Arsenal 2 – 1 Aston Villa: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

February 25, 2013

If things go according to plan we will be moving to a small town called Rolla in July. This Saturday was spent visiting the place and looking at houses. So I wasn’t able to catch the game live and only got around to watching it today.

It was an interesting game. Seemed to me like a typical end-to-end Premier League game, high on entertainment value but not a particularly engrossing tactical contest. Wenger went with Diaby in midfield ahead of Ramsey. Rest of the team was as expected. It is possible that he is looking to add some fresh legs to every game.

Surprisingly, there was plenty of space in front of the Villa defence and the visitors were not as efficient and effective with their pressing as I’d expected them to be. As a result the Gunners were able to play some fluid football right from kick-off and took an early lead.

Wilshere had a lot of time in the centre of the Villa half to pick Cazorla. The Spaniard’s initial ball into the six-yard box was cleared but he did extremely well after the clearance came straight to him. The chest control was immaculate. It was followed by a clever touch with the left foot to take the ball away from the defender. The weight on that touch was very good too as the ball rolled perfectly in his path enabling him to shoot without breaking his stride. It went through two defenders’ feet and the Keeper could only palm it into the corner.

The rest of the first-half was pretty open. Arsenal had a number of half-chances to increase their lead. There were quite a few three or four player moves that just lacked the final ball or finish. I got a feeling the players were lacking in confidence and thus not playing as smoothly and instinctively as they can. It affected their quality in the tighter areas. A more confident Arsenal side would probably have scored more in the first half.

At the same time it’s necessary to acknowledge that Lambert’s side were a constant threat on the counter-attack. As I’ve noted often, there are games when it’s far too easy for the opponents to bring the ball to the Arsenal penalty box. Villa did that repeatedly in the first half but they couldn’t get on the end of some dangerous crosses. The shots that they did manage were routine saves for Szczesny.

In the second half I thought Arsenal had greater tactical control after the opening few minutes. It had begun to look like a more one-sided contest. Just before the hour mark though, Villa fired a warning shot when they broke quickly following a corner. That particular move didn’t bring the equalizer but the Gunners paid the price of their openness in the 68th minute when another Arsenal corner resulted in a Villa attack, and this time a goal.

Corner for the Gunners, goal for the opponents, a depressingly familiar tale that could have put another 2-point dent on Arsenal’s total. However, there was a vital difference this time around. Paul Lambert got greedy. In fairness, he would have sensed throughout the game that his team can snatch a goal or two on the break. Arsenal were conceding territory rather easily and invited pressure. But by making attacking substitutions and by often keeping up to three players up the pitch, Lambert game Arsenal more space in his own defensive third.

Looking back to the Cup defeats to Bradford and Blackburn, we can see Arsenal had applied excellent late pressure in those games. It just wasn’t enough. Both those sides pulled enough bodies back and worked hard to minimize the number of quality chances conceded. Villa didn’t do that and it proved fatal.

The winner also resulted from a nice spell of possession and a well-crafted move. Wilshere’s dinked ball, Monreal’s run and clever cut-back, Cazorla’s timing and careful placement of the shot were all immensely enjoyable.

Wenger’s side had to hold on at the end and they did it fairly comfortably.

On the whole this wasn’t a great game from Arsenal but it was good enough from a team that looked down on confidence. Cazorla on the left and Wilshere with greater freedom in an attacking role is working better than having them both in central roles with the Englishman deeper. In the current system both have the opportunity to take their time on the ball in forward-looking roles. But it’s early days for this system and we’ll get a better idea of its effectiveness in the next game.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Should have saved the goal, it didn’t appear to be a particularly vicious shot or one that was out of his reach. Disappointing.

Jenkinson: Steady defensively, didn’t offer much in attack although he did try a few crosses. It was reminiscent of his decent form early in the season. Wasn’t beaten for pace and took relatively good care of his defensive positioning and decision making.

Mertesacker: Had a decent defensive game, wasn’t really tested as much. Was at the other end of the pitch for a corner so can’t be blamed for the goal. Wasn’t pressurized when in possession, passing was efficient.

Vermaelen: Just like Mertesacker, he had a fairly decent game in the Arsenal penalty box. Made one good tackle in the box and a couple of other useful interventions. Didn’t see as much of the ball as his partner.

Monreal: I thought he wasn’t quite as effective in the first half when his forward runs weren’t readily found by his teammates. Had more of an influence as the game progressed and picked up a well-deserved assist with a clever run and pass. Had a fairly busy game defensively as Villa often broke down his flank.

Villa found a lot of room on the wings and I felt the defenders dropped back too quickly. This stretched the field vertically and gave the visitors more room to run into. But it’s not a new issue and there is no immediate solution visible, even in the short-term. Arsenal will need a bit of luck, just as they got in this game.

Arteta: Passing was steady as ever even though a couple of wayward passes towards Jenkinson come to mind. It’s a tribute to his quality that an occasional miss is so noticeable. Worked really hard in front of the defence and won back possession on numerous occasions. 5 of his 7 interceptions, and both his tackles came in the second half when Arsenal did a better job of controlling Villa’s breaks.

Wilshere: Found more time and space that he might have expected. Was able to influence the attacking play with a role in the build-up of many attacks including both goals. Nevertheless, there were quite a few occasions where he could also have done much better in the final third. The early break when Giroud put him through comes to mind as do a few other occasions. This is a good role for him and over time he’ll make more tangible and decisive contributions. Right now he needs time and space to develop.

Diaby: Played better than he has in recent games. Was able to help out defensively and linked well with the attack. Still not close to his best though, and unfortunate to pick up another injury.

Cazorla: Easily the MotM. Two excellent finishes and  was involved with most of the attacking play. Played a number of eye-catching passes. Didn’t have to track back often which helped.

The midfield had more time and space that Villa usually allow. So they were able to combine with each other, the attackers, and occasionally with the full-backs. But the play wasn’t as fast as we’ve seen from them in similar conditions. There was perhaps a degree of hesitancy in their actions and thinking.

Walcott: Received quite a few long passes in behind the defence but he didn’t have as much support when he did get such passes. I thought he played a touch too narrow and would have been better off varying his position and movement. Spending more time hugging the touchline and occasionally running across the face of the box might have added to offensive options against this defence.

Giroud: Bit of a mixed bag for the striker. Did a good job of linking with the midfield as he played some interesting one-twos and there was that earlier occasion of putting Wilshere through. But his finishing and some decision-making was disappointing.

The attackers could have done better given the open and weak nature of Villa’s defence.

Subs: Ramsey performed a good utility role starting in central midfield, before going to right back, and ending on the right side of midfield. Koscielny didn’t have much to do. Podolski should have shown better anticipation and hunger in attacking the ball in the box on a couple of occasions.

Wenger: This win should lift a bit of pressure and after a bit of trial and error he seems to have arrived at a better solution than sticking Arteta, Wilshere, and Cazorla in central midfield roles. The defence remains a concern with long-standing issues that don’t seem to have any immediate solutions.

Those of you on twitter who liked the guest post from Mick can follow him on his twitter.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Aston Villa

February 23, 2013

Earlier in the day I’d published a guest post with analysis of the fixtures in the run-in for Arsenal and other top 4 competitors like Chelsea and Spurs performed by Mick from Brisbane. Do check it out in case you missed it.

In his analysis Mick put Villa down as a relegation battler and noted this as one of the easier games for the Gunners. Paul Lambert’s side are definitely fighting at the wrong end of the table, there’s no argument about that. But I’m not sure this is going to be one of the more straightforward games for Arsenal. In fairness to our Aussie mate, he did say this was a subjective classification. And in theory, at least, a home game against a team sitting one place and one point above the relegation zone after 26 games should be a banker.

This season, given the unpredictable nature of Arsenal’s performances, it’s virtually impossible to predict what the Gunners will produce on the pitch. Villa have caused them some problems at the Emirates in recent years. As informs us,

History must also be muffled on Saturday. Only Chelsea have picked up more Premier League points at Emirates Stadium than Villa. They nearly grabbed a victory in the opening League game at the ground back in 2006 and their recent record is a creditable W2 D2 L2.

The patterns of play should be quite predictable. Wenger’s side will go out to play the only way they know how. Villa have had a couple of weeks to prepare for this game. I’d expect them to be energetic in the midfield and press all the passes played out by the defenders with an attempt to slowly push the ball back and converge on the central defenders to force a mistake or a hoof.

It sounds simple and often is, particularly if the Gunners can’t move the ball at a fast rate and Arteta doesn’t get enough support from the other midfielders and wide players. Villa have the pace to break forward and transitions in the centre of the pitch can be dangerous.

We are also likely to see a mix of some possession play and some long-balls from the visitors. In the reverse game Benteke showed a tendency of hanging towards Arsenal’s left flank. It will be interesting to see if he does the same tomorrow or the absence of Sagna encourages him to test whoever is filling in. In either case, his ability to receive/hold the ball, and link with onrushing attackers will provide a constant challenge to the defenders. Arsenal’s central defenders have neither been consistent, nor efficient at getting tight to strikers. This could work in favour of Benteke and the visitors in general. Whether Mertesacker and Vermaelen try to close him down or not, and how they fare in their efforts, will have a strong bearing on the number and nature of chances that Villa can create.

Counter-attacks and set-pieces are always a threat against Arsenal. It’s come to a point where it seems redundant to mention this.

Apart from the goalless draw against the Gunners, Villa have only 1 point from their remaining seven games against the top 6. Their six defeats include 4,5, and 8 goal drubbings. Again, in theory, Arsenal should find enough opportunities to attack their goal and create chances.

But this won’t work out if the Gunners can’t get past their initial pressing frequently, or if they end up relying on an inefficient crossing game with a single target in the box, or if the attack is limited to two player moves instead of multi-player combinations. There is enough quality in the side to produce chances and goals but I just don’t know if it will come out or not.

Wenger’s choices for the attacking roles will also be interesting. Will he bring Giroud back into the starting eleven? If so, who will he take out? We will see six out of the following eight – Arteta, Ramsey, Wilshere, Cazorla, Rosicky, Podolski, Giroud, and Walcott.

The other decision to make is at right back. Jenkinson is the obvious choice but Coquelin might also be worth considering. Neither has covered himself in glory in recent outings but both have potential and deserve their chances. Jenkinson should probably get the nod considering he is the specialist for the role.

We might see,

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Arteta, Wilshere, Ramsey – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.

Some of you might say Rosicky deserves a start. He certainly had a few bright moments after coming on against Bayern. I think it would be a bold move, particularly if he starts ahead of Ramsey. Arsenal will have greater drive when building from the back but will be slightly weaker defensively as the Czech star won’t have the same engine and work rate that Ramsey brings to the side. Wenger could go for this option if he trusts his back five and Arteta to do the job against Villa. He could also pull Wilshere next to Arteta and put Rosicky at the top of the midfield.

Given the player availability for this game and considering the fact that Arsenal don’t have a mid-week game to worry about, team selection should not be an issue for this game. Wenger can pick whatever he deems to be the best side without worrying about rotations and burn out. But will that be enough?

Guest Post: Looking Forward to the Top Four Battle

February 22, 2013

One of our regular readers  sent in an interesting analysis for the rest of the fixtures to see the chances of Arsenal getting ahead of either Chelsea and/or Spurs. As he says, it’s worth focusing on something immediately relevant and possibly positive rather than speculating wildly about the future.

Mick from Brisbane/Sydney is an avid Gooner who has been supporting the Gunners for nearly a decade. Over to him,


When I wrote to Desi initially with the idea of writing a piece providing some analysis on the run in to the end of the season, it was fuelled by my usual ‘blinkers on’ optimism for all things Arsenal. However, like many Gooners, I didn’t see the results of the last fortnight coming or, at least, not the extent of the results and have been left somewhat numb, shell shocked, and more than a little angry. But let’s see if I can dig deep for a sprinkle of optimism and provide some much needed relief for what’s left of another dark season.

Before I get to the analysis let me just say that I am not going to talk about anything other than what I feel we can achieve this season. We can only speculate about what will happen in the summer. Whether Arsene will stay, whether he gets the rumoured transfer war chest and actually spends it, and if he does will he bring in true world class quality or more unproven potential?

So let’s put that to a side and concentrate on what’s left. I may not associate myself with those who currently hate on the club, the board or Arsene (although I am obviously not happy about the current situation), but I’m also not optimistic enough to suggest that we’re still alive in the Champions League. So that leaves the ‘trophy equivalent’ top 4 finish.

Well, fortunately, this is where the good news begins. Of the teams realistically competing for spots three and four (Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea in my opinion: feel free to disagree) I believe we have the easiest remaining fixtures and at minimum an even money chance of continuing our impressive run of Champions League qualifications.

So this is where my analysis comes in. As you can see in the chart below I have focused solely on two factors:

1: Difficulty of each fixture (open to debate) from Well above average to Relegation battler and;

2:  An average of table position for each remaining opposition as the table currently stands 21/02/2013 (Hopefully a strong unbiased indicator of difficulty)

Top 4 run-in fixtures analysis

Click to enlarge

From the table we can make a number of inferences. To keep it as concise as possible I’ll list them in dot points:

  1. Average opposition position shows us that independent of whether the fixture is home or away Arsenal (11.91) play a significantly higher proportion of games against inferior opposition than Chelsea (8.75) and Spurs (9.25).
  2. We will also play a significant role in the relegation battle and so too will it play a major role in determining the outcome of our season. With games remaining against Aston Villa, Reading, QPR and Wigan all falling at the wrong end of the season, when, as we know, players, managers, and clubs are desperately fighting for their survival, we are left very exposed.
  3. Tottenham have the highest proportion of games falling into the Well Above Average and Above Average categories, 8 of the 12 remaining fixtures in fact. With 5 of those 8 games being played away from White Hart Lane with fixtures at Liverpool, Swansea, Chelsea, West Ham and Stoke.
  4. Chelsea have the to play all of the current top four teams (excluding themselves obviously) with two of those fixtures played away to both Manchester clubs.

All of this is to say that despite all the setbacks, disappointments, and pessimism maybe the strong chance of us retaining our Champions League position for next season can be seen as some sort of consolation. Who knows? Maybe the season has gotten to me so much that I’ve started to see it as silverware.

Let me know what you think about anything and everything I have written about in the comments section and up the Mighty Gunners!


My Two Cents:

I think it’s a very good idea to focus on the short term. There is one objective left in the season (don’t see the point in expecting miracles in the Champions League) and it’s still achievable (which does say something about the impact of transfer activity at other clubs?!).

If we look at the results of the reverse fixtures of the ones remaining in the run in, we get the following table –

Top 4 run-in corresponding fixture results

Arsenal definitely have a good chance of getting more points but a vital question is – Compared to the rivals, how many more can they get? If the teams get exactly the same points as they did in the reverse fixtures (highly unlikely), the Gunners will fall short.

This does boil down to consistency. Spurs have lost 5 of the reverse fixtures but 4 of those defeats came against the current top 6 and one was a surprise result against Wigan. If they can get some points in those games they could get more than the 19 they have against these sides.

Chelsea have drawn more games than they’ve won or lost. And given their inconsistent performances under Benitez, it’s very hard to predict just how much they can improve.

The Gunners will probably have to get more than 21 points if they want to keep matters in their own hand. It’s highly unlikely that 65 points will be enough for a Champions League spot. The lowest under Wenger has been 67 in 05-06.

We also have to see the impact that results in Cup competitions have on League form. Chelsea and Spurs might have more games to play and that could affect their League form. On the other hand, we saw how exits from the three Cups affected the team’s confidence and form in 2010-11. Will they be able to perform better this time around?

Also, Everton do deserve a mention even if they’ve not been included in this analysis. I think it’s a race between four teams for two spots.The results in the games between these four sides could be decisive as they’ll all be six-pointers.

What’s already happened this season is in the past. The next few weeks can still salvage some respectability because finishing above either Spurs or Chelsea will be an achievement given all the transfer business they’ve done.

Thanks Mick for a practical, informative, forward-looking article with an upbeat tone.

Arsenal 1 – 3 Bayern Munich: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

February 20, 2013

The single big question was – Can Arsenal cover their structural weaknesses and avoid unforced individual mistakes over 180 minutes of football? By the seventh minute a resounding ‘No’ was ringing around the Emirates, audible to those who were listening for it. In the 21st minute the tie was over as a contest.

Wenger went with Walcott up front and Podolski on the left. Cazorla was shunted to the right and Ramsey retained his spot in the centre of the pitch. The Frenchman probably thought Theo will have a chance of getting in-behind the Bayern defence if they press high up the pitch. Maybe he had other reasons to believe this could work. I don’t know those reasons because I can’t see Walcott being effective through the middle unless Arsenal plan on sitting really deep and playing purely on the counter.

Wrote this just before the game –

As things turned out the Gunners tried building from the back and the game became a battle in midfield. They were never going to win it with Walcott as the striker. There was just no avenue to build attacks. Theo couldn’t show for the ball or hold off Dante who never let him receive and control the ball. There just wasn’t any sort of a link between him and the rest of the team. With Walcott in the centre, long-balls or crosses couldn’t work well either.

Of course, that wasn’t the only or even the main problem, but Arsenal really had no offensive threat in the first half apart from a couple of quick breaks that excited the fans but ended with tame crosses. This gave Bayern greater confidence and made the game relatively easy for them.

The main issue in this game was the difference in the tactical qualities of the two teams. For Bayern, every player knew his role really well and they changed between one approach and another seamlessly. They pressed high up when they wanted to, dropped back when there was a threat of Walcott or someone else getting behind, remained compact in midfield and closed space down consistently, and broke at pace and with purpose when they got a chance to counter.

The Bavarians always seemed to have extra bodies in defence in just the right places to cover for their teammates. In attack, they instinctively found a man in space.

There were times when the Gunners tried pressing them up the pitch but they were almost always able to calmly play the ball out of trouble, often finding ways to build attacks in the process. When the reverse happened, Wenger’s team were usually forced to hoof the ball clear, and at times looked vulnerable and erratic.

When Bayern had possession in the attacking areas they were often able to get meaningful balls into dangerous areas. If it didn’t lead to shots or near misses it usually led to a corner from a desperate clearance. In contrast, Arsenal’s possession was again illusionary. There was a spell in the second half when it looked threatening but the number of chances was still limited.

Bayern’s attacking quartet were able to pop up between the lines and link with each other and the full-backs almost at will. Arsenal’s defenders retreated deep and narrow far too often and early, conceding spaces in front and wider areas. This crowding-the-centre approach to defence cannot work against a team of this calibre.

In the preview, I’d talked about the timing of Bayern’s full-backs’ runs. They do it all the time and it was not a surprise but the Gunners were just not prepared for it. Lahm picked up an assist, and it was his cross that was desperately cleared by Vermalen leading to the corner which resulted in the second goal.

Arsenal had enough bodies in the defensive areas but their awareness and structure were just not good enough. Lahm and Muller had all the time in the world to pick their crosses, Kroos was completely free in such a dangerous spot, and Van Buyten’s run wasn’t picked up by anyone.

Indeed, one got a feeling the Germans had an extra gear that they just didn’t need as they sat on their lead in the second half.

The visiting defenders, on the other hand, paid very close attention to the Arsenal attackers. They rarely had a moment to breath when they received the ball. Minor technical errors were thus enough to break down attacks. Arsenal just couldn’t manufacture any space as the Germans worked really hard and intelligently to close it down.

Their midfielders, wide players, and even Mandzukic did his bit in keeping the goal safe. When nothing worked they threw their bodies at the shot in an intelligent manner making themselves as big as possible. Mertesacker’s attempts to block the first shot seemed more like an effort to avoid getting hit. Sadly, it’s been a problem for Arsenal over a long period and is not limited to the German.

Arsenal’s goal was a lucky break. The corner should never have been given but it was. Delivery was good. It pulled Neuer off his line and the Keeper, as was mentioned in the preview, does have a tendency to make such mistakes. He got nowhere near the ball and Podolski was able to hold off Lahm’s attentions to nod home.

Wenger’s side had a couple of other chances, most notably Giroud hitting it straight at Neuer after a good move involving Rosicky and Walcott, but they were never going to be enough.

Bayern could have had more than one on the counter but they seemed satisfied with what they had.

In fairness, it wasn’t a terrible effort from the Gunners in every sense, but their defensive issues were always going to make it a massive challenge against such a quality opponent. Playing Walcott through the middle probably made it worse.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Another poor game. Should have done better for the second goal. Didn’t really inspire confidence. Again, can someone remind me what all the organizes the defence, communicates well, and such other arguments were about?

Sagna: The way Bayern used Lahm in attack is worth contrasting with Arsenal’s use of Sagna. Wenger’s system puts a great burden on the full-backs as they have to constantly shuttle up and down the flank. Lahm was more selective and received the ball in space. Sagna was almost always crowded out and tightly marked in the attacking areas. Decent defensive shift, can’t fault him for any of the goals. Bit unfortunate for the third.

Mertesacker: Was more nervous and erratic on the ball than he should be. Needs to do more to block such shots. Did win a number of headers that limited the chances Bayern could create.

Koscielny: Made a number of vital interventions in the penalty box. Passing was average. Can’t blame him directly for any of the goals.

Vermaelen: Wasn’t able to offer much in the attacking areas. Really struggled when his side was overloaded as he lacked sufficient cover. Went to ground far too easily (eg: build up to the first goal) and unnecessarily. Numerous poor tactical choices on and off the ball. To be fair he did work very hard and did his best to prevent certain situations from getting worse.

The central defenders weren’t able to drive play forward when Bayern sat back and marked the midfield. Full-backs didn’t offer an offensive threat, although that is more a tactical issue than an individual one.

Arteta: Was reliable on the ball but was often forced to look back to his own goal and couldn’t really drive the game forward. Should have been tighter on Muller for the first goal.

Wilshere: Looked great when he got the ball and went past players but there was very little end product after that as he kept running into crowds. Amidst the hype it’s easy to forget how young and inexperienced he is. But it shows in his performances. Enjoyable and inspires hope for the future but currently ineffective.

Ramsey: Extraordinary work rate, poor tactical awareness. Should have been aware of Kroos’ position after Arteta was pulled out to the left. Should have attacked the ball at the near post before Van Buyten instead of waiting for it to arrive. Another one who wasn’t able to break past the Bayern shackles in Arsenal’s build-up play. Ran into cul-de-sacs when he ventured forward or wide.

Cazorla: Had a few promising moments in the attacking areas but his tendency to be individualistic does affect the quality of the team’s play. Often there was one dribble attempt too many, or a second too long before the pass was played.

Arsenal’s midfield saw more of the ball but made less use of it. They also didn’t know how to support the defence on a consistent basis. It’s related to that old problem of balance. Wenger’s system demands greater individual initiative and doesn’t provide a strong enough framework for the players to work with. Can be great when it works but it hasn’t worked in the big games for a long time.

Podolski: Took his goal well but had a disappointing night defensively. Should have paid close attention to Lahm’s movement and helped Vermaelen consistently. Wasn’t able to link with others in an effective manner in the attack.

Walcott: The tempo was fast and marking very tight for him to have an impact on the game. Bayern never let him run at a single defender or get in-behind. They controlled his main strength with clever positioning and by reading the passes played towards him. Because of that it was a forgettable night for Theo even though he visibly tried hard.

The attackers were isolated and tightly marked. Podolski on the left and Theo central is a system that does not convince me. It might work a year or so down the line if they’re given time together but do Arsenal have that time?

Subs: Giroud should have done better with his chance but it’s tough to blame a guy coming off the bench in such a game. Rosicky brought greater drive to the midfield and played some delightful passes.

Wenger: Can’t say I’m surprised by the performance or the result. Most of the issues are long-standing. He needs a good No. 2 to help with balance and structure, possibly someone from Germany or Spain where they’ve been evolving the tactical aspects of the technical attack-oriented game.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Bayern Munich

February 19, 2013

Based on recent form, according to the broader perception in the press and among fans, and on paper in terms of squad strengths, Bayern are overwhelming favourites to progress to the next round of the Champions League at the expense of Arsenal. I do, however, feel that this tie over two legs can be much closer than many expect it to be. But for that to be the case a simple yet vital question has to be answered in the positive and that’s not easy –

Can the Arsenal defence (the entire unit not just the back five) be trusted to cover structural weaknesses and avoid unforced individual mistakes over 180 minutes (possibly more) of football?

There are times when hype can be misplaced and superlatives unjustified but make no mistake, Bayern are a very, very good team. Tactically, they are one of the most, if not the most, complete sides in European football.

The Germans have technically accomplished players who completely understand, and thus perform synergistically as a unit within, Jupp Heynckes attack-oriented but flexible system. They have goal threats from many players all over the pitch. Bayern are capable of creating multi-player, multi-pass moves to break opponents down. Die Roten are also a genuine threat from counter-attacks and can be direct when they want to, deploying long-balls and flick-ons to good effect. There are many players in the Bavarian side who can trouble Szczesny from distance and they also make clever use of the width of the pitch through their full-backs and wide players. This will be, easily, the best attacking team that Arsenal have played thus far this season.

If I’m not mistaken, Bayern Munich have scored in every single competitive game they have played this season. It’s incredible. I’ll be amazed and delighted if they fail to do so at the Emirates on Tuesday night. Smart money will be on Bayern returning with at least one away goal.

Heynckes’ side are runaway leaders in the Bundesliga and they’ve kept 16 clean sheets in 22 games, conceding just 7 goals in the League all season at less than 1 goal every 3 games. They are adept at pressing higher up the pitch and closing down spaces to win balls back quickly and prevent opponents from building their attacks. They also do a good job of snuffing out long balls aimed towards attackers. When needed, Bayern can also drop back into their own half and defend as a unit, although this is mostly in the central third of the pitch with the first line of defence around the central third.

That explains why Bayern are favourites according to many, now let’s come to the other side of the equation.

There is a feeling that the Germans haven’t really been tested this season. In the Champions League group phase, they only scored 3 and conceded 4 while picking up 4 points in their away games. This includes a 3-1 defeat against Alexander Hleb’s BATE Borisov, a 1-1 draw against Valencia at the Mestalla where the hosts were down to 10 men for close to an hour, and a narrow 0-1 win over Lille who lost 5 of their 6 games. In the Bundesliga, they’ve not beaten the 2nd or 3rd placed teams yet despite playing both at home. They drew with Dortmund (1-1) and lost to Leverkusen (1-2).

So, there is no doubt in my mind that if – and that’s a big, big if, mind you – Arsenal can perform to their best level over the two legs without any drops in concentration, or signs of the handbrake, and other self-defeating elements of their game, the Gunners will have a very good chance of qualifying.

I am finding it hard to predict the patterns of play in this game as many possibilities are imaginable. Bayern top the Bundesliga possession stats with close to 64 percent possession while the Gunners are second in the Premier League with 58.5 percent. Both teams like to keep the ball and it’ll be interesting to see which one manages to dominate possession in this game.

I think Arsenal have a slight edge in the technical department in midfield but Bayern have a better front six as their attacking players add exceptional technical quality. Walcott and Giroud are likely to be the weak links as far as technique is concerned and could be prone to losing possession, which in turn could mean the Gunners won’t be able to hold on to the ball for as long as Bayern do. The Bavarians are also better at pressing and regaining possession while Arsenal have shown a tendency to drop back and concede the attacking half to the opponent when out of possession. This too indicates that the visitors will see more of the ball than Wenger’s side.

If Arsenal do sit back they’ll have to be very vigilant as a unit because Bayern’s attacking players interchange positions seamlessly and make astute use of space. They are also quick to change flanks and their full-backs generally time their runs intelligently. Arsenal’s wide players will have to be diligent with their tracking. There will be times when their wide players cut inside and either Alaba or Lahm makes an overlapping run. In those moments, the Arsenal full-backs will be vulnerable. If their teammates don’t read the situation as it’s developing and only react after it’s in motion, the team will concede space and, consequently, opportunities.

Ramsey, if he’s picked, will have a big role in front of the defence. Arteta will too. Hopefully, Wenger will not pick Wilshere and Cazorla centrally, they both need greater freedom to express their talents and relatively fewer defensive responsibilities. Jack up the pitch and Santi on the left seems the better choice. That said, I’ll be concerned about Cazorla’s ability to track Lahm on a consistent basis if he’s picked on the flank.

Wenger’s side will also have to start strongly. Conceding a couple of early goals – like they did against Chelsea and City – will settle the tie prematurely. It’s also likely to give voice to the disgruntled fans. On the other hand, a dominant start that shows desire and determination could get the Emirates crowd going.

Offensively, it will be a major surprise and a disappointment if Arsenal don’t score in this game. Bayern are very strong as a unit but they do seem vulnerable when opponents get past their first line of defence and spend some time in their defensive third. In that regard, the Bavarians are a bit like their hosts. Unlike Arsenal though, their back four is not always keen to drop deep when possession is lost. The Gunners will have to earn the right to attack their goal. Wilshere’s ability to get past his man could prove vital. It’ll be interesting to see if Bayern double up on him in the central third. Cazorla’s ability to hold the ball under pressure and bring his teammates into play will also be useful. His long and accurate diagonals towards Walcott can get Arsenal into threatening positions.

Walcott’s pace is a threat against any team but David Alaba is no slouch. I’m keen to see how tight he gets to Theo. My suggestion to the Englishman will be to start wider and work his way across the defensive line when Arsenal have the ball. His speedy runs can cause some confusion in the Bayern backline as the defenders will have to share the responsibility of marking/tracking him. Theo will also be  a bigger threat if he can get his off-the-ball movement in sync with the vision of the midfielders. He’ll have a greater chance of making an impact if he constantly looks to get in-behind and receive the ball there rather than trying to run at the defence with the ball at his feet.

Neuer is a very highly rated goalkeeper but I feel Arsenal should take every opportunity to test him. Put pressure on him when he receives back passes, attack the penalty box looking for knock-backs when shots are taken from distance, and deliver crosses that pull him out of his line. The German’s record is impressive but I don’t think he’s tested often enough. There are mistakes in his game.

As with any big fixture, individual moments can be decisive. A casual touch in a dangerous area, a bad or great pass, a last-gasp tackle or block, a big save, or clinical finishing can all make the difference.

Wenger has some big decisions to make in his team selection.

Does he go for Ramsey in midfield? Should Podolski start? If so whether on the left or down the middle (I prefer this but very unlikely to happen.)? Who will play at left-back?

It will depend on Koscielny’s fitness but we might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny/Vermaelen, Vermaelen/Jenkinson – Ramsey, Wilshere, Arteta – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.

Vermaelen might have to play through the middle if Koscielny is not fit and that would leave Jenkinson as the main option on the left (Monreal is cup-tied in case you didn’t know). Coquelin could also be an interesting possibility at left-back if he is instructed to keep things simple and focus on defending. Arsenal are likely to lose some offensive threat down that flank no matter who plays at full-back, which in turn might prompt Wenger to pick Podolski on the flank. Ramsey would be the most likely casualty in that case with Cazorla moving inside.

Bayern played on Friday whereas the Gunners played the FA Cup tie on Saturday. But Wenger was able to rest several players whereas the Bavarians will largely field the same eleven that won the game against Wolfsburg, so the hosts should be fresher, in theory at least.

Arsenal have to win this game if they want to give themselves a good shot at going through. Winning is about scoring goals but, at the simplest level, this tie will boil down to their defending.

P.S. I didn’t see the point in a late match report for the Blackburn game.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Blackburn

February 16, 2013

Cup-ties are tricky fixtures by their very nature but being at home is a genuine advantage and playing against lower league opposition is another one. This really should be a straightforward game for the Gunners unless they mess it up.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to make this game harder than it should be. One is the classic – Be a Gooner, Be a Giver – approach where opponents get gift-wrapped goals courtesy of unforced errors from one or more Gunners. The second is linked to team selection. Too many changes to starting line-up, involving players who don’t have sufficient match-practice, and the consequent lack of balance and cohesion can lead to a major drop in performance. In some ways it’s also linked to problem of defensive instability. Just when the Gunners seem to be hitting some sort of a rhythm in their combination play, disrupting the flow does not seem like the ideal choice.

But given the nature of the modern game, rotations are a necessary evil. The trick lies in doing it without affecting the level of performance rather than in avoiding it altogether. I’ll be very surprised if Wenger doesn’t make a fair number of changes for this game, with a strong bench available to salvage the game. It worked at Brighton in an away game in the previous round so it should, at least in theory, work at home against Blackburn who are just one position and two points behind Brighton in the Championship table.

We could see the likes of Podolski, Gervinho, and Oxlade-Chamberlain in attack. That will mean a complete change from the attacking trio that took the field against Sunderland. In midfield, resting Wilshere seems the right thing to do and Cazorla might join him. Arteta missed a few weeks through injury so he probably won’t need a break right now but in such cases I think it’s best to leave the decision to Wenger as he has all the information about players’ fitness. Hopefully, he’ll err on the side of caution, something he hasn’t always done. The FA Cup is worth chasing but not at the risk of losing key players for long periods. And quite frankly, if the squad depth can’t handle such a tie then there is a bigger problem anyway.

Rosicky – I don’t know why we haven’t seen more of him – and Diaby could be in the starting line-up as they need games. Coquelin might also start if he’s fit. Whether he starts in the centre of at right back remains to be seen.

In defence, Monreal and Vermaelen should come into the side. Wenger could give Mertesacker a break and start Miquel in the centre but that would be a tad risky. Not conceding goals can make up for a lot of other issues. Over 90 minutes Arsenal should find a way to score if they can keep things under control at the other end.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Coquelin, Rosicky, Diaby – Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski, Gervinho.

Arsene could go with any of a dozen or more possible combinations where enough first choice players get a break without making the starting eleven disjointed.

Blackburn are a decent team on a positive run of form. Early in the season (weeks 5-7) they were top of the Championship. By the 23rd week they’d fallen down to the 17th position. Now they’re back up to 8th and looking to push on.

They’ll certainly offer a strong resistance at the back and Rhodes will be a handful in the penalty box if he gets some service. It’s worth noting that Blackburn have only won 3 away games in the Championship and they’ve been against teams currently in relegation spots. At the same time they’ve only lost 3 of their 15 away games, albeit 2 of those defeats have come against teams above them in the Championship table. 60 percent of their away games have been draws. Arsenal will want to avoid that result as it’ll simply add another fixture and an away one at that.

The Gunners should progress to the next round if the players chosen by Wenger do the simple things right. Arsenal also have a good record of not losing to lower division opposition in the FA Cup under Wenger but the Bradford result shows just how easily such records can tumble.

I won’t be able to watch the game of Saturday as an urgent matter has come up. For those who’re interested, a match report will be published but it will be late on Sunday or in the early hours of Monday. Hopefully, it will be a good game and worth taking about even a couple of days after it’s over.

Sunderland 0 – 1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

February 10, 2013

I try to avoid superlatives in the match analysis but it’s tough to do that after such a game. This performance was heart-warming in so many ways and after a long while it felt like I was watching Wenger’s Arsenal for the full duration of the game.

Wenger went with four midfielders and left Podolski on the bench. The defence has a makeshift look with Sagna partnering Mertesacker and Jenkinson taking up the right-back berth.

Walcott tended to drift inside and played more as the second central striker who occasionally drifted wide. Cazorla was more a central midfielder than a winger of any sort, although he did perform a decent defensive role on the left flank. These tendencies kind of gave the team a 4-4-2-ish feel at times but I found it difficult to stick one formation label on Arsenal’s play. After a somewhat chaotic and hectic opening, the Gunners settled into a rhythm and their fluidity was immensely enjoyable.

In the post game analysis after the previous fixture against Stoke, I got a feeling I didn’t get my point across to a lot of readers. But if you look at the way Giroud and Walcott played in this game and contrast that with their earlier effort, you’ll see a stark difference.

The horizontal movement of Arsenal’s attackers and their ability to pop into space for quick link play was just sensational, even if the end product lacked precision at times. This movement and fast passing manufactured space where some of the earlier Arsenal teams this season would have struggled to find any. It also enabled penetrating runs from the midfield. As a result of that we also saw three, four, or five player combinations instead of just two players trying to break the defence while the others stood and watched.

For most of the first-half, Sunderland’s defensive players were forced into reactionary defending that was far from solid. They had to rely on fouls (often not given), good saves, and the Gunners’ inability to hit the target (probably the one big negative from the game). Not many teams will come to the Stadium of Light and stretch Sunderland the way Arsenal did in this game.

A very interesting aspect of Arsenal’s attack was that despite the narrow nature of Sunderland’s defence the Gunners didn’t really have to use width to create chances. They were able to combine through the middle as the speed of passing and the degree of understanding between the players was exceptionally high.

Let’s look at passes made and received by the two strikers – Walcott and Giroud – in this game and compare those with their efforts against Stoke.

Walcott passes received

Theo received more passes against Stoke, which could mean he saw more of the ball, but concentrate solely on the arrowheads and you’ll see that against Stoke Walcott was largely receiving the ball in a particular zone on the right flank. Against Sunderland there isn’t a single cluster where the passes are concentrated, which implies greater movement. Also noticeable is the way it is spread out horizontally across the edge of the box and a few yards either side of that.

Similarly, if we look at passes made by the Englishman, there is greater positional variation.

Walcott Passes made

Against Stoke a lot of his play was wide on the flank. It was an area where Pulis’ side were happy for him to have the ball. Against Sunderland he was able to drift across the box and combine with his teammates. What is particularly of interest is that Walcott was able to partake in Arsenal’s short passing game and didn’t quite lose the ball as often as he’s done in the past. It’s still early days but this is a big step in the right direction and this game was an excellent example of just how the team can benefit through his improvements.

With Giroud there’s a comparable but slightly dissimilar case. Being the leading attacker he is mostly going to receive the ball in advanced areas.

Giroud Passes Received

If we ignore the long balls aimed towards him, the cluster in the middle against Sunderland stands out. In this game he was often able to drop short – just, but enough – to get the ball in front of the defenders in a central area. He also moved a bit to the left and combined effectively with his teammates in that zone, something he wasn’t able to do against Stoke (probably because AOC was stuck to that flank as Theo was to the right. As a result, Arsenal had three attackers in three different zones with very little interlinking).

When we see the passes he made (in the final third) along with those he received we get an even better picture.

Giroud Passes Made Final Third

Simply receiving the ball isn’t enough. He has to bring others into play. As is evident from the chart above, he was able to contribute to the build-up play in a meaningful manner against Sunderland. Against Stoke, even though Giroud did get the ball on the edge of the box on a few occasions, Arsenal weren’t able to build attacks from those points.

There were a  couple of lines in a recent interview that caught my eye.

I’m also learning a lot in terms of how to play, particularly with my back to goal, my touch and the information I take in before I get the ball.

This game provided proof of the work being done behind the scenes on the training grounds. That work includes improving the Frenchman’s tactical awareness and making him a better all-round striker who can show for the ball even in tight spaces, hold off the defenders, and bring others into play with one-touch passes. This is another work-in-progress (only had 62 percent pass completion, for instance), but the signs are promising. He’ll only get better.

There is a valid argument that Sunderland were not as well-organized as Stoke were. This game was more vertically stretched than the one against Stoke, where the visitors had no attacking intent at all. So Arsenal found greater space in front of the home defence and the strikers were able to roam into those areas relatively unchallenged. That should not take anything away from their work but it does serve as a reminder that many sterner tests are yet to come.

When talking about Arsenal’s attack in this game, it’s imperative to mention the impact Wilshere had. There was a marked difference in the visitors’ attacking abilities with the youngster on the pitch and without him. His passing accuracy was the lowest of all midfielders (overall and in the final third) but Jack was able to glide past his opponents and his movement – with and without the ball – often forced the opposing midfielders to chase back facing their own goal. It was instrumental in opening up that space between the lines as he drove right through the first line of defence. He also took more risks and in general created havoc in the attacking third.

Of course, he’s still a young lad and there is a lot of room for improvement. But there is no substitute for experience. He will get more efficient as he learns and he will be wiser with his choices. Right now there is a feeling that he’s over-eager at times but I guess it comes with his age and enthusiasm. Unadulterated Joie de football?

Arsenal didn’t use their full-backs quite as much in an offensive role, which is also worth noting because the attackers supposedly given roles on the flanks kept drifting inside. In such a case one would expect the full-backs to bomb forward and provide width but there was so much joy down the middle, the players probably never felt the need to look wide.

Jenkinson was used in a conservative role when he got a run of games early in the season and that continued here.

Jenkinson v Monreal

The Spaniard played many more minutes but only 4 of his 16 passes in the attacking third of the pitch came after the sending off.

Difference between the first-half and the second-half

Arsenal attempted close to 400 passes in the first-half and just over 200 in the second period. Wilshere’s absence played it’s part as did the red card. But Diaby role is also worth exploring. The Frenchman’s touch was uncharacteristically loose and in general his play was quite disappointing (although he was useful in the penalty box when defending set-pieces). It’s quite possible he’s lacking match fitness but I also sense a degree of hesitancy in his game. Is he not confident in his abilities at this time? Is he wary of going into physical duels? Something’s not right and Wenger has a job to do to get him back to his best.

The Gunners didn’t have much to do defensively in the opening hour of the game. There were a couple of hopeful headers and one good chance that Fletcher couldn’t put on target.

After the red card it was hard for 10-men Arsenal, particularly the final 20 minutes. Sunderland got more bodies into the box and they were able to test Szczesny. But it was arguably the most inefficient attacking approach in the game and it could be countered by unwavering concentration and determination to attack the ball whenever possible. In recent games Arsenal have gifted goals through very casual unforced errors. It was good to see none of that in this game. The commitment and effort from the players was commendable but better structure can be helpful.

Difference between the attacking styles and tactics of the teams

When people call Arsenal one-dimensional, I wonder what they’d call a team like Sunderland. Zero-dimensional? Apart from cross-and-hope they had very little to offer. Their two best chances came from – 1) a mistake by Ramsey, although credit must also go to Sessegnon who was excellent; and 2) a handball by Fletcher that put Mertesacker’s clearance in his path.

Other than that it was just a few ooohs and aaaahs from the crowd as hopeful balls came into crowded areas. Granted, such tactics occasionally work against Arsenal, but if you want to figure out why Martin O’Neill’s side are in the bottom five for goals scored (bottom four at home), start with how utterly lacking in imagination their football is.

The following is a comparison of the crosses attempted by the two teams.

Crosses comparison

Arsenal just didn’t have to go wide while the hosts couldn’t do anything but go wide.

In fact, even at the end it could be argued that the visitors created better chances even with 10 men. Walcott hit the post when put through while Giroud and Cazorla found themselves in good positions more than once.

Those fixated with the short term and living in denial might argue that this game could easily have ended 1-1, and then this analysis would look daft.

But as Wenger says and I often repeat, the actual result of the game should not have a major influence on the analysis of the game. If Arsenal repeat this kind of football they’ll score three or four goals more often than they score one. If Sunderland repeat this they’ll be lucky to score one. Don’t believe me? Just look at the difference in goals scored by the two sides, and then compare the goals scored by the sides managed by these managers over the last few years.

The Gunners were inefficient while the Black Cats lacked ideas and creativity. Don’t let the tenseness of the game distract you from the actual quality of football played by either side.

The Referee

It was a horrible game from the officials and both sides suffered. Sunderland had a valid claim for a penalty IMHO. But the hosts would also have been in trouble if the Ref had dealt with their overzealous physical play early on. Yes, there were some hard but fair tackles, but the number of fouls not called was just staggering. Cattermole could easily have been sent off early in the first-half for deliberate off-the-ball fouls. Ndiaye was often just grappling with his opponents. It wasn’t a nasty game per se, but Sunderland’s attempts to disrupt Arsenal’s rhythm were evident and the referee’s impotence disappointing. He probably compensated for the penalty call by allowing Fletcher to have a free shot at goal, with only Szczesny to beat, after an obvious handball.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Made two or three very good saves late in the game. Flapped on a couple of occasions when he came for a cross and missed. Appreciable concentration and a good game on the whole.

Jenkinson: A game to forget for the young man. Wasn’t able to offer much in attack and didn’t do a good job of defending when he was challenged. More than anything it just shows how raw and inexperienced he is. Sometimes enthusiasm and energy cannot make up for underdeveloped game-intelligence.

Sagna: Exceptional in defending the balls hurled into the box, particularly late in the game. Early on, Fletcher and Co. did win some headers against him, but when things got tight at the end he either won the ball or did enough to put the opponent off. Distribution wasn’t up to his usual standard when he plays on the right but a quality effort in an unfamiliar role nonetheless.

Mertesacker: Another one who did well against balls put into the box. Often got into the right places and did enough to prevent clear chances. Should probably have done more to cover behind Monreal on a couple of occasions.

Monreal: Efficient passing game, usually got into good positions in attack and defence. Broke up some attacks and tackling was good when he was able to get to the ball but there were a couple of occasions when Sessegnon simply skipped past him. Could have conceded a penalty on another day. I liked the way he tracked the winger into the centre of the pitch. That led to the transition which resulted in Arsenal’s goal.

The central defenders had a tough time in the last 20 minutes or so and they did a good job marshalling the troops and attacking the ball. The full-backs can do better.

Arteta: Another typically understated effort that was more about making others look better. Did make clever use of fouls to break up play on a couple of occasions. To me that’s a sign of experience as he used the refs tendency to be lenient to his advantage. Would prefer if he never had to do that but if you can’t change the refs mind it’s best to use it skillfully.

Wilshere: Already discussed above.

Ramsey: Should probably have done better when Giroud’s through-ball found its way to him. Also must learn to protect the ball better. Work rate and energy were exceptional. Did a good job at right-back and in general defensive effort was commendable.

Cazorla: Should probably have covered his role in more depth earlier in the article but we’ve come to expect nothing less than top quality from the Spaniard. More of the same here. Took his goal well, could probably have done better with a couple of other chances. Was involved with most of Arsenal’s creative play in some form or the other. Did a fair amount of defensive work as well. Another one who worked his socks off.

Diaby: discussed above.

The midfield was excellent in this game. Their technical abilities stood out and they were able to impose their creative will over the physicality of their opponents. Exceptional physical effort from all those who played the full game.

Have already discussed the strikers, Giroud and Walcott, in detail above. Also want to note Giroud’s defensive contribution was superb.

Miquel had a couple of important touches deep in the Arsenal penalty box.

Wenger: This was much closer to how he’d want his side to play. I’ve mentioned before that Arsene hasn’t quite been sure of his best attacking and midfield options this season. Well, the system around the new players is still evolving but it’s come a long way from the early days.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Sunderland

February 9, 2013

Last season Arsenal visited the Stadium of Light around about this time, Feb 11th to be exact, and came back with a vital late win thanks to an Arshavin assist and an Henry goal. While the comeback was complete, it was far from a comfortable win. Indeed, the Gunners lost at the same venue a week later in the FA Cup.

Even though Wenger’s side have not lost many games against the Black Cats, they’ve not had great success at Wearside either. Before last season’s scrappy comeback, you’d have to go back all the way to the 07-08 season for an Arsenal away win away to Sunderland.

Trips to the North-East in general are tricky encounters. The stat zone article on tells us the Gunners have only lost 1 of their last nine visits to the region, but it’s also worth noting they’ve only won 3 of those games. Wenger himself acknowledged this in his own way,

When you travel up to the north and come back with three points, you feel you have done very good business. For us, that’s the target.

Given Arsenal’s position in the table, they’ll need the points if they don’t want to rely on luck in the race for the Champions League spots. Needless to state, it won’t be easy.

Martin O’Neill’s team have conceded 12 goals in 12 home games. That’s an impressive record bettered only by four teams in the League. They’ve only conceded 2 goals in their last five home games with 4 clean sheets including a 1-0 win over City.

It’s interesting because they don’t have extraordinary individual quality in defence. Few would list the names of O’Shea or Bramble among  the League’s top defenders, for instance. But collectively Sunderland can be a very hard nut to crack. It’s more about organization, discipline, and hard work, classic MON some might say (although Bruce before him wasn’t very different either).

Sunderland are 18th in terms of possession with 43.5 percent. Although that does improve to 46.7 percent at home (14th), it’s not really a key part of their strategy. They often invite pressure but remain dogged in defending the critical zones. The Black Cats concede 17 shots per game on average (3rd most) and while it goes down to 15 at home, that is the highest number of shots any team is conceding at home in the League this season. It doesn’t quite correlate with their impressive goals conceded figure. The way I see it is that Sunderland are very efficient at minimizing high-quality chances, and while doing so allow teams to have more attempts at goal from relatively harmless positions. So the number of shots conceded is very high but goals conceded remains disproportionately low.

Creating clear-cut opportunities will be a challenge for the Gunners. They’ve ripped some teams apart but these were evidently poorly organized outfits. Wenger’s team has to prove they can carry the same form into games against defensive-minded units.

As mentioned above, the Sunderland defenders aren’t great individually. The trick for Arsenal will be to isolate them and force mistakes. Wider areas and inside channels should be of particular interest. The movement of the front three and their understanding with each other as well as the midfield will be worth observing.

I am also keen to see how Martin O’Neill approaches this game. He’ll surely believe his team can get something from this game. Will that mean Sunderland come out and play higher up the pitch in search of goals? Or will they remain conservative and bide their time. After all, set-pieces and counter-attacks are always good avenues for reaching the Arsenal penalty box.

I do have a feeling the hosts will apply some pressure on the ball to attempt to disrupt Arsenal’s build-from-back process. Whether it will happen from kick-off or if they take a few minutes to suss out the Gunners remains to be seen. Both teams will have a good chance of scoring when they do so. Arsenal could be in trouble if they can’t handle the pressure and make unforced errors, but they could also have more space to exploit in the attacking areas if they can get past the initial pressure.

Given that Wenger has a strong midfield available to him, I doubt if Sunderland will try such tactics for too long. Arsenal should be favourites to dominate possession and it’ll be up to them to ensure it’s not ‘illusionary domination’, as Wenger had so aptly labelled some of their earlier performances.

The game will be more interesting to watch if O’Neill picks both Graham and Fletcher in attack. Sunderland will then be more keen on pressing the Arsenal defenders and the game could be a battle in the central third. We might see factors like desire and confidence coming into the picture.

Arsenal’s off-the-ball tactics will also be worth observing. Will they drop off into their own half and allow the hosts some time on the ball? It could work in pulling Sunderland away from their goal but the Gunners will have to maintain their shape or this approach could backfire.

Arsene will most probably pick his starting eleven based on their fitness levels after the midweek internationals. Arteta should start as he didn’t travel with Spain and there could be a temptation to pick Diaby in midfield.

That said, it’s really difficult to imagine leaving any of Wilshere, Cazorla, Podolski, Giroud, or Walcott out. Arsenal don’t have anything before next Saturday, and that’s an FA Cup home game against Blackburn, so Wenger should be able to field is strongest available team in this one.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Cazorla, Wilshere – Walcott, Giroud, Podolski.

There will be a genuine headache for the manager if Koscielny is not fit. I have a feeling he will play with painkillers if he can/has to. The other options are worrisome.

Sunderland have won 5 of their last 10 games after winning only 2 of their first 15. As discussed above, they’ve a formidable defence and an impressive recent home record. But Spurs and Chelsea have won at the Stadium of Light and scored 5 goals between them. Can Arsenal match that?

Arsenal 1 – 0 Stoke: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

February 4, 2013

Wenger made five changes to his line-up for this game. In some ways it showed the depth in the squad even though it was quite evident that the team isn’t quite as fluid without the likes of Cazorla and Podolski.

Stoke sat really deep for most of the game. It was as if they’d seen what happened to West Ham and were genuinely scared. As I mentioned after that game, for all the talk of aggressiveness and the in-your-face attitude, the tactical approach from the manager was stunningly timid. Their back line was often on the edge of their box or deeper, and the five midfielders in front of them tended to stay within five yards or so, thereby cutting out any space between the lines.

Arsenal were forced wide time and again. It’s common knowledge that the Gunners are among the weaker teams at wing-play, and it could be that Pulis was counting on that to eke out another goalless draw.

It was a hard-fought result but that works just fine. Every game isn’t going to produce scintillating football, and it’s definitely better than exceptional football in a losing cause.

The analysis of this game is directly linked to some individual efforts so I’m going to combine the two sections.

I thought the Gunners struggled because, apart from the general limitations of wing-play, the front three couldn’t really combine in this game. Walcott worked hard on the right, it was encouraging to see him attempt to hold on to the ball under pressure. It seems he’s also been working on his close control and dribbling skills. Many people were impressed by his performance in this game. I wouldn’t say it was a great effort from the Englishman but it was one that showed hard work is being done on the training ground and there is genuine desire to do better. And make no mistake, he’ll have to produce much, much more than what he did in this game if he’s to play a vital part in making Arsenal’s future bright.

I did like the way he handled Wilkinson’s persistent fouling, something that cannot be said for Chris Foy.

Giroud too had a mixed sort of a game. He’s another one who’s trying to improve his all-round game and that’s reflected in a better touch and more meaningful contribution while dropping deeper. But against a team that was sitting so deep, we’d ultimately want to see the central striker creating space where none exists. He has to find a way to bully the central defenders, to hold his own in front of them so that his teammates can ping balls to him and make penetrating runs. The Frenchman also needs to become available when the ball goes wide. It’s not easy for a striker without much support against a deep-lying defence, but who said it’s easy to be the main man at a big club that wants to win trophies!

Oxlade-Chamberlain’s performance was a tad disappointing. I have not enjoyed the hype around the kid at all. It’s portrayed him as a player who’s ready to take on a lot of responsibility when every time he goes on the pitch he shows just how much he has to learn. The difference that Podolski made after coming on through his movement, technique, and game-intelligence should serve as a good benchmark for the youngster to aim for. The two best chances of the first half fell to him and one’d hope in a couple of years he’ll be good enough to finish one of those.

I was surprised Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t swap wings when things weren’t quite clicking. They might have had better joy against the full-backs on the other flank.

Apart from the front three, the efforts of Diaby in midfield also slowed things down. The Frenchman didn’t have great games against Chelsea or City either and seems a bit off-pace. In such a game, I’d have preferred if he’d stayed deeper and let Arteta have more freedom. Alternatively, a few darts into the box to get on the end of crosses would also have brought something different to the attack.

It was interesting that most of Arsenal’s promising moments came from corners and follow-up balls into the box. Stoke are reputed to be an aerially dominant side but I feel they’re not impenetrable when they sit this deep. Teams just need to know how to play the crossing game against them. I remember Manchester United scored 4 goals against the Potters at Old Trafford, all from different types of crosses!

From open play, Arsenal’s crossing posed very little threat. At times, there were too few bodies in the box. Giroud, as mentioned earlier, wasn’t able to make space for himself. None of the midfielders seemed interested in making darts into the box after playing the ball wide. Some crosses were hopeful and seemingly aimless while some failed to miss the first man. These are just some of the observations that make Arsenal’s wing-play innocuous. But this is another long-standing issue and I don’t see it improving overnight, particularly when the starting eleven has many changes.

Arteta and Wilshere had decent games. I do sometimes feel Jack will benefit if he can slow his game down in the sense that constantly running with the ball or moving off it doesn’t given him sufficient time to pick penetrative passes. It’s not that he doesn’t pick incisive passes – the one that put AOC through is a classic example of doing just that – but I have a feeling he can be a lot more creative if he slows his movement, particularly against a team that sits so deep and narrow thus cutting out space to run into.

The other problem with Arsenal’s attack was that many of them were two-player moves. So the guy on the ball was looking for a pass/cross and someone else was moving to receive it. These types of moves are easy to defend against. Once Cazorla and Podolski came on the speed of passing increased and they started bringing more players into the picture. Combination play involving multiple players when executed at pace is usually hard to defend against. That said, it’s not that Arsenal created too many clear-cut chances with these two on the pitch. But I’ve a feeling they’d have found a way to goal if the free-kick hadn’t gone in. The team just looked sharper and more fluid, and they had better technique and awareness in tight spaces.

The defence was fairly solid in this game. At least part of that was down to the failure of Stoke’s one-dimensional attacking approach and tactical diffidence. While the visitors did try to pass the ball around in midfield at times, they just didn’t have any offensive ideas. Once Arsenal showed they could deal with the long balls and set-pieces, a goalless draw was their best hope. One would have expected them to throw everything forward and mount a serious challenge after going a goal down but even after that they couldn’t really test Szczesny.

Arsenal kept the ball well, forced Stoke deep in their own half for long periods, ensured they didn’t have lapses in concentration or make silly mistakes, and that was enough to keep a clean sheet.

I was amazed Stoke didn’t even try to target debutant Nacho Monreal. While this might not have been an ideal game for someone who’s just come from La Liga, it was hardly a physical test that Stoke usually provide at the Brittania. But that’s not his fault, and for his part the Spaniard had a respectable outing. He did have a couple of iffy moments towards the end but those should be ironed out easily. There were glimpses of his offensive quality in a couple of crosses and we should see more once he trains with his teammates and plays with the likes of Podolski and Cazorla on the pitch on a regular basis.

The central defenders had a pretty straightforward game. Crouch was able to receive the ball quite often even when he was the lone forward quite isolated from his team. But the defenders, usually Koscielny, did enough to ensure he couldn’t turn, and this slowed the attacks down. Crouch just didn’t have the speed to play a quick one-two and run in behind the defence.

Sagna also had a regular game. Wasn’t really stretched defensively and couldn’t really offer the final ball in attack, but he did his part in keeping the ball rolling and winning individual duels.

In the end it was a boring game with a commendable result. Certain areas of improvement, individually as well as collectively, were apparent as was some of the work being done on the training ground. But it wasn’t the kind of game I’d want to dwell upon for too long.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Stoke

February 2, 2013

Lack of confidence has been a problem for the Gunners this season but there is every reason to go into the home game against Stoke with genuine belief. Arsenal have won all their 4 games against the Potters at home ever since Pulis’ side have regained their place in the Premier League. This season, Stoke have won only 1 away game and have barely scored 8 goals in 12 games while conceding double that number. They’re also winless in their last 5 games which include 3 defeats.

Vermaelen aptly equates them with West Ham as not only the styles of the two teams match but also their performances away from home. To put simply, Arsenal just need a repeat of the West Ham performance and this should be another eminently winnable game.

However, it’s worth remembering the fact that the first-half even in that game was fairly closely contested. There was little to separate the two teams and Arsenal were clearly uncomfortable against the visitors’ aerial and physical challenges.

The ten minute period of that second half was arguably the best spell of football Arsenal have produced this season but they must start finding their rhythm sooner. As Sagna said, the Gunners need a performance like the one against Swansea at home in the FA Cup replay. Even though it was a 1-0 win, the kind of possession and territorial dominance shown throughout that game was impressive. Arsenal pressed well cohesively and combined fluently.

Again, tactically this game is hardly going to throw any surprises. It’s just about dealing with Stoke’s attempts to gain territory through long balls and remaining solid while defending the set-pieces. Nothing Arsenal haven’t done before but lapses in concentration or unforced individual errors can make things significantly harder.

Wenger does have a couple of choices to make as far as his starting eleven is considered. Does he go for the physical qualities of Diaby? Is Nacho Monreal ready for a baptism by fire?

I’d start Diaby in this one in place of Ramsey or Cazorla. Giving the Spaniard another game off is not a bad idea considering he’s used to a winter break and he could always add quality from the bench if the game isn’t working to plan. I’d also keep Santos in the starting eleven despite his obvious weaknesses. It won’t be easy for Monreal to understand his teammates and perform against an opponent that is likely to attack from their right flank through a barrage of long balls. Their style might unsettle him and could lead to fouls and cards. He could be introduced in the final few minutes just to a get a taste of things.

Preferred starting line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Santos – Ramsey, Wilshere, Diaby – Walcott, Giroud, Podolski.

Poldi will have to support the left-back, whoever Arsene picks, as Stoke will target the spaces on Arsenal’s left. If Diaby can produce a repeat of his performance in the reverse fixture the defence should be pretty well protected.

Anything less than three points will be another massive disappointment.