Arsenal 2 – 2 Liverpool: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

January 31, 2013

It was such a good game for the most part. There was good possession, fluidity, number of chances created, and a couple of very enjoyable goals. And then there were the moments of madness. Predictable, infuriating, expensive.

Arsene started with a fairly well-balanced line-up. As was discussed in the preview, there were some calls that were always going to be tough to make. He went with Mertesacker in defence and Giroud up front. In the middle, Wenger left Diaby on the bench with Ramsey kept his place in the least-attacking midfielder role.

The opening patterns of play stuck to the script. Liverpool put pressure on the Gunners and tried stopping the build-up in the Arsenal half. They succeeded in preventing Wenger’s side from establishing any sort of a rhythm.

Soon enough, we had a comedy of errors – or is it tragedy – at the back.

Agger is able to bring the ball well into the Arsenal half without any pressure. Then Suarez fluffs his attempted pass, which in turn wrong-foots Sagna. Johnson’s advanced position is not tracked by Walcott. The full-backs cross goes past Mertesacker before Vermaelen produces a stunning air-kick while attempting a tougher clearance with his weaker foot instead of simply attacking the ball with the outside of his left foot. Sturridge can only hit Szczesny, who does well to make himself big. Ramsey attempts an ill-advised back heel or something of that sort when he could have tapped it back towards Mertesacker or Sagna. Henderson recovers possession and Suarez scores via a deflection – a shot that was otherwise probably headed straight towards Szczesny.

It’s another one of those freaky goals, the kind that Arsenal specialize in. Vermaelen’s was the primary error but there were a number of people who could have done better to defend the goal.

It was a fairly open game after that but Liverpool retreated into their own half as the game progressed. Walcott could have levelled it in the very next minute but he couldn’t beat Reina from close range. Sturridge had a half-chance a little later from a good counter-attack but couldn’t hit the target.

Arsenal then had 10-15 minute spell of possession that resulted in some promising moments. Vermaelen, in particular, missed a very good chance when Cazorla found him in the box following a set-piece situation. It seemed to me the Belgian wasn’t expecting that pass because of Cazorla’s tendency to shoot from such positions, and it took him a moment to realize what an opening he had. And in that moment the defenders got the time to close him down. It could also be that the Spaniard was too clever for everyone. Walcott forced a good save after Vermaelen’s effort was blocked.

In general, Arsenal were able to create some pressure and chances from their set-pieces.

A terrible pass from Mertesacker broke this spell and led to a corner for Liverpool. Szczesny came for it and was woefully short. Podolski cleared Agger’s header on the line.

Rest of the first-half followed similar patterns. You could see Liverpool were not able to compete with Arsenal in midfield and they did not want to spend all their energy in pressing higher up the pitch. They conceded possession and territory, often having 9 men back in the defensive third. Even Suarez was working hard tracking Sagna deep into his own half. But it was also evident that these tactics didn’t suit the Reds. Arsenal had enough chances and more were sure to come. There were goals in it for the Gunners. Only thing was, every time Liverpool got a chance to build some sort of an attack, the hosts looked vulnerable at the back.

The second-half was virtually a repeat of the first. Liverpool started brightly and had a couple of chances that were not taken. Then they dropped back and the Gunners had a few opportunities of their own.

The second goal was just as bad as the first. Vermaelen was pulled up the pitch by Sturridge and then given the run-around. Henderson got in between Mertesacker and Santos who both got into terrible positions, made wrong choics, and couldn’t show any strength or determination in the duels. Ramsey’s effort to block the shot was commendable but ultimately fatal. Without his intervention, it’s quite possible that Szczesny would have saved the initial shot. After the block, a deflection off Santos took everyone out of the game and opened the goal for Henderson. Again a freaky sort of goal, so typical of Arsenal.

This time the swift response registered on the board. The first goal was simple enough. Nicely floated free-kick was guided home by a well-positioned striker. The build-up of the second was a bit more intricate. Cazorla’s pass in to Giroud, the striker’s soft touch, and Walcott’s blistering finish were all perfect.

The patterns kept repeating. Arsenal had more chances to win the game but Reina wasn’t troubled as much. Giroud missed a great chance for the Gunners in the 87th minute. Suarez almost won it for the visitors in injury time.

Draw seemed a fair result on the balance of play. Both teams can take some positives but a lot of work needs to be done if they even want to stay in this scrap for fourth. Results elsewhere were helpful as only one team between positions 2 and 7 won it’s game.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Good save from Sturridge early on and then from Suarez at the death. Almost conceded a goal while overplaying in the six yard box and that flap from the corner was poor. And when I see Arsenal defending as they are, it’s really hard to give any credence to all the inspires confidence and organizes the defence stories.

Sagna: Unfortunate slip in the build up to the first goal, had a number of strong duels on his flank, wasn’t able to contribute much to the attack, but did a relatively decent job of defending given that he was up against a wily customer like Suarez.

Mertesacker: One of his worst games in an Arsenal shirt. Should have read the danger the moment Sagna slipped and dropped back quickly thus cutting the angle for Johnson, but he was a tad slow to react. Terrible pass led to a corner and a shot on target. Simply awful for the second goal.

Vermaelen: Incredible blooper for the first goal, struggled against the movement of Sturridge all through the game. Missed a great chance in the Liverpool box. Another one who’s had better days.

Gibbs: Liverpool didn’t really try to attack his flank while he was on the pitch. Was a useful presence in the attacking areas. Unfortunate injury but not surprising.

Santos: Was a liability and it was noticeable that Henderson often moved towards his side and the visitors were able to double up on him. Another one who simply has to do better. But can he?

For close to three years now I’ve talked about the importance of collective defending and the need for a good defensive shape. But this season the back four have been very poor. The mistakes we’ve seen in this game are amateurish. It wasn’t amateur hour for duration of the game or Liverpool would have scored half a dozen goal but there were just too many disturbing moments.

Ramsey: Probably his best game in this new role, which is saying something. Very energetic and determined performance. Made the wrong choice for the first goal and was unfortunate for the second but the effort cannot be faulted. Also played his part in some attacking moments.

Cazorla: Good pre-assist for the second goal, created an excellent chance for Vermaelen and some others, was influential in the attacking third of the pitch.

Wilshere: Another strong driving performance. Took players on and won a number of fouls. Good delivery for the assists, created a good chance for Walcott, and put in a decent defensive shift as well.

The midfielders dominated the ball and were largely responsible for Arsenal’s possession and territorial control, which in turn made creating chances easier.

Walcott: Sensational goal, had a couple of other excellent attempts, could have done better in the 6th minute and then with the header in the 54th minute. A small proportion of blame can be put on his shoulders for not tracking Johnson’s run for the first goal and he lost the ball in the build-up to Liverpool’s second. Did have a couple of impressive runs down the right but crosses didn’t find their target. He is developing into a potent attacking weapon but will need more efficiency if the team has to live with some technical weaknesses and lack of defensive work. Alternatively, he can improve his defensive contribution. You just have to see how hard Suarez worked to see the room for improvement.

Giroud: Took his goal well and also had a good assist. His touch, in general, was better as he linked meaningfully with other attackers. Could he have maybe converted one of his other chances, particularly the one in the 87th minute? His physical qualities were useful all over the pitch.

Podolski: Created an excellent chance for Walcott and one for Giroud. Had a couple of powerful shots that just missed the target. Had a good offensive game and cleared a ball off the line but he could probably have done better to support Santos.

The attackers had a good game but it wasn’t good enough. Neither Podolski nor Walcott is primarily to blame for the defensive shambles but they can both improve their defensive contributions.

Wenger: There are just so many niggling issues and the diverse qualities of various opponents seem to bring out different ones in successive games. But he has to find a way to cut out basic individual errors in defence before dealing with the other problems.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Liverpool

January 30, 2013

This is arguably a tussle between the League’s two most unpredictable and inconsistent teams this season. Many scenarios are imaginable. It’ll depend on which Arsenal and which Liverpool shows up.

Many have talked about the Jekyll & Hyde nature of Arsenal’s performances. The Reds are not very different. The following table captures their record against teams in the top half and bottom half of the table (before Tuesday’s games were played).

Liverpool Jekyll and Hyde

Those numbers suggest the Gunners should have an edge in this fixture. But you could also say that the law of averages is going to catch up and Rodgers’ side are going to break their duck against the top half teams sooner rather than later after going 11 games without a win.

Given the way the teams have changed since the reverse fixture in September, it’s highly likely that the patterns of play in this game will be very different. Back then the Gunners were working hard on their defensive shape and it seemed that focusing on defending was the priority. The attack had suffered but they managed to score two good goals to win the game. Liverpool had had a tough start to the campaign and Brendan Rodgers’ ideas were still new to the players.

In this game, Arsenal could suffer from the tactical confusion that has been visible over the last few weeks. The team no longer focuses on defending as it did early in the season as the players search for greater attacking potency. But this had brought greater vulnerability at the back and the Gunners are often tentative at the start of games.

Liverpool like to press energetically in the early part of the game. If Arsenal are not on top of their game they could again find themselves a goal or two down. Defending deep without the right shape and focus against tricky attackers like Suarez and Sturridge will be risky. It’s imperative the defenders are not left one-v-one with the attackers and that their movement into pockets of space is tracked diligently.

Ideally, picking Vermaelen and Koscielny and playing a high line with proactive defending would be the approach to take. But I’m not sure Koscielny has the right form at the moment. The inclusion of Mertesacker will make a high line very difficult but the German’s relatively slower movement will be a handicap against strikers who can turn him or skip past him with quick feet and close control. It’s the kind of decision that can look very wise or rather dumb with the benefit of hindsight.

A clean sheet for the Gunners in this game will be a pleasant surprise. Szczesny will probably be busier than he’s been in most games.

Arsenal are likely to need more than one goal to win this game. Liverpool have not kept a clean sheet in a game against teams above them in the table but they do have 5 clean sheets in their last 9 games.

The visitors could be susceptible if the Gunners can get a chance to run at their back line, particularly the central defenders. Walcott’s pace could be Arsene’s biggest weapon and because of that the Frenchman will have to find a way to keep the winger higher up the pitch with fewer defensive responsibilities.

Set-pieces could be another area of vulnerability but Arsenal have been notoriously inconsistent with those.

Wenger also has a big call to make with his starting eleven. Does he go with four midfielders – one of them on the flank – or does he pick Walcott, Giroud, and Podolski as the attacking trio.

Theo and Giroud will give Arsenal more of a goal threat but it will be redundant if the Gunners can’t bring the ball forward effectively. Both these players have some technical deficiencies that can lead to persistent loss of possession, particularly in a tight game played at a high tempo. It’s another tough call.

I’d go with Cazorla on the right in the first half as Arsenal have been weaker in that period.  The extra midfielder could help the defence and the possession game. Giroud could come on for the last half an hour or so if the team is chasing the game or just to vary the approach.

That said, it’s worth noting that Liverpool are the League’s fourth best team when only second half performances are considered. It won’t be wise to expect a repeat of the West Ham massacre.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Ramsey, Wilshere, Diaby – Cazorla, Walcott, Podolski.

I have a feeling we’ll see Mertesacker and Giroud in the starting line-up and, to be frank, I don’t have a compelling argument against their inclusion. This is the kind of situation where it’s hard to say what the right decision is until we can see the result of the choices made.

As with any game, individual errors or moments of brilliance can always make a difference. But to me the bigger concern is that Arsenal could collectively switch off or we get to see the dreaded handbrake again. ‘Sharpness’ should not be a problem as the squad has had one extra day to recover but with the Gunners you never know.

As mentioned earlier, many results are conceivable, but I don’t have a good feeling about this game given the defensive weaknesses visible in the recent games. Massive improvements will be needed if Arsenal have to stay in touch with the top four. A draw won’t be a good result for either team.

Brighton 2 – 3 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

January 28, 2013

The results on Sunday showed just how tough winning an away tie in the FA Cup can be. Arsenal did a commendable job of securing progress. I looked at the 5th round draw – speaking of which, I think Wenger will be happy with the fixture, it could have been much tougher – and only 7 of the remaining 18 teams are from the Premier League.

Coming to the game itself, Arsene made six changes to his line-up but it was still quite a strong team. Only the full-back position seemed a tad weak, particularly on the left, but the manager can hardly be faulted for resting some of his big players.

It was difficult to judge the first-half performance. Brighton played aggressively and worked hard. They disrupted Arsenal’s build-from-back process effectively. The Gunners only had 3 shots and only 1 on target – that was the goal – in the first half. The other two shots were tame efforts in injury time from Santos and Rosicky. Other than that, there were few threatening moments in the Brighton defensive third.

Arsenal were playing too deep in their own half when they didn’t have the ball. On top of that, Brighton’s pressing and energy in the centre of the pitch made it difficult for Arsenal. I don’t recall too many moments when the Gunners were able to push a number of bodies forward. In fairness, this approach did also minimize the number of chances the hosts could create.

Rosicky had a few opportunities to run at the Brighton defence. At times he was fouled, and on some occasions it just didn’t work for him. But in the 16th minute he got into a useful position after the Seagulls overplayed a corner and was able to drive at the Brighton defence. That run led to the chance for Giroud and the Frenchman produced an accomplished finish.

A minute or so earlier, Mertesacker had played Barnes onside which put the attacker one-v-one with Szczesny. The pole made a very good save and he started the move for the goal by catching a cross and finding Rosicky in space. Those were probably his best moments of the game. His worst gifted the opponents the equalizer. Szczesny should have read the flight of the cross and attacked it. He was late and Barnes snuck in ahead of him.

That was it in the first half. Neither side really imposing themselves on the game but Brighton did have to spend a lot of energy.

Arsenal started the second half brightly, as we’ve come to expect. There was a spell of sustained pressure and a number of chances were created. Jenkinson hit forced a good save and Podolski hit the post before Giroud picked up his second.

This was a different kind of goal from the Frenchman. Here his movement was clever, physical strength was impressive, first touch was enjoyable, and the finish was emphatic. Diaby’s ball too was sublime. Arsenal’s shape when Diaby played the ball was worth noting. They were camped in the opposition half with the midfield forming a fence in front of the opponents halfway through their half and the attacking players roamed between the defence. Giroud was on the shoulder of the last defender and made a run in behind. The Gunners hardly ever got into such a shape in the first half. I don’t know how much of it was down to a conscious tactical choice, how much was down to subconscious psychological elements, or what proportion of causality can be ascribed to the opposition’s diligence.

Soon after the goal Giroud had another great chance when Rosicky put him one-v-one with the Keeper but the striker was only able to hit the Goalie with his powerful shot.

A couple of minutes later Brighton equalized from nothing. The problems were classic Arsenal. Some players were trying to attack while the others were tactically unsure just before the goal was scored. Rosicky was dispossessed in the opposition box. There were two other Arsenal players in the vicinity. Three others were around the centre circle. The just didn’t push up to compress play and support the attack. The gap between these players and those in attack was incredible. Even when in the centre of the pitch, it wasn’t as if the players were taking up meaningful defensive positions.

All this meant Brighton were able to bring the ball from their box to Arsenal’s in a matter of seconds. Mertesacker was caught on the wrong side of the striker and just didn’t have the athleticism to attack the ball. There was no pressure on the ball in the build-up, no one got near the man who put the cross in, and the striker had a free header. Terrible football all over the pitch.

Brighton did gain some momentum from the goal and for a while they were the side in ascendancy. Wenger was forced into bringing Wilshere and Walcott on. For the final few minutes Gibbs too made an appearance.

These players made a difference. They were able to arrest the momentum that Brighton were developing. Arsenal were able to create some chances in the final fifteen minutes and, even though there was an element of luck to the winner, the result seemed fair on the balance of play.

It was a strange game from a defensive point of view. There were terrible errors for both the goals conceded, but the team was also able to restrict the chances that Brighton could create even when the hosts had promising spells of possession. In that sense, I do feel the goals came out of nowhere. You might say that’s a common source for goals for any team playing against Arsenal.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: As described above, had a couple of big moments but followed it up with a big mistake. Wasn’t a busy day for him otherwise.

Jenkinson: Wasn’t able to contribute much in attack except that one shot and maybe a couple of crosses. Brighton didn’t attack his flank as much as they did the other so he had a relatively comfortable time tough time defensively.

Mertesacker: As mentioned above, bad mistake for the second goal. Also played Barnes onside. Was able to deal with almost everything else that came his way but it would still go down a poor game.

Koscielny: Don’t think he can be blamed for either goal. Steady game, probably the best defender on the night.

Santos: Had a tough evening. Gave the ball away carelessly, wasn’t able to get close to his winger often enough, most of Brighton’s attacks came from his side.

The back five had decent support. Although the entire team’s shape was bad in the build-up to the second goal, one would expect the defenders to take greater responsibility. Not one of their memorable nights.

Ramsey: Following on from his impressive effort against West Ham, this one was a tougher challenge in the same role and Brighton put him under pressure. There were more mistakes in this game but his energy and willingness to chase/tackle did help the defenders. That ball over the top for Walcott was sumptuous.

Rosicky: We saw glimpses of what he can bring to the team but it wasn’t one of his most effective efforts. Despite that, he played a big part in the first goal and created a good chance for Giroud. He was fouled quite often and that did break his rhythm up but I felt he was a bit rusty and off-pace. Sustained fitness should take care of that.

Diaby: Wasn’t able to drive the team forward in the first half when they were pushed back. Excellent assists for the second goal. Along with Ramsey, he played a valuable role in keeping the defence protected. Not a great game for his quality but it was enough.

The midfield wasn’t able to impose itself on the game in the first half. That period was more about countering the opponent’s energy with hard work of their own. Early in the second half and then again late in the game the midfielders did come into their own and there were periods when Wenger’s preferred playing style could be seen and enjoyed.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Can’t say he did much wrong but he did very little.

Giroud: MotM, easily. Two different but equally impressive goals. Even that overhead kick, which led to the corner that resulted in the goal, was well-executed. Worked hard and won some knock-ons too. Might have done better with a couple of other chances but two goals in six or so attempts seems about right.

Podolski: Useful run and assist for the first goal. Hit the post with a brilliant free-kick (I have no idea why he doesn’t take more). Didn’t hit the heights of the previous game but it was good to see him complete 90 minutes.

Subs: Walcott’s pace added a different dimension to the attack and his knack for scoring continues. Wilshere brought greater energy and purpose. Gibbs had a few useful moments in the attacking and defensive third of the pitch.

Wenger: Good use of the squad and substitutions. Nature of goals conceded will be a worry but that of goals scored will be encouraging.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Brighton

January 26, 2013

Arsenal have a chance to build some momentum following the impressive win against the Hammers when they visit Brighton & Hove Albion for the 4th round of the FA Cup.

The hosts are managed by Gus Poyet – doubt many Arsenal fans like him but somehow I do – and he brings something different to their game. Instead of the usual lower-tier British club tactics we are likely to see a side that tries to play football.

Arsene Wenger had this to say about his next opponents,

They play out from the back, have a lot of possession and, of course, get that big South American influence from their manager. With the players they have and the way they play, I feel we face a typical away game in the Premier League.

If you look at their squad you’ll see plenty of Spanish players. In fact, I was amazed to see former Valencia man Vicente in their ranks. Injuries and age have probably diminished the impact he can make but his presence is solid evidence for the kind of game they like to and try to play. If he’s recovered from his latest injury, I expect the Spaniard will have a say in how this game shapes up.

Brighton are currently seventh in the Championship with the  League’s second best defensive record and have conceded less than a goal a game at home. Poyet has tightened the team up this season and will be focussed on avoiding a repeat of last season’s embarrassing elimination at Anfield where his side scored 3 own goals in a 6-1 defeat.

One of their key defensive players is 23 year old midfielder Liam Bridcutt. According to Poyet he’s good enough to play for Real Madrid! We can understand a manager would want to boost his players confidence and might exaggerate his abilities but I was impressed by the manner in which he did that,

… he is the player who understands who needs help, when to cover and when to help a fullback or centre half. He is always in the right position. There are not many players who understand the game like Liam does.

That sounds like the next Makelele! That might be hyperbolic but I like the detail in his comments (the articles linked above have more). I must confess I haven’t seen him play a full game so it will be interesting to watch how the youngster performs. When Wilshere pushes up or if Arsene selects Rosicky as the central attacking midfielder we could get a fascinating duel to enjoy.

Brighton’s main goal threat is from their striker Craig Mackail-Smith. He has the ability to turn the defenders and can make space for himself. Others like Orlandi, Vicente, Buckley, and Barnes can also chip in. As mentioned earlier, the hosts don’t appear to be a one-dimensional attacking unit. They could ask genuine questions of the Arsenal defence if the Gunners sit back and allow them to build from the back. When given time, their players can pick through-balls and pack a punch from distance. We might also see some long diagonals to switch flanks with overlapping runs. It might actually be a bigger test for the defence than West Ham provided. Don’t forget, Cup ties played away from home are always that extra bit harder.

While they did beat Newcastle in the previous round, just like they’d done last year, it’s worth noting that Brighton have lost 5 of the 7 games played against teams above them in the Championship. Their record in those games is P7 W1 D1 L5 F2 A9. They also seem to have a curious record month wise. The Seagulls were winless in October, unbeaten in November, again winless in December, and are yet to lose this year in January. Let’s hope Arsenal can buck the trend and hand them a defeat on Saturday.

Wenger tends to play a fairly strong team even in the early rounds of the FA Cup. I don’t expect too many changes but a couple of players could do with some rest.

In my opinion, either Sagna or Gibbs should get a breather. In the midfield Cazorla could take a break. Up front, this might be a good game for Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right.

It’s difficult to guess what Wenger will go with but I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Ramsey, Rosicky, Wilshere – AOC, Giroud, Podolski.

Rosicky might not be match fit, in which case Yennaris could come into the midfield with Wilshere pushing up. I don’t see the point in risking Diaby. Santos is another one who might not be match fit.

It might be worth substituting Wilshere around the hour mark if the game goes to plan. Same goes for Gibbs.

As I’d said when analyzing the defeat against Bradford, if you gift goals in such games you make your life infinitely harder. Be a Gooner, Be a Giver is a strictly off-pitch mantra. But it’s easier said than done. I think this will be an entertaining game from a football point of view. Whether it’s a frustrating one or an enjoyable one from an emotional perspective will probably depend on the kind of confidence that Arsenal can show from the start.

Arsenal 5 – 1 West Ham: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

January 25, 2013

That was fun. Those ten minutes in the second half are up there with anything Arsenal have produced this season. Fast tempo, delightful combination play, precision in the final third, clinical finishing, it was all there.

Wenger’s starting line-up was interesting. Without Arteta and Diaby the midfield did lack some physical and defensive qualities. West Ham could have used this to their advantage but I was really surprised by Big Sam’s team selection and tactics. Indeed, for all talk of aggression and an ‘in-your-face’ tactics, I felt the former Bolton manager was very timid in his approach. Leaving the likes of Diame and Alou Diarra on the bench while starting the likes of Matt Taylor, Collison, and Vaz Te was baffling.

It could be that he wanted some pace on the counter-attack but I don’t see why it should have come at the cost of physical and technical qualities. We don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes there so I’ll leave it at that, they probably have their reasons.

West Ham have a terrible record on the road and their recent form must be disappointing for many fans. This team selection meant they would have little chance of getting anything from this visit to the Emirates.

Nevertheless, the first half was quite close. Both sides scored a goal from distance, albeit under different circumstances. Both also went close with a chance that was cleared off the line. Arsenal had 8 shots in total to West Ham’s 9.

The game was level partly due to Arsenal’s tentativeness in possession and in the vital attacking areas. The Gunners had created some very promising moments and showed excellent link play in the build up but they weren’t finding the final ball. The visitors defended diligently even when they weren’t well organized. A number of crucial interceptions and tackles kept their goal relatively safe. Andre Marriner’s role in levelling play must be noted but I don’t really wish to dwell on it.

In attack, Big Sam’s side were about as one dimensional as you can imagine. Vermaelen’s tussle with Carlton Cole minimized the chances they had of gaining territory but their tendency to put the ball in the box from any free kick – even if it was in the centre of the pitch – did put Arsenal under some pressure.

The teams went in level at half time. The game was there for Arsenal to take but we’ve see the Gunners slip up under such circumstances before, particularly when the ref is extremely lenient with the calls.

The start to the second half took care of everything. Straight from kick-off Arsenal played some sublime football. I doubt West Ham got a touch before that last gasp intervention from Tomkins prevented Wilshere from tapping a Walcott cross in. Pressure was sustained and lead taken through a clever corner routine.

It appeared as though Walcott’s corner was under-hit – it very well might have been – but the way Mertesacker pulled his marker in to make space for Giroud was appreciable. The German also did just enough to get in the way of Tomkins, which earned the Frenchman the opportunity to strike the ball unchallenged. Giroud connected well and Jaaskelainen had no chance even though the ball was straight at him.

Then in a space of four minutes or so Podolski picked up three assists. Many players made excellent contributions in the build up of these goals. It was truly a team effort.

The game was over at 5-1. After the injury to Potts it was just about running the clock down.

Before the game I’d mentioned this as one of the eminently winnable games. After the match it’s easy to see why. West Ham have a very vertical style of play. They like to play in the opposition penalty box or just in front of their own, at least against the big teams. With the game stretched in that dimension, Arsenal found plenty of space in the middle to build their attacks. Big Sam’s team selection meant the visitors had very little ability to challenge the Gunners in the central areas of the pitch. When they tried chasing the game they just didn’t have the quality to retain possession. Their high line was exposed quite easily.

Arsenal obviously have potential. There are some genuinely talented players in the side. However, unless they can produce this kind of performance on a very consistent basis and against the bigger clubs, the quality of the opposition has to be deemed the major factor behind the result.

The upcoming fixture list does provide the Gunners a chance to prove they can produce these performances consistently. It doesn’t have to be a big win every time. Scoring five goals in every game is not going to happen. But the players have to produce the kind of dynamic football that actually asks serious questions and threatens the opponents. Too often the Gunners haven’t even registered meaningful shots on target. This has to happen soon or the race for the Champions League spots will become a lost cause.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Had another fairly easy game. Good distribution in the build up to the fifth goal. Could he have gotten closer to the ball for the goal conceded? I doubt it.

Sagna: Won a number of useful headers, was reliable on the ball, a solid game from the full back.

Mertesacker: Could maybe have done better to block the shot? A fairly comfortable game otherwise.

Vermaelen: His tussle with Cole was interesting. Didn’t always come near the ball but often did enough to unsettle the striker. Made one very good block. Passing was efficient.

Gibbs: Had a very effective game in attack and defence, although West Ham didn’t test him as much as some other teams have done and will do. Timing of the runs has been excellent throughout the season and he’s now gaining composure on the ball. Promising.

The defence had a fairly easy game apart from set-pieces where they didn’t look entirely convincing. But West Ham do trouble all teams with their free kicks and corners.

Ramsey: I think he deserves great credit for his performance in this game, in a difficult role. It wasn’t just about the number (123) or accuracy (95%) of passing – which showed he kept things simple and effective – but the overall nature of the challenge. He is by instinct an attacking player used to making runs and always looking for penetrating passes. That makes the discipline of this effort all the more commendable. Made a vital clearance off the line as well. But I wouldn’t say this is the role for him in the long run. There were times when a presence in front of the defence was missing.

Cazorla: Had a bit of a mixed bag. That cross-field pass to Walcott just before the third goal was possibly the best I’ve seen from him, which is saying something. Took his goal really well as well and was almost always involved. But I also thought he took too many shots and some of his passing in the final third was not at the level of precision he is capable of.

Wilshere: Really made the most of all the space available between the lines, particularly after he skipped past the initial challenge. A very dominant display from the youngster with numerous delightful passes.

The midfield had an enjoyable outing. In the first half they did have players getting tight on them but there was still plenty of time and space to create and work the angles. In the second half there was no battle.

Walcott: Another one who had a mixed performance. Some of his runs were sensational, goal was superbly taken, picked up a useful assist as well. But there were time when his touch, finish, or decision making let him down. He can do better.

Giroud: His first half effort frustrated me often as he kept losing the ball, often to attempted first-touch passes that just didn’t come off. Second half was much better. Crisp finishes for both goals, good contribution for the third, and in general his link play came off.

Podolski: Easily the MotM. As we’ve discussed before, he’s a completely different player when he gets some space to run into and/or time on the ball. Demel had a disastrous outing but that doesn’t take away from his vision and precision of execution. The nature of his goal and the timing had a big impact on the game as it lifted everyone.

The front three had some chances in the first half but it was a tad frustrating. Then it all clicked in the second period. Although towards the end it again got a bit frustrating but by then Giroud and Podolski had left the pitch.

Subs: Oxlade-Chamberlain disappointed with his choices and execution, Santos looked rusty, Koscielny had a relatively comfortable time at the back. They came on when the game was over so it didn’t really matter.

Wenger: We’ve seen his teams carve opponents apart often enough this season yet they’ve been lacking in consistency. It’s a bit of a conundrum that isn’t easy to solve because defining the problem itself is proving to be a challenge. Can his players find this level of precision and tempo when the opponents are better organized and get tight? More work is needed in defending the set-pieces. It’s odd that Arsenal have 11 players back but still can’t get close enough to a man shooting from the edge of the box!

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against West Ham

January 23, 2013

The vacation was great fun for us but it seems the Gunners have had a tough week. I did have a feeling Arsenal were going to struggle in the big games as this analysis, done for the betting expert blog just before I left, showed the impact certain big wins had on Arsenal’s numbers in the table.

After returning I updated some numbers and created the table in the following tweet. It doesn’t make for pleasant reading but it paints a truer picture of Arsenal’s struggles this season. Obviously, if you take out four of any team’s best wins, their numbers will lose some gloss. But as that article shows, the drop for Arsene Wenger’s side is particularly sharp.

Throughout the season there has been a problem of balance. The initial 4-4-1-1 approach – presumably, Steve Bould’s brainchild – didn’t last long. It is a somewhat archaic system more suited to the smaller defensive minded teams that rely on long balls and counter-attacks. The defence was fairly strong in those games but it came at a noticeable cost of attacking potency. Another, possibly related, problem that has plagued Wenger’s side is their inability to consistently and effective press higher up the pitch. It’s quite possible that the initial tactic of dropping deep has confused the players and they can’t start on the front foot, so to speak. It seems to me they’re only able to dominate possession in the opposition half when the opponents ease off and allow them to. The big wins have also come in games where the opponents just haven’t competed in the midfield.

As the season has progressed we’ve seen the Gunners push up a bit more but a number of old structural problems are now coming back as a direct result. The ease with which City and Chelsea scored their goals – refereeing decisions are only part of the equation – has to be a major concern for Wenger.

Anyway, I don’t want to make this a broad discussion of the season so let’s return to the upcoming fixture. Arsenal’s performance at Upton Park was one of their better ones but even then the game wasn’t as comfortable as the 1-3 score suggests. West Ham were in it for long periods. It could be the same in the reverse fixture.

I doubt anyone is expecting too many surprises on Wednesday. Both managers have their preferred styles and they’re very likely to stick to them.

West Ham’s aerial and physical qualities will pose a constant threat to Szczesny’s goal. The Gunners did well in the reverse fixture with Arteta playing a superb role in front of the defence. But the Spaniard will be missing in this one and Wenger will have to find a replacement. Diaby, too, had a good game away at Stoke against a similar style of play. He could again be a vital player. Of course, as Wenger mentioned, he’s played a lot of minutes soon after a long injury lay-off and the risk of losing him again cannot be rationalized easily.

The thing that could work in Arsenal’s favour in this game is that West Ham’s game is very vertical. They rely on defending deep and narrow. If they don’t compete in the central third of the pitch and allow the Gunners to build from the back, Arsenal should get opportunities to score. Then again, they could have a game like they did against Bradford and do everything but score. Nevertheless, the odds will favour Wenger’s side if Allardyce sets his team up in a defensive manner and relies solely on long balls.

The former Blackburn and Bolton manager will hope that Arsenal are just as chaotic and disorganized at the back as they were in the first half against Chelsea and City. Rugby tackles, crowding the centre, dozing at set-pieces, and other such antics will give West Ham a fair chance of scoring. Kevin Nolan in particular will be a genuine dangerman for the Gunners.

Arsene Wenger’s choices for the starting eleven should also be interesting. After returning I saw the changes in Wilshere and Cazorla’s positions. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to but it might not be ideal if the Spaniard loses form in the second half of the season – something we’ve seen from Mata and Silva in the recent past.

I also saw that Walcott has moved back to the right in the last couple of games but has been given the license to stay higher up the pitch on a consistent basis. Again it’s an approach I agree with but it is going to put greater strain on Sagna for sure.

Then there is the problem of the central striker. Giroud was an average finisher in the early games and it seems he’s only worsened in the last few games. The Frenchman’s propensity to lose possession is annoying and breaks many attacks down. But where are the options? Podolski through the middle has been Wenger’s best bet from the start of the season but he seems reluctant to use the German in that role. Will Cazorla’s move to the left give Arsene the chance to play Poldi centrally?

Injuries have also limited the options. And that thing about Arsenal struggling without Arteta isn’t just a series of random coincidental occurances. He’s the team’s most tactically aware player and his absence clearly weakens the defence as well as the side’s ability to hold or bring the ball forward.

We might see,

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

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Diaby, Wilshere, Ramsey – Walcott, Podolski, Cazorla.

Giroud’s presence is useful while defending set-pieces and could be handy in the West Ham box if they sit back, but I think he brings too many weaknesses to the side. Ramsey hasn’t had a great season but he brings something different to the side. His energy could help ease the burden on Wilshere and Cazorla while also creating an opening in the middle for Podolski. That said, I’ll be genuinely surprised if Wenger does go for such a line-up.

This was one of the five eminently winnable games. Just because it was postponed doesn’t change that. In games against clubs currently above them, the Hammers have P12 W1 D4 L7 F10 A21. Of these, five have been away games which have resulted in a solitary point with one goal scored and ten conceded. Their away attack is by far the weakest in the League as they’ve scored just five goals in ten games. The visitors’ current form isn’t great either with just one win in their last seven games.

Arsenal already have serious problems and not winning a game of this nature will only compound their worries. If normal service resumes, it should at least be a strong win even if it isn’t an emphatic one but, based on current form and confidence levels, it’s not too hard to imagine points being dropped.

Thoughts On City, Swansea, and Chelsea Games

January 10, 2013

We are heading out on a 10 day vacation starting tomorrow. This was scheduled months ago before the fixtures were announced as my wife has to pick her annual leave days before the year starts. Can’t say I’m happy about missing the big games but we wanted to give the busy holiday period a miss so these days work the best.

I don’t think I will get a chance to watch the games before we return so there won’t be any articles till the day before the West Ham game.

In this post I want to quickly capture some thoughts for the upcoming games. City at home and Chelsea away are going to be genuinely tough fixtures. In relative terms, they certainly can’t be classified as “eminently winnable”, something we did for the last four fixtures. Curiously enough, the Gunners did win both these games last season. There was the goal-fest at the Bridge and an Arteta belter at the Emirates. Are we likely to see a repeat? Let’s talk about it game by game, but before that a couple of observations about Arsenal’s season in general.

An article of mine will appear on the Betting Expert Blog later this week. In that I look at some numbers pertaining to Arsenal’s season. Here is one example – Did you realize the Gunners have scored 57.5 percent of their goals in 20 percent of their games. Big scores against Reading, Newcastle, Tottenham, and Southampton have contributed 23 goals to the Arsenal tally. That means they’ve only scored 42.5 percent of their goals in the remaining 80 percent of their games. 17 goals in 16 games makes it barely over 1 goal per game.

Secondly, in the five games that Arsenal have played against teams currently above them in the League, their record is P5W1D2L2F9A8. More than half the 9 goals in the ‘For’ column came from the Tottenham win. No side kept a clean sheet in those five games.

City @ home

Wenger and Mancini seem to have certain commonalities in the way they want their teams to play. This has meant that the games between their sides, in recent years, have been intense midfield battles. All three fixtures ended in a 1-0 score last year with City winning two. This year the first game was tied 1-1 with both goals coming from set-pieces. In 2010-11 it was a 0-0 at the Emirates and a 0-3 win for the Gunners in Manchester on the back of an early sending off.

I will be very surprised if this game has many goals. City will have a threat on counter-attacks and that could be worrisome for Arsenal if they try to press high up the pitch. Will be interesting to see if Wenger picks Mertesacker in the starting line-up and if he pushes his team up the pitch.

Given the attacking talent that Mancini has at his disposal, sitting deep will not be a clever approach but Arsenal did have a relative comfortable time in the first half at the Etihad stadium.

City’s record in the games against the top six sides is not special. They’ve P5W1D3L1F6A6. Also, four of these five games were at their home. This season they’ve not been as strong a side as they were last year.

Mancini’s side have won 5 of their 10 away games but have lost only 1. They’ve only conceded 10 goals in 10 away games and have conceded 1 or less in 17 of their 21 League games. The Gunners have won 5 of their 9 home games and lost 2. Arsenal have let in 1.44 goals per game at home this season, which puts them way back in 15th position as far as the ‘defending at home’ stakes are concerned.

This one looks like a draw to me but it could boil down to that one decisive moment that seals the three points. In such cases, attributes like ‘sharpness’, ‘handbrake’, ‘confidence’, ‘spirit’, etc. play a vital role.

Swansea @ home

The Swans have been a pleasant surprise this season. Regular readers know how much I admire Michael Laudrup and it’s good to see him do well. Hopefully, he’ll have a long and enjoyable time in England.

I’m not sure what I want from this game. A win has it’s obvious advantages from progression to the next round to a confidence boost before the Chelsea game. The result of this game will also be very important if City take all three points from their visit. Arsenal haven’t found consistency or momentum this season so every win is likely to help.

But I’m not convinced the Gunners are going to go all the way in the FA Cup. So there’s a thought at the back of the mind that an early exit will help them in the other competitions, primarily the League. The fight for fourth is going to be harder than ever and distractions will not help.

All things considered, it seems another defeat to Swansea at home will cause more problems than it will have benefits. Hopefully, Wenger and his men will have the right answers this time around. Laudrup’s team don’t concede many goals and have shown a tendency to capitalize on the opponent’s errors, particularly late in the game. Arsenal will need early impetus to get through.

Will Wenger rotate his starting eleven for this game as it’s sandwiched between two big League games?

Chelsea @ Stamford Bridge

Rafa Benitez has overseen a mixed run of form after taking over the Chelsea hot seat. Big wins and disappointing defeats have never been far away from each other. How will they fare in this game?

The Blues don’t have to contend with an FA Cup replay but they have a Premier League game against Southampton at about the same time Arsenal face Swansea. So from a physical point of view they should not have an advantage.

Dembe Ba could be the key player in that game. He isn’t a great all-round striker but he is an exceptionally efficient goalscorer who can convert half-chances. Benitez likes to build a team from the defence first and Chelsea could rely on fast breaks in this game. While Wenger’s home record against Rafa, when the Spaniard was at Liverpool, is pretty good, the current side could struggle if Chelsea get their act together. In fairness, there are big ifs involved in this game for both sides and Arsenal could also win it.

Chelsea have a decent record against the top six teams winning three of their five games. Oddly enough, they’ve lost at home to United and drawn at home to City while winning away to Arsenal, Spurs, and Everton.

Arsenal have the best away defence in the League conceding just 0.82 goals per game thus far. They’ll give themselves a good chance if they keep things tight at the back.

Generally speaking

I don’t see any point in discussing the starting elevens for these games right now. Injuries and form will dictate the choices. Hopefully, Wenger will be able to rotate some of his players. It’ll be interesting to see if Rosicky and Diaby can come into the side and make an impact.

If I get the chance, I’ll post some observations and links to the aforementioned article on Twitter/Facebook. Hope everyone watching the games has a great time.

Swansea 2 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

January 7, 2013

Arsene produced a couple of surprises in the starting eleven. Ramsey on the left must have raised a few eyebrows. It could be that Wenger wanted another midfielder in the side to counter Swansea’s technical prowess. It may also be that Podolski needed a breather as he’s used to a winter break. The partnership of Mertesacker and Koscielny was also an interesting change. The German had a tough outing but I liked the idea of giving Vermaelen a rest. Walcott went to the wing and Giroud came back into the centre. Is that the end of the Theo-Striker experiment, at least for the foreseeable future?

It’s also worth noting that Laudrup rested some of his key players in this game. Michu, Pablo Hernandez, and Rangel were on the bench, while Ashley Williams wasn’t even in the squad.

The first half was predictably dull. The fight was in the middle but neither side showed enough quality to genuinely control territory or tempo. Arsenal had a bit more possession while the hosts just shaded the limited chances that were created. A Danny Graham shot that forced a save following a clever long ball, and a Kyle Bartley header that rattled the bar come to mind. The Gunners got into promising positions in and around the box but I don’t recall a big save from Vorm in the first half.

Arsenal showed genuine desire to press higher up the pitch but they lacked cohesion – as has been the case all season – and this gave Swansea some opportunities to break forward. Laudrup’s team didn’t have enough precision, composure, and finishing quality in the final third.

The start to the second half was better. Arsenal’s pressing was more urgent and it forced some mistakes. The play was concentrated in the Swansea half for a while. There were a couple of shots from Giroud, a penalty shout, and other promising moments for the Gunners in the initial 10 minutes of the second period.

An injury to Giroud broke their momentum and gave Laudrup a chance to bring a couple of his big players on. Michu’s impact was instant but it was again a case of terrible defending. This goal wasn’t dissimilar to the first one he scored at the Emirates. In that instance it was Vermaelen tangling with Graham, this time it was Koscielny. Mertesacker was caught square on and the slowness of his reactions proved costly. He should have started dropping back the moment Koscielny went into that duel. Will someone please explain to me why Vermaelen – Kocielny is not a good pairing while either can be paired with Mertesacker? Genuine question that.

For a few minutes the game was stretched. Both sides were getting some space in the attacking areas. Then something strange happened. Swansea stopped playing. It’s a problem we’ve seen with Arsenal when they sometimes take the lead and don’t know how to proceed. And just like the Gunners, Laudrup’s side does not look like an assured defensive unit when they decide to sit back and invite pressure. From around the 65th minute onwards it was all Arsenal.

The hosts allowed Arsenal to set camp in front of their defensive third and their nervousness, apparent from the sloppy manner in which they kept losing possession, boosted the visitors’ belief. Even when one promising position after another was squandered, most fans on either side would have seen the goal coming.

It came from a corner that was seemingly too deep. I liked the way Sagna headed it backwards and kept it away from the Swansea goalkeeper and players. Was Koscielny trying to shoot or just playing it into a danger area? Podolski’s finish on the turn was superb.

The second one came soon after. Gibbs played a one-two with Giroud and scored with a well-timed volley. The full-back had gotten into useful areas often. This time he had the end product.

After the goal Swansea’s nervousness was transferred to the Gunners as they retreated into their half. The moment it was clear Arsenal were trying to sit back instead of competing with a resurgent opponent, I could see the equalizer coming. And it didn’t take long.

Once again it was a set-piece and this one looked like a well worked routine. All the Swansea players stayed quite a way away from the usually congested central areas in front of the goal. There was a particular camera angle from which I could not see a single white shirt in the six yard box when the corner was about to be taken. The intention probably was to swing the ball away from the goal with hopes of catching the defence off guard when they’re trying to push up. It worked, in an unexpected manner perhaps, but it did catch the Arsenal players completely by surprise as was evident from the time and space available to Graham despite so many purple shirts in the vicinity of the goal.

Both sides could have won it late in the game. Koscielny forced a big save from Vorm while Tiendalli almost caught Szczesny out on the near post. In the end 2-2 seemed a fair reflection of the events of a largely low-quality game that became entertaining in the final 10 minutes.

All-in-all it wasn’t a bad game from the Gunners. Many Premier League teams have drawn their games. Playing Cup ties away from home is not easy. That said, there’s nothing wrong in demanding more against a Swansea side that rested a number of key players.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: I thought he could have done better for both goals, particularly the second one. Almost got caught out at the end as he left a gaping hole at the near post. Still has a long way to go to convince me he can be a long term solution in goal for Arsenal.

Sagna: Better defensive game than the previous two efforts. Could he have done better for the second goal? I lost count of the number of his crosses that were blocked by the first man. Nevertheless, it was a hardworking and appreciable shift on the flank as he was often left without support.

Mertesacker: Poor body shape and extremely slow reactions for the first goal. It’s not the first time this has happened either. Was also caught out by Graham once in the first half when the striker managed to get on the wrong side and forced a save. Has some weaknesses when the defensive line doesn’t drop back to the edge of the box quickly and these are exposed more often when Arsenal try to press higher up the pitch.

Koscielny: Did well for the Arsenal equalizer, good header late in the game, and did a good job of covering behind Gibbs. Could he have done better in that challenge with Graham?

Gibbs: Excellent goal and a number of useful runs in the attacking areas. Did leave his flank more exposed than Sagna but it’s to be expected when he’s making that many darts into the opposition box. MotM in my opinion.

I’m usually not critical of the defenders every time the team concedes some goals but in this game the back five should have done better for both goals.

Arteta: I thought he had a sloppy game by his near-impeccable standards. Still an above average game with a useful presence in front of the defence.

Cazorla: Wasn’t able to influence proceedings from an attacking point of view. There were a number of disappointing passes in the final third. Even in that 15-20 minute period when Arsenal were rampant, I don’t recall any exceptional moment from the Spaniard. Was involved in the build-up of many moves, but not in a way you’d expect from a special player.

Wilshere: Another one who lacked precision in the final third. For instance, there was that moment when he played a clever one-two with Giroud but then completely missed the target from a good position. Set-piece delivery was poor. Again, he was there or thereabouts but not quite up to the mark.

The midfield had very little impact on the game in the first half. They showed greater urgency in the second half and often won the ball in useful areas but their creative contribution was very limited. Don’t think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts when we consider the individual quality these three players have.

Walcott: Set-piece delivery was disappointing, didn’t see much of the ball and he often took up positions in crowded areas where his technical limitations came to the fore. Don’t know if he was told to drift into the central areas as often or if it was his decision. Should have stayed wide at times and timed his runs more effectively.

Giroud: Produced a few impressive moments and a number of disappointing ones. The one-twos with Wilshere and Gibbs were exciting, as was the pass for Ramsey that might have resulted in a penalty. But there were some poor touches and wrong choices as well. Should have converted at least one of his chances.

Ramsey: Had a tough time on the left but he did get into some threatening positions more often than most of his teammates. Overdid it a bit in the box though. Created an excellent chance for Giroud. Was that a penalty? Looked like one to me but I can see why it wasn’t given. Wenger’s explanation makes a lot of sense.

The front three were anonymous in the first half. They did influence the game in portions of the second half but better chance creation and conversion is expected. Giroud and Walcott are not technically gifted but they have to find a way to compensate for those weaknesses.

Subs: Podolski again showed his goal-scoring instincts. Why didn’t Rosicky come on?

Wenger: He’s clearly trying to get his team pressing high up the pitch but the work done by Bould seems to demand greater positional integrity in the deeper areas which, in my opinion, has confused the players. Has to sort this out quickly. Also needs to find a way transfer the ‘on paper’ quality of this midfield on to the pitch. Attacking quality is limited, can only be sorted from the transfer market.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Swansea

January 6, 2013

Michael Laudrup’s side have had a very impressive season thus far. They’re in the top half of the League table, in the semi-finals of the League Cup, and have given a game to almost every team they’ve faced. But I don’t need to remind anyone of their threat, Arsenal have experienced it firsthand.

Wenger’s attack has been unpredictable to the say the least. I have not been carried away by the big scores and so the failures have not surprised me as much. There are two teams in any football game and the quality of one side’s performance inevitably affects that of the other. In Arsenal’s case this season, this effect has been more pronounced than one would hope to see. If a team is genuinely strong offensively and can impose its quality on the game irrespective of the opposition, we’d see dominant attacking displays repeated on a predictable basis. The Gunners haven’t been able to string together a run of even four or five games where the attack has consistently impressed. That tells me they’re reliant on the opposition’s weaknesses to express their creative talents. Unfortunately, at this level they won’t get too many easy games.

Laudrup’s side are technically competent and organizationally sound. They’ve the sixth best defensive record in the League. That’s no mean feat for a side on their budget. Don’t be surprised if they make it hard for Arsenal to build any sort of a rhythm in this game. Vorm is not likely to be a busy man. That doesn’t mean the visitors can’t or won’t score.

The Gunners will have to rely on individual moments for their creative breaks. Walcott’s pace, Cazorla’s tricky, Wilshere’s drive, and/or Giroud’s presence can lead to chances. There are also some individual mistakes in the Swansea back four that could gift the Gunners a golden chance or a goal just like Southampton did.

It’s going to be tight at the other end as well. I thought the reason Swansea scored a couple of late goals at the Emirates was that the Arsenal players pushed too hard in search of a goal and lost the balance in the centre of the park. This issue with balance has been around all season. It’s related to Arsenal’s consistent failure to press higher up the pitch despite the efforts of some players. It is also connected with the work done to make the defence better, which has been partially successful in that the shape of the team and the choices made by the players are better when they do sit back. But that approach to defending hasn’t suited the attacking game as the transitions have been rather slow and ineffective against opponents who have challenged the Gunners in the central third of the pitch.

Their second goal was just down to terrible individual errors. Unfortunately, that’s been a common occurrence for the Gunners over the last few seasons irrespective of the players involved.

The hosts have pace and trickery in the wide areas, and make clever use of the spaces in the box as they don’t simply hang hopeful crosses up. Arsenal have to be alert to the movement of their midfielders, Michu in particular. Not tracking the runs could be fatal. And someone will have to watch out for cut-backs to the edge of the box or the penalty spot.

Wenger can pick a strong team if he so wishes. There are some choices to be made.

Sagna has had a couple of difficult games. Some might say Jenkinson should be given a go. In my opinion, unless the Frenchman needs a rest – which is unlikely given his physical qualities – there is no reason to make the switch. Sagna is the better player, by quite some distance.

Cazorla is another one who’s had a couple of disappointing games, by his standards. I have been surprised by the limited game-time that Rosicky has seen. If fit, Little Mozart would be a good choice in midfield.

Up front, the Theo Walcott experiment continues to yield mixed results. He had a good time against Reading and Newcastle but struggled against Wigan and Southampton. While his pace is always a threat, his inability to get on the ball and influence the game in any meaningful manner when the opponents mark him well and limit the spaces to run into means starting him in a central role will continue to make the work of his teammates that much harder, particularly against teams that can keep the ball and are well-organized.

I would like to see,

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

Don’t be surprised if Arsene retains the same eleven that started the previous game or something very similar. His system demands continuity and excellent understanding between the individuals and that means more time on the pitch in the same roles.

Arsenal have the players to win this game and go through. Any eleven Wenger picks should be good enough. It won’t be plain sailing but they should edge it by the solitary goal or the odd one in three. Arsenal also have the ability to lose or draw the tie. When the game is tight and it boils down to certain moments of quality or weakness, the Gunners have been way too volatile for any prediction to ring true. Will Swansea have one eye on their League Cup semi-final? Let’s hope they do.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Southampton

January 1, 2013

With the game against West Ham postponed, this visit to Southampton is Arsenal’s first reverse fixture of the League campaign. That means both sets of players and technical staff know each other’s strengths and weaknesses on a first-hand basis. The Gunners had a great time at home in their 6-1 win. Will we see a repeat?

This is the last in the series of genuinely winnable League games that have come Arsenal’s way through a fortuitous mix of fixture scheduling and form of opponents. Three points in this game will take the win ratio to 50 percent – still on the lower side but it was 33.33 percent after 15 games! – and keep the Gunners in touch with the fourth spot. Those numbers and the League table also show that there just isn’t any room for slipping up.

The Saints are having a difficult season. The last couple of months have been much better than the preceding ones but they’re still in the relegation spots. It’s a touch odd considering the fact that they’re mid-table in terms of possession (9th), Pass Accuracy (14th), Shots per Game (13th), and Shots Conceded per Game (12th). They also make the most tackles and the second most interceptions and commit amongst the fewest fouls (4th best). Their 26 League goals puts them joint 11th on the goals scored chart.

Few would guess these stats belong to a team lying 18th in the table. But that’s the harsh reality that Adkins and his men have to deal with on a daily basis. Their basic problem is in their defence that has conceded 37 goals or the League’s joint worst record of 1.95 goal per game. It’s even worse when we consider the fact that they’re not actually conceding as many chances as fellow strugglers Reading and Aston Villa, for instance.

Southampton are competitive in most of their games, even the ones they’ve lost badly. But they inevitably have these catastrophic moments at the back where the opponents get an edge. Even in the reverse fixture, despite the 6-1 score, there was a 20-25 minute period when the Saints had good possession and had pinned Arsenal back. But they conceded far too many ‘soft’ goals.

In fairness, it must be said that Adkins and his staff have worked on this problem. In the last two months, Southampton have only conceded 11 goals in 10 games. If the League table were made for November and December, the Saints would be 12th and that would be a fairer reflection of their qualities on the pitch as can be perceived from the stats mentioned earlier. Furthermore, at home, Adkins’ side have only conceded 13 goals in 10 games over the first half of the season. As a result they’ve only lost 4 games at home, which gives them a 40 percent loss ratio. Oddly enough, that is also Arsenal’s win percentage away from home. After improving their defence, the Saints have only lost 1 of their last 5 home games, conceding just 3 goals and keeping two clean sheets (their only ones this season) in those games.

I think it’s safe to say Arsenal are going to have a fight on their hands. A big score from the Gunners in this game will provide a stronger case for their improved team dynamics and individual form than the one against Reading or Newcastle did.

In terms of the patterns of play, the Gunners will be up against another typically British side. Long balls to a strong centre forward to gain territory, clever runs in the channels, followed by crosses and shots from distance will be the norm. Southampton are particularly effective with crosses towards the back post. Against Stoke, two of their three goals came when crosses from wide areas found Lambert at the back post. Sagna and Gibbs will have to be alert to Lambert’s movement. They cannot afford to lose track of Southampton’s main man the way Gibbs lost Dembe Ba in the last game. The central defenders will also have to ensure Lambert doesn’t find space between them and the full-backs.

Arteta will once again have a vital role in front of the defence, particularly if Lambert continually succeeds in winning the first ball. Southampton went to Stoke when Arsenal were trouncing Newcastle and outdid the Potters at their own game, at least in the first half. I won’t be surprised if they try to repeat the success of that direct style.

That might be seen as a touch simplistic though. Adkins had some interesting players and can move them around to create slightly different kinds of threats. For instance, bringing Gaston Ramirez into the middle adds a different creative dimension to the side. He can also go with two strikers or with three in midfield depending on the kind of control Arsenal are able to exert in the central areas and the situation in the game.

The positive side for Arsenal is that they should get some spaces to play the way they like to. I’m not sure Southampton can battle in the middle for 90 minutes or consistently put pressure on Arsenal’s build-up from the back. At the back the Saints aren’t as structurally compact as some of the other teams that’ve frustrated the Gunners are. There will be pockets for the attackers to exploit but whether they can get into those and make use of them is a different matter. I think it will depend on the kind of confidence we see from the players, which is directly linked to defensive stability and the ability to handle the physical nature of the game. Southampton could get away with their defensive weaknesses if they successfully rattle the Gunners. Otherwise there are goals in this game for Walcott and Co. despite the hosts’ obvious improvements at the back.

Potentially, there are individual mistakes in the Southampton back five and this too could also be a source for opportunities. Their goalkeepers have been suspect all season, the full-backs can get isolated at times, and the central defenders could be caught for pace or concede costly fouls.

We’ll have to see how Arsene sets his team up. Sitting back and inviting pressure in the form of crosses into the box will not be a clever tactic. If the Gunners do drop off, they’ll have to put pressure on the ball in the wider areas. The wingers could have a major defensive role in that case.

Pushing up the pitch is a better option but long balls – if nothing else, then from goal-kicks – will definitely make it a vertical tussle. Regaining possession quickly is the best solution. Will Wilshere be able to support Arteta, or will he be caught higher up the pitch unaware of the threats posed by the opponents running past him? The midfield hasn’t been dominant in the last couple of games, Wenger needs better from his best players as tougher challenges are just around the corner.

I’ll be surprised if there are many changes to the starting eleven. My personal preference is for Theo to play on the right with either Giroud or Podolski in the middle but it’d be understandable if Wenger continued the Walcott experiment forward as it has coincided with a run of form.

We might see,

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

Has Mertesacker recovered from his ‘illness’? Is it worth bringing Rosicky in for one of the regular starters? There are some changes that Wenger could make. We’ll know his choices when the starting line-up is announced I guess.

Arsenal’s next five League games after this one are against City (H), Chelsea (A), Liverpool (H), and Stoke (H) and Sunderland (A). I doubt if the most optimistic of fans will expect a win in all those. That makes this fixture all the more significant. At the moment Arsenal are 16 points behind United in 1st and 16 points in front of Southampton in 18th. The centre is congested and Wenger will want to avoid getting on that slippery slope. This is a tough game but undoubtedly easier than the ones coming up. Anything less than three points will be a major disappointment.

Oh, I almost forgot … Have a great 2013 Y’all!