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?Follow @goonerdesi