Stoke City 1 – 1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

April 29, 2012

We knew Arsenal will have to fight for the points in this one. They did respectably and came back with one. That point puts some daylight between the Gunners and Newcastle who lost against Wigan. There isn’t much in it but it’s clear virtually every team is having to battle for every single point. You take what you get and can be happy when you don’t give it all away.

The game itself was interesting, even if not enjoyable. After the exciting and high-quality Champions League semi-finals, watching such a fixture was bordering on torturous. There were certain predictable aspects but also a few positive changes from the Gunners.

Stoke came out and pressed high up the pitch as expected. They forced a mistake and scored with Crouch getting between the centre back and full back. Hardly a surprise there.

Normally, after scoring they tend to drop a little deeper and put greater emphasis on defending. In this game though, the hosts kept coming out even after going in front. That suited Arsenal as they were getting some joy every time they managed to bypass the initial high press. Pulis’ side looks like a strong defensive unit when they get bodies behind the ball but when they get stretched, the opponents can get chances to get into the box and test the Keeper.

In the first half Arsenal had a number of opportunities. Early on Van Persie played Benayoun through down the inside left channel. The Israeli couldn’t connect well enough and his strike, while on target, was completely innocuous. Van Persie then forced a big save from a header at the back post. Ramsey then went close with a left-footed strike from the edge of the box.

The equalizer came, ironically, from a long punt down the left by Vermaelen. Benayoun’s hassling was troubling Shotton and the Stoke full-back conceded possession tamely. The winger found Rosicky’s run. Little Mozart showed composure on the ball and excellent attacking intelligence. Before playing his cross he’d just had a peek. He saw the vacant space between the defenders and the Keeper at the back post. All he had to do was chip the ball in the right area. Van Persie was alert and tapped it home. Again Stoke were stretched so there were gaps in their box. Even thought Arsenal had only one player in there, he was completely free and able to guide the ball home without any pressure.

The patterns of play after the equalizer remained the same but Arsenal did get more control of the ball. They didn’t make many mistakes under pressure and limited the hosts to hopeful long balls and crosses.

In the 26th minute when Koscielny had the ball, Van Persie dropped deep and pulled a centre back with him. The centre back played the ball into the space behind and Gervinho was able to cut inside and onto that ball. Unfortunately, the Ivorian didn’t have the skill to hit the target when being chased by two defenders.

There were a number of other half-chances for Arsenal but they didn’t really find the final ball or the finish was disappointing.

The second half was a bit muted, relatively speaking. Arsenal still saw a lot more of the ball but the combinations were not as good. The number of shots were higher but the quality of chances was not.

There was an appeal for a penalty when Benayoun went down but it didn’t look like a foul to me, certainly not by the standards of this game. Indeed, Koscielny and Sagna also took their chances with pushing opponents in the Arsenal box so I don’t have too many complaints. That’s not to say the refereeing was good, just that it wasn’t very different from what we’ve come to expect at the Britannia.

Arsenal had a couple of free-kicks in good positions but the execution wasn’t very good. They also got the ball in and around the box quite often but either dilly-dallied on the ball or just picked the wrong pass.

At the other end I was impressed by the collective vigilance in defence. Apart from the goal Stoke only managed one shot on target that was easily saved. In total the hosts were limited to five or six shots.

The defending wasn’t perfect but the Gunners were quick to pounce on the loose/second ball. For instance, a couple of back passes could have put a striker through but one or the other defender got around to it first. Similarly, when Szczesny failed to get enough distance on some of his punches, a teammate bailed him out by getting to the ball before an opponent. This was a really pleasant positive change and everyone deserves credit for their effort as it wasn’t down to one or two players.

I also thought the vertical nature of the game, the end-to-end basketball style movements, took a lot out of the players and they ran out of steam in the second half. This made it relatively easier for Stoke in the second period but the Gunners ensured they didn’t give a soft goal away. And the hosts just didn’t have enough quality to create something on their own.

On the whole this wasn’t an elegant display but a battling one. That wasn’t surprising. The big question was how strong will Arsenal be in the battles. I’d say they weren’t dominating but held their ground firmly and respectably, often despite the referee.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Caught the ball well under pressure. Punches were weak. Interestingly, he’s 6/6 for clearances but that seems more due to his teammates’ ability to win the second ball rather than his ability to punch it clear. Sagna’s acrobatic clearance in injury time after Szczesny flapped at the ball is the perfect example.

Sagna: Made the mistake for the goal. Was uncharacteristically sloppy in possession. Put in a couple of excellent crosses but wasn’t very influential in attack. Not really tested at the back but did make that massive clearance towards the end. Was generally getting into very good positions when the balls came in from the other side.

Koscielny: Remained strong and vigilant at the back which meant he got into good positions and didn’t get physically dominated.

Vermaelen: Largely similar to Koscielny. Read the danger from balls coming towards the centre of the box and made a number of clearances. Did venture forward and won a free-kick but couldn’t really contribute to the attack.

Gibbs: Saw a lot of the ball and made decent use of it. Got into good attacking positions but either didn’t get the ball or he didn’t produce the final pass. Might have done better to attack the ball from which Crouch scored.

The defenders were on their toes and kept the goal well protected for most of the game. Sagna could have done better in possession while Vermaelen and Gibbs should have dealt with Crouch better but these kinds of things happen.

Song: Superb defensive shift. Noticeably curbed his instinct to bomb forward. Was trying to make things happen in the attack as well when he got a chance to venture forward. He did lose the ball quite often but also won it back just as regularly, including a game high 6 interceptions.

Rosicky: Classy assist, also created the other glorious chance that Arsenal had. Also made valuable defensive contributions in terms of winning the second ball and retaining possession under pressure. But he also wasted some promising opportunities. For instance, there was an audacious attempt to play an outside-of-the-foot ball over the defence towards RvP that went straight to the Keeper. He had time and space to turn the odds in his favour but went for a high risk pass and failed.

Ramsey: Even though he was on the pitch for only 73 minutes, Ramsey still attempted and completed the most passes. Also won all three of his tackles and wasn’t caught in possession as often as he’s been in the past. Spread the ball well and brought others into play, especially Gibbs. Work rate was again commendable. Did a respectable job of replacing Arteta in that sense. He can do better as he still took time to make some passes and ran with the ball more than he needed to. Had a couple of shots on goal but didn’t quite find the target.

The midfield played a vital role in supporting the defence. They had to go up and down the pitch more often than in most other games so the players deserve credit for sticking to the task. They didn’t have as much of a creative influence on the game but that’s a complicated issue which generally involves multiple players.

Gervinho: He had the movement and he was trying to get in behind. Even succeed in that on more than one occasion but his execution and decision making let him down when it mattered. Still had one or two bright moments but that isn’t enough. Was weak in the duels and was probably the only player who really struggled against the physical side of the game.

RvP: Took his goal well, hit the target with the other quality chance. Once again the work rate was exceptional and he often chased back if he’d lost the ball. Still has to develop the ability to hold his ground in front of the defender to receive the ball, seems like he’s always on the move and trying one trick or the other.

Benayoun: Harried and hassled Shotton into a couple of mistakes, one of which led to the equalizer. He’s another player who didn’t quite have enough when it mattered in and around the box. Deserves credit for effort and defensive shift.

The front three were more involved than in some of the games where Arsenal have struggled. The wide players interchanged their positions well and even popped into meaningful areas in the centre. But they lacked the ability to make a decisive contribution in the penalty box.

Subs: Diaby still looks rusty. Santos got very little time. Chamakh didn’t get any service in the box.

Wenger: At times in the past his players have been guilty of losing concentration at the back so he deserves credit for the focused defensive effort. Also prepared the players well for the physical battle and lenient refereeing.

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Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Stoke

April 28, 2012

Arsenal are visiting Stoke. Normally, there wouldn’t be any need to mention Chelsea. Or Newcastle. But this time around we have to, with a passing mention of Spurs thrown in.

The Champions League semi-finals threw up some not entirely unexpected surprises. Roberto Di Matteo, Just a year after being sacked from West Brom where his attacking style put the club’s survival at risk, will lead the Chelsea bus to Munich for the Champions League Final. Given the way they’ve gone past Napoli and Barca, you can’t write them off. And if they do win the Champions League, the 4th placed team in England will miss out as the Blues will get a chance to defend their trophy. That means Arsenal have to finish third to ensure their presence at the biggest stage next season.

Newcastle are 3 points behind the Gunners with a game in hand. They do have tougher games but barring the City one the others seem winnable on their current form, especially if Chelsea take the League lightly. So Arsenal must win 2 of their next three and match Newcastle’s result with City in the third. In that case goal difference should be enough to hold on to 3rd place.

Interestingly, Spurs are a further three points behind Newcastle. If they win all their four games and Arsenal and Newcastle lose one while winning the rest, all three teams will be tied on points. Once again goal difference could be key.

Although winning all three would undoubtedly be the ideal way to go, it doesn’t seem a realistic proposition given the current form. The visit to Stoke is usually a tough one – Arsenal have lost 3 of the last 4 – so the bookies will probably rate this as the toughest fixture of the three with longer odds on a win for the Gunners.

Tony Pulis’ unique tactics – to use the term very liberally – have caused a number of problems for Wenger’s men. This game should be no different.

We can expect a number of long balls aimed towards Crouch with Walters challenging for the second ball. Pennant and Etherington on the wings will also have crucial roles in attack as they’ll be asked to put in a number of balls into the box, to run in behind from flick-ons, and to attack the back post.

Stoke’s basic attacking approach is simple. Get enough balls and bodies into the opposition box and fight there. Some luck with deflections, with defensive errors or lapses in concentration, or simply from fouls not given can lead to goals.

Given the fact that they’re at home they’ll also get the benefit of doubt – again a term used generously – in almost all physical duels. This makes them very effective at home and a difficult side to beat. City, United, and Chelsea have only managed a draw at the Brittania while Liverpool and Spurs have lost. Newcastle are the only team from the top 8 to get a win there with Arsenal and Everton still to play.

Part of their home strength is also based on a very well-organized defence. They’re not an easy team to break down and Arsenal will have to find better ways than simply crossing the ball from wide areas. Huth, Shawcross, and Co will dominate such situations without breaking a sweat.

Ironically, Stoke have occasionally been vulnerable on set-pieces – which is also their biggest attacking strength – and the Gunners, especially Vermaelen, could benefit from quality deliveries. This is a contradiction with their general aerial dominance but it will be a big mistake if Arsenal don’t try hard on set-pieces thinking they won’t get much from them.

In attack, it will be interesting to see the choices that Arsene makes. Walcott is injured so there is an opening on the right wing. The left wing has anyway seen numerous changes – or little experiments – over the last few weeks.

Gervinho or Oxlade-Chamberlain could start on the right. My preference is for the Ivorian. AOC is still too inexperienced for this level and often gets lost on the pitch. Gervinho has his set of weaknesses but he can make a big impact on the game if he can sustain the sharpness he showed as a sub against Chelsea for the entire duration of the game.

On the left Arsene could pick Benayoun who’s been effective in a couple of recent games or he could go with Santos who had an interesting – for want of a better description – few minutes against Chelsea in that role. The Israeli is clearly more experienced in that role while the Brazilian will have to learn on the job. On the other hand, Santos would offer better defensive support and physical presence in the box. He’s also less likely to be brushed off the ball when compared to his relatively lightweight teammate.

In the midfield Arsene will probably go with the same trio that started against Chelsea. Diaby, given his physicality, would have been a good option but it wouldn’t be wise to start a player who’s struggled with injuries for so long against a team like Stoke.

The problem with Song – Rosicky – Ramsey in the middle is that they could struggle to bring the ball out. Stoke tend to start the game at a very high intensity and will put pressure on the ball in an effort to deny the players any time and space. Against Liverpool, early on against Newcastle, and in the first half against Chelsea, this tactic worked for the opposition and Arsenal were either wasteful in possession or lost the ball cheaply in dangerous areas. The hosts will be hoping for such mistakes and will try to break quickly down the wings once they win the ball back. If the full-backs have been pushed up, as the Gunners usually do, this could open up avenues for attack and at the very least Stoke could win throws and set-pieces deep in the Arsenal half.

Coming back from a goal down will be difficult despite the visitors’ league leading stats regarding the same. If Stoke score first the best Arsenal will get is a draw. The opening exchanges – first 20-25 minutes or the time of the first goal, whichever is earlier – will test Arsenal’s ability to hold the ball and build the play from the back under pressure.

I’d like to see the following line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Song, Rosicky, Ramsey – Gervinho, RvP, Santos.

I’d also ask Gibbs to stay deeper and look out for runners. Santos should be asked to stay wide on the left when the ball is in a central area and to tuck in when it goes wide. He’d have to double up as a technical midfielder concentrating on possession play and a winger, toggling between the roles depending on the patterns of play. The Brazilian also has the ability to thread balls through for the other two attackers but it’d be unfair to expect them to have perfect understanding with hardly any practice together.

At the back, Koscielny and Vermaelen will also have to be extra vigilant to track the runs of Walters as one of them will have to duel with Crouch depending on the positions the striker takes up. I’d expect him to pull towards his left between Sagna and Koscielny but teams often try to test Arsenal’s left side, so he could alternate between the two.

Depending on whether Walters presses higher up the pitch or Etherington pushes forward, Arsenal could have an extra man in midfield or on the right. This would be the most likely channel to bring the ball out but they should try to find a better balance between the two flanks otherwise it becomes relatively easier for the defenders to retain a shape to defend a flank and crosses from that side.

To be honest, I don’t expect points from this game. Even a solitary point will be a good result. Three will be a massive one. If everything falls into place and the ref doesn’t have a big influence on the events the Gunners could get something but it doesn’t happen often. A battling, injury-free display is all one can ask for. That will at least give Arsenal a fighting chance.

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Arsenal 0 – 0 Chelsea: Some Observations

April 24, 2012

Is this post breaking the record for late match reports? Probably no one cares. And I think it’s safe to assume no one wants to read three thousand words three days after a match, especially after one that lacklustre. So I’m just going to make some observations that seem worth discussing. Each paragraph will be a new point; some general, others about players or combinations.

As expected Chelsea came to park the bus and play on the counter. I didn’t expect as many as 8 changes, which virtually made this a second string side. They still had their strong defensive system and the replacements did a good enough job of adhering to it thereby reducing the chances Arsenal could create.

In attack, Chelsea had some chances early on but they couldn’t quite find the final pass or finish despite getting in behind Arsenal with relative ease. The quality of the second string, or the lack thereof, obviously had an impact here. This allowed the Gunners to get away with some poor defending. For instance, in the 7th minute Koscielny pushed up to the halfway line but couldn’t quite work it out with Song and the Gunners lost possession. Kalou was able to get into the space vacated by the central defender and got to the box. The Ivorian couldn’t quite control the ball and danger was averted but the defending was poor regardless. Sagna also had a little nibble at Kalou and a clever player, who’d have anticipated the challenge, might have found a way of winning a penalty and a red card from that. Imagine going a goal down and a player down in the 7th minute. Add to it the fact that Sagna would have missed the trip to Stoke. How big an impact would that have had on Arsenal’s points tally and confidence? The difference between a harmless looking situation and an unmitigated disaster can be that small at this level. Maybe I’m being overdramatic here but these things happen every once in a while and the more you tempt fate the more you risk getting screwed.

In general I thought Arsenal’s defending remained worrisome. It also seemed that the players sensed this and it brought the handbrake on in the first half after the opening 10-15 minutes. They couldn’t find the balance between caution and aggression but erred, prudently in my opinion as safety is the first priority, on the side of protecting their goal.

This does not mean that the defenders per se were poor. They did make a number of excellent last gasp interventions but the fact that they had to make those does not bode well for the longer term.

One of the reasons the defence was exposed fairly regularly was that Ramsey and Song didn’t quite gel as a duo in front. Arteta was missed to state the bleeding obvious. It was directly interlinked with the fact that movement upfront was minimal/ineffective. None of the front four were able to shake of their markers and get into positions to receive passes as frequently as they should have been doing. This forced Song, Ramsey, and, to an extent, Koscielny into taking greater risks. Ramsey was caught on the ball more than a couple of times as he looked for passes. Song tried some riskier ones and it didn’t always come off. Same goes for the centre back. This contributed to the muted attack and the nervous defence that didn’t impress many of those watching.

Both the wide players struggled to get on the ball. The team can carry one of them and that one could get the licence to wait for opportunities to make a run if the other winger can get between the lines and help the team past the first line of defence around the centre line. When both can’t do it the whole attack looks toothless for long periods and the defence is put under pressure.

Interestingly, Arsenal struck the woodwork twice from set-pieces. Those were probably the best chances of the first half except perhaps the counter-attack in injury time that broke down due to a poor choice by Chamberlain. You could say Chelsea rode their luck but these are low-percentage chances. Arsenal had to create a lot more but just couldn’t click as a unit.

Rosicky looked lively when he got the chance to turn and run with the ball. He also played some quality passes. But a lot more is needed from a player in that position. He too was guilty of not offering an outlet for a ball behind the first line of defence often enough. He had 32 touches i.e. one every two minutes, which is just not good enough for that role especially when Arsenal were the team looking to take the initiative. This isn’t the first time either, he’s had similar struggles against well-organized sides with Liverpool and Newcastle (first 20 odd minutes) being good examples.

Arsenal looked much better after Diaby came on for Rosicky in the 64th minute. Part of the reason for this was that Ramsey was able to move up the pitch and was able to influence the game more. He played an excellent ball over the top for Van Persie, spread the ball to the flanks, made runs that opened passing channels, and added to the collective attacking quality as Arsenal created more meaningful combinations in this period. It’s worth noting that Ramsey completed 26 of his 27 passes from the 64th minute onwards. In a comparable role in the first 64 minutes Rosicky only managed 21/24.

Of course, the three substitutes also played a big part in giving Arsenal greater impetus in the final 20-30 minutes, even if it wasn’t enough to get a goal. The Gunners got closer to the Chelsea goal in this period and were able to work some combinations around the box that involved more than a runner and a quarter-back, so to speak.

Once again the importance of the wide players getting involved in play was highlighted. Walcott completed 11 of his 16 passes in an hour. Gervinho completed 14 or his 16 in roughly half that time. Similarly, Santos completed 16 of his 18 passes in just over 20 minutes while Oxlade-Chamberlain only managed 18/23 in close to 70 minutes on the pitch. More passes implies greater involvement, which in turn suggests higher number of passing angles and options to the man on the ball, that in turn results in more fluid play and a higher probability of creating quality chances. It didn’t happen this time but the effort was appreciable and a big improvement on the opening hour or so.

Looking at the way Arsenal struggled to get the ball forward in the first half and the combinations played towards the end, which involved some good movement and passing from all the subs, it would not be unthinkable to start the game against Stoke with the side that ended this one. Santos was energetic on the flank and seems to be getting his match fitness back. He also provided decent defensive cover and can be a physical as well as a technical player with dribbling skills and offensive intelligence to boot. Gervinho too, looked sharp but some might rightly point out that he looks better when playing as a sub.

In other thoughts, Diaby looked rusty but also had a presence on the pitch as he ate up the ground effortlessly. Koscielny made a number of excellent interventions at the back (tackles, clearances, etc) but he was also turned once or twice where he shouldn’t be and was a bit wasteful with his passing, perhaps due to the lack of options. Song again played a number of exceptional passes but he remains error prone and didn’t always make the right decisions. Van Persie was probably frustrated with the lack of service early on and that forced him into hopeful attempts when some composure might have helped. He also went solo once or twice even though a teammate was better placed. Again this was most likely borne out of frustration and a searing desire to win the game for the team coupled with a sense of responsibility.

Moving on from the game, I want to link to an article on Serge Gnabry by Gooner Dave. Do check it out if you haven’t already done so. I am not a fan of hyping youngsters but this article presents some interesting facts. And hidden between the details about the wonder kid, there’s a short note on Bergkamp that is highly recommended, particularly if you think of yourself as a student of the game.

Also, Van Persie deserves accolades for winning the Player of the Year but a sentence at the end of such a post would not do him justice. Trying to find words that do will be a challenge but I’ll try soon enough.

Before ending I want to say thank you to everyone who is reading this. I generally get less than half the readers when I post a late match report when compared to an early one. But I appreciate those who take the time out to read my half-baked ramblings even after a couple of days much more than others who do add to ego-boosting numbers but probably don’t value these write-ups as much. Thanks for reading.

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Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Chelsea

April 20, 2012

Robin van Persie has again hit the nail bang on the head. No customary platitudes showered upon the opposition, no clichés,  just honest and telling observations from the skipper –

Chelsea have picked up considerably in recent weeks and had a great result against Barcelona on Wednesday. They defended unbelievably well and were very strong on the counter-attack, with Didier Drogba having a really good game. At times they defended with eight or nine men, but you can hardly blame them for doing that against Barcelona.

If they put in a performance like that on Saturday, it will be hard for us – but it will also be interesting to see how they approach today’s game in the middle of two massive Champions League fixtures. They only played two and a half days ago, and had to work hard against a lot of Barcelona possession the other day, so we’ll see what their manager decides to do.

Whoever starts the game for them, I expect them to provide a very big test because they have next season’s Champions League at stake too and will not want to slip up.

That’s it in a nutshell. If Chelsea can repeat their midweek effort, or even get close to it, this game will be a massive challenge for Arsenal.

Roberto Di Matteo has re-established the identity, the playing style, that the players are comfortable with and know inside out. Since the departure of AVB Chelsea have been very compact at the back, have played with greater focus and tactical cohesion, and are again looking like a football team that can get results.

I don’t expect Saturday’s fixture to be any different. They’ll probably come higher up the pitch than they did against Barca and are likely to be more aggressive with their pressing in the central third of the pitch, but by and large the Blues will again set up to hit Arsenal on the break.

Let’s not forget it was only last season that RDM masterminded a counter-attacking win at the Emirates with West Brom. He knows what they need to do as do most of the players.

We could also see them come out with an attacking mindset for the opening 10-15 minutes just like Spurs did. This Arsenal side takes time to settle and at times seems vulnerable at the start. Chelsea could try to sneak a lead in that period which would then make it much easier for them to absorb the pressure while waiting for opportunities to counter.

Interestingly, Arsenal are League leaders when it comes to points recovered from losing positions with 6 wins and a draw adding up to 19 points, while Chelsea are second worst when it comes to dropping points from a winning position as they’ve surrendered 7 leads and lost 17 points. The reverse fixture, as you’ll recall, was a classic example of both these traits.

Nevertheless, this is a different game altogether and I don’t expect these trends to be sustained. If Chelsea take the lead, Arsenal will find it difficult – not only to break them down but also to prevent them from scoring again as the Gunners push forward to regain control. The first goal will be vital.

Tactically, Wenger will have to set his team up in the same cautious manner that they adopted against City. That means the midfielders will have to be extremely disciplined and conservative. If that comes at the cost of attacking opportunities and a lack of bodies in the opposition box then so be it. At no point should the back four, especially the central defenders, should be exposed to the counter-attacks.

Di Matteo has said that Drogba and Luiz will miss the clash against Arsenal but I’ll not be surprised if Drogba, in particular, makes a stunning recovery. His record against the Gunners is fairly well known so I won’t repeat it. Even without a physically dominant striker though, Chelsea will still be a threat in the attacking areas as they have plenty of players who know how to exploit N-v-N situations on the break. Torress, Ramires, Mata, Sturridge, and others have good movement and understanding in the final third. They also have technique, dribbling abilities, and pace. Some of these players are not on top form but they can be a handful and Arsenal’s defenders will find it hard to contain them across vast spaces.

From that defensive point of view, the absence of Arteta could be a body blow for the Gunners. A lot of the Spaniard’s work goes unnoticed but his positional sense, discipline, concentration, and defensive intelligence are the best in the team. In his absence Song will have to do much better than he’s done in most games and he’ll have to curb his attacking instincts. Somehow I doubt that will happen so the defensive onus might fall upon Ramsey or Rosicky, which isn’t a comforting thought.

As they showed against Barca, Chelsea, when on  top of their defensive game, can really master the central area in front of their goal. They will undoubtedly push Arsenal wide and the Gunners will have to find a way to get past their full-backs who’ll not be without support. With Ivanovic missing Bosingwa might get a start and he could be the weak link that Arsenal look to exploit. The choice of the left winger will clearly have an impact on this game but I find it hard to pick between Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain as both have their sets of strengths and weaknesses.

We might see,

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

Arsene might keep Santos in the line-up but I’d like to see Gibbs back in if he’s fit.

Le Boss also has the option of moving either Djourou or Vermaelen in midfield while pushing Ramsey or Rosicky out to the left. This way Arsenal would have a defensively stronger side but it’s an approach he hasn’t used or even shown any inclination to use so it is highly unlikely.

Some fans would also want to see AOC in midfield. He wasn’t bad against Milan but, borrowing a Wengerism, I’d say it would be ‘tactical suicide’. Arsenal need players who can get on the ball and help control the game. Oxlade-Chamberlain just does not have enough experience or tactical awareness to do that job in such a big game. Sometimes, I feel, people forget he was playing in League One till last season.

This midfield, if picked, will be the same as the one we saw against United at the Emirates. They struggled in the first half but matched the visitors in the second period. But for some missed chances and poor defending at the end the result could have been different. So there is no doubt Arsenal have a chance of getting one or three points from this game. More so considering the fact that Chelsea have had a tiring midweek fixture and will have one eye on the away leg next week.

Nevertheless, I don’t have high hopes for this game (some readers have noticed a trend here and I hope that continues). Arsenal’s system demands extraordinary levels of physical effort and mental focus in order to compensate for its inherent weaknesses. The players can’t produce it week in, week out.

Van Persie thinks Arsenal have proved they can win the big games,

We’ve proved that we can perform in the big games against top teams, and it’s up to us to show it again.

To me the last part of that sentence is the key one. They’ve to show they can do it again, and again, and again…

Once more the point is not that Arsenal can’t win – just that they’ll need another super special effort, especially considering Chelsea are not likely to make the same mistakes that City did.

Before ending I want to mention that the match report will be delayed. I am traveling over the weekend and will not be able to watch the game till Sunday evening or Monday. I understand most readers prefer an early report but this really is out of my hands.

PS: I also have a Facebook page now and it should have links to new posts and my tweets unless I’ve bungled up the settings.

Arsenal 1 – 2 Wigan: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

April 18, 2012

Sir Alex Ferguson predicted Wigan could beat Arsenal.

They’ve got to get a goal, of course, but if they do they’ll beat Arsenal. They are playing really well. They should easily be in the middle of the table, rather than down at the bottom, but at times they can’t get a goal. If we had been playing any other team but Wigan the other night, we would have been all right because it is unusual for a team to keep possession against us the way they did. They’ve got some good players there with great energy. Victor Moses is more than dangerous…

A lot of people showed their displeasure towards these comments in a variety of ways that were largely uncomplimentary towards the United manager. However, what these fans didn’t realize was that such denigrating statements take nothing away from SAF but do betray a misplaced arrogance or inability to appreciate the finer details of the game on the part of those who make such comments.

With few words Fergie showed the kind of insight that differentiates the truly knowledgeable from us mere enthusiasts. The key points he made were regarding Wigan’s ability to hold the ball and their inability to score goals.

The latter point was sorted out for the visitors by Arsenal’s willingness to gift chances/goals to the opposition. Perhaps the Gunners were not tight enough because they didn’t expect much of an attacking threat from Wigan? In any case the defensive efforts were once again not up to scratch with a number of players making avoidable mistakes.

The first goal was the classic routine of corner for the Gunners, goal for the opponents. You could argue Arsenal don’t concede that many goals on the break these days but they still concede plenty of chances in every game. These chances don’t always result in shots or goals but that doesn’t mean the defending is good. For instance, in this case the pass from Gomez might have been weaker or could have hit Santos’ foot. The deflection off Szczesny could have gone away from goal. Any such small detail could have prevented Wigan from taking the lead. Indeed, something similar happens in every game. But that is exactly the problem. When it happens in every game you are going to concede a few. The rub of the green won’t go Arsenal’s way every time. That’s the reason we see so many freakish-looking goals being conceded by the Gunners and hardly any other team in the League.

If you look at it individually there are a number of probable mistakes. Sagna’s header was weak, Theo didn’t attack the ball while the Wigan player showed more desire to win it, Benayoun was asleep on the edge of the box and didn’t read the danger, Arteta pulled up at the wrong time, Santos didn’t have to go wide so soon, and Szczesny should have stayed upright and made himself big instead of going at an angle and with his feet. None of these is a major blunder in itself. When you put them all together though, you get comical or horrific defending depending on the colour of your glasses.

To make matters worse the second came soon after. Walcott lost the ball around the halfway line. Without Arteta on the pitch Arsenal didn’t have sufficient cover in the middle even though Benayoun did try to drop in there. Wigan played the ball around nicely before Moses worked an opening through a quick turn and a burst of acceleration. Sagna was caught out but it’s hard to blame him as he was in a 1-v-2 for a moment, which created some space for the Wigan winger.

It’s hard to explain how Djourou and Vermaelen both managed to miss a simple square ball. Both should have done better. Szczesny tried to pounce on the loose ball but Gomez got to it first. Again it’s worth noting that Benayoun was caught ball watching in the box while Gomez snuck in from behind him in classic poacher fashion. This was another case of a number of small errors combining to form a catastrophe.

On a positive note, the Gunners responded brilliantly to the two goals and for the next 15-20 minutes the Wigan goal was under serious pressure. The number of chances were still limited but you could sense a goal coming. With the visitors crowding the centre the opportunities were all coming from the wide areas and there was no surprise when the goal came from one such cross. Rosicky’s ball was whipped in at pace and at a good height. Vermaelen did what he does best in the opposition box.

Sadly, Arsenal could not sustain this pressure. An injury to Moses held the game up and the Gunners lost their momentum. There were suggestions the injury was a clever ruse to slow the game down. If so, it worked. Subsequently the visitors used every trick in the book to slow the tempo and eat up time but one can’t really blame them for that. The ref too was very lenient with time-wasting and a lot of physical challenges but again that can’t really be an excuse.

The worrying fact was that Arsenal produced very little in the second half. According to Wenger the side ran out of petrol, which is disappointing to say the least. In my opinion, more than running out of petrol, Arsenal ran out of ideas. Tactically, the gunners didn’t know how to control the game. Arsenal had to find a balance between patience and aggression, incision and control. They failed. Wigan created more chances on the break and could easily have added to their two goals whereas Al-Habsi was hardly tested. There were five minutes added at the end but you couldn’t see Arsenal scoring even if it had been ten.

I thought there were a number of small tactical details that affected Arsenal’s game.

In the first half Benayoun came inside quite often and got on the end of some crosses. In the second period he stayed closer to the touchline on the left. This seemed like an instruction from Arsene, as if he wanted to greater width. The introduction of Gervinho for Benayoun added further credence to this theory. To an extent this was understandable as Arsenal were having a tough time against the crowded centre and there were vast open spaces on the left in the first half. But by moving Benayoun away Arsene took out the only other body that was supporting RvP. Rosicky rarely got into advanced positions in the box and Walcott was completely ineffective in those areas. This made it easier for Wigan to defend.

The substitution of Benayoun ahead of Theo, who probably had his worst game of the season, was baffling, Arsene’s lack of trust in his reserve strikers glaring. The team could have used a player like Chamakh with his physical and aerial presence but the boss clearly doesn’t trust him enough. Of course, there is no point introducing a player who has been out of form and favour for a while. But that does lead to other questions about squad depth that I don’t want to dwell upon at this moment.

The Gunners did try to play the crossing game against a deep-lying and narrow defence. In some ways it was their plan B. But the execution left a lot to be desired. For instance, hardly any ball was played in the channel between the defenders and the goalkeeper. Rarely was a player attacking the back post. Fluidity is one of Arsenal’s big attacking strengths but they need a balance between certain predetermined plays and on-pitch spur of the moment creativity. For now it seems the players have to figure it all out on the pitch. They need to know area to cross the ball into, there have to be corresponding runs, and others have to form a shape around the box so that the pressure can be sustained. Still, as there are signs of work being done, there are some positives to take from this effort.

The lack of composure and control was hard to take. Arteta was clearly missed. Some might suggest even Mertesacker’s presence would have helped. But the players on the pitch need to know better. After the Milan game Arsene had said the players rushed things a bit.

I felt that we rushed our game a little in the final [third] and were not patient enough in our build-up. We wanted to give the decisive ball too early and you have to be guided by the way you want to play until the last minute in these games, be calm and composed.

The bungled one-two between RvP and Rosicky that finished with Little Mozart ballooning the ball over the goal comes to mind. It wasn’t the only instance but does serve as a perfect example of a lack of composure at a vital moment.

Finally, the inability of the players to link well in advanced areas was troubling. They all seemed to be trying but on different wavelengths. There were too many individual moments rather than quality combinations. All season there has been a lack of consistent combination play in the attacking areas that involves four or five players but in the second half of this game it was completely invisible.

To be fair, Wigan must also be complimented for their performance, time-wasting and other tricks notwithstanding. The way they retained possession, particularly in the second half, must have been extremely frustrating for the Gunners and probably induced some of their incoherent, rushed attacks which resulted in a relatively easy time for Wigan at the back. Again, it was a small but crucial point that Fergie had mentioned before the game.

At the end I must say the result wasn’t that surprising. The current run has been commendable but not completely convincing. The final four games will all be a stern test. There are a lot of questions that the Gunners have to answer on the pitch.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Should probably have done better for both goals, especially the first. If he’d stayed big Di Santo, who had not scored for a long while, might have panicked and missed or the deflection might have gone in a different direction. But I am not a fan of blaming the goalkeeper for such goals. There were other bigger culprits. Did make a couple of good saves.

Sagna: Found Moses to be a handful.  But work rate on the flank was again excellent. Crossing wasn’t extraordinary but did hit some useful areas.

Djourou: Stats show he won all his tackles (3/3) and duels (5/5), and had the highest pass accuracy (95%) but his role in the second goal is at least questionable. He was at the near post and should have dealt with the cross better. Interestingly, Di Santo was marking Djourou for the Arsenal corner that resulted in the first goal. The striker got forward to score but the defender didn’t get back in time. Nevertheless, I don’t blame him for that completely as he would rightly expect the others players to provide better cover when he’s gone up for a corner.

Vermaelen: Wigan’s system meant that he had a lot of time and space. Did push forward often and almost played as an extra midfielder. Also got into the box frequently and took his goal well. No fault for the first goal but what was he doing on the second? Went with the attacker but just added to the confusion.

Santos: Had the most touches and, surprisingly, the most shots only one of which was on target. Missed two good chances, one he created himself while the other was probably meant for Vermaelen. Defensively he wasn’t convincing. The ball went through him for the assist to the first goal. Also had other shaky moments at the back like the time he botched a clearance which allowed Moses to get in behind.

The defenders didn’t have that much to do but their performances, especially those of the full-backs, weren’t very enjoyable. To be fair they did have to cover vast spaces and the structural problems, combined with poor awareness and decision making, often left them exposed.

Song: Very poor. Interestingly, stats say he won all four tackles but was only 5/21 on ground duels. Moses and others went past him with ease. His passing wasn’t that great but most disappointing was his decision making. Should have shown greater composure in front of the defence and held his ground more often but he tried to do too much. It’s a tough balance to achieve and one can only hope this was a result of being in the learning phase of his dual role.

Arteta: Wasn’t there on the pitch long enough but does deserve some blame for the first goal. He was on the edge of the box when the corner came in. Put his hand up and called for a sub just as it was cleared out. He should have assessed his situation earlier as he was a vital part of the defence just outside the Wigan box. More is expected from such an experienced player. If he’d gone out before the corner Arsenal might have put someone else there who’d have tracked Gomez and might have prevented the pass in the first place.

Rosicky: Probably the best Arsenal player on the pitch, especially in the first half. Deserved his assist and more. But lost influence in the second half. Also that missed opportunity in the 26th minute showed his lack of composure at a key moment. More is needed from a player in that position but for this game he doesn’t deserve criticism.

Ramsey: Extraordinary work rate. Played nine minutes less than the others but still had the second highest touches and by far the highest number of attempted and completed passes. Was playing deeper than usual to compensate for the loss of Arteta and did a decent job as he didn’t lose the ball as often as he does in attacking areas. But he wasn’t able to link the players as well as Arteta does and defensively he just didn’t get into good enough positions on a number of occasions, especially when Song pushed forward.

The midfield had a lot of time and space and considering that it must be said their overall output wasn’t at the required level. Once the momentum was lost late in the first half they should have controlled the game better and guided the attacks with guile and nous rather than rushing forward at every little opportunity.

Walcott: Forgettable. Should have come off at half time or the hour mark at the latest. He wasn’t getting into the game at all. The chaotic midfield exposed his limitations rather than getting the best out of him.

RvP: Tried hard. Can’t really blame him. Deserves applause despite the result.

Benayoun: Won a couple of headers and hit the target. Was also getting involved with the play in and around the box in the first half. Couldn’t do much out wide in the second. Before the opening goal, he went to sleep on the edge of the box and noticed the danger really late. Should have done much better, more so considering his experience level.

Subs: Oxlade-Chamberlain made a few forward bursts but just lost possession at the end of most of those. Gervinho was ineffective and inefficient.

Wenger: A lot of the problems are long standing and keep resurfacing time and again. But we can also see some effort being put in. Substitutions were strange to say the least. Wasn’t able to guide or inspire the players in the second half.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Wigan

April 16, 2012

I like Roberto Martinez as a manager and Wigan Athletic as a football club. If someone told me Arsenal would lose to Wigan on Monday but win the remaining four and secure third spot I’d take it, especially if it helped the visitors stay up. But the simple fact of the matter is that no one is offering such a deal. The Gunners don’t know what the future holds so they must focus their energies on obtaining the desired result from this game.

As always, it won’t be easy. In their last four games, the Latics have won away to Liverpool and at home against Stoke and United. They also deserved more from the game at Stamford Bridge. Martinez, while showing great respect to Arsenal, must surely believe his side can get a point or three at the Emirates.

The visitors will come with a relatively settled line-up that is clicking at the right time as far as their battle against relegation is concerned. Boyce – Alcaraz – Caldwell – Figueroa is not the world’s greatest back four but they’ve found some solidity of late. McCarthy and McArthur do a good job of sitting in front of the defence while Beausejour provides cover on the left flank and width in attack. Moses and Maloney have the X-factor while Di Santo does a good job of holding and linking play in attack.

Overall Wigan have found a nice balance, which has been vital to the results they’ve been getting recently. As a part of that balance, Wigan have found goals from all over the pitch and that mean Arsenal’s defence will be tested in this game. Moses will provide the direct running threat, Maloney and others can shoot from distance, Caldwell and Alcaraz have been a threat on set-pieces, while the visitors can also play some combinations around the box if they get enough bodies forward.

Defensively, it will be interesting to see how they shape up. Beausejour and Figueroa can defend their left, which also happens to be the flank where a number of Arsenal’s attacks originate. This could frustrate the Gunners and they could need greater incision down their left.

More than the flanks though, I want to see where Wigan set up their defensive block. Recently, teams have troubled Arsenal when they’ve pushed up and pressed hard but few have sustained it without suffering knock-out blows. It will depend on the kind of confidence and belief that Martinez has. Anything higher than the halfway line will be a sign that Wigan back themselves to get something from the game and it will certainly make this an absorbing contest.

Dropping deeper will indicate a willingness to absorb pressure while waiting for counter-attacking opportunities. The Latics have the ability to hold the ball under pressure and this could help them break at pace as they won’t hoof it forward hopefully as often as some of the other teams at the wrong end of the table do. In the past N’Zogbia has troubled Arsenal and Moses could do the same if he gets the chance to run at the defenders.

This will also make Arsene’s selection at left-back very interesting. Gibbs is rated as 50-50 by the manager but Santos, even though his raw stats are very impressive, could be caught out by a quick dribbler like Victor Moses. Will Gibbs be rushed back? Can Santos shrug off the apparent slackness and raise his game? We will find out.

A related factor will be the choice of the attacking player on the same side. Benayoun has done well in a conservative role but Arsenal, as discussed earlier, could need greater creativity/incision from the left. Will Arsene bring Gervinho back into the line-up? His pace can certainly trouble Boyce.

Having had a break against Wolves, Rosicky could also be restored to the starting eleven with Ramsey moving back to the bench.

We might see,

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

Don’t be surprised if Arsene keeps Ramsey in the line-up, either in the centre or on the left. The season is coming to an end and the manager might want to take a longer look at some players before he makes up his mind about the summer. I am not suggesting this is make or break for the young Welshman, just that some of the boss’ choices could be forward looking.

Following a similar line of thought, one might say a number of games for Benayoun before the season ends could hint at a more permanent relationship after the summer.

All-in-all a win could put Arsenal 8 clear of fourth, albeit with an extra game played, and put pressure on the chasing pack. On the other hand a draw or a loss could give them hope and renewed belief. I’m taking nothing for granted.

Before ending I want to link to a couple of new blogs that I like. Arsenal Depot is an effort from a fellow Desi based in Dubai. It provides some balanced and thoughtfully constructed opinions. He Blogs When He Wants To is just, umm, different – in a pleasantly fresh and funny way. Check them out.

Wolves 0 – 3 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

April 12, 2012

This game was anti-climatic in some ways. As discussed in the preview, the fighting spirit of a relegation candidate could have been the only factor that made this a compelling contest. It was nowhere to be seen. Wolves started in a somewhat diffident manner and the events of the opening 10 odd minutes virtually killed the contest.

It looked like Terry Connor had picked five across the midfield with Doyle alone up front. It’s not a new approach but is one that we’ve seen work in many games, at least to the extent of frustrating the Gunners. But the hosts simply did not execute their plan, if they had one.

Theo, Van Persie, and other Arsenal players got plenty of space to run into and time on the ball to look up and pick out passes. Wolves’ defensive work seemed more like an afterthought than any sort of an organized and disciplined effort.

First Walcott was able to control the ball unchallenged outside their penalty box. Van Persie just dropped back and again there was no one getting tight on him. A simple one-two put Theo in behind and Bassong made matters worse through a clumsy foul. It was a penalty and a red card. Harsh, but that’s how the rules are. Maybe a more experienced ref would have let him off with a Yellow as there was another defender nearby but it’s also not difficult to explain the red.

A couple of minutes later the same combination, from slightly different positions, put Theo through again and he finished with aplomb.

The rest of the first half was eminently forgettable. Wolves retreated deep into their half and pressed the damage control button. Arsenal put the handbrake on and went to sleep. What followed was possibly the worst football I have seen this season.

The second period was relatively better. Both managers must have shaken the players out of their collective stupor. Wolves came out with a greater sense of purpose and that meant there were chances at both ends. For the hosts Zubar and Jarvis went wide while Ramsey and Van Persie will feel they could have done better for the Gunners.

The best chance for the hosts fell to Doyle around the hour mark. Jarvis’ cross from the right found the Irishman at the back post. Santos couldn’t put up a meaningful challenge as Doyle headed it across goal. Szczesny made a smart reflex save to tip the ball past his post.

Ten minutes later Benayoun sealed the win with an intelligent strike from the edge of the box that gave the keeper no chance. The move was started when Van Persie chased and won back a ball he’d lost. Song, who’d almost been playing striker for periods of the second half, received the pass but it took him too wide at a tight angle with a couple of defenders in tow. The Cameroonian picked up another assist, this time with a back-pass to Benayoun.

Arsenal had further chances to score as they camped in the Wolves half while the hosts also managed some efforts on the break.

The early goals and red card meant this tie never got competitive so there is no point to analyzing it in depth. I was a bit disappointed with the way Arsenal eased off but most of these players will play their third game in 8 days on Monday so conserving energy might not have been the worst option. Five point gap over fourth and no injuries from this game (not sure why Sagna went off) is more than enough.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Made one massive save at a critical time and a good one late in the game. It seems like a long time since he was forced into such action so it served as a good reminder of his abilities.

Sagna: Took over the mantle of the most attempted and completed passes from Arteta as he clocked 103 and 95 respectively. Didn’t have as much to do defensively but Jarvis did manage to produce a couple of good crosses from his side. None of his 5 crosses found a teammate but some did end up in good areas in the box.

Djourou: Wasn’t really tested but did well when called into action especially with some timely blocks. Also won 5 of his 6 aerial duels and 6/7 ground duels. Had the highest pass completion rate among the players that started.

Vermaelen: Since the game was wrapped up early on he mostly held his ground and kept things under control at the back.

Santos: It wasn’t clear whether he lacked match fitness or was just so laidback it bordered on unprofessional at times. Gave the ball away more than once in situations which could have turned difficult. Wasn’t able to challenge for headers when the ball was swung in from the opposite flank. Often, just didn’t chase back and was bailed out by the effort of his teammates and the man-advantage.

The defenders saw a lot of the ball as the Gunners played it around at the back, especially in the first half. This was evident from the fact that Vermaelen attempted 57 passes in the first half and only 22 in the second. Similarly Djourou attempted 50 in the first and only half that number in the second.

Song: Another one who reached three digits in attempted passes. I thought Song was one of those who really slowed the game down in the first half. Wasn’t really tested defensively and this must be one of the games where he’s had the least number of duels. Went into a really advanced role for parts of the second period and did well to pick up an assist but also misplaced some passes in tight areas.

Arteta: Steady and efficient. I thought he was trying to keep the game flowing even in the first half.

Ramsey: Missed a couple of good chances and was caught on the ball a few times, but I’d say this was a good effort considering he is completely out of for and trying to0 hard to regain it. Movement was again very good, was involved in the build up of the second goal as well as creating a couple of other chances, might have had a penalty, got into shooting positions, and generally moved the ball well.

I was not very happy with Song in the first half. He had a lot of space to receive the ball and turn but just didn’t use it well enough and kept knocking it back to the defenders. The midfielders do deserve credit for providing sufficient cover to the defence. They looked much better in the second half when Arsenal pushed further up the pitch and took some creative initiative.

Walcott: Excellent runs and a composed finish. After the two goals he wasn’t very effective with the ball and played it back a lot or lost possession, but that was, at least partly, due to the fact that Arsenal were lethargic as a team.

RvP: A goal, an assist, and a pre-assist. Exceptional quality from De Kapitein. Was leading from the front with constant movement and pressing. Created a total of five chances and had four attempts at goal with three on target. Always in the mix.

Benayoun: Had a fairly free role. Was trying to get into the game through his movement and was visibly frustrated a few times in the first half when he didn’t receive the ball that was being played around pointlessly at the back. Finish was clever, also had a couple of other shots one of which was deflected away from goal by RvP. Also put in a decent defensive shift.

The attackers looked dangerous at the start and then in the second half. On another day they might have scored a couple more.

Subs: Oxlade-Chamberlain looked lively but couldn’t produce the final ball, Jenkinson had very little time on the pitch.

Wenger: Did well to give Rosicky a breather. Surprised he didn’t do the same with RvP after the third goal went in. Could also have replaced Walcott earlier and given the youngster some more time on the pitch.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Wolves

April 11, 2012

Arsenal are currently third in the table, two points above Spurs and Newcastle, and have four more than Chelsea with a game in hand. That is the game against Wolves at Molineux. Winning this match could give the Gunners a five point cushion with just as many games to go. With still some tricky fixtures to come in the run-in Wenger’s team could benefit from some breathing room.

However, looking at it that way inherently implies this game is not tricky and three points are to be expected. It would be foolhardy for anyone in the Arsenal camp to take a win for granted. The hosts are fighting a relegation battle, and even if looks increasing bleak for them with every passing week, one must not underestimate their battling instincts. And how can anyone forget the 1-1 draw at the Emirates between the teams earlier in the season.

In that fixture Arsenal had over 70 percent possession and had 11 shots on target out of the attempted 27. The inconsistent Hennessey was on top form. At the other end Wolves scored with their only shot on target. This can happen again, anytime. That gives hope to teams who strive to avoid the drop. Fighting for 90 minutes gives them a chance. With a bit of luck they can get a point or three.

This game is, therefore, more likely to be about duels and work rate rather than inventive tactics or slick football. Wolves will have to rely on their organization, discipline, and effort. The areas of the pitch where they choose to do so will be interesting to watch. Last season McCarthy’s side were able to pin Arsenal back for periods of the game but they no longer have him as the manager and don’t look like the same side. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to doubt their abilities.

Vermaelen was talking about the importance of the collective shape while defending,

It’s about the organisation of the team. It’s not just about the defenders who defend, it’s the whole shape of the team. That’s really good at the moment…

The same has to continue. We saw the impact of a drop in concentration at QPR. And it will most definitely be repeated if the performance/concentration/determination levels drop. Song and Arteta will again have a vital role to play in front of the defence not only with their movement and reading of the game, but also with their ability to retain the ball and absorb pressure.

The midfield duo’s role will take on greater significance given Koscielny’s forced absence through suspension. Djourou is a good replacement but is inconsistent and hasn’t played regularly in recent weeks. He could be caught out if exposed. One key aspect of solid defences is the inherent depth that prevents a single error from proving fatal. Arsenal will have to show they have this by covering for each other.

Wolves have some quality in the wide areas and, with Gibbs missing due to injury, Santos could have a tough time on the left in his first start since his injury last year. Wenger will probably be tempted to pick Benayoun to provide some support to the Brazilian.

It will be a challenge for Yossi who’s looked good in certain games but is another one who hasn’t quite demonstrated the kind of consistency demanded at this level. On occasion the Israeli has drifted in and out games but did well in a conservative role against City last Sunday. He could do more of the same in this one but one gets the feeling Arsenal will need some of his attacking/dribbling skills in and around the opposition box for greater penetration.

I am also of the opinion that this would be a good game to give Walcott a breather and bring Oxlade-Chamberlain in. The youngster hasn’t started since the home win over Newcastle while Theo has been playing constantly. It could help both but somehow I doubt Arsene will make many alterations to a winning combination as there is definitely an element of risk involved with too many changes.

Preferred line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Djourou, Vermaelen, Santos – Song, Rosicky, Arteta – AOC, RvP, Benayoun

Wolves are on a 6 game losing streak and have been winless for 8. I don’t like saying this but even such streaks have to come to an end. They’ve already forced a draw at the Emirates and will believe they can do the same or more at home. More than tactics or personnel, this one could boil down to who wants it more.

Arsenal 1 – 0 Man City: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

April 9, 2012

Even with City’s dodgy away form in recent weeks this game was always going to be a test of Arsenal’s abilities. Was the QPR result a blip or the beginning of yet another slump? On the back of that performance there can be no arguments. The macro-level stats in the following tweet make the case quite clearly.

Arsenal dominated the game and secured a well-deserved win thanks to Mikel Arteta’s thunderbolt. But it wasn’t plain sailing as the stats might suggest.

Arsene brought Benayoun into the starting line-up indicating he is intent on using a technical player in games that are likely to be more challenging. City were without Silva and started with a strange-ish eleven.

Mancini picked Balotelli on the left and Aguero down the middle with Nasri in an advanced midfield role and Milner on the right flank. Toure and Barry were behind them. It’s hard to put any kind of numbers to this as the shapes they took up seemed incoherent, as if they weren’t used to it and didn’t really know what to do.

Arsenal dominated the first quarter of the game. The screen flashed a stat showing 78 percent possession for the Gunners in the 23rd minute. By then Arsenal had also had four shots and a penalty claim. In fairness though, only one was a gilt-edged opportunity that came in the 16th minute when a Van Persie header destined for the goal was cleared off the line by Vermaelen.

After the midway point though, City got back into the game and it was fairly even. Balotelli had a good chance from a corner that was blocked. The Gunners didn’t create any more chances in the half.

Yaya Toure’s injury and Pizarro’s introduction coincided to an extent with a change in City’s fortunes but I don’t think it was the cause of the change in the game. Some other factors seemed more relevant.

Firstly, Arsenal came off the blocks with a very high tempo and pinned the visitors back through incessant pressing high up the pitch. This was hard to sustain and the hosts eased off midway through the half. This gave the Blues a better chance to bring the ball out from the back.

Secondly, after Yaya went off, Mancini shifted Nasri to the flank and brought Milner into a central role. The former Arsenal man was chasing the ball energetically but was reactive and didn’t quite do a job as the first line of defence. Milner showed better defensive awareness.

Thirdly, Toure wasn’t having a very good game defensively either as was evidenced by his early booking that was picked up when Rosicky turned him with ease in the 2nd minute. His injury didn’t help either and it was as if City were playing with 10 men.

Finally, Balotelli – having survived numerous punishable offences including a horrendous straight red tackle – pushed up the pitch and City started looking for a diagonals and other passes in his direction which pinned Sagna back.

City started the second half brightly and had a decent spell early on. Their best chance came in the 53rd minute when Nasri’s chip into the box was headed towards goal by Aguero. It’s quite possible the striker was put off by his own man as Zabaleta too attacked the same ball.

Gibbs then went off, presumably due to another injury, as the visitors continued their forward push. Santos’ first involvement was a hoofed clearance before Benayoun made a sliding block. The Brazilian then picked up a booking for hauling Balotelli to the ground.

Arsenal started getting back into the game around the hour mark. Benayoun produced a swerving run from the left but his strike lacked venom and went straight at Hart. A couple of minutes later Van Persie evaded the attentions of Kompany and found himself in space near the penalty spot. Song’s chip was delightful as ever but De Kapitein was unlucky as his header only found the post. Hart was stranded.

In the next few minutes both sides had some half-chances as the game remained a cagey affair.

The final 20 minutes were all Arsenal as the Gunners once again switched to a higher gear. This is usually the time they pin the opponents back and find a late winner. But occasionally it’s also the period when they concede the sucker punch. In this game, City faded away and never looked like scoring on the break.

In the 76th minute Arsenal had a number of chances within moments. Sagna’s clever square pass found Walcott in the box. Theo’s cute flick was goal-bound but Hart tipped it onto the post with his fingertips. Vermaelen couldn’t find the open net from the rebound. His scuffed effort came straight at Benayoun who missed from two yards. Some must surely have felt Arsenal had blown their chance away but with this team you can be sure they’ll keep going.

Mancini tried to make something happen by bringing Kolarov on for Nasri. This gave the visitors better protection down the left and Balotelli had more joy down Arsenal’s left. It made you wonder why was he playing against Sagna all this while in the first place?! The City boss also introduced Tevez for Aguero, which was another surprising move given the fact that Balotelli was walking a tightrope.

The goal when it came was a bit out of the blue. Barry tried to play the ball out under pressure by chipping it towards Pizzaro. The Italian wasn’t able to control it as Arteta won the duel. This opened space up for the Spaniard and he let fly adroitly. His placement was impeccable, his technique sublime. The Gunners needed something above and beyond the quality they’d already produced. This goal certainly was an exceptional, decisive individual moment.

Arsenal then held on with ease and could have added another in injury time. Ramsey’s recent form woes probably weighed on his mind as he missed the chance to pick a teammate or hit the target when well-placed.

Balotelli finally did see red after his second booking and if he doesn’t play again this season it might actually work in City’s favour.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Had to ensure Aguero’s header wasn’t dipping in but didn’t have to make any other saves in the whole game. Had one or two iffy moments with his distribution in an otherwise comfortable outing. Snuffed a dangerous moment in a timely manner by charging out and clearing.

Sagna: Had a lot of space on the right as Balotelli didn’t track back well enough. Attempted the most crosses, 13 – more than any two other Gunners combined – but didn’t find a teammate with all but one. It was more of an issue with Arsenal having fewer bodies in the box than the quality of crossing. Did create a good chance for Theo that led to the succession of chances. Also saw a lot of the ball and was involved in the most duels, which made this another battling display from the Frenchman.

Koscielny: Picked up a booking and will miss the next two games but had a good game other than that. Was almost always in the right positions and used his strengths well. Decision making was spot on – dueled when he had to, cleared the ball when there was risk, and showed composure when needed. There was one moment when his decision making failed and Balotelli got in behind, but Szczesny bailed him out by coming out and clearing the danger.

Vermaelen: Got the dubious distinction of blocking his captain from scoring, pulling a bendtner some might say, but overall it was a very effective defensive effort from the Belgian. Didn’t get on the ball as often as he usually does but put in a focused shift at the back by limiting his forward bursts. Won all 4 of his tackles and 6 of his 9 ground duels while making 4 interceptions.

Gibbs: Saw a lot of the ball in the time that he was on the pitch as Arsenal made much better use of the left flank than they’ve done in many recent games. Had very little to do defensively and played more than a third of his passes in the final third.

Santos: Had a tough start against Balotelli but found it easier after the Gunners regained control of the game and pushed forward. Didn’t look completely match fit.

The Arsenal back five had a relatively comfortable game. They curbed their attacking instincts and stuck to a plan. Aguero’s inability to trouble them in the air, Balotelli’s petulance, Silva’s absence, and City’s generally chaotic play helped their cause.

Song: It was a physically combative and dominant effort from the Cameroonian as he was involved in 18 ground duels, of which he won 11, and 4 aerial duels (all successful). Was lucky to survive a horror tackle from Balotelli. Created a quality chance for RvP but was also very wasteful or overambitious with some of his passing.

Arteta: Again had the most touches and most passes as he kept the ball moving. Put in an intelligent defensive shift characterized by his team-high 5 interceptions. Whipped in a number of quality balls from set-pieces. Capped it with the match-winning strike.

Rosicky: Was extremely influential in patches but also went out of the game in patches. Made most of his passes in the final third including the impressive dink over the top that led to the penalty shout. Another one who did well in his duels and wasn’t overawed physically.

In recent years the Arsenal midfield was criticized for its lack of physicality but these three players dominated what was arguably a weak opposing midfield that also lacked tactical clarity. It shouldn’t take anything away from their efforts which were, er, central to Arsenal’s control and ultimately the result.

Walcott: The first half was a struggle for Theo as he couldn’t get into meaningful spaces. Had one good attempt in the second period but more is needed.

RvP: Van Persie was unlucky with a couple of delightful headers. Work rate was again superb and helped out as an extra midfielder through his movement and passing.

Benayoun: Did well to bring the left side into play more often. I thought he was given a more conservative role, especially early on as he helped sustain the pressure but didn’t venture forward quite as much. This was reflected by the fact that he attempted more backward passes than forward ones and very few into the box. Also contributed defensively by winning 3 of his 4 tackles and 6 of his 10 duels. Did get into shooting positions thrice but couldn’t make it count.

I thought the front three were not that effective partly because Arsenal had a cautious approach despite the apparent dominance. This meant they didn’t push too many bodies into the box even when a wide player had a good crossing opportunity. It paid off as City rarely got a chance to break at pace. On the whole this wasn’t a glamorous-looking night for the attacking players but one that focussed on efficiency and working for the team.

Subs: Ramsey will be probably be vilified by many for his miss but he needs support more than narrow-minded abuse. Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t have much time.

Wenger: I thought Arsene found the perfect mixture of cautious but aggressive play. Going gung-ho could have been suicidal while an overly cautious approach could easily have led to nervousness and mistakes at the back. In contrast to City, Arsenal seemed to have tactical clarity throughout this game and the manager deserves credit for that.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Manchester City

April 8, 2012

Manchester City have not won away to Arsenal since October 1975, scoring just 9 times in 26 subsequent visits. But that will count for nothing when the game kicks off this Sunday. Arsenal have failed to score in 5 of their last 6 meetings with City in all competitions. That is a more relevant stat as it reflects the quality, especially defensive, that the visitors have bought in recent years. But even that could mean little in a game that is vital to both clubs’ aspirations.

Wenger knows this,

Both teams are in the same situation – a draw is not good enough.

As does Van Persie,

… a draw is not that good for either of us.

And I am sure most fans on both sides would agree.

Interestingly, Arsene did say this game is more of a must-win for City and a want-win for Arsenal.

I say on our side it is a ‘want-win’ game more than a must-win game… Man City are in a situation where they will have to win.

To an extent it is true. If City don’t win, it pretty much puts paid to their title hopes. The Gunners on the other hand will not be out of the race for the top 4 even if they don’t take all three points from this fixture.

But Le Boss knows winning is important. There is a four-way fight for the final two Champions League spots. Arsenal need all the points they can get.

We love victory and we want to win. On the table side of course you want these three points.

Such a situation sets up a very interesting tactical battle. The Manchester Blues have, in recent years, come to the Emirates with the intention of parking the bus and consequently, the last two league results have been drab, scoreless draws.

How will Mancini approach this game? Will he go on the offensive and take initiative in search of a win?

In the previous two visits Mancini has started the game with 3 defensive-minded midfielders. His choices this time around will dictate the patterns of play because Arsenal will definitely try to go on the offensive irrespective of their tactics.

Their need for a win would suggest a more attacking approach will be needed. The Italian could have Silva in the middle with Nasri on one flank and two strikers sharing the other wide position and central role. Aguero is likely to start so he could be supported by Balotelli or Dzeko, or even Tevez.

If I were Mancini though, I’d take a more conservative approach. Instead of engaging Arsenal in a scoring battle, it would be better to ensure my team doesn’t concede. That’s half the battle won. After that I’d want my attackers to test the Arsenal defence with all the wide spaces to exploit. The likes of Aguero and Tevez can really be a handful for Vermaelen and Koscielny if they consistently get a chance to run in behind.

If City can keep a clean sheet till the final 20 minutes or so they will have a very good chance of nicking the three points. Arsene was recently talking about United knowing how to deal with “money time”.

I believe this year the title at Man United, if they make it, is really down to experience. What I mean by that is that on Monday night against Blackburn, when Giggs came on [in the 63rd minute], you thought: ‘They can only win it now because they know how to deal with the money time.’ That means the last 15 minutes in football when it is 0-0, [they] don’t make a mistake. They have that security at the back. They have won so many titles because they are not nervous.

Sadly, the same cannot be said about Arsenal. We have seen plenty of games where the side is in the ascendancy at the start of this “money time” and even creates a few chances but ends up dropping points through the one chance they concede. Arsenal make defensive mistakes. They’re too open and do not have the necessary security at the back. A motivated and clever side can find a way through; especially one with attackers who have the quality to produce something special in individual battles, and in an inventive sense or clinical manner.

Of course, the Gunners have been very strong at home this season. They’ve the fourth best home  points tally in the League (Spurs have played an extra home game) at the moment with only 12 goals against, which is actually the second best and less than the number United have conceded. On the other hand City have only won 2 of their last 9 away games. So one cannot fault the fans for feeling confident before this fixture.

In order for that to feeling to be justified at the final whistle the Arsenal midfield will have a vital defensive role to play. The back five will have to avoid the kind of mistakes we saw from Vermaelen in the last game but the role of the three in front of them is of greater significance. Even against QPR the midfield was equally at fault for the two goals. They didn’t move across in a timely and defensively intelligent manner from the throw-in as QPR moved the ball across the back and down the middle. Similarly, they completely lost track of Diakite for the second. Such errors might go unpunished against some of the smaller teams but will inevitably prove fatal against a City side desperately fighting to sustain their title chase. The positioning and decision making of the midfielders will have to be spot on to provide sufficient cover to the defenders.

In attack, Arsene will again have a decision to make on the left side. Recently, a trend seems to have developed in that a direct winger starts at home while a midfielder plays the away games. By that logic either Gervinho or Oxlade-Chamberlain could get the nod, with the youngster likely to be the popular pick. However, Wenger could also pick an additional technical player if he thinks winning the possession battle will be important. It hasn’t worked as well, especially for Ramsey, so there will be resistance from the fans – perhaps even vocal – but in principle, the approach is one that can be respected.

I’d like Arsenal to adapt tactics similar to the ones I’ve recommended for City. Start slow, stay in the game, try to force mistakes but without compromising your own shape, rely on pace and finishing skills of the attackers.

Essentially, the teams have to let a win come to them instead of chasing a result. Some might say that’s exactly the kind of approach that led to the previous two stalemates but I don’t completely agree. In those games City didn’t need a result. In this one they do and that will result in more gaps on the pitch. There will be chances. Whether they will be easy ones gifted to a side by the opponent’s bloopers or tough ones worked out by individual and collective skill remains to be seen. The side which minimizes or eliminates the former is likely to be happier at the fulltime whistle.

Preferred line-up,

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

There could be a point made for selecting Santos ahead of Gibbs or even in an advanced role on the wings. It’s not without merit and Wenger will definitely have to give it some thought. From a distance, and with little knowledge of how players are doing in training, it’s hard to be sure about such choices.

Oxlade-Chamberlain is also a valid option in attack but Gervinho did well in the last home game and tends to do better when he starts rather than as a substitute. AOC might be a better option against tired legs later in the game if it’s still tied.

To be completely honest, I don’t expect a win in this game. The 7-game winning streak came when Arsenal were performing a couple of notches above their level, and with a bit of luck involved. It’s hard to sustain that. While City aren’t in great form they will be hard to break down. Sometimes Arsenal make mistakes when the opponents can frustrate them for a long enough period.

The Gunners have also struggled when opponents have pressed them cohesively and consistently. It will be a tough ask, and a risky tactic as it might involve coming higher up the pitch, but Mancini might as well go for it if he is desperate and believes his players can pull it off.

Finally, with Martin Atkinson as the ref, I won’t be surprised if we see a penalty and/or a sending off in this game. Koscielny could be banned for two games if he picks up a yellow in this one (Haven’t had a chance to verify this). He’ll have a tight rope to walk on but even otherwise all the defenders will have to be very careful in and around the penalty box.

All-in-all the point is not to say that Arsenal can’t win. Just that it will require some luck and an effort above and beyond their usual very high standard.

Before ending I want to share a link to a post on clear-cut chances that I did for EPL Index. It has some very interesting numbers and if you enjoyed my previous stat-based articles you’ll find something of interest in this one too.