Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Bradford City

December 11, 2012

There was an interesting detail mentioned during Arsene Wenger’s pre-match interview on Arsenal Player – Arsenal haven’t won at Bradford for 90 years! It sounds staggering but most of it is down to the fact that the teams haven’t played each other very many times. That said, Arsene Wenger did take the Gunners to Bradford twice – both in the year 2000, but in different seasons – in the Premier League and returned with just a point out of those two games.

The League Two side has beaten Championship and Premier League opposition in the competition already and have shown good form in their league which has put them in contention for promotion.

In the Capital One Cup their wins have come late. Against Wigan it was a scoreless draw even after extra-time, but the Bantams won their 7th successive penalty shootout. It was a commendable achievement away from home against a team playing three levels above them. Their win against Championship side Watford was a result of a dramatic late comeback with the winner being scored deep in injury time at the end of the second half. Prior to that, Phil Parkinson’s side beat League Two opponents Burton Albion and League One side Notts County in extra-time.

Bradford have beaten opponents from all divisions above them in their run to the quarter-finals and it’s safe to say they are fighting hard till the very end. Their home record in League Two is also quite impressive as they’ve the most points (23 having scored 18 and conceded just 6 goals in their 11 home games.

All signs points to a tough battle despite the difference in the levels the teams compete at routinely. League Two sounds a far way down but players like Zavon Hines and Stephen Darby have gone to Bradford after being on the fringes of Premier League clubs in their youth. Cup ties have a way of levelling the gap between teams and this should be no different.

Tactically, this is unlikely to be very different from many of the battles we’ve seen against lower division opponents. For Bradford, it’ll mostly be about remaining organized and denying opportunities to the Gunners while looking for chances to counter-attack and/or win set-pieces.

Two factors will have a major bearing on the game. Arsene Wenger’s team selection will determine the technical quality, tactical balance, and experience that Arsenal have out on the pitch. The support of the home crowd and Bradford’s energy levels will have an impact on how effectively they prevent Arsenal from building their play.

Phil Parkinson will also have to decide whether he wants to play for penalties or go for a result in normal time. We’ll know his choice based on the aggressiveness of his team. If they sit back and soak up pressure I’d venture to say they’re holding out for a penalty shootout, or at least trying to stay in the game till late. Seeing as their wins have all come late in the game, it could be the right option.

The risk for Bradford City would be that Arsenal can settle the game early if they’re not challenged. Although the Gunners have struggled to score in some games, many of their problems seem to be linked with the opponent’s ability to press them in the middle of the pitch or in their own half.

Arsene will have to find a good mix of youth and experience for this one. It’s not as easy as it would seem to some. I expect Coquelin and Ramsey will get a game. Jenkinson should come in at right-back. Apart from that none of the choices are clear cut.

Mannone might get a start if he’s fit. The other places in defence are up for grabs but neither Yennaris nor Miquel are fit. Meade at left-back could be an option. In the centre Squillaci could have another game. I don’t know if Djourou is fit or even in the manager’s thoughts. All three together could make the defence a tad feeble as they haven’t played many games. So, I’d like to see either Gibbs or Vermaelen selected in the starting eleven.

Up front, Podolski could get a start if he’s recovered. He deserves a go down the middle. Wenger could also put the German on the left and Chamakh central. Rosicky and Eisfeld should also be in contention for a starting birth. Arshavin is another option but considering the fact that he wasn’t picked for the dead-rubber against Olympiacos, it’s not clear whether the manager wants to give him any more game-time.

Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho haven’t played many minutes, and the Ivorian will likely be going away to the African Cup of Nations in January, so picking one of the two could give the team greater bite.

I’d start,

Mannone – Jenkinson, Squillaci, Vermaelen, Meade – Coquelin, Ramsey, Rosicky – Gervinho, Podolski, Eisfeld.

Having a couple of senior players on the bench would be a good insurance policy.

A win in this game will take the Gunners into the semi-final of the League Cup. It could lead to some positive news cycles and help build on some of the positive sound bites that came after the win against West Brom. In contrast, failure to progress will pile on the pressure on the five straight Premier League games in the coming weeks.

Will this be another tennis score after 6-1, 7-5 wins in the previous two rounds of the competition?

Arsenal 2 – 0 West Brom: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

December 9, 2012

A positive result, finally! An entertaining and enjoyable game to go with that, great! On Sunday one of my closest friends celebrates his birthday and wedding anniversary. Thanks to the Gunners it’s going to be a great day.

Arsene went a bit direct with two quick wingers on the flank. The strategy worked and the Gunners dominated the game while creating many chances for which, I thought, two factors were mainly responsible.

Firstly, Arsenal’s pressing in this game was excellent. They shed all inhibitions and harried the visitors deep in their own half. West Brom have among the lowest Possession and Pass Accuracy numbers in the League and they genuinely struggled to hold on to the ball.

To go with that, I also felt Steve Clarke didn’t have a very clear approach to this game. His side was neither pressing up the pitch to prevent or slow down Arsenal’s  build-up, nor were they structurally solid at the back like a team that expects a barrage of attacks. This meant the Gunners could play at a high tempo almost at will.

As a result, the Gunners found it easy to take the ball to the final third where they then had plenty of space to work the combinations. The wingers were able to run at defenders and skip past them. They, Gervinho in particular, were also able to drift into useful areas in the middle.

Despite all that, it was clear the Gunners were still nervy in the final third and their ability to produce the decisive moments was questionable. At this point the help from the ref was vital. There is just no way to justify the penalty call but we’ve seen Arsenal suffer from bad decisions in previous seasons so I’m happy about all the big calls that have gone in favour of the Gunners this season. Yes, there was contact but the replays could easily be used as the definition of negligible.

Arteta buried it calmly but somehow I had a feeling he lacked a bit of conviction when taking it. That’s not to say he can’t take penalties, just that I sensed some doubt in his body language.

Arsenal had created a number of promising moments either side of the goal but the finishing was disappointing. West Brom only moment came just before the Arsenal goal but Brunt’s curled attempt didn’t hit the target.

In the second half, it seemed to me that Clarke’s men came out with greater purpose and tried responding to Arsenal’s tempo. Till the time the second goal was scored in the 64th minute, the game was fairly even. Both teams created a couple of half-chances but nothing worth taking a second look.

The Gunners got the cushion of a second thanks again, in part, to the referee who let play continue when it looked like Oxlade-Chamberlain had committed a foul after losing the ball to a poor touch. There wasn’t a doubt about the penalty decision itself but we’ve seen Wenger moan about a foul in the build-up often enough to know that these things matter.

Again it was Arteta. Again he went down the middle. This time I felt he was has a bit more surety and the finish looked emphatic. The Spaniard’s technique is superb and he is good at set-pieces in general, so he should be a good penalty-taker, but without confidence technique can be worthless. Hopefully, these two goals will give calm his nerves and he’ll be able to deliver on a consistent basis.

In the final 20 minutes or so the Gunners focussed on keeping a clean sheet. But it was still Arsenal who created the better chances, particularly after Wilshere moved up the pitch following the introduction of Coquelin.

West Brom did have one gilt-edged opportunity late in the game, which again arose from a set-piece, but Lukaku couldn’t hit the target. I won’t be surprised if the Belgian has one of the worst, if not the worst, conversion rates for high quality chances in the League this season.

At the end of the day Arsenal looked like the team that deserved the three points. They could easily have scored five. But the fact also remains that apart from the penalties the Gunners only had one other shot on target. On another day this could easily have been a frustrating draw or a late defeat. The margins are very fine at this level.

Nevertheless, the nature of Arsenal’s pressing, the quality of chances created, the combination play in the attacking areas, and the ability to restrict the opponents from creating many opportunities were all appreciable and pleasing aspects of this game.

At the same time, one has to be careful not to read too much into one performance. We need to see this for 6,8,maybe 10 games in a row before saying Arsenal are back. In this game, there is no doubt West Brom’s technical and tactical weaknesses contributed just as much to Arsenal’s dominance as their own play did.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: One of his easiest days in the League.

Sagna: Had a good defensive game with a number of useful aerial challenges. Wasn’t really tested on the ground. Put in an odd good cross but attacking contribution was otherwise limited. Had a more of a sweeping game on the right where he picked up balls that were knocked forward or cleared.

Mertesacker: Dominant in the air against a team that didn’t have the biggest attack in physical terms, steady with his positioning and distribution.

Vermaelen: Another one who had a fairly comfortable game at the back. I liked the way he tried creating something with purposeful balls from the back.

Gibbs: Got into advanced positions often but his crossing still needs a lot of work, but the observation equally applies to Arsenal’s style. Many crosses were played into the box when one or two attackers were hopelessly outnumbered. Surprisingly, West Brom didn’t target his flank as other teams have.

The back five were largely untroubled. There were some moments of concern, especially from set-pieces when the visitors got on the end of the deliveries rather easily. Their wastefulness helped the defence.

Arteta: Another MotM effort from Mr. Reliable. Excellent on the ball, strong defensive shift, took responsibility and delivered from the spot.

Cazorla: It would have been another high quality effort from the Spaniard but the dive for the penalty was disappointing. Have the coaching staff been showing him a lot of Bale and Rooney videos?

Wilshere: As AW said, the zip is coming back. He also looked very impressive in the final third late in the game after Coquelin came on. But there are still many rough edges. Finishing, Final ball, and decision making will all improve with time and experience.

The midfield didn’t have much pressure when bringing the ball out from the back. They were able to control the pace of the game and bring the attacking players into the game regularly. Defensive work was useful, particularly all the aggressive pressing that was done higher up the pitch.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Had a number of promising moments on the right and put some useful balls into the box. It was an efficient game for him where he didn’t see much of the ball but found space when he did. Did well to beat the challenge of Brunt in order to win the penalty but there was a genuine shout for a foul by him just before that.

Giroud: Movement was decent but I thought he was a little late to react to some passes/cutbacks from the wider areas. Distribution and link play was average. Was a good target man and hold up play was useful. Hasn’t had a shot on target in his last 330 mins in League football. There was also this observation about Giroud wanting to take the second penalty and not celebrating the goal. I didn’t see it and can’t vouch for it’s accuracy.

Gervinho: Movement was excellent, finishing was the exact opposite. Looked like he wanted to take more responsibility and make things happen. It worked for him as spaces and time was available even in the final third. Created a very good chance for Wilshere but more is expected.

The front three had decent games given the time and space available to them. Part of it was down to their movement and individual qualities and part of it to the opposition’s weaknesses. All three remain players who have a lot to prove but this game should be good for their confidence.

Subs: Still don’t know how Podolski missed that chance. Rosicky got a few more minutes under his belt. Coquelin’s arrival liberated Wilshere.

Wenger: Got the team flowing again but this needs to be sustained over a run of games, arguably till the end of the season, as too many points have already been lost. Can’t overemphasize the importance of pressing higher up the pitch, that’s another aspect that needs to be sustained and improved upon. The search for balance is ongoing but this might be a big step in the right direction.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against West Brom

December 8, 2012

West Brom have been a bit of a surprise this season. Studying their macro-level stats does not give the impression that this is a team competing for the top four places after 15 games of the season. Steve Clarke’s side are 4th from bottom in terms of possession with an average of 43.5 percent. They’re 13th in pass accuracy, which is less than 80 percent. The Baggies are 14th in shots per game with 12.7 and concede 15.7 shots per game which is worse than 14 other teams. 13 teams make more tackles than West Brom while 17 make more interceptions.

Even if we dig deep into these numbers, there isn’t much that says West Brom are competing at the level of the bigger teams. But the simple and most important fact is that they have 26 points after 15 games and are 5th in the table only on goal difference as they’re level on points with Chelsea and Spurs. That too after two successive defeats in the last two weeks.

Clarke and his players are doing something right for sure. The simplest way to explain their game, although this doesn’t do them complete justice, is to say that they’re an efficient team that works hard in defence and controls the quality of chances they concede while being effective with their limited attacking forays.

Steve Clarke has worked under Mourinho and the influence is clearly visible. The Baggies often look extremely comfortable without the ball as their organization is impeccable. The way they maintain the spacing between the players; the off-the-ball decision making of individuals i.e. when to close an opponent down, when to hold, etc.; manner of protecting the vital central areas by denying time and space to opponents; and other such details point to meticulous planning and diligent training.

However, their tactics make the players chase the ball a lot and as a result they seem to tire towards the end of games. This stat is telling – If games lasted 80 minutes in the Premier League, West Brom would be second.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Gunners approach this game. Ideally, one would want to see them come out aggressively and play higher up the pitch with consistent pressure on the ball. But pressing high up the pitch has just not clicked this season and that invariably leaves the defence vulnerable. That in turn has led to the defenders and midfield dropping back deeper inside the Arsenal half, which has given the opponents more time and space to build their attacks. The Gunners have generally defended well when they drop back but there has been a noticeable effect on the attack as effective transitions from deep have been rare.

Arsenal’s build-up play has also been laborious at times as the midfield does not have the right balance. The load on Arteta has been high as we’ve discussed in earlier posts. West Brom could exploit this by having someone like Morrison marking the Spaniard. By doing that, many teams have been able to control the Gunners in the central third of the pitch.

Having said that, I doubt West Brom will push higher up the pitch unless they’re chasing the game. The visitors will try to minimize the space behind their defenders and in the central areas in front of goal. Once again, Arsenal will have to find some creative moments from the flanks. In many games, the full-backs or even the wide players have gotten into useful attacking positions but their final ball hasn’t been very good. This has to improve or it could be a comfortable day for the Baggies.

At the back, Arsenal will have to watch out for quick transitions, particularly down the flanks. West Brom also have a good aerial threat and many players who can shoot from distance. Not only will the Gunners be tested from set-pieces, they’ll have to quickly close down shooting opportunities after the first ball has been cleared. Long’s energetic running can cause concerns if the defenders have one of those unfortunate slips when in possession.

I’m not sure what the injury situation is. Team News says Podolski and Walcott are out while Sagna and Koscielny are not back. But the German and the French full-back can be seen in the pictures from the training session. I’m assuming they were just involved in some light work and will not be risked.

That means Wenger basically has to decide between Gervinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Ramsey. All three have their strengths and weaknesses but none of them have done enough to justify automatic selection.

Rosicky’s fitness will have an impact on team selection. Hopefully, he’ll be fit enough to start even if he isn’t ready to finish the game. His ability to thread balls through will bring the direct player on the flank into the game in a purposeful manner. The Czech star will also be able to provide meaningful service to Giroud. The alternate option is to have him on the bench in case the game is close late on but I’d prefer a start as Arsenal have to impose themselves on the game from the beginning.

If Little Mozart is fit, I’d be tempted to push Cazorla to the left, Rosicky up the pitch centrally, and Gervinho on the right. But I’ve a feeling that Arsene will play TR7 on the flank if he’s deemed fit enough to start.

Possible line-up,

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Wilshere, Cazorla – Gervinho, Giroud, Rosicky.

With that starting eleven, bulk of the creativity would have to come from the left and central areas. Gervinho should look to make runs in behind on the right or diagonally across the box depending on the availability of space.

One would expect Rosicky and Cazorla to switch places occasionally, and even Wilshere could also join in to make it a very fluid midfield, but they’ll have to ensure the defence isn’t left open. The problem has been one of balance. Keep an eye on the tussle between Mulumbu and Wilshere.

Arsenal’s recent home record has been disappointing. W3 D4 L3 does not make for pleasant reading. It is understandable that many fans will be cautiously optimistic at best. Right now it’s more about hope than genuine belief. It’s up to the players to change that with their performances.

Quicks Thoughts On Olympiacos … and Swansea

December 4, 2012

First things first, some of you might have noticed the conspicuous-by-its-absence match analysis after the Swansea game. Well, to be honest, I just didn’t feel up for it and there doesn’t seem to be much to gain from getting into the kind of details we’ve already discussed on numerous occasions. I understand there are some fans who might not have seen the game and were relying on the match report, to them my apologies; but I’m fairly certain these souls will understand my sentiments, perhaps even share them.

It wasn’t a rank bad performance over 90 minutes but it was far from the level Arsenal absolutely have to achieve and the mistakes for the goal were frustratingly familiar. As Wenger said, I’m not that concerned about 10th place in the table, it’s the quality of the game that is worrying and the fact that Arsene is uncharacteristically struggling to shape his best and most effective attacking unit despite having had a full pre-season with most players. Focussing on the position in the table is a little misleading because the gap with 3rd and 4th is not that big. If the quality of the game comes back the Gunners will move up the table swiftly but, unfortunately, we haven’t seen many signs of the unit clicking as a whole in a balanced manner.

I am currently trying to put together an article covering the broader view of the problems that Arsenal have faced over the last few  seasons, and I hope to follow that up with more specifics on this season’s issues. Articulating the points without making the article something resembling a doctoral thesis is proving a tough ask. But hopefully I’ll be done in a couple of days.

In the meantime, there’s a game against Olympiacos. In the years to come, this will probably be viewed as the most pointless game Arsenal played this season. Yes, there is some bearing on the position in the group, which in turn will affect the draw for the second round, but let’s face it, that’s too far in the future and the immediate problems are of a much more pressing nature.

Wenger has decided to rest most of his key players, a move that was long overdue. So the squad to face the Greek champions consists of many youngsters, a few regulars, and fringe players whose continued presence in the squad has puzzled many.

Picking a competitive and balanced line-up from that squad that can win such an away game will be nothing short of miraculous. In other words, I will be pleasantly surprised if Arsenal come back with the three points.

Szczesny, Vermaelen, AOC, Jenkinson, Ramsey, Coquelin, Arshavin, Gervinho, and Chamakh should all start. Wenger might also pick Rosicky, although I hope it’d only be done with complete confidence rather than a gamble over his fitness just because the squad is short of experience. Squillaci is a possibility alongside Vermaelen.

If Rosicky plays, we could see Coquelin at right-back and Jenkinson at left, or vice-versa. If Little Mozart doesn’t start, one of the youngsters in the squad will likely start in one of the full-back positions. Meade seems the most likely choice at left-back.

We might see,

Szczesny – Coquelin, Squillaci, Vermaelen, Jenkinson – Ramsey, AOC, Rosicky – Gervinho, Chamakh, Arshavin.

That is just my attempt to fit in all the relatively experienced players into the starting line-up. Way too many permutations are possible but I don’t really care.

I was a little surprised Eisfeld wasn’t in the squad for this one, or Djourou. Are they injured?

It’s a game that has to come and go. If the Gunners somehow get a result then it might help stem the rot otherwise it’ll just be a statistic. I’m not too concerned about a defeat or a draw in this game and will most probably not watch it. There will definitely be no match report after this one but watch out for the other articles that I mentioned earlier.

The game on Saturday will probably be just the opposite of this one. Those looking back might see that as the most important one of the season, particularly if it can kick-start a turnaround. If not that then at least it will take us closer to January…

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Swansea

December 1, 2012

Arsene Wenger has pointed at the upcoming home fixtures as his side’s way back and marked December as the crucial month.

We will come back. Now we have six games, four at home, and if we do well in this block I think we have a chance to come back. But of course it is vital for us to do well in these games.

He’s not off the mark here, almost every team has struggled in the Premier League this season, but the top two have consistently found a way to put the points on the table.

In a way though, Wenger’s comments have officially made this a must-win game for the Gunners. Hopefully, that will mean we see the required urgency in play right from the start.

Having said that, I also feel the problem that Arsenal sometimes face – that issue where it seems the players are taking it lightly against smaller teams or don’t want the win desperately enough – is not as much related to desire and winning mentality as it is to confidence.

At the moment, it is difficult to assess the confidence levels in the squad. While the players talk a good talk, we haven’t seen enough inspiration in their play to completely believe that they are enjoying their football while being largely in control of games in a manner which suits their strengths.

As regular readers know, to me this is directly down to the system of play. The Gunners look relatively secure at the back and impressive in attack when the system clicks. They either look vulnerable at the back or bereft of ideas up front when it doesn’t, sometimes both. This season we haven’t seen the right balance in Arsenal’s football in most of the games. I think that makes the players hesitant and inhibits the natural expression of their creative and technical qualities.

In that regard, it’ll be interesting to see how Swansea line-up tactically. Not in terms of their shape or formation, but their intent when out of possession. Many teams have successfully pressed the Gunners in the central third to stifle the attacking threat while opening up avenues for quick transitions.

I’m not convinced Swansea have the same unrelenting desire to chase with boundless energy that Everton, for instance, displayed on Wednesday. This could give the Gunners a little more breathing room in the central third. But even if the visitors take a slightly more passive approach to defending, they will undoubtedly remain structurally strong and will focus on denying time and space in the attacking areas. It’s not by coincidence that they’ve conceded just 7 goals in 6 away games.

We might also see Laudrup using Michu as a central striker which will give them the luxury of picking another midfield player and thus adding to the technical ability of the side. We all know Swansea can defend by holding on to the ball.

So, the other interesting aspect of this game will be Arsenal’s tactics when they lose possession. The Gunners have struggled when they’ve pressed up the pitch but they just can’t let an accomplished Swansea side pass the ball around at the back. The visitors have enough technical quality and mobility to create good chances when offered the convenience of picking their passes without pressure.

In particular, I think their ability to quickly move the ball wide and work combinations with one-touch football will test the Arsenal defence. They also use the ball cleverly when delivering from the wider areas as they try to cross it back across the penalty box or to pick a man at the far post instead of just putting a hopeful ball in. This is possible because their quick combination play creates a bit of room for the man delivering the vital pass from wide. They might miss Pablo Hernandez but Routledge and Dyer – who troubled Arsenal last season – can be just as exciting on their day.

I’ll be very surprised if Arsenal don’t push their back four to at least halfway in their own half. But such a tactic will open room for some runs in behind that their pacy wingers could utilize.  Nevertheless, it’s better than sitting on the edge of the box and inviting the opponents forward in numbers.

Wenger’s team selection will also have an impact on the patterns of play. Hopefully, he’ll be able to rotate a couple of players again but fitness issues and the factor of balance could limit his choices.

If Podolski is fit he should come back into the line-up. I’d like to see him given a game down the middle with Giroud taking a breather but I doubt Arsene will try that ‘experiment’ at this stage of the season when the stakes are high.

Cazorla is another player who could use a rest but this is also the kind of game where the Spaniard could get more time to pick his passes, particularly if he drifts wide.

Sagna could be a doubt at the back, in which case Jenkinson should get another chance to impress. The youngster has done well in a limited context this season in that he’s controlled his positioning and passing – perhaps a direct instruction from the coaches – to make his style of a ‘safety first’ variety. That has kept the right flank relatively well protected but it has come at the cost of attacking impetus from that side. Again, it’s an issue of balance. I have a feeling Wenger will risk Sagna if the inflammation isn’t serious.

Both teams have pace at their disposal and, at the simplest level, the one which is able to get it’s quick players behind the opponents is likely to come away with the points.

Possible starting eleven,

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

Wenger has said that he’ll put out a strong team against Olympiacos but I’m guessing we’ll see more players rested in that game than this one.

The following stat on the official website does not inspire confidence,

Arsenal have won just three of their last nine Premier League home games (W3 D4 L2) and two of those have been when the opposition have been reduced to 10 men.

There’s enough quality in the team to win this game. But it’s also not difficult to imagine another disappointing performance, it’s happened way too often. The margins are very fine at this level an we’ll have to hope the right factors dominate.

P.S. This is a link to an article I did for the Betting Expert blog. I was looking at goal difference stats and it provided some interesting insights.