Arsenal 1 – 2 Chelsea: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 30, 2012

Wenger made 11 changes from the side that dismantled Coventry with ease but it was the one alteration to the starting eleven against City that might have proven decisive. Everybody expected Vermaelen to come back into the squad, he’s the Captain after all. The question was whether it will be Mertesacker who makes way or Koscielny.

Arsene left the German out, perhaps to give him a longer rest as he’s played the first five League games and the Champions League tie. It could also have been a tactical move. It seemed to me that Wenger wanted his team to press/play higher up the pitch in this game. As was discussed in the Preview, Arsenal were able to rely on counter-attacking football against Liverpool and City but the Gunners had to show greater initiative and control at home. So it is highly like that Wenger wanted two quick and aggressive defenders who would help with the high line and have the pace to recover.

The thing with Mertesacker is that he tends to drop back whenever he senses danger. This allows him to compensate for his relatively slower speed through intelligent reading of the game, but it does affect the shape of the team and tends to pull everyone deeper. Or at times he plays opponents on because he’s the only one who goes deep. This issue is not as pronounced in away games where a deep-lying defence is understandable or against smaller teams who do not possess sufficient attacking potency. But at home against a Chelsea side brimming with quick, clever, fleet-footed players, it’s not difficult to see the reasoning Wenger might have had.

The problem for the Gunners however, was that they just couldn’t get the high press going. In the opening minutes we could see Gervinho and Cazorla pressing the Chelsea defenders with some support from the wide players but the midfield didn’t follow through and the defence stayed fairly deep. There were moments when you could see Bould and/or Wenger egging the players to push up but their expression soon turned to a grimace and finally resignation when they realized it wasn’t working out.

This failure to press higher up the pitch had a big impact on the patterns of play. Chelsea were very comfortable at the back and were able to play out with ease. In possession, they could control 3/4th of the pitch but the Gunners were defensively solid in their deep quarter. The visitors saw a lot of the ball and their players got into very good positions to run at the defence but Arsenal’s structure and discipline was keeping them at bay.

At the other end, the Gunners weren’t able to move forward quite as fluently. Chelsea weren’t employing a high pressing strategy either but they did well to slow Arsenal down through half-pressing which ensured players on the ball didn’t have clear passing channels or easy forward passes. So Arsenal’s early attacks were limited to pops from distance as the visitors got enough time to get back into a deep and narrow shape. Width would have been helpful but Ramsey and Podolski didn’t really offer much. The full-backs were trying but they were often crossing the ball when Arsenal had one or two against six or more in the box.

The opening exchanges were cagey but Chelsea looked like they had greater territorial control. This helped them create the first goal. Hazard was able to pick the ball up in space on the left before running forward to play a one-two with Torres, who did an excellent job of holding his own in front of Vermaelen. Hazard had gotten in between the lines and would have been running towards Koscielny so Vermaelen probably thought it best to attack the ball. But you could argue the merits of that decision as Arteta was chasing back. As it happened, the Belgian lunged for the ball and conceded a set-piece.

Arsenal’s organization for the free-kick seemed like a mess. Diaby’s early substitution might have been the cause as he was probably assigned to mark Luiz. Oxlade-Chamberlain seemed completely unaware of his role. Both Vermaelen and Koscielny could be seen gesturing towards Luiz and saying something, presumably a plea or command directed towards AOC, but it didn’t have the required efffect. The Chelsea centre-back had a free run and was completely unmarked in the box as the ball just sailed over him. However, his positioning and the lack of marking had enough of an impact on Koscielny who lost his bearings and got turned for a few vital moments when Torres was able to stick a foot up and guide the ball towards goal. The Frenchman should never have ended up facing his own goal. The correct approach for him would have been to have his right arm on Torres, just to track the striker’s movement, with his body facing forward so he could have a clear sight of the ball. Once he lost visual contact there was no way he could have prevented Torres from scoring. But it wasn’t just Koscielny’s fault, this was just poor organization on the set-piece to go with his incorrect body positioning. More work is needed on the training ground.

Arsenal, as we’ve come to expect since last season, didn’t give up but went hard at Chelsea who seemed to have eased off.

The pressure paid dividends as the equalizer came from an Oxlade-Chamberlain cross that  Gervinho controlled and finished with aplomb. Both events were a surprise. That was AOC’s only cross in 8 attempts that actually found an Arsenal player. And Gervinho’s composure and technique are rarely this lethal in conjunction. But Chelsea were forcing Arsenal wide and the Gunners produced the necessary response. The game was level again and there was everything to play for.

Arsenal had a good spell after the goal and started the second half in ascendancy. Chelsea were pushed deep for a sustained period but that proved to be Arsenal’s undoing.

It started with a rare loose pass from Arteta at a time when Vermaelen had pushed up the pitch. The midfielder then went to ground, as Chelsea quickly played the ball forward, but failed with his attempted tackle. This left the centre of defence exposed and forced Vermaelen into charging back. The defender was once again rash with his attempted tackle and conceded another set-piece in a position close to where the first originated.

This time Mata’s ball went straight through shaving Koscielny’s shin on the way. I thought it was poor goalkeeping as there was no Chelsea player in a position to attack the ball. Mannone should have read the situation and called for Koscielny to pull out. It should have been the Keeper’s ball but he was late to react and never reached it. But once again you could ask broader questions about set-piece organization and decision making. Someone should have been in position to attack that ball before it got that deep and low. Oddly enough, this wasn’t even zonal marking.

Arsenal tried to get back into the game and created a number of half-chances. Podolski had a header well saved by Cech, Cazorla wasted more than one decent opening by blasting way wide of the target, Giroud hit one on target but missed the best chance of equalizing late in the game after he was put through with Cech. The French striker showed good control and composure in rounding the Keeper but just didn’t know where the goalposts were.

It’s worth noting that Arsenal’s inability to press as a unit meant that they were not able to lay siege on the Chelsea goal towards the end as a top team would do when chasing the game at home. Even Montpellier had long phases where they boxed Arsenal in. That’s somewhat linked to the shape of the team and the new defensive approach but the entire discussion is out of the scope of this already extremely long post.

At the end of the day it’s difficult to say Arsenal deserved anything from the game. You can’t concede such soft goals and expect to win. You can’t hit the target with 4 of your 17 shots and deserve three points. Most importantly, this isn’t the first time the attackers have failed to hit the target or the defence has gifted goals, so there really is no excuse.

 Individual Performances:

Mannone: Don’t blame him for the first goal as Luiz’s position would have forced him to stay on his line but communication could have been better. Definitely a culprit for the second IMO. Had very little to do otherwise.

Jenkinson: Another solid game from the youngster. Defended his flank, ventured forward more often than he has in the recent past, could do better in the final third but showed good confidence and determination.

Koscielny: At least partially at fault for both goals. Won only 1 of his 6 ground duels. Couldn’t contribute as much as Mertesacker does for ball circulation. A disappointing game in general but did make some timely clearances and interceptions.

Vermaelen: Conceded the two fouls that led to both goals. Interestingly, has 3/3 for tackles and 3/5 for ground duels – does that mean the fouls were classified as ground duels lost? These things do make me wonder about the definition of stats. Stats also say he was 6/7 on aerial duels but you also got a feeling Torres was able to hold his own in front of Vermaelen. Was bit of a mixed bag for the Belgian. Needs to work on his judgment and tackling technique. The penalty against Montpellier and these two fouls are just a continuation of some long standing weaknesses.

Gibbs: Probably the best of Arsenal’s defenders. Had the most touches, recovered possession most often, made 5 interceptions, and was 8/9 on tackles, 9/13 on ground duels. Was easily the busiest and most hard working defender on the pitch. Did make one or two mistakes, like the foul he conceded on the edge of the box, but given his work rate and contribution at both ends it’s tough to find faults.

After the game I read some criticism of the Kos-Verm partnership but that was a bit baffling. The problem in this game was not with the partnership but with certain individual decisions and technical aspects along with organizational issues and the failure of the pressing tactic. It’s easy to say Mertesacker would have been different but over the last 3-4 years we’ve seen many players have good and bad patches so such simplifications don’t really help.

Arteta: Absolutely immense once again but it seemed he was a bit isolated in this game and was stretched to his limits which led to some uncharacteristic errors not least of which was the poor pass and failed attempt at tackling in the build-up to the Chelsea winner. Still I’d say his effort was very important to Arsenal’s defence and overall possession game.

Cazorla: Missed two or three semi-decent chances (according to soccernet stats he has 1 goal in 23 shots with 8 on target i.e. less than 5 percent conversion rate, ~33% accuracy). Saw a lot of the ball and moved it around but wasn’t able to influence play in the final third in a decisive manner. Set-piece delivery wasn’t effective but that’s an issue with the whole team and thus related to training.

Diaby: It was always going to be tough. Lasted just over a quarter of an hour. Did complete all his 12 passes in that period and contributed 1 of Arsenal’s total 4 shots on target. Was missed for the rest of the game as Arteta didn’t get sufficient support.

Ramsey: Started on the right but moved to the centre after Diaby was subbed. It seemed he didn’t really understand his role. Kept pushing forward more often than necessary. Decision making was poor as he sometimes played quick passes when an extra touch could have helped and held on to the ball when an early release seemed like the better choice. It was as if he was playing as the attacking midfielder rather than Arteta’s partner who connected defence to attack.

The midfield did a decent job of protecting the defence from open play but both goals came from set-pieces that were conceded after the midfield was bypassed by the attacking players. Replacing Diaby and maintaining the delicate balance between attack and defence will be a challenge for Arsene.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Didn’t start the game but played long enough to be considered a starter. Created Arsenal’s two best chances – the Goal and Giroud’s late miss – but also wasted many opportunities to cross and one prominent chance to shoot. Saw a lot of the ball but couldn’t really express himself.

Gervinho: Took his goal well. Work rate was again very good but overall contribution leaves a lot to be desired. Again had a total loss of possession stat of 14 in 34 touches including 2 unsuccessful touches, 3 dispossessed, and 1 overrun. Has to learn to take care of the ball better and to link up with others in the attacking areas.

Podolski: Chelsea kept the central area packed and that limited the goal scoring opportunities he could get. Did a decent job of helping the defence. But in general he didn’t offer enough from the left.

I thought in such a game Podolski and Gervinho should have swapped places more often. Arsenal could have used a presence in front of the Chelsea defence, someone who could link play with his back to goal. The crossing game, even though it brought the equalizer, didn’t look like a genuine threat on a consistent basis. Arsenal’s passing and combinations were not quick enough in the final third.

Subs: Giroud should have scored once he rounded Cech but he’s hit the target once in 11 shots and that too was a deflected shot that Cech saved. He plays like a talented youngster who still doesn’t quite have his angles worked out. Walcott was disappointing.

Wenger: Ultimately the errors on set-pieces come back to the boss as they’re not a one-off. Don’t blame him for picking Koscielny but his team’s failure to press cohesively and consistently can only be sorted in training. One might wonder if Arshavin would have been a better choice than Walcott. Has a headache in the striking department and now possibly in midfield if Diaby stays out for a long period.

Sometimes I just wonder if the ‘Be a Gooner, Be a Giver’ mantra is too deeply ingrained in everyone’s mindset at the club. Maybe they’re also taking ‘Charity begins at home’ rather literally. Alas! Silly jokes can’t alleviate the suffering after such a game. The next one can’t come soon enough…

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Chelsea

September 29, 2012

Chelsea’s visit to the Emirates at this juncture in the season seems to have set up a clash of two teams with relatively similar styles but moving in opposite directions in terms of their tactical approach.

In the recent past, the Blues used to be a side that relied on a solid defensive shape, a hard working midfield, and a physically dominant striker. This often allowed them to get the better of a more proactive and technically-oriented Arsenal side that tended to be vulnerable against quick counter-attacks or balls in the air.

The summer signings have made Chelsea a more technical side that now seems to rely more on fluidity, ball control, and combination play in the attacking areas even in the big games, although we have limited evidence of this.

Arsenal, on the other hand, have worked very hard on their defensive shape and so far this season have relied more on counter-attacks than dynamic football, particularly against stronger opponents. The likes of Southampton and Coventry aside, the Gunners haven’t seriously troubled other defences through their possession football in open play. But the new-found solidity at the back has ensured most results haven’t been disappointing.

Of course, both teams have enough players who can circulate the ball and either side is capable of defending resolutely but the primary approach of both teams seems to be changing, at least in the short term.

With that in mind it will be interesting to see how this game pans out. It was easier for Arsenal to rely on the counter-attacking style in away games at Anfield and the Etihad stadium but will they adopt a similar approach at home? Wenger has repeatedly mentioned the importance of home form over the course of the season as it enables a side to gain an advantage over direct rivals while demonstrating consistency. In that regard the onus will be on the Gunners. A draw away to City can be deemed respectable but points dropped at home are almost always a cause for concern.

Interestingly, the similarities between the sides is not limited to their playing philosophy. Both have central strikers who are proving to be inconsistent at best. It’s also likely that the teams will line up with a direct attacking threat on one flank and a more balancing, technical, hard working player on the other. Bulk of the combination play could come from the left side of both teams whereas the right has more orthodox wing play. That said, we might also see the tricky players on either side drifting to the right in certain phases of the game.

Chelsea pose a potent attacking threat with multiple ways of hurting the opposition. Apart from the fluidity discussed above, they continue to offer a challenge from crosses – mainly with their full backs charging forward in an intelligent manner, and through shots from distance. The fleet-footed nature of some of their players also increases the likelihood of winning penalties (set-pieces in general) and that’s something Arsenal have to be cautious against as they’ve already given away a sloppy one against Montpellier, could easily have conceded a second in that game, and one to Aguero in the game against City.

Individual mistakes like lapses in concentration, a rush-of-blood tackle, indifferent tracking, or casual positioning are more likely to be punished by such an opponent. Di Matteo also seems like a manager who will pay close attention to the weak spots in Arsenal’s zonal marking on set-pieces.

At the other end the Gunners will create some chances. Chelsea no longer seem impenetrable as their efforts to change their style of play has made their defensive structure somewhat porous. The likes of Hazard, Oscar, ad Mata do work hard when called upon but aren’t as consistent or meticulous at the back as some of their predecessors were.

Podolski likes to drift into the middle and that could, at least for few but vital moments, give the Gunners a numerical advantage in the central areas. Quick, accurate interchanges coupled with well-timed runs during such moments can open Chelsea up. The German could also get scoring opportunities in the inside channel or central areas if he spots the openings when they appear. Obviously, a team like Chelsea will not leave gaping holes throughout the game as Coventry or Southampton did so timing and opportunism will be the essential qualities.

Wenger’s choice on the right will also have a major bearing on this game. He could retain Ramsey on the flank to provide the extra technical quality that helps in ball circulation but that could create a congestion in the centre if both wide players start drifting in. One way out of that would be to have Gervinho drifting to the right and Podolski driving further forward when he comes through the middle. But such a choice on the right could be deemed a more defensive approach.

Oxlade-Chamberlain or Walcott (or Gervinho if Giroud starts down the middle) will provide a more positive outlet on the flank albeit at the cost of consistency and passing angles as they’ll lose the ball more often and see a lot less of it. Ashley Cole has the ability to move up the pitch rather quickly and Chelsea are adept at switching flanks so a winger on Arsenal’s right flank could open the game up for both sides.

As ever it’s tough to get inside Wenger’s head but I’ll be very surprised if we see many changes from the side that started against City.

Vermaelen is likely to come back. Mertesacker deserves to retain his place as he’s been consistent and effective at the back but Arsene could go with Koscielny if he want to hold a relatively high line instead of having a high line that tends to drop back when possession is lost.

Preferred line-up,

Mannone – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Diaby – Ramsey, Gervinho, Podolski.

Mannone has not been confident against some high balls into the box as his judgment has been erroneous. Di Matteo and his staff must have spotted that. Chelsea don’t really have great physical presence in the box through their attacking players so it will be interesting to see if they can challenge him on that front from open play (set-plays will obviously a test).

Jenkinson had a fairly solid outing against City but to an extent Mancini made his job easier by picking Sinclair. Hazard will pose a bigger threat and leaving the young full-back alone in a one-v-one against such a tricky player will hurt Arsenal. Mertesacker, Arteta, and the wide player on the right will also have to provide cover from time to time based on the positions of play. This could be particularly vital if Chelsea overload that flank.

On the whole this has all the makings of an entertaining encounter that will be much more open than the drab 0-0 between the sides at the Emirates last season but it won’t be quite as frenetic as the  goal-fest at the Bridge. As is common in games between such sides, one that makes fewer errors and/or takes its chances will take the points.

Arsenal 6 – 1 Coventry: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 27, 2012

I wanted to watch the game without seeing the score but that didn’t work out as they kept flashing the score updates during the United – Newcastle game. Thankfully, the margin of victory liberated me while watching the game and made it more bearable at times, for such was the pedestrian nature of the two sides, particularly in the first half. If you haven’t seen it yet but plan to, I’d recommend skipping the opening half hour or the entire first half. Watch Giroud’s account opening moment in the highlights, there was little else to enjoy.

Coventry came out with a relatively positive attitude and didn’t sit deep in front of their penalty box. Their defence lined up midway through their half and the line in front was formed around the centre of the pitch. This is a tactic we’ve seen often enough but it’s success relies on aggressive marking at the back and a cohesive pressing shape up front. The visitors managed that for part of the game but they also left the Gunners  free on many a occasion. Arsenal found spaces between the lines rather easily and many of the forward runs were not tracked diligently.

The Gunners tried a lot balls in behind, mainly through Arshavin in an advanced central position, but rarely got it right. Far too many passes were wayward and wasteful. On other occasions players lost possession by dribbling into a crowd or through poor touches. The visiting custodian was largely untroubled.

The goal came from a sequence of quick and somewhat fortuitous passing that broke the high line of defence. Oxlade-Chamberlin played a ball from his own half to Arshavin who flicked it forward first time. It seemed like the ball was over hit but it worked to Arsenal’s advantage as the central defender was tempted to challenge for it allowing Coquelin to get a lunging toe on it. Giroud was put clean through on goal and lifted his shot over the Keeper.

At the other end, Coventry were able to head a couple of crosses towards goal from threatening positions in the Arsenal box but couldn’t hit the target.

The visitors came out with greater desire in the second half but that only served to open the game up even more which actually made it even easier for Arsenal.

Giroud missed a penalty that Arshavin had won after pouncing on the centre back’s weak header early in the second half. But chances and goals kept coming.

Oxlade-Chamberlain blasted one in from distance. A clever interceptions from Yennaris in the centre circle led to a quick counter that Arshavin scored from. Giroud picked up the assist. Coventry just weren’t able to track the runs Arsenal were making.

Wenger introduced Gnabry, Frimpong, and Chamakh for Oxlade-Chamberlain, Coquelin, and Giroud with less than 20 minutes to play.

Yennaris picked up an assist by setting up Walcott after again picking up possession in the middle of the pitch.

With just over 10 minutes to go, Gnabry and Santos were caught in the middle of the pitch as Coventry found space down the right. Miquel was pulled wide and there were acres of space in the penalty box. The cross was accurate as was the finish by Ball.

Soon after that Miquel scored the fifth from a corner. Arshavin again provided the assist.

Walcott completed the scoring with a well-taken individual goal minutes before the final whistle. His circular run was reminiscent of Cazorla’s run against Liverpool but the Englishman didn’t have to play a one-two. The full-backs error of judgment meant that he could simply waltz into the box without pressure. His shot was more like a pass to the far post which showed the kind of composure and instinctive awareness of goalposts that Gervinho has been lacking.

The opponents seem to be going through a very tough phase and there were far too many weaknesses in their game. It seems pointless to read too much into this performance but it should have been a good run out for some of the players who needed time on the pitch.

Individual Performances:

Martinez: Had a presence in front of goal. Made one catch look spectacular but wasn’t really tested.

Angha: Showed energy and a degree of intelligence with his forward runs but the final ball/shot was very disappointing. Defensive skills need work.

Djourou: Apart from a free header from a corner that he hit straight at the Keeper and some routine defensive moments it’s hard to recall what he did. That’s not to say he was poor, just that it was more like a straightforward training run for him.

Miquel: Did make some useful tackles. Scored his goal well and hit the bar with another header. Had a decent standing jump and seems to have grown in confidence and technique.

Santos: Disappointing game from the left back. Seemed too casual and disinterested at times. Wasn’t really tested but he might have done better for the goal.

The back five had a stress free outing and it became easier as the goals went in at the other end.

Coquelin: Seemed steady with his distribution, didn’t try too many fancy passes, picked up the assist for the first goal from a surprisingly high position on the pitch, respectable defensive effort, seemed miffed when substituted.

Arshavin: Was at the heart of almost everything creative that Arsenal did. Scored one, had two assists, and one pre-assist. Could have had another assist if Giroud had converted the penalty. But he also lost possession far too often with ambitious one-touch passes that didn’t come off. Didn’t have to track back as the opponents barely threatened the Arsenal goal.

Yennaris: Made a couple of vital recoveries in the middle that lead to goals, wasn’t as composed when venturing into the crowded final third, did a decent job of shielding the defence but looks like he needs more practice and a loan spell before he can be an option in midfield against tougher opposition.

The midfield wasn’t put under pressure, except for small patches during the game, and they had an easy time passing the ball. Retained a good shape in front of the back four and limited the opportunities Coventry could create.

Walcott: Drifted into a central area for most of the game. Was it with the blessings of the manager or was he trying to send a message? Good composure, shooting technique, and awareness of the goalposts for both his goals. But his touch wasn’t convincing in other areas of the pitch.

Giroud: Sadly, he didn’t get enough service despite Arsenal having such an easy ride. Composed and clinical finish for the first goal. Penalty was well struck but the Keeper did well to save it. Good assist for Arshavin’s goal. Movement, in general, remains his strength.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Was too individualistic, bordering on showboating at times, particularly in the first half. Cracking strike for his goal but he needs to offer much more when he gets so much time and space. Will do well to look at Arshavin’s effort in this game to see how often the Russian tried to bring other teammates into play and how he was aware of gaps on the pitch with respect to his own position.

The front three scored 4 goals between them but neither had a consistently good game. Giroud might be disappointed with the two wide men who hardly ever found him in or around the box. Walcott poses a problem for Arsene – he’s better at scoring than Gervinho but will lose the ball more often and won’t offer the same ability to beat players as the Ivorian does. Over 90 minutes who adds greater value to the team is a tough question to answer.

Subs: Was good to see Frimpong on the pitch once again. Theo’s solo goal gave him an assist. The world might have forgotten Chamakh but he hasn’t forgotten his game. It was typical Chamakh, playing intricate one-twos and lay-offs but not threatening the goal himself. Gnabry looked too eager to score. But he does seem to have good control over the ball while running and shooting.

This was more a game for making observations rather than forming any conclusions. The second half in particular was quite enjoyable for its open and entertaining nature along with some moments which offered food for thought.

Thoughts On Game Against Coventry City

September 26, 2012

It’s difficult to write about such a game. Almost everything is conjecture.

Coventry City got relegated from the Championship last season and are currently second from bottom in League One having lost the last five league games. What does one expect from such a team? Furthermore, they’ve just recently appointed a new manager, Mike Robbins, and only time will tell what he is or isn’t able to do with the players he has available.

Since this is a home game for Arsenal it’ll be a surprise and a major disappointment if the Gunners don’t dictate play and create some opportunities to score. The game will be more interesting if Coventry come out in the spirit of a Cup tie and play higher up the pitch. Whether they can do that will depend on their confidence levels and tactical approach as well as the side that Arsene Wenger fields.

The Gunners’ boss knows such games cannot be taken lightly. The technical difference between sides can be negated by poor attitude and Arsenal are not likely to enjoy a scrappy battle, especially if some youngsters are picked. It’s vital that the seniors who are picked take the opportunity to show they deserve a start in the big games.

Djourou, Santos, Arshavin, Giroud, Walcott, Coquelin, and Oxlade-Chamberlain could all get a game and have something to prove to the boss. Put youngster Damien Martinez in goal and that’s 8 of the 11 places taken. Wenger will still have to pick three more players and those choices could be the difference between a quality Arsenal performance or a nervy, disjointed one.

The problem with the names listed above is that there are too many players who have a direct style of play and are capable of losing the ball at inopportune moments. As we’ve seen over the last few years, once the possession game fails any Arsenal side tends to struggle. The opponents get their confidence up, the crowd gets fidgety, and any technical or tactical superiority is surrendered.

Arsene will have openings at right back. centre back, and midfield to fill if the eight players discussed above are picked (or if Chamakh starts over Giroud). Yennaris seems like the prime choice for right back and Wenger said in his interview with Arsenal Player that Miquel will play. That only leaves one role in the centre of the park alongside Coquelin. Hopefully, that will go to one of the first team midfielders. Ramsey could be a good choice considering he’s not played as much as the others and seems to be hitting a rich vein of form.

Arsenal could look like,

Martinez – Yennaris, Djourou, Miquel, Santos – Coquelin, AOC, Ramsey – Walcott, Giroud, Arshavin.

I don’t know if that team has the right balance but it definitely has a great deal of pace. If I was the Coventry manager I’d be tempted to press high against such an Arsenal side but the risk of leaving space in behind for Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain to charge into would worry me all night. I’d also have some hopes of troubling that defence on the break and through set-pieces.

The real problem for Arsenal could be that these players don’t really read each other’s game as well and that leads to unforced errors on the pitch. An early goal will certainly help settle things but if the game goes on scoreless for a while the visitors will grow into it.

I don’t expect Arsenal to have great bench strength. We might see the likes of Gnabry, Olsson, Bellerin, Eastmond, and Frimpong on the bench. It will be a surprise is any of those who started against City is picked to provide a plan B in case things go south.

At best Chamakh and Squillaci might be the senior names among the substitutes. That’s assuming Wenger wants them in the squad and doesn’t include them in the starting eleven. He could leave Yennaris and Ramsey out, put AOC with Coquelin in the middle, shift Djourou to the right, include Squillaci at centre back, and Chamakh at centre forward in a 4-4-2 that would be a recipe for disaster. I hope that doesn’t happen as it’s difficult to see any benefit in giving playing time to Squillaci or Chamakh.

We’ve seen an unbalanced Arsenal team struggle to impose Wenger’s preferred style on the game. Ipswich and Leeds are good examples from recent past. When that happens it really boils down to the oppositions quality on the day and the defensive discipline and resolve that the Gunners can display. Hopefully it won’t come to that. The players who are selected should have enough ability between them to do the job. It’s just a matter of avoiding mistakes, keeping things simple, adhering to what they have been taught, and taking their chances. They’ll have a full stadium to back them and some of these Gunners can use the opportunity to earn the support.

I don’t know if the game is available live anywhere. I’ll be watching it once it’s up on Arsenal Player, which reminds me I’ve to try to find a way to watch it spoiler free. Loading the page where the first half is uploaded before the game and refreshing it later when the time is right has worked once in the past.

Here’s to one capital performance from the Gunners and not a COCup.

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

September 24, 2012

This was going to be an open game but Mancini’s team selection also made it a very interesting one. The Italian went with only one defensive minded midfielder, if you can call Garcia that, while picking Silva on one flank and Sinclair (what is he doing at City!?) on the other. It was difficult to understand the exact reasoning behind these choices. It could be that the City manager wanted pace on one side and creativity on the other but freshness is more likely to be the reason as he made five changes to the side that lost against Madrid.

His counterpart also made a couple of changes. Vermaelen was left out, reportedly, due to health issues, with Koscielny coming in and Ramsey came in for Giroud with Gervinho moving from the wing to a more central role. Clearly, Wenger wanted greater technical quality on the pitch to deal with opponents who can hold on to the ball.

It worked for Arsene and the game might have left Mancini with a headache over his squad depth. There aren’t many teams who come and dominate possession at the Etihad stadium but the Gunners did just that. In fairness though, Hart wasn’t the busier Keeper.

It was relatively tight in the first half. Arsenal were cautious and didn’t commit too many bodies forward. City weren’t able to hold on to the ball and build attacks as they normally do so their moves seemed rushed or reliant on Aguero conjuring something up from the left. Neither side created too many clear chances although both had a few moments that could have been productive but for poor choices and/or execution in the final third.

The Gunners combined well to create some openings on the counter-attack as they found space against an attack-minded City line-up. But none of these forced a big save from Hart. Gervinho’s horrible first touch in the 15th minute was a prime example but there were many others. Gibbs (as has been noted here after at least a couple of previous matches) didn’t get his final pass right after getting into promising positions in attacking areas. Diaby and Podolski were also guilty of either holding on to the ball for too long or picking the wrong pass. Arsenal just had two shots on target in the first half but both were from outside the box and rather innocuous.

The hosts didn’t create much either. Mannone made a couple of saves but you expect the Keeper to make those. He did make a mistake on a corner in the 39th minute and City scored but it would be unfair to single the Keeper out.

It was a simple corner and a backpost header from a running jump. Arsenal have been using zonal marking on set-pieces but it didn’t work this time. It’s difficult to say whether the system was at fault or the individuals. Koscielny and Podolski couldn’t get any elevation from a standing jump, Mannone came but missed the ball by an embarrassing margin, and even if he’d stayed back odds of saving a bullet header to the top corner were pretty low.

So is it the system’s fault or that of the players? The answer lies in the abilities of the individuals. If they cannot get enough elevation from a standing jump – Vermaelen does – then using such a system is very risky. If they can, then they are at fault for not executing their roles in a desired manner. Time will tell whether the system works for this team or needs to be changed. Meanwhile, some routines in training will probably help the coaches assess the player-system fit.

The second period was somewhat different. Mancini introduced Rodwell for Sinclair. After an initial push at the beginning, the hosts played deeper in their half and allowed Arsenal to control the middle third. But the Gunners still struggled on the chance creation front with Hart having a peaceful time. City looked dangerous on the break but it was their turn to waste promising positions. For instance, Toure went on a powerful run down the middle in the 80th minute but took an age to make up his mind allowing Arsenal to get bodies behind and salvage what was a 3-v-2 in favour of the hosts.

The equalizer came from a corner that resulted from another Cazorla blast from distance. This time Hart saw it late and barely kept the ball out. Arsenal benefitted from a couple of mistakes by City’s defenders. Lescott didn’t get any power on his clearance even though he wasn’t under pressure. The ball fell kindly to Koscielny who was left free by Toure. The defender’s shot was unstoppable.

Both sides had one glorious chance to win it late. City’s came from another set-piece. Kompany controlled a partial clearance and tested Mannone with a bicycle kick. The Keeper made a good save but the ball fell in a dangerous central area inside the six yard box. Koscielny rushed his clearance and ended up passing it to Aguero at the near post. The striker tried beating Mannone at the far post but missed by a whisker.

At the other end, Gervinho found himself in space in a central area just inside City’s box but his shot was as woefully high.

On the balance of play a draw seemed a fair result but City might be aggrieved Aguero didn’t get a penalty after a foul by Koscielny. If strikers don’t get the call when they stay on their feet, you can’t blame them for going down at the slightest of touches. Then again, Mike Dean was unnaturally lenient in this game and he’d probably have made the same decision if the event happened in the other box.

Individual Performances:

Mannone: Made some important saves but the kind you expect a Keeper to make. The goal wasn’t really his fault but his weakness against balls in the air, especially poor judgment of flight, has been visible in previous games as well.

Jenkinson: Had a steady game on the right with a couple of useful attacking runs. Benefitted from the fact that Sinclair offered very little threat and City were more conservative in the second half. Saw a lot of the ball again and his passing was more composed and reliable in this game.

Mertesacker: Close shout for MotM in my book. Broke City’s counter-attacking opportunities with intelligent positioning and interceptions on a number of occasions. His tactical intelligence and reading of the game was top class. Passing was composed but not at his typically high level.

Koscielny: Mixed bag for the Frenchman. Scored the vital goal, made a number of timely clearances, was active and effective in defence (5/6 tackles, 6/6 ground duels, 4/6 aerial duels). But he wasn’t able to challenge Lescott for the goal, could have conceded a penalty, and almost gifted a goal to Aguero late in the game. The errors, while few, could have been devastating.

Gibbs: Another impressive game from the youngster but he continues to struggle in the final third. Passing was good for the most part but just didn’t find his teammates when well placed in or around the City box. Wasn’t as effective in tackles or duels but did make some useful interceptions. Most importantly, found a good balance between attacking runs and defensive duties.

The defenders did a commendable job at a difficult ground against top quality opponents. They benefitted from the control that the midfield exerted and the shape of the side as a whole.

Arteta: MotM IMO. ‘Mr Dependable’ completed 100 passes out of his 106 attempts. Got into positions his teammates could find and kept the ball moving, often playing a useful early part in the build-up of attacks. Remains ‘The Wall’ in front of the defence. Recovered possession more than any other player on the pitch and made some timely interceptions. A classic selfless display that made others looks better.

Cazorla: Saw a lot of the ball and was busy in the attacking areas. Created most of the potential opportunities that the Gunners managed to squander. Took the most shots and won the corner that led to the goal.

Diaby: Another one who had a mixed bag. Had a few moments when his presence and power on the pitch was helpful to the team but he was also dispossessed 6 times. Began to tire in the second half and had to come off.

The midfield was conservative in the first half, showed respect to the opponents but kept them in check. They were able to push forward in the second half but couldn’t do enough to break City down from open play.

Ramsey: Another player who came close to the MotM. Attempted and completed the most passes in the final third, and was second highest on those stats in general. Created a fantastic chance for Gervinho. Ramsey was all over the pitch and carried the form from his impressive cameos into this game. Looked stronger on the ball and fractionally sharper when running.

Gervinho: For much of last season I wrote match reports that described him as “exciting and frustrating at the same time”. The same continues although in this game the frustration element must have set a new record. Wasted a number of good chances through poor technique as his touch or shot let him down. Lost possession a total of 19 times including 4 unsuccessful touches and 4 dispossessed while making a total of 56 touches. When moved wide he reverted to the tendency to run into crowds that he showed against Sunderland in the first game. Attempted 12 dribbles with only 4 successful. Easily the most disappointing player on the pitch.

Podolski: Did a decent defensive job on the left and drifted in to help the possession game. City’s organization and defensive qualities meant he didn’t find any space to run into in central areas. Didn’t offer much in the form of width. We can only wish one of the chances that fell to Gervinho had fallen to Poldi but that’s the price to pay for the balance he brings to the left flank.

The front three, it’s difficult to call them attackers or strikers in this game, added to Arsenal’s quality in the middle and supported the defence but they could not make the difference in the decisive areas up front.

Subs: None of the substitutes had a substantial impact on the game.

Wenger: Brave and commendable choice to pick Ramsey for such a big game. His team showed fight after going down and largely retained their defensive shape. Still has to find the solution to the centre-forward conundrum and needs to find a way to break down strong, well-organized, and often deep-lying defences from open play.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Manchester City

September 23, 2012

Going to a ground where the hosts have been undefeated in the last 31 games, winning 29 of those, is always a tough ask. Despite all the off-pitch debate, there’s no doubt Mancini has assembled a stellar squad capable of providing multiple threats while keeping it solid at the back. Their performances and results on the pitch provide clearly visible proof.

Interestingly, the vibes I’ve seen in the media seem to suggest it’s been a weak start for the defending champions. Those for Arsenal have been much more positive. Curiously enough, both teams have the exact same points with the Blues unlucky not to pick all the points against Stoke. The slant in various stories and the perception of some fans has again been affected by expectations. Not many foresaw a strong start from the Gunners, especially after couple of goalless draws in the first two games, so the recent results have brought along a wave of optimism. The hosts started the season as holders and questions are asked every time they drop points.

That said, recent games between the sides, particularly last year when the results over the course of the season were so different, have been gripping but cagey. Both teams have very similar technical styles and the midfields tend to cancel each other out which makes it a tight encounter decided by the player who makes the most of half a chance.

This one could be different though, as both teams are playing much deeper than they’ve done in the last couple of seasons. You probably noticed just how deep and narrow Arsenal were against Montpellier on Tuesday. Even in the two league wins before that there were phases when the Gunners dropped back to the edge of their box and defended with two banks of four.

According to Mancini, City’s defeat against Real in midweek was down to the fact that his side went too deep,

When you score two goals here and are 2-1 you should pay more attention. I saw the [Ronaldo] goal … the mistake was we went too deep, only this. We should have had more courage at this time.

This wasn’t a one-off, the Manchester Blues haven’t been on top of their defensive game this season letting in 10 goals in 6 games. Arsenal can punish teams that are not fully focused at the back.

There is a possibility both teams will take a cautious approach to this game, although the onus is more on the hosts to take the initiative. Wenger’s team’s usually go out to play football but I won’t be surprised if they rely more on counter-attacks in this game.

Mancini’s team selection will also be a factor. He could pick Milner on the right flank along with the more reliable Zabaleta ahead of Maicon, who’s still in the process of settling in at his new team. This could negate Arsenal’s left flank, which has been their major source of creativity and goals.

If the Italian is cautious, he could pick Garcia and Barry in the midfield behind Toure. This would leave the central attacking role and that on the left shared between Tevez and Aguero (Balotelli?). Their combination play, pace, and individual skills on the ball could provide a stern test to Jenkinson and the central defenders.

The hosts could also be more adventurous in midfield and pick an additional skilful player like Silva ahead of one of their defensive players with Toure moving deeper. This would certainly make the game a lot more exciting as they’ll pose a greater creative threat while giving the Gunners a bit more space to attack.

Wenger will also want his side to defend a bit higher than they did against Montpellier. Belhanda and company might not have taken their chances but City will not be as generous. Arsenal will not keep a clean sheet if they spend an entire half or two on the edge of their own box.

For both teams, the midfield’s ability to handle pressure will be vital. It’s interesting that two players, who had virtually identical stats last season, are being used by the managers in different ways. Mancini is pushing Toure higher and higher whenever possible whereas Wenger has pulled Arteta back into a deep-lying role. At some point the two could come up against each other and the result of that battle might decide the game [This is an excellent interview in which Arteta talks about playing against Toure and many other topics].

On the other hand, if Toure plays deeper he’ll have a very similar profile as Diaby. It’d be fascinating to see how both go about influencing the game.

Arsenal will have better balance in midfield if Mancini takes a conservative approach. Silva’s inclusion would make the two sides more even in the centre of the pitch. However, the Gunners will cede that minor but useful advantage if they drop deep and invite pressure.

Both teams have pace and trickery in attack but City have players who’ve done it more consistently in the Premier League. Tevez and Aguero have troubled all defences. Arsenal will have to hope Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain (Walcott?) put in consistent performances to support Podolski and Cazorla. Giroud also has a lot to prove and it will be interesting to see whether Wenger picks the Frenchman to lead the attack or the Ivorian. I think the pace of Gervinho would be helpful if Arsenal are going to rely on counter-attacks.

Arsene will also have a tough choice to make in goal. I’d continue with Mannone.

Preferred line-up,

Mannone – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Diaby – AOC, Gervinho, Podolski.

Depending on the manager’s choice of tactics, Theo might also have been  a viable option down the middle but there have been some rumours Arsene won’t start him till he signs a contract.

A bit more rotation would have been helpful but I’m not sure this is the game to make many changes.

A point will be a good result for the Gunners. Three will make a statement.

Montpellier 1 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 19, 2012

Arsene picked a strong line-up that was virtually his first choice eleven. Giroud came in for Oxlade-Chamberlain, Diaby for Coquelin, and Mannone for Szczesny. The back four remained unchanged, Arteta, Cazorla and Podolski held their places, while Gervinho moved to the right flank.

This showed respect to the hosts but disappointed some fans including this blogger. With the benefit of hindsight, given the challenging nature of this game, it’s difficult to say the decision wasn’t justified, but questions can be asked about the manager’s faith in the other players. That said, it would not be wise to move from questions to judgements this early in the season.

I’d expected an open game and at least three goals. That came true as early as the 18th minute. At that stage many would have expected more goals in this game but the patterns of play changed dramatically over time.

Arsenal started the game with confidence but the hosts weren’t overawed by the occasion either. Both sides were cautiously trading punches early on when Vermaelen’s overenthusiastic attempt to win a duel gifted Montpellier a spot kick. Some people probably felt it was harsh on the Belgian, we do see moments in the Premier League where such decisions go in favour of the defender, but I thought the officials got it right. Belhanda dinked it home with nonchalance.

Arsenal were rattled for a while but came back with a stunning team goal.

As expected there were gaps in the Montpellier defence that Arsenal found through a patient build-up followed by a quick forward burst involving Diaby, Cazorla, Giroud, and Podolski in various capacities.

Just as at the weekend, one goal was followed by another within a couple of minutes. Gervinho showed initiative in cutting in from the right. His pass to Giroud wasn’t perfect but the defender’s touch set it up perfectly for Jenkinson to cross from the right. The Ivorian had continued his run and was at hand to tap in from close range.

Both teams had other half chances in the first period and the game was pretty even although Arsenal did have greater possession. According to UEFA stats, at half time Arsenal had 58 percent possession compared to 42 percent for Girard’s side. The Gunners hit the target with 4 of their 5 attempts while Montpellier did so with 4 of their 6. The hosts won 3 corners to Arsenal’s 4. In short, Wenger’s side (or should it be Bould’s in this case) were just shading it, which was well reflected in the score line.

Perhaps it was that feeling of being comfortable in the lead, or maybe it was Girard’s team talk at half-time, but something seemed to change at the start of the second period. The Gunners came out in a bit of a daze and took a while to get into the game. This encouraged the hosts to push forward and got the crowd going.

Before we knew it, there was this rhythm to the game. Montpellier would attack, Arsenal would defend/clear the ball, the hosts would come back at the Gunners, who’d again get bodies behind. You don’t often see Arsenal defend this deep and narrow for the length of an entire half. A less partisan observer might say Arsenal parked the bus.

Girard’s team had some noteworthy moments early in the second half but they couldn’t find the target. Bocaly blazed over when a cross found him unmarked at the back post. Mounier rushed his shot when a long ball over the top found his run and put him clear on goal in the 53rd minute. Cabella hit the bar with a delightful chip that left Mannone grasping at thin air a couple of minutes later.

In fairness, Arsenal did well to absorb that pressure and remained compact for most of remaining period. This limited the quality of chances that Montpellier could create even though they looked more and more dominant. Wave after wave of Montpellier forays were thwarted by a disciplined, focussed, and hard working defence aided by a bit of luck or rush of blood from the opponents.

Every once in a while the Gunners would hold on to the ball for a bit but any attempts to break forward usually resulted in a loss of possession and more pressure from the home side. Montpellier were growing in confidence and went really tight on the Arsenal attackers denying them any space to turn, often intercepting passes played forward or tackling the player in possession. In contrast, Arsenal were defending passively via a shape (something I appreciate but not as a strategy for the whole half) and the hosts were able to pop up in various parts of the pitch, often between the lines, undetected.

The visitors tired visibly as the game went on. They weren’t as diligent at tracking the runs as they earlier were. The midfield struggled to join the attack when the ball did go forward. Gaps began emerging at the back and Girard’s side had a couple of moments where they could have equalized.

In the 80th minute, substitute Ait-Fana’s run into the box wasn’t tracked by Diaby. This sucked Vermaelen wide and opened some space in front of goal. The square ball found its way to Belhanda who was left completely unmarked deep inside the Arsenal box after Mertesacker’s desperate lunge missed the ball. Fortunately for the Gunners, the Moroccan could only fire straight at Mannone who did well to cling on to the fiercely struck shot.

Later on, Diaby brushed Cabella off in the box. On another day the ref might have blown for a penalty as the Frenchman didn’t get the ball while making contact with the opponent.

It’s hard to argue Montpellier didn’t deserve anything from the game but that’s the harsh reality of football at this level. They didn’t take their chances and paid for fatal mistakes at the back.

Arsenal’s performance was dogged and disciplined for most parts but it wasn’t the type that would thrill most fans or instil confidence that they have what it takes to beat the best teams in Europe. It’s early days though, so an away win is a commendable result. Nevertheless, Wenger will have to find ways of ensuring his side can hold on to the ball better when put under pressure and have certain channels of counter-attacking when the opponents are pushing so high up the pitch.

The second half stats showed the one-sided nature of that period. Montpellier moved from 42 percent possession at half time to 51 percent at full-time. They went from 6 attempts to 18 with 10 on target whereas Arsenal went from 5 to 6. So the only shot the Gunners could muster in the second half was that an attempt by Cazorla from the left side of the box. Apparently, UEFA didn’t deem Vermaelen’s header from the corner as a shot but that seems irrelevant. The hosts were by far the dominant side but the Gunners had more experience and luck.

Individual Performances:

Mannone: His positioning seemed suspect on at least two occasions (Mounier’s rushed shot and Cabella’s chip mentioned above) but his handling of the ball was impeccable. Didn’t fumble under pressure and was alert to potential danger. Distribution wasn’t very good but he had to hit many balls long under pressure.

Jenkinson: The youngster had a tough test on the flank and was engaged in a number of tackles/duels. Did a decent job of defending his zone and got into good positions in the box when dropping deep. Showed greater attacking thrust in this game and picked up an assist but his decision making and execution in attacking areas wasn’t as incisive as one would hope for. Passing was inconsistent and disappointing at times.

Mertesacker: Probably the best Arsenal defender in the game and a close contender for Arsenal’s MotM. Read the game well, was usually in the right place to intercept/block/tackle/clear danger. Was also reliable in possession. That moment against Belhanda was probably his only mistake but it could have been fatal.

Vermaelen: Conceded a penalty in an impetuous moment through an error in judgement. Wasn’t as assured on the ball as his partner. But he did have a strong defensive game just like the German.

Gibbs: Again got into many interesting attacking positions, especially in the first half, but his final ball or choice needs more work (understandably). Was asked some tough questions in defence and did well in most cases.

Apart from Vermaelen’s unforced error for the penalty, there wasn’t much to complain against the back five. When the team sits this deep for so long there will inevitably be moments where the opponents get a clear chance. The defenders did well to minimize those. The shape of the back line was superb for most of the game and often won off-sides to break threatening moments and ease the pressure.

Arteta: Kept the game ticking in the first half and a very strong defensive performance throughout the game. Was the only starter in midfield and attack who wasn’t dispossessed or had a turnover. Those who also follow cricket might recall Rahul Dravid being nicknamed ‘The Wall’ and ‘Mr. Dependable’. Arteta has probably done enough to deserve those monikers. Arsenal’s MotM in my opinion.

Diaby: Inconsistent. He had some amazing moments in the game. Played a big part in the first goal, there was that run through the middle that set up Arsenal’s only shot in the second half, and so on. But he was also found wanting more than once. Let Ait-Fana run through without tracking him or following back to clear the cut-back, and had quite a few tired moments. Surprising that he wasn’t as sharp as some of those who’d played at the weekend, especially considering he’s had a full pre-season.

Cazorla: Played a part in the build-up to both goals. Was buzzing around in the first half but had much less of an impact in the second period. Did well to hold on to the ball to offer some respite to the defence.

The midfield was dominant in the first period but they also seemed a touch casual otherwise Arsenal might have gotten more value from their possession. They worked hard to support the defence but could not create anything on the transitions in the second half as they struggled against high quality pressing.

Gervinho: Was the main creative force for the second goal and took his chance. But he went missing in patches. More is needed from a man with his pace and dribbling skills, particularly when the opponents push up to the halfway line.

Giroud: Didn’t win many physical duels and wasn’t able to work as the outlet that the team really needed. Was casual in possession at times and wasn’t able to hold the ball up. Can’t say he played well but he did provide a useful assist and showed glimpses of having a purposeful presence on the edge of the box.

Podolski: Excellent run and finish for the first goal after playing a part in the build-up. Did a respectable job of defending the left flank.

A bit more was expected from the front three when Arsenal had the bulk of possession. They did a decent job defensively but weren’t able to contribute to transitions or hold up play as effectively as needed in such a game.

Subs: Ramsey brought in much needed energy in the second half. The other two were just to waste a few seconds.

Wenger/Bould: Picked a strong team and returned with a result. Importance of an away win at the start of the group phase will become apparent, if it isn’t already, in the coming weeks. Don’t know if Bould had the right to make substitutions earlier in the game. Thought Ramsey could have come in earlier, as could AOC.