Arsenal 7 – 3 Newcastle: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

December 31, 2012

Well, that was a strange sort of a game with a hugely entertaining end that has boosted the festive cheer in Gooner households no doubt. For me this was a family weekend and it kept me fully engaged, ergo the lateness of this report. Hopefully, at least some fans will still be in the mood to read and talk about the game.

I was expecting goals in this one and a close fight. Despite the final score, I think it’s safe to say the game was tight for 80 odd minutes. The final 10 minutes were about Newcastle showing the effects of their midweek exertions and the Gunners producing an exceptionally ruthless and efficient performance.

Arsene picked virtually the same line-up that had won the last two games with the exception of Koscielny coming in for Mertesacker, reportedly due to illness. Newcastle had a predictable, injury-depleted starting eleven.

The first-half was a soporific affair with Arsenal sitting back and Newcastle attempting to attack. There were far too many mistakes from both sides. The overall quality of the game was uninspiring.

At the end of the first period, the visitors had 7 shots compared to Arsenal’s 3. They had more possession, played more passes, and looked like the side that wanted to make something happen.

Wenger’s team struggled in possession and were limited to a counter-attacking approach. On the positive side, the defending was more focussed with the players working hard to hold the shape. They were also looking for quick transitions and were trying to put balls in behind Newcastle’s high line.

By my count, Arsenal had four promising moments in the opening 45 minutes. Theo deftly scored one, had a shot on target – albeit a tame one – with another, and made a complete mess of a third situation. Oxlade-Chamberlain too disappointed with an early opportunity where his touch, decision making, and finally the shot were all below the level expected.

Newcastle had more of the ball but didn’t create too many chances. Arsenal’s shape forced them to shoot from outside the box and there was just one header from a set-piece that counted as an attempt from inside the box, although off-target. Their goal came from a deflected free-kick. Some might say Wilshere should have shown more courage, perhaps if he had been an English lad… well, let’s just leave it at that.

The Gunners came out with greater purpose and belief in the second half. They took the game to Newcastle and the patterns of play were completely different.

The second goal came from pressure applied high up the pitch against a Newcastle throw. Many players were pulled towards the flank. Cazorla’s ball across the edge of the penalty box found Oxlade-Chamberlain in an excellent area. The youngster scored his first League goal of the season with a well-taken strike, partly atoning his miss earlier in the game.

The visitors didn’t take long to equalize. Sagna wasn’t able to track Obertan while no one tracked Marveaux’s run to the back post. Arsenal’s attacking impetus in the second half had come at the cost of defensive shape and discipline. In my opinion, Wilshere was guilty of leaving his man free.

Jack played his part in the build-up to the third goal though. He won the ball high up the pitch and it was his run and chip that created a mess on the Newcastle goal-line resulting in a one yard header for Podolski.

Soon enough, Wilshere was again a yard behind Marveaux. This time the Frenchman created the chance for Dembe Ba to tap home. It can be argued that Gibbs was the bigger culprit as he fell asleep at the back post.

Now it was Gibbs’ turn to make up for his mistake. A well timed run into the box was followed by, for once, a clever cut-back into a useful area.

Newcastle’s third attempt of the second half and their last in the game came in the 75th minute. The game felt like a contest till the 80th minute. After that it was all Arsenal. You could see the visitors were now feeling the effects of their toil at Old Trafford. I wonder how many people would have thought the game would finish 7-3 when it was 4-3 with 10 odd minutes to go.

It really was the Walcott and Giroud show at the end. The quality of their finishing and that of the assists was superb. We haven’t seen such a ruthless display of clinical finishing from the Gunners for quite a while now.

The last few weeks have been good for the Gunners. I’d mentioned the quirk of fate that had lined up five winnable games for them at a vital point in the season. They’ve won three while one has been postponed. But despite the four wins on the trot in the League, Wenger’s side still have a win ratio of less than 50 percent. That shows just how much work needs to be done and the kind of consistency that they’ll have to display before we start forming broader conclusions. For now, it’s just about enjoying the time of the year and the games as they’re won.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Can’t blame him for the first or the second goal but he might have done better for the third. Catching was comfortable, distribution felt a bit rushed at times.

Sagna: Arguably, one of his weakest defensive efforts in quite a while. Conceded the foul that led to the first, was easily beaten for the second, and could have done better to prevent the cross for the third. Work rate was typically excellent.

Koscielny: Made a number of important clearances and interceptions. Was good to see him get tight on Ba when the striker was the outlet for Newcastle in their own half. Passing could have been better.

Vermaelen: The Belgian had a big game in the centre of defence. Like his partner, he made a number of useful clearances and tackles. Didn’t see as much of the ball as he normally does.

Gibbs: Should have done better for the third goal but I don’t blame him for the second. As we’ve discussed all season, needs better decision making and execution in the final third. There was that moment in the second half when he side-footed a shot straight at Krul when four teammates were waiting for a cross/cut-back. Good assist for the fourth goal.

The full-backs had difficult, somewhat disappointing games. Oddly enough, despite the three goals conceded, I find it hard to blame the central defenders for any.

Arteta: Another strong game defensively, particularly from a positioning point of view. But Newcastle exposed the spaces around him in the second half. Didn’t see as much of the ball as the side struggled to dominate possession but passing was reliable as ever.

Cazorla: Wasn’t as much in the game in the first-half as we’d have liked against such a depleted side. Decent assist for the second goal. Passing was below his usual standards.

Wilshere: Very poor defensively. Partly at fault for all the three goals. Good work to create the third goal. Did he pick up an assist for the seventh? Overall a disappointing game.

It feels strange to note this was the midfield’s weakest performance in the last few weeks. But as Wenger says, we’ve to take distance from the score when analyzing the game. When such a Newcastle side dictates play at the Emirates and given the nature of goals conceded, there’s every reason to demand better from the midfielders.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Good to see him get off the mark in the League this season. Should have done better with that chance early in the first half. Another one who had a so-so performance.

Walcott: Will probably be the MotM in most people’s reckoning, was a close second in my book. The placement and execution for the first goal was top class. Excellent composure for the second. The third was cheeky, almost mesmerizing as well. The first assist for Giroud was superb. There is no doubt his was a decisive performance. But it wasn’t without its flaws, particularly in the first half. In fact, if we take the final 10 minutes out, his effort wouldn’t go down as a memorable one.

Podolski: MotM in my book. Excellent assist for the first goal where he made the most of a bad pass from Cazorla. Was involved in the build-up of the second, scored the third, and had the pre-assist for the fourth. Also created a second chance for Walcott in the first half and was involved in a number of promising moments that Arsenal created. The nature and quality of the three goals at the end overshadowed his effort but I think it was more valuable.

The attackers had an outstanding second half. Their effort covered for the imbalance in midfield and the soft goals gifted to the opposition.

Subs: Giroud was back with a bang, and then another –  two exceptional finishes. Ramsey had another useful cameo. Coquelin hardly had any time on the pitch.

Wenger: The problem of balance is still evident – In the first half we saw a solid collective defence but little attacking impetus, in the second there was genuine forward thrust but at the cost of gaps at the back. His technically accomplished midfield has not dominated the park against the likes of Wigan and Newcastle, and that too when their form is rock bottom. There’s undeniable room for improvement.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Newcastle

December 29, 2012

On paper, Newcastle’s visit to the Emirates is another eminently winnable game for the Gunners. The Magpies have won 2 and lost 7 of their last 9 games. They’re also without an away this season. That’s relegation form by anyone’s reckoning. Their current plight is an excellent example of the difficult nature of performing consistently on a year-on-year basis. Injuries, European exertions, transfer speculation surrounding key players like Dembe Ba, and other issues have all worked against the Geordies.

Arsenal, on the other hand, are coming into this game on the back of three straight wins. Fitness concerns are diminishing, although how long that will last is anyone’s guess. They’ve also had a midweek break.

All signs points to a straightforward win for the Gunners where they dominate possession create many chances and score some goals. But I’ve a feeling this game will be decided by a narrow margin, which means it could boil down to individual moments in front of goal. A great save, a big tackle, an extraordinary finish, a refereeing blunder, anything could be decisive.

Newcastle have a couple of key players injured. This has affected their creative abilities but they do have goals in the side. Ba and Cisse are exceptional finishers and possess the ability to convert half-chances. Their basic problem is that the duo have limited abilities outside the box. This has made it difficult for both to perform in the same game as only one can spend time as a central attacker.

In this game, Pardew could take a gamble and play both up front in a 4-4-2 with a strongly defensive approach behind them. Two banks of four, disciplined football, and direct attacking could maximize the opportunities for their two best players while protecting their goal. It’d be a very short term approach but when the team is in trouble anything that stems the rot is worth a try. Still, I’m not sure Newcastle will go that way. Such an approach has the potential of giving Arsenal a lot of room in the central third and, as we’ve seen, the Gunners look a completely different team when they’re allowed to build the game at their convenience.

Pardew will probably set his team up to compete in midfield and they’ll show a genuine desire to score. This will provide gaps for Arsenal to exploit, particularly in the wider areas. Both teams will get half-chances and the manner in which either or both attempt to convert promising situations into goals will be worth watching. There should be goals in this game, three at least.

Arsene has a strong squad to pick his starting eleven. The first major choice is in the central striking role. Walcott and Giroud are the prime candidates. Now that Rosicky is back, my personal preference would be Podolski down the middle with Little Mozart on the left and Theo on the right, but I’ll be surprised if we see that trio in those positions.

Rosicky’s availability poses a fresh dilemma for Wenger. The Czech star brings certain useful qualities to the side and would fit in nicely with Cazorla and Co., but where does he play? On the left Podolski has offered decent balance, on the right Arsenal need some pace, and the midfield trio is already very strong. There is a possibility of bringing him in for Wilshere, it’s at least worth trying, but Jack is the biggest hope for the future and every game he plays now adds something to his experience.

Koscielny is another player who deserves more time in the middle. Will Wenger rotate his central defence?

We might see,

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

At this moment, it’s not difficult to visualize a win, draw, or defeat. Newcastle have enough to frustrate the Gunners if certain moments fall their way. Arsenal have the better team, better form, and a vastly improved fitness situations. It’s up to them to make it count on the table. Wenger’s stronger bench might play a part if it’s still tight late in the game.

I’m travelling this weekend and might not get the chance to write about the game on Saturday, particularly if the performance is not inspiring.

Wigan 0 – 1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

December 23, 2012

“…but any win will suffice if a big one doesn’t work out.”

Three points are better than one which is better than none at all. That’s pretty straightforward and I doubt there’s much debate on that.

The quality of football is a different matter. After the big win against Reading I’d advised caution. Sure, Arsenal looked like a free-flowing team in that one. Many moves had delightful combination play that involved different players. But it’s always tricky to judge how much of such a performance is down to the attacking team’s qualities and what proportion of causality can be ascribed to the defensive team’s weaknesses.

This time Wenger went with the same starting eleven but it looked like a completely different team out there. Such evidence shows majority of Arsenal’s impressive attacking play against Reading was a function of the home side’s frailties. Arsenal have the attacking talent but it has only come out when the opponents have allowed them the opportunities to dictate the play. All through the season we’ve seen the attack struggle when they Gunners have been challenged in the central third of the pitch.

Wigan did that fairly effectively. As expected, Martinez played more of a 3-5-2 rather than a 3-4-3 with clever adjustments when his side didn’t have the ball. I particularly liked the way their midfield moved across the width of the pitch when defending. The positioning and decision making of their wingbacks was also appreciable. Even when Arsenal did have spells of possession, Martinez often left Di Santo and Kone higher up the pitch. It’s not often that Arsenal have lesser possession than the opposition, make fewer passes, have a lower passing accuracy, and create fewer chances all in one game. As Roberto Martinez said after the game,

When you play against Arsenal and they’re running the clock down in the second half and making substitutions to try to cope with the threat we had, it’s a real compliment.

The Latics deserve credit for their tactical flexibility, hard work, and discipline. Unfortunately, these can’t always be a substitute for genuine quality in the final third. Both sides were weak in that regard but the Gunners had a slight edge. It wasn’t a game where either Keeper was very busy or forced into many great saves.

Arsenal did have their moments, particularly when they got in behind on the right side. Oxlade-Chamberlain got into promising positions on a number of occasions. His final ball, too, was much better than it has been in the past.

Unfortunately, Walcott wasn’t able to beat the goalkeeper on one occasion and curiously attempted a dummy when a shot on goal was the obvious choice on another. You could see his thinking as Wilshere was getting into a good position behind him but the defender was always going to clear the ball if Theo left it. These are the times when you realize scoring tap-ins from such positions is not as simple as it looks.

Wigan too had their moments, Kone had the best chance of the game in the 24th minute when he simply sped past Mertesacker, but his shot was tame and off-target. Other than that, Wigan were guilty of wasting promising positions with poor quality passes or wrong choices. Often their attacking players popped into spaces between the lines and played intricate one-touch football. This led to balls being played out to advancing wingbacks in space. Then nothing. Either the cross was horribly misdirected, or it went straight to an Arsenal player, or the run-pass coordination was missing and a player was caught off-side, and so on.

Arsenal’s defending wasn’t great but the defenders held a good line and the players seemed to be on the same page with their decision making. They also made some useful blocks and clearances. This proved enough.

The winner came from a penalty. Roberto Martinez called it soft and said Theo “bought the decision”. I can see his point of view, sometimes such calls aren’t given. But to me it was a clumsy foul and there appeared to be a shove in the back, so I think it was the right call.

Wigan had a couple of late shouts for penalties. I haven’t seen the replays but neither looked a penalty to me in real time. That said, I’ve seen those kind of decisions given. Given the distance the ball travelled, it really boils down to the refs general mood, which is a regrettable aspect of the game.

Wenger’s team have climbed to 3rd in the table but any euphoria around that is about as meaningless as the hullabaloo over the 10th spot they were in a short while ago. Too many teams are bundled up in a tight space in terms of points. There are four tied at 30 points and below them Chelsea have two games in hand with 29 points on the board. In a couple of weeks it can all be upside down again. Consistency matters.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Despite Wigan’s competitiveness in the middle of the park, it was a relatively comfortable outing for the Pole. Made a good save from Kone and a couple of other routine ones. Wasn’t tested aerially.

Sagna: Had a very busy game on the right. Most of it was about hard work and keeping things simple. Contested many aerial duels, which were often a battle for territorial gain. There were times when he didn’t get enough cover, particularly when Beausejour broke forward.

Mertesacker: Was caught out for pace once and it could have been fatal. Made a number of useful clearances in the defensive third. On the whole he did a decent job of protecting the central area in front of goal.

Vermaelen: Another one who made useful clearances and protected the central area. Decent game, nothing noteworthy in a positive or negative way.

Gibbs: Saw less of the ball than Sagna but I thought he played higher up the pitch at times. Very similar to his usual style, nothing new to observe over what has been said in previous games.

The defenders had a respectable game. There were spaces in the wide areas but I thought the decision to concede those was tactical and the fullbacks were instructed to tuck in narrow. The back four minimized clear-cut opportunities and used the offside trap effectively.

Arteta: Calmly taken penalty, although, I must say, it wasn’t placed in the corner. Did Arteta see which way Al-Habsi was going or was this just luck? Typically hard working game in front of the defence and reliable passing. Also created a good chance for Oxlade-Chamberlain early in the game.

Cazorla: Was involved in the build-up of many of Arsenal’s chances. Played Oxlade-Chamberlain into excellent positions on the right, created a good chance for Walcott in the box, and so on. Lost the ball on a number of occasions though, could probably have done better there. Defensive work also has room for improvement.

Wilshere: Had a very average game. Pushed up the pitch quite often but didn’t have any sort of an end product in the advanced areas. Sometimes made the wrong choices like running into a crowd or picking the wrong pass. Can’t question the effort but he’s had better days.

This was a tough game for the midfield. Wigan were able to push up the pitch and pressed with intensity. The Gunners saw enough of the ball but their creative threat was limited to a few opportunities from the wider areas. Defensive work rate of the midfield was good and they provided useful cover to the defence, particularly late in the game.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Put in a number of dangerous balls into the box after being played in behind on the right. With better finishing he could have had an assist. But overall contribution was quite limited. Could have done better with a good chance early in the game when he went for the near post. Didn’t see as much of the ball as he could have with clever movement and he lost the ball quite often, particularly when seen as a ratio of touches. Often left Beausejour free.

Walcott: Won the penalty. Also tried getting into meaningful positions in the box but his poaching skills clearly need a lot of work. When the midfield is struggling under pressure, a lot more is needed from the striker but Theo couldn’t offer an outlet. Late in the game his presence was almost nonexistent. Don’t see this experiment lasting too long in the near future.

Podolski: Didn’t find as much time and space as he did in the previous game and he was a tad hasty with his pass/shot when he did find some room. Greater composure and impact is expected from the experienced players.

The attack had its moments but those were not enough to seriously trouble the Wigan goalkeeper. Even the moments they had were more of an individual nature. There were some gaps at the back that could have been exploited with better choices and understanding.

Subs: Ramsey almost played as an auxiliary right-back late in the game, Coquelin was enthusiastic with his tackles, Koscielny didn’t spend much time on the pitch.

Wenger: The search for balance continues. Looks like he’s decided to push his team higher up the pitch. I like the way Arsenal were trying to defend on the halfway line for most of the game. There are no easy or obvious answers for Le Boss this season.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Wigan

December 22, 2012

Wigan have troubled Arsenal in recent seasons. They won at the Emirates last season and derailed the Gunners’ title challenge with a home win in 2009-10 that featured three goals in the last 10 minutes or so. Wenger’s side have also had a couple of comfortable 4-0 wins in both those seasons which highlights the inconsistency we’ve seen from Latics. It’s one of the reasons they are almost always in a relegation dogfight even when the quality of their football is admirable.

Tactically, they offer a different challenge than other teams in the League with their 3 man central defence and the use of wingbacks. Some experts describe their formation as a 3-4-3 but to me it’s more like a 3-5-2 because when they have players like Gomez and Kone in the side, the former almost always plays as a central midfielder and Kone often plays as striker in central areas. Without the ball their shape often resembles a 5-4-1.

Possession battle will be interesting in this game. Wigan have the ability to hold on to the ball unlike Arsenal’s last three opponents, viz.: West Brom, Bradford, and Reading. It won’t be easy for Arsenal to win the ball back as it was in those games. So the Gunners will have to work hard to win the ball back higher up the pitch or take a conscious decision to drop deeper. I’m eager to see what they do. Pressing higher up the pitch hasn’t worked well this season as we’ve discussed on numerous occasions.

Will Arsenal press higher up the pitch and invite pressure on the defence? Counter-attacking has been a big weapon for the Latics in this fixture. In the past they had quick and tricky players like N’Zogbia and Moses who made decisive contributions. This time around the burden will be on Arouna Kone. He is quick, has the ability to get past his defender, and has a good shot in his armoury. The Ivorian can also hold up the ball and bring others into play. A high line without cohesive pressing will give Wigan a good chance of scoring.

We also have to see the tactics Roberto Martinez deploys. Wigan have won only 1 out of their last 7 League games and that was a relegation six-pointer against Reading, probably the only side with form worse than their own. In all those 7 games, the Latics have shipped at least 2 goals. How will the Spaniard tighten up his defence? He could go for the aggressive route and press the Gunners in the central third, or he could drop his team deeper in order to deny Arsenal time and space in the critical areas of their defensive third.

As previously mentioned, Wigan can keep and pass the ball around. They’re seventh best in terms of possession this season with 54.3 percent. At home this rises close to 58 percent and puts them sixth on the list. Last season Wigan conceded the ball to Arsenal and the Gunners had nearly two-thirds of possession in both games. If Martinez prioritizes defending spaces, his team will again yield the ball and rely solely on counter-attacks and set-pieces. This will undoubtedly make it hard for Arsenal as the Gunners haven’t consistently clicked in attack this season.

If Martinez takes the bolder route and pushes his team higher up, the game will be more open and exciting with a number of opportunities arising at both ends. Wigan have the ability to test Szczesny’s goal if they play with purpose. Their problem is that they can’t do so on a consistent basis while keeping Al-Habsi’s goal well-protected.

Speaking of Keepers, Ali Al-Habsi could have a big say on the result. He’s a mercurial custodian who can have a blinder in one game and an absolute stinker in the next. Often he goes from the sublime to the ridiculous and back over the course of 90 minutes. Wenger will hope there are some mistakes in his game but don’t be surprised if he frustrates the Gunners with his excellent reflexes.

I guess the starting line-up will be the same as the one that produced some delightful football at the Madejski on Monday.

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Wilshere – Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Podolski.

Wenger could use the likes of Giroud, Koscielny, or even fan favourite Gervinho, but I have a feeling he will stick with a team that produced some high-quality combinations in the previous game.

Wigan’s current form and injury problems make this another eminently winnable game for the Gunners. The fact that they’ve conceded 2 goals or more in each of their last 7 League games means anything less from Arsenal will be a surprise and a disappointment.

That said, in order to win this game, the Gunners will have to do something they haven’t done so far this season, i.e. win three Premier League games in a row. But if Wenger’s side have to climb up the table and build some distance with the mid-table clubs, they have to win such games and win them in a manner that helps strengthen the fragile confidence. A big win is needed and will help the morale and vibes around the club but any win will suffice if a big one doesn’t work out. Dropping points will be a massive disappointment, to put it mildly, but not entirely unforeseeable.

Reading 2 – 5 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

December 18, 2012

That was an enjoyable performance and a useful result. It was an eminently winnable game so the result wasn’t the main attraction, even though it was vital, but the quality of the performance certainly was.

It was, as expected, a very open game. Reading tend to drop deep without really having the discipline and attention to detail needed for parking the bus. They’ve conceded the most shots and, after this game, the most goals as well. Even by their standards the first half was dreadful. Arsenal can be lethal when allowed to play and that was the cardinal mistake McDermott’s side made.

Starting early on, when Oxlade-Chamberlain forced a save just after a minute had passed, the Gunners established a comfortable presence on the ball. The hosts often had 9 or 10 bodies back in their defensive third but were getting nowhere near the ball. It was only a matter of time before Arsenal scored.

Although, having seen the Gunners struggle to find the winner against Bradford despite complete dominance late in the game, it was understandable that the period before the first goal had a touch of anxiety about it. Reading did create two very good opportunities early on. In the 8th minute Pogrebnyak played a neat one-two and got into a great position in the box after Cazorla was caught ball-watching. His square ball was missed by one teammate while the other couldn’t hit the target. In the 11th minute a simple long ball and flick-on routine resulted in a corner that was headed just over.

In a game where both sides were going to get plenty of chances to score, those misses were always going to prove costly. Considering the fragile nature of the Gunners’ confidence at the moment, an early goal for the Royals would have made this more of a contest.

Podolski scored the opener just before the quarter-hour mark. The German’s first touch with his weaker foot was superb, the finish that of a natural goalscorer. Same can be said for the run into the box. To me the most important part of that move was Arteta’s tackle on the right flank just inside the Arsenal half. Sagna was up the pitch and that ball had to be won. After that it was just too easy, Reading players never got anywhere near the ball.

There were still some vulnerabilities in the Arsenal defence. Vermaelen’s desperate but timely clearance in the 28th minute prevented a tap in.

The second goal cushion came from a long spell of possession. By my count, Arsenal had the ball for 44 seconds and made 15 passes in the build-up. Only Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t touch the ball in that period. The key moment was again from Arteta as his raking cross-field pass found Podolski in acres of space. Usually, the Arsenal wingers are double-teamed by opponents sitting deep but this time the German had ample space to find a cross. Cazorla’s diving header was excellent. It could easily have gone off target.

The third was even better . It was close to a minute of possession and had 16 passes. While the previous one saw most of the possession in the Arsenal half, this one was created right in front of the deep-lying defence. And thus, it was Szczesny, Mertesacker, and Vermaelen who didn’t touch the ball in the build-up. Once again Cazorla’s finish was impressive.

It could easily have been 2-5 in the first half itself but 0-3 seemed a fair reflection of the game. Federici deserves some credit for preventing his side from being embarrassed.

Reading’s defending against Arsenal’s stronger left flank was probably the worst I’ve seen this season from any team in any league. But in general, as the spells of possession before the second and third goals show, the Royals just tamely surrendered possession and territory.

Reading came out with greater purpose in the second half, or at least tried to. In the opening 10 minutes they had 58 percent possession as the Gunners seemed to take their foot off the gas. Neither side created much in that period.

Cazorla completed his hat-trick with another well taken goal. Podolski’s awareness and selflessness was commendable as he squared the ball when he could have taken a shot. Again a vital part of the goal came early on in the move when Sagna won an aerial duel from a long punt by the Keeper.

If the Gunners were in the cruise mode at the start of the second half they almost went to sleep after the fourth. Two goals were gifted through multiple avoidable individual errors.

Thankfully, Reading just didn’t have the quality to capitalize on the momentum or to keep their goal secure. Walcott scored the fifth and settled the tie. Again the build-up had 16 passes and about 46 seconds of possession.

On the whole it was a comfortable win against a weak team that was having one of its worst days. The way Arsenal were able to patiently build their moves with long spells of passing and possession is a good indication of that. They try the same in every game but most teams don’t allow this amount of time or space on or off the ball. Same can be said for the manner in which crosses found unmarked bodies in the box.

I don’t see any reason to draw too many conclusions from this one. We know this team has attacking quality. Big wins against Southampton, Coventry, and Spurs have shown that in the past. But we’ve to see whether they can play to their potential on a consistent basis when the opponents don’t roll over. This game didn’t tell us anything about that.

I’m not even sure if this will be a good confidence boost for the squad because, as mentioned earlier, we’ve been here before. In the preview I mentioned the run of games during the holiday period. They’re perfect for building the momentum after such a win. Let’s see…

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Decent game on the whole. Dealt with a couple of tricky aerial balls and showed composure when receiving back passes. Could he have done better for either goal? Difficult to blame the Keeper when he’s left one-v-one but the top class ones do make a difference. Also added to the tension with a nervous flap just after the second went in.

Sagna: Standard Sagna game, steady and efficient. Nothing really stood out in a positive or negative way.

Mertesacker: Kept things simple at the back, made the clearances when he had to. His slow reaction speed is visible when a threat appears out of nowhere. Was caught on his heels for both the goals although neither was directly his fault. It’s just one of those things you notice … the opponents are cutting through the defence with ease while a central defender is quite a way away from the play. This is not exactly a criticism, just an observation about a natural weakness he has. All players have their flaws.

Vermaelen: Made a big clearance in the 28th minute and other useful ones throughout the game. Was at least partially at fault for the second goal. Should have done a better job of tackling Robson-Kanu.

Gibbs: He’s been getting into useful attacking positions throughout the season. In this game he had good end product in the form of two assists, just like he had two against Southampton (don’t know if technically shots that lead to own goals are considered as assists.) Needs to make a decisive contribution in tougher games as well. Defensively he remains a tad weaker than the rest. The two moves in the 8th and 11th minutes came down his flank, played Pogrebnyak onside in the 28th minute, and gave the ball away for Reading’s first.

The defenders didn’t have a great challenge as the weak opponents were having one of their worst days. Still there were some gaps apparent and Reading could have scored more. Many of the old problems are resurfacing as the Gunners go in search of greater bite in attack.

Arteta: Another massive game from the Spaniard. Was a big help to the defence with numerous interceptions, tackles, and clearances. Also did a good job of spreading play and was involved in the build-up of all the goals. Should have done better to stop Robson-Kanu to prevent Reading’s second.

Cazorla: Easily the MotM. Took his goals really well, also created quite a few chances for his teammates, and was involved in play all over the pitch. Clearly, the best player on the park. But the big question is, can he prove decisive on a week in, week out basis?

Wilshere: Another one who was involved in the build-up of many goals and often played high up the pitch after interchanging positions with Cazorla. Another one who has to make this sort of an impact on a consistent basis. Was partly at fault for Reading’s first goal as he wasn’t alert to the possibility of a mistake. Has to learn that playing that deep brings unique defensive challenges, particularly in moments when he’s the only midfielder protecting the central defence. Must also control turnovers and other avenues for losing possession.

The midfield did a decent job of protecting the defence but Arteta and Wilshere will probably agree they could have done better for the two goals. It was a stroll in the park for them as far as circulating possession and creating chances goes.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Had a couple of shots on target and put in some balls into dangerous areas but on the whole he’ll have to learn to make his presence count in a more meaningful way as his experienced teammates showed. Against such an opponent he should be picking up goals and/or assists. Wasn’t a bad game by any means but it was too easy.

Walcott: Hmmm… Theo in a central role? Well, if anything, this game should show him that in an Arsenal team goals and assists can come from anywhere! Just look at Podolski’s contribution. Took his chance well late in the game but it was an average outing from the Englishman. Passing and touch was surprisingly good but he missed a glorious one-v-one early in the game, also had numerous shots that were either off target or straight at an opponent. I have a feeling he’d have made a bigger impact if he’d started on the right. But if there was any game where Arsene could have afforded the experiment of starting him through the middle, this was it. Has a lot to do before he can convince me he deserves a consistent run through the middle but that performance should earn him another chance somewhere down the line, maybe even in the next game.

Podolski: Excellent work for the first goal, good assists for the second and fourth. He looks a different player when he gets a chance to run at opponents or finds some space in the final third. Another one who has to produce more often. Decent defensive shift but his lack of awareness played Kebe onside for the second goal. Should have stopped his tracking run earlier. It seemed like a case of good intentions and effort but bad understanding with other players and awareness of the game situation.

The attacking players had an enjoyable day. However, the fact that so many of Arsenal’s chances came via crosses from wide areas tells me that this was as much down to the opponent’s weaknesses as it was down to the strength of Arsenal’s attack.

Subs: Ramsey had a decent outing, Coquelin didn’t get much time, Giroud should have scored when put through.

Wenger: I still have a feeling Arsene doesn’t quite know what his best attacking combination is. This game would have told him some things but not much. The Walcott experiment is interesting, particularly considering no one’s really made the role their own. Must be gutted by the manner of the goals conceded but does he have the answers?! Perhaps the better question is, can he find the answers that have eluded him despite numerous efforts?

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Reading

December 17, 2012

Arsenal have 5 Premier League games in the next 16 days. These are against sides that are currently occupying positions 20, 18, 11, 15, and 17 on the table, respectively. Of course, except Reading at rock bottom, other teams could change positions when the Gunners do meet them in due course, but we’ve seen enough this season to say these are 5 games the Gunners should win, particularly considering the fact that games against teams in 11th (West Ham) and 15th (Newcastle) are at home.

This could be the chance to pull away from the congested pack below the top two. Only 9 points separate positions 3 and 13. This won’t be the case at the end of the season and teams that remain consistent during the holiday period will rise to the top of that pack.

Then again, 5 straight wins seems too big an ask for a team that hasn’t managed more than 2 in a row in the League this season. Moreover, we can’t forget Arsenal’s tendency to drop points against the so-called smaller sides. The Gunners have roused more than one bottom-dwelling side from their slumber this season. Who’s to say it won’t happen again, and again.

Anyway, it’s Reading next and this should be the most winnable of all these 5 games. The Royals are conceding 2 goals a game at home and have only won 1 of their 16 League games. They’ve the lowest possession of all teams at 41.4 percent – incidentally, Arsenal are at the top of that table with 59.8 percent. Reading also have the lowest pass accuracy of 68.9 percent. They also concede the 17.9 shots per game, the most, while attempting 11.7, which is better than only three other teams.

That said, it’s w0uld be unfair to declare Brian McDermott’s side are a rubbish team. 13 of their 16 games have been decided by 1 goal or less, which proves they give a good fight to virtually all teams. Case in point? Manchester United needed 4 goals to secure a 3-4 win at the Madejski.

Even in my preview of the Capital One tie between the clubs, I’d noted the fact that Reading are capable of scoring and conceding goals, which was borne out by the eventual scoreline that resembled a tennis score. In this game, I’ll be immensely disappointed if the Gunners fail to match the 2 goals per game average that Reading have at home.

The Royals leave plenty of spaces open even when they are defending, but Arsenal will need a high tempo to exploit those gaps. The first battle, as is routine in any Arsenal game these days, will be for the control in midfield. Against the relatively weakened side in the League Cup, McDermott’s team were able to impose their physicality on the game. This time around it will be much harder for them to press the Gunners, which could also keep the Arsenal goal safe.

If Wenger’s side can control the central third, the second aspect to look at will be the speed of their passing and the quality of the off-the-ball movement. Both are related and it’s usually the lack of movement which restricts the tempo. This is where, I feel, arsenal have lacked the right understanding between midfield and attack.

Arteta, Wilshere, and Cazorla are all excellent individual players. But somehow they’ve not been able to bring the attacking players into the game as often as is needed. No doubt, the average quality of some of those in the front three has limited their impact, but truly great players should make average teammates look better. In other words, it’s up to the midfield trio to adapt their game so that they can get the best out of the front three rather than expecting the attackers to raise their game, which won’t happen overnight.

Lot of small details have to change for this to happen. For instance, the kind of passes played to the attackers can make a difference. Instead of allowing Giroud to drop deep, the midfield has to find him higher up the pitch, preferably in the air. He’ll still lose possession quite often but the chances of making a meaningful contribution will also be higher.

Similarly, they should look to free Podolski up from the tiki-taka style passing in the central third. He’s more likely to have an impact when driving at the opponents, or through quick one-touch passing the final third. There are many other seemingly minor points that shape Arsenal’s game and it will only thrive when these work in a manner that gets the best out of the 11 on the pitch, and not in a way where certain individuals appear to have great moments without actually being decisive.

At the back, it’s mostly going to be about long balls, set-pieces, crosses, and shots from distance. As we’ve seen, Reading haven’t been great with possession or passing accuracy. Their football is likely to be very direct. Szczesny will be busier if the team struggles in the central third and the build-up process is disrupted by the opponents energetic pressing.

The central defenders will have to dominate their individual battles and they’ll have to be brave. Instead of dropping deep at the first sign of trouble they need to get tight to the attackers and snuff out possible attacks before they reach the defensive third. Such an approach will also give the other players confidence to press Reading in their own half. Arsenal have struggled at pressing higher up the pitch this season. At least part of the reason is that the defenders tend to drop back way too early. This leaves the midfield in a tough spot. They either get caught in a no man’s land or they have to drop back. There isn’t enough support behind the first line of pressing once the midfielders start getting double-minded over their positioning.

Part of the problem is also down to the fact that Arsenal’s team shape often leaves the two central defenders in direct confrontation with two attackers. If McDermott goes with two strikers or pushes a midfielder high up the pitch, Arteta will have a big role to play defensively. One of the full-backs will also have to provide cover. Failure to do so will force the defenders deeper and affect the balance throughout the pitch. It will also leave the side vulnerable to bookings and dangerous set-pieces. Long balls, from transitions or otherwise, should not isolate the central defenders against the strikers. A spare man is needed at the back.

Team news from Wenger was sketchy. It’s unclear whether Walcott will be fit to play. There seems to be an opening on the right flank where AOC could get a start. Fitness permitting, other choices should be straightforward.

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Wilshere – Oxlade-Chamberlain, Giroud, Podolski.

Over the last couple of years there have been way too many disappointments when a game has seemed eminently winnable. Will the difference in quality visible on paper translate into an enjoyable performance and a useful result?

Bradford City* 1 – 1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

December 12, 2012

Most of the big teams crash out of a competition like the League Cup, often against opponents from the lower divisions. It happens every year. However, few play a virtually full strength side against a team sitting three divisions below and still fail to progress.

In that regard, Arsene Wenger’s surprise selection made the result all the more disheartening, to put it mildly.

I have a feeling Wenger knows this is his weakest squad in years, not just in terms of individual quality, but also in terms of balance and understanding. The total output produced by the 11 players on the pitch is much, much lower than that of their predecessors. His decisions and comments over the season have shown that he isn’t quite sure what his best line-up is and Le Boss is still searching for the right combination in midfield and attack.

It seemed to me that Arsene went with a strong line-up because of two mains reasons – 1) he wanted to use the Cup as an insurance policy in case transfers don’t work out in January and/or the club fails to get into the Champions League spots at the end of the season; 2) He wanted to give some players more time to understand each other’s game and hopefully a boost to their confidence.

The decision bombed in every which way imaginable. Many key players have clocked up minutes which will have an impact by the time we reach the crunch period of March to May. The negative vibes will gain further strength while confidence of the players hits a new low. The only positive I can think of is that there will be fewer games to play in the coming weeks, which is really stretching it.

Coming to the game itself, I got the feeling Arsenal were a tad nervous at the beginning of the game. Bradford were able to chase the ball and put the Gunners under pressure which forced certain mistakes. Despite that the difference in the quality of the two teams was obvious.

The Gunners were well below their best but they were still creating chances. Vermaelen and Podolski couldn’t direct free-headers towards the target and there were some other promising moments that were squandered.

At the other end, the threat was always going to come from long balls and set-pieces. That’s just how the goal came. One long punt took the ball from their goalkeeper’s hands to deep inside the Arsenal defensive third.

Vermaelen’s inability to attack the ball earlier and the ease with which he was nutmegged exposed certain basic defensive weaknesses that many central defenders have shown while putting on a Arsenal shirt. The defending from the set-piece was woeful, it was again a case of a soft goal being gifted to the opposition.

Scoring goals is the hardest part of the game. It may be a cliché but is also the most fundamental tenet of the game. Once a team gifts goals to the opponents it makes its own task infinitely harder. Throw in the inability to produce decisive quality in the final third and you have the perfect recipe for a massive upset.

I don’t agree with people who claim there was no desire or spirit from the players. It’s a stunningly lazy argument that defies everything we saw on the pitch. I thought the players fought really hard, they just didn’t have the right quality in the right moments, and at times their lack of understanding or execution let them down badly.

From Arsenal’s point of view, there were two different phases in the game. In the first 70 minutes, the hosts had a relatively comfortable time. The Gunners got into plenty of threatening positions but the quality of delivery or the shot attempted was really poor. There were no shots on target in this period. If anything, Bradford’s basic long ball tactic created more threatening moments than all of Arsenal’s possession.

The game changed after Wenger’s three substitutions. Arsenal were a different team for the rest of the game and completely controlled the game. Duke was forced into many saves and for 50 minutes it was mostly a training exercise of attack against defence. To Bradford’s great credit they did enough to keep a misfiring Arsenal team at bay.

When Vermaelen equalized late in the game there was hope that Arsenal could turn things around. The players were visibly trying very hard, and that’s the reason I don’t doubt the desire or spirit of the individuals. However, they just didn’t have enough individual quality in the final third of the pitch to convert possession and territorial dominance into goals.

Bradford did not have a single shot on or off target in the second half and in extra time. That highlights the importance of not gifting goals better than anything. You have to be defensively strong in Cup ties, particularly when you’ve a misfiring attack.

I knew Bradford would be favourites once it went to penalties. Tweeted the following during extra-time.

It wasn’t just about their record of winning 8 successive penalty shootouts. The simple fact of the matter was that the game was now completely even. Any technical advantage that Arsenal had was nullified. The players with more confidence were going to go through and the Gunners were clearly second best. To me it wasn’t as much about desire at it was about belief and self-doubt. A single grain of doubt can be the difference between the ball hitting the post and bouncing out or just nestling inside the corner of the goal.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Can’t blame him for the shootout defeat but he was extremely indecisive for the goal. Came forward, went back, got into a mess. Didn’t have much to do otherwise! Still remains a young man with potential but everything to prove as well.

Sagna: Was he at fault for the goal as it was scored from behind him? Maybe he was but definitely not the primary culprit. Put in a good shift on the flank but he wasn’t able to make an impact with his crosses.

Mertesacker: Had a decent game on the whole but he didn’t really show the aerial dominance and organization skills that people keep telling me he has.

Vermaelen: Extremely poor, particularly in the first half of the game. Really struggled against the physical nature of the game and the long balls. To me he was primarily responsible for the goal. Atoned for his error partially by scoring the equalizer but failed in the shootout.

Gibbs: Another one who I thought had a decent game except for the quality of the ball in the final third, which has been a problem throughout the season.

The defending in the first half was relatively poor but they didn’t allow a shot on goal after that. Unfortunately, even that one goal was one too many.

Coquelin: Had some highlights worthy moments when he ventured forward like the time he hit the post or got in behind on the right side, but overall impact was marginal at best. Couldn’t help the defence as well as he should have in the first half. If he’d been able to take charge of the midfield, Arsenal would have pinned Bradford back in the manner they did towards the end.

Cazorla: Many shots from distance, no real return. Did get the assist for the goal. Poor penalty. This is the kind of game where he should have shown he’s a class apart but his style of play is such that he can’t really make others around him better than they are, which means the overall team play suffers. Have some thoughts on his game but need to find time to put them across in a balanced way.

Wilshere: Another one who had many highlights-worthy moments but also very little to show for it at the end of the game. He too has a lot to learn to make his individual qualities work for the team. Desperately needs to improve his right foot.

Ramsey: Very disappointing game. Work rate was again good but there were just too many mistakes. Couldn’t offer penetration on the right or any sort of clever technical combination play.

The midfield had players with individual qualities but it didn’t work as a unit for the first 70 minutes. To be fair, they were not helped by the quality of the attackers but the key point here is that we know the quality of the attackers. IMO the onus of making average players look good is on the great players. That isn’t happening for the Gunners.

Gervinho: I wrote these sentences when he was signed – 1) “I am not convinced about his passing or finishing abilities despite his fairly impressive stats for Lille.” 2) “Gervinho’s weakness seems to be his technique…” 3) “…don’t be surprised if he frustrates more often than he delights…” I haven’t spent the last two years repeating these points because it doesn’t add much value but it’s been clear from the time he signed that Gervinho remains a very average player.

Podolski: There are only certain patterns of play that suit his strengths. Outside of those he looks a very mediocre player. Arsenal haven’t been able to play to his strengths and he hasn’t shown the ability to improve/adapt.

Subs: Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain brought drive and penetration to the side but they too lacked the final finish or supply. Chamakh had decent moments with his hold up play but he also lost possession far too often. Poor penalty as well.

Wenger: We know he focuses on the team more than the individuals. Unfortunately, this season the Gunners just haven’t clicked as a team. A few big wins have created false hopes but the disappointments have been too many to be ignored. The big challenge for him is to get his great players performing in a manner that lifts the average ones.