Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Reading

March 30, 2013

The international break didn’t come at a good time for the Gunners as they were just building some momentum with a couple of impressive wins. On the other hand, for Reading it was a blessing as they searched for a new man to take charge.

That can’t be changed and, at least theoretically, it shouldn’t be too big a factor if Arsenal want to put up a serious fight for the Champions League spots. However, I have a feeling it will be a factor and this will be a closely contested game.

It’s difficult to predict how Reading will play in this game. Nigel Adkins’ Southampton side wasn’t the best passing unit in the League but they did try to build attacks from the back and usually had respectable possession figures. McDermott’s Reading was a more vertical team that defended deep and then relied on longer balls to move forward. Will Adkins stick to the style the players are used to or will he succeed in changing their approach soon after taking over? Only time will tell.

Crossing and wing play formed a big part of Reading’s attacking repertoire and those skills could be used by Adkins whose sides utilized back post crosses to great effect. We might see Pogrebnyak pulling away to the back post and dropping into space between the central defenders and full-backs. From there he could either get some shots on target or provide lay-offs for supporting attackers.

Set-pieces will obviously be one of the visitors’ main hopes of scoring a goal.

For a team fighting relegation and with a new manager in charge, it wouldn’t be surprising if the focus is on keeping things tight at the back. Packing the centre of the pitch and forcing the Gunners wide is a tactic that has worked for many teams. Whether Reading can pull it off for the whole of 90 minutes remains to be seen. Their defensive record and the previous two defeats to Arsenal this season suggest the Royals will struggle, but at this stage of the season you never know what an extra ounce of motivation can produce.

Needless to say, this is a must-win fixture for the Gunners. On paper it’s an easy game. Reading have 5 points from 15 away games with just 1 win and 2 draws. But I have a feeling the hosts will feel some pressure and that could bring the dreaded handbrake into play. Reading could grow in confidence and the home crowd might become restless if the players lack a bit of confidence or we see the effects of internationals (which to me is not a completely convincing excuse) and they just can’t find the right tempo.

That said, Arsenal will have a good chance of getting all three points if they don’t gift a goal or two to the opponents. Cohesive defensive work seen in the previous games has to continue but at the same time the players will have to find a way to take more risks against a team that is likely to prioritize defending. Throughout the season there has been a struggle to find the right balance between attack and defence. In the previous two wins it was more about keeping things tight at the back and taking the chances when they came. This time around Arsenal will have to take more initiative and force the play.

The news of Diaby’s long term injury was disheartening, and Wenger will be without some other regulars like Wilshere and Walcott while Gibbs’ availability is doubtful, but the Frenchman has enough players available to put out a very strong team while retaining a couple of offensive options on the bench.

I have a feeling Fabianksi will retain his place as will Koscielny (unless he’s picked up some niggle with the national team). Jenkinson could make way for Sagna.

Will Cazorla play centrally or will Arsene bring Rosicky back into the starting eleven and move the Spaniard wide? I’d prefer the latter option.

Walcott’s absence also brings another decision into the picture. One of Podolski, Gervinho, and Oxlade-Chamberlain might start if Rosicky plays. Two of them might get a chance if Cazorla is the attacking midfielder.

I’d like to see,

Fabianksi – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Rosicky, Ramsey – Cazorla, Giroud, Podolski.

That team might be a tad short on pace but it has more players who can combine in tight spaces. Against an opponent that is likely to focus on defending this ability can be crucial. Intelligence and understanding might be better attributes than speed in such a game.

It would be foolhardy to make any predictions given the topsy-turvy nature of the season thus far but, with Spurs visiting Swansea and Chelsea playing away to Southampton, Arsenal really can give themselves a chance to make up some lost ground with a home win.

P.S. – Those with an interest in numbers might find this analysis of home and away form of Premier League teams over the last five seasons quite enjoyable.

Swansea 0 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

March 17, 2013

Wenger made three changes to the starting line-up from the Bayern win. Monreal came in for Gibbs, Diaby for Ramsey, and Oxlade-Chamberlain for Rosicky. I was a little concerned when I saw that eleven as it seemed Arsenal were at least a player short in the will-keep-and-rotate-the-ball department, particularly considering Swansea had an extra technical ball playing midfielder with Michu playing as striker.

The first real chance of the game fell to Oxlade-Chamberlain who found space on the left and was easily able to skip past Rangel’s challenge in the box. The youngster failed to hit the target with his shot grazing the bar.

Apart from that the first 20 minutes of the game belonged to Swansea. They completely suffocated Arsenal and stopped the visitors from building their attacks from the back. This is very clear from the passing stats during this period.

All passes comparison first 20 mins

Final third passes comparison first 20 mins

It is not every day that the Gunners get out-passed to that extent. It’s interesting to note that Swansea attempted over 200 passes in the first 20 minutes. They just gave a lot during that period with intense pressing, excellent organization, and superb ball circulation.

This also gave them greater dominance in the final third. Rangel and Michu failed to hit the target when very well placed. Those were the chances that Laudrup must be regretting. A lead at that stage would really have tested Arsenal’s confidence.

After about 20 minutes till the end of the half, Arsenal started growing into the game with Diaby and Cazorla seeing a lot more of the ball. Possession was still marginally dominated by the hosts but the two sides were much closer.

20 to 45 min passing comparison

And now it was the visitors who were started to get into advanced areas whereas the hosts saw more of the ball in their own half.

Final third passes comparison 20 to 45 mins

In fairnes though, neither side created many noteworthy chances.

The second half had a similar theme. Again Swansea had more of the ball but it was in deeper zones.

All passes comparison 2nd half

Final third passing comparion 2nd half

There was only a five minute portion in the second period, roughly between mins 55 and 60, when Swansea had some attacking impetus.

Final third passes comparison 55 to 60 mins

It was during this period that Michu missed a good chance when free at the edge of the box, Hernandez went close with a long distance effort, and then had his shot blocked at the back post.

Despite their suffocating control in the early part of the game, Swansea weren’t able to create as many chances as such domination usually results in. Arsenal’s organization and discipline played it’s part for sure but the hosts also missed Michu in his more effective role in the hole. With his deployment as a striker, the Swans missed a target man as well as a clever player in the hole. This made things a tad easier for the Gunners.

Wenger’s team also did a very good job of denying space to the opponents who just couldn’t take players on in the attacking areas to make things happen. In contrast, for most of the game, Arsenal were able to create small openings in tight spaces and looked more like the side that would get a goal. Successful take-ons were part of most of the chances they created.

Take ons comparison

That said, it took two good substitutions from Wenger to finally make the difference. Diaby had a decent outing but he wasn’t able to bring the attacking players into the game as often as he should have. Oxlade-Chamberlain too had some impressive individual moments but his combination play was distinctly average. Wenger took off two of his most ineffective players and brought on Ramsey and Gervinho. Neither would win the popularity stakes at the moment but they bring a different tactical mindset to the team. Their presence and movement created better angles for the team.

To be fair to those who’d been taken off, the goal did have an element of luck and wasn’t really a great combination move with the substitutes playing a big part.

I thought Arsenal might have committed a foul when they won the ball back from Dyer. Then when Giroud got in the way of the ball reaching Ramsey, it appeared that the chance was gone. Somehow Monreal found a way to sneak the ball between two lunging defenders and a diving goalie. Was it deliberate or did he just scuff his shot? Hard to tell but it was the kind of game where luck was going to play some part.

Wenger summed it up succinctly,

…they defended well as well. We defended well. It was a game of defensive stability. We just needed an opening somewhere. It was down to the team who scored the first today.

In the preview, I’d mentioned the feeling that Arsenal would need two goals to win this game. That wasn’t the case in the end but I doubt many fans would have felt comfortable till Gervinho scored in injury time. It was a quick break with good work from Cazorla, Giroud, and Ramsey in the build-up. The Ivorian was again a touch fortunate with his finish as a Keeper of Vorm’s quality normally saves shots that close to his body. But I don’t think too many people will grudge him that goal.

It was a much closer game than the 0-2 score line suggests, just as the reverse fixture was. Swansea might feel they deserved something for their effort but ultimately they just didn’t have the quality in the final third. Zero shots on target won’t win many points.

Individual Performances:

Fabianksi: Another good composed performance. His best and possibly only real save of the game came from a well-placed shot by a marginally offside Michu. Distribution could use some work.

Jenkinson: Continued his good form from the previous game. Apart from a calamitous pass across the face of his penalty box, there weren’t any noticeable mistakes from the youngster. His movement and passing the the attacking areas was useful.

Mertesacker: Oddly enough, he had a fairly uneventful game. Wasn’t able to get tight to Michu when the Spaniard turned and shot after Jenkinson’s mistake but other than that he had a trouble free night. Was steady with the passing but had very few duels, tackles, or clearances to make.

Koscielny: Was a bit more busier than Mertesacker as he had to make some covering runs in behind and a couple of useful tackles. Swansea engaged him in a few aerial duels but they didn’t really have Bayern’s ability to win knock-ons and build attacks.

Monreal: Guess he should get the MotM for the vital goal and a controlled performance on the flank. Nothing fancy, nothing daft. Was reliable on the ball and took up good positions. Could possibly have done better when Rangel got in behind. The view of many fans might have been different had the opposing full-back scored the first goal.

I thought the defenders were under pressure in the opening 20 minutes or so but did well to hold a good shape. There were a couple of big chances conceded so there is  room for improvement but given some of the hara-kiri we’ve seen in the recent past this seemed like further steps in the right direction.

Arteta: Seems to have lost something, I can’t put my finger on it yet but he isn’t able to bring the ball forward as consistently as he used to. Maybe teams have realized he’s the main guy for the job and have been pressing him effectively. Passing figures remain impressive, work rate is unquestionable, as is his positional and tactical awareness, but he’s not quite at the level we’ve seen from him in the past.

Cazorla: Was involved with virtually everything Arsenal did going forward. Simply superb in that regard. His ability to hold on to the ball and create space in tight areas was very useful. Even in the build-up to the first goal he took a couple of defenders out of position with his run. There remains a tendency to shoot when teammates are better placed but this won’t go away overnight. Is probably another candidate for the MotM.

Diaby: There were glimpses of the old Diaby when he strode past opponents or simply dominated his zone on the pitch, but it was just that, glimpses. Passing was steady but not the kind that fostered attacks. Positioning and choices seemed to be on the conservative side and when he did venture forward he either ran out of ideas or couldn’t find the execution. Still very rusty.

The midfield didn’t have an outstanding game to be honest, but it was a hard working display that was sufficient to get the points and another clean sheet.

Walcott: Struggled to get into the game as Swansea denied him space. Made some interesting runs but there was no one in the midfield who could play early balls. Maybe a little out of the blue, but Song’s contribution from deep in making Walcott effective last season came to mind. Might have to work on his runs and choices in order to link with the midfield style that we will see for the rest of this season.

Giroud: Was the target of a number of long balls but Arsenal didn’t really know how to play that game. Work rate was again very good and I like the way he tries to move all over the pitch to get involved with the play. Lay-offs and attempts to link were slightly better than some of his previous efforts as the chances for Cazorla in the 19th and 52nd minute, and the pre-assist for the second goal show. Also picked up a good assist after unwittingly getting in the way of Ramsey getting an open shot at goal.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Hit the bar twice and had a couple of other impressive moments but on the whole he remains a work-in-progress from a tactical point of view. Doesn’t quite know how to get involved or the choices to make on and off the ball. There were times when he picked the wrong pass or moved blindly into a crowded space when better options were available.

The forwards made a limited contribution but Giroud was involved in both the goals and his incessant efforts to improve are commendable.

Subs: Gervinho’s movement was impressive but he still looks shorn of confidence. Hopefully, the goal will help. Ramsey again showed his versatility all over the pitch. Gibbs didn’t have much to do but it was good to see him fit to take on the field.

Wenger: Good work in defence continues but there’s a long way to go still. The process of finding a balance between attack and defence is also ongoing. His team haven’t been at their outstanding best in attack despite a couple of hugely impressive two-goal away wins. Rotations and substitutions have worked well, credit for those choices.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Swansea

March 16, 2013

In a survey organized by the League Managers Association, Laudrup has been voted coach of the year and Michu the signing of the season. The Spanish midfielder has already proven to be a thorn in Arsenal’s side scoring three of Swansea’s four goals against the Gunners in their three encounters this season.

The manner in which Michu has scored his goals against Arsenal is worth recalling. In their shocking 0-2 win at the Emirates, the Spaniard scored his first by playing a deft one-two with Luke Moore after finding the ball in a great deal of space ahead of a fairly high, disorganized, and indecisive Arsenal line. He made matters worse by latching on to Jenkinson’s mistake around the centre line before producing another composed finish.

His goal in the 2-2 draw in the FA Cup again came against a high Arsenal line that could not deal with the second ball. Koscielny lost the physical duel and went to ground, Mertesacker was caught flat-footed and just didn’t have the pace to recover.

While Arsenal’s defensive efforts against Bayern were commendable, it will be interesting to see how players like Jenkinson, Mertesacker, and Koscielny perform against Swansea.

The sale of Danny Graham might work in Arsenal’s favour, particularly if Luke Moore misses the game through injury. Michu performs better when he plays off a leading striker as he takes up very good positions just in front of the central defenders and times his runs wonderfully. He also has excellent ability to combine with clever teammates when opponents play a high line.

Although he doesn’t become a bad player when pushed further up, Swansea’s signing of the season does lose some of his qualities when he has to play as the central striker. In such a case he doesn’t get as many chances to run at the opposition goal. However, if Arsenal continue to drop deep as they did against Bayern, Michu will get plenty of opportunities to get into the penalty box and do his thing, i.e. find space and finish chances.

Too much attention on one player can at times make things easier for his teammates. The Gunners will have to avoid focussing all their attention on the threat posed down the middle because Swansea have some very tricky and creative wide players in their ranks. Dyer, Hernandez, and Routledge can all provide assists and score goals. De Guzman’s forward movement from midfield can also be an attacking option for the Swans.

Considering the possibility that the Welsh side will not be playing with the metaphorical handbrake on as Bayern seemed to, it’s quite likely that Arsenal will have to produce a better all-round defensive game on Saturday than they had to in midweek. If Swansea get players free in the attacking third even half as often as the Germans did, they will succeed where the Bavarians failed and Arsenal will not keep a clean sheet.

In order to produce a stronger team performance Arsenal will need greater control of the midfield than they had the Allianz Arena, something that is patently not beyond their abilities. It will be interesting to see if they continue their attempts to press higher up the pitch. To be honest, I am not completely sure what Arsenal’s plan was in Germany as they pressed high up the pitch but were also very quick to drop back on to the edge of their box when Bayern moved beyond that pressing. While it worked in that game, we’ll have to see if such an approach can be successful over a long period against different types of offensive threats before forming any conclusions.

Irrespective of the choice of defensive tactics employed, the central defenders must not be left in a 2-v-2 with opposing attackers as they were in the 0-2 defeat at the Emirates in the reverse fixture or more recently at White Hart Lane. That is just an open invitation to trouble, particularly when the defenders are unclear as regards their choices and positioning.

In defence, Swansea are a fairly well-organized unit with every player pulling his weight. That said, it’s worth noting the fact that their 19 goals conceded figure at home puts them a modest 14th in the list of home defences (Joint with Arsenal). They’ve been able to offset it by scoring nearly 2 goals a game at home, which has also led to some very entertaining games. The Welsh side are more vulnerable at home where they seem to take greater offensive initiative (their away defence is the third best in the League!) but they remain hard to beat as United, Chelsea, and Liverpool have all failed to win at the Liberty Stadium.

In fact, Swansea have only lost 2 home games all season and that does highlight the nature of Arsenal’s challenge. It is of course, also an opportunity as Spurs are the next team to visit this ground and could potentially drop points.

I have a feeling Arsenal will need at least 2 goals in order to win this game. And they won’t score with their only two shots on target this time around. That means the creative players will have to find ways to combine with the forwards and ensure a steady supply of chances. Rosicky’s drive through the middle, Cazorla’s raking diagonals, Walcott’s runs and positioning, and Giroud’s lay-offs and flick-ons can all make a difference if the execution is up to scratch. The Gunners will probably also need more of an offensive contribution from their full-backs who performed admirable conservative roles in Munich.

Arsene said he’d like to rotate his side a bit for this game but he doesn’t have that many options. Monreal will come in for Gibbs. Vermaelen could come in for Mertesacker if the German needs a break but I highly doubt that will be the case. Diaby’s presence in midfield could be useful but as we’ve seen this season, the Frenchman’s inclusion could prove to be a big gamble. Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho could also be considered, particularly if Wenger feels the need to rest Walcott.

Given the imminent international break and the limited number of games remaining after that, I think Wenger should go with his strongest line-up on current form.

I’d like to see,

Fabianksi – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Rosicky, Ramsey – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.

For over two years now I’ve maintained that most of Arsenal’s problems are not down to issues with individual players. Vermaelen and Szczesny have made some mistakes in the recent past but their absence does not guarantee an error-free outing for the Gunners.

It is imperative that the defenders are all governed by a common tactical brain and their choices work in unison. Similarly, they will  need support from the six players in front of them whether it’s in terms of putting pressure on the ball, or tracking back, or something else given the game situation.

And they have to do this without sacrificing offensive bite. This balance has proven hard to find and sustain this season.

Normally, a win against a team like Bayern, and that too in their own backyard, would be a massive confidence boost. But this season we just can’t be sure when the next twist in Arsenal’s Jekyll and Hyde tale will appear. Fingers crossed.

Bayern Munich 0 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

March 14, 2013

Pride is the key word tonight. Wenger said he was proud of the team. Ramsey thought the players did themselves proud. It was probably one of the most, if not the most, spontaneous thoughts that occurred to many Gooners after the game including this blogger,

The bottom line is still that Bayern qualified and the Gunners didn’t. You could say this was too little too late and it wouldn’t be completely wrong. But there was something in the performance that justified the manager’s belief in his players. This was the first time a team stopped the Bavarians from scoring this season and only the second occasion a team has beaten them at home.

As I said in that tweet, at the very least it showed the difference between the sides was not as big as many had declared it to be. Nevertheless, there was a difference and I can’t say the Germans didn’t deserve to go through.

Before the first game I wrote,

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?

The Munich part of the answer was a resounding ‘Yes’. Alas! it wasn’t enough. The mistakes in the first-leg were too expensive. Wenger knows this as well as any fan,

When you look at the game tonight you have many regrets from the first game. Qualifying is 180 minutes and in the first 90 we were not at our best. I believe that it was very feasible to knock out Bayern. We got that feeling when we watched the first game again. We had a plan that we respected tonight, it went for us on some occasions but at least we have shown that we have the quality to be there.

The game itself was a very cagey affair. I’d mentioned the point about Bayern being cautious and respecting the Gunners in the preview. An early goal made them all the more wary.

And what a goal it was. Cazorla dropping deep and a tad central to receive the ball. Ramsey making a clever vertical run that was found by the Spaniard. The Welshman’s head-up square pass for Rosicky and Little Mozart’s deft touch for Walcott were all immensely enjoyable. Theo’s cross went through Dante’s legs and Giroud smashed it home from close range.

It was the kind of goal that had an air or preparedness about it. On the other hand, one got a feeling the hosts were caught unawares in that early period. As the game went on they managed their shape really well and prevented such moves from being created on a consistent basis.

The rest of the first half was a largely dull affair with Heynckes’ side dominating possession but finding it hard to break down an Arsenal defence that was consistently dropping deep and crowding out the central areas. Bayern often created overlaps on the flanks, particularly their right, and had men in good positions to deliver a telling cross, but Arsenal got enough bodies in the right areas to prevent open shots at goal. The hosts were largely limited to hopeful and/or rushed shots from the edge of or outside the box.

Their tentativeness also played it’s part as it countered the usually clinical nature of their finishing. One could argue that if they didn’t have the mental dilemma caused by the luxury of such a big first-leg lead and the pressure of an early Arsenal goal, they’d have done better with the chances they’d created. A team does not get into the position Bayern are in the Bundesliga or the Champions League without knowing how to score.

In that regard, while it can be argued that Arsenal’s defence worked, it also felt that the Gunners got a fair amount of luck. Again it was something Wenger touched upon, “… it went for us on some occasions.”

The Frenchman also talked about pressing the hosts high up the pitch.

We played very high up, we tried to block them and [make them] play through our lines.

Certainly, Arsenal’s attempts to press up the pitch were noticeable throughout the game. It’s tough to say it was a well-executed plan as Bayern often played past it with ease, but there were enough occasions when the Germans were forced into hoofing the ball forward to say that it did put them off their rhythm.

Pressing up the pitch as a cohesive unit has not worked for Wenger’s side. I first noticed this in the away win at Liverpool and have subsequently observed and discussed it in many games. This time it was a little better but I still don’t see it anywhere near the level required for consistent performances at the highest level.

The second-half was more open and both sides created better chances. But for Robben’s selfishness or the general tentativeness of their play, Bayern could have troubled Fabianski more than they did. Heyneckes will be disappointed his side didn’t score in the second period.

In attack, the Gunners scored with their only two shots on target. Admittedly, Fabianski was the busier keeper. Neuer hardly had anything to do except picking the ball out of his net – or sleeping over it – and kicking it long on occasion.

It reminded me of some games where relatively smaller teams have frustrated the Gunners and nicked a point or three on the break. In such cases Wenger usually talks about the difference in chances  created and the fact that the opponents scored with their only shots on target. Wonder why no one put this question to him in the press conference, would have loved to hear his response/spin.

I thought Arsenal’s passing was too rushed and sloppy. Too many transitions and general build-ups broke down because of hurried and/or misplaced passes that shouldn’t be going awry. Pressure and lack of confidence might have been a factor. It could also be that Arsenal were trying to play it forward really quickly and didn’t get their understanding right. Whatever the reason, there can be no denying the fact that the number and quality of chances created were not enough to deserve progression.

Set-piece delivery was disappointing, more so considering the nervy nature of the hosts’ defence. That corner showed what havoc better delivery from other free-kicks could have caused.

Arsenal’s wing play wasn’t too good either. Bayern’s ability to create space and find a free man in the wider areas was patently superior. They were also better at closing that space down when defending. There are many tactical difference between the two sides that won’t go away simply because of this result. Those differences manifest themselves in the form of their respective performances over longer periods of time and it’s obvious the Germans have done much better in the recent past.

Yes, there was that chance for Gervinho. And Giroud could have done better in moments that had the potential to be decisive on more than one occasion. On another day the Gunners might have found the third goal. But Bayern fans will be quick to remind us that on another day the Bavarians would have buried one or more of their own chances too!

I’d ended the preview to this match with the following words,

Arsenal are better than the side that lost 1-3 at home against a brilliant Bavarian unit. The key questions are – Do they themselves believe that to be true? And can discover that completely different animal?

The Gunners have answered these questions in the affirmative, now it’s time to build on this form for the rest of the season.

Individual Performances:

Fabianski: Made a number of decent saves but none that seemed otherworldly, should thank his teammates for protecting him well. Decision making was generally good as was his catching/handling of the ball and positioning between the sticks. An odd occasion when Muller’s powerful drive squirmed under his arms comes to mind, but other than that it was a fairly convincing display, particularly from a man who’s been out for so long. Well done Luke.

Jenkinson: One of his better games without a doubt. Bayern didn’t overload his flank as often but the youngster did well in his individual battles. Defensive positioning was good, as was his decision making. Some of his covering work was also commendable, like the time he darted across to put pressure on Robben who was clean through. Even in attack there were a few moments when the full-back impressed with his energy, determination, and choices, although not as consistently as he did at the back.

Mertesacker: Had a good game in and around the box. Sensed and dealt with danger on a number of occasions. Passing was efficient but largely very safe. His presence did force the back line to drop back rather quickly, which made it hard to sustain pressure higher up the pitch. The time Robben got in behind, for instance, showed his weakness as he was nowhere near a covering position once Koscielny was sucked into a duel with Muller.

Koscielny: Scored a good goal. Another one who had a decent defensive game in and around the penalty box. Did make a couple of mistakes slightly higher up the pitch that could have been costly.

Gibbs: Much more conservative than he normally is. Often ended up defending against two players or more as he lacked support, particularly from Cazorla in the first half. Did enough with his speed and positioning to slow down certain moves. Overall a decent effort despite many of Bayern’s chances coming from his flank.

Arsenal tend to concede the wings and crowd the centre. It’s not something new. In this game they did it fairly effectively as the central defenders dropped deep together and the defensive line was consistent. They also got decent support from the midfielders, at least in terms of having the bodies in the right places. Overall a respectable defensive effort but not the kind on which major challenges can be built.

Arteta: Was disappointed with some of his fouls, particularly late in the game when his experience should have shown through. Wasn’t able to bring the ball out from defence under pressure and passing wasn’t at the level we normally see in the Premier League as the hosts were clever and persistent while pressing him. Decent supporting role in front of the back four.

Rosicky: Wasn’t really able to bring the forwards into play as often as one would have hoped. Bayern didn’t give him much space and he wasn’t able to drop into holes to influence the play in an attacking sense. Also lost the ball quite often for an experienced player. Did have a few good moments when he was able to turn past opponents or almost picked incisive passes but those were few and far between.

Ramsey: There were some very visible sloppy passes from the Welshman that had me cursing at the screen. But it was really a phenomenal effort from Ramsey. Saw a lot of the ball as he made himself available all over the pitch. According to UEFA he covered 10280 metres in his time on the pitch, which when extrapolated to 94 minutes comes to 13421, a staggering number. Luis Gustavo was next best with 12059 over the whole game followed by Arteta with 11450 and Martinez clocking 11001. This effort meant that he was able to help the defence on a consistent basis and he also tried his best in to aid the attack, including a vital contribution in the build-up to the first goal. He still has a long way to go and much to learn in this role but the raw material and the heart is definitely there.

Cazorla: Played a part in the first goal and was influential in some attacking moves, particularly towards the end. But he wasn’t able to express his attacking abilities as well as most fans know he can and wanted to see. Useful assist from the corner but disappointing set-piece delivery otherwise. Didn’t really offer sufficient defensive cover to Gibbs.

The midfield struggled for large patches of the game when Bayern pressed them intensely and denied any sort of space to turn or run into. If they got past one player there was always a covering teammate ready with a fresh defensive challenge. The midfield players also rushed their game a bit and couldn’t quite show the composure we see in many Premier League games. This minimized the attacking threat that Arsenal could pose. Extra effort to help the defence made up for it in the context of this game.

Walcott: Decent assist for the first goal but a largely disappointing anonymous game. His technical weaknesses and inability to adapt to clever positional defending meant that he saw very little of the ball and lost it quite often. Nevertheless, offered more than he did when playing down the middle in the reverse fixture, which just seems like a tactical blunder in hindsight.

Giroud: Had a good goal to show for his efforts but another one who got more wrong than he did right. Work rate is there but his choices, anticipation, and execution are below par. As I’ve said before though, he’s more like a youngster with just one big season in a smaller league to show for experience rather than a proven striker. Another one who has the raw material and the heart. Has to show he can learn quickly.

The technical weaknesses of the forwards and some of their choices on and off the ball broke down a number of attacks in promising positions. But they can improve if they keep working, already there is more to their game than we’ve seen in the past.

Subs: Gervinho had a couple of lively moments and almost scored. Oxlade-Chamberlain won the corner that resulted in the second goal and, in general, had more to offer in the tighter spaces on the right than Walcott did.

Wenger: Some bold decisions like leaving Vermaelen and Szczesny out of the line-up seemed well-justified. Could probably have brought Walcott off earlier but that’s the kind of decision that would get criticism either way. Bringing Cazorla into a central area also seemed like a missed trick. On the whole a strong response to the critics but one game does not a season make.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Bayern Munich

March 13, 2013

It seems to me that this game has more of a psychological value than anything else. Yes, there is a remote chance that Arsenal could still qualify, but I doubt even Wenger will genuinely believe in his team’s chances at the Allianz Arena.

The Gunners could still come back with a respectable result though and it is a performance capable of deserving such a result that Arsene will seek from his squad. The Frenchman’s made all the right noises about attitude, commitment, and a bit of luck. Play with freedom, try to break Bayern’s sense of security, a feeling of invincibility, if you will, and see what happens.

In theory, that’s absolutely the right approach to take. The only problem is, the Arsenal teams of recent years have not responded well to major disappointments. If they go for it in this game and get picked off on the counter – let’s not forget just how clinical and tactically astute Bayern were in the first-leg, and indeed have been throughout the season – it could really have a negative impact on the only meaningful goal that they have remaining. Is it worth going for a miraculous result or is it better to play a clever game in order to conserve energy and mental strength for other challenges ahead?

As far as tactics are concerned, the preview and post-match report from the first-leg cover pretty much everything I have to say. Bayern are about as tactically complete a team as I’ve seen in recent years.

The Germans received many flattering compliments in light of their impressive victory at the Emirates, most of them fully deserved I have to say, but few noticed that they conceded possession to Arsenal in that game and controlled the game defensively after taking an early lead. They made it seem effortless while the Gunners huffed and puffed without really going anywhere. That affected the perceptions of many watching the game but you could see how cautious Heynckes’ side were.

It will be interesting to see if they take the same approach at home in front of their own fans. The onus is on Arsenal as the visitors will need a minimum of three goals. Will Bayern simply invite pressure and rely on their clinical counter-attacking skills to complement their defensive organization and work ethic?

Will Wenger send his team out so fired up that they can raise the tempo to match their efforts against Milan? It would be popular among certain sections of the fans but the manager knows it can’t work.

We can have a real go without being silly. We can’t think that the game lasts 30 minutes and throw everything forward from the first minute on. We want to be positive but also intelligent.

Against the Italians, at this stage last season, the Gunners ran out of steam after the hour mark and one got a feeling the visitors would have found a way to score if they needed it. At 3-0 down they still had an extra gear when the hosts were completely drained. Such an approach in this game, against a side as wily as this Bayern outfit, would simply spell disaster.

Arsenal have to find a way to attack without leaving their defence exposed. Sounds simple enough but as we’ve seen time and again, it’s as hard to do as it’s easy to write.

Wenger has talked about having an ambitious plan and the ten days he’s had to prepare for the game. It sounds interesting but could just as easily be deemed ominous.

Without Wilshere and Podolski Arsenal lose some attacking edge. But there is enough quality in side to still ask some genuine questions of this much-vaunted Bayern defence provided they get a reliable defensive base to build it on. Offensive players cannot express their abilities consistently and effectively if every other transition puts their own goal under threat.

The manager has an unenviable task in selecting the starting eleven for such a game. I am not sure what he’ll do but Vermaelen, Cazorla, Arteta, Walcott, and Giroud are likely to be on the pitch at kick-off. Gibbs will start if he is fit and Fabianski could find himself between the sticks.

That leaves four other slots up for grabs. I doubt many will disagree with the inclusion of Rosicky. Jenkinson would be the orthodox choice for the right-back slot but Ramsey could do a job there in a more ambitious line-up. With Ribery likely to miss this game it might be a gamble worth taking.

Given Wenger’s selections thus far, Mertesacker also seems a certainty in the starting eleven. I’d prefer Koscielny, particularly if the Gunners want to play higher up the pitch.

The final position could be a tossup between the likes of Diaby, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gervinho, and Arshavin. Neither is a genuinely inspiring choice given their current form and/or fitness states, but one of them is likely to get the nod.

I’d go with,

Fabianksi – Ramsey, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Rosicky, Diaby – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.

That team has enough players who can circulate the ball under pressure. Diaby’s presence can help the defence and his loping stride could be helpful while defending counter-attacks or even in replacing some of the drive that Wilshere’s absence will cost. Of course, that’s assuming we see the best of Diaby. We could just as easily find a lumbering, dawdling individual who is neither here, nor there.

Gervinho on the flank with Cazorla in midfield is also a tempting option. Again, those who’ve followed the Ivorian’s Arsenal career will be able to imagine the pros and cons of that selection quite easily.

Irrespective of who Wenger selects, I hope the players go out and enjoy their game. Forget about the result and hopefully the handbrake will be lifted. Who knows it might even help the defence as they play instinctively rather than second-guessing themselves at vital moments.

Arsenal are better than the side that lost 1-3 at home against a brilliant Bavarian unit. The key questions are – Do they themselves believe that to be true? And can discover that completely different animal?

Tottenham 2 – 1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

March 5, 2013

Before going ahead with my views of the game I want to share a link to Gary Neville’s analysis of the high line and off side tactics employed by both Arsenal and Spurs. I found it very interesting. Although I don’t fully agree with the opinion offered, there is much to learn from what Neville said.

Coming to the game itself, Wenger’s selection was pretty much along expected lines but Villas-Boas did surprise me by moving Bale into a central role with Sigurdsson on the left. It’s tough to guess what his exact reasons were but Bale’s recent success through the middle, his goals against Arsenal in the last few games, and perhaps a need to give Assou-Ekotto some defensive help could all have been factors.

The nature of the game was partly as I’d expected but also a bit different. Tottenham did press hard in the first minute but the Gunners seemed prepared to match that intensity. It made the game more fast-paced that I’d expected. The two teams also stayed higher up the pitch than I’d thought they would.

As a result the game was compressed in the central third and there were few chances of note in the opening half-hour or so. Both sides got into promising positions in this period but couldn’t quite find the final ball or the finish. For instance, Giroud was almost in behind but wasn’t quick enough when it came to controlling the pass and getting his shot away. At the other end, Bale almost got on the end of a Sigurdsson ball, which proved to be a precursor of things to come.

Then it happened. Chaos in defence. Two goals in quick succession. The worst part being the ease with which these were created and finished.

Gary Neville does an exceptional job of identifying many relevant details but I have a feeling his analysis is based on the way Manchester United defend or many other British teams do. I’m not sure Wenger has the same thought process because the choices made by different players and the gaps that appear between the defenders and the midfield as a result of those choices just don’t correlate with the defensive approach that teams like United have, or the kind of things that Neville is talking about.

It’s difficult to explain this without the help of video analysis and I’m not in a position to make gifs right now just to explain things that we’ve discussed on numerous occasions, but I’ll use a couple of snapshots to make some observations.

Midfielders too close to each other

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The above image is frozen just after Dawson has beaten Giroud to a duel in order to head Szczesny’s long ball away. Arteta can be seen attacking the ball and duelling with Dembele.

A few questions can be raised – Just how close and narrow are the Arsenal midfielders? Remember they don’t have control of possession here. Is any of them aware Bale and Adebayor are in a 2-v-2 with the central defenders? Why does Arteta have to go into a duel where he loses his balance for a second or so and doesn’t really get control of possession? Why don’t Arsenal win the first, second, or the third ball even with so many players in the vicinity?

It’s interesting to note the clever lob that Dembele played just after this tussle with Arteta. He knew the positions of Bale and Adebayor and played a virtually blind pass into space knowing one of the two had a good chance of getting onto it.

Walcott had made a run across the defence in the hope of latching on to a flick-on so he too is in a central position. Not the positions of Assou-Ekotto and Sigurdsson. Also see where Monreal is vis-a-vis Lennon on the top left of the image. Their positions are important because it makes us wonder what Jenkinson was doing on the pitch.

Jenkinson not helping anyone

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Note Jenkinson’s position at the bottom left of the image. This moment has been frozen just after Bale headed the ball towards Sigurdsson. The youngster could easily have taken up a position parallel to that of Monreal’s and that would have made it much harder for Bale to play that pass. Or he could have tucked in closer to the central defenders so that one of them, Mertesacker most probably, could have stepped up to close the Icelandic midfielder down before he got a chance to run at the defence.

Did you see Wilshere’s reaction when Sigurdsson got the ball? It’s almost as if he’s baffled Sigurdsson is in so much space as he looks around to see where Walcott is. Arsenal usually defend with five across the midfield and the central defenders tend to remain narrow. But in this instance, Wilshere should have raced out to put pressure on the ball instead of wondering where Walcott was.

A lot of the above observations – the way Arteta attacks the ball, the slowness of Ramsey’s reaction to a momentarily loose ball that Dembele makes his own, Jenkinson’s position and decision making, and Wilshere’s bemused reaction – point to gaps in the way the Gunners think about defending.

Neville’s point was that the defenders should have continued dropping back and getting into a more compact narrower shape around the edge of the box. I’m not convinced they could have done that effectively given the gaps between the full-backs and the central defenders. Odds are Spurs would have found a way to score even if Mertesacker and Vermaelen continued dropping back. We have seen far too many goals scored against Arsenal where the central defenders drop back and the midfielders are seen forlornly chasing back facing their own goal.

There were about six or seven different actions by at least four different players that could have avoided that goal. And that is the frustrating part about Arsenal, there are just too many errors.

Similar analysis can be done for the second goal but I’m not getting into it.

Those were Tottenham’s only two shots on target in the first-half and both resulted in goals. The Gunners didn’t really test Lloris in that period.

In the second-half Spurs eased off and played on the counter attack. They did create two or three very good chances on the break but could not add to their tally. Bale, Sigurdsson, and Defoe all guilty of wasting good chances.

The Gunners got one back early on through a somewhat fortuitous deflection on a set-piece. Nevertheless, the quality of delivery, Mertesacker’s run, and Bale’s failure to read the danger should be noted.

Arsenal also got into numerous promising positions in the second half but their technical qualities and finishing let them down. Too often the touch in the final third was poor with Walcott, Giroud, and Podolski late on, all failing to convert good attacking situations into quality chances/goals.

I don’t think anyone can complain about desire or attitude in this game but that will probably not matter as there is enough else to grumble about. The problems with the defence are long standing issues related to defensive thought. Players seem genuinely confused to me at times and their errors a result of a lack of clarity and unified assessment of defensive situations. Unless they get to a stage where their choices and movements are controlled by one tactical brain they’ll keep on getting into a mess irrespective of who is actually on the field or seems apparently culpable.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Would be harsh to blame him for the goals but I have seen other keepers do better, particularly in situations like the first goal. Came out of his goal on a couple of occasions and got away with it but it was risky play.

Jenkinson: Made some good offensive runs and put some balls into dangerous areas. Defensively, he was lucky Bale rarely ventured that way and Sigurdsson wasn’t as hard an opponent to deal with. But it’s worth noting both goals originated from the space in front of him and his positioning was questionable at the very least.

Mertesacker & Vermaelen: Neville puts a lot of blame on the central defenders. I’m not sure they’re as much to blame because they were put into very difficult situations. They did well in most cases. That said, it did look like they were not on the same page and need better decision making. Good goal from the German. Vermaelen’s passing could have been more composed at times.

Monreal: Should have done much better for the second goal. Overall, it wasn’t a bad game from the left back as he wasn’t stretched up and down the pitch as much. A more controlled performance with limited attacking forays. Positioning and decision making were good for the most part. But you could also argue that one mistake has created a four point hole on the table.

The defenders looked really silly for the goals and there is definitely just cause to expect better but it would be like missing the forest for the trees if all the blame was placed on their shoulders.

Arteta: Should probably have stayed closer to the central defenders every time Bale stayed up the pitch. Steady game but he has had better days with his passing and defensive effort.

Wilshere: As I’ve noted before, a moment’s pause is lacking in his all-action style. There were times when he had the opportunity to play the attackers in but missed it as he was focussed on carrying the ball forward. His intentions are good and the quality is there but the maturity in decision making is not quite there, which can be costly to the team. Also needs better defensive awareness and consistency when dropping deep.

Ramsey: Did well to join the attack at times, like the tenacity shown to win the free-kick which resulted in the goal, or the moment when he almost connected with a Jenkinson cross. But defensively he wasn’t able to do enough. I don’t know what instructions were given to him but it was clear the defenders could have used more support from the Welshman.

Cazorla: Played some delightful cross-field passes. Wasn’t able to get into useful attacking positions as often as he would have liked in the first-half and couldn’t really find a way to break the Spurs defence in the second.

The midfielders weren’t able to support the defence or bring the attackers into play as often and as efficiently as they should have. Spurs were able to bypass them on a number of occasions to trouble the Arsenal defence and did well to read their intentions in attack.

Walcott: Made some interesting runs but didn’t receive the ball in the early part of the game. Could probably have stayed wider more often and waited for his chance to run given that Spurs weren’t too keen to drop back. Did get the ball in promising positions on a couple of occasions but his touch let him down. Decent delivery from the set-piece for the goal and also went close with a well-struck free-kick.

Giroud: The ideas were there, the effort was there, but the execution was lacking requisite precision. Also wasted some promising moments with overambitious shots or poor touches/passes.

It was disappointing to see the attack fail even when there was so much space for them to exploit. The technical weaknesses of both the forwards were apparent and influenced the result.

Subs: Rosicky looked lively and linked well with others. Podolski had a disappointing time in the final third.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven For The North London Derby

March 3, 2013

Every possible significance of this game – points, pride, confidence, etc. – has been discussed by many so I’ll stick to the relevant points about the nature of the football and the players involved.

Spurs are getting results this season where in the past they’ve usually faltered. While the common theory seems to be greater mental strength, I put it more down to the decisive contributions of Bale. Last season, Van Persie made the difference for Arsenal at times when no path to points seemed viable. The Welshman is doing the same for Tottenham this year.

In terms of their overall football Spurs have been good but not exactly special. Often they seem to lack ideas and potency in the final third before Bale finds a way through almost all on his own. That doesn’t mean one should jump to the other extreme and label them a one man team. Just like Arsenal weren’t a single weapon army last season, there is more to Tottenham than Bale, but the vital decisive moments have been coming from the Welshman’s left foot.

I expect Spurs will come out strongly in the opening 10-15 minutes. In that period of high energy, the hosts are likely to press high up the pitch with purpose and cohesion. If Arsenal make mistakes in that period they will pay the price just as they’ve done in some of the recent meetings between the sides when the Gunners have conceded the lead. And in this period, Bale alone won’t be a threat. Transitions from the centre of the pitch or counters from deeper positions can put any of Adebayor, Defoe, Holtby, or Lennon in good positions to score.

After a while, I’ll be very surprised if Arsenal don’t have periods of dominance in midfield. Spurs might ease off a bit after scoring or they might just slow down after a high energy initial burst. In this period the key factor will be the discipline and structure that Tottenham can display to protect their goal. Equally, Arsenal’s ability to combine and produce slick, high-tempo football will be a major aspect of the game. The visiting attackers will have to find ways to link with each other and the midfield. There are times when the Arsenal front three play as three isolated nodes. AVB will want his defence to keep them apart because once they come together some of Arsenal’s football can be electrifying.

Even during such a phase of midfield dominance, counter-attacks and set-pieces will continue to worry the Gunners, particularly if Bale is allowed to drift into spaces in front of the central defenders. As the stats zone piece on points out, Arteta’s role can be significant but I don’t think he can do it alone. Ramsey will have a big defensive role to play if he starts, and the central defenders will have to take more responsibility. Their tendency to drop back early creates big vertical gaps on the pitch at times. That’s exactly the kind of situation AVB will want to see developing and will play right into Tottenham’s hands.

As a unit, I think Arsenal have a more potent attack with different types of combinations and goalscorers. Spurs are still a work in progress on that front. But in terms of defensive structure, decision making, and individual reliability – and despite the goals conceded tallies of either side – it’s the hosts who have the upper hand. There are just too many unforced errors in Arsenal’s game at the moment. It’s linked, at least partly, with the confidence of the players and they have to find a way out of a negative cycle.

Wenger’s team selection for this game will be interesting. Hopefully, he won’t go with Walcott in the middle. Although the temptation to try it against Tottenham’s predictable initial burst of pressing (read high line) is undeniable, the odds of such a tactic succeeding are fairly low.

Arsene might also consider playing a midfielder on the right to support Jenkinson. In theory, it’s a tactic that makes sense but given the tendencies of the midfielders at his disposal, I don’t see it as a balance-fostering approach.

Walcott on the right with Jenkinson staying back seems the best option. The young full-back will have a tough time and will undoubtedly need support. Bale will fancy taking him on and attacking Mertesacker by cutting in from the left if Arteta and Co. do a good job of denying him space and time in the middle. Jenkinson’s ability to maintain the right spacing with Bale and his choices as regards closing down and dropping off will determine how easy or tough it is for the Welshman to express his talents.

In general, Arsenal’s inability to effectively block/close down shots from outside the box can be a constant source of concern.

On the other flank, Lennon V. Monreal can be an interesting battle. This could be the first major speed test for Arsenal’s latest signing. I don’t think the Spaniard is as quick as the Englishman so his decision making and positioning will be worth observing.

I think the Gunners will have to stay very compact vertically or the defenders will be woefully exposed.

We might see,

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

Diaby could add greater presence in midfield but he also has a tendency to completely switch off on occasion. Ramsey’s propensity to dawdle on the ball can be risky when Spurs are pressing intensely.

The Gunners have won only once in their last seven League visits to the Lane and are winless in their last four visits. The last Arsenal win in an away NLD (not counting the League Cup) came way back in 2007. It’s not a stat that can be dismissed easily. On the other hand, Tottenham have won once in their six games against the top six sides this season. Admittedly, four of those were away games, but even at home they could only draw against United and lost to Chelsea.

Interestingly, Tottenham are one of the few teams who have more away points than home ones. The difference is marginal and it’s partly down to the extra away game they’ve played, but when compared to the home and away form of other teams the difference is noteworthy. Spurs have only scored 20 goals in 13 home games. 10 other teams have scored more including the likes of Reading, Fulham, and West Ham. However, that might also be down to the fact that their attack doesn’t get as much space at home as they do in away games. Against the Gunners they should find enough opportunities to create chances.

A couple of Bale moments and/or unforced errors from Wenger’s side could hand this tie to the hosts. On the other hand, if they play to their potential the Gunners can take a point or three. Unfortunately, based on current evidence, the odds are likely to favour the former possibilities and it will be up the Arsenal players to prove people wrong. Can they do it again?