Everton 1 -1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

November 29, 2012

This was always going to be a tough game for the Gunners. Everton have been excellent at home while Arsenal are still struggling to find the right balance. From that point of view a draw was not a bad result but it does make that race for Champions League spots tougher.

The start couldn’t have been better if Wenger scripted it himself as the Gunners took the lead in the first minute itself. Walcott was a little lucky when the ball fell kindly to him after bouncing off Jagielka in the build-up and with the deflected shot flying in, but his pace caught the hosts out of shape and created the opening. Ramsey picked up the assist; his positioning, composure, and decision making were all useful.

It’s difficult to say whether the goal was a blessing or a curse for the visitors. Perhaps a bit of both. They probably felt less pressure but also tended to drop back deep into their own half. This meant Everton could push the ball up in their own half before picking out one of their trademark long passes to gain territory as was discussed in the preview.

Look at the comparison of long balls/passes played by both sides,

The numbers are not very different but as a proportion to total passes attempted the blues are way ahead (49/383 vs. 44/526). They also have better success rate despite the fact that Fellaini only won 2 of his 6 aerial duels and Jelavic 2 of his 7.

This was down to the fact that their players at the back had more time to pick out passes. Arsenal didn’t press up the pitch, as was expected, and Everton were able to make many passes from the centre of their half or even around the halfway line. Their forward players were able to get into gaps between the Arsenal defenders and received many passes unchallenged.

They also received these passes much higher up the pitch, at times  right on the edge of the penalty box. In contrast, if you look at Arsenal’s successful long passes, most are played out wide in a change of direction and are rather of a safe nature as they’ve been played towards teammates who are not in crowded spaces. Everton on the other hand were often able to gain vertical territory by knocking it long.

The second major factor in this game was Everton pressing intensity. That too was expected but it’s difficult to say whether the degree would have been same if they’d not been chasing the game from the first minute. In any case, Moyes’ side were able to push Arsenal really deep with a combination of clever long passes and intense pressing.

Apart from the goal the Gunners hardly had any shots in the first half. A Vermaelen free-kick and a Cazorla attempt come to mind but both were from outside the box and largely harmless. Everton were able to create a number of chances and promising moments in the Arsenal box.

The Everton equalizer came as a result of a string of errors from the Gunners, many of which were forced by the pressure put on the players. First, Ramsey was caught on the ball just inside the Everton half. Then Sagna and Arteta had a misunderstanding, with the full-back putting the midfielder under pressure with a pass played in front of the midfielder. The Spaniard was dispossessed but the ball ran towards the Frenchman. In an inexplicable manner, he played it square towards Fellaini rather than clearing it away from goal. The Belgian gladly accepted the gift and placed the ball in the corner. Vermaelen couldn’t close him down effectively.

The second half followed similar patters but without the goals. Arsenal did get tighter at the back and seemed to be making fewer mistakes. There were spells on intense Everton pressure but the Gunners were dogged in front of their goal.

At the other end, the Gunners also created more chances but the hosts were often in a position to block the shots. There was a difference between the two sides’ defending. Everton looked more assured with greater structural integrity whereas the visitors were relying on somehow getting the ball away.

If we look at the clearances made by both sides, we can see that Arsenal were making theirs from deeper areas.

Even for the ones inside the box, Moyes’ side made a number of those from the area between the penalty spot and the edge of the box. In contrast, Arsenal made more on the edge of their six yard box or between the penalty spot and their goal.

In essence, the Toffees were able to get really close to the Arsenal goal. There were a number of occasions where just a touch could have diverted the ball into the goal. That said, it’s important to note the inherent inefficiency of their tactic of creating from the wide areas. Most of their penetration in-behind did come from the flanks. Arsenal’s back four must also be commended for a really determined and focussed effort. That sliding tackle from Gibbs when Naismith was about to pounce on a cross was just one of many examples of their good work.

The limitation of their tactics and the hard work of Arsenal defenders meant that the Blues only had two shots on target from inside the box and those came within a minute of each other. Granted, their first goal came outside the box but the percentages of such a goal being repeated are low.

Arsenal weren’t able to get that deep as often. Everton were also more in control of their shape. As a result they were able to get closer to the attackers and block many shots when the Gunners did get in and around the penalty area. In the second half the Gunners had 8 shots, a major improvement on the 3 from the first, but 5 of those were blocked and only 1 – from outside the box – was on target.

Another good indicator of Everton’s strong shape was their ability to block some of the crosses. Both sides had comparable numbers with the hosts completing 5 of their 26 attempted crosses while the visitors managed to find a teammate with 4 of their 27 tries. Both were 1/6 on corners. But Everton blocked at least 6 of the crosses, as the following chart shows, while the Gunners allowed more balls to get into threatening areas before dealing with them.

It seems safe to say that both sets of defenders had a good game while the Everton attackers created more threatening moments as they used the long pass to bypass the first line of defence on a number of occasions.

There was also that penalty shout against Arteta. I have seen those given and would be disappointed if Arsenal didn’t get such a call in their favour when attacking.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: There was a moment in injury time when he parried a ball he should have caught, which put the team in a spot of bother. Other than that it was a good game from the Pole. Made the saves he had to, not sure if he could have done much for the goal. I have seen such shots saved and have seen some sneak in as well.

Sagna: Made a few uncharacteristic errors under pressure including the big blunder for the Everton goal. Had a tough game in general as he was defending the flank that Everton prefer to attack. The full-back also lacked consistent support as the players in front of him kept interchanging positions and were often caught chasing the game. Did OK when all things are considered but his own standards are higher.

Mertesacker: Made a number of important clearances, was strong in duels, and won some fouls that helped ease pressure. Distribution was steady but Arsene will probably have to find a way to use his passing range as he often gets more time than the others.

Vermaelen: Very similar to Mertesacker. Made a number of useful clearances and was generally getting into the right areas. Could he have done better for the goal?

Gibbs: Didn’t start but came so early it was almost as good as a start. Another one who had a very busy day at the back with numerous vital clearances and duels.

The Arsenal defenders had a very tough day, which was expected, and they did well to restrict Everton to 1 goal. They had support in terms of bodies but not in the form of a solid shape that could help control the game defensively. The percentages worked for them and they put their bodies on the line when they had to.

Arteta: Almost played this game as an auxiliary defender rather than a midfielder as he probably made the biggest defensive contribution for the Gunners. Made the most interceptions and tackles, and conceded fouls when he had to. Distribution was steady but just a notch below his usual standards. That and the few times when he lost possession was down to Everton’s pressure.

Cazorla: Again a very hard working game from the Spaniard and took quite a few blows for the team’s cause. But he wasn’t able to influence the game in an attacking sense. Execution was disappointing on more than one occasion when a teammate was well placed. Also shaped to shoot when he had time and space in promising areas rather than picking passes to unlock the defence. Looks like he’s fast approaching the ‘red’ zone from a physical exertion point of view.

Wilshere: An impressive defensive game from the youngster from a positional point of view as he stayed deeper at times and took responsibility to protect the spaces in front of the back four. Only won 2 of his 5 attempts to take people on and was another one who lost possession on a number of occasions under pressure. It seemed he was given the job of spreading the play towards the flanks and keeping things safe. Attempted the most number of passes but majority of those went towards the wide areas.

Ramsey: Among the midfielders he was the one who struggled the most when pressed on the ball. He was caught on the ball in the build-up to the Everton goal, and again in the first half Bained forced a mistake from his that could have been decisive but for Jelavic’s greed. That said, he was again the player who worked hardest to make something happen in the attack. Got the assist for the goal, also created a chance for Giroud, and played a lovely ball that Cazorla failed to control. He also popped into useful areas to take a couple of shots that were blocked. He’s still a long way from his best but the effort is visible as are the areas of improvement.

It’s difficult to say Arsenal played with a midfield four but Ramsey and Cazorla often swapped places. It wasn’t a flat four from the Gunners but there seemed an attempt to free Theo so he could stay wide and higher when out of possession, and move into central areas when the team had the ball.

As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that even Fellaini – despite all his supposedly physical qualities – lost the ball on numerous occasions, probably more often than any Arsenal midfielder. These things happen in a game of this intensity.

Walcott: Took his chance well and his pace was integral to its creation. But on the whole it was a disappointing game from the Englishman as he didn’t use the time and space that was available to him in an effective manner. Apart from that cross for Giroud there was very little in the form of attacking threat despite the freedom afforded to him by the team’s tactics.

Giroud: Played a good pass in the build-up to the goal. Once again he didn’t get much service in the box and looked like a very average player outside it. I like the fact that he’s trying and doesn’t shy away from the effort despite the numerous mistakes in the form of poor touches and misplaced passes. If he has to make it at Arsenal and help the team he will need a much better all-round game.

The attackers didn’t get enough in the form of quality service but many of their individual limitations were, at least partly, responsible for creative difficulties of the team.

Subs: Gervinho got into one or two useful positions but couldn’t make anything out of those. Coquelin hardly had any time. Koscielny was another one who hardly had any time on the pitch.

Wenger: It seemed AW tweaked his system a bit. I’ve been hoping to see Walcott being freed of defensive duties, particularly when the team is under pressure and playing on the break. But the whole team needs to adapt their thinking if his pace is to be used as Theo has to be released quickly. Link play with Giroud can be vital for that. Let’s see if we see more work on this approach in the coming weeks.

Thoughts On Tactics And Staring Eleven Against Everton

November 28, 2012

Wojciech Szczesny reckons this game at Goodison Park is a six-pointer. It’s been a while since the Gunners have played games of such significance against Everton, but this season it looks like the two clubs are battling (with some others you might say) for one of the Champions League spots.

The Toffees started the season well. We’re through a third of the season already and they’ve been in or around the top four during all that time. That must have been a pleasant change for the Everton faithful as the Blues have shown a tendency to finish strongly in recent years after disappointing starts. But there will also be some concern among the fans as Moyes’ side has only won one of their last seven League games, drawing five and losing the other.

I have found their style of play rather enjoyable this season. It seems to be a mix of the classic British approach and the modern technical style. They are a physical team and often rely on the use of the long ball to gain territory but it would be extremely harsh to label them as long-ball merchants. Fellaini provides an excellent target for the long ‘passes’ and has the ability to win the duels and hold possession. He tends to do this slightly towards their left flank about 10-15 yards inside the opposition half, sometimes further forward.

After gaining territory, the Toffees change their style to a short passing, combination-oriented football with high intensity and impressive pressing urgency when possession is lost. They have many technically adept players, particularly on the left and in attack. The likes of Pienaar, Baines, Fellaini, Jelavic, and others have produced some fascinating moves this season through quick passing, fluid movement, and telepathic understanding.

At the same time, they also retain the ability to go wide and put balls into the box. The physical qualities of Fellaini, Jelavic, and Co. have proven handy in the box, although that style of play remains inherently inefficient.

Off-the-ball Everton have shown genuine desire to win it back early and high up the pitch, particularly against the smaller clubs. This has made many of their games extremely exciting to watch.

The side is also well-drilled in positional play and can frustrate opponents by making it hard to pass through them. However, Moyes has been concerned with his side’s tendency to concede soft goals this season. Finding the balance between attack and defence can be hard, as Gooners know all too well.

Rafa Benitez discussed similar problems at Chelsea soon after taking over as manager,

The balance between scoring and not conceding is not easy. You have to put things together, find defence and not lose creativity…

Moyes too has been talking along similar lines,

The basis of being successful is trying to get no goals against, and we have to do that more often. We cannot be relying on scoring two or three every week to win.

In contrast, Wenger’s side seem to have overcorrected when attempting to deal with problems of balance as they’ve conceded just 13 this season but have also had struggles scoring, with the Gunners failing to score in 4 of their League games thus far. Everton have only been shut out once in the League but have also failed to keep many clean sheets, last one of their two coming against Swansea over two months ago.

Apart from the search for balance, Everton’s problem – and it’s related to conceding goals – has also been that their high tempo style is hard to sustain for 90 minutes. Unless they run away with the game when they’re on top, the Toffees always run the risk of giving the opponents a chance to get something from the game once the players begin to tire and gaps start appearing on the pitch.

It’ll be interesting to see how Arsenal approach this game. The Gunners haven’t been very comfortable when attempting to press higher up the pitch and many of their relatively stronger defensive showings have come when the players have dropped back into a good shape a fair way inside their own half. Such an approach against Everton will invite a lot of pressure on the back four and the Keeper as, unlike teams like Sunderland and Villa, the Blues have the ability to work combinations in the final third or put dangerous balls into the box.

Everton’s pressing and ability to retain their defensive shape will also make it hard for the Gunners to build from the back. However, if the hosts choose to play a high line it will also be an opportunity for Wenger’s side as they will have plenty of space in-behind to run into. It’ll then be a matter of resisting the pressure and working the openings, something we’ve seen Arsenal do time and again, especially when Walcott is in the starting eleven.

The Englishman’s battle with Baines is going to be one of the highlights of the game. The one who is able to choose his moment carefully and act decisively will contribute greatly to his side’s chances of winning this six-pointer.

It’ll also be interesting to see how Arsenal deal with Fellaini. Everton might not need the long passes if the Gunners drop back but if they do use those, will Arsenal double team the Belgian? In certain games, we’ve seen Arteta drop right in front of the opposing player who is the target of such aerial balls. The primary idea is not to challenge for the ball in the air – although that’s also part of the job – but to ensure that the player cannot control and distribute it easily.

In a way, we might see Arteta trying to minimize the impact that Fellaini can have, while the Belgian will probably be closing the Spaniard down, when out of possession, to control the influence his former teammate can have on the game.

Everton’s aerial threat in the box will be a concern. I don’t know if Arsenal have enough physical presence or the right tactics to be confident of dealing with everything chucked at them. Will crowding the key areas be enough to put the opponents off? Can the likes of Giroud and the central defenders win enough headers to protect the goal? Will Arsenal leave gaps around the box in an attempt to pull more bodies into the central zones? The answers to these questions and the patterns of play from set-pieces will be a major factor in this game.

In recent games, Arsenal have also used the off-side trap rather effectively. Will it work against the Toffees or has Moyes observed this tendency and devised a plan to break it to his team’s advantage?

Wenger’s starting line-up will determine the aerial presence that the Gunners have but without Diaby there isn’t much that Arsene can do.

I expect Wilshere, Walcott, Sagna, and Vermaelen will come back into the starting line up. Ramsey, Jenkinson, and Oxlade-Chamberlain should make way. Whether the Captain comes in for one of the central defenders or Gibbs remains to be seen. If Gibbs is fully fit he should play. Mertesacker would then be the right choice for a rest as he’s played many games this season.

Possible line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Wilshere – Walcott, Giroud, Podolski.

Whoever plays in central defence will have to keep a close eye on Jelavic. The Croatian striker is an excellent mover and doesn’t need much time or space to convert chances.

There is a case for resting one or more of Arteta, Cazorla, and Podolski. Even Giroud has played many minutes in his first season in England. However, since balance is the primary concern and fluidity a related one, it’s difficult to see Wenger having many choices. Ramsey could be retained in the side if Cazorla is to be given a breather. Gervinho could come in for Podolski or Giroud. But in either cases the choice seems suboptimal. While I’d like to see Arsenal display greater depth in the squad, proven through wins despite rotations, I’m inclined to believe the Gunners lose their edge when a few changes are made. His choices will tell us whether Arsene genuinely believes in his squad players or if he trusts the same ‘jaded’ first-choice players.

All-in-all, I expect there to be goals in this one, three at least. But I don’t know which side will score more. The Gunners have a good record against Everton as they’ve not lost against the Toffees in the last 10 League meetings. They’re also the last side to win at Goodison as the Blues are unbeaten at home in 10 games since their defeat against Arsenal in March.

Everton have 15 first half goals in the League this season, which is more than any other side, and corroborates well with their high intensity style of play early in the games. They top the table based on first half alone with 22 points. Arsenal, on the other hand, have only been outscored once in the second half this season. In fact, the Gunners would be second in the table on 26 points – 2 behind City – if only the second half performance was considered. Maybe there’s some clues to tactical decisions in those stats?

Will Arsenal maintain their dominance over Everton or will the redoubtable hosts conclusively establish they genuineness of their challenge this season?

Aston Villa 0 – 0 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

November 25, 2012

In the 13 games played in the League this season, Arsenal’s longest winning streak is 2 games. It happened early on in September when the Gunners beat Liverpool and Southampton. Wenger’s side could have matched that with a win at Villa Park but a stalemate was all they could manage against a determined and disciplined opponent that also looked the more dangerous side at times.

Looking at any game in isolation, it’s difficult to ascertain just how much of an impact was made by the quality and performance of the opposing team. Did Arsenal drop two points because Villa played really well? Or Did Arsenal drop two points because they were ‘jaded’? Was it a combination of both of these factors and some others, and if so how much weight do we assign to each?

I thought Villa played really well but Arsenal weren’t all bad themselves. The Gunners created space in the attacking areas through their passing but their final ball was woeful. As a result there were few clear chances and only one shot on target. This inability to link meaningfully in the final third meant that all the work done behind was fruitless.

The tempo of Arsenal’s passing didn’t seem slow to me but they did have problems getting the ball out from the back. It wasn’t down to any obvious solitary factor. That said, Villa’s organization off-the-ball and their willingness to chase the ball without respite certainly put the Gunners under pressure. The inexperience on Arsenal’s right flank didn’t help matters either as neither Jenkinson, nor Oxlade-Chamberlain were able to make enough noteworthy contributions to the attack or build-up play.

There was another factor that seemed relevant. Lambert’s side were attacking a lot more down Arsenal’s left. Benteke was almost camped in that area and this kept Koscielny and Gibbs occupied. It also pulled Podolski back. We get a fair indication of this through Benteke’s dashboard and passes received charts.

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Comparing Jenkinson’s performance against that of Gibbs is also helpful.

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For those not familiar with the symbols used by this app, here is the legend: Green Diamond – interception; Circle – clearance; ^ – Aerial duel; Black triangle – foul conceded; Hexagon – take on; X – tackle; Orange colour represents successful, purple is a failed attempt. Passes are obvious.

It’s pretty clear Gibbs had a lot more defensive work, which corroborates well with Benteke’s dashboard and Villa’s general style of play as was seen on the pitch. Naturally, when a full-back is busy at the back his winger is likely to be dragged back as well. As a result of this, Arsenal had a hard time building attacks from the left because they had to start really deep and Villa always had bodies in those areas.

In comparison, Jenkinson has a much easier game. But he wasn’t able to contribute to the attack or the build-up as effectively as is expected at this level.

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Jenkinson actually attempted a few more passes than Gibbs (53 vs 48) but he made fewer forward passes while twice as many went backward. We can see how Gibbs has tried building from deeper areas in the Arsenal half whereas Jenkinson played a lot of back passes from similar positions.

In fairness, the positioning of Villa players and their pressing played it’s part and one could argue it was a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach from the former Charlton man. But if Arsenal want to win such games, they need a lot more from their full-back. Even his touch was disappointing as two or three unforced errors come to mind when the team had space to push forward. He should be able to handle some pressure and contribute to the build-up.

Of course, he’s a young player with limited experience at this level. And when you start such players you have to accept their inefficiencies will become a part of the game. Unfortunately for the Gunners, the youngster in front of him had his own share of weaknesses.

Oxlade-Chamberlain’s role in attack was also a factor in this ineffectiveness of Arsenal’s right flank. The youngster did get more involved with the play than he’s done in the past but his off-the-ball movement has a lot of room for improvement. Since Giroud often dropped deep in this game, AOC could and should have moved into areas vacated by the Frenchman but he rarely seemed aware of the spaces. He also seemed intent on getting the ball at his feet rather than making runs to receive the ball on the go.

Furthermore, the youngster’s decision making and execution was also just short of the required precision. For instance, in the 56th minute he made a very good run on the right after linking with Giroud but his final ball was just a tad short. Ramsey had to break his stride and the defender got a chance to influence the move. If the ball had been half a yard in front of him, the Welshman would have found it easier to direct it goalwards. Similarly, there was an excellent move in the 28th minute with Giroud and Ramsey combining around the centre line. Ramsey played a perfectly time ball for AOC that drew the full-back and left the winger in the clear, albeit in a wide position. The youngster took too long on the ball and couldn’t find the final ball for Podolski.

It’s somewhat harsh to criticize young players over such seemingly minor issues, but at this level such a degree of precision, or lack thereof, and the other issues discussed are usually the difference between a draw and win.

Nevertheless, the point here is not to single out two young players as scapegoats. The point is to merely illustrate the fact that young players, however hyped, tend to bring some inefficiencies into the team and it affects the performance of the unit.

Arsenal’s inability to build from the right side was also evident from the fact that Villa were happy to let Mertesacker have the ball. The German attempted 72 passes compared to 31 by Koscielny who was rarely free of the attentions of Benteke. It’s difficult to say whether it was a deliberate tactic or it just so happened because Villa were planning to attack down that flank. It could be that Lambert was aware of Koscielny’s ability to charge forward with the ball whereas Mertesacker was unlikely to drive into the opposing half. Indeed, the Frenchman did bomb forward in the 43rd minute and that resulted in, arguably, Arsenal’s best chance of the game that he himself blazed over.

Apart from the issues discussed thus far, Arsenal also had some other problems. Most notably, it seemed to me that Arteta and Cazorla were really knackered. This also brought an unexpected (or you might say it is to be expected as they’ve gotten much rest) degree of inefficiency to the team play.

There were many occasions when three or four Arsenal players entered the same 10 square yard area and kept playing passes to each other without any off-the-ball movement. It was as if they all wanted someone else to make something happen. Whether tiredness was the sole factor in this is unclear, but it certainly limited the fluidity of Arsenal’s passing and movement.

At the end of the day when you have one shot on target in 90 minutes of play, almost every player deserves his share of the blame. In fairness, Arsenal also did well to restrict Villa to two or three good chances. They’re a team who can be a handful, particularly at home, as Manchester United found out. Arsenal’s ability to move the ball and hold it under pressure contained the chances Villa could create on transitions.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Made one big save and a couple of other important ones but those are the kind you’d expect a Keeper to make. A steady game from the Pole without the need for anything spectacular.

Jenkinson: Discussed above in detail.

Mertesacker: Made two vital game-saving tackles. Was also in the right place at the right time on numerous occasions. MotM IMO, if anyone can be considered that after such a game.

Koscielny: Had one or two iffy moments, like the occasion when he clattered with Benteke but the striker was able to get up and in-behind. But he had a big defensive game otherwise and was on the end of a big chance. Would have been a great game if he put it in.

Gibbs: Another one who was discussed in detail above. Excellent defensive game, could have done better with his final ball on two or three occasions, but that’s been an issue from the beginning of the season and will only change with time.

Arsenal’s back four were largely untroubled even though there were a few oohs and aahs from the home fans. They got good cover from the midfield and did their defensive jobs effectively.

Arteta: Massive defensive effort from the Spaniard as he swept in front of the back four. At times he was the only one doing so and did exceptionally well to cut out many passes, and win a number of second balls and duels. Passing accuracy was again sensational but didn’t see as much of the ball as he usually does. Tiredness could be a factor, Villa’s marking could also be a factor, and the fact that he had a greater defensive responsibility was possibly one of the reasons.

Cazorla: Not up to his usual standard in this game. Passing accuracy was as low as 80 percent in the first half. Wasn’t able to move as effortlessly as he typically does. Still worked extremely hard and saw a lot of the ball. The work rate was there but the influence wasn’t. Just seemed to miss some kind of a spark.

Ramsey: Probably had his best game in an Arsenal shirt for a while. Worked extremely hard all over the pitch and was one of the few players who was trying to make something happen all the time. Whether it was that move to put AOC behind, the run to get on the end of the youngster’s cross, Arsenal’s only shot on target, the link up with Gibbs to find Podolski in the box, a vital header at the back post, the shot on the turn from outside the box, or a number of other such events – Ramsey was getting into the game all over the pitch. I don’t know if any Arsenal player has out-passed Arteta ever since the Spaniard came to the club. Ramsey did that in this game and by a fair margin (72/80 compared to 66/69). That work rate was also vital to holding off the Villa pressure and helped create spaces in the opposition half. If Ramsey had been as sloppy as Wilshere was against Montpellier, the Gunners might have conceded a couple of goals on the break. Because the overall team performance was poor, the Welshman’s work will largely go unnoticed, but in my opinion he was excellent in this game.

The midfield was noticeably deep when Villa had the ball and that allowed them to help the defence. They also kept the ball well under pressure which minimized the counter-attacking chances that Villa could create. Too many players across the pitch were off the required level, even if just fractionally, so the impact in attack was minimal.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Discussed above in detail.

Giroud: I thought he really tried hard in this game to get more involved in the deeper areas. Villa didn’t mark him as tightly as Montpellier did and that allowed him the time and space to play a few wall passes in the centre of the pitch. He also moved into the wider areas in order to link with teammates and create space for the others. That chance for Koscielny, for instance, was created by Giroud moving to the left. The move where AOC was put in-behind resulted from Giroud’s clever first time pass to Ramsey in the centre. The move in the 56th minute resulted from a one-two with AOC on the right flank. All-in-all it was a very hard working effort from the Frenchman. I have been critical of his work outside the final third so credit where it’s due. Shame his teammates didn’t create much for him.

Podolski: Was pulled into deeper areas more often than he’d want to go. That meant he saw a lot of the ball in the central third rather than the final third. Still had a couple of half-chances in the box but nothing earth shattering. Another one who looked a bit jaded and off the boil.

Arsenal’s attackers weren’t able to use the space behind Villa’s relatively high line. The play in the wider areas on both sides was disappointing. Their inability to interchange positions – possibly related to specific skills and tendencies – was also an inhibiting factor.

Subs: Gervinho looks like a man short on confidence to go with his technical limitations. Arshavin played a couple of delightful balls into the box. It was surprising that he didn’t immediately play on the left after coming on as he is much more influential on that side. Coquelin didn’t have much time to impress.

Wenger: It’s his squad and it’s his job to get the best out of the players he has. Can’t really cite exhaustion as an excuse if he’s unwilling to rest players on a regular basis. Can’t really blame the younger players/inexperience if he’s relying on many of them for squad depth. This season is going to give him further headaches, I’m convinced of that. Hopefully, he’ll find the way to keep the team in the Champions League spots.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Aston Villa

November 24, 2012

Recently, many of us have read and talked a lot about this season producing Arsenal’s worst start to a Premier League campaign. But when I read that this was Aston Villa’s worst start to a League season since 1964/65, it put things in a whole new perspective. Of course, such historical comparisons rarely paint the complete picture. Even though the Villans have only 9 points from 12 games and despite only two teams conceding more goals than them, I find there’s more to admire about their side than to criticize.

At the very core, there seems to be this shift – much needed, dare I say – in policy with young players being given a lot more chances. If clubs at Villa’s income levels have to have realistic chances of competing against the bigger earners, they absolutely must have a very strong youth system. Over the years I’ve felt – although I’ve only seen from distance and neither as constantly, nor with anywhere near the same degree of involvement as I have with the Arsenal games – Aston Villa could have gotten more value for the money they’ve invested if they had the right managers in charge.

Finally, in Lambert, Aston Villa seem to have a man with the right vision and approach towards the game, which could, given time, translate into success on the pitch. It’s a process though, unless you can afford to make numerous £20 Million plus mistakes in the market without flinching, building a squad, and therefore a club’s future, takes a fair amount of time.

So the Gunners are going to come up against a fairly young and relatively inexperienced (at the Premier League level) Aston Villa squad. I believe in games against such sides it’s prudent to expect the unexpected. On a given day, these players might forget their position in the table or the stakes at the end of the season, and go out with a fearless heart to express their talents in a manner that catches the more seasoned opponents off-guard. It almost happened to United.

In contrast, there’s also the risk that inexperienced players will make some of those seemingly minor errors in judgment or execution that can cost the team vital goals and points. Unfortunately, and despite any manager’s best efforts, this happens more often than the triumph of youthful exuberance. Anyone who’s watched Arsenal over the last few seasons will have no problems understanding this, and by extension Aston Villa’s current predicament.

That said, it would be foolhardy for the Gunners to rely on mistakes from their opponents. They’ve to go out there and establish their right to play in the manner that suits them. For that, a midfield battle has to be won. It might not be as hard as it was against some of the other teams. Bannan and Co. don’t have the combination of physical presence, endurance, and pace that makes it possible for teams to close the Gunners down in order to negate a high tempo. If Arsenal move the ball as well as they did against Montpellier, particularly after the opening 20 odd minutes, they should take charge of the central third of the pitch.

After that it’s about breaking down a well-organized and determined opponent while covering the open spaces at the back against the threat of counter-attacks.

Christian Benteke can be a big player for Villa as he has shown the ability to run with the ball, pull out wide or – in general – to make space for himself in order to be an outlet for his team when they’ve been pushed back, and hold up play to allow others to join in the attack. In support, Villa have players who provide pace and intelligent movement in the attacking areas, particularly when they have space to run into.

At times, and not just in this season, I’ve felt that the Arsenal defenders aren’t quite sure with their decision making when faced with a mobile striker. For instance, in the build-up to the Adebayor goal, Mertesacker went with Defore and got turned with ease. Minutes later he stayed back and Defoe was able to receive the ball between the lines while facing the Arsenal goal. This led to Lennon’s shot which went wide. This indecision isn’t just limited to Mertesacker, every single central defender who’s played for Arsenal over the last few seasons has occasionally been unsure of the best course of action at certain vital moments that shaped the opponents attacks.

This battle between Benteke and the visiting central defenders should mould the key patterns of play from Arsenal’s defensive point of view.

In this game, Aston Villa’s threat on the counter will be greater than that posed by Montpellier and the Gunners cannot afford to allow them to get into the kind of promising positions that the French side managed early on in that Champions League tie. In short, Arsenal must not be sloppy on the ball or static off it. Wenger’s team should be patient but not ponderous, calculating but not complacent, and decisive when it matters not dawdling.

At the other end, I’m confident Arsenal will get chances to score as long as they can move the ball at pace. They absolutely have to push Villa back into their defensive third, after which spaces will open up in the wider areas and also in front of the back four as the hosts’ midfield isn’t exactly a paragon of defence. Giroud, in particular, can again be decisive.

Ideally, this should also be the kind of game where Arsene can rest a couple of players. Given that Villa have a young team of their own, this might be an opportune time to give Coquelin a start. Any of the three starters in midfield could take a break for different reasons. Arteta has given a lot this season. Cazorla has probably never played at this intensity on a weekly basis before. And Wilshere is just coming back from a major injury-enforced break. All of them could use a break so that they don’t burn out by the home stretch.

Similarly, either Podolski or Giroud could take a break while Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain get a game. At the back, the return of Gibbs could give Wenger the chance to rest one of his centre-backs. Jenkinson could also come in for Sagna.

Let’s not forget, Arsenal have a big game at Merseyside in midweek that will have an impact on the race for the Champions League spots.

You could say that many changes by the manager would give the squad an indication that he’s thinking of this game as an easy one, a suggestion that could foster complacency. But I’m not convinced by that argument. Players like Coquelin, Jenkinson, and Oxlade-Chamberlain have to show that they can come in and do the job. How else can we believe in squad depth? And why should we assume the players will become complacent when they’ve so much to prove?

Looking at Wenger’s team selection decisions over the last few seasons though, it’s tough to say the manager will make too many changes. I expect to see the same midfield but there might be a couple of changes in attack and defence combined. It’ll depend on the fitness levels of Gibbs and Gervinho.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Wilshere – Gervinho, Giroud, Podolski.

I can see the case for Oxlade-Chamberlain being picked over Gervinho or, as stated earlier, both of them starting with perhaps Podolski taking a break. Aston Villa have highly inexperienced full-backs and one would expect Arsenal’s wide players to have a major say in the attacking third of the pitch. This could be a great opportunity for young Alex, particularly if Stevens doesn’t get enough support from his winger (Agbonlahor?). Let’s see if Wenger thinks the same and gives the young Englishman his chance.

Paul Lambert is banned from the touchline for this fixture. How big an impact will that have on the game/result?

The match preview on the official website has an unmistakeable ultra-positive tone, which some might consider premature. Lee Dixon doesn’t think Arsenal will win this game. I am ambivalent. The starting line-up, refereeing decisions, the dreaded handbrake, individual bloopers… there’s just too many variables that could affect the result.

On an unrelated but important note, what’s the buzz on Arsenal’s new deal with Emirates? I haven’t had a chance to read much about it, will appreciate any thoughts you can share.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Montpellier: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

November 22, 2012

The Gunners had to win this game and they did just that. It wasn’t an easy win but I think it’s safe to say Arsenal did more than enough to come out worthy winners.

Montpellier came out with a simple enough plan. They wanted to stop Arsenal from dictating the pace of the game. In order to achieve this they had to push up and press intensely in the central third. The overall tempo of the game was very high in the opening 20 odd minutes where both sides were trying to control the midfield. Arsenal had more possession at the back but weren’t finding a way forward, something we have seen in many other games this season. Montpellier were able to create some openings but didn’t have sufficient quality in the final third to convert the promising moments into goals.

Apart from a Koscielny header that rocked the bar in the 11th minute from a follow up to a corner, neither side really created any clear openings. The frantic pace of the game forced too many mistakes from both sides. For Arsenal, Giroud and Oxlade-Chamberlain really struggled to get into the game in the opening 25-30 minutes. Often their contribution was to lose possession in tight spaces. Wilshere too was having an uncharacteristically sloppy game from a passing point of view.

Podolski was making some useful runs without receiving the ball but he did get a golden opportunity in the 31st minute when Koscielny’s powerful run caught the Montpellier defence out of shape. The German dragged his right-footed shot wide when a pass for Giroud, who was free on the edge of the box, might have been a better option.

It was around this time that Arsenal started controlling the game better as the visitors couldn’t quite sustain the intensity of their pressing. Their transitions were no longer as threatening and the Gunners started looking relatively comfortable at the back. This also had a relieving effect on the midfield who were able to take more risks with the passing and positioning.

Nevertheless, Montpellier remained well-organized at the back and limited clear goal-scoring opportunities. A Podolski shot from a tight angle that went wide is the only other half-chance that comes to mind.

The early goal in the second half was enough to put the Gunners in complete control. It was a neat build-up down the left where Podolski and Vermaelen combined to put the full-back into the final third on the flank. The Arsenal captain was clever on the ball and made space by cutting back and across. His cross went to the back post where Giroud won the aerial duel and had the awareness to knock it into space for Wilshere to pounce. The Englishman’s outside-of-the-boot finish was composed and clinical.

After the goal it seemed the pressure felt by the players was eased considerably. They were able to play with greater assurance and did not make the mistake of backing off completely. Montpellier now had to chase the game and Arsenal started finding more spaces in their half of the pitch.

The second goal was again down to good teamwork. Oxlade-Chamberlain won the ball on the halfway line and brought it forward to the edge of the box. Podolski arrived with him and played a quick one-two with Giroud that culminated in a sensational volley.

After the second goal, I thought the Montpellier heads dropped and they neither defended collectively, nor did they attack with purpose. The Gunners could have won the game with three or four goals but I thought 2-0 seemed a fair score.

On the whole, it wasn’t quite the imperious performance that Arsenal have produced in group phase at home against similar teams in the years gone by, but it was a fighting effort from a team that is working hard to get the confidence and rhythm back.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Made a very vital challenge early in the game when he came out to take the ball away from the feet of an attacker who was through on goal. Didn’t really have to make many saves but his handling was assured.

Sagna: Excellent work up and down the flank. Put in a number of good crosses and was almost always available to receive the ball when his teammates needed an outlet away from the crowded centre. Solid defensive game, made up for the odd error that he made.

Mertesacker: Another steady game from the German. Was composed on the ball and made a number of vital interceptions.

Koscielny: This was the first time this season I saw the Koscielny who so impressed me last year. Calculated aggression, excellent reading of the game, put his body on the line when he had to, and reliable distribution. There was that moment when he overdid things in front of the penalty box and conceded a free-kick but other than that it was a superb effort.

Vermaelen: Probably his best game as left-back for the Gunners. Made numerous valuable contributions at both ends of the pitch. I thought his role was the most vital in the first goal. Defensive positioning and decision making was commendable. MotM in my book.

The defenders had a difficult time in the opening 25 odd minutes when the visitors looked a constant threat on the counter but they did enough to keep Montpellier at bay. It wasn’t pretty at times but it was effective. Got more composed once the midfield started controlling the game better.

Arteta: It’s difficult to write about his performances after every game because it’s always the same, and I mean that as a big compliment, obviously! Played a big part in keeping the team connected in the opening 30 minutes and was a constant shield for the defence.

Cazorla: It seemed to me he worked even harder than usual to get on the ball in this game and popped up all over the pitch. But I also thought he lost the ball more often than he usually does through poor touches or misplaced passes in the tight exchanges. Another player who remains consistently influential in the central and attacking areas.

Wilshere: Was sloppy with his passing and unsure with his positioning early on. Improved noticeably as the game went on. Got into the decisive area and took his goal well. Also had a better defensive shift in the second half as he stayed deeper after scoring. As Wenger said, “he is the kind of player who has to be a complete midfielder not purely an offensive player.”

The midfield wasn’t able to handle the early pressure as well as I’d have liked. They need to reach that level if Arsenal have to become a genuine force. Teams must feel that pushing up and compressing the central third against Arsenal is a risky tactic rather than one that gives them hope. Work rate was excellent and they slowly earned the right to dominate the park.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Was virtually anonymous in the first 15-20 minutes. Grew into the game after that as he started drifting into useful positions. Had a better time in the second half once spaces opened up in the Montpellier half as they started chasing the game. Played a vital part in the second goal.

Giroud: He’s very efficient in the final third if his teammates can find him there. Picked up two valuable assists. Needs a lot of work on his ability to receive the ball and gain territory for the midfield when they’re under pressure. In the first half hour or so his passing accuracy was less than 40 percent, and that kind of limits the options for the midfield and puts pressure on the defence due to the high number of transitions. I thought Wenger’s assessment of Giroud was spot on but I do believe he’ll have to develop his game in deeper positions, he can’t simply rely on contributions in the final third.

Podolski: Wasn’t on the same wavelength as Wilshere or Giroud in the initial phases but I thought his movement was clever and could have been useful. Goal was well-taken and might have had a second but for a good block by the defender. Saw a lot of the ball and combined well with Vermaelen (and Cazorla), not just for the first goal but in general throughout the game.

The Arsenal front three have changed quite often this season and we haven’t quite seen them hit the right rhythm as a unit. There’s enough final-third quality to make the difference against smaller teams but much more is needed if the Gunners have to become a consistent threat against every team.

Subs: I thought Ramsey had a very good cameo. Was reliable in possession, worked hard to win the ball back, and moved into useful areas all over the pitch. Coquelin and Gervinho didn’t get much time to make an impact.

Wenger: I really love the specific and insightful comments he made after the game that show he’s completely aware of what’s going on and knows the individual strengths and weaknesses of key players in the squad at the moment. When Arsene talks about the performance and players in a matter-of-fact manner without unnecessary praise and without deflecting the conversation away from the negatives, it gives me the impression that he’s in control and can see this squad developing. It’s much, much more comforting than interviews or media briefings where Le Boss is trying to wriggle out of the tough questions without giving much away.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Montpellier

November 21, 2012

Arsenal face a must-win game in the Champions League when French champions Montpellier visit the Emirates for the 5th game of the group phase. Qualification to the knock out stages hangs in the balance for the Gunners apart from the fact that confidence among the players and fans alike will take another massive dent if the result is not along expected lines.

Rene Girard’s team have looked like a shadow of their Ligue 1 winning unit but they are regaining some measure of respectability after going 4 games unbeaten including draws against PSG and Valenciennes, sides that are within 3 points of leaders Lyon.

The visitors have already been eliminated from the competition and it remains to be seen whether this affects their game. On one hand you could argue they’ll play with a nothing-to-lose mentality and can pose serious a challenge to Arsenal. On the other hand, they could make some changes to the squad with their League campaign in mind and some of the players might take it easy. We won’t know till we see their performance and the Gunners can only assume they’ll be up against a committed side that has a point to prove.

Tactically, this tie will again hinge on the battle in midfield, as is the case with almost every Arsenal game. Montpellier have to find a way to prevent Arsenal from bringing the ball out of defence. In the reverse fixture they were able to hold possession for large spells and the Gunners showed the tendency to drop really deep, particularly in the second half. This resulted in a relatively easier game for the Montpellier defence but they still lost that game due to a brief three minute spell in which Arsenal scored two goals. Girard’s team could concede more in this game if they can’t stop Arteta and Wilshere from dictating the tempo.

At the same time, Arsenal must be wary of the talents of Belhanda and Cabella who were a constant menace when the sides met in the first game of the group phase. Montpellier as a unit have commendable technical qualities and could put Szczesny’s goal under pressure if Arsenal don’t get their defensive approach sorted.

We’ve seen the Gunners struggle when they back off from the opposition players and we’ve also seen goals and opportunities conceded when the players try to press higher up the pitch but without cohesion. Wenger’s team are at their best when they dominate the ball and push the opponents deep in their own half but European teams generally have the quality to keep the ball on the ground and create some passing combinations. We have to hope for better coordination among the Gunner ranks and a uniform approach when possession is lost.

Wenger has the chance to rest a  couple of players but he is also in desperate need of a win. Walcott is out of the game due to an injury while Gibbs and Gervinho are back in the squad. They should both come straight into the starting line-up if deemed fit. Oxlade-Chamberlain could come in for Theo and Vermaelen might continue to fill in at left-back if Arsene thinks the returning players have to be eased back in.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Wilshere – Gervinho, Giroud, Podolski.

I doubt Wenger will leave Mertesacker out but I feel going with two aggressive central defenders and playing a really high line could suit the Gunners in this game. Of course, that depends on Gibbs being fit enough to start, which is not a given.

Wenger might also consider the option of having Ramsey on the right flank. It’d be a highly unpopular choice but I can see the reasoning given the technical qualities that Montpellier have.

Gervinho hasn’t been as effective on the right but he did get a goal against these opponents in the reverse fixture and will be coming in fresh. There is also an option to shift him on to the left and give Podolski or Giroud a breather. Again, I’m not convinced Wenger will disrupt the system where key players are beginning to find some rhythm.

Giroud is on a good run and he could thrive on quality balls into the box as the visitors have shown some weaknesses aerially. With Walcott missing, Sagna will probably have extra responsibility for delivering such crosses from the right although AOC, if he starts, could also provide useful service. Gervinho, in contrast, is more likely to go to the by-line and cut balls back or drift across the penalty box and play shorter passes. If Gibbs starts, the Frenchman could also expect a fair amount creative contributions from the left.

Cazorla’s movement and involvement will also be worth observing as he’s shown a tendency to drift into wider areas to make greater impact in attack. Montpellier’s relatively inexperienced team could also struggle against Wilshere’s driving runs.

All-in-all this appears to be a game that Arsenal should dominate and win but in recent past the Gunners have found a way of complicating things almost every time I’ve had that feeling. Whether it’s elementary mistakes in defence, playing with the handbrake on, or a lack of incision in attack, there are many ways in which Wenger’s team could make this a tougher game than it should be. Fingers crossed…

P.S. Thanks everyone for the kind wishes

Arsenal 5 – 2 Tottenham: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

November 18, 2012

I completed 32 years on this planet on Friday and was hoping for a birthday gift from the Gunners on Saturday. They obliged, and how! My thanks also to former Gunner Adebayor for his part in giving me such a delightful start to a new year. Defeats for United, Chelsea, and Everton were like the icing on a sumptuous cake.

Wenger started with the expected line-up incorporating Szczesny and Wilshere into the eleven. AVB surprised me a bit by picking two strikers, a move that would have delighted many Tottenham fans and looked like it was working till one of the two pressed self-destruct.

The opening exchanges were even but Spurs created the two incisive moves including the goal. Arsenal saw more of the ball but the visitors were, as expected, very well organized and worked hard to prevent the build-up from the back. I don’t remember the Gunners creating anything in the final third in the first 15 minutes or so.

At the other end, multiple defensive issues combined to present Tottenham with their first goal. Defoe’s movement flummoxed Mertesacker. The German’s lack of pace and inability to turn quickly was also evident in the manner in which the Spurs striker spun in behind. The fact that no one closed Vertonghen down – Giroud was trying but Cazorla should have stepped up , or the manner in which Sagna and Koscielny dropped back while Mertesacker was pushing up, exposed the lack of collective defensive understanding between the Gunners.

Minutes later another golden opportunity arose for the visitors when a simple hoof from Lloris resulted in a 4-v-4 for Spurs as the gaps between the Arsenal lines were too large for the midfield to influence the move. Lennon dragged his shot wide, just.

Arsenal’s first real inspiring moment came in the 16th minute when a sublime turn from Wilshere eliminated the midfield screen and opened passing options behind the defence. While that move in itself was not decisive, it did result in a minute or so of territorial pressure from Arsenal and forced the clearance from Vertonghen that Adebayor challenged for.

Of course, no amount of pressure on the defence would justify the sheer recklessness of that tackle. It was to be the single most decisive moment of the game and provided further proof that Adebayor’s lack of mental stability/clarity has hindered his talent from blossoming into a world class striker.

 The game was completely different after that as Tottenham’s tactic of defending in the centre of the pitch was no longer effective. This meant they had to drop much deeper as a unit. I don’t think they were prepared, as a team, for such a scenario. From the sending off till the first half came to an end, it was all Arsenal.

Spurs completed 53 of their 67 passes in the opening 17 minutes which produced 4 shots and 1 goal. In the remaining 28 minutes plus injury time, they just completed 55 out of their 77 passes with no shots on goal.

In contrast, the Gunners completed 80 of their 99 passes in the first 17 minutes but did not have any shots on goal. After the sending off, Arsenal were 161/181 for the passes and had 7 attempts including 3 goals.

The passing charts explain the patterns of play pretty accurately. In the opening 17 minutes the game was tight and both teams found it hard to gain territory. It was mostly a battle in the midfield but Spurs were able to create two good opportunities even if those were the only real moments of penetration. Arsenal weren’t able to build from the back. Although they too have a couple of passes into the box, Tottenham were not as open at the back. That said, the sending off was indirectly related to those two passes into the Spurs box as it was the first occasion where Arsenal enjoyed some territorial gain and kept the game in the Spurs half.

For the rest of the first half, Spurs just didn’t have a way out. I’ve often talked about the importance of building from the back to Arsenal’s tactical dominance as it’s directly related to their ability to attack and defend. Once Tottenham went a man down, the Gunners were able to link the defence with attack and made it count.

The passes that we see inside the Spurs half in the central third and on the edge of their defensive third were the key to this linking process.

It’s worth noting that many smaller teams do cede that territory to the Gunners in order to defend resolutely by dropping deep and narrow in a compact shape. At times, when opponents show impeccable discipline, that works and frustrates the Gunners. But most of these teams play a variant of 4-5-1 and often have 9 or even all 10 outfield bodies between the ball and goal. It was difficult to visualize AVB instructing his side to do so mainly because they’re not built to play that way. I don’t remember the last time Spurs put all men behind the ball for 70+ minutes to hold on to a one goal lead.

That said, we must also commend the Gunners for the manner in which they piled on the pressure. A stand out observation for me was the manner in which they sustained territorial advantage and had bodies in the box even after an initial set-piece was cleared.

Arsenal’s first and third goals came from such sustained pressure. Mertesacker went up for a corner in the 22nd minute and stayed up for nearly a minute and a half to score the vital equalizer. Spurs didn’t know how to deal with the extra attacker as Podolski and Giroud occupied their central defenders. I saw Huddlestone marking Mertesacker but the Englishman lost the German way too easily. Walker was also seen idly observing play without sensing danger. Walcott’s ability to get past Naughton to create space for the cross should also be noted.

The second goal was not related to a set-piece but again resulted from Arsenal’s ability to gain control of cleared balls to keep the visitors pinned deep. Podolski got a bit of luck with the momentary pin-ball effect that directed his attempt towards goal but this kind of fortune is generated by the pressure that opens gaps and forces mistakes.

Giroud’s goal was again a result of winning possession back from a clearance and creating a chance soon after. Again Arsenal had 5 or 6 bodies in the box but the key part in the goal was Cazorla’s tenacity and desire to make something happen. He could easily have gone down for a foul but the Spaniard sensed the opening and went for it.

It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of the second and third goals. If the game had been close at half-time, as it had been for 40 odd minutes, AVB could have given his team the instructions to be compact and play for a draw with the hopes of nicking a goal on the break late in the game. Arsenal would have been frustrated as time went on and the fans would also have become edgy.

But a two goal lead meant Tottenham had no choice but to go for goals. Villas-Boas did the right thing in taking out the full-backs for a central defender and a midfielder. The idea with a 3-4-2 or a 3-5-1 was to build the same kind of pressure higher up the pitch that prevented Arsenal from building play from the back in the initial exchanges. AVB had to find a way to regain some territory and push his team away from their own goal. Some might argue that Walker was the better man for the role on the flank rather than Lennon but it’s difficult to say whether that would have had any impact on the result.

Combined with the fact that an Arsenal side lacking in confidence wasn’t really sure how to handle a two goal lead i.e. whether they should sit on it or go for more, AVB’s tactics succeeded in shielding the Tottenham goal while making the game a lot more even despite the numerical difference.

In the first 15 minutes or so of the second half Arsenal did not have a shot on goal as the game once again became a midfield battle albeit with a few more spaces. The passing chalkboards from 45-60 minutes show a distinct lack of Arsenal passes inside the Tottenham half in central areas.

The way around the midfield congestion can be a ball over the top as Tottenham had showed in the early exchanges of the first half. Wenger’s team are not good exponents of this approach but they used it to good effect to add to their lead on the hour mark.

It took approximately 10 seconds for the ball to move from Szczesny’s six yard box to the back of Lloris’ net. All four of Arsenal’s attacking players (Front three plus Cazorla) were involved, but the goalkeeper bypassed the back four and the two central midfielders, and thus the area Tottenham were contesting. Apart from Walcott, every Gunner involved played one-touch football in that move. Once the central third was taken out of the picture, Spurs paid the price of being one defender short. Gallas and Vertonghen were in a 2-v-2 with Walcott and Podolski while Giroud had pulled Dawson ahead. Cazorla broke forward from the centre circle when Giroud headed the ball and was able to score unchallenged at the back post. Some people might blame Sandro for losing his man but, having seen many occasions where the midfielders tracking back can’t quite make a difference, I find it harsh to blame the Brazilian.

Arsenal regained confidence and control after the fourth goal. They now moved the ball with a lot more assurance even if it was just a keep-ball exercise for most parts. They created numerous promising moments in the rest of the period and could have scored two or three with better composure and technique in the final third. The fifth goal did come in injury time as Oxlade-Chamberlain capped his cameo with an assist while Walcott carried his knack for scoring injury time goals forward.

In between, Spurs did get one back as Bale was rewarded for his hard work and gaps in front of the Arsenal defence remained worrisome. Had the Welshman showed better judgment and squared the ball for Defoe in the 74th minute, the game could have become extremely nervy for the Gunners. But no team scores with every chance they create and on the balance of play i.e. considering the chances created by the two sides, the 5-2 score seemed fair.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: I don’t think he was culpable for either goal even though his positioning for the first one seemed indecisive. There was more indecision on other occasions as well like the Defoe air-kick in the 77th minute from the corner. There was an odd occasion where his distribution put the team under pressure. On the whole it wasn’t a great game from the Keeper but it wasn’t too bad either.

Sagna: Saw a lot of the ball – the second most touches. Was part of many attacks that were built down the right and created an excellent chance for Giroud. Admirable shift on the flank against Bale but wasn’t on the same page as Mertesacker which led to them going in opposite directions in the build up to the first.

Mertesacker: Bad error in judgment and decision making for the first goal. Good presence in the box and excellent attacking header for his goal. Won all his duels and tackles but that only tells part of the story as Tottenham did find space and opportunities in the Arsenal defensive third.

Koscielny: Can’t really blame him for the first goal but he probably should have done better for the second. Decent game on the whole.

Vermaelen: Not directly at fault for either goal but Spurs did get into some promising positions down his side. Was able to make a greater contribution to the attack than he’s done in the recent past from left-back.

I wouldn’t say this was a good defensive effort from Arsenal considering the nature of chances conceded and more so after getting a man advantage. The spacing between the defenders themselves, that between the defenders and midfield, and the decision making of individuals could all have been better. In fact, it needs to be better or simple balls over the top will keep putting the team under pressure. That said, it’s vital to reiterate that the task of defending is just not limited to the back five.

Arteta: Was under pressure in the opening exchanges and Tottenham made it hard for him to influence the game. He completed 13 of his 18 passes in the first 17 minutes but only 2 of those went into the opposition half. Came into his own and ran the show after the man advantage led to territorial gains as discussed above.

Cazorla: Didn’t see much of the ball when the Gunners couldn’t build from the back early on. Was extremely influential with many decisive contributions, including but not limited to his assist and goal, after the sending off. Was the most creative player for the Gunners and a constant menace for the visitors.

Wilshere: Didn’t quite know how to help his team when Spurs were pressing high up the pitch. Attempted only 6 passes in the first 17 minutes and that shows he just wasn’t getting into useful areas to circulate the ball which would have helped the tempo and created possibilities to beat the pressing in the congested central third. It’s down to his age and experience. Does create some highlights-worthy moments like his turn in the 16th minute which show what he can do, but he needs to develop into a more rounded player rather than one who is known for a few inspiring moments in a 90 minute game. Was the least influential of the midfielders but his limitations weren’t a concern after the sending off.

I’m not convinced about this midfield combination. Individually they’re all excellent players but the balance doesn’t seem right. If Arsenal have to give Wilshere the freedom to express his talents, they need another technically sound and physically strong player in there with Arteta to build play. Cazorla will probably have to move wide in such a case. With Wilshere and Cazorla both in midfield, the burden on Arteta is tremendous and the cover in front of the defence is flimsy at times.

 Walcott: Terrorized Naughton after Arsenal were able to push Spurs back. Excellent inviting cross for the first goal, good composure for his goal, and played a vital part in the fourth as well. But he also missed a couple of very good chances and his poor touch or decision making wasted some promising moments as well. Overall a commendable offensive game.

Giroud: Got three chances, scored one – again a respectable conversion rate. Had good presence in the box and kept the defenders on their toes. Another player with a useful contribution to the nerve-settling fourth goal.

Podolski: Got a bit of luck for his goal, but the first-time assist was superb. Played much of the game as the second striker in the box and his presence played its part in the first and third goals. Made some noteworthy defensive contributions as well. Didn’t see too much of the ball – received only 22 passes in his time on the pitch – but showed the impact he can have when he receives the ball high up the pitch.

The front three didn’t see much of the ball in the early exchanges but they were able to make telling contributions once Arsenal gained control of the match. All-in-all the Gunners did well to convert promising situations into chances and chances into goals even if there were a few disappointing misses.

Subs: Ramsey provided extra work rate and played a couple of eye catching passes. Oxlade-Chamberlain looked lively and hungry. Santos provided useful cover late in the game.

Wenger: Has to find the right balance in midfield so that Arsenal can play past the pressure in the central third. Arsenal’s trademark attacking game is returning and hopefully that will now be enough against teams that cede the centre and drop deep or leave spaces at the back. It’s good to see goals from crosses, from goal-kicks, and such avenues but without consistency these will just be singular pleasant memories. Am I right in thinking that in two games, without being anywhere near their best, his side have put 10 goals past teams managed by AVB – a manager who was touted as the right choice to take over from Arsene in order to take the club forward!?