Arsenal 1 – 1 Manchester United: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

April 30, 2013

Before the game most Arsenal fans would have taken a draw against Manchester United, and the point against Ferguson’s side could still prove to be a useful one. The way I see it, if the Gunners fall short by a couple of points, I would look at many other games where they’ve not been at their best before looking at this one.

Wenger made a number of changes to the starting line-up and the fresher legs might have helped. Arsenal started the game at a frantic pace and it was enough to take the lead. After the game the Frenchman said the fast start was down to mental preparation. It could very well be, it was similar to the kind of initial bout of energy we saw against Bayern in Germany.

Arsenal’s goal looked fairly simple but it was pretty enjoyable with some interesting details. The fact that RvP gave the ball away leading to the transition must surely have worked as a temporarily soothing balm on a multitude of bitterly hurting Gooner hearts. I liked the way Podolski dropped into the space between the lines to receive the pass. That the Germans most noteworthy contribution came in the 2nd minute of the game remains a huge disappointment. More on that later.

Rosicky’s ability to beat Evans with  a drop of the shoulder, his perfectly weighted pass, and Walcott’s electric pace were also delightful to watch.

United’s defence was caught off-guard due to the speed of the transition. The gap between their defence and midfield was yawning, as was the distance between Evans and Evra. It wasn’t a good day for French full-backs and Evra’s sluggishness was also uncharacteristic. In fairness to him, it was a clear off-side and should have been given. It happened again towards the end of the first half when Podolski played the ball into Cazorla’s path but this time the ref’s assistant was alert to off-side.

Arsenal seemed in control for large periods of the first half. But as we’ve seen in this fixture before, Wenger’s side doesn’t create too many high quality chances despite creating an illusion of domination. Once United got into their defensive rhythm the Gunners were limited to shots from outside the box.

Apart from the goal, the only other genuinely exciting chance of the first half came from another quick transition when pressure high up the pitch resulted in a turnover. Ramsey made the wrong choice as he passed the ball to Podolski when Walcott was free. I doubt the Welshman even saw his English compatriot as things happened quickly. His choice would be inexplicable if he’d actually seen Theo with yards of space all around him.

The Gunners attempted over a 100 passes in the final third in the first half. The visitors only managed a third of that. However, in terms of chances both sides seemed fairly even, which highlighted Arsenal’s defensive frailties and United’s efficiency on the counter-attack.

Of course, the penalty was down to a big mistake (or two) by Sagna but United had created three other half decent chances. Two of those fell to Phil Jones while an RvP header was saved by Szczesny’s face. Ferguson’s side were playing on the counter-attack and made clever use of the space behind the full-backs, particularly Sagna, whenever they could. Phil Jones made well-timed runs into the box as he attacked the crosses.

The first half was also characterized by numerous technical mistakes like poor touches and sprayed passes by players from both sides who’re usually much more accomplished.

There were fewer of these in the second half and the visitors grew into the game as time went by, but it’s worth noting that United were less efficient when they saw a lot more of the ball. Before a couple of late counter-attacks, Rooney’s header from close range was the visitors’ only real attacking contribution. Arsenal’s defence looked a lot more secure when they had the support of other outfield players and didn’t have to deal with quick transitions.

Wenger made the obvious substitutions – Wilshere for Rosicky, Gervinho for Podolski, and Oxlade-Chamberlain for Ramsey (Sagna might have been the better candidate given his form in this game) – but, to be honest, there wasn’t enough firepower on the Arsenal bench to make a difference against such an opponent.

The Gunners just couldn’t work any combinations in the attacking third of the pitch to break the United defence down. There were many promising moments that were squandered as the players tried thinking on their feet and made suboptimal choices. Arsenal’s inefficient wing play was also easy for the visiting defence.

Podolski down the middle is an option I’ve wanted to see more off, but there is always the risk that the team won’t be able to adapt to his style without sufficient time. The German is the kind of player who can receive and pass the ball in tight spaces but he needs the ball at his feet and doesn’t always move around to offer himself. This really minimized the opportunities for working combinations with Podolski at the centre. The midfield’s inability to make third-person penetrating runs around him just as the German received the ball from another player also cuts out attacking options.

Giroud and Podolski have very different individual qualities and the other players will need some time to change their styles to suit the attributes of a different central striker. I think Wenger should persist with Podolski as long as the Frenchman is suspended. It might not excite the fans immediately but there is potential there that could be harnessed with some focused work in training. It has a bit of a risk for this season but could be useful practice for the next. In any case, it’s not like there is an overabundance of exciting options for that role.

I thought this game ended on a positive note because Arsenal didn’t concede from a counter-attack at the end. When the Gunners had some pressure in the United box and won successive corners late in the game, my main thought was not of them scoring one but conceding one on a quick break. It almost happened when Rooney released Giggs down the left. In his younger days that would have been a goal. On this occasion, the Welshman’s shot was deflected behind for a corner from which Evra’s free header went over the bar. Arsenal succeeded in preventing United from winning a game they didn’t play particularly well in. Odd as it may sound, it is a commendable result given the recent history of these two teams.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Made one useful save from Van Persie and Rooney’s header was straight at him. Can’t be blamed for the penalty. Wasn’t troubled as much as United couldn’t direct some of their better chances towards the goal.

Sagna: Bulk of the blame for the goal falls on his usually reliable shoulders. Could easily have been sent off for a desperate lunge in the second half. Deserves some credit for tracking Jones’ run and putting pressure on him when the youngster looked set to score. But broadly speaking, this was a game he’d want to forget soon.

Mertesacker: Made some useful interceptions and got on the end of a few of the balls put into the box. Played his part in minimizing the damage Van Persie and Rooney could inflict.

Koscielny: Was again the busier of the two centre-backs with numerous useful interceptions and tackles in front of the Arsenal box that broke up potential attacks. Passing could have been better – for instance, the first chance for Jones resulted from a counter-attack after one of his loose passes went straight to an opponent around the centre line.

Gibbs: Saw much less of the ball than Sagna and probably benefitted from the fact that Valencia was having a bad day. Offensive contribution was marginal.

The defenders had a fairly decent day but it wasn’t as good as is needed for getting big results at this level on a consistent basis. United were able to break forward more often that Wenger would have liked and with relative ease. They were also able find clear spaces to cross and get on the end of some balls in dangerous areas in front of the goal. The tendency to gift goals through major individual mistakes is rankling.

Arteta: Steady game from the Spaniard with decent defensive contribution. Not his best or worst game. Can’t really recall many noticeable events, which is partially good, but a bit more influence from the most experienced midfielder can always help.

Rosicky: Excellent assist and he seemed to be running the show in the first half without quite orchestrating the second breakthrough. It’s good to see him drop deep at times but I’d also like to see him get really close to the striker more often, particularly when the leading man has good technical skills to combine. I expected he will be taken off but was also a touch disappointed.

Ramsey: It’s good to see him have more and more influence on games and hopefully it will become decisive soon. For instance, that pass that didn’t got to Walcott or that superb throughball that Podolski couldn’t take in his stride were moments that could have given him a lot more confidence and the team that extra edge. Pressing up the pitch was useful but I did get a feeling the full-backs, particularly Sagna, could have done with more support.

Cazorla: Forced a couple of good saves with enterprising shots from distance. Wasn’t able to create as much or get closer to Podolski, which was a surprise because usually they combine well. Does look like a player who could use a day off.

The midfield had control of the central third in the first half and produced enjoyable combinations in that part of the pitch but they couldn’t quite find the combination to unlock the opponents in the attacking third. Often it was a matter of picking the wrong option, or seeing the pass a little late which allowed the defence to recover.

I do get a feeling that Ramsey’s greater freedom in midfield is putting greater positional burden on Arteta and is restricting his contribution. Will have to see this over the next few days before forming any opinions.

Walcott: Took his goal well but had very little to offer once the game got congested. He’s not the kind of player who can adapt to a change in partners very quickly and naturally.

Podolski: Have already covered his role and issues above. He really has to move a lot more when playing centrally for a team like Arsenal. Too often you feel he is waiting for something to happen without realizing that it’s his job to make things happen. Constant movement, often seemingly aimless, is an unheralded but vital part of a striker’s role, especially at a club like Arsenal. Dropping deep can help, as it did for the goal, but he also needs to move horizontally along the defensive line with an eye for the space in behind. Even when he drops deep he needs to be alert to options before he receives the ball instead of looking for them after receiving and controlling it. The opportunities are lost in the blink of an eye when playing in tight spaces against well-organized opponents.

The attacking players were involved with the goal but spent the rest of the game being largely ineffective. In part it’s the problem with the system which demands a great degree of mutual understanding, but it’s also an issue with individual qualities and limitations.

Subs: None of them added anything different or extra, which was understandable and regrettable.

Wenger: Ferguson’s ‘formula’ nearly worked even with a side that wasn’t completely motivated. The result does not hide the gap between the two sides. United were more efficient in attack and more stable defensively. It is a systemic issue that Wenger has to address.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Manchester United

April 28, 2013

The champions-elect will receive a guard of honour at the Emirates on Sunday while Robin van Persie could receive something quite to the contrary from the fans. Those are interesting but minor subplots as the twists and turns in Arsenal’s quest for the Champions League places will surely take centre stage once the game begins.

Ferguson seems to have the formula for playing Wenger’s sides, particularly in the last few years. I probably don’t have to remind you that Arsenal have only won 1 of their last 8 Premier League games while losing 6 of those. In the same period the Gunners have also lost 3 cup games against the Red Devils.

At the simplest level, it’s said that Ferguson asks his players to get tight to their opponents and deny them any time or space on the ball to disrupt Arsenal’s passing rhythm. United’s usually secure defensive structure has also kept the Gunner’s out and limited the number and nature of chances they could create. At the other end, quick counter-attacks and clever wing play have caused Wenger’s defence a fair amount of problems.

United have scored 18 League goals in the last 8 games against Arsenal conceding just 7 in the process, which explains the results and bears evidence to the success of Ferguson’s formula. Even if the 8-2 score line is removed as an outlier, the Red Devils have scored 10 to Arsenal’s 5. They also scored 6 while conceding just once in the 3 cup ties between the two sides during the last four years or so.

Wenger will have to find a way to counter Ferguson’s simple-sounding but highly effective approach. It won’t be easy because the Arsenal manager always wants his teams to play the same way. The Frenchman’s belief seems to be that if his side plays as well as they can the opponent’s tactics won’t matter. Clearly, the Scot has got the better of him over a long enough duration to merit a reconsideration.

The way I see it, Arsenal’s biggest challenge in this game is to ensure they don’t conceded a goal. United have lost only 2 away games this season and both have been narrow 1-0 defeats. Arsenal’s only win in their last 8 League meetings against the Red Devils has also been a 1-0.

Needless to say, the first goal will be vital and could prove decisive. Both these sides have only lost 4 points from a winning position but the champions-elect have turned it around more often than Arsenal as they’ve recovered 28 points from losing positions to Arsenal’s 16. Wenger’s team might struggle to get anything from this game if they concede the first goal. Individual mistakes or structural looseness must be avoided at all costs even if means playing out a drab, low-risk first half.

United don’t have anything more to play for so their motivation might drop as the game goes on particularly if it’s a tedious midfield battle. They might not track the runners or mark their opposing numbers as diligently as they’d do in a game that mattered more. A vertically stretched game would suit their strengths more and keep the players excited as they’ll always sense a chance.

The problem for Arsenal is that they’ve not really been able to defend in the central third of the pitch this season. When the defence has worked, it’s usually been hard work in and around the penalty box with most outfield players pulled back. Ferguson’s side generally finds a way to beat this kind of defending through their excellent wing play.

Playing slightly deeper with a couple of quick players in attack could still work for Arsenal if they can find a way to get the attackers involved and thus keep the visitors in check through an offensive threat of their own.

In Giroud’s absence Wenger will have to tweak his system a bit. Walcott is the only other player who’s played some games in the central role this season. Podolski and Gervinho are other options. I’d have liked to see the German get more time in the central areas but Wenger obviously has his reasons to keep him wide or on the bench. It’s tough to say whether this is the game to make a major change.

Having Walcott down the middle and Gervinho on the right should provide genuine pace to Arsenal’s attack but we’ve seen the team struggle to bring Theo into the game in such a role. I’ve felt that Wenger often leaves his players to figure out the solutions for themselves and it’s often sublime when it works, but against opponents who’ve mastered the defensive side of the game the answers can be hard to come by. Having certain pre-planned attacking options can help but I will be surprised if we see such moves from the Gunners.

Wenger does have most of his players available so it’ll be interesting to see what he considers a balanced line-up for this game.

I’ve a feeling Wilshere will start with Rosicky moving back to the bench. The rest of the team, barring Giroud, is likely to be the same as the one that took field at Craven Cottage.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Wilshere, Ramsey – Gervinho, Walcott, Cazorla.

Ferguson might give some of his fringe players a chance and the United squad might have a lower degree of motivation than they usually have, but the Gunners can’t count on it. I have a feeling this game will be decided by mistakes rather than great football. Lack of confidence or tactical confusion could prove fatal for the hosts whereas a lower degree of concentration might hurt the visitors. It’ll probably be decided by a one goal margin or less.


Fulham 0 – 1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

April 23, 2013

A win against a team that has proven hard to beat in the last four meetings spread over more than two and a half years is definitely worth cherishing. In some ways this win over the Cottagers showed why Wenger’s team has kept on securing one of the top four spots over the last four seasons despite being written off on a constant basis. The math is simple, Arsenal get results more often than most teams. For instance, top four contenders Everton drew with the Gunners at the Emirates but went to Sunderland and succumbed to a defeat. They didn’t play well and couldn’t get a result.

However, that argument also has an equally valid corollary. The performance against Fulham wasn’t as good as one would expect from a top side against an opponent that was down to 10 men for over 80 minutes. The probabilities work here too, if a team continues to make heavy weather of such games they’ll drop more points than those at the top of the table. A freakish goal, a wrong call by the ref, a moment of brilliance form an opponent, or something else will and do cost Arsenal points over the course of a season in games they should be winning comfortably.

These are two sides of the same coin and fans focusing on only one are simply betraying their own biases.

The game itself was entertaining for a while before it got tense. The goal made it comfortable, which in turn led to some tactical confusion before a very nervy finish.

The opening minutes were evenly contested and it seemed like this was going to be an open game with both sides looking to build from the back. Fulham created a fantastic opening in this period when Manolev burst down the right flank. Arsenal’s covering defending was reactionary and a fraction slow, which allowed the full-back the opportunity to simply knock the ball forward and chase after it. Better and quicker reading of the situation by the defenders would have curtailed this move high up on the left in the Arsenal half.

All passes first three minutes

Nevertheless, Emanuelson made the wrong choice and danger was thwarted.

Over the next seven to eight minutes, it was all Arsenal.

All passes 3 to 10 minutes

The Gunners had raised the tempo of their passing and were doing an excellent job of moving the ball around. Their positioning higher up the pitch and cohesive pressing made it difficult for the Cottagers and, if the graphic above is accurate, Martin Jol’s side didn’t make a single successful forward pass in the 3-10 minute period!

With a full complement of players on the pitch, Fulham were playing slightly higher up the pitch. Their first line of defence was about 10 yards inside their half while the back four were sitting a few yards behind them. The idea was to prevent Arsenal from getting into central areas in front of the defence by cutting passing channels and pressing the man on the ball at the back. A number of teams have been successful with this against the Gunners this season, as have Fulham in the past, but in this game it felt like they were not completely into it. Maybe it was simply a matter of not being motivated enough.

I’d a feeling Arsenal were going to score because Fulham were too open and the Gunners rampant. It was just a matter of finding the right ball. For instance, Giroud received a pass in front of the defence and almost played Walcott through. Theo was off-side but the spaces, particularly between the lines and behind the back four, were clearly visible.

Then came the first decisive moment of the game. Sidwell lunged into a terrible tackle. I’m not sure if he went in really hard but it was high and dangerous. Some refs might have let him off with a yellow but it’s hard to argue against that Red. The Fulham manager said pretty much the same thing,

Sometimes you hope the referee will book you because it wasn’t intentional, but if you are consistent it is a red card.

The hosts retreated deep into their own half after going down to 10, which is understandable. Their back four was now just on the edge of their box or deeper and the first line of defence was roughly five yards in front. A deep and narrow defence with two banks of four is also something that works against the Gunners, at least on occasion.

For a while it seemed the Cottagers will frustrate Wenger’s side as they were extremely disciplined and made it impossible to play through them down the middle. Arsenal’s wing play is in general weaker than other top teams and they couldn’t really use the width available to them. It’s worth noting that Fulham attempted more crosses than Arsenal despite having less than 30 percent possession.

Even when the ball went wide there were few bodies in the box and Giroud was often isolated against four defenders. I thought the midfielders were really trying hard to stretch the defence with their movement but none of them really joined in the attack and there were no penetrating runs that come to mind.

Of course, in such a case there is no reason to panic early in the game and the players could have been confident that a goal will come if they keep at it. The 10 men would have eventually tired and we usually see more defensive mistakes late in such games. As it was, Arsenal finally made a set-piece count. Ruiz lost his concentration for a moment, Walcott’s delivery was excellent, Koscielny rose to meet it but could only direct it back across the goal. Ultimately, it was Mertesacker’s poaching instincts – I liked the way he continued his run and lost Senderos – that resulted in the goal.

The second half was characterized by the confusion we’ve seen from Arsenal all season. The players weren’t really sure whether they should play out the game or go for more goals. As a result the passing and movement lacked sufficient purpose. In such cases we also see situations where the defenders start dropping deep while some players are chasing the ball high up the pitch. The team does not perform like a unit in sync.

For a while the game meanders along but opponents soon start sensing a chance when the Gunners don’t click together because it counters their biggest strength – their technical superiority.

Fulham grew into the game as it progressed and they got really direct towards the end. The ball spent a lot more time in Arsenal’s defensive third and the hosts were close to getting something. Desperate blocks and interventions from the Gunners were enough to keep Szczesny safe for the most part but we’ve seen plenty of games where Arsenal concede a freakish goal in such circumstances. That’s the point I was making earlier about the gap when compared to the top sides.

The Cottagers must be disappointed they didn’t make the most of their chances but their position in the table is not a fluke. Berbatov showed a tendency to sulk and moan when greater concentration and diligence would have helped. Many of their players, Kacaniklic in particular, showed good qualities on the ball but couldn’t really produce a decisive moment in tight areas.

Neither side created much in the second half.

Shots in the second half

For the Gunners, Ramsey went closest deep in injury time. Fulham had a couple of free-kicks but little else to register on the charts.

With Spurs winning against City and Chelsea again dropping two late points, Arsenal should be delighted with their three points. All is not well, that much is pretty clear, but the season could still end on a strong positive note if the spirit continues to shine through.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: A correct off-side call saved his blushes as he spilled a free-kick into a dangerous area. Had a pretty decent game otherwise but he wasn’t really made to sweat by the hosts.

Sagna: Had a fairly comfortable game defensively till the late Fulham rally. Spent a lot of time high up the pitch but wasn’t able make use of the space out wide. Crossing wasn’t very good but often he lacked targets in the box.

Mertesacker: Scored the winner and produced some crucial interventions in the Arsenal penalty box. Passing was steady and reliable. Gets the MotM vote in my book.

Koscielny: Again he was the busier of the two centre-backs from a defensive point of view. Won a number of vital duels and cleared the danger late in the game. It wasn’t perfect – for instance, late in the game he shanked a clearance straight up in the air in the penalty box; made the wrong choice and slipped in the build-up to the Berbatov chance – but it worked. Picked up a useful assist.

Monreal: Saw a lot more of the ball than Sagna and had a pretty busy defensive game. He too couldn’t really make use of the width available. There were a number of small mistakes that in another game might have been more visible.

I thought the full-backs were too far up the pitch during the first half and contributed to the congestion at times. They might have been better off picking their moments, but this is an approach Wenger seems to prefer. The central defenders made the decisive impact at both ends.

Arteta: Excellent ball circulation and good defensive contribution across the width of the pitch mostly in the central third. I did feel this was a game where a deep-lying playmaker would have been handy and it’s something the Spaniard can do. Don’t know why he’s not asked to stay further back and pick out more penetrating passes.

Rosicky: Another one who saw a lot of the ball but most of it was a fair distance away from goal. I felt he should have been getting closer to Giroud after the red card and making more runs in behind.

Ramsey: Work rate was again superb. Was involved with the play all over the pitch, probably more often than any other player on the pitch. Almost scored at the end. He’s another one who could have either attempted some creative passes from deep or made more runs to join Giroud as he seems the best equipped midfielder when it comes to attacking crosses.

Cazorla: Looked tired and wasn’t able to influence play anywhere near as effectively as he has done for most of the season. It’s unfair to be harsh on the guy but was some way below his own high standards.

The midfield was dynamic but in an ineffective way. There was a lot of movement and sharp passing but it lacked purpose and penetration. They’ll have to find some tweaks as one or two of the remaining games might see teams parking the bus.

Giroud: Saw very little of the ball in the penalty box despite his team dominating possession and territory for most of the game. Arsenal have to learn to use his physical strengths to their advantage when a team drops so deep. The Red Card at the end seemed the right call at first sight but replays showed he slipped while trying a turn. Hopefully, it will be overturned.

Walcott: Movement was disappointing as he didn’t know where to go once the space was cut out. Has to learn to come across the face of the penalty box and use the horizontal space when vertical is in short supply. Good delivery on the set-piece for the goal.

The forwards just weren’t able to get into the game, which really is a failure of the system as a whole. Giroud and Walcott have very different attributes and the Gunners couldn’t use any of their qualities.

Subs: Wilshere had more defensive work to do and barely got into the attacking third. Podolski too came on at a time when the team had lost its impetus. Vermaelen barely had a few moments on the pitch.

Wenger: The ‘psychological problem’ that he talks about has been around for almost the entire season now. IMO it is directly related to indecision and tactical uncertainty in the players’ minds and it’s the manager’s job to guide them. There’s just four games left but this issue could still cause major damage.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Fulham

April 20, 2013

The Cottagers have proven to be tricky opponents for the Gunners over the last few seasons. Arsenal last won against Fulham in 2010! And in the last 9 meetings between the sides the Gunners have won only 3. All those three came in a row starting with that heroic effort from Mannone in 2009.

It’s difficult to single out a reason for this because Fulham have had three different managers over that 9 game period. Even the patterns of play have varied. But there is one common factor – technique. Fulham sides over the last few years have had pretty good technical quality. This means they’re able to hold the ball against Arsenal and in some games they’ve even been able to push up and pin the Gunners back. At times this also coincides with their aerial strength and they’ve used the long ball effectively, particularly under Mark Hughes.

This season’s squad at Craven Cottage is again a technically strong unit. Players like Ruiz and Berbatov are just excellent while many others support them admirably as far as technique is concerned. In the reverse fixture they were able to create some delightful moves and made good use of the gap that develops when Arsenal’s pressing higher up the pitch is countered by the opponent’s sharp passing at the back.

For example, Kacaniklic’s goal in the reverse fixture came after a spell of short passing at the back. Four or five Arsenal players were trying to press higher up the pitch while the defence fell back. The gap that opened up was quickly exploited and Fulham went from their own half to the Arsenal penalty box in a couple of passes after playing at least 10 passes in their own half.

Kacaniklic goal Arsenal 3 3 Fulham

The off the ball movement of Berbatov, his understanding with Kacaniklic, and the patience, technique, and composure of their players at the back were all appreciable details in that goal.

Wenger’s team should expect more of the same and unless they keep their shape compact they’ll again concede through a similar pattern just like they did against West Brom.

With the aerial threat posed by Hangeland and Senderos, Fulham will also be a hopeful of troubling Arsenal through their set-pieces. Their full-backs make good runs and have the ability to put quality balls into the box. That’s another potential avenue for attacks. With the likes of Berbatov, Ruiz, Karagounis and others in their ranks, shots from distance could also be a problem if the players are not closed down.

In the reverse fixture Fulham also did a great job of nicking the ball from an Arsenal man in possession with Ruiz in particular stealing possession from at least three different Gunners (including the penalty incident when he pinched it off Arteta). Dawdling on the ball will not be a good idea and some shouts from teammates could also help.

Their defending hasn’t been particularly great. Even at home the Cottagers have lost 6 games and conceded 22 goals. Although occasionally they can produce the kind of performance they recently showed at White Hart Lane to win the game by a solitary goal, they’ve only kept 4 clean sheets at Craven Cottage. Martin Jol’s side have lost 5 and drawn 1 of their 7 home games against sides that are above them in the League.

Wenger’s side should be able to create chances and score goals if they can move the ball at pace. They key will be to find a balance so that the defence isn’t left exposed and their technical players don’t find enough time or space to dictate play.

Arsenal will have to get more out of their winger if they wish to win this game. Ramsey’s forward bursts from midfield could also be very fruitful.

Wenger has most of his squad available for selection but it’s tough to guess what his choices will be. Wilshere’s inclusion in the previous games has been a surprise and the manager is known to manufacture injuries as an excuse when he leaves players out.

Rosicky’s presence in the starting line-up would definitely help the team. It’s tough to pick one out of Gervinho, Walcott, and Oxlade-Chamberlain as they all have their strengths and weaknesses. My guess is Theo will keep his place but my choice would be Gervinho because he has the best movement of the three and that opens the game up more often.

Wenger might even put Cazorla in the middle for this game and put Podolski back on the left to add some freshness. I’d like to see the German get some time in the centre but this is probably not the right moment to experiment with such things.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Rosicky, Ramsey – Gervinho, Giroud, Cazorla.

Wenger will make his choices based on injuries real or notional, the medical advice about the sharpness of some players (this will be the 3rd game in 8 days for many if there are no rotations), and his opinion of the combinations that can work. There are many permutations that could work for Arsenal and there are many that could struggle. In some cases the game could go either way with the same starting line-up and it would depend on how Fulham use their strengths and cover their weaknesses.

In that regard, since the Cottagers don’t have much to play for, we might see a marginally lower intensity and/or concentration in their performance. However, that is not something one can assume. Arsenal will once again have to show exceptional spirit if they wish to have all the three points from this game but that alone might not be enough. Good combinations in attack and structural integrity when defending will be just as important. Gaps between the lines might prove very expensive.

I have a feeling this will be a much more open game than the one against Everton was. Which side will take their chances?


Arsenal 0 – 0 Everton: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

April 19, 2013

In the preview I’d mentioned that no team apart from United has won five games in a row in the Premier League. Add that to Everton’s form and the fact that they’d drawn away to City and Tottenham and the odds for a stalemate at the Emirates seemed favourable. That said, if I had to put money, it’d have been on a score draw. The love-all result was a bit of a surprise.

Broadly speaking, it was down to the slightly conservative nature of Arsenal’s play, particularly in the first half. Everton came out with a very high intensity as was expected but the Gunners did well to keep them out in the initial exchanges. Moyes’ side have created a number of quality chances every time I’ve seen them play this season even if they haven’t always converted those chances into goals and results. In this game the Gunners really minimized the opportunities they could create.

Apart from that early chance for Pienaar and a couple of other moments, there wasn’t much from the visitors in the form of incision or goal-threat.

Wenger’s side were disciplined, fairly well structured, and worked hard for each other. Examples of this were visible throughout the game but the most obvious ones were the manner in which the right flank was defended. Sagna was rarely left alone and Everton’s attempts to overlap were thwarted as the Gunners tracked runs diligently. Even when the Toffees got 3 or 4 bodies in the wide areas to cause an overload and manufacture space with clever combinations, the Gunners quickly moved wide to close it down. Everton weren’t able to put many balls into the box as a result of this.

Similarly, Arsenal players did a very good job of attacking set-pieces and other balls delivered into the box. The visitors had a clear physical advantage but they weren’t able to use that as the hosts covered all the bases.

This defensive solidity came at the cost of attacking impetus. The Gunners just couldn’t get enough bodies forward on a consistent basis, particularly in the first half. The total number of opportunities created was quite limited and, at least in part, Everton also deserve credit for denying Arsenal any space in the central areas.

The Gunners were not able to bring Walcott into the game as he was tightly marked and never found room to run into. On a handful of occasions when he did get a glimpse of an opening it was crudely but cleverly shut down via a foul. The ref was lenient – Fellaini should have received a yellow card in the first 10 minutes and Gibson could easily have been sent off – but we’ve seen enough of the English game to know this is a part of the equation that Arsenal just have to learn to deal with.

As was mentioned in the preview the visitors did a good job of shepherding the hosts towards the flanks before winning the balls in those areas. They also forced Arsenal into playing the inherently inefficient crossing game.

Of course, some might say that a cross should have resulted in a goal and Giroud missed a really good chance when Ramsey put a delectable offering on a plate for him. The Frenchman overcooked his shot, which was a sign of inexperience. He went for power and placement when all he needed to do was cushion the ball towards goal. Howard had committed and an experienced striker would have been alert to that. Giroud’s actual age is that of a player at the peak of his powers but we must not forget he is a late bloomer and there are many raw edges to his game.

Another case of inexperience was when Oxlade-Chamberlain tried putting the ball in the striker’s path when taking a shot at goal was a good option. These are not easy choices though and the youngsters intentions can be applauded. Walcott has shown better decision making skills in such situations as he’s gained more playing time and the same will happen with Alex.

There were maybe a couple of other half chances but not much else in the form of creativity or penetration from the Gunners. They lacked offensive efficiency that we saw against West Brom and a little bit of luck which helped them against Norwich. That’s the reason I’d said the law of averages was bound to catch up and it’s also the reason why few teams, however hyped up or expensively assembled, win five or more in a row.

Obviously, the problem of balance – something I’ve discussed all season – is not going to go away any time soon. I’m still not convinced Wenger knows what his best eleven is with this squad and the kind of combinations that are needed to solve the different problems posed by the unique styles of opposing teams. In many ways this feels like another rebuilding process where a lot of players are inexperienced and have a lot to learn about the game just as Wenger has something to learn about their individual attributes and the way they come together.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Did well to close Pienaar down early on. Had a fairly comfortable game otherwise, which is a big compliment to his teammates.

Sagna: Very busy day for the Frenchman and he was mostly excellent. Did lose Pienaar once for that early chance. Crossing could have been better but it was often rushed due to factors outside his control. Did get good support as mentioned earlier but he deserves credit for controlling Everton’s strong offensive flank.

Mertesacker: Got into very good covering positions in the box which was a direct result of intelligent reading of the game. Passing was steady and safe.

Koscielny: Another player who had good presence in and around the box. Wasn’t tested as much as I’d expected. Was surprised he didn’t push up with the ball a bit more.

Gibbs: Good work rate up and down the flank. Was involved in a number of duels and did well in the defensive ones. Almost created one very good chance (no one attacked the six yard box).

The defenders had a good game and were largely in control of things against a physical side that is usually dominant in the air. They were forced into some desperate long punts early in the game but slowly gained greater control over their passing.

Arteta: Didn’t see as much of the ball as he usually does, particularly in the first half when Everton’s energy was palpable. Defensive support work was excellent and was mostly conservative with his passing choices and positioning.

Wilshere: Better than his effort in the last game. Despite that, there were a number of uncharacteristically misplaced passes and heavy touches. Needs time to regain sharpness but does Wenger have that luxury?

Ramsey: Continues his good work all over the pitch and is maturing into a fine box-to-box player. Created an excellent chance for Giroud, got on the end of a couple of opportunities and helped the defence on a consistent basis. It’s tough to call anyone the MotM after such a game but Ramsey would be a good choice if one had to be made.

Cazorla: Another player who made some uncharacteristically loose passes. Some of his individual skills, particularly under pressure from three or four players, were a delight to watch but he didn’t seem on top of his game.

The midfielders did a good job of supporting the defence but they were not able to break down Everton’s organization.

Giroud: As mentioned earlier, the chances he missed were more down to inexperience. Work rate was again exceptional. Showed for the ball on a consistent basis and did not shy away from physical battles. Passing could have been more composed.

Walcott: Saw very little of the ball. Was tied to right flank for most of his time on the pitch. Was on the receiving end of some bad fouls. Lost many of his attempts to take players on.

As I’ve noted on many occasions, Arsenal are more threatening when they can get the wide players moving horizontally as well as vertically. Didn’t happen in this game.

Subs: Oxlade-Chamberlain got into a great position and made the wrong choice. Podolski can do much better. Monreal gave away a cheap foul late in the game that could have proven costly.

Wenger: Will probably be disappointed with the draw but also pleased with the team’s defending. Still has to find a way to get more out of players like Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Arsenal’s set-pieces also have a lot of room for improvement.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Everton

April 16, 2013

It might sound like a cliché but Everton’s visit to the Emirates is a six-pointer in the race for Champions League spots. There are 4 points separating four teams battling for two spots of which only Chelsea have a game in hand. A win for either side will be a major boost for their hopes and a severe dent on the other’s chances.

I doubt there are many who don’t realize the significance of this fixture and hopefully all the players will also be fully aware and ready because I’ve no doubt the Toffees will be fired up. One of the main strengths of Everton under David Moyes over the last few seasons has been the intensity of their game. The Blues from Merseyside can play the game at an exhilarating tempo and they are often able to sustain this right through the duration of the game.

This means Arsenal will come across an opponent that works hard at pressing the player on the ball and they will press as a unit with an attempt to stop the Gunners’ build-from-back routine. Fellaini will get tight on Arteta while the striker chosen (Anichebe or Jelavic?) will harass the central defender on the ball. The wingers will press the full-backs and the likes of Gibson and Osman will sit in central areas to prevent balls being played into the zone in front of the defence. They’ll try to shepherd the ball to the wings in order to compress play in relatively safer areas and force hopeful crosses.

Arsenal will find it very hard to create chances if they cannot get past this stifling pressure. It was a problem they experienced in the reverse fixture as well but this being a home game things could be different. More on that a little later.

Everton have also developed some interesting attacking options. Pienaar and Baines form an excellent pair on the left with a high level of understanding backed by top notch technique. But it’s the use of Fellaini’s aerial and physical prowess to gain territory that is most likely to trouble Arsenal. The Belgian often pulls towards one flank – their left – and is able to receive, hold, and distribute the ball to his teammates. Once Everton get the ball high up the pitch they get bodies around the ball and work some useful combinations. It can result in crossing situations, set-pieces, and, on occasion, penetrating moves with sharp, short passing.

In some of their physical games this season, the Gunners have tried dealing with the long ball by making Arteta drop right in front of the man receiving the ball – it’d be Fellaini in this case. By doing that Arsenal try to make it harder for the player to control or pass the ball. Attacking the second ball and not allowing the player any time to turn is also vital.

Wenger’s team will also have to put more pressure on the ball slightly higher up the pitch. They sat back in the away game and this allowed the Toffees to bring the ball out, almost to the centre line, before they launched it forward, thus gaining even more territory. At the Emirates the Gunners will have to apply greater pressure as a cohesive unit.

If they’re successful in that, the central defenders will have to deal with a physical striker who will then become the chief outlet for Everton. Stopping him from bringing others into play will be somewhat similar to dealing with Fellaini but in this case the defenders will have to be alert to the space behind them and will need help from teammates who’ve to track the runners.

The aerial battle will be vital in this game as Everton have scored and conceded the most headed goals in the League! Giroud could have a big role to play in both the penalty boxes. Same goes for the central defenders.

Felliani Vs. Arteta is going to be a major battle right through this game. But if Moyes decides to deploy the attack minded Coleman at right back, Cazorla’s tendency to drift all over the pitch could leave Arsenal’s left-back exposed. With Arteta likely to be occupied by Fellaini, this would severely diminish the support that Monreal or Gibbs will get. Everton don’t build many attacks from the right but they do make clever occasional use of the space on that side when most the players are attracted to their busier, more threatening left side.

The control over the centre of the pitch will be vital. Arsenal have the technical competence to dominate that space while the visitors have the high energy, exceptional organization, and unwavering discipline on their side.

The Emirates has seen the most goals scored in the League this season averaging nearly 4 goals a game! I’ll be surprised and delighted if the Gunners keep a clean sheet in this game. They’ll probably have to score 2 or more to get the three points.

The Toffees have a fairly good defence but it’s not impenetrable, particularly if they do push up the pitch. Everton have conceded 11 goals in the opening 15 minutes and 11 in the final 15 minutes of games. In the hour in between they’ve only conceded 15 goals. A fast start could help Arsenal. With Arsenal’s tendency to score late in games and the fact that Everton have dropped 21 points from winning positions, 14 of which have gone in away games. It goes some way to explain why Moyes’ side have only won 4 away games all season.

The Gunners will have to be particularly vigilant in the minutes before the half-time whistle as Everton have scored the most in the 30-45 minute period. Their 15 goals in that period is the best in the League. The Toffees have also scored 10 goals in the final quarter-hour of games and have recovered 22 points from losing positions.

Everton’s current form is pretty good with 4 wins and a draw from their last five League games. But all of those wins have come at Goodison Park. On the road they’re winless in 4 with 2 draws and 2 defeats.

Wenger has some choices to make with many players now available for selection.

We might see,

Fabianski(Szczesny) – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Rosicky, Ramsey – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.

Wenger might keep Vermaelen in the starting line-up if he thinks the Belgian is fresher. Wilshere did not look ready in the last game, a fact the manager and the player himself acknowledged. I don’t see the point in rushing him again. The temptation to give Ramsey a break and include Wilshere in the starting line up, even if it’s just for an hour, is understandable. But in my opinion it’d be a mistake given the predictable intensity of this tie. Walcott was lively against Norwich and hopefully he’ll have recovered fully. If not, Oxlade-Chamberlain is another viable option.

Podolski deserves more time on the pitch but, with Cazorla on the left working well, it’s hard to fit him in given that the manager prefers Giroud down the middle.

The choice between the sticks will be worth watching and could have an impact on the result. I don’t really know the right option for this game. Fabianski has looked solid for the most part but he has also shown the tendency to come for the balls that he should leave alone. In a game where we’re likely to see an aerial bombardment, any error of judgement from the goalkeeper could prove costly. Szczesny just has a lot to prove and is prone to errors as well. It’s going to be a tough call and Wenger might have to keep his fingers crossed after making it.

Arsenal have not won five League games in a row this season. They can achieve that by beating Everton. It will be extremely difficult and a genuinely pleasant surprise if they can do so. In order to understand the nature of the ask, note that apart from Manchester United no other team has won five games in a row in the Premier League this season. The law of averages is bound to catch up sooner rather than later. It almost did in the previous game but the team’s spirit and mental qualities saw them through. Those attributes might again be needed as this game could be a battle of wills. A draw might not help either side but to me it seems the most likely result.


Arsenal 3 – 1 Norwich: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

April 15, 2013

The Gunners picked up three vital points after a dramatic late comeback. It was a strange sort of game – partly enjoyable with great team work and combination play, partly frustrating with terrible individual moments and defensive lapses.

Wenger made three changes. A couple of them were forced – Wilshere for Rosicky, and Vermaelen for Mertesacker – while the other seemed like a good use of squad depth – Gibbs for Monreal.

Arsenal dominated the game from the start but it took them more than half an hour to get a shot on target. Bunn only had to make two fairly comfortable saves in the opening 45.

One of the commentators on the channel that I was watching (Fox Soccer) went on and on about the need for faster passing. He also seemed to have something against Gervinho. It was not difficult to see his point. Norwich were largely able to retain their shape and often felt like the team that was controlling the game, albeit without the ball. The Ivorian, for his part, was having a particularly bad day when the decisive moments came along.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the popular view of the events of the first half. It’s not entirely incorrect – certainly, the observations are valid – but it is rather superficial. Sometimes I like to go against the grain and in this case I will. Here’s why…

In the first half, Arsenal created 8 or 9 promising moments. They had excellent possession and did a very good job of pressurizing opponents higher up the pitch. Norwich looked comfortable in defence but they had virtually nothing to offer at the other end. The visitors had zero attempts at the Arsenal goal.

We have often talked about ‘balance’ on this blog. Players have make a choice between offensive options and defensive ones all the time. The choices they make decide how a team plays. It can vary from the uber-aggressive but completely open at the back to ultra-defensive and lacking penetration at the front. At some point or the other, we have seen Arsenal in both these extremes and almost every grade in between.

What we saw in the first half was an excellent example of balance. It’s not easy to see because the most important ingredient – a goal – was missing. That was a problem of efficiency but it should not take everything away from the quality of the game played.

I recall three very good passes/crosses from the right by Sagna – Gervinho miscontrolled the first, Giroud hit the post with another, and Bunn saved from the third (Giroud should have done better). Similarly, there were three excellent moments from the left. First Gibbs, and then Gervinho, twice, couldn’t find the target despite there being sufficient bodies in the box. In one case it was terrible decision making from Gervinho and in the other two it was an issue with the players not knowing the kind of runs to make. Then there were the two glorious chances down the middle. Wilshere put too much weight on the ball in one instance while Gervinho’s first touch made a complete hash of a delectable through-ball from Cazorla. Even from a corner, Giroud was able to direct a good header towards goal that might have gone in on another day.

The point is that Arsenal created many threatening moments and conceded nothing. The balance was excellent. Just because the ball wasn’t flying towards the goal and the keeper making big saves doesn’t mean the attack wasn’t good. The final ball was lacking no doubt, but if that is rectified (there is no reason why it couldn’t be) this was about as perfect as Arsenal need to be at home against such teams. If Arsenal control games as well as they did and even find one goal, they’ll collect a lot of points while forcing teams to come out on their terms. This is where Spain excel and their success offers a roadmap to the Gunners in their search for the elusive entity called ‘balance.’

The second half was different. It was more of a Premier League game. Norwich came out with a little more belief and played a little higher up the pitch. Arsenal did not have the same rhythm as they had before the break.

Wenger’s team did have a 2-3 minute spell in which they had a couple of corners and pinned Norwich back but it was an isolated period of dominance in the opening 15-20 minutes of the second half, which seemed the most even period of the game.

Norwich got their goal from a set-piece. Whether it was a foul in the first place is debatable. The abject nature of Arsenal’s defending is not. It was interesting to note that Turner made a horizontal run while other attackers moved vertically to pull the defensive line back thereby opening space for the centre-back. The ball arrived perfectly for him. Was this a practiced routine? If so, Hughton and his staff deserve applause. It was neatly done. The Gunners looked like deer in headlights, watching the oncoming peril completely paralyzed and helpless.

If I’m not mistaken, Koscielny was marking Turner but he let him go without any effort. Were Arsenal defending zones or marking players? ‘Neither’ seems to be the answer! It’s also worth noting that there was a lot of communication between the players just before the ball was delivered. To me it says that communication cannot help if the players aren’t thinking about defending in the correct, clear, and comprehensive manner.

The game got more hectic and disorganized as time went by. Wenger introduced Walcott and Podolski for Gervinho and Wilshere. There was some action around the Norwich box with Theo working hard to create something but the quality of chances was still pretty average.

With a midfielder off the park and Podolski playing high up and virtually centrally, Norwich did find more room in the midfield but they weren’t able to make the most of it as the tempo increased. Nevertheless, they had a glorious chance to double their lead on the counter-attack when Russell Martin hit his shot straight at Fabianski from a highly promising position.

At the other end, Podolski failed to control the ball when well placed before forcing a good save from another excellent chance. At that point I had a feeling Arsenal will score the equalizer. And this season we’ve seen the Gunners often score another in quick succession.

The penalty decision was debatable but also the right one, if that makes any sense. The annoying commentator I mentioned earlier seemed to make the point that it was a foul but since the ref didn’t give it the assistant on the far side had no business making the call! Mike Jones allowed a lot of fouls to go unpunished and it wouldn’t have been a surprise if he’d let that one slide as well. From that point of view Norwich do have a case but it’s a thin one.

Arteta’s body language always makes me jittery when he’s taking the penalty. It was almost saved but had enough power to go in despite Bunn getting something on it.

The Gunners took the lead with a good penetrating run from Oxlade-Chamberlain that involved a quick one-two with Podolski before Giroud tapped it in.

Norwich almost equalized as Wenger’s defence again failed to deal with a long ball. Howson was very well placed but could only hit it at Fabianksi. Podolski made it three with a neat finish through a bunch of bodies after Giroud’s flick-on from a long ball found Walcott (was off-side) who picked up another assist.

The football in the second half wasn’t very good. But it had more excitement and all the decisive moments.

Individual Performances:

Fabianski: Made a couple of good saves. Deserves credit for positioning and for handling the balls well. Couldn’t have done much for the Norwich goal.

Sagna: Had some physical duels throughout the game and came out on top in most of them. Some of his crosses were disappointing but he did create two very good chances for Giroud. Picked up a booking with a necessary professional foul after Snodgrass had put him in trouble. Good game from the full-back.

Koscielny: Had a fairly comfortable first half. Why did he let Turner go? It was his weak header that gave Howson a great chance towards the end. Not a terrible day but he’s had better.

Vermaelen: Could he have attacked the ball or at least given Turner a challenge? Was it in his zone? Did a decent job of mopping up behind Gibbs. It seemed like a fairly routine day at the office for the Captain.

Gibbs: Got into some very good positions in attacking areas but didn’t always find the final ball. Didn’t have much to do defensively but the free-kick for the goal came from his foul (it might not have been one but the defender could have done better in this situation.) There were a number of high balls floated towards his side of the pitch and he wasn’t able to win many of them. Will probably have to take a few tips from Sagna on that. Overall a fairly respectable effort from the Englishman.

The defenders had virtually nothing to do in the first half. Norwich didn’t go long to Holt as often as I’d have expected them to, and when the ball did find its way to him the central defenders made sure he couldn’t turn or influence the game in a meaningful way. There was some uncertainty against aerial long balls and the goal that was conceded was rather shoddy. But that’s more of a long standing issue that has never been fully addressed rather than any problem with a specific individual or two.

Arteta: Had to score that penalty and did well under pressure even if it wasn’t perfectly in the corner. A couple of attempted long passes didn’t quite come off this time but most of his regular passing was like clockwork. Decent defensive shift but he wasn’t really stretched.

Wilshere: Probably the only player who had a really disappointing game. There were many mistakes and he did not look physically fit/ready.

Ramsey: Work rate in the first half was excellent and I like the way he keeps getting into forward spaces without ignoring defensive responsibilities. Often did an excellent job of chasing the ball and closing down forward passes high up the pitch. He is still missing his old knack of creating and finishing in the attacking areas but I doubt that will come so soon. Right now it seems more about starting regularly and performing steadily, which he’s doing well. Again showed his versatility by moving to full-back late in the game.

Cazorla: Was at the heart of many of the creative moves that Arsenal produced, particularly in the first half. But he hasn’t clicked with Wilshere at the level one would expect and this game was no different. Does seem to enjoy playing with Podolski and sharing quick one-touch passes. Almost got a goal at the end but it ended up turning into an over elaborate move.

The midfield showed almost all the attributes of a well-balanced side. The inefficiency in attack was mostly down to the forwards and to a very small extent to the full-backs.

Gervinho: Probably a day he’d like to forget soon. Technical limitations came to the fore quite often and decision making was also found wanting at times. Could easily have had a goal and two assists with better execution and choices. But we know his weaknesses and such games are to be expected.

Giroud: Wenger made some comments about his game that I didn’t quite understand. I thought Giroud had a decent game throughout and was only decisive late in the second half due to other factors rather than his own play. For instance, in the first half he showed a deft touch to put Wilshere in a position where he could play Ramsey through. He met that ball on the move. Should have done better with Sagna’s low cross/pass but he did again meet it on the move and in a good position. The penalty incident and the bundled-in goal in the second half were not exactly down to any changes to his style of play. He did benefit from having Podolski up close with him and it’s a partnership that can develop very well.

Substitutes: Oxlade-Chamberlain made the decisive run, Podolski got a goal and played a part in the second goal, Walcott picked up an assist and had a few other threatening moments. All of them made an impact.

Wenger: Defence must still be a concern for him. Would have been happy with the contribution of the substitutes. It’s interesting that Arsenal are 18 For – 2 Against in the final 15 minutes (76-90+) of games, which is the best record in the League in that crucial time period. Wonder how many fans still think AW doesn’t know how to make substitutions!