Stoke 0 – 0 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

August 27, 2012

One point at Stoke is not a bad result on its own. Few visitors will return from the Britannia with three points and that makes it tough to criticize the Arsenal performance. The irony here is that this was probably the Gunners’ best defensive display at Stoke but by the end the hosts, having realized their single attacking tactic had failed to generate any threat, just wanted to hang on for a point. Such a finish and the discernible lack of quality chances for Arsenal, despite the late push, left fans demanding more but the point was a fair result. Both teams were defensive in their own ways and neither did enough to get the game winning goal.

It’s not worth going through this game in a sequential manner as few events of note took place. Instead I want to focus on certain patterns of play that affected either sides attacking and defensive capabilities.

Stoke, for some reason, didn’t press as intensely as they have done in the past. It could be that, just like the Gunners, they’re not at the top of their game just yet. This created a problem for the hosts as they weren’t able to keep the ball in the Arsenal half for as long as they’d have liked.

As expected, this was a game of long balls but Arsenal did excellently against the aerial and physical threats. Stoke just completed a 150 passes in the whole game at a pedestrian 63 percent success rate. In contrast there were 90 ground duels, 28 tackles, and a whopping 70 aerial duels in this fixture. This was literally a battle with some football thrown in between.

The Gunners only won 29 of those 70 aerial duels but they put enough pressure to ensure that the player winning the challenge wasn’t able to do as well with it as he’d have wanted. The midfield also stayed really deep, with Diaby contesting more duels (6/17) than any defender, and helped the back four. Together, Wenger’s team were not only able to put pressure on the first ball, they did extremely well to win the second balls and close down space for the runners. The shape of the back four was nearly perfect. Stoke didn’t find any space in the channels, their midfield runners didn’t go untracked, and it minimized any chance they had of putting crosses into the box or winning set-pieces.

In the past I’ve often noted that a clean sheet does not mean the defending was assured. There are games when Wenger’s team has kept the opponents out with desperation stuff. In this case though, it was a solid defensive effort and Mannone would have loved playing behind that bunch of outfielders.

Unfortunately, that’s only half the story.

For their part, Stoke too put up a strong defensive display. Arsenal only had one shot on target from inside the penalty box and Begovic was almost as comfortable as his opposite number despite Arsenal’s superior possession and passing stats. Wenger’s side won a number of corners and set-pieces but their efforts were innocuous.

I don’t appreciate much of what Tony Pulis does but he can train his sides to put up a strong resistance once they go deep and narrow. Arsenal just did not have enough creativity or mutual understanding between the players to break that down.

Part of the problem for the Gunners was also the fact that they could not strike the right balance between defence and attack. The strong defensive performance fostered a weakened ineffective attack. As Wenger says, you only have 11 players on the pitch. If more are pulled back to keep things tight there will be a shortage up front. Arsenal just did not have enough pace or quality on the transitions to catch Stoke out. Once the transitions were slowed the hosts were able to sit deep and protect their goal.

Arsenal’s midfield was really conservative and rarely ventured beyond the centre of the Stoke half. If we look at passes received by Diaby, Arteta, And Cazorla it shows very little in the form of penetration.

The following charts for Diaby and Cazorla are too similar with a lot of action areas in the middle of the Stoke half.

(Click on images to enlarge in a new window.)

Similarly, if we look at the two of most common passing combinations for the Gunners, Arteta->Cazorla and Cazorla->Podolski, there’s very little in the form of forward movement.

The red line was the off-side header from Podolski but apart from that most passes are just going sideways and are far away from the Stoke goal. Bear in mind these players are Arsenal’s key attacking threats.

Surprisingly, the Gunners didn’t try to use Giroud’s ability to hold off his marker. Very few passes were played to him on the edge of the box. This could have given the midfielders a chance to play one-twos to move forward. Even the wide players didn’t use the striker’s presence well but Arsenal’s weaknesses at the crossing game are complex and it’s perhaps wise that they didn’t try it too often.

That’s not to say the Gunners didn’t have width. Gervinho received most of his passes while hugging the touchline. He just faced two or three opponents by the time the ball found its way to him and that rendered him ineffective. On the other flank Podolski kept drifting inside but Gibbs provided the width. The left back only received 32 passes but many of them were in advanced areas. In contrast, Jenkinson received 51 passes but only two high up the pitch and those came late in the game.

As a unit the Gunners displayed many of the same problems that plagued them against Sunderland in the previous week. Yes it’s tough to break down a disciplined team that plays so deep and narrow but Arsenal are making their job tougher with every passing game as they drop points they should have won.

The understanding between new players is clearly missing but it’s something that will undoubtedly get better over time. The bigger question for Arsene is whether he can create a stronger, more incisive attack without compromising the defensive stability. For instance, if one or more midfielders and full backs starts pushing higher up the pitch to contribute to the attack, will it again leave doors open at the back?

The answer to that question will have a major bearing on the standings at the end of the season.

Individual Performances:

Mannone: Surprisingly easy game for the Keeper. It again validated a point that’s been made on this blog for over two years – the players in front of the Keeper have to take greater responsibility, the problem has not been with the goalkeeper even though many of them have looked like clowns on occasion. How often do you recall Mannone having to come to catch or punch a ball under pressure? Once or twice maybe?

Jenkinson: Was the more conservative full back and held a relatively deep position throughout the game. Did well against Kightly and was also effective inside the box when the balls did come in from the other side. Solid but unspectacular from the youngster.

Mertesacker: Probably the least busy defender in the side. Didn’t have to make any tackles or ground duels but was mostly sweeping behind the midfielders challenging for the ball and did make clearances when needed. Steady passing.

Vermaelen: Did contest many aerial duels and was responsible for a fair number of clearances. Interestingly, despite Arsenal’s inability to score the Belgian curbed his attacking instincts well. Safe passing from the back.

Gibbs: Was the defender who impressed me the most. Was engaged in duels, made tackles and interceptions, and also tried venturing forward to get into space vacated by Podolski. Bodes well for the future.

The back five were well protected and they did a good job of retaining their shape while covering behind the duellers. Stoke’s only shot on goal was a hopeful strike from distance but more importantly, the hosts rarely got into threatening positions.

Arteta: Another very intelligent defensive and possession game from the Spaniard. Did not engage in any aerial duels but mopped up on the floor winning 10 of 14 ground duels and 4 or 6 tackles. Also made 3 useful interceptions. Typically assured and reliable with his passing.

Diaby: Used his physical attributes to improve the team’s defensive capabilities. Contested the most aerial duels and a fair number of ground duels. His success rate wasn’t as eye catching as that of Crouch, say (6/17 Aerial duels against 18/21 for the Stoke forward), but his presence made a big difference from goal-kicks and even on the few throws and set-pieces that Stoke managed to get. Won possession back the most often but also lost possession most often. Was ponderous on the ball and did slow things down when going forward. Did not have enough composure or guile in the attacking areas.

Cazorla: Had the most touches but wasn’t able to offer the kind of creative threat that Arsenal need. High passing accuracy but much of it was safe. Also had a tendency to look for shooting options from outside the box when he had time and space, instead of picking out passes. He has to show his teammates that he can find their runs but if he keeps looking down to work openings to shoot there will be fewer combinations in the attacking third. Has all the talent but must adapt to use it to improve the whole team.

The midfield did an excellent job defensively but lacked ideas and incision in attack.

Gervinho: Very ineffective against a strong and coordinated defensive unit that sat deep and often double-teamed him. Wasn’t able to get past his full back and didn’t link effectively with the midfielders or Giroud when drifting inside.

Giroud: Showed good strength and presence. Wasted a couple of opportunities through exuberance. For instance, he had time to control Cazorla’s corner when he tried that sensational volley. Also took a shot from distance that looked tantalizingly close and like a spectacular effort, but in reality had very low probability of going in. Clearly a very talented but raw player. Another one who has to figure out how to use is talents to benefit the team.

Podolski: Went on one very impressive run through the middle early on. Kept drifting inside which was to be expected but wasn’t able to combine with others to get in behind. Showed excellent instincts when he pounced on the loose ball and should have won a penalty for Wilkinson’s handball.

The front three didn’t get enough support from the midfield and were often lost in crowded areas. They’ll have to do better with their movement and control but finding the right wavelength is the first major challenge.

Subs: Walcott and AOC were ineffective. Ramsey looked tentative in possession.

Wenger: Has to show he can create a balance between attack and defence, not just a quality performance in one of the two. There could be some complaints against the ref but the manager knows his team can and has to do a lot better.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Stoke

August 26, 2012

So it’s Stoke on a warm Sunday afternoon. Will it be any different? The scenario might not match the cliche but the football most certainly will. This is a classic battle between two diametrically opposite philosophies where both sides understand the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. It just boils down to the execution on a given day.

Stoke are a physical side but they tend to up the ante even more in the early minutes of games against Arsenal. Their tactic usually is to prevent Arsenal from striking any sort of a rhythm. Following that, it’s mostly about getting the ball into advanced areas in search of set-pieces and throws. This simple approach has worked for the home side as they’ve taken the lead against Arsenal on all five occasions the sides have met at the Britannia. In four of those games the lead has come inside 11 minutes.

Mertesacker talked about switching on quickly. Clearly, the players and the coaching staff are aware of Stoke’s early impetus. Whether they can deal with it remains to be seen.

Typically, Tony Pulis’ side tends to ease off after the initial burst of pressing, especially if it results in a goal. Their game subsequently relies on organization, coordination, and hard work in defence while constantly looking for opportunities to break forward. They make clever use of their physical strengths and the flanks to create decisive moments on counter-attacks. It’s a real challenge for the central defenders and the midfielders covering them. Arteta and Diaby can prove they’re good enough to play in deeper positions throughout the season if they can consistently challenge for and win the second balls. They’ll also have to sweep up in front of the back four particularly clearing any square balls that are played across the penalty box.

The issue with Stoke’s style is that it often relies on the leniency of the referee as it results in a melee in the penalty box or when the duels start resembling a wrestling bout. Lee Mason was extremely card shy in the midweek Chelsea-Reading fixture and that could work in favour of the hosts.

Arsenal’s new signings will be surprised at the intensity of the physical challenges but they’ll have to adapt quickly. Wenger wants his team to adhere to their game and passing the ball under pressure is one way to counter Stoke. For that to work though, every player has to be on top of his game and they have to show the ability and willingness to take a few knocks. The new players should be prepared to play on under challenges that might be considered fouls in the leagues they’ve come from.

Wenger also has a team selection headache. Playing two quick but technically limited wingers has not been working for a while now. Arsene has to find a better balance. He has some choices but none of them seem ideal.

For instance, Wenger could put Podolski on the left with Giroud down the middle and one of Walcott or Gervinho on the right in front of the same midfield that started against Sunderland. However, it seems to me that Arsene sees Podolski as a key played in a central role so he might not be so keen to shift the German to a flank. Secondly, Stoke are stronger when attacking down the right and one could wonder just how diligently Poldi will track back to support the full back.

The other option is to put Cazorla on a flank of his choice while bringing Ramsey into the midfield to offer greater energy and work rate along with improved technical balance. In such a scenario, only two of Gervinho, Walcott, Giroud, and Podolski can start. Arsenal might also lack pace on the break, which can be an issue if Stoke press cohesively and assertively.

With a similar playing eleven as the choice above, Arsene could also put Ramsey on a flank if he wants to keep Cazorla central.

Szczesny is scheduled for a late fitness test and there might be doubts over Fabianski’s fitness as well. This could prove to be a major source of concern for the Gunners.

Preferred starting eleven,

? – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Diaby, Ramsey, Arteta – Cazorla, Giroud, Gervinho.

I don’t know who’ll start in goal. The back four and the two deep lying midfielders should retain their places from the Sunderland game.

I’d like to see Ramsey in the middle for his work rate and ability to move the ball around with Cazorla on the right having the freedom to drift around the pitch when Arsenal get the ball forward. Giroud seems like a better choice to me upfront as he’s got the kind of physical presence that can be an asset in both penalty boxes. He also has the ability to pull wide and become an outlet for the side when the opponents are pressing effectively. The big Frenchman can also be a target in the box if the Stoke defence plays deep and narrow. Gervinho can provide pace and decent defensive cover on the left. The width will have to come from one or both full-backs.

For Arsenal, the key will be in their ability to hold on to the ball for long periods. By accomplishing that the Gunners give themselves the chance to break Stoke down. It won’t be easy, certainly not if the pace of passing and movement is similar to the opening fixture, but that’s really the only way the Gunners can get any points from this game. They can’t take the hosts on at the physical battle. It’s about bringing the game to your comfort level rather than fighting on the opponents’ strong points. In order to achieve this, the players will not only have to suffer through the physical challenges while maintaining control over the ball, they’ll also have to maintain their composure and avoid retaliatory fouls that could lead to dangerous set-pieces, bookings, and red cards.

Given the fact that Arsenal have won once in five visits to this ground while losing thrice, it’s obvious that any result will be a commendable achievement. A defeat will not be surprising but it can be demoralizing given the opening day draw and the tough fixtures in the upcoming weeks. A win, in contrast, could be the perfect tonic before the big fixtures.

Song Moves From The Heart Of London To The Fringes Of Barcelona

August 20, 2012

The last couple of days have flown by in the build-up to Sunderland’s visit, the actual game, and the inevitable debates that take place in the aftermath of a game. During this period Arsenal also agreed a deal with Barcelona for the sale of Alex Song. It was a transfer that came out of the blue and was completed at express speed, at least by the recent standards of drawn out sagas that Gooners have experienced.

There are many different stories circulating in the media but few have provided any concrete sources. Some suggest that Song’s agent had been peddling the midfielder around Europe and wanted a bumper increase in his contract. Others have suggested that the player had attitude issues, was lazy, often arrived late for training, and tended to ignore instructions from the coaching staff. Presumably, the latter story has been leaked by the Gunners as it’s attributed to anonymous club sources.

I don’t normally believe unattributed quotes and unverifiable reports but there seems to be some truth in Song’s case. The most striking aspect of the whole deal has been the ease with which Wenger has sanctioned the transfer. The manager fought hard to keep Cesc, Nasri, and RvP. His comments before and after these players left showed he rated them very highly. I don’t think the same can be said about his reflections on the departure of Song.

In my opinion the key to this transfer was Wenger’s belief that the player can be replaced. Since he’s a very good man manager and cultivates excellent relationships, it can be assumed Arsene would have found a way to make things work with Song despite any attitude issues if he really felt it imperative to hold on to Song. Let’s not forget Arsenal had a strong position from the contract point of view.

At first glance this seems strange. Song was voted 2nd best player of the year by the fans in the annual poll. He picked up 11 assists in the League last season and formed a very effective partnership with Van Persie. Together the duo contributed 64 percent of Arsenal’s 74 Premiership goals. Why would Wenger sell his second best player without a fight when all efforts to hold on to the best failed?

There seem to be a number of factors involved. Firstly, there is the case of inconsistency on the part of Song. There is a myth in the Arsenalsphere that Song started neglecting his defensive duties and bombed forward too often. Many associate assists with a forward thinking approach but forget the fact that many of his key passes came from deep. The problem with Song was not that he became too attack oriented but that he simply wasn’t consistent enough when it came to defensive awareness and concentration. Over the last few years there have been numerous examples where Arsenal have conceded goals not because Song had gone forward but because he didn’t do what he was supposed to even when he’d stayed back.

In short, Song just did not read the game well defensively at a level of consistency needed if a side wishes to win the major titles.

That alone would not have been enough though. The second, and perhaps clinching, factor here is that Arsene knows there is a replacement available who is at least as good if not better. I’ll be very surprised if the Gunners don’t sign at least one more player in midfield.

Arsene could make a like-for-like change by getting someone like M’Vila in or he could bring a different player like Sahin into the squad and adapt to the loss of Song through tactical changes. In either case the key point is that Le Boss does not think it will be as tough to replace Song as it has been with the other big names who’ve moved on.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy. Song had a physical presence on the pitch. You could see him dig his heels around a ball and shrug off a challenge that would easily be deemed a foul in other Leagues. With that physical presence he helped Arsenal bring the ball out from the back which is vital to the way Arsene wants his teams to play. In his absence the Gunners have struggled on that front and it tends to expose the defence.

Song was also a tenacious player who kept chasing the ball even if the opponent beat him initially. That’s pestering quality is valuable to the way Arsenal defend as they tend to go after the ball instead of holding a strong defensive shape. There are few others (non-defenders) in the side who can do it as often and as well.

Finally, there was the case of Song’s creative contribution. Last season the Cameroonian attempted 90 through-balls and was successful with 24 of those. To put that in perspective, David Silva attempted 77 and was successful with only 18 while Liverpool (entire squad) completed 46 out of 105 and United 39 out of 102. Arsenal, as a team, attempted 294 with 87 finding a teammate. The corresponding numbers for City were 321 and 75.

What we see here is a variable that provides a good indication of the differences between the style of play of these teams and within that the relative qualities that Song possessed. He bettered Silva in attempts and success rate. That’s a clear sign of quality even if the actual accuracy is less than one in three as it’s one of the toughest passes to execute. There is absolutely no doubt Song was a big, big player for the Gunners last season and had a massive hand in the limited success of the quick wingers on the flank.

Against Sunderland, the Gunners didn’t really need the physical side or even defensive tenacity but they clearly missed his creativity from deeper areas.

Of course, Sahin can plug the creative hole whereas M’Vila can easily replicate the physical aspect of Song’s game. But Arsenal cannot play two in place of one so it’ll be interesting to see how Arsene goes about replacing Song. Even if Arsene is confident, I have a feeling the Gunners will struggle in the short term.

I’ll look at midfield options in detail after the transfer window closes so will pick up on this thread at a later time, for now I also want to explore the player’s perspective.

This is another aspect of the transfer that I found difficult to understand. Why would Alex Song want to move from a team where he has such a central role to one where he’d be a squad player? I never doubted the fact that Fabregas will be important to Barcelona but it’s difficult to see Song being a regular. It seems to me he’ll be a player who is introduced late in the games when the side wishes to defend a lead or is used in away games where opponents are likely to offer a strong physical challenge. Apart from that he’ll mostly be a back-up utility player.

That seems like such a waste of talent. And why would Song want to fritter away his career on the bench even if it’s the world’s best bench? Sure, he’s likely to have a better shot at medals and will quite possibly make more money but is that reason enough? Clichy, Nasri, and Cesc have played a significant part in title winning sides and RvP is likely to do the same even if the title winning aspect is up for debate. For Song that does not seem to be the case so it’s difficult to see ambition as a reason.

Maybe it is about the money, or the glory, or about being underappreciated, or something else. Time will tell.

For Barcelona it’s a good deal as they get a high quality utility player for good value. Wonder if Cesc had any part to play in this transfer?

Finally, I want to touch upon the manner of departure. Van Persie went from hero to villain after releasing one ill-advised statement. In contrast, Song had the following to say in a recent interview with Sky Sports,

I am not going to lie if I said there is no interest but I am at Arsenal and I am happy at Arsenal.

Really? If I add up the events – Arsene Wenger’s uncharacteristic curtness about the transfer, the speed at which the transfer has been agreed, and the rumours about attitude issues doing the rounds – I find it very difficult to believe Song was happy at Arsenal and that Arsenal were happy with him.

When Van Persie released his statement I was among the few who believed it was a fairly honest one. The player genuinely didn’t believe Arsenal were doing enough to win. With Song on the other hand, we have what appears to be a deceitful and empty comment aimed solely at maintaining PR.

I am not surprised but really disappointed with the way people have accepted this from Song while hating RvP. It’s like saying “We’re ok with whatever you do or think as long as you put out statements that say what we want to hear. Not the truth, not your honest opinion, just something that makes us feel better in that moment.”

I don’t blame the fans though. It’s a broader problem with the human race. We can’t always handle the truth, we need simplified narratives that suit our sensibilities. Politicians have mastered that art and that’s what we get from almost everyone else who is in the public eye. If individuals can’t do it they get PR firms to do it. Then again, writing such stuff on a blog in the public domain is akin to committing PR suicide so I’ll stop before I do irreparable damage!

Song has moved from the heart of London to the fringes of Barcelona. He must have his reasons but they’re not important at the moment. Arsene has to perform that heart transplant soon though. It could be a matter of life and death. It seems he’s found a donor, and the tissue’s a match, now he must perform the surgery and hope to avoid complications. Has it set your pulse racing yet!?

Stats from EPLIndex

Arsenal 0 – 0 Sunderland: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

August 19, 2012

Arsenal started the new season much like they’d done the previous one, with a goalless draw. Oddly enough, they’ve done so on only 5 occasions in 109 years…

… but it’s twice in a row now.

The game was quite predictable. Sunderland started with good energy and created a couple of chances early on. McClean really should have scored after he was free inside the box. Mertesacker had dropped deeper and played him on. The Sunderland winger though, could only hit it straight at Szczesny.

The Black Cats were getting some joy on the counter attack in the early minutes and the Gunners seemed to respond to that by putting the hand brake on and restraining the forward forays of the full-backs. The midfielders were also a bit cautious with their use of the ball and that closed the door on any opportunities the visitors could create.

Unfortunately for the Gunners though, this also meant their own attacking impetus took a hit. Arsenal attempted over 700 passes in this game and completed around 91 percent of those but most of it was in front of the Sunderland defence. In a way it felt that both teams hit a comfort zone in the first half, which suited Sunderland who’d come looking for a draw.

The visitors were happy to cede 10 yards or more to the wide players when they hugged the touchline. The Gunners didn’t find the wingers fast enough and the wide men, on their part, didn’t make enough diagonal or horizontal runs so it was easy for the defenders to shift across when the ball went wide. Sunderland routinely had 2 or even 3 players blocking the run/cross from wide areas.

Wenger’s side could not produce any clear cut chances in the first half. There were a couple of noteworthy shots from distance but the keeper was always going to save those. Podolski was close to getting on the end of a square ball in front of goal but that was well cleared by the defenders.

Arsenal showed more urgency as the game went on in the second half. It seemed the visitors were tiring and they weren’t getting as tight on their man as they’d done in the first half. The Gunners pushed more bodies forward to exploit the time and space available to them and there were large patches of the game when they were camped in the Sunderland half or even the final third.

To their credit, Martin O’Neill’s side remained committed and organized on and around the edge of their penalty box, which meant they could block most of the shots or deal with attempted through-balls. Often it was desperation stuff but it worked.

Wenger introduced Giroud for Podolski, Ramsey for Diaby, and Arshavin for Theo as the game edged towards a frustrating end. The only clear-cut chance for the Gunners came in the 82nd minute when Cazorla played a lovely reverse through-ball for Giroud. The Frenchman fired it well wide with his weaker right foot. Interestingly and for whatever it’s worth, OPTA stats didn’t show that as a clear-cut chance!

Wenger’s men had 23 shots in total compared to Sunderland’s 4 but only had 3 on target compared to 2 by the visitors. Arsenal did not have a single shot on target from inside the box. Part of that was down to poor creativity and finishing but some credit also goes to Sunderland who blocked 10 of the 23 shots.

From a defensive point of view the Gunners were rarely threatened after the initial adjustment was made so there isn’t much to analyze. I did see Mertesacker track Sessegnon deep into the Sunderland half on more than one occasion. That to me is a definite improvement. The big German didn’t let his man turn on the ball and that slowed the game down allowing others to run back and cover. In the past we’ve seen the defenders drop off a yard or two and this has allowed opposing strikers a chance to turn and run at them or pick forward passes. Still this is just one game so there can’t be any conclusions drawn. It’ll be something to follow in the forthcoming fixtures.

There’s very little else to analyze in such a laborious game except a few comments on individuals which I cover in the next section.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Paid day off for the Pole.

Jenkinson: Saw a lot of the ball but rarely in decisive areas. Space created by Walcott drifting inside wasn’t utilized effectively. Wasn’t tested defensively. Passing and crossing could have been better.

Mertesacker: Largely solid except that one moment where he played McClean onside early on. Kept it simple at the back. Good work of tracking the striker as discussed above.

Vermaelen: Arsenal’s captain did a lot of sweeping on the left side when Sunderland tried exploiting the space behind Gibbs. He also tried venturing forward but didn’t get any supply. Another one who had an efficient if unspectacular game.

Gibbs: Was probably the most energetic and adventurous of the defenders. Also made a number of vital tackles/interceptions. Got into useful attacking positions, especially in the second half, but wasn’t able to make a meaningful impact.

Trouble free day for the defenders at the back but more is expected once they get in the attacking areas.

Diaby: Defensive abilities weren’t really tested. Wasn’t able to drive the team forward at the required pace but didn’t make any major mistakes and came through without fitness worries.

Arteta: Was everywhere (119 passes, 96 percent accuracy, and 131 touches). Did a very good job of shielding the defence with a number of important tackles/interceptions. Had very little creative impact but that was mostly because of the fact that he was often the deepest lying midfielder and looking to keep things simple.

Cazorla: Created 7 chances but only one of those really stood out. He looked the classiest player on the pitch but a lot more is needed from such a player when the opponents are sitting deep and narrow. Wasn’t able to effectively link with Podolski and they got in each other’s way more than once. It wasn’t a bad performance by any measure but he clearly needs more time to gel with his teammates and adapt to the league. Physically he was brushed off the ball once or twice. He will have to quickly learn how to use his body strength better.

The three man midfield struggled against a side that played really narrow. Arsenal’s wide players just did not provide the clever link play needed against such a defence. That meant the midfield saw a lot of the ball but couldn’t produce sufficient penetration.

Walcott: Looked like he had greater freedom to roam and hang around in the central areas. But he wasn’t able to link with Podolski or the midfielders on a consistent basis. Was inconsistent with his touches and passes but there clearly was an effort to offer more.

Podolski: Dropped deep often but wasn’t really able to combine with the midfielders or the wide players. A number of good moments were squandered as he either made the wrong choice or picked the wrong pass. For instance, when Gervinho won the ball in front of his full-back, Poldi should have held his position and fed the run of the Ivorian via a one-two instead of making a run in-behind himself. In the second half Jenkinson had made an excellent forward run when the Gunners were on the break but the German didn’t see it and instead played a back pass which scuttled the attacking momentum. Even in the Cologne game Arsenal didn’t create many useful combinations in the second half when Poldi was playing down the middle. It’s a challenge for Arsene: Should he persist and give the player time or should he move him to the flank?

Gervinho: Probably the player who will divide the opinion of fans like no other in this game. Another typical ‘exciting and frustrating’ display from the winger. Attempted almost half the dribbles made by the whole side and succeeded with roughly half his attempts. Didn’t have any decisive product at the end of all the running and dribbling. All four of his shots were blocked as he attempted most after running into a crowd. Did get to the byline on a number of occasions but there is a difference between teams in Asia and those in the Premier League. Sunderland defenders forced mistakes once he did get there or just got in place to clear his cutbacks. Had a total loss of possession figure of 25 in a total of 73 touches.

A big part of the problem in attack was a lack of understanding between the front three and Cazorla. This will be rectified with practice but Arsenal cannot afford too many games where the attack doesn’t click. Having two quick runners who lose the ball often and don’t always make the right choice puts greater pressure on the midfield and Arsene will have to sort this out quickly. It’s not a new problem. Benayoun was last season’s temporary fix towards the end but a more permanent solution is needed.

Subs: Giroud missed the best chance of the game but his presence and movement was interesting. Ramsey did well with his passing, not so well in the duels, and probably tried too hard with his shooting. Arshavin looked energetic but also misplaced a couple of passes in risky areas.

Wenger: There isn’t much the manager can do when the players need more time to gel together but I thought he made the wrong choice in selecting both Walcott and Gervinho. Let’s see if he gives this system of two wingers some more time.

This wasn’t the start most fans or even the manager and players would have hoped for. Lack of an ideal pre-season could be an excuse but it was in Arsenal’s control. The new signings need time but that can’t be given as a reason for too long as the Gunners cannot afford another start like last season’s. Let’s also not forget this game was played against a Sunderland team that had only won 1 in 6 pre-season games and had lost against the likes of Leicester City and Hartlepool United.

Arsenal simply have to do better.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Sunderland

August 18, 2012

It’s all back. The League, the buzz, the anticipation, even typing that blasé headline has me tingling, everything’s back.

Arsenal start at home. Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland provide the first hurdle. Big games are just around the corner and the transfer scene is very much alive, but once again we’re at the time where the next game means more than anything else.

In his interview with Arsenal Player, Arsene said that Arsenal are not completely ready physically. Last week Lukas Podolski had said he’ll take two weeks to hit his peak. Given the amount of time spent in Asia where, as Vermaelen acknowledged, the club weren’t able to focus as much on training as they might have wanted, Arsenal will start this season a notch or two below their best.

The visitors might be in a similar situation themselves. Their pre-season took them on trips to South Korea and Sweden and has seen the Black Cats win only 1 game in 6.

The impact of physical preparation is not likely to be visible early in the game but could prove decisive in the dying minutes. It’s certainly something worth keeping an eye on. Substitutions might play a vital role if some players tire.

Broadly speaking, there won’t be any tactical surprises in this game. We know how Martin O’Neill likes to play and Wenger is not going to tinker with his approach significantly. Speaking with Arsenal Player Le Boss reiterated his side’s basic approach i.e. play the ball out from the back with clever movement and quick passing.

I expect Sunderland will form their first line of defence around the centre line and test Arsenal initially by applying some pressure. If the Gunners seem hesitant or sluggish with their passing the visitors will try to stay up the pitch and force a mistake through aggressive pressing. Quality ball rotation from the hosts will naturally push them back. This will be the first big challenge of the match for Arsenal. Will most of the play take place in the middle third (which could leave the defence exposed on a quick transition) or will it take place in the attacking third from Arsenal’s point of view? The answer will depend on Arsenal’s technical quality and also on the front four’s ability to find/create space.

We saw excellent combination play from the Gunners in Cologne but Sunderland will provide a tougher challenge to the midfield as they’ll be tighter on each individual and go in strong on each challenge. Arsenal have a number of newcomers who might find the intensity and physicality a bit surprising, at least initially.

Sunderland’s strengths are in their organization and work ethic which can negate Arsenal’s technical advantage while their threats are likely to come from counter-attacks (mostly down the flanks) or set-pieces.

It will be interesting to see the line-up that Arsene selects. It’s difficult to judge whether the midweek internationals and related travel will have an impact on the selection. For instance. Giroud played around 74 minutes with France. Does that mean he won’t be fresh for this game or did that just provide him better match practice and physical preparation? Similarly, Cazorla travelled all the way to Puerto Rico and probably arrived a day later than others who played closer to base.

I’d start with the same front four that played the first half in Germany last weekend. That means Giroud in the centre, Podolski on the left, Theo on the right, and Cazorla as the advanced midfielder.

With Song likely to leave, the midfield duo behind these four could very well be Diaby and Arteta, assuming the Spaniard has recovered from the niggle that kept him on the sidelines in Cologne.

Preferred line-up,

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Diaby, Cazorla, Arteta – Walcott, Giroud, Podolski.

In my opinion this is the most balanced starting eleven from the available options. Some people might point to the fact that Gervinho has had a good pre-season and already has Premier League experience but I prefer Prinz Poldi on the left. The German international is technically superior, has a better instinct for goals and gets into excellent positions, and he will be more adept at drifting between the lines and linking with Cazorla.

Gervinho is faster and is the better dribbler but he might not do so well in terms of ball retention and movement when marked tightly and consistently.

That said, I won’t be surprised if Arsene wants to take his time and introduce the new players gradually. There is also the possibility that Podolski will want the central role considering his relative seniority. So there’s a good chance we could see Gervinho on the left and Giroud on the bench.

Some Gooners might also have a view that Coquelin is the better option at right back but I think it’s best to have a specialist in the side even if he’s a youngster who has shown certain weaknesses defensively.

Ramsey is another player who’ll be hoping to get a start, especially after an impressive Olympics campaign with team GB, but he’ll probably have to be satisfied with strengthening a bench that will also include AOC and either Gervinho or Giroud. That should give the Gunners additional firepower in case things are going according to plan.

It’s difficult to see how this game will pan out as the key attacking players haven’t played in the Premiership before. It’s not difficult to see Podolski getting chances to score and Cazorla being the creative hub but space and time will certainly be at a premium and these players will have to produce a performance close to their best to make an impact.

The Gunners have a lot to prove defensively. So far there’s been a lot of talk about positional work being done in training but the words will ring hollow unless they can translate that into a solid performance on the pitch.

I’m looking forward to the game with an open mind and cautious optimism.

Robin Van Persie Departs, “But Life Still Goes On…”

August 16, 2012

Robin van Persie released his statement for the fans on the USA’s independence day. His transfer was announced on India’s. The dates surely must be a coincidence but it’s not too difficult to imagine the Dutchman performing his version of the Queen’s I want to break free to persuade Wenger into selling him all through the summer.

Le Boss might have responded with his own variant as he comes to grip with the departure of another player he’s groomed and brought to world class status for a fight against clubs propelled by petro-dollars within a common sense defying fiscal environment governed by an impotent agency with toothless laws.

Gooners around the world want to break free from this tedious cycle that brings the club so close to the top only to drop back a few notches with transfers that hurt as much as any betrayal one might have faced in personal life.

I guess the universal popularity of some songs stems from the fact that their words are applicable in various contexts. And so, as the line goes, life still goes on…

Van Persie will lose some supporters and gain others. He may be a huge hit at United or a massive flop. Could as well fall somewhere in between. Wenger will devise new ways to compete and look for other players to augment his squad. Fans will show some understanding for both, others will rationalize, some will hate, some will still love the player openly or furtively.

The writing was on the wall, of course, from the moment it was announced that the contract talks had been postponed to last summer. It was set in stone when a gag order that barred RvP from speaking to the press was issued by the Gunners just before the Euros began. RvP’s subsequent statement was more significant in the eyes of fans rather than practically as far as any deal goes. Clearly, Arsenal were not forced into selling him on the cheap.

From the player’s point of view I can understand an urge to leave even if it hurts me deeply. Fabregas, Nasri, and Clichy have bucked the trend of players struggling after leaving Arsenal. They’ve also seen a fair amount of success. There is a tendency among some fans to rationalize and belittle the achievements of those who’ve left but resentful criticisms don’t quite cover the facts. Not only do the departed have medals to show for their moves, they played in teams that were patently stronger than Arsenal last season.

This summer the Gunners have been active and three quality additions have improved the squad without a shadow of doubt. Cazorla is a class act while Podolski and Giroud have tremendous potential. But having fought and failed alongside Cesc, Nasri, and an in-form Arshavin, it’s understandable if Van Persie questions whether these signings are enough.

Interestingly, after his ill-advised statement was released, RvP was criticized for being another mercenary. Some naively insisted that his destination was always going to be City as they’ll offer the heftiest pay check. By choosing United, Persie is now receiving flak for going to a bitter rival. It pains me to say this but there is no doubt most players would think of United as a bigger club than Arsenal. They’ve won a lot more and are rarely as far away from the titles as the Gunners are.

You may doubt their depth and cite last season’s ignominious first round exit from the Champions League as a sign of decay but how’s that different from constant doomsday predictions regarding Arsenal’s chances? Time will tell if Persie made the right footballing choice but I can at least see his reasons even if I don’t like them.

Outside of football related issues, Arsenal’s strongest card was loyalty. The manager saw his potential. The club stood by him during injury ravaged days (months, years!?). Based on that many Gooners, including the manager, wanted the striker to reciprocate the sentiment. This is a point I’ve made often. The players have to realize that without stability and continuity it’s difficult to build a trophy winning squad in the current footballing ecosystem.

But there is also the fact that Arsenal’s and Wenger’s loyalty was not charity. Let’s not forget many fans were not kind and wanted the player sold as he was seemingly made of glass. The manager stuck by his man because he knew just how good RvP could be. He also knew it’d be impossible to get a player of similar calibre without paying a king’s ransom. You could say Arsenal castle of loyalty was built on a self-serving foundation all along, after all Arsene is famously ruthless with players he doesn’t see fitting in.

The Dutchman could argue he’s paid off his debt by keeping Arsenal in the Champions League places last season with some phenomenal performances. Most Gooners will disagree, I certainly will, but let’s not forget the effort he put in last season on and off the pitch. The moment he decided to postpone the contract talks one could sense he wasn’t completely convinced about the squad or his future at the club. But his efforts were impeccable, performances sublime. His leadership on and off the pitch was exemplary. A poorly thought statement and subsequent transfer that strengthens rivals will not change these facts even if some fans choose to bury them deep in their memories.

Don’t get me wrong for one moment. This is not an attempt to defend van Persie. The striker had a choice of going down in Arsenal folklore as a legend or going for personal glory while he still had the legs. He’s made his choice and will live with the consequences. He’ll lose the support of many gooners but if, in his mind, the choice gives him a better shot at the major trophies should he not take it?

We don’t know the future. He might break a leg, one way or the other. Some Gooners will be delighted if he picks up another long term injury but many of those would have abused him just as much if he’d signed a big money deal with the Gunners and then picked up that injury.

Anyway, I don’t want to dwell on the players perspective for too long. He’s decided to move on and, while I’m devastated, I agree it’s time for Arsenal to look forward as well.

The quality of the summer signings gives Arsenal a stronger base to deal with the setback. Some writers have suggested that these acquisitions will cover the loss of Van Persie but I strongly disagree. As Wenger often says, you can only play eleven players. If Arsene could field all three signings in place of RvP Arsenal would be better off. But that’s not going to happen. As it stands either Podolski or Giroud will have to replace the Dutchman, and it’s highly unlikely either of them will have the kind of season RvP had. Cazorla’s presence in the midfield will compensate for the loss to an extent but it’s difficult to see how Arsenal will be significantly better than last season. Let’s not forget we haven’t touched upon the defensive aspect of the game at all and it remains to be seen how the new signings help the collective defending.

Nevertheless, even if the squad is roughly at the same level as last season after the arithmetic of arrivals and departures is done, that is still good enough for a top four challenge. It can get better if there is genuine improvement on the defensive front through work done on the training ground. Arsenal are likely to match the top teams for two-thirds of the season as they’ve done in the recent past. With this summer’s additions, Van Persie could have made the difference in the remaining games but apparently he did not believe so.

The Gunners have reportedly received a substantial fee and many fans would like to see the squad strengthened but as we’ve seen in the past Arsene will probably look for value. Even the quality players who’ve come in this summer have been signed on a relative bargain. There is also the problem of availability of top talent. The Llorentes and Huntelaars of this world are just not in the same league despite being excellent in their own right. They’re more on par with the Dzekos and Berbatovs of the Premier League. Unfortunately Arsenal need a higher degree of quality to compete with squads deeper than most oil wells.

Once again Arsene Wenger has a major challenge in front of him before the start of the season. He’s better prepared and that should ease the burden to an extent. Hopefully he’ll also be able to act quickly and decisively in the coming weeks to further solidify the foundation from which a challenge can be mounted. Sometimes I do worry that one of these days one such event will be the last straw that breaks him. But so far the man is going strong and seems to fight harder with every setback. He knows, life still goes on.

Cologne 0 – 4 Arsenal: New Signings Impress, Regulars Get In The Groove

August 13, 2012

The earlier pre-season friendlies didn’t quite excite me as much. Maybe it was the fact that many first choice players were missing that necessitated the inclusion of many youngsters who clearly weren’t going to play a major part in Arsenal’s season. These issues also made is pointless to look at the tactics of the team or indulge in any sort of detailed discussion of the events of the games.

The friendly against Cologne was different. We saw most of the players who will form an integral part of the squad and the first team. And they looked sharper and faster than the players had done on the Asia tour.

Before talking about the details of the game it’s important to note that the level of the opposition, with respect, wasn’t very high. This was a team that got relegated from the Bundesliga last season and then lost its talisman. Obviously, it wasn’t going to be a gripping contest. Nevertheless, the Germans were at least as strong, if not better, than the sides Arsenal faced in Asia. The fact that the Gunners could dominate the game to such an extent when they’d struggled on the tour to the far east had to do with two factors – The presence of many first choice players, and improved fitness/sharpness. It seems safe to say the short camp in Deutschland has been helpful.

Coming to the game itself, Arsene started with a mixed line-up by spreading first XI players into the two sides that were going to play either half. Some Gooners thought it would have been better to play the side that is likely to start against Sunderland so they can further develop their on-field chemistry, especially with some new players being integrated into the squad,  but Wenger has enough experience to make the right calls on such matters.

The three big signings of the summer all started in the first half. I shared some of my thoughts about the play on twitter during the interval.

Those were my thoughts in a nutshell as it’s tough to get into details with the twitter character limit. So now I’d like to build on some of those points.

Last season, regular readers might have noticed I often talked about the lack of combination play from the Gunners. Often it was just a cross from the right and a goal, or a chip followed by a phenomenal finish from RvP. There were a fair number of through-balls as well. But we didn’t see 3,4, or 5 players combining in the final third, moving around dragging defenders all over the place, runs from deep exploiting the spaces created, and so on.

In the first half, albeit against modest opposition, the Gunners showed admirable understanding in the attacking half and the final third. This led to decisive and meaningful contributions from a number of players in the build up to high quality chances and goals.

For instance, the second goal came from a penalty that was won following a corner which resulted from a shot by Cazorla. The Spaniard was set-up by a deft headed lay-off by Giroud who received a wonderfully weighted cross from Walcott after the winger took his time to make the choice. Not only was this an exciting combination, there was so much here that Arsenal fans have been dying to see.

Firstly, Theo didn’t rush his cross and make a right hash of it. Secondly, he delivered it perfectly instead of sending it high and wide. Then Giroud didn’t simply aim his header towards goal but showed his awareness though a clever choice and technique through its execution. Finally, Cazorla arrived late in the box and got a good shot away.

Of course, this is just one instance, and while you don’t want to bet your house on Giroud picking a dozen headed assists next season or Cazorla scoring ten goals inside the box, a number of such moves (those involving 3 or more players in the final third) during the game show there is every reason to believe the attacking combinations can add greater flexibility and variety to Arsenal’s goal scoring threat. That should go a long way towards countering some weaknesses from last season and in replacing Van Persie if he leaves.

Good link play also makes individuals look impressive. I enjoyed Walcott’s movement as he popped up all over the final third. His decision making and execution wasn’t shabby either. The Englishman will have to perform in this manner against tougher opponents over a period of time to convince many of the fans but the foundation is there.

Giroud’s movement was superb. This is directly linked with his awareness of space and I believe that’s a natural skill that’s difficult to teach. The way he peeled of his markers in the box is not something everyone can learn through coaching. I also loved the fact that he hit the target with four (all?) of his shots although he probably should have scored at least one having been on the end of so many opportunities. The Frenchman also moved into the channels well and looked like he could be a good target man for out-balls when the team is under pressure. I found that was one of the few weaknesses RvP had so it’s good to have a player who adds something different even if the Dutchman stays.

That said, I still think of Grioud as a prodigious talent rather than a proven player. Being a late bloomer, he’s not played many games against big sides and few at Premier League intensity. The rate at which he adapts can have an impact on the way Arsenal’s season shapes up. I am also keen to see how he plays with his back to goal in front of a well-organized defence that gets tight on him.

Podolski wasn’t always in the game but his finishing was composed and that of a confident player. His tendency to drift inside will open angles for the Gunners when they are trying to build from the back but it will also leave the flanks exposed at times. This will be a tricky balance that he’ll have to learn over time. We also got a chance to see the German internationals opportunistic instincts in and around the box along with his lethal left foot. This can be a source of over a dozen goals for the Gunners. I also enjoyed his penchant for playing some quick one-touch passes in tight spaces.

Cazorla might also have had good fun with that and these two can develop a nimble and crafty partnership to create and finish chances around the edge of the box. Parked buses beware.

The Spaniard looks like he’s fitting in at Arsenal effortlessly. We saw his deft flicks, penetrating vision, and delightfully measured passes. More will surely come. The only area of slight concern I have is his ability to chase back. With Podolski or Gervinho on the left and Cazorla in the middle, Arsenal will put a great deal of defensive pressure on the two midfielders behind them. But I want to see how far, how fast, and how often can the Spaniard chase back before forming any opinions on this.

Coquelin and the Ox formed a relatively inexperienced pair in the middle but they were rarely challenged, nor was the defence.

In the second half Arsenal seemed to take the foot off the gas. They had fewer combinations in the final third. The finishing wasn’t as clinical either. But it seemed alright for a game where gaining match fitness was the primary concern.

Van Persie ran around and tried linking with his teammates but his heart didn’t seem in it. Maybe I’m reading too much into this but it told me he was on his way out.

Gervinho was his typical “exciting and frustrating at the same time” self. His runs, tenacity, and the goal were a delight. But he also messed up a gilt-edged chance created by Arshavin and failed to pick Podolski who was open in front of an empty net. Expect a mixed bag from him all through the season with the dominant side depending on his fitness and confidence levels.

There wasn’t much to say about the defenders but I did notice a number of gaps in the defence that Cologne failed to utilize. I don’t think there’s any cause to condemn anyone for defensive lapses after such a game but it’s safe to say we didn’t see any marked signs of improvements on that front either and it remains a concern.

Overall it was an enjoyable game and has definitely brought the buzz back. Can’t wait for the season to begin.