my tweet with these numbers then you know the sides involved and the context. Even otherwise, the title of the post and the colours used should be a giveaway. Yes, those are numbers for Arsenal and Spurs. The context, if you don’t already know, isn’t very obvious. It’s the summary of these two clubs’ League performances since the North London Derby at White Hart Lane in the first week of October.

Essentially, after their worst start to the Premiership campaign in 58 years, the Gunners are currently outperforming the best Tottenham side in decades. Before someone gets me wrong, I want to be very clear this post is not about making fun of or putting Spurs down. I want to acknowledge they have created a very strong team and have been competitive in the League at a more than respectable level. My main intention is to address the difference in popular perception of Spurs and their players vis-à-vis that of the Gunners and Arsenal.

Everyone who has followed the broader commentary on various teams this season knows that Tottenham have constantly received widespread acclaim for the way they’ve performed. A place in the top three, which for a while was closer to the sides above than below them, merited at least some of the accolades that went their way.

Naturally, their players too have been exalted for their exploits. On its own I would not have many issues with the general public perception of Spurs or their players. Interestingly though, it’s reached such heights that many of their players have been classed world class leading to hilarious claims that none of the Gunners, apart from Van Persie, would make it to their starting line up. Such comparisons, while insignificant and lacking any serious weight in themselves, are part of a larger narrative – we will return to this word later – which suggests the Gunners have just been awful this season, to put it mildly.

So on one hand we have Spurs with their extraordinary season with a genius of a manager and world class players, and on the other there’s miserable Arsenal going downhill with a manager who’s lost the plot, players that don’t care or are panic buys or simply not good enough.

This is where things get a tad annoying. If such effusively grand opinions had been limited to certain ebullient Tottenham fans alone, one could take it in the stride as predictable and harmless hype. But no, the media seems as much in cahoots with said fans and many disgruntled Arsenal fans with short memories have also joined the bandwagon. Similarly, if the criticisms directed towards the Gunners had been limited to a section of fans with limited perspective or a clearly biased narrow portion of the media, one could ignore it as one of those insufferable parts of following the game and supporting a club. Sadly, such opinions seem very widespread and even people who are usually fairly sensible seem to have been caught up in these misconceptions.

Take another look at the above table. Arsenal have played one game less but have more wins, more points, and a better goal difference than Spurs. Those who really think Arsenal would be nowhere without Van Persie should answer why Tottenham with all their great players aren’t doing better than a one man team. And it’s important to note this isn’t over a small period. These numbers are from 20 games – more than half a season – spread over 5+ months of football.

Furthermore, last season after 27 games Arsenal were at 56 points. That while competing in the Champions League and reaching the finals of the Carling Cup. Till this point we haven’t even mentioned the fact that Spurs suffered rather embarrassing early exits from the Europa League and the League Cup this season. Granted they are still in the FA Cup but then they are yet to meet quality opposition in that tournament. Indeed, considering they are the highest placed side in the Cup, shouldn’t the failure to win it be considered catastrophic? Anyway, I digress, that’s for the future.

Even in 2009-10, Arsenal had 58 points from 28 games at the end of February. It’s a number Spurs can’t reach even if they win their next game against Everton. The Gunners achieved that too while competing the Champions League and other Cups. Spurs are yet to show they can manage the pressure of two high-level competitions.

I have no qualms in accepting that Arsenal had a difficult summer that led to a horrible start to the season. It was painfully substandard to say the least. But since then, Arsene Wenger and his players have turned it around and done much better than a highly rated bunch of players who are being managed by England’s next great managerial hope. Not only that, the results and numbers from the last two seasons clearly show that Arsenal have done much better in the recent past when compared to Tottenham’s achievements this season.

But think back, research it if you want to, and tell me if you’ve heard or read Arsenal getting anywhere near the same kind of admiration that their North London rivals have received this season. Forget accolades, have the Gunners even received enough respect? For the club? For the manager? For the players?

The widely held perception of many players has often surprised, bemused, and troubled me at the same time.  Let’s take one example. How about England’s latest captain – the diminutive, tough-tackling embodiment of grit and determination, Scotty Parker.

Now, I must say I like the former West Ham midfielder. He’s tenacious, dedicated, and gives his all on the pitch. Having him in the side has played a vital role in Tottenham’s League efforts and position this season. To a large extent I can accept the strongly positive opinions that he generates. But a number of people have offered opinions that lack balance to the extent that I have even read outrageously ignorant suggestions that Parker is the best midfielder in the League. Similar opinions of profusely extolling nature have been expressed for a number of Redknapp’s players.

Why then, despite so many supposedly top class players and a superstar manager, have Tottenham not outclassed Arsenal? I could understand if someone said Yaya Toure was the best midfielder in the League. I might not agree with that but it’s an opinion that can be respected. City’s performances, in the League at least, have been outstanding. Their position does not betray the talents of their players it reinforces them.

Sticking with Parker, I want to dig a little deeper into the quality of his efforts. I’m going to put some snapshots of his positioning against Arsenal in that – sensational or horrific, depending on the colour of your glasses – 5-2 loss in order to discuss the effectiveness of the role he’s performing. The images in themselves will not prove anything – they rarely do in a game as fluid as football – but should be seen as a reference point.

For the first Arsenal goal, we can see Parker going out to close Arteta down but England’s El Capitan, if I may, fails to put in a meaningful challenge to prevent the cross. You could say it’s impossible to prevent all crosses and that would be valid to a large extent. This effort, per se, was not a massive blunder from the highly-rated midfielder but it is one example that shows he wasn’t able to do as well as can be expected from someone in that role. Let’s carry on and look at other instances from the game.

For the second goal, Parker again failed to get close enough to Van Persie and was left sprawling on the ground as the Dutchman found the back of the net with an exquisite finish. Shouldn’t the player who is supposed to be excellent at sitting in front of the defence do better?

This wasn’t a one-off either. Earlier in the game, around the 20 min mark, RvP had left Scotty P on the turf with a neat turn. Sagna took a throw and Van Persie sucked Parker to one side before letting the ball roll in front of his body. This left the hardman biting the dust as RvP won a corner when his shot was deflected.

Clearly, Parker wasn’t learning from his mistakes in the game. If we look at the fourth goal, once again it was the tackle-master who was short of making any kind of effective tackle on Theo as the winger got his shot away.

That failure to tackle would again be excusable if it were a lone event in the game. As the other examples show, that’s clearly not the case. And once we take a different look at the events in the build-up, Parker’s effort looks criminally negligent.

As you can see, Theo was at least 10 yards behind his temporary England skipper. The Arsenal winger is fast but is he so quick he can beat an opponent with a 10 yard head start? Or is it more likely that Parker was completely unaware of the threat and only reacted after it was too late? Reminds us of a certain Arsenal player currently out on loan, doesn’t it?

Yes, it would not be way off the mark to say that the so-called best midfielder in the League did a Denilson there! Speaking of whom, let’s take a quick look at a statistical comparison of the two.

I have already looked at it in detail in this piece for EPL Index but want to quickly compare Denilson in 08-09 with updated stats of the Tottenham midfielder this season.

There are a number of surprising figures in there. While Parker is touted as a tough-tackling hardman and Denilson derided as a wimp who couldn’t tackle to save his life, it’s actually the Brazilian who has the better tackling success rate. In contrast, the Arsenal man is often remembered for his metronomic passing abilities but it’s actually Parker who’s done better on that front. The focus of this article is not a comparison of the two so I won’t dwell on it but look carefully and you’ll see a lot of other interesting details.

They’ve played under different tactical systems and these numbers are from different seasons so I agree they shouldn’t be directly compared but I also insist they do give enough of an idea. At the very least they’re sufficient enough to say that Denilson wasn’t as bad a player as he’s made out to be and Parker isn’t as great as some people like to think.

Indeed, if you look at the mistakes of Parker discussed above, throw in the stats, and look at where Tottenham are in the League, it’s hard to say he’s that different from Denilson as far as impact goes even if their styles are different.

Arsene Wenger has consistently kept Arsenal in the top four even with a number of players who were commonly considered useless. The problem wasn’t with the players, otherwise Arsenal would not finish where they did, but with the popular perception. The same is the case right now.

Spurs are now close to reaching the level Wenger’s teams have consistently achieved in recent seasons on a very tight budget. But we can only say Tottenham have reached that level, leave alone passed it, after they can show a level of consistency and sustain the performances while competing for more than one major trophy. And until Spurs prove their mettle, there is no valid reason to consider their players as far superior.

Based on this discussion, it would seem absurd to claim none of the Arsenal players, barring RvP, would make it to the Tottenham starting eleven. In the interest of fairness though, it must be said that many of their players are also comparable to their Gunner counterparts and could take a place in the current Arsenal line-up. Obviously not in a man-for-man manner, although in some cases that is also possible, as the style of play and systems used a quite different but more in terms of relatively comparable qualities.

At this moment I want to stress that the point of this article is not to belittle individuals but to cut through the hype and derision that is commonly seen in the media and on the internet. Both sets of players, with some exceptions, are fairly comparable. And as a direct result, the output of their efforts is also in the same bracket. The table at the beginning of this post shows that well enough. Therefore, one lot can’t be considered world class if some of the others are considered panic buys.

So the next logical question is – why is there such a difference between popular perception of these teams and players, either individually or a group?

In my opinion, the single biggest factor is expectations. Arsenal have been in the top four all these years and have been competing for various trophies. The demands placed on the club, manager, and players are consequently – directly or indirectly – linked to heightened aspirations. Finishing 3rd or 4th is considered a failure. On the other hand Spurs have not been close to the top for a long, long time. In the recent years they’ve invested a lot and worked hard to move up the ladder. Finally, in the last couple of years they’ve started looking like a team that can be considered in the same league as the top sides. This season a strong run in the League, although with the benefit of competing in only one competition, seems to have established them as close to the top as they’ve been for decades. Starting with lower expectations even a 3rd or 4th place finish will look like a decent achievement. Winning the League was never going to happen but, as we’ve seen with Arsenal in recent years, long sequences of positive results does create an impression of a title challenge. That alone was enough to add to the hype around Tottenham, Redknapp, and their players.

Apart from the expectation-induced differences in opinion, the short-term thinking of many pundits, journalists, and fans also helps build such false perceptions. Few remember that Arsenal have been in similar or better positions. Such people often only vaguely remember the negative feelings that were generated due to the expectation-performance mismatch.

These factors are only a starting point though. The real weight behind such opinions comes from narratives that are built over time. If Arsenal have an expectation-performance mismatch for a few years, and if some people only, or even predominantly, remember the disappointments, the criticisms develop and worsen on a consistent basis. Bloggers/fans who can’t discuss the problems equitably; pundits who are either biased, xenophobic, morons, or worse; and those with a propensity to dispense lazy opinions come together to develop the negative narrative. Mistakes are highlighted, small issues are blown out of proportion, positives are ignored or served with a malicious spin, and of course – occasionally there are genuinely disheartening moments like the loss of Fabregas or the results of certain games.

After a point it’s the easy thing to do. There is safety in numbers and too many people start pretending they know better. Whether it’s driven by low self-esteem or a pathological need to be right, too many individuals fall into the trap of trying to prove their superiority in something they barely understand (like football tactics for instance).

The worst part of this is that an ordinary fan, when bombarded with such a vicious and consistently negative narrative at all times, can easily be led astray as he struggles to deal with the frustrations of the transfer market or the results of certain games, especially a string of poor performances.

In similar vein, it can be said that some people put an unnecessary and unjustified positive spin on events. For instance, those with a higher than normal degree of nationalistic zeal might see more in the performances of Scott Parker than neutral observers might. Club it with the low-expectation driven hype around Tottenham and it’s not hard to see how baseless but vehemently exalting opinions are formed. If the highlights packages don’t focus on the player’s errors at all, those are conveniently forgotten by most. An so the story builds over the course of a season.

Just so there is no misunderstanding, my argument isn’t against valid and constructive criticism but against the narrative driven myths that are propagated as facts. I don’t have a problem with players receiving the acclaim their performances merit either, just with the extravagant undeserved levels that such praise often reaches.

The comparison of Denilson and Parker throws light on the kind of gaps that can be created in public perceptions by the spin or the narrative. The Brazilian was never an exceptional performer but he was by no means the utter dud many portrayed him to be. In contrast, Parker remains a very good player but he isn’t the midfield genius he’s often made out to be. The difference between the two is marginal at best and is clear not only from their stats but the impact that they’ve had – both can play a part in taking their team into the top four but neither seems good enough to be a vital part of a side that is going to win major titles.

An extension of the same thought process can explain the difference in current common perception about other Arsenal and Tottenham players as well as the sides in general. One side isn’t on the way down while the other is in ascendancy. Both have done reasonably well in recent years. Only one has proven longevity.

I think back to the number of times Arsene Wenger says he has to find players better than the ones he has. People looked at guys like Denilson and wondered how he can’t find someone better. They pointed at Parker as an obvious solution. But if you look at actual facts, the impact that players have, and don’t get carried away by the force of the sweeping but fallacious narrative, you will see the point Wenger makes.

The Arsenal manager is not a fool and hasn’t gone senile. It isn’t by accident that an Arsenal side supposedly devoid of world class players, struggling with injuries, and relying on panic buys goes on to win consecutive games against Spurs, Liverpool, and Milan. That is not to say Arsene is without his flaws. Just that it’s too lazy to give in to common myths pretending to be popular wisdom. Any meaningful debate has to start with respect. People who wish to make a point must demonstrate that they can think beyond the obvious.

Unfortunately, such biased opinions against Gunners are not limited to the opinions on some players. There are a number of myths that have been created including yarns that a usually spun based on activity in the transfer market. Depending on what Arsene does, it’s either a panic buy, or a change of failed policy, or over-reliance on an approach that isn’t working, or a lack of ambition, or some such twist that is full of negativity. These fallacies aren’t limited to transfers but extend to many other club policies as well. I don’t wish to get into individual details right now but will urge you to exercise caution while reading such stories. Simply because a lot of people are repeating them, such myths don’t become hard truths.

Arsenal suffer enough artificial external pressure. I want to end by asking whether you really want to add to it or do you wish to alleviate some of it?


Arsenal 3 – 0 Milan: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

March 7, 2012

There are games where even a defeat feels like a win. Then there are those where victory can’t quite overcome the feeling of losing out. On a rare occasion though, one gets to experience both these contradicting sentiments at the same time! Arsenal’s heroic effort against Milan will surely fall into that exceptional category.

The Gunners are out of the Champions League but have now won the last three games against Tottenham, Liverpool, and Milan with an aggregate score of 10-3! If that doesn’t spur this team on or make fans believe again, nothing will. On the other hand, after a 3-0 win in this game, one cannot help but wonder what the result would have been if Arsenal had performed at even half the required level in the first game. Some would surely think the telling difference was made by the quality of the pitch at Milan. At the end of all rationalization and analysis though, it’s hard not to feel this celebration could so easily have had greater substance to it with a place in the next round.

Anyway, let’s not focus on what could have been. There is a need to focus on the Premiership and this win was sumptuous enough to restore the wounded Gooner pride. The cost, in terms of injuries, will be known in coming days. As long as it’s not too heavy a price there can be no cause to complain about the recent performances, and every reason to look forward to the rest of the games in the League even if it’s just a fight for fourth of the possible date of St. Totteringham’s Day.

The game itself was predictable in some ways and surprising in some others. Everyone expected Arsenal to come flying off the blocks but the intensity and tempo that the Gunners produced in the first half was breathtaking. You could see Milan didn’t know what hit them. The early goal, from Arsenal’s only accurate cross of the game, helped immensely.

Those watching carefully would have noticed many interesting details. Arsenal did press the visitors intensely but it wasn’t a consistent effort through the half. In a way you could say the Gunners went hard at Milan, then collectively paused for breath by allowing visitors some time on the ball, and then went for the jugular once again. This pattern repeated all through the first half. As a result, Milan actually made more passes in the first half, and indeed in the entire game, but the Gunners had greater urgency and impact.

The thing with such cycles is that over time the side going gung-ho will lose energy and consequently their ability to threaten the opposition. Add the lack of options on the bench into the mix and it was no surprise to see the last Arsenal attempt on goal come as early as the 64th minute. For a side chasing the game, and especially after knocking off so much of the lead in the first half, that is the decisive stat.

It was a extraordinarily direct and un-Arsenal-like performance from the Gunners. It isn’t often that visitors at the Emirates attempt and complete over a hundred passes more than the hosts. The goals too came from non-regular sources, one from a corner and two from runs that started wide on the Right just inside the Milan half and forced mistakes in the box. While Arsenal do get a lot of assists from the Right side, there is usually a degree of finesse involved either via a through-ball, a clever cut-back, or such other piece of skill. In this game it was simply a result of direct running.

And therein also lay the problem. In the second half, Mesbah got really tight on Theo instead of dropping back. This reduced the opportunities for him to receive the ball and turn. Van Bommel too was quick to cut across and helped close a couple of runs down early. With that threat gone, Arsenal really didn’t look like they had any other options.

While I don’t wish to be critical of any player after such an effort, Gervinho did have a disappointing night where he was anonymous for large periods. The injury to Oxlade-Chamberlain also put greater pressure on the midfield but they too struggled to create any meaningful combinations. It’s hard to remember many moves where Arsenal’s passing actually cut Milan apart. Indeed, there were occasions when the Gunners wasted good openings after the players earned time and space in the opposition half through their synchronized pressing.

To take just one example, in the 16th minute Emanuelson was forced into making an erroneous back pass. Rosicky got the ball but played it too early for Van Persie who then returned it but it was behind Little Mozart. The attack fizzled out even though it was a scintillating 2-v-2 with acres of space on both sides.

There were many such moments when a greater degree of composure, which is Arsenal’s strength in most games, would have made all the difference. But I guess it’s not easy to play the game at this Basketball style intensity and maintain a level head at all times. It’s a con one has to accept with the pros of the style.

At the back I thought Arsenal were disciplined, committed, and focussed. Obviously, with such a direct style, and with a young lad playing in an unfamiliar role in midfield, the back four were not going to get sufficient protection. Considering that, they did superbly to hold a strong line and on many occasions got a desperate last gasp tackle, interception, or block in.

I also thought Ibrahimovic and Robinho were atrocious for large parts of the game. They saw a lot of the ball – Robinho was fourth highest in terms of successful passes (47/55) and Ibra wasn’t far behind with (36/49). To put that into perspective, Koscielny made the most successful passes for Arsenal but he only managed 38/46. Those are very high number for attacking players. – but were extremely ineffective. A lot of their movement seemed lethargic and disjointed. Even their attempts at the final pass or finish were substandard.

At the end both sides will look back and see a number of missed opportunities. Not only the obvious ones like Van Persie’s chip that was saved or Nocerino’s tap-in that went straight at Szczesny, but also a fair few moments when a better pass/choice in the final third could have been decisive.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Once again his decision making was very good and did make a couple of quality saves. Only one mistake in the whole game when he played a lazy pass to Song that gave Ibra a great chance to score.

Sagna: Attempted the most passes for Arsenal. Worked hard on the flank but couldn’t really make a meaningful attacking contribution. Was fairly effective in defence as he got his positioning and decision making right on most occasions. He also won all 3 aerial duels and 2/3 tackles.

Koscielny: Completed the most passes for the Gunners. A very good run across the face of goal to get rid of his marker, was a bit lucky with the finish as it went down to his shoulder and then in. Made 5 interceptions and was generally in the right areas defensively.

Vermaelen: He too had a very efficient game at the back. Also made a couple of vital tackles and threw his body on the line when he had to.

Gibbs: His run and attempted cross won the corner that led to the first goal but I thought the youngster’s general understanding with Gervinho was not that good and Arsenal were not a threat down the left for most of the game. Did get into good defensive positions and made a number of vital clearances.

I thought the back line was fairly steady and that resulted in a number of offsides. The central defenders, with a lot of help from Song and AOC, also ensured the visitors rarely got a shot on goal down the middle. This automatically reduced the goal threat. The line also fell very deep when Milan had a chance to cross which meant a number of their crosses ended up straight at Szczesny. The full-backs did well and didn’t let their man cut inside into threatening positions that often.

Song: Only attempted 42 passes, usually makes that many in a half or at max an hour. That was more a reflection on Arsenal’s approach than his ability. At times though, he could have  done with more composure. Played part of the game as a box-to-box midfielder with a number of sprints and the other part as an extra defender. Made 3 interceptions and was successful with all 3 tackles but was also forced into committing a number of fouls.

Rosicky: Took his goal really well. He only had a small portion of the goal to aim at and placed it in the corner deftly. Was the main driving force and was always looking for attacking opportunities. Made the most number of passes for the Gunners in the final third.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: The youngster was often the deepest of the three midfielders but used his energy well to make timely defensive contributions. Was also forceful when he got the ball. Picked up a good assist for the first goal and won the penalty for the third.

The midfielders were more like link players. They weren’t looking to sustain possession as much but were constantly trying to get the ball forward. Their direct approach was effective when Milan were caught off-guard and when they had the physical stamina to press. But over time the visitors took up a better shape and the Arsenal midfield tired. This was one area where I thought the Gunners could have done better and maybe having a guy like Arteta for this game could have made a big difference.

Walcott: Theo made a good run for the second goal, the intensity of which forced an error from the usually reliable Thiago Silva. He also put in some good balls from the Right but they didn’t find a teammate. Would have preferred to see him on the shoulder of the last defender more often but Arsenal needed bodies behind when they lost possession as the midfield wasn’t that strong defensively.

RvP: Took his penalty well. Hit the target with all four of his efforts. Could have done better with that chip but I thought he was expecting Abbiati to dive to his left. The Keeper did well to keep his eye on the ball till the last moment. These things happen. Once again ran all over the pitch and covered the most ground.

Gervinho: Made a couple of handy tackles deep in the Arsenal half on the Left and had one good attempt at goal but wasn’t as involved as one would have liked.

The front three were isolated and rarely worked any combinations. There was a lot of running and a couple of goals resulted from such runs but overall it wasn’t a cohesive effort.

Subs: Chamakh and Park didn’t really get any service. Arsenal really missed a midfielder but I would have preferred introducing Jenkinson and pushing Vermaelen, Koscielny, or even Sagna into the midfield. That way the Gunners would have had a greater chance of holding on to the ball late in the game.

Wenger: Full marks for motivation. Picked as strong a team as he could. Maybe there is an argument against losing control late in the game but his choices were really limited.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against AC Milan

March 6, 2012

Do you like those what comes next kind of puzzles? Try this one.

0-2:5-2 | 1-0:1-2 | 4-0: ?

Tough one, eh!? Okay let’s make it easy. Here are the multiple choice options.

A) Miracle ; B) Pride restored but little else ; C) Complete Disaster ; D) Meh, bring on Newcastle

You know what, it’s still a tough one for me.

From a purely rational point of view, it’s tough to see Arsenal scoring 4 or more. They’ve done it in the last two home games in the League but this season’s Milan side is a different kettle of fish. Furthermore, the Gunners have only scored 7 goals in the seven Champions League games thus far (excluding the playoff). Throw the injuries into the mix alongside Milan’s defensive nous and formidable counter-attacking talents, and it’s really tough to imagine option A working out.

Some fans would, therefore, want to pick the last choice. Forget the result and get through this game without further injuries. Newcastle is more important. I have, on numerous occasions in the past, mentioned that Arsenal should drop out of the Cup competitions. So I don’t really have anything against such a scenario but Wenger is patently not willing to give up. It’s understandable that the coach and his players will at least want to play for pride, even if it’s not the most clever of choices.

Seems like I’ve used my 50-50 lifeline and narrowed it down to either B or C as the more realistic choices.

Most people, including the bookies, expect Arsenal to win this one. A large majority of fans, in my opinion, will be happy with a win. At least that way the Gunners will bow out with a degree of dignity. It will also sustain the positive momentum that the recent results have generated.

Then there is the threatening possibility of a complete disaster and it’s twofold. Without sufficient midfield cover, the defence could easily be exposed against world class attacking players who’ve already proved their abilities in the first leg. Arsenal could actually end up losing this one. Not only will it be disappointing on the night, such an adverse result could affect the morale of the squad for the final stretch of the season.

More than the result though, it’s the risk of losing even more players to soul-destroying injuries that has me worried. The challenge for fourth will be virtually impossible if the Gunners were to, God Forbid , lose Vermaelen or RvP for a few weeks.

Depending on your disposition then; you could either pray for a miracle, hope for a determined effort and a confidence-enhancing win, sweat over the catastrophic possibilities, or just forget about football till the weekend.

I am on the fence between B and C, which is a rather prickly place to be. It’s hard to explain but I can see it going both ways. Here are some of the options and likely patterns that come to mind.

1) Let The Ox Carry The Weight

Wenger has said that in the future Oxlade-Chamberlain could be a central midfielder. Injuries to virtually everyone who can play that role present Arsene this opportunity to try the youngster in that position.

The team could take something like the shape drawn above. The wide players will tuck in as often as possible allowing the full-backs to push on. Rosicky and Song would sit in front of the defence and keep the game ticking. The young Ox would have the biggest creative responsibilities – he would have to move between the lines, often receiving the ball with his back to the goal and then turning to bring other attackers into play, taking on defensive players when he has to, and making runs into the wide areas when the space opens up.

I won’t be surprised if this is a choice many fans find exciting but it doesn’t completely convince me. At the moment AOC is a talented youngster who thrives when he gets space to run with the ball and take opposition defenders on. But he hasn’t really shown an awareness of space that is needed for such a role. Often one can see he is caught ball-watching rather than reading the play and putting himself in a threatening position where he can receive the ball. Wider areas are not patrolled as heavily and he can get away with it even if his positioning is a bit off. Centrally, especially against this Milan side, he will be under tremendous pressure. Not only that, if he loses the ball in the middle of the Milan half it could easily expose the defenders to a rapid counter.

In such a case, Arsenal will also have three very similar direct players on the pitch who are all capable of losing the ball through a poor touch, a misplaced pass, or an ill-advised dribble attempt. Milan are a very competent technical unit, to put it mildly, and losing that battle could force Arsenal into chasing the ball more often than they’d like.

So such a choice is a big risk and could potentially be disastrous. But if Arsene takes this as a nothing to lose game and can provide limited but succinct instructions to the lad we could be in for an interesting game. He has skill on the ball and is quick. AOC is also energetic and largely fearless. He won’t be overawed by the occasion and could really unsettle Milan if he can sort his positioning and decision making out and/or gets a bit of luck.

Other players will have to carry their share of the burden no doubt. Song and Rosicky are the kind of players who can spread the ball around. The full-backs will have to go up and down the flank tirelessly and deliver balls into the box with a greater consistency and purpose. Theo and Gervinho will have to be on top of their games, constantly looking for runs down the inside channels or diagonally across the box. Van Persie just has to be himself.

2) Chamakh Attack

Sadly, these days that term is likely to evoke a chuckle from the opposition rather than a furrowed brow. The Moroccan has been out of form and out of favour. But he provides a different dynamic to the side, one that no other squad member can.

With Chamakh in a central position, possibly occupying Thiago Silva for large periods, RvP could get a free role around the box. Arsenal will have a target man in the box and if Arsene can extract his ability to link play, the Gunners could create combinations that trouble Milan.

Chamakh could use his aerial and physical abilities to be a goal threat, he could also drop out of the box occasionally to open space for the wide players and Van Persie to run into. RvP, Song, and Rosicky have the ability to find these runs. Chamakh could also use his aerial ability for knock-ons and lay-offs.

Such a system would demand a greater defensive shift from the full-backs as it would be counterproductive to put a defensive burden on Van Persie. It can work with one of the wingers staying wide when the other one cuts in. This way Arsenal can get bodies in the box without getting in each other’s way. It would also allow space for one full-back to push forward while the other holds a more conservative position.

The problem here is that Arsenal just haven’t deployed these tactics often enough. It’s hard to see the players getting it right without regular use. In that case the man inside the box will not get the kind of service he wants. RvP might not get into goal-scoring positions as often as he should when Arsenal need 4 goals or more. Defensively too, this is a more open system as the full-backs, even when they’re being conservative, will not be able to offer cover in the central areas where Milan are likely to have more bodies.

3) 3-4-3

Arsene could go for the unexpected here. The key for Le Boss, to put it in very simple terms, is to find the right balance between defence and attack. This involves getting the most out of his limited resources.

I am assuming Jenkinson is fit and ready for 90 minutes of full-throttle action. The unassuming youngster could just provide the perfect balance for the Gunners.

In this system, Arsenal will have three defenders against the two strikers that Milan usually use. That way they can provide cover and leave the midfielders with a relatively lesser defensive headache. Moreover, having two quick youngsters, who can think defensively, on the flank can work as an additional balancing measure as it would be easier for them to read the danger and drop back.

The front three will have to play right up against Milan’s back line but they will also have to be very intelligent with their movement. Van Persie can come deep more often in such a scenario as both the wide players will be in the inside channels and can cut across. They can also make runs between their respective full-backs and central defenders.

This approach is the most balanced one that I can think of. Most of the players will be in their natural roles or doing something very similar. Sagna is probably the only one who would have to put in a disciplined shift where he’d have to curb his instincts. But if anyone in this squad can, he can.

If Milan are sitting narrow and deep, or if they only have one striker, either Koscielny or Vermaelen can push up into the midfield. In fact, both can take turns depending on the shape of the opposition and the gaps on the pitch.

Once again the problem is that Arsenal haven’t used such an approach in the past. In theory it can all sound nice but one must also factor in the quality of the opposition and their ability to adapt their tactics. Milan have the ability to punish the Gunners with goals if the defensive play is out of sync. A change in system increases the probability of mistakes at the back due to lack of communication and/or contradicting choices being made by individuals at key moments.

Bottom-line

Apart from the options discussed, Arsene could try some other tricks. For instance, he could play Park on the shoulder of the last defender. The Korean looks like a good finisher and some might say he will offer a bigger goal threat than Chamakh. Le Boss could also bring in a youngster like Ozyakup or Aneke but that is highly unlikely.

Wenger did mention that he is tempted by the option of playing AOC in the middle and also seems open to exploring other systems. Rosicky’s fitness will also have a say in the matter. But I don’t expect a major surprise as the options really are limited.

It will also be interesting to see the line-up and tactics that Max Allegri chooses. I will be surprised if he pushes his team high up. Looking for quick breaks, especially given their positional intelligence and ability to link at the top, seems like their best bet. But dropping too far back into their half could also be risky against this Arsenal side. They’ll also have to contend with a broader pitch than the one at home where the Gunners just couldn’t utilize the re-laid portion effectively. That means either his back four will be stretched or his midfielders will have to go wide. The diamond might not be the best shape in such a scenario. Allegri could, therefore, go for a 4-5-1/4-3-2-1.

Milan have some injury issues of their own. Seedorf and Boateng haven’t played since the win over Arsenal. Ambrosini is suspended. If these players are not available we might see a midfield three of Nocerino  – Van Bommel – Emanuelson in front of the defence with Robinho and El Shaarawy on the flanks. Zlatan would lead the line on his own with the speedy wingers looking to join at every opportunity.

I am still undecided between options B and C but in either case this will be a hard fought game. So it seems best to leave you, not with a prediction, but with this quote attributed to Khalil Gibran.

Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother

PS: Over at EPL Index I did an analysis of some defensive variables. Did you know that all Premiership teams have a tackle success rate between 71 and 79 percent (not including the last weekend’s numbers)? Or that the number of interceptions per game doesn’t correlate with the defensive solidity (or weaknesses) that teams have displayed? I found the numbers surprising and interesting. It’s a members only post though, except the first few hundred words. In case you’re interested you can click here.

The charts in this post are made using the tool available on this11.com


Liverpool 1 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

March 4, 2012

Sometimes, when you’ve suffered so much through bad luck, such a win is immensely enjoyable despite all the frustrations. Pure delight!

That’s how I felt after the win at Anfield. It wasn’t a great performance but it was a terrific result. The effort was there but it wasn’t – predictably – as well structured as needed and thus resulted in an inefficient game that was, ironically, capped by super efficient supply and finishes.

Liverpool’s energetic pressing and slick movement had Arsenal in knots, especially in the first half. Van Persie questioned whether Arsenal “deserved the win” and Szczesny acknowledged the Gunners “…got killed all over the park” in the first half. But one could just as easily ask whether Liverpool deserved to win that game. When you consider the fact that Dalglish’s side have had similar problems all through the season, it’s hard to say there aren’t certain basic problems with the way they play; finishing chances being the most obvious one. Let’s not forget, at the end of the day Arsenal had more shots on target than the hosts who managed to test Szczesny with only 4 efforts, two of which came from that terribly botched penalty and it’s tame rebound. Even if you include the shots that hit the other Poles in the Arsenal goal – which is technically incorrect but does add an extra degree of perspective, the Reds still managed fewer shots on target.

The broader patterns of play were predictable. Arsenal were trying to push forward but couldn’t handle Liverpool’s urgency which exposed certain oft-discussed technical and tactical deficiencies in the side. This left the defence exposed time and again and allowed Liverpool the opportunity to stretch the back four over vast spaces. The Reds looked good at it but didn’t really create that many quality chances. This seems like an odd thing to say but, as mentioned above, Szczesny wasn’t making as many great saves as, say, Almunia did against Barcelona. And let’s not forget the penalty was a really generous gift from the Ref.

Nevertheless, such an opinion should not be interpreted to mean Liverpool weren’t the clearly dominant side in the first half, just that their dominance resulted – in part – from certain inherent weaknesses in the way Arsenal play and was marred by basic problems in their own game.

One of the problems for Liverpool was that they relied a lot on width and crosses, as inefficient an attacking tactic as can be. If they’d cut Arsenal open through the middle they might have had a better probability of scoring. Ironically though, the Gunners did get their equalizer from a cross, their only successful one from eight attempts! This brings us to the differences between Suarez and Van Persie.

Limiting it only to their efforts on the pitch, it would seem the Uruguayan is a right handful with his movement and tricks with the ball at his feet. But he is anonymous as far as an aerial threat goes and is generally wasteful. Suarez could only hit the post from a tight angle whereas Van Persie found the back of the net from a much more difficult volley where he also had to beat the Keeper. The Liverpool striker also succeeded with only 3 of his 11 attempts at taking defenders on.

As a side note it’s important to record that Reina’s positioning was very poor. Even the best Keepers in the world make mistakes.

Van Persie is a much more complete striker. He got the better of Carragher for the first goal. I’d mentioned in the preview he’ll fancy his chances more against the Englishman than he’d have against Agger. A host of such small details make the big differences over the course of the season. The Dutchman’s movement, awareness, technique, and composure were truly extraordinary for the second goal. He went in behind and wide to the left before moving forward ensuring his momentum was towards the goal. While doing this he’d already stolen a glance at the goal to see Reina’s position which, in turn, allowed him to place the ball without applying any real force on the shot. It was all about timing – timing of the run, timing of the look, timing of the strike. And who can say the timing in the context of the game could have been any better!?

In stark contrast, Liverpool’s goal, although it came from a cross from the Right, was essentially a blunder from Koscielny as he was under relatively little pressure. The defender went for force instead of calmly guiding the ball behind for a corner. This put him off-balance and was the major factor behind his attempt being mistimed/scuffed. He will learn with experience. Arsenal used to make such errors more often in the past but have slowly developed this ability and willingness to concede corners and throws when under pressure. It is, at least in part, linked with their ability to defend such situations and that has certainly improved.

To an extent, one could also argue Kelly’s miss at the back post – from Liverpool’s only real chance of the second half – was very similar to Koscielny’s mistake for the own goal. The defender was under relatively less pressure than you’d expect an attacking player to be in such a situation but he lost composure and completely fluffed his effort. The youngster might also have lost sight of the ball momentarily due to the movement of defenders between him and the ball. That’s just one of the factors that makes crosses so inefficient.

Arsenal were better organized in the second half but rarely developed a spell of sustained pressure. Reina was forced into a couple of big saves by Walcott, one in each half, and there were other occasions when the Gunners found the target but it wasn’t an exceptional attacking display by any means. Liverpool’s ability to push Arsenal back and their cohesive pressing in the middle of the park ensured their defence wasn’t constantly under pressure. Van Persie though, with superb assists from Sagna and Song, had more than enough quality to make the difference.

Looking forward, it’s difficult to say both sides will not see a repeat of such scenarios in other games. Liverpool will create chances there is no doubt about that. But will they finish them any better? Arsenal will continue to have defensive issues but in most cases their attacking quality will have a say in the result.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: His best effort for weeks. Should bring some confidence back. Double save from the penalty was sensational but, more importantly, his judgment and decision making of when to come and what to do after coming was spot on. Would have been MotM in my book on another day but will have to settle for close second in this one.

Sagna: Had a hard time with his passing and runs up the pitch, understandably. But made the vital contribution for the equalizer with a peach of a cross. Had to chase back a lot but won both is tackles and 4/6 ground duels. Also made a couple of timely interceptions. Had the most touches and lost possession most often but it was a fighting display from the full-back.

Koscielny: Bad mistake for the goal, which was a technical and judgment issue, and not an unfortunate moment in my opinion. But he also made a team-high 5 interceptions to go with his tackles (5/6), ground duels (7/12), and clearances (7/9) in a frantic but largely effective defensive effort.

Vermaelen: Was a lot more composed than Koscielny but he too had his weak moments. Did keep Arsenal in the game by winning most of his individual battles – 3/4 tackles, 4/6 ground duels, 2/3 aerial duels + 2 interceptions.

Gibbs: Made a couple of incisive attacking runs but it was another such run that exposed the left side and resulted in the free space for Henderson in the build-up to the Liverpool goal. Had the second highest figure for total loss of possession. Won all three tackles and 7/12 ground duels.

Arsenal’s full-backs lost the ball often, mainly because they were the channel for getting out and had to face constant pressure. They were also pushing up regularly in the first half and ended up chasing back when Liverpool used the space behind them rather intelligently. The central defenders were stretched all over the place but did commendably in their duels reducing the impact the hosts could have had. When everything failed Szczesny stood tall. Arsenal’s defence again looked shaky but it’s a broader technical and tactical issue that is largely not their fault.

Song: Another player who had to put in a massive defensive shift. Wasn’t very effective with his duels, winning only 4/11 of his ground duels, but he kept getting back to plug the holes winning possession back in defensive areas a team-high 7 times. Made the most passes for the Gunners including that, now trademark, chip for RvP and the through-ball for Gibbs.

Rosicky: Little Mozart didn’t have anywhere near the kind of impact he had against Tottenham as space and time on the ball were at a premium. Was as involved as Song and played a big role in defending after Arteta had to be taken off. Had as many touches and made as many successful passes as Song including a couple of pre-assists where he found teammates in space. In the first instance his run towards the centre sucked Downing away from Sagna.

Arteta: Wasn’t at his usual efficiency levels as the whole team was struggling but provided the work rate and defensive shift in front of the back four. It seems he had a concussion, hopefully it won’t have any long term impact.

Diaby: Short cameo from the returning midfielder. Completed all his passes and was efficient in the duels but looked a touch off-pace. It’s hard to say his return wasn’t a rush job after another injury.

Arsenal’s midfield was again regularly caught in a no man’s land. They tried to push up but the Gunners just couldn’t hold the ball up well enough for it to work. Players deserve credit for putting in a hardworking yo-yo shift where they tried to go forward but had to chase back. Also deserve credit for creating the chances despite the constant defensive effort.

Walcott: Did make some intelligent runs. Tested Reina more than once. Also tracked back more than he’d have liked. This is the kind of game where he could have made an impact if he got a chance to play on the shoulder of the last defender but he had to drop deep into the Arsenal half far too often as the system required him to.

RvP: Just world class. Service to him was inconsistent at best and such games can be hugely frustrating for strikers. The way he maintained his work rate and concentration before producing two top quality finishes made him MotM in my opinion.

Benayoun: Was quite poor once again. It’s not hard to see why Arsene didn’t play him earlier. His movement and thinking is not in sync with the rest of the team and that puts him a yard or two behind the pace of the game. Tottenham’s shoddy defence didn’t expose this but Liverpool found him wanting, badly. Attempted only 9 passes in the first half and a total of 17 before he was taken off. Defensive contribution wasn’t noteworthy either.

Arsenal’s front three were isolated for most of the game and Benayoun’s limitations meant that he could never provide the qualities of the additional midfielder that might have helped Arsenal retain the ball when under pressure. This is an area where Arsene has a headache right now. Picking two quick and direct players provides excellent threat down the wide areas but the midfield is overwhelmed when the opposition can match them technically and are well-organized. Starting a player like Benayoun should ideally help but the Israeli hasn’t quite clicked. This diminishes the threat out wide and doesn’t really add to the possession component of the game in the manner that is needed.

Subs: Oxlade-Chamberlain impressed with his energy in a central midfield role but he clearly has little or no experience in that area. Gervinho brought some pace and an added threat on the left even when he wasn’t as involved.

Wenger: Can anyone deny the gaps in his tactical system when the side is stretched and pinned back in that manner? But he deserves credit for the improved second half effort and for the quality of goals as they can’t be produced without quality training. Just ask Dalglish!


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Liverpool

March 3, 2012

The Gunners take on hosts Liverpool in Saturday’s early kickoff in a game that will pitch two sides on a high; Arsenal on the back of that remarkable comeback against Tottenham and Liverpool bubbling from their Carling Cup triumph.

In recent years these two sides have produced some fascinating battles but Arsenal fans will be worried about their side’s tendency to throw away leads late in the game. Whether it was the epic 4-4 draw at Anfield in April 2009, the Champions League game best remembered for that Walcott run, or the draw at the Emirates last season; Arsenal surrendered the advantage soon after scoring what appeared to be a game-winning or decisive goal. It is quite possible that the Gunners will produce some memorable moments in the game but will not return with the three points they need for ensuring their grip on the fourth place.

Liverpool are unbeaten at home but, Unlike City who have an enviable perfect record at their ground, the Reds have only managed 4 wins from 12 games. Their strength has been the almost impenetrable defence that has given them the League’s second best defensive record. Dalglish has based the foundations of his side on a solid structural framework at the back which is very well-disciplined and impeccably organized.

It will be tough for Arsenal to break them down. The Gunners have scored 12 goals in their last two home League games but this fixture will be more like their visit to Milan than the North London Derby as far as the quality of the opposition’s defending is concerned. Liverpool though, might not be able to match the attacking prowess that Milan exhibited at the San Siro. In all it could make for a tight and dull-looking encounter that is a midfield battle. An early goal, especially for the Gunners, could change all that though as the game will open up.

The team selection by both managers will obviously have a big impact on the way the game pans out. It will depend largely on the choices they have. Liverpool will miss Agger and Gerrard if both are unfit. In the same vein Arsenal could miss Vermaelen, Rosicky and even Van Persie as they’re all carrying niggles. Wenger has also said he has no news on Song, which would have been strange but this is Arsenal we are talking about.

Without Agger the hosts will probably have to play Carragher in the centre of the defence. The old warhorse is still a good player, especially when the defence is sitting back, but Van Persie – if fit – will fancy his chances against the Englishman more than he’d do against the Dane. More than Agger though, Liverpool are likely to miss the drive and energy that Gerrard brings to the midfield. I won’t be surprised if the manager picks his talisman even if half fit.

It will be interesting to see the other choices that Dalglish makes. I doubt he will start both Suarez and Carroll but if he’s seen the way two striker combinations, Zlatan-Robinho or Adebayor-Saha, have troubled Arsenal recently, he could pick both. Such a selection will give the hosts a greater chance of scoring goals but will also give Arsenal more space in midfield. It will definitely make the game more enjoyable for the viewers.

On a more predictable note, Dalglish might go with Carroll to win the aerial battle against the Gunners and pick a quick runner like Bellamy on the flanks to get in behind.  This would be more likely if King Kenny expects his side to be pushed back. Again Gerrard’s fitness will play a part. Without him, it would be unwise to leave a wily player like Suarez out.

In short, Dalglish will have to find the right balance between his attacking options and the need to keep things tight at the back. Wenger’s job isn’t that different but his choices could be limited.

In the worst case scenario, Arsenal could be without RvP, Rosicky, Vermaelen, and Song. In that case I honestly don’t see them getting anything out of this one. But we can be fairly certain Arsene will risk his key players unless they are in an unplayable condition.

In the North London Derby the Gunners reverted to a tactical approach that was used in the early part of last season when Chamakh was in good form. The striker moved out of the box regularly to create space that was taken up by the wide player on the Right (Theo and Nasri in the early part of last season). The Left sided attacker (Arshavin) tended to drift in and between the lines. In that period we saw a number of goals for the Right winger while Arshavin was picking up the assists.

Walcott can, without a doubt, regain his scoring form if he gets to make a number of runs in the central area and the inside channels. Van Persie will provide more of a threat than Chamakh did in that system in that he will not only create space but also has the ability to thread a ball through or score from the edge of the box. Benayoun might not have the creativity or vision that the Russian had but he can probably offer more in terms of work rate and balance.

I am of the opinion that this system is much better than the one with two direct wingers as the midfield gets better support and can create more combinations against deep-lying defences. That said, it must be acknowledged that Arsenal’s current squad – based on fitness concerns – is not ideal for using this as it would mean leaving two out of Theo, Gervinho, and AOC out while putting greater burden on the limited midfield resources.

That reminds me, Wenger has said Diaby is back. Hopefully, he will be introduced in a controlled manner and will be able to avoid any serious setbacks. The lanky Frenchman could play a vital part in the final 15-20 minutes of this game but anything more will be a direct challenge to Lady Luck.

Apart from the system of play, Arsenal will also have to master the spaces as well as they did against Spurs. That means individuals will have to press with a high degree of intensity and cohesion while ensuring the back four isn’t left exposed with large gaps between them and the midfield.

Ideally I’d prefer the same starting line-up that we saw against Spurs.

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

If Song is unfit Arsenal will have to rein in the full-backs to provide better support to the central defenders. In that case it might be worth giving Gervinho a run on the flanks with Benayoun in the middle. With such a line-up Arsenal will struggle to dominate possession and we might see the defensive frailties exposed unless the players are prepared to stay deeper.

Liverpool have the ability to press in a synchronized manner and they can pin the Gunners back if the technical battle is lost.

As you can see, this game can have different patterns of play depending on the choices of each manager and the events of the game, especially early on. Safe money is probably on a tight encounter and a low-scoring draw with late drama. I’m hoping for a more open game with an early goal for the visitors.

Before ending I want to link to this interesting stat-based preview of the game done by a Liverpool supporter in a fair tone. Also, if like me, you too have a tendency to hide under a rock for large periods to avoid a lot of the mind-numbing noises on the internet, just make sure you’ve read this typically detailed and informative piece by the Swiss Rambler on Arsenal’s recently announced interim financials.