Arsenal’s Fixtures For 2012-13: For Better Or For Worse

June 20, 2012

By now you must have seen the fixture list for the upcoming season. If not, the official website has them here.

At first glance it seems Arsenal do have a tough start. After beginning against Sunderland at home, the first such home start in four years, the Gunners will travel to Stoke and Liverpool. Then there are challenging games against City (A) and Chelsea (H) after a supposedly easier outing against Southampton (H).

So by the end of September, Wenger’s team would have played at the Britannia, Anfield, and Etihad while hosting Champions League winners Chelsea at home. They’ll drop points, no doubt about it. But there are different ways of looking at this.

For instance, all teams struggle in games away to Stoke. Playing them early in the season rather than in the winter might not be so bad. While the attempt is always to win, anything gained on that ground is a positive in relative terms.

Similarly, Liverpool will again be in a rebuilding phase. Given the difference in styles between Brendan Rodgers and Kenny Dalglish, it’s not hard to imagine them taking some time to gel. They also have a tough start. Before facing the Gunners, Rodgers will take his side to the blue half of Manchester. Soon after hosting Wenger’s side they travel to the Stadium of Light before welcoming United to Anfield. Pressure will be immense. They could really establish themselves as title challengers with big results in these games, might really struggle to get going, or have a mixed bag of results. It won’t be easy but there is a chance of getting something out of the game.

It’s tough to predict how Chelsea will line-up. Will Abramovich accept the deep and narrow defence as the strategy for the whole season, especially with further additions to the squad? Will they be able to create a more attacking style of play? Again there’s a distinct possibility their game might not click in the early part of the season.

Essentially, it’ll boil down to how well prepared each squad is on the day of the battle. Before last season the Gunners used to be among the best in that regard due to the training camp in Austria but with all the globe-trotting these days one cannot be sure anymore. A lot will also depend on the fitness of key players. If Wilshere, for instance, is back and ready it would be like a new world class signing! Then there is the Van Persie issue. We will get a better idea over the course of the pre-season. Direct qualification for the Champions League should benefit the Gunners as two taxing midweek fixtures get taken off the calendar.

Speaking of midweek games, Arsenal will only have two such matches to contend with before the end of September. One of those is a League Cup – now known as Capital One Cup or COCup – and could work as an opportunity to play fringe players or youngsters. The Gunners will have one big Champions League tie and that will fall just before the visit to City. Anything out of that game will be a bonus.

October should be a relatively straight-forward month but November takes Arsenal to Old Trafford and brings the first North London Derby of the season to the Emirates. December also has routine fixtures. Of course, the Gunners have struggled against smaller teams in recent past so nothing can or should be taken for granted.

The Champions League group stages will conclude in the first week of December. The Gunners have West Ham (A), QPR (H), Fulham (H), Villa (A), and WBA (H) immediately following these midweek challenges. Three home and three away is a decent mix and for once Arsene will not have much to complain about as far as these fixtures are concerned.

Ferguson on the other hand might have a wrinkled brow while looking at his side’s fixtures.

As a matter of fact, United will face Liverpool (A), Newcastle (A), Chelsea (A), Villa (A), QPR (H), and City (A) after their Champions League exertions.

Most teams perform below their own averages in such games as illustrated by the following graphic borrowed from the this tweet by @Hazzaboy21

Let’s not forget Arsenal had a 4W 1D 5L record in the games following CL fixtures last season. The importance of direct qualification and of relatively easier fixtures immediately following European ties cannot be overemphasized.

Moving forward, Arsene and his players will have a tough start to 2013 and the Gunners do have a history of struggling in some part of the winter of the other. One of the causes behind their woes is fixture pile-up. There could potentially be four domestic cup ties, if the team makes it to the COCup semis, to go with an equal number of League games that include City (H), Chelsea (A), and Liverpool (H). That’s potentially one big, slimy banana skin.

February has more Cup action as the UCL knockout phase starts, and Premiership games with moderate levels of difficulty. Arsenal visit Spurs early in March. By then the season could be tantalizingly poised of already down in the dumps. At the very least this game will have a major say in the battle for top 4 spots.

The end of the season run-in is not the hardest but again the caveat of slipping against relatively lesser opposition applies. Only the visit to Old Trafford at the end of April stands out as a massive fixture but the trip to Newcastle in the final week could also be a decisive one if last season was anything to go by.

As ever, the progress in various Cup competitions will have an impact on the severity of certain fixtures as the squad depth is tested and player fatigue comes into play. This usually has greater impact on games in the second half of the season and the so-called easy games can turn into nightmares. Hopefully we will see fewer injury problems and greater squad rotation this season but don’t hold your breath.

Finally, if you like having Arsenal on your desktop, this Wallpaper with the fixtures might be of interest to you (Via PascalZidane)

And for those who believe in omens and/or have a sense of humour, the following might induce a smile

Don’t forget at least some of the fixtures will be revised to fit TV demands and other considerations.

Euro 2012 Day 9 & 10: Podolski Celebrates Century, Four Gunners Return Home

June 18, 2012

100 games for the national team! That’s some achievement. Lukas Podolski should be proud of his efforts. He did celebrate it with a well-taken goal and is one of the two Arsenal players, along with Rosicky, who’ve moved on to the quarter-finals. But the news wasn’t good for Van Persie, Szczesny, Arshavin, and Bendtner who all bow out.

Podolski played just over an hour and created a couple of gilt-edged chances from the inside left channel to go with his goal. But the Germans had failed to convert their technical and tactical dominance into a convincing lead by the time he left the pitch. Like many teams in the tournament, Germany also missed a number of clear-cut chances.

Looking back, with three wins from their three group games – a feat they haven’t achieved before, it would seem Die Mannschaft had everything under control but it wasn’t the case. Had Badstuber’s tug on Bendtner’s shirt been penalized with the score still 1-1, the Germans would have conceded a penalty and gone down to 10 men. That could easily have seen them knocked out. While there is no argument Germany deserved to go through at the top of their group, it does once again highlight how close things can get at the highest level and the impact seemingly minor decisions can have on the fortunes of teams.

Coming back to the centurion, it was good to see Prinz Poldi being involved in the game a lot more than he did in the previous two. He spent a lot of time in the inside channels and picked up his goal via a classic poacher’s run from outside the D to the centre of the penalty box. Throughout the game his movement was commendable as he worked the channel without losing track of his defensive duties. Ultimately, the performance won him the Carlsberg Man of the Match award even though he only played two-thirds of the game. For him it was the perfect night.

It was great for me. To get my 100th cap, and then to score, I’ll remember that for the rest of my days. Everything was perfect for me today.

The other Arsenal player involved in that game would probably not say the same. Bendtner worked hard in the attack and picked up a quality assist from a well-worked set-piece but that wasn’t enough for Denmark. The striker has had a good tournament to go with some respectable performances with Sunderland on loan last season. His style of play and strengths will most likely not interest the top teams but the Dane can be a big player for a mid-level team in Europe. Hopefully, the transfer issue will be settled soon now that his involvement in the Euros is over.

Another person in a similar situation is Arshavin. The Russian will also be returning home, in an outcome that has shocked many after their strong start to the competition, after his side lost out to a dogged Greek unit. Like Bendtner, Arshavin has also impressed on loan and in this competition but the performances probably weren’t at the level needed to win the Premier League or Champions League. And with the arrival of Podolski on the left it’s quite likely that the fleet-footed winger will see his name on the back of a different club’s shirt next season.

In the other game on Saturday, Szczesny saw his side eliminated from the bench. Contrary to assumptions made by many based on some remarks by Poland manager Smuda, it was Tyton who rightfully retained his place in the starting line-up. With his tournament over early, Wojciech should be able to get a good vacation before returning to Arsenal. He’s undoubtedly a prodigious talent but the step up to a world class player is not always easy. For Szczesny the rest of the summer has to be about focus and hard work.

While the Arsenal custodian was on the bench when his side was eliminated, Rosicky missed his team’s decisive win through injury. It might even keep him out of the quarter-final against Portugal which might mean that his tournament is over as it’s difficult to imagine the Seleccao getting knocked out in that one. Rest, recover and get ready for the next season Little M.

That finally brings us to the person who was without a doubt Arsenal’s biggest player of last season. Robin van Persie’s national team crashed out of the Euros with three straight defeats. Some might have predicted a tough time for the Dutch in the group of death but few would have foreseen these results.

Bert van Marwijk tried to change his tactics in the final game but it was two games too late. In part his team’s performances against Portugal did mirror some of Arsenal’s troubles, especially the chaos and panic at the back once Holland failed to sustain any possession.

The manager touched upon this,

I think we started quite well. After the back pass from Gregory [van der Wiel] there was a lot of uncertainty in the team.

To me, this uncertainty or panic at the back stems from a lack of tactical and structural solidity. Once plan A fails, the teams must have something to fall back upon, a way to shut up shop till they can find their rhythm again. Arsenal can’t do it consistently and the Dutch have confirmed it’s a problem that can plague the best of teams and can end up making them look far worse than they actually are.

In fairness to BvM, his stars didn’t perform at the level expected from the best players in the world.

…the players who usually make the difference for us, for one reason or another, didn’t really reach their level.

Robben will get his share of the blame but Van Persie will also have to shoulder the burden of failure. If he’d taken some of the quality chances that came his way in the first game things could have been different for Denmark. Was the Arsenal skipper distracted by the discussions with Arsenal regarding his future or was he under pressure due to the calls for the inclusion of Huntelaar? As his manager said, for one reason or another, RvP didn’t quite live up to expectations in this tournament.

Of course, that doesn’t make him a useless player but it could certainly affect his confidence. More than anything else though, I hope he got a chance to see how difficult it can be at the highest level even with some of the biggest names in the game by your side. Football is about a team more than anything else. And if there is one that is based around creating chances for you and getting the best out of your abilities, you have to appreciate what you’re getting. The same won’t necessarily or seamlessly happen at other places.

At this point I don’t know what Van Persie wants, although speculation is that it’s not about the money, so I don’t want to judge him. Let’s hope he sees the benefits of staying with the Gunners sooner rather than regretfully later.

In other news of interest, the fixtures for next season are out. I’ll try to post my thoughts later in the day.

Euro 2012 Day 7 & 8: Walcott Stars, France Display Parallels With Arsenal, Spain, Italy

June 16, 2012

He went to the 2006 World Cup as a teenager but came back without getting on the pitch. Let’s just forget Euro 2008. They didn’t take him to the 2010 World Cup. So it’s now, in 2012, over six years after his debut for the senior side that Theo Walcott is finally seeing some action in the major tournaments for his country.

He came on for the final few minutes against France. It was so late that it left many wondering why even bother? Given that his younger Arsenal teammate Oxlade-Chamberlain was picked to start in that game some might even have feared another disappointing international tournament was in the offing for Walcott as he’d be further down the pecking order.

Well, it’s all changed in 30 odd minutes. Roy Hodgson needed an inspiration and he turned to Theo just after the hour mark. Milner, whose tired challenge had conceded the free-kick which led to Sweden’s second goal, was taken off and Walcott came in on the right.

He scored with his second touch. Then he set up the winner with a penetrating run and a useful dink that made it a commendable assist. He might even have had another assist late in the game from a counter-attack but Gerard could only hit the Keeper after stealing the chance off Oxlade-Chamberlain’s boots. In all, Walcott completed all 7 of his passes, created 2 excellent chances, picked up one assist, while also having time to make an interception and a clearance.

The point here is not to say that Theo will be the next big thing, nor is it to claim that he’s finally arrived at the big stage. There is really nothing to be gained by going down those paths. The idea is to establish that the guy deserves more respect. Simple as that.

I was on twitter during the game and there were my thoughts,

The Walcott I see has a lot of limitations/weaknesses. But he also has a few qualities worth appreciating. Speed is the obvious one but I also feel there is a degree of honesty about his work. It might not always work out for him but you can see he is trying. How far he will go we don’t know. But should we simply slag him incessantly? And that’s when his net output in terms of goals and assists is very comparable to a player like Bale who is constantly hyped up. Even many Arsenal fans fail to see that the Tottenham man is not really superior as far as effectiveness and impact on games/results goes.

And we aren’t even talking about someone like James Milner right now. Granted he’s a completely different type of a player, but is his net output that much more? Do a few crosses and the defensive work make up for completely lack of creativity? Or is it more a case that with Milner few expect any sort of a tangible creative performance so the “balance” that he brings to the side is deemed sufficient?

People sometimes forget that Walcott gets into excellent positions because of his skills. And the expectations from him have been formed because he can do things few others can. So if say a Danny Wellbeck is running with the ball, Mellberg can catch up and tackle him. It looks like a great tackle but doesn’t look so bad on part of the striker, which is correct. On the other hand, Theo has the pace to get past his defender and so it’s all on him. But as Arsene has often said, it’s much harder to get it right when someone’s going that fast. He will miscontrol the ball, or over hit a cross, or leave the ball behind at times. So what? How many players are scoring more and assisting more? And he’s only 23 with a number of injury-plagued years behind him.

Now I don’t want this to become a post defending Walcott or championing his cause. As mentioned earlier, he has his weaknesses. He probably is the least technically adept first-team player at the club. But as long as he’s working hard and has the manager’s trust the least he deserves is some respect and then perhaps some encouragement when so many lazy pundits in the media are just waiting to get on his case. Think about it.

The game in itself was entertaining but more like an end-to-end Premier League game between ‘very average’ teams. There wasn’t much else worth discussing from an Arsenal point of view.

Moving on, the other game in the group had some interesting parallels with many Arsenal games. France dominated possession but Ukraine defended efficiently in the first half. The co-hosts played a relatively high line but inside their own half. Their midfield formed the first line of defence around the centre line with their back four lining up just 10 odd yards behind. Shevchenko and Voronin were used further up the pitch and were always looking for opportunities to break forward if possession was regained in that area. The following snapshot gives a rough idea of the areas I’m talking about.

Blokhin’s side lost their attacking thrust as their talented wingers were stuck with defensive duties for most of the first half but I want to talk about the way France played.

Often, Arsenal face teams who adopt similar defensive tactics and it leads to some frustrating moments when the Gunners can’t break them down. One feels Arsenal are just not doing enough creatively . We hear complaints about the lack of width, or quality of crosses, or lack of bodies in the box, and so on. To a large extent France had similar problems. And just like the Gunners, Blanc’s side also seemed to prefer one flank over the other, only in their case it was the left.

Les Bleus didn’t create many quality chances in the first half. A lot of their play was in front of the defence rather than in behind. Arsene might have said they lacked sharpness! It was similar to their problems against England who had a different defensive tactic but again one we have seen from teams facing Arsenal – the deep and narrow defence or the parked bus.

In this game Ukraine took more chances in the second half and that allowed the men in blue to take the lead on a counter. One thing they did do differently was that Ribery stayed up even when the opposing full-back pushed up.

The two players you see on the far side of the picture are Cabaye and Clichy. Ribery is just outside the frame on the top right. This is something the Gunners don’t do very well IMO. The wide players get sucked back and deep far more than they should. And this limits the counter-attacking opportunities. But of course, the quality of the opposition also matters. Ukraine didn’t show the technical, physical, or creative abilities that would demand more bodies in defence.

After Cabaye won the ball he was able to find Ribery with ease and the goal resulted from a fairly simple run and easy passes. Tymoschuk got sucked wide and it left a big gap in front of the defence that Benzema exploited. Menez finished with composure but it wasn’t a tough ask.

There are similarities in defence as well. France have only allowed 2 shots on target as against, say, England’s 15! Most Gooners know Wenger’s side don’t allow too many shots either. The sample size is too small to judge whether Blanc has created a better defensive system with a very similar possession based tactical system but there is a slight difference.

Les Blues have started with a dedicated defensive midfield player in Alou Diarra. A while back Dave Seager wrote a very interesting post with some thoughts on the role of an anchor midfielder. The Marseille man performed a very disciplined role in front of the defence (although it wasn’t exactly as described in that article). Interestingly, much of his movement was horizontal rather than vertical.

As you can see he made tackles on both sides of the pitch and even centrally. Succeeding with 7 of 8 attempts was obviously impressive. The black triangle shows the lone foul he committed, the green diamond is an interception, and the line on the edge of the box is a block.

Diarra moved across the pitch to protect the defenders and cover for the wide attackers when they didn’t track back. Since Ribery spent a lot of time higher up the pitch and bulk of France’s moves originated from that side, his defensive work is also concentrated on that flank.

Essentially, his job was to read the game, slow it down but applying pressure on the player’s breaking forward, winning the ball back, dropping into the back line when needed, and keeping things simple with his passing. It was a no-nonsense job of sitting in front of the defence with a clear defensive focus. And he did it really well.

Arsenal have a different approach. The midfield has a more fluid triangle and the players tend to interchange positions frequently. They are also more liberal with their moves up the field or into the channels. But this is a relatively newer approach that’s been evolved over the last couple of years. In 2008-09 or 09-10, the Gunners had a dedicated defensive midfielder. Wenger probably added greater defensive responsibility on another player probably because of the number of counter-attacks that Arsenal conceded in those days. Nowadays Arsenal play with two supposedly deep-lying midfielders. But due to the dynamic nature of the midfield, at times the defence is exposed as none of the two are in a position to cover. Song has received some criticism this season, unfairly in my opinion, because of his involvement in attacks which has led to the perception that he tends to neglect his defensive duties. I don’t think he neglects the job but that he doesn’t always read the danger as well as someone else, who is solely focussed for such signs, might.

The performances of Diarra do offer a template of the role that could protect the Arsenal back line while allowing the possession based system to flourish. But we must not forget that France haven’t really been tested in the tournament yet. We will get a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses of this approach in the coming games. The tactic will be seen as a success if Les Bleus can go all the way. If not, we will get a chance to see when and why it fails. It’s certainly one to keep an eye on.

On Thursday, Spain beat Ireland without breaking a sweat. With due respect to the Irish, that was a bit like watching Barcelona cruise to a win over a team like Wolves in second gear. It was such a lopsided encounter that there is little to be gained from analyzing it in detail.

In the other match, Italy again threw away a one goal lead as Croatia snatched a 1-1 draw. Their 3-5-2 received some praise after the draw against Spain but I’m far from convinced. Prandelli wants to create a team that can find the balance between attack and defence but I don’t think he’s reached close just yet. There is an interesting tactical debate possible here, particularly given the changes made by Croatia, but I’m more interested in the individual mistakes that have cost Italy. They’ve also reminded me of Arsenal in that at times they seem to switch off. Both the goals they’ve conceded in the tournament thus far have come when their defensive players have been slow to react.

Obviously, this isn’t a problem limited to the Gunners and it seems the best approach could be to limit the number of times the ball reaches the defence. This is an area where Wenger’s team can do a better but they’ll probably have to look at France, or Spain, more than Italy. Holland were another side that excelled at protecting the back four in the World Cup but they’ve struggled in this tournament even when many of the players are the same. It’s just very difficult to be consistent at the highest level.

None of the games in the final round is a dead rubber and that will make the next four days even more enjoyable. The Gunners are not playing but whenever I watch closely there are patterns in the play that take me back to some of the other Arsenal game. It’s bringing me back to life, a bit like those video games where you’re about to die but find some potions that add health or life! Does that make any sense?

Euro 2012 Day 5 & 6: RvP, Bendtner Score in Lost Causes; Rosicky Injured; Arshavin inconsistent

June 14, 2012

Games from Group B have been a pleasure to watch. It’s a shame two of these teams will go out.

Denmark’s battle with Portugal was probably the most entertaining game of the tournament and even the technical quality wasn’t too far from the level that Italy and Spain have demonstrated. The Selecção took the lead through a set-piece and doubled it before half-time through a well-worked goal by Postiga.

They then made the mistake of dropping deep, abandoning the pressing game that was working so well for them. This allowed the Danes to push up the pitch and they came back into it with two goals from the world’s greatest striker, Nicklas Bendtner!

In all seriousness though, the first one was an excellent team goal, perhaps the best of the tournament thus far. It started with Bendtner cushioning a long-ball to his teammate with a controlled header before receiving it back and spreading it out wide to the right (It was an interesting ploy that the Danes used often to use the space Ronaldo left vacant with his inconsistent tracking). The cross from that side was stood up delightfully for a back post run. Krohn-Dehli’s header back across the face of goal was headed in by the Arsenal man. The second goal was a simpler one but again it was a cross from the right and this time Bendtner powered it in at the back post.

But Portugal were always going to be a threat once they started pressing higher up the pitch again as the Danes just weren’t tight enough at the back. Varela’s winner had a degree of fortune about it as his initial attempt was an air-kick but the quality of the finish more than made up for it. Morten Olsen must have been disappointed with the efforts of Christian and Simon Poulsen.

From an Arsenal point of view it was good to see Bendtner on the score sheet with an impressive performance. He isn’t a favourite amongst Gooners and understandably so but the guy has a presence in the box and can be a useful striker for many teams. Shame it didn’t work for him at Arsenal, things might have been different if he had had more chances down the middle. Nevertheless, a good tournament for him could potentially increase the value Wenger can extract from the transfer market and that is at least some sort of a positive.

This result left the two teams tied on 3 points and the Dutch could have brought all four level with a win over Germany. Unfortunately for Van Persie, his team just didn’t have the cohesiveness or defensive strength to get anything out of that tie.

The Dutchman did have an early chance when Van Bommel did a Song and chipped one into the path of his penetrating run. But RvP couldn’t quite guide it home while stretching. It was a much tougher chance that it looked because he was constantly looking over his shoulder to judge the flight of the ball and didn’t have the time to see the goal or the Keeper’s position.

In the other direction, Germany were extremely selective with their forward movements but also just as clinical. They might have identified the left-back as a weak link and targeted him by overloading the flank. This sucked De Jong out and Van Bommel just wasn’t alert enough to the presence of Schweinsteiger. Up front, Gomez left the defenders in a knot with his movement and scored with aplomb.

The second goal was again built up on that side and it was the same players who got the assist and goal. Holland’s defensive unit were found wanting. The central defenders couldn’t deal with the movement of Gomez, the defensive midfielders provided little cover in front, and the Keeper was just shocking for the second goal (even if that was a clever strike).

RvP did get one back with a right-footed blast through the legs of Badstuber after he found some space to turn into but the Dutch side couldn’t create much in the second half either. They had a couple of other chances but Germany got bodies in the right place.

I was impressed by the work rate of De Kapitein and the fact that he never gave up even when heads were dropping. Sneijder was the only other Dutch player who deserves some credit for his efforts. Their back five, defensive midfielders, wingers, and substitutes were all disappointing.

It wasn’t that Germany had better players or performed miracles but they had a crisp game plan. Jogi Low’s men identified the opponent’s weaknesses and hit decisive, fatal blows. They also did a good job of nullifying the Dutch threat through a collective effort. For instance, Robben was rarely allowed to run with a ball, the strikers didn’t get much room in and around the box, and so on.

Once again it was shown that it’s the system that is more important than the players. Germany played as if all individuals were moving parts of a single intelligent machine controlled by a common brain. Their opponents, on the other hand, often looked like they’d run out of ideas as they weren’t on the same page mentally. That led to sulking and further discord.

Despite all the criticism here, I don’t think the Netherlands are a bad team. The margins are very fine at this level and some could easily argue that with better finishing from RvP in the first game the group would have a very different look. Given the nature of competition in this group I do strongly feel any two of these teams would have qualified from Group A which doesn’t quite have the same quality.

On Tuesday, Rosicky’s Czech Republic secured a hard fought win over the Greeks. Little Mozart played a vital part in the first half, helping his side secure an early two goal advantage through persistent high pressing. He picked up the pre-assist for the second goal and generally had an excellent passing performance as he marshalled the midfield.

But an injury to his Achilles exposed the Czech midfield and the Greeks dominated the second half. The goal they got back was through a blooper from Cech. Fortunately for Rosicky and his countrymen, the opponents just didn’t have enough quality in the final third to convert the pressure into an equalizer. It was mostly about long-balls but this hit-and-hope style has limited chances of success.

While his manager hopes he might regain fitness quickly, if Little Mozart is absent from the final group game Poland will fancy their chances of beating the Czech Republic. They snatched a point from Russia in another game that was very entertaining even if the quality of football wasn’t the highest.

In a classic example of the midfield dullness when two counter-attacking sides clash, Russia and Poland produced little in terms of creativity. Arshavin was the only player who showed the ability to open the co-hosts up but his assist eventually came from a set-piece that bounced in off Dzagoev’s shoulder.

And the Arsenal man seemed to lose his incisiveness as he tired early in the second half. Interestingly, the equalizer for the Poles came from a counter-attack against a counter-attack in which Arshavin’s pass was short with Russia having a 4-v-4 in the box. On the balance of play it must be said the Poles did work some interesting combinations during the game and deserved their point.

One point of interest to Arsenal fans would be the way Arshavin performed his defensive duties and the amount of support he got from the midfield. The Russian did a decent job of tracking back when Poland had the ball but they never really engaged him in duels in that area so it was just a matter of hanging around in the right places which he did well. More than that though, it was the way the midfielders shuttled across to defend the left flank when Arshavin stayed up the pitch at times of quick transitions that intrigued me.

The diminutive winger rarely raced back to cover his flank even though that was the main creative channel for the co-hosts. He tended to stay up the pitch if he’d moved up for an attack, especially if he’d wandered into a central area or on the right. But the midfielders, Denisov in particular, were quick to move across to cover the space that a winger would normally be seen defending. This is an area where I often thought Arsenal could have done better.

Finally, I want to end by noting that while this tournament has thrown up many entertaining and dramatic games with moments of exceptional quality, there’s hardly been a game where someone has completely owned the pitch and announced himself as a candidate for the star of the competition. It’s early days indeed but given the abundance of talent at display it’s a tad surprising. Hopefully it’ll only get better.

P.S.  What do you make of the Redknapp story? I think he’s done the best he could and reached the invisible ceiling. For Spurs the next appointment is going to be huge. They could completely crumble if they get it wrong.

P.P.S. : Completely forgot about Podolksi! Actually he had that type of a game. Did get into useful positions in attack but wasn’t involved in most of the big moments. Work rate on the left was good but wasn’t really stretched. Doubt any of the match reports will have a mention of his involvement but that doesn’t mean he had a bad game. Interestingly, he did make 30 odd passes which is not to bad for a striker and shows he can offer a technical outlet if needed. That isn’t enough to say he can perform for a ball-playing midfielder/winger but should offer decent balance.

Euro 2012 Day 3 & 4: Spain-Italy Fascinating, England-France Cagey, Sheva Shines

June 12, 2012

I must say the Euros have lived up to expectations thus far. International football is usually not as interesting as club football, especially for those with little emotional involvement towards a single team, but the quality of games hasn’t been bad at all.

Not surprisingly, the best of games was played yesterday between Spain and Italy.

Prandelli started with a 3-5-2 which wasn’t entirely unexpected and neither was Spain’s so-called 4-6-0! Both systems are among the less common ones but are familiar to many of the players who started for each side. Thus the game provided a very interesting tussle.

More than the players though, a key component was the pitch. It seemed very dry and uneven. Now there is an argument that the conditions are the same for both sides so it shouldn’t matter. But if it were that simple why would clubs and countries spend millions on producing high quality pitches? Why not simply draw borders around a barren patch of land and tell the players to get on with it? Even then the conditions would be same for both teams, no?!

The point here is that a good pitch is absolutely essential to a top class game of football. On a dry, uneven pitch the ball tends to get held up or it bounces unexpectedly and makes passing difficult. It’s not so much a problem for teams playing Route One football or even those playing on the counter but ball-playing sides will struggle on such surfaces.

After the game Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, and Puyol didn’t have kind words for the playing conditions. Of course it would be easy to dismiss these complaints as a case of sour grapes but that doesn’t do justice to the game.

The foundation of Spain’s style is their impeccable technique. That’s their single biggest competitive advantage and allows them to control the games. A bad pitch diminishes that strength because it’s difficult to control the ball or to put the right weight on the pass. For instance, you could see Iniesta beating a couple of people with excellent dribbling skills only to get held up for a fraction of a second because the ball didn’t roll smoothly on the surface as he’d have expected. That momentary break in stride is often enough time for defending players to get back in position, particularly when they’re deep and narrow crowding small spaces. Similarly, the reigning champions couldn’t quite establish the slick tempo that helps them create a lot of chances because the speed at which a pass travelled was not completely in their control.

It was a bit like the problems Arsenal faced at the San Siro but in that case only the flanks were re-laid. Here the whole pitch was dry. In that regard it must be said the Spaniards did superbly to adjust after the opening few minutes where they really had problems getting their passing game going. Italy pressed higher up the pitch in that period and had some half-chances but their attackers were wasteful, with Balotelli in particular having an absolute stinker.

Even after Xavi and co found some sort of a rhythm, they struggled to create many meaningful chances in the opening period. The lack of width and that of a reference point have been cited as problem areas but credit must go to the Italians who remained compact and well-organized. They were right on top of the ball whenever it came in or around their penalty box. The vertical runs were manfully tracked with the attackers struggling to find even an inch of space to get clear shots away.

I am not convinced the presence of a conventional striker or a winger would have made that big a difference in that period given the quality of the defensive effort from Italy and the condition of the pitch. This was essentially a fascinating battle between 6 supremely gifted Spaniards and 8 resolute, tactically shrewd Italians.

At the other end, the Azzurri were able to use the pitch to their advantage. They could hit long balls into the channels and it would hold up instead of running out. This way their attackers got a chance to get on the ball. Spain often held their full-backs deep and rightly so as Sergio Ramos was an accident waiting to happen at the heart of the defence.

The Italians had the better chances in the first half with Cassano doing some impressive work down the channels and midfielders occasionally joining in the attack. Motta really should have done better with a free header from six yards after Busquets completely lost track of his run. But the midfielder powered his header straight at Casillas who also made a couple of other saves.

Spain were able to pick up the tempo early in the second half as Italy perhaps were a bit slow to get back into rhythm or they might have come out with an intent to push a bit higher up the pitch. Iniesta worked a good opening with Fabregas but Buffon was up to the task. The World Champions also created a couple of other chances early on.

At the other end Ramos gifted a chance to Balotelli who was able to intercept his back pass but the maverick Italian returned the favour by dilly-dallying as Ramos chased back to put a last-gasp tackle in.

The game got interesting after the introduction of Di Natale who scored with his first shot. Pirlo produced a moment of magic in the middle but it was Ramos who played the striker on with poor positioning to begin with followed by the incorrect choice of playing the off-side trap. Nevertheless, the finish was crisp.

The lead didn’t last long as Fabregas equalized. It’s hard to say what changed for Italy and when but they gave the opponents far too much space. When earlier a couple of players would have been on top of Silva when he received the ball just outside the box, this time the City man had at least a couple of yards to play with. Similarly, the run of Cesc wasn’t tracked with any sort of urgency.

Soon after Del-Bosque introduced Navas to provide width and took Silva off. It’s tough to say whether this was the cause or just a coincidence but Italy were now looking to push up the pitch. The Spanish manager might have sensed this and introduced Torres to exploit the space in behind. The Chelsea striker got into three excellent positions but wasted them. At the other end Di Natale had a good chance but he was stretching.

All-in-all this was a delightful battle between two starkly different sides. The bad quality of the pitch levelled the playing field. The Italians had a good start but didn’t take their chances. Spain finished stronger but again missed some glorious opportunities. The reigning champions will struggle if they have to consistently play on such surfaces because it automatically reduces their quality. But winning under adverse conditions has greater value. Let’s see how they fare. Italy too could go a long way in this tournament but this game is not the right one to judge their level. Ireland and Croatia could take them on at their own game. Performances in those fixtures will give us a better idea about the credibility of the Italian challenge.

In the other game of the day, Ireland lost to a clinical Croatian side. Mandzukic produced two quality headers while Jelavic was opportunistic when he was ruled on-side on a technicality. The Irish must be aggrieved at the penalty claim that was denied but they didn’t really produce enough to merit any points. Their style resembled that of some teams from the bottom half of the Premier League and it wasn’t good enough for this level, especially considering their defence conceded 3 and could have let in more. Croatia could go through from this group if they can get a result against Italy or Spain. It’s difficult to imagine Ireland progressing but they’ll probably try to put up a better defensive fight against the big sides.

England took to the pitch against France in the first game on Monday. It was a tepid affair with both sides playing cautiously at a slow pace. England were deep and narrow in two banks of four – what I like to refer to as Hodgson’s Bus. France had a lot of the ball but were very cautious with it and rarely attempted penetrating vertical runs. There were times when they had five or six bodies in the final third but none in the box. Instead, Les Blues were happy to weave pretty patterns in front of the defence, often only leading to shots from distance. France were clearly wary of the threat on the counter and just didn’t want to push too many bodies forward.

There was no surprise in seeing England score from a set-piece, much like Ireland had done a day earlier. France equalized through a blistering, well-placed strike from Nasri.

For many, if not all, Gooners the performance of Oxlade-Chamberlain in a starting role on the left was probably more of interest. He was again impressive for a young lad but also showed he had a lot to learn. One moment illustrates this fairly well – the Ox won the ball around the half-way line and dribbled past two opponents with twinkling feet. But after getting into space he took three or four touches before releasing Young who was caught off-side. It’s difficult for an attacking player to constantly hold his run and the United man did it once but AOC just took too long to see that pass. It’s such instances that show he needs experience at the top level to sharpen his decision making skills, especially where the team aspect comes into play.

In the final game Ukraine took on Sweden. The co-hosts took the initiative right from the start while the Swedes adopted the counter-attacking approach. The first half was rather dull as there were few chances of note.

Ibra put the Swedes in front early in the second half in a period when Ukraine were temporarily down to ten men and looked distracted in defence. But Shevchenko produced a couple of brilliant headers to win it for his team. The striker’s anticipation, movement, and control were exemplary for both the goals. It was a real joy to see him roll back the years. England and France will both be tested if he is able to sustain this form. His teammates, especially Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko on the wings and Tymoschuk in a holding role, were also impressive.

For the Swedes, Ibra scored a goal, rattled the woodwork, and scorched the Keepers arms with a blazing strike while creating a number of quality chances for his teammates. But he was also a bit frustrating with his decision making and attitude on the pitch. Erik Hamren is trying to play the mercurial striker with a partner but if they can’t retain possession this system could easily flop in the big games. His players did show good fight towards the end but it was too little, too late. They’ll have to be more purposeful from the start in the next two games.

Before ending I want to put this final plug for a survey for Indian Fans by Karthik who wants to start/spread the Indian Supporters club. Do take a few moments to respond. If you already know of such a club please drop a link to their page in the comments. And please do spread the link/word. Thanks.

Euro 2012 Day 2 Roundup: Van Persie, Podolski, Bendtner, and others

June 10, 2012

Games in the Group of Death tend to be cagey affairs as teams cancel each other out, especially in the first round of fixtures where no one wants to lose. Today was no different as Denmark upset the Dutch while Germany eked out a win over Portugal with a solitary goal each.

Robin van Persie started for the Oranje amidst some chatter that Huntelaar might get the nod. The Arsenal skipper didn’t have a great World Cup and his on-pitch relationship with Sneijder and Robben isn’t telepathic to say the least.

In this game though, RvP saw a lot more of the ball and was on the end of a number of chances. The Dutchman attempted a total of 8 shots but only found the target with 2 of those. At least two of his chances were gilt-edged and he must be more disappointed than any fan that he couldn’t put one in. His movement was excellent as ever and he also set his teammates up on a number of occasions with clever passes.

On the whole the Netherlands seemed to struggle with their combination play for large parts of the game. It seemed as though they didn’t have the confidence to push bodies forward and were relying on individual moments of quality in attack rather than moves involving a number of players.

To an extent this was understandable given the rather average nature of their central defenders and goalkeeper which meant the midfield had to stay close and even the full-backs were restrained. The fears were justified when Krohn-Dehli was able to pick up a loose ball and skip past Heitinga as if he just wasn’t there. Stekelenburg allowed the ball through his legs from a tight angle. It still hard to believe at one point some Gooners wanted him at Arsenal.

The Danes stayed true to their compact style and rode their luck on the way to three points. On another day, as Bendtner himself said, Holland might have scored a couple from the chances they created but in such closely fought encounters a side always needs a bit of fortune.

Bendtner didn’t have a great game from an offensive point of view but that was more down to the lack of supply. He did pull his weight around to press from the front and did help his side sustain the pressure on the Oranje.

Another player of interest to Gooners was Ibrahim Afellay. The winger had a number of individual moments but his end product, in terms of shots or the final ball, was just not good enough. I’ll be surprised if he starts the next game.

The Ajax youngster Eriksen has also been touted as one to watch but there wasn’t much to note in his hardworking but unspectacular effort.

Holland have a mountain to climb and will have to produce much better quality in the final third especially now that Germany have beaten Portugal.

Jogi Low went with Hummels and Badstuber at the heart of his defence which meant there was no place for Mertesacker in the starting line-up. It wasn’t a surprise as the Bayern defender has a good understanding with his club teammates and is naturally left-footed while the Dortmund man is among the best centre-backs at the tournament.

Up front Podolski got a start on the left for a German side that was looking to take the initiative against a painfully negative Portugal team. However, this isn’t a style that the Germans are used to and they found it hard to break down an opponent that didn’t mind pulling all eleven men deep into its own half.

The new Arsenal signing probably had Germany’s best chance of the first period when Ozil’s square pass from wide on the left found him in acres of space inside the box. Podolski rushed his effort and was leaning back as he skied it woefully. The German striker also had a couple of other half-chances and connected well but his efforts were blocked. But the man who’ll either support or replace Van Persie matched the Dutchman’s knack for getting into excellent positions in and around the penalty area. Prinz Poldi also showed he wasn’t shy of dropping back to help his full-back out but Pereira wasn’t really testing him so it wasn’t a tough ask.

This was another game that was settled by that little dollop of kismet. Pepe’s shot in the first half hit the post and bounced out after falling on the line. It was literally a matter of inches and there was nothing anyone in a white shirt could have done about it. Similarly, the goal for Germany came from a cross that was deflected perfectly into the gap between Pepe and Pereira for Gomez to pounce. Of course, the striker’s header was class but the cross could easily have been a yard or two either side and the goal wouldn’t have come.

At the end Boateng also made a crucial last gasp tackle when Ronaldo was poised to pull the trigger from an excellent position just inside the box. Given the amount and quality of chances that Portugal created in the final few minutes of the game, it left me wondering how exciting this fixture would have been had they shown greater urgency from the start. The Selecção have an abundance of individual talent but I find it impossible to enjoy their performances as they’re invariably negative with their tactics.

On the day the most impressive performers in my opinion were Krohn-Dehli for Denmark, Sneijder for Holland, Hummels for Germany, and Coentrao for Portugal. In case you’re wondering, I don’t see any of them coming to the Arsenal.

On a side note, a tidbit that might be of interest to Desi Gooners was the presence of a player named Luciano Narsingh on the Holland bench. And while I’m roughly on the topic, I want to post the link to the survey for all Indian Gooners. Yesterday I just left a link to Karthik’s twitter page but forgot to link to the actual survey. Here it is. Do fill it out if you have a few moments, it’s not a long one. Also please share it with other Indian fans and your followers on twitter. It’s surprising that we don’t already have a strong Desi supporters club. Perhaps something will come off it.

On Sunday, we don’t have any Gunners involved but Spain V Italy should be a fascinating tactical battle. We might see one team defending with the ball while the other defends without it so it should be a locked game unless there is an early goal, but over 90 minutes it will be interesting to see how the Azzurri challenge La Furia Roja.

Euro 2012 Day 1 Roundup: Szczesny, Rosicky, Arshavin, and others

June 9, 2012

Football is back. Thank God for that. I’ve been having a difficult time motivating myself to get on the internet in the last few weeks but it should all improve now. Hopefully the blog will also be a bit more regular.

Three Gunners were involved on the opening day. Szczesny featured in the tournament opener for the hosts but had an imminently forgettable outing. Rosicky had a lacklustre game for the Czech side while Arshavin was on fire for the Russians.

There were doubts about the quality of teams in this group but the opening day was at least an eventful and entertaining one. The hosts had a bright start against Greece as they looked to exploit the space available to them on the counter-attack. It seemed as if the Greeks wanted to take the initiative in the game but just weren’t able to get going. Franciszek Smuda’s men were able to work delightful combinations down their right and created a number of quality openings. The final ball or the finish weren’t there but they looked the brighter side. Greece were getting into decent shapes but seemed a bit static. It could have been nerves or maybe they just weren’t ready tactically.

The goal came from one such move down the right. Blaszczykowski went past Holebas and stood the ball up towards the backpost. Lewandowski was unmarked and guided it home. It wasn’t a spectacular goal but it was coming.

Things got worse for the Greeks as Sokratis Papasthopoulos was sent off by the trigger happy ref Carlos Velasco for two bookable offences, neither of which would have been a booking in the Premier League. The first looked like a legitimate aerial duel while it seemed Murawski had slipped and was already on his way down for the second.

The sending off worked against the hosts as Greece came out with a more compact approach in the second half, one in which the players seemed more confident. On the other hand, Poland quickly ran out of ideas once they had the chance to take the initiative. Their right side was no longer a threat after the gap between Samaras and Holebas was plugged.

Salpingidis, who’d come on at half-time for the hard-working but ineffective youngster Nonis, proved to be a super-sub within six minutes of the restart, although he did have Szczesny to thank for presenting him with an open goal. The cross came in from the right. Gekas duelled with the central defender but neither could get a good enough connection on the ball. They did however manage to prevent the ball from reaching the Arsenal goalkeeper who’d come out to punch it. Eventually the ball fell invitingly to the substitute with the goal gaping. The Goalkeeper had no business coming for that ball as he was never going to reach it.

Poland now moved from the bereft-of-ideas mode to the shell-shocked mode as the vociferous crowd was silenced and the 10 men sensed a glimmer of hope. Midway through the second half Santos introduced youngster Fortounis, perhaps to make his own luck. It almost worked as the youngster linked up with Samaras to put Salpingidis in-behind a flat-footed Polish defence with a deft chip. Szczesny came out, tripped the winger, conceded a penalty and was shown a straight red.

It was a disappointing day for the Arsenal keeper but not a surprising one for fans who’ve observed him closely. He’s had trouble with his decision making and judgment i.e. when to come, when to stay. Part of it is a long standing issue at Arsenal so it’s not solely his fault. Inexperience also played a role. For instance, Salpingidis didn’t have a great first touch and the ball was moving away from the goal. Experience will teach Szczesny when to pull out of the challenge and let the striker run.

The youngster saw the penalty on a screen in the tunnel and celebrated with typical exuberance as his replacement pulled off a Tytonic [sorry, hangs head in shame] save that won them a point that could still be crucial.

In the second game of the day, Rosicky’s Czech Republic set out to play the expansive possession game against Arshavin’s Russia that relied on solidity at the back and lighting fast counter-attacks.

The problem for Little Mozart and his teammates was that they just didn’t have enough invention or understanding in the final third. And in their attempts to play through a well-organized opponent they left big gaps between the defensive midfielders and the back four. Kerzakov was able to pull into space time and again, Dzagoev was able to drift between the lines with ease, while Arshavin was influential in the build-up play and in the final third. Advocaat’s side also had excellent runners from midfield who knew just when to pounce.

All-in-all Arshavin set up 7 chances and picked up two assists. It’s worth noting that he again started on the left and played a role very similar to the one he has at Arsenal with complete freedom to roam when attacking. However, the key difference was that his team were playing a counter-attacking game and found a great deal of space in the opposing half, something that is at a premium when he plays for the Gunners against better organized teams many of whom are defensively oriented. While watching the Russian play deft through-balls and take opponents on was immensely enjoyable, it’s still difficult to envisage a similar performance from him for the Gunners on a consistent basis in more physically demanding conditions.

In contrast, his opposing captain Tomas Rosicky didn’t have a particularly effective night. Even though Little Mozart was playing in a system very similar to the one used by the Gunners and in a role that he prefers, the lack of quality in his team and his own form, perhaps affected by a lack of complete fitness, meant that his influence was negligible. Two shots from distance are the only events that come to mind.

I did like the game that Bilek’s team were trying to play but they’ll have to make wise use of the ball and the spaces on the pitch if they have to succeed with this system. In this game they tried hard individually but a lack of understanding rendered that pointless while also leaving openings for opponents to exploit. They do have the technical quality to beat Poland and Greece but it won’t count for much without structural solidity.

Anyway, as I said earlier it’s good to have football back as there is something to look forward to and the transfer nonsense takes a backseat. Tomorrow we should have some absolute crackers with a number of Gunners involved. If today’s blueprint is repeated, Bendtner might surprise the Dutch but somehow I doubt that’ll happen. Let’s see.


I’ve been writing a season review series but some of you might have missed the articles because of my irregular posting habits. If interested do check out the following. More in that series will be posted along with the posts on the Euros in the coming days.

Arsenal Season Review 2011-12: The Broad Picture

Arsenal Season Review 2011-12: Tactics

Arsenal Season Review 2011-12: Defending

Also, before ending I want to leave a link to this survey for Desi Gooners. @vkarthikbala is trying to gauge the interest as he is looking at starting an Indian Supporters club. Please fill it if you’re in India or share it with friends if not. Thanks.

Arsenal Season Review 2011-12: Defending

June 8, 2012

This was arguably the worst defensive season for Arsenal under Arsene Wenger. 49 goals conceded in 38 league games and 67 conceded in 54 games across all competitions is a damning indictment of the defending (It’s better to use the term defending as the term defence often implies the back five but the blame has to be shared by the whole team).

Granted, there were mitigating circumstances with the transfer problems and the debacle at Old Trafford, which occurred before the transfers were made on the last day, did skew the numbers to an extent. But even if we take that game out, the numbers are still indefensible!

It’s not all bad though. As we’d seen in the first article of this season review series, the Gunners conceded on 25 goals in 25 games in a strong run from the 3rd of October till the 10th of April. It’s still a one goal per game average, which isn’t ideal, but is much closer to the goals conceded by the top two who let in 21 and 22 in the same period respectively.

Similarly, if we take a moment to visit last season’s numbers, we can see Arsenal matched the top teams defensively from the start of the season till the 30th of March.

It shows us that the Gunners can match the top teams for at least two-thirds of the season. It’s clearly not enough but does present something to build on.

Again, if we borrow a table from the first article of the series, the matches between the top six this season throw up some interesting numbers.

As we can see Arsenal and United both conceded 19 goals in these 10 games. Spurs conceded 23. This includes many of the ‘big’ results like the 8 goals conceded by the Gunners or the 6 by United, both at Old Trafford, and all the big defeats for Tottenham.

But this also tells us that Manchester United only conceded 14 goals in their remaining 28 games! That’s 0.5 goals/game. Even Spurs conceded just 18 in the remaining fixtures. Arsenal, on the other hand, let in a whopping 30 goals in fixtures against the other 14 sides in the League. Evidently, the 8 goals conceded against United is not the only or main reason for poor defensive numbers this season.

Arsenal dropped ten points against the bottom 4 sides while City lost nothing, Chelsea and United three, Newcastle four, and Tottenham five. The Gunners would have been much closer to the top two and comfortably away from the sides below them if they’d done better in these games.

The thing with the Gunners is that they can be as good as the other big sides for large portions of the season but also defend like a relegation candidate in some games, which tends to put a large enough gap between them and the teams at the top.

Interestingly though, such swings in performance are not entirely related to the personnel on the pitch. For instance, a significant portion of that strong early run last season came with Djourou and Squillaci in the centre of defence. How often did you hear, “We can’t win the league with a player like Clichy at left-back”, or “Almunia was utter sh*te, Szczesny is world class”, or “Arsenal will be alright once Vermaelen is back”, and so on. But look what City did with Clichy at left-back. And what did Arsenal achieve with Szczesny in goal?

Of course, individual talent does make a big difference. According to WhoScored, Arsenal conceded 0.89 goals per game in the 28 games that Vermaelen started whereas they conceded 2.4 goals per game in the 10 that he did not. This is undoubtedly skewed by the fact that the Belgian missed Arsenal’s troubled start to the season but it still highlights his importance to the side. Nevertheless, it does not mean the Verminator is faultless.

Indeed, that’s a point this blog has consistently made over the last two seasons. Everybody makes mistakes. Manager’s like Wenger and Mancini can see that when a player like Clichy appears to make a mistakes it’s not always solely his fault or that he also offers a lot on the pitch that goes unnoticed. Fans tend to get carried away and end up making unjustified conclusions from limited observations. Bloggers and clueless pundits pretending to be shrewd analysts doesn’t help while those who simply capture the popular sentiment in delightful language also make matters worse. One of the main problems here is that the lack of confidence in the fans can often become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the nerviness in the atmosphere transfers to the players on the ground and they end up making more mistakes.

More importantly though, it’s imperative to realize that the difference between individual players is not as big as it’s often made out to be. The unjustified hype around one player and mindless criticism of another simply makes debates pointless. The defenders at Arsenal are not terrible if those at other big teams are world class.

From that point of view I’m glad there is a growing number of voices that recognize most of the problems in defence are systemic in nature and the individual errors are largely the symptoms. Nowadays we see more talk on “defending as a team” and “structural issues”.

In this article I don’t want to dwell on those issues as they have already been covered here in detail. That post has over 6500 words and plenty of snapshots to illustrate various points. It also touches upon the basic principles of defending like balance, depth, delay, pressure, etc. and is highly recommended for those who might have missed it.

Broadly speaking, there is very little to choose between the top teams when it comes to macro-level defensive stats.

As a matter of fact, Arsenal have contested more duels and tackles than the Manchester sides. The Success percentages are comparable as are the interception numbers.

So over the course of the season, when you compare the squads, it’s difficult to say that one group is a better tackler, dueller, or interceptor than the others. And that kind of backs up the argument that this isn’t so much about players as it is about systems. Speaking of which it’s interesting to look at some other stats which tells us a bit more about the systems used by these teams.

Arsenal have won over a 100 off-sides more than City or United. That’s a massive difference if you consider that Arsenal are winning around 4 off-sides per game while the Manchester sides average around 1.

It’s worth noting that City and United are not defensive teams per se. They’re the top two in terms of goals scored. Even then they win fewer off-sides. It tells us that both the Manchester sides tend to drop back if they lose possession and don’t win it back quickly. They don’t try to hold a high line very often.

In contrast, Arsenal seem to play the off-side trap quite regularly. There is nothing wrong with using the off-side trap. Arsenal do get it right on an average of four times per game and that is a good way to break attacks and win possession back. However the off-side trap can only work well in conjunction with a cohesive pressing unit. If that fails the opponents have a significantly better chance of running in behind as the man on the ball has time to pick out effective passes. In that regard it’s disappointing to see that Arsenal don’t win the ball more often in the attacking or middle third because any side holding a high-line and pressing up the pitch should be winning possession in forward areas more than those teams that drop back.

These numbers are not enough to completely explain the styles but they do suggest that the top two have a much better tactical balance. They sit back to defend and don’t allow players to get in behind them as often. This can also be seen from the fact that they allow more shots from outside the box than they do from inside the box. They also get more blocks in. All of this implies they consistently get bodies between the opponents and their goal and thus the quality of chances conceded is much lower. On the other hand, winning the ball more often in central and attacking areas helps them in sustaining pressure when needed. This hints towards their ability to pin opponents back when they have to and contributes to their ability to score more goals.

Arsenal, in comparison, win more off-sides but also allow more shots from inside the box. They also make more mistakes, fewer blocks, and end up having to win more tackles and duels in the defensive third.

Put all of this together and you’ll begin to see why the league leaders are more assured in defence whereas it can get desperate for the Gunners at times.

Since these problems are largely systemic in nature and arise from the tactical approach of the manager which manifests itself in the form of decision making and execution by the players on the pitch, the changes will mainly come from work on the training ground. We saw one very good example of this in the way the Gunners improved their set-piece defending over last season’s miserable efforts. It didn’t happen overnight. Early in the season they tried zonal marking on set-pieces. It didn’t work quite as well. The team then switched back to a combination of man and zonal marking. For a while it was desperation stuff with bodies being put on the line and the goal being protected by a crowd in the middle. But as the season progressed the players got a better grip on their roles and took greater responsibility. It’s still not perfect but a definite improvement can be seen. Such work can also be done in other defence related areas.

Of course, addition of players with better defensive judgment also helps, and Arteta is a good case in point, but you can’t change all eleven players and defending remains a collective effort. While Pat Rice was not the problem a change in the backroom staff could be helpful. Steve Bould and Neil Banfield should bring some new ideas to the table. I’m not sure if that will be enough as the youth sides managed by this duo have shown the tendency to make errors reminiscent of the first team. Even then it would be unfair to write them off before they’ve had the chance to show what they can do. But one thing is clear – In order to seriously challenge for the big trophies Arsenal have to show a significant improvement in the way every player thinks about defending, develop a cohesive tactical approach where everyone is on the same page, find consistency, and learn to absorb the impact of injury related setbacks in a way that does not compromise the defending.

2011-12 was a forgettable year as far as defending was concerned. Will 12-13 be any better?

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