Reading 5 – 7 Arsenal: From Embarrassing To Inspiring And Onto Pure Magic

October 31, 2012

In the pre-match article I was talking about Reading’s ability to score goals and also touched upon the gaps they leave at the back that have cost them goals. The final line of the post was, “All-in-all this should be a riveting game with plenty of action in the final third.”

In all honesty though, the events of that game were beyond my wildest imagination.

With the such changed line-up featuring a number of youngsters who don’t get to taste high-level competitive football on a weekly basis, there were always going to be a few questions about the patterns of play. The first one I’d posed was, “Will the Gunners be able to dominate the midfield as they usually do?”

In the initial exchanges, the answer to that was a resounding “No!” As is typical of a Wenger side, the players tried to build from the back but Reading were able to disrupt the rhythm through the heavy pressure they applied. The midfield just couldn’t handle it. Youngsters like Coquelin and Frimpong can sometimes hide on the pitch when playing alongside experienced and technically accomplished Pros but in this game they were the key players who buckled under pressure. Too many Arsenal players were struggling to receive, hold, and pass the ball consistently under pressure and you could visibly see the hosts gaining confidence with each technical error.

Reading won a couple of corners in the first two or three minutes itself but it took them till the 12th minute to open the scoring. By the 20th minute they were 3 up. Struggling to build from the back was the initial weakness but the nature of turnovers exposed a bigger underlying vulnerability – the lack of structure, technique, and composure in defence.

The amount of space that Robson-Kanu had because Walcott didn’t track his run after giving the ball away, or the acreage in the penalty box for Roberts to run into was a symptom of that vulnerability. The ease with which Norwich went past Arsenal’s wide players in the build-up to the second, Koscielny’s uncanny knack of directing the ball towards his own goal, Chamakh giving the ball away in the build-up to the third with many Gunners running forward blindly, and Martinez’s flailing attempt to save can all be chalked down as individual errors but the high price paid in the form of goals was a result of the system’s deficiency.

The easiest way to understand it is by observing the impact of similar errors after the patterns of play had changed. Later in the game, there were still mistakes being made at the back but the Gunners had pushed Reading sufficiently away from their goal and thus were in better positions to recover from those mistakes. The problems in defence didn’t just simply vanish but their impact was suppressed by the structure of the side and resulting patterns were threatening but not harmful.

After their third goal, Reading took their foot off the gas. This would prove to be their biggest mistake but it wasn’t evident till much later in the game. From this point on the Gunners were able to build from the back and saw a lot of the ball in central areas where they weren’t challenged. The hosts were willing to sit back in a shape and keep the play in front of them.

In this phase Arsenal’s possession looked harmless with too many misplaced passes or poor touches in the final third. Indeed, it was McDermott’s side who picked up another goal on a foray forward. Once again it was lax tracking on Arsenal’s right flank and an inability to attack the ball in the box.

The Gunners had hit rock bottom. The performance was embarrassing and there is just no way to sugar-coat it. This was my thought at that moment,

The rest of the first half followed similar patterns with Arsenal having a lot of the ball without really testing Federici in goal.

A glimmer of hope came in injury time when a weak header from Gorkss came straight to Arshavin who was able to slide Walcott through. Theo scored with the last kick of the half. His technique and composure were commendable.

The second half was an entirely different affair but it wasn’t until two astute substitutions from Wenger that we started seeing decisive contributions in the final third. Frimpong and Gnabry, arguably the two least effective players in the starting eleven, were taken off for Giroud and Eisfeld.

In the preview I’d also mentioned the point about Arsenal needing reinforcements from the bench in order to make a comeback. Fair play to Arsene for picking Giroud in the squad. The Frenchman made a near-instant impact as he guided a fizzing Walcott corner into the net.

As Wenger said after the 4-4 against Newcastle and indeed after this game as well, “At 4-2 the panic sets in.” You could see Reading were now unsure. They didn’t know whether to stay deep and hold on to the lead or push forward and attempt the same tactics that got them the goals in the first place.

The momentum was with the Gunners and the Royals were often getting caught in a no man’s land. Some of their players were trying to push up while the others were staying deeper. Arsenal chased every ball, showed intense desire to make something happen, and pushed forward in numbers.

As time went on the Royals were pinned deeper and deeper into their own half but they were hanging on. Federici was forced into some fine saves while on other occasions the finish or the final ball didn’t match the build-up play. Nevertheless, it was a thrill-a-minute game with constant edge of the seat action that must have made both sets of fans tense; some in anticipation, the others in anxiety.

The third goal for the Gunners didn’t come till as late as the 89th minute when hopes of a dramatic comeback had began fading. It was another sizzling corner, this time it was Koscielny on the end of it.

Soon after, the Royals had a genuine shout for a second yellow against Koscielny. The ref had been lenient all through the game and let the defender get away with it in injury time. Not only would that have had an impact on Arsenal’s chances of scoring the equalizer, Arsenal would have been down to 10 for the duration of extra time if they did score the fourth.

The equalizer came deep in injury time. On a less dramatic day we might have heard more complaints about the time added on but perhaps Reading only have themselves to blame as their late substitution might have prompted the ref to go well beyond the four added minutes. When Walcott’s shot crossed the line the time on my screen showed 95:01. Don’t think many Gooners would have been happy if Reading had equalized with extra extra-time but I doubt anyone will complain now.

Once again it was the last kick of the half and this time, the comeback was complete. Now it was time for a turnaround.

Chamakh’s first goal of the night was a memorable one and not just for the fact that the Moroccan scored from outside the box. The build-up play was exquisite. It was a 41 second spell of possession in which 9 of the 10 outfield players passed the ball at least once. Starting with Coquelin’s sliding tackle wide on the right, and culminating in a strike that wasn’t a typical blast from distance like the angry, hopeful swing of an amateur’s arm, but a measured and well-placed blow from a professional who knew just how to strike the knockout punch. Walcott was the only guy who didn’t touch the ball which is ironical considering he scored three and set up the other three, playing a big part in all the other six goals.

Oddly enough, although it wasn’t really surprising, the momentum swung again. The Royals had nothing to lose anymore while the Gunners were catching their collective breath after an intense fight back.

Arsenal’s lead lasted 12 minutes or so when another ball played across the face of goal from Reading’s right resulted in a headed goal.

Thankfully for the Gunners, their momentum had not subsided completely and they were able to regain the extra gear. Arshavin’s run and shot was cleared off the line but Walcott was at hand to smash it in. Chamakh’s second was a tad cruel on the Royals but it was a neat finish. In fairness to the ref, he did go over the two minutes added on in extra-time giving Reading a chance to hit back.

We saw everything in this game. There were momentum swings, depths of despair, hope, glory, heart-break, defensive blunders, clinical finishing, and refereeing controversy. It was magical, maybe not so much for the Reading players, coaches, and fans at the end, but at least they know they won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

For Arsenal we saw the best and worst in the same game. We can’t infer much from individual performances after such a game because we are not likely to see a repeat in the near future. The spirit of the side was laudable. I’d certainly love to know who the “leaders” were on the pitch. So often, we hear Arsenal lacked leadership. This team was largely composed of fringe players and youngsters. Was there a leader on the pitch? Were they all leaders? Or is the lack of leadership just a lame, imprudent argument put forward when people can’t explain a flat performance?

As far as individuals go we saw a lot of quality and numerous weaknesses as well. I doubt many would have given Walcott or Arshavin high marks at the end of the first half, and few would dare berate them after the end of the game. There wasn’t anyone who was consistently outstanding and impeccable but the desire and spirit in the second half was top notch. It would have been easy to give up by the 89th minute. They didn’t. It would have been easy to start blaming each other for missed opportunities. They didn’t. Things just clicked for Arsenal and it was truly magical.

With the senior players we got what we’ve come to expect, and it was a real pleasure to see Chamakh back on the score-sheet. Among the youngsters, Eisfeld was the one who impressed me the most. He did have his share of mistakes, particularly in the final third, but on the whole he showed excellent technical quality and tactical awareness. Gnabry looked a little overawed and his touch deserted him at times, but he also played at a time when Reading had control of the game.

Coquelin didn’t do enough in the first half to show he’s ready to challenge for a first-team spot on a consistent basis. The Frenchman was rushed into many mistakes, the kind of which would be unacceptable in bigger, more important games. In fairness, he did an excellent job of sweeping in front of the defence and spreading play once Reading retreated. Frimpong seemed rusty and a touch too casual. Martinez made a couple of big saves but he could have done better for the second and third goals. His distribution will also have to improve. He showed promise for a youngster but I’d not be comfortable with the thought of him in goal for a first-team game.

All-in-all it was riveting game with a lot of action in the final third (Pardon the redundancy but I just had to say that again). It’s a shame one side had to bow out of the competition because you don’t have losers on such a night (unless you’re someone who gave up and stopped watching at point!)

In an era of short memories, this one might just last a lifetime. More importantly though, let’s hope it has a positive impact on the vital upcoming fixtures. There’s a comeback to be made on other, more prestigious fronts as well.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Reading

October 30, 2012

Away games are generally tough and more so in Cup ties where the smaller teams feel they’ve a good chance of causing some upsets on their way to glory. There is no doubt Wenger would have favoured a home game in a CO Cup tie that he’ll use to rest his first choice players, but Arsenal travel to the Madejski where Reading will feel they’ve a fair shot at going through.

By now most managers know Arsene Wenger’s priorities. It seems safe to assume Brian McDermott will be prepared for a second string Arsenal side so it will be interesting to see how many changes he makes to his eleven. I don’t think the Royals have too many youngsters vying for starting birth so we should see at least half their first team from the kick-off.

That will make this a noticeably tougher game than the home win over Coventry in the previous round. Reading are a team with noteworthy quality in the final third. Most smaller clubs struggle for goals but the Royals have scored 11 goals in the League – only Southampton have more among the bottom 8 clubs – and a further 3 each in their two CO Cup games.

Strikers like Pogrebnyak and Roberts are ably supported by midfielders who make clever runs and provide a genuine goal threat. They’re also strong in the air and have the ability to link intelligently on counter-attacks. The hosts are not averse to shooting from outside the box either. Reading will test any defence that Arsene Wenger sends out.

Their problem has been at the back. in 7 out of the 10 games they’ve played in all competitions, Reading have conceded 2 or more goals. They’ve not received many thrashings like Southampton or Norwich, for instance, but McDermott’s side has been leaking goals and chances on a consistent basis as they do tend to leave gaps at the back through some basic errors in positioning, judgment, or execution.

I am tempted to say there should be three or four goals in this one but with a much changed Arsenal side it’s going to be difficult to predict the patterns of play. Will the Gunners be able to dominate the midfield as they usually do? Will they be able to generate and sustain a tempo fast enough to upset the defensive rhythm of the hosts? Will Reading be able to impose their experience and physicality on the relatively inexperienced Arsenal side? Will Wenger’s side have the ability to soak up pressure if the hosts do get an upper hand in midfield? Can Arsenal use their pace and skills to score on the counter-attack or will be see a session of hoof-and-defend?

Wenger made 11 changes to the starting line-up in the previous League Cup fixture and he could do the same again. One would think Djourou, Koscielny, Jenkinson, Coquelin, Arshavin, Walcott, and Gnabry are almost certain to start given how close they’ve been to the first team. Frimpong, if fit, could also be in the starting eleven. Martinez will probably line up in goal as Wenger mentioned Szczesny was still some way away from full fitness. That leaves two positions up for grabs. Miquel could be the preferred player at left-back.

The final choice could have a big say on the way this game shapes up. For instance, Wenger could pick Chamakh up top and start Walcott on the right with Arshavin through the middle and Gnabry on the left. Or he could pick someone like Yennaris in midfield, as he did against Coventry, and start Walcott in the central role he covets.

In the latter choice, Arsenal will have greater technical balance to the side and a relatively stronger collective defence. With Chamakh in attack, the Gunners will have a better reference point going forward and a player who can link the wide players with the midfielders, but the team will miss a body in midfield.

I think, given the fact that this is an away game, the wiser choice will be to start Yennaris in midfield. Wenger could pick him on the right or through the middle. This would make it easier to give Arshavin a free role with marginal defensive responsibilities. Furthermore, it will also liberate Walcott of defensive duties on the flank and make him a constant source of concern for the Reading defence. The hosts will have to push up if they want to impose themselves on this game and that could be the ideal scenario for Theo. Of course, if Walcott plays down the middle and the Gunners are pinned back to the extent that they can only hoof the ball forward, his obvious weakness in the air could be detrimental. In that case, Wenger can always bring Chamakh on at some point.

Preferred line-up,

Martinez – Jenkinson, Djourou, Koscielny, Miquel – Yennaris, Coquelin, Frimpong, Gnabry – Arshavin – Walcott.

Notionally, this would be a 4-4-1-1, but really it could be any variant of the 4-5-1 depending on the way the game shapes up. The basic idea is to give Arshavin and Walcott as much freedom as possible. This system will test Gnabry though, as he’ll have a heavy defensive burden. The German youngster will have to take care of the ball better and can’t afford to give it away cheaply like he did in the build-up to Schalke’s second goal. The game could give him some lessons in decision making in order to find the right balance between attack and defence.

At the back Djourou and Koscielny will have to produce big performances to keep Arsenal strong. Martinez will be tested in this game and it should give us a good idea about his potential.

It’ll be interesting to see whether Wenger selects any of his senior players on the bench. Against Coventry we only saw Chamakh and Squillaci on the bench but AOC and Giroud started that one. Injuries have weakened the squad somewhat and some key players clearly could use a breather so they’re not likely to be involved, but Wenger knows he might need a comeback in this fixture if the club are to progress to the next round and that means he’ll need quality on the bench. The absence of players who can make a difference will clearly put the CO Cup in its place and is likely to disappoint some fans, but the manager is in a tough spot with a couple of vital away fixtures coming up in the next few days so he’ll have my sympathy.

All-in-all this should be a riveting game with plenty of action in the final third.


Arsenal 1 – 0 QPR: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 28, 2012

As many suspected, Arsene pressed the SOS button and the cavalry was called in. Wilshere and Sagna were both drafted into the starting line-up in order to breathe some life into a struggling unit. It worked, probably not to the extent one would like to see but there was definitely greater thrust to Arsenal’s play, but only time will tell if the cost is exorbitant.

The first half was a cagey affair. Arsenal had bulk of the possession but the visitors were very well organized and diligent in their tracking. The Gunners found it hard to create space in the central areas and most of the possession was in relatively harmless areas. The best chances in that period were limited to a Ramsey header that hit the bar and a couple of shots from the left side by Giroud and Wilshere that looked better than they were due to Julio Cesar’s suspect handling. In total, the Gunners managed 7 shots with 4 on target but I don’t think any of those could be classified as a clear cut chance.

It’s worth noting that Wenger’s team were playing a pretty high line for most of the first half and did a good job of limiting the chances that the visitors could create. The pressing up the pitch was effective and the decision making by the defensive players was largely spot on. The off-side trap worked well but looked more and more a risky tactic as the game went on.

The second half followed the patterns of the first. Arsenal were creating some chances but it just didn’t seen enough. Cesar made a good save from a set-piece early on but was fairly comfortable by the time Wilshere was taken off in the 67th minute as Wenger introduced Walcott in search of something different. In that 20 odd minute period the Gunners only had 4 shots with just one on target.

A few minutes later Gervinho came on the pitch in place of Podolski. Arsenal’s best chance of the game thus far fell to Cazorla in the 77th minute. It resulted from an excellent Walcott cross that was only cleared towards the penalty spot where the Spaniard was unmarked and in acres of space. Not surprisingly though, Santi smashed it over the top.

The turning point came in the 79th minute when M’Bia was sent off for kicking out at Vermaelen. Having won the free-kick, the Cameroonian’s reaction seemed inexplicable. The only reason I could think of was that he thought the ball was still in play and wanted to make a tackle, but even that’s pretty thin. The other aspect to that decision was the theatrical nature of Vermaelen’s fall. I didn’t get a clear look at the replays but it seemed to me there was minimal contact. Nevertheless, the red card was the correct decision even if on a technicality.

In the final 11 minutes plus injury time, the Gunners had 8 shots with four on target including the goal. They created a number of quality openings with the man advantage and really should have scored more.

The goal in itself was a contentious one as the visitors had a genuine shout for off-side against Arteta who bundled it home from close range. This season Arsenal have been very lucky with a number game-changing decisions- Aguero, Cabella, and Affellay were all denied obvious penalties – and it can be argued that they got an undeserved goal. The other argument could be that Arsenal were always likely to score one after M’Bia was sent off.

After the goal we saw the nervous, indecisive side of Arsenal. Wenger called it a ‘psychological’ issue saying the team was lacking confidence and wanted to protect the result. I tend to agree that it was a mental issue but I think it was down to the fact that the players didn’t have tactical clarity at that point in time and lacked faith in their ability to defend as a team even against ten men. This brought some hesitancy into the way they played and gave the visitors a couple of excellent chances to get back in the game.

Granero was able to beat the off-side trap but shot wide. Jamie Mackie was able to run past three players before hitting Mannone from close range. Arsenal panicked but survived.

On the whole, this wasn’t a great game from the Gunners but the result should help. Wilshere and Sagna had good outings and their abilities will help the team in the coming days as they learn to play with their new teammates.

Individual Performances:

Mannone: Made the saves when called into action, showed improved judgment when coming for the ball, and distribution was assured. Overall a composed and steady game from the Italian.

Sagna: Jenkinson was doing a steady job on the right but Sagna came back and showed just how much was missing. His decision making, link play in attacking areas, and defensive game were all top notch.

Mertesacker: Was more concerned with sweeping in behind and reading the game and wasn’t really engaged in individual duels. Steady game from the German, probably an easier one than he’d have imagined.

Vermaelen: Was strong in his tackles and duels, cleared the danger when he had to. Granero did get in behind him and Mackie was able to go past him in the box, needs to do better.

Santos: Was much maligned coming into this tie and there are undoubtedly some weaknesses in his game but I thought he had a fairly good game. Tackling was good, positioning was better, and he made a useful contribution in the attacking third. Was another defender beaten by Mackie and there were moments when you could see more space on the left than was preferable.

Arsenal’s return to the high line defence was somewhat surprising and we’ll have to see how that tactic works in the coming games. Sagna made the right side stronger and there is hope we’ll see the creative burden shared between the two flanks as he settles into a rhythm.

Arteta: Another typically reliable performance from the Spaniard on and off the ball. Has been showing extreme desire late in the games when the team has struggled and it was that desire which earned him the winner.

Cazorla: Moved all over the pitch and helped push the team forward but could not make the decisive contribution in the final third. Missed a glorious chance. It was interesting to note that set-piece duty was shared in this game and he didn’t take as many as he’d been in the previous games.

Wilshere: Was composed and confident on the ball, passing was accurate almost immaculate, brought his trademark drive with that drop of the shoulder and runs at the defence but couldn’t really create much in terms of genuine chances. Wasn’t as involved in defending as others who’ve partnered Arteta have been.

Wilshere’s return made midfield seem sharper and it did show in terms of the chances created even if they weren’t high quality. However, the youngster does have a tendency to burst forward and it’s going to pose a challenge for the defence as they will miss the two-man shield at times.

Ramsey: Hit the post with a header, got into useful positions in the box, linked well with Sagna on the right, it’s not his natural position but with a good midfield behind him Ramsey can be useful in the attacking areas while providing balance on the right.

Giroud: Had a couple of shots at goal, made some runs into the channel, but on the whole the Frenchman wasn’t able to contribute as much as is needed from an Arsenal striker. Did play a part in the build-up to the goal as his presence in the box was useful.

Podolski: Another attacker who had a disappointing game. His movement was good but he wasn’t effective in the crowded central areas. Put in a good defensive shift with a couple of vital tackles.

The front three remains an area of concern. Arsenal need a lot from the attacking players in terms of movement, combinations, creativity, and precision with incision and goals being the decisive outcome. Wenger needs a system that compensates for the individual weaknesses and brings out their strengths. Thus far we’ve not seen the system work.

Subs: Walcott put in a couple of teasing crosses, Gervinho was unfortunate, Arshavin started the move that led to the goal and worked hard to help the team.

Wenger: Reverted to a high line defence, brought in his big players as soon as they were ready (and hopefully not before), Has to ensure the team shows better confidence and structure at the end.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against QPR

October 27, 2012

After two straight losses where his team has failed to score and barely created any chance of note, Arsene Wenger will have to find some solutions and fast. The conundrum is not helped by the fact that Le Boss seems just as perplexed by Arsenal’s struggles as Bould was when speaking after the loss against Schalke.

Wenger expressed his inability to explain the defeats/performances while speaking at the AGM,

We hit the wall in the last two games in a little bit of an unexplainable way.

Then he reiterated this point while talking about easing Wilshere back in,

We were flat physically a little bit on Wednesday night. It is difficult to explain as Schalke had a harder game than us maybe at Dortmund [at the weekend].

Finding a solution to complex issues is rarely easy but it gets tougher when the problem isn’t clearly understood. Everyone knows Arsenal need to get back on the winning track but first we need to know just what is holding the side back?

You could say half the team is just not good enough but the personnel are not going to change any time soon. Has the injury to Gibbs been such a big factor? Most of the attacks in recent games did come down the left so that could be a possibility. Again though, the full-back won’t be back for this game so there isn’t an answer to be found on that path.

The problem with personnel might be partially solved if players of the calibre of Wilshere and Sagna became available. Infusing some freshness into the starting line-up is not a bad idea but at what risk? I strongly believe players returning from long term injuries need to be eased in at this level and should not come on for more than 15-20 minutes. Wenger might start them and they could put in a solid shift, but the odds of long term complications, those of picking up niggling injuries are much higher if they’re rushed back in desperation.

The other option could be to tweak the system a little. For instance, Wenger could try moving Podolski to the middle. I tend to believe the German was signed with the intention of playing him in a central role. Indeed, he started the first game down the middle, but it didn’t work quite as well and over the next few games he did seem more useful on the left so that’s sort of become his de facto position.

Podolski is probably the only natural goalscorer in this squad. Wenger himself has pointed out his finishing qualities in the past,

He has experience, he has 100 caps for Germany. You see that in a game, he is calm and when he gets a chance you think it will be a goal.

And again,

You like to see him in front of goal. He doesn’t get there many times per game, but when he gets there, you always think we have a good opportunity to score because he is a fantastic finisher.

If you look at [each] chance, he looks at the keeper first. He takes care of his control, and after he will not mishit, he will finish.

That’s been one of the problems for Arsenal, Podolski hasn’t found himself in front of goal as often as everyone would like. Playing him down the middle could change that. Of course, that’s not an ideal solution as moving him from the left can break the balance on the side that has been the most productive for the Gunners thus far this season. Furthermore, the German hasn’t really played for the big teams through the middle so it’s not a role he’s entirely familiar with, which automatically implies a degree of inefficiency is likely to be seen in his movement and decision making when playing as a central striker.

Ultimately, it’s Wenger’s job to weigh the pros and cons before taking the decision. I doubt anyone will know for sure until we see Podolski as the main striker for a few games.

Moving the German will vacate a berth on the left. The simpler option is to move Gervinho there or bring Oxlade-Chamberlain in. But I feel it’s time to give Arshavin another go. The Russian has tried hard in the few minutes he’s got as a sub. More importantly though, he’s the best creative brain in the squad at the moment. Cazorla has superior technique and greater industry but hasn’t quite racked up the assists. He’s another player who’ll need a few games but if he can hit the kind of form he had at the start of the 2010-11 season – in the absence of Cesc and RvP, Nasri and Chamakh were the chief beneficiaries of that form if memory serves – he can help Arsenal rediscover their creative mojo.

Arshavin is excellent at cutting inside into space and the right-sided attacker can really benefit from his movement and vision just like Nasri did a couple of years ago. Gervinho’s pace and movement will nicely complement the Russian’s incision if the two can read each other’s game. Walcott’s injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Gunners but that’s just an inescapable part of life.

In the midfield, Wilshere is a mouth-watering option but I’d like to see Wenger pick Ramsey once again alongside the two Spaniards. Wilshere could get 20 odd minute later in the game if deemed fit but starting him would be just too big a risk. The Welshman has not impressed many with his recent outings but he’s a very hard working player who can perform a role if given clear instructions. He needs to curb his instincts to contribute to the attack and focus more on keeping things simple. Bring Arshavin and Cazorla into play as quickly as possible and keep an eye on supporting the defence. Late runs to the edge of the box can be useful but he shouldn’t drift into the wide areas or venture higher up the pitch than Arshavin and Cazorla on a regular basis.

In defence, some people have suggested the option of picking Vermaelen at left-back. Santos has his share of weaknesses, and the left side could be really vulnerable if Arshavin starts, but the Belgian wasn’t very convincing in that role last season. Let’s not forget Arsenal’s results when the full-backs weren’t available and Vermaelen was filling in at left-back. Santos can do the job, he just needs some help from the midfield.

At times in recent games, the Gunners have crowded the left flank and have run out of space. Moving Podolski into a central attacking role and with Arshavin drifting in, Santos could have greater space to run into. The Russian might also find his runs better than other have done.

In any case, with such a line-up, it would be imperative that Arsenal take good care of the ball. It can’t be given away cheaply through passes that are easy to read and intercept exposing the team to the threat of the counter-attack. Starting Arteta on the left side with instructions to cover the flank would be helpful.

Preferred line-up,

Mannone – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Santos – Ramsey, Cazorla, Arteta – Gervinho, Podolski, Arshavin.

There is no denying the element of risk inherent in that starting eleven but Wenger needs a calculatd gamble to get his team out of the rut they’re in. If it clicks, this could be a very potent attack.

QPR have a lot of very good players but they’ve not performed as a team yet. They’ll try to follow the blueprints set by Norwich and Schalke, although there was hardly a surprise in either. It will be interesting to see how high they press and whether they go for an extra defensive midfielder or an attacking player like Hoillet. Their organization has made it hard for the Gunners in the past but this season they’ve displayed some weaknesses from set-pieces. Will Arsenal be able to exploit them?

The visitors also have a fair amount of quality in attack. Taarabt could start on the left but take a free role as the game goes on. Arsenal’s defensive players will have to keep an eye on his movement and pick him up when he drifts into their zone. Giving him time and/or space in the final third could be expensive.

The Gunners have to show better discipline at the back. Conceding goals because the back line is all over the place two games in a row is amateurish. Individually and collectively the players have to perform at the level we’ve seen from them before. Without that, any tactical changes will prove fruitless.

I honestly don’t know what to expect from Arsenal. Whatever we get, hopefully it won’t be lacking sharpness!


Arsenal 0 – 2 Schalke: Match Thoughts And Broader Problems

October 25, 2012

This was a matchday full of surprises in the Champions League, if we can call the defeats of the so-called big teams at the hands, or is it feet, of their high-quality, but supposedly underdog, opponents that.

With those results in mind, and the undoubtedly quality that Schalke showed, one might be tempted to take Arsenal’s first loss at home to a non-English side in 46 Champions League matches as little more than a minor hiccup. But if we look at the quality of Arsenal’s performance – the only shot on target came in injury time from a 17 year old substitute, add in a similarly dour game against Norwich last weekend, and indeed the entire Premier League campaign thus far, and we can see genuine cause for concern.

After the Norwich game, Arsene Wenger was uncharacteristically forthcoming about the disappointing nature of the performance. In this instance stand-in manager Steve Bould had something similar to say, “A 0-0 would have delighted us I think.” That tells me Arsenal were just not at the races.

There were a couple of other comments from the assistant manager that showed the deeper and more complex nature of the problem.

We haven’t played anything like we can, I think that’s the big disappointment. We haven’t performed today. We lack a bit of confidence, for whatever reason…

We looked jaded, I don’t know why that is.

Arsenal have been unconvincing in attack in majority of the games. The Gunners have won only 3 out of their 8 Premiership games scoring 13 goals. 6 of those came in one outlier against Southampton, so they’ve basically won 2 out of 7 while scoring 7 goals in those games.

In that regard, I commend Bould for saying things as he sees it. Clearly, the coaches are not sure about the exact nature of the problem, which is not a surprise given the complex nature of a fluid attacking game. Blaming the quality of players and asking for new ones is the most obvious lazy approach but those actually in charge do not have the luxury of being so frivolous.

There aren’t many new observations to make about the lack of understanding and consequently the attacking impotence that Arsenal displayed against Schalke. There was some hope that the visitors’ relatively high line will provide more opportunities, and it did lead to some occasions when the Gunners got in behind, but they just didn’t have the ability to find the final ball or the finish.

Again, it wasn’t down to one player or one specific reason. At times, the players got too close to each other and killed the space that they needed, on other occasions the passing was too slow giving the defence time to recover, then there were instances of a player lacking strength at a vital moment in the attack to hold off the defender, and so on. None of these are new issues but finding the answers is proving tough.

To an extent this is understandable as the Gunners have lost last season’s three main weapons (RvP, Song, and Walcott) in the final third for various reasons. Integrating the newcomers is proving to be a challenge that is costing results. The transfer business can be faulted but I believe that debate is out of the scope of this article.

More than the attack though, the serious concerns are with the defence. It seems, after a relatively well-structured and solid start to the season, the defence is relapsing into the kind of mistakes that troubled the squad last season.

Santos obviously had a tough time as the overwhelming majority of Schalke’s attacks came down his flank. At times he was outnumbered but on many occasions his positioning, decision making, and ability to track was suspect at best.

It’s difficult to say whether many of the problems in defence resulted from positional issues borne out of the players attempts to move around in search of penetration in attack, or were down to a basic lack of discipline and awareness at the back. The answer is likely to be a combination of both. For instance, the space down Arsenal’s left side was often resulting from attempts of Podolski and Cazorla to work something in the attacking half, which didn’t leave them in a position to track the attacker once possession was lost. But there is no real excuse for the full-backs to stay deeper than the central defenders, in a virtual carbon copy of the mistake that was made against Norwich, to take an example of awareness and discipline issues.

The net result was that Schalke were able to counter-attack almost at will and the Gunners were somewhat lucky to concede only two. It’s also worth noting that the Germans got into numerous ‘promising positions’ in the build-up of their attacks but didn’t really click in the final third. It once again clearly illustrates the fact that finding the final ball or the finish is the hardest part of the game and even quality players like Huntelaar and Afellay can’t score with ease despite the acres of space afforded to them. By extension, it’s harder for the Gunners when the opponents are well-organized in defence and deny them space and time on the ball.

The central observation from the game was that it was relatively easy for Schalke to defend and attack whereas the Gunners struggled at both ends of the pitch. The visitors were tactically astute and defended in a composed manner that gave them the opportunity to build attacks almost every time they won the ball back. Arsenal, on the other hand, were struggling to contain the Germans and had to hoof the ball away or needed a desperate lunge on a regular basis. This also meant that they were rarely in a position/shape to break forward at speed. In short, Schalke won the tactical battle and mastered the spaces on the pitch to their advantage.

There’s another theory – Arsenal players take it easy, especially when they don’t rate the opponents highly – that I don’t buy at all. It’s unimaginable that all the players will switch on and off so many times during the season and on a yearly basis. To me the problem is in the tactical system, and that affects the output that the side can generate even when the players are visibly trying very hard. At the moment the Arsenal team is performing below the sum of its individual parts. Ideally they should be doing better than the sum or, at the very least, equal the total of their abilities.

This game has once again highlighted the issues that Arsene and his coaches have to solve, and they don’t have too much time on their hands. The title race might well be over even if many fans don’t wish to accept it. The race for the Champions League spots could also slip away unless the right solutions are found and implemented soon.

The efforts of certain players, the timing of the substitutions, and some other specifics of the game will probably receive their share of flak, but I feel it’s best to ignore those and focus on the broader issues so the individual performances section has been left out.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Schalke 04

October 24, 2012

The two teams are coming into this game on the back of two diametrically opposite results. Arsenal’s loss to Norwich was a shock to most while few expected Schalke to win the Revierderby at Signal Iduna park where Borussia Dortmund had been unbeaten in the Bundesliga for 13 months.

The Gunners will go into this game with added pressure while the visitors are likely to come with their confidence high. Schalke have started the season well and are currently third in the Bundesliga. But for a lapse in concentration late in the game against 10 men Montpellier, they’d also have been on 6 points in the Champions League.

As is typical, Arsene Wenger summarized the qualities of the opponents and highlighted the dangermen,

Schalke try to play good football and build from the back, like all German teams… they’re a solid side with good organization and up front they have Huntelaar and Farfán, plus Afellay or Draxler. They are dangerous on the counterattack.

That’s it in a nutshell but we can delve into a bit more detail. The Germans are likely to come out with a positive and aggressive mindset but still with defence as the priority. That means they’ll form the first line of defence on or just in front of the centre-line. The idea will be to have a relatively high line and deny Arsenal the chance to get close to their goal. They’ll also try to cut down the passing channels in the central areas and mark the attacking players tightly with the hope of keeping the ball in the middle of the park or in the wider areas.

With such a shape they’ll also be in a very good position to break forward in numbers as their players will not be too deep. Huntelaar is very good at dropping into a hole in front of the defence with his back to goal in order to play a vital one-two in the build-up of a counter-attack. Holtby is a tactically intelligent player who makes clever runs into the channels and the Royal Blues also have quick, tricky wide players who are capable of taking players on and playing combinations.

Those who saw City struggle against Dortmund will know what to expect. The Germans had roughly one-third possession in that game but absolutely hammered Joe Hart’s goal producing nearly twice the shots Mancini’s side managed. This game could be a very similar battle unless Arsenal dominate the midfield and push Schalke back.

In order to control the game the Gunners will have to a) circulate possession while showing composure and patience under pressure – can’t have defenders slipping on the ball or players giving it away cheaply in the central third; b) Have intelligent off-the-ball movement to provide constant passing options thus fostering a quick tempo game; c) Exploit the space in behind the relatively high line through a high level of understanding between players; and d) take their chances when they come while avoiding basic mistakes at the back.

When written down, these things can seem simple, almost obvious, but a lot depends on the quality of the opposition and by extension, the results of individual duels all over the pitch, particularly in the midfield. I’ll be really surprised if Arteta and Cazorla struggle in their battles but the performance of the third, and possibly the fourth, midfielder will have a direct impact on the result.

Against a technically strong side Arsene might go with a midfielder on the right flank. Although he has shown a tendency to pick more attacking line-ups in home games, the lack of options and the fact that Gervinho and Giroud are not working quite as well in tandem could force the manager’s hand. In that case the only real option seems to be the inclusion of Coquelin in midfield with Ramsey going out wide. Gnabry or Arshavin are other options but I’ll be amazed if either starts as it will seriously affect the balance of the starting eleven.

Even with Coquelin starting, it’s difficult to say the side would be ideally balanced as the youngster hasn’t really stepped up from being a quality prospect to someone who genuinely deserves a starting role. If he starts, Schalke will look to pressurize him and force turnovers or mistakes in the central areas.

Ramsey can be very useful on the right if he makes the right decisions. The Welshman has a lot to offer but in football the system can suffer if a player tries too hard and ends up making the wrong choices which begin to affect the performance of his teammates. A unit performs better than the sum of its parts when the players are on the same tactical page whereas the combined output dips if the individuals have different ideas.

In defence, Arsenal have to be vigilant and deny space to Huntelaar and Co. The Schalke attackers aren’t as consistent as some of the world class talents at the big clubs but they have sufficient individual ability to hurt any team on their day. The Gunners would be better off not attempting to discover if this is their day or not.

The pace of the Schalke attack again poses a question for Arsene – does he go with Mertesacker or Koscielny? The German probably understands the Schalke style well as many teams in Bundesliga use such tactics and this should help him in reading the game better. On the flip side, with Mertesacker in the line-up, Arsenal have a tendency to drop deep quickly. This can, at times, create bigger gaps between the lines than one would like. Or it could suck the midfield too deep into the Arsenal half.

At the beginning of the season, Arsenal showed the positional discipline to hold their shape and defend with a solid structure when dropping deep, but in the last few weeks gaps have been appearing that have cost the team points. Hopefully, the Gunners will find the required structural integrity if they have to play in their own half.

The full-backs will have a vital role at both ends of the pitch and indeed in the central third as safe passing options. They’ll also have to cover behind the central defenders in case of a counter-attack and so it would be wise to have one full-back staying deeper. I have a feeling Mertesacker and Jenkinson will have to help each other out more often than usual although Farfan getting in behind Santos is also a possible cause for concern.

Preferred starting line-up,

Mannone – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Santos – Coquelin, Cazorla, Arteta – Ramsey, Gervinho, Podolski.

With Schalke likely to play with a slightly high line, the pace of Gervinho should be more useful than the physical presence of Giroud. The Ivorian will naturally drift towards the wings and this should open some space for Podolski to move into. Ramsey will add an extra body in midfield and his lateral movement could create interesting passing angles which can lead to openings if exploited quickly.

The weekend exertions of both sides could have an impact on the game, especially towards the end. Arsenal could have an advantage as the Royal Blues had a gruelling derby. Huub Stevens knows his side gave a lot to secure that win and said he might look to freshen the line-up,

The derby took a lot out of us. I’m not sure how fresh and fit the players will be. We’ve therefore added three more lads to the squad. I won’t make a decision until after the final training session or maybe not until the day itself.

Huntelaar gave the players’ point of view,

It was obviously a tough game against Dortmund. You could see some of the players were out on their feet at the end. I found it very difficult myself from the 80th minute. But when you’re 2-1 up in a game like that, you don’t notice it as much. We’ll recuperate now and then go again in London.

This seems to have all the makings of a hard-fought, tense encounter that is settled by the odd goal in three.


Norwich 1 – 0 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 21, 2012

I doubt many will be in a mood to read too many words after that performance. What else can one say after even Arsene Wenger puts excuses to one side and says, “We were well below par today.”

There were no real surprises in the game. Norwich set out to defend – they ended the game with 28 percent possession – and did a virtually impeccable job of keeping things compact in front of their goal. Arsenal had what Wenger called, “illusionary domination.”

The Gunners have struggled against deep-lying teams that deny them space in front of the goal all through the season. The forward players just haven’t been able to combine effectively to produce high-quality chances on a consistent basis. This game was just more of the same.

Some people have correctly observed that Arsenal lacked the right tempo or speed of passing. But it should be mentioned that tempo just doesn’t materialize out of thin air. Quick, purposeful passing in the final third relies intrinsically on exceptional off-the-ball movement and instinctive understanding between players.

Losing is never enjoyable but it can be excused if the team creates enough chances, hits the bar, suffers from refereeing blunders, or in any way shows that it deserved something. In this game there just wasn’t anything.

If at all, Norwich were probably guilty of wasting the better chances and the scoreline flattered the Gunners! It’s very important to note the fact that the hosts wasted a number of very high quality opportunities (they were dangerous moments even if they didn’t force a big save) because it again illustrates the point that all teams have to create multiple threats at the opponents goal in order to score one or two goals. Arsenal just haven’t done that often enough and this game was the worst of the season thus far.

The goal that Arsenal conceded at the other end was again a result of multiple errors. I have mentioned the risk of dropping so deep in front of one’s own goal, essentially ceding territory and inviting pressure. That’s like doing half the opponents work for them. Of course, Norwich did that all through the game but they came prepared for that and that ability is vital to their survival. But the Gunners are used to attacking and are prone to concentration or structural errors when dropping so deep.

You can’t allow an opponent to shoot from that range without any kind of pressure. The goalkeeper just has to do better than palming the ball back in front of goal and he has to quickly get in position to make the second save. The back four also have to hold a very steady line when dropping deep. In this instance the full-backs, Santos in particular, seemed too deep and played the goalscorer onside.

Too many mistakes, one gifted goal. What else is new?!

I did like the fact that Arsenal tried harder in the second half. Towards the end the Gunners did manage to create some openings even if they weren’t enough. There were some plays that can be worked on to develop alternate attacking options.

For instance, late in the game there were a couple of high balls played towards Giroud who cushioned it into the path of a teammate. Gervinho headed one towards goal while Gnabry fluffed his shot. The Gunners can do better if they find a way to use the Frenchman’s abilities to their advantage through precise aerial chips rather than hopeful, aimless crosses.

Anyway, these aren’t new issues so I don’t want to dwell on them. There are obvious limitations in the current squad and the system being developed this season. Some teams have found a way to neutralize Arsenal and expose various chinks at the back. We just have to see whether the Gunners can raise their game soon enough…

Individual Performances:

Mannone: Poor for the goal, had very little to do otherwise.

Jenkinson: Another hardworking shift from the youngster. Crosses and link play in the final third was disappointing but he did OK in the central and defensive third. Needs to take care of the ball better though.

Mertesacker: Not sure if he can be blamed for a slow reaction to Holt as the striker had a yard or two on him. Did slip up once around the centre line that allowed Holt a run towards goal but was otherwise fairly steady. Don’t know if anyone can claim he was great at “organizing” the defence.

Vermaelen: Struggled against Holt from long balls. Did a decent job of defending on the ground. Can’t really be blamed for the goal. Did give away the ball once around the centre line that led to a dangerous situation. Couldn’t contribute in the opposition box.

Santos: Poor positioning in the build-up to the goal, wasn’t able to offer as much of an attacking threat as Gibbs does but that is also linked to time spent on the pitch so it seems a tad early to criticize him for that.

The back five weren’t up against an extraordinary attack and much better is needed.

Arteta: He was given the task of getting in front of Holt for long balls. Thought he did alright although one or two of his headers did go behind to an attacking player. Other than that it was another superb game from the Spaniard. Was clearly trying to drive the team forward in the second half and was responsible for a shot on target, for finding Giroud with a chipped pass that led to a chance, and some other semi-creative moments that Arsenal produced. But at the end of the  day I felt he’s having to do too much.

Cazorla: Had many excellent individual moments, like the time he just let the ball roll to get into space behind Johnson. Was able to hold possession under pressure and was constantly looking to create something in the final third but his understanding with the front three wasn’t up to scratch and he was often let down by his teammates. Set-pieces were poor.

Ramsey: Disappointing game from the Welshman. Once again it seemed he was trying to do too much instead of keeping it simple and quick. Such attempts also took him high up the pitch often which forced Cazorla deeper. In short, can’t fault his effort but he didn’t play in a way that would have made the system work efficiently.

The midfield wasn’t efficient or incisive with the ball. They didn’t do a good enough job of closing down space for the shot that led to the goal.

Gervinho: Has been disappointing on the right even more than he’s been frustrating through the middle. The fact that he’s still starting over Oxlade-Chamberlain, or anyone else, seems a worrying indictment of Arsenal’s lack of depth. Off-the-ball movement was predictable, ran into dead ends or crowds with the ball. Did get to the by-line on one or two occasions but that’s just not enough at this level. Wasted a great opening that Gnabry created with a precise through-ball.

Giroud: Looked good when the ball came to him in or around the box but that didn’t happen often enough. Wasted a couple of promising moments through ambitious attempts like the overhead kick in the 52nd minute or the mis-kick in the 83rd minute when he had time. Has to come to the ball more often when it’s not coming to him. Has to develop a precise first touch to link play in tight areas.

Podolski: He seems to become ineffective when the opponents block central areas where he likes to drift into. Doesn’t offer a serious threat from the wider positions. Did have an early shot that flashed wide, Arsenal have to find a way to get him into scoring positions more often as he’s the most natural goalscorer in the side.

All the three forwards have their own set of limitations and in some games all of those are exposed at the same time to make Arsenal look toothless.

Subs: Oxlade-Chamberlain made one ambitious run before picking up an inury. Arshavin was trying but he’s been out of first-team action for too long and is not at his best on the right flank. Was glad to see Gnabry get his Premier League debut and he did play one delightful through-ball for Gervinho but his introduction does make me wonder about the depth that Arsenal have.

Wenger: He knows this just isn’t good enough. Question is, how soon can he get the team back on track?