Swansea 1 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 30, 2013

Mertesacker has spoken of the importance of keeping things tight in the opening 15-20 minutes in a couple of his press conferences. Those were before Champions League ties but it seems obvious the Gunners have applied the same principle to tricky domestic fixtures.

Swansea away was the first of Arsenal’s domestic wins last season following the morale-boosting triumph in Munich. This game followed patterns established in that one. Keep things simple early on – Don’t concede first – have patience – wait for your chance – score first – add to it if possible – stay solid at the back when sitting on the lead.

It seems overly simplistic. Probably is. But look back at the results and the pattern is hard to refute. The importance of the first goal is cited so often it’s become a cliché. But now the Gunners have shown that not conceding the first goal is just as important. It wasn’t for fun that they used to concede leads. Nor was it a case of players not caring enough as some people suggested. It was simply a case of players trying to play a style that wasn’t suited to the individual qualities. They were too gung-ho with their approach and wanted to score first, but tended to leave the door open for the opponents without realizing it.

Nowadays, Wenger’s side is very patient in possession. Players don’t rush forward at every opportunity. They still want to score first but only when they get the chance. There is a knowledge that chances will come and the belief that they can take them when they arise. It gives confidence.

This game followed the same pattern. Laudrup showed great respect for the Gunners by picking Michu at the head of his attack with 5 midfielders behind him.

The Spaniard is at his best when playing behind a striker. By putting him as the focal point Laudrup limited the impact he could make. It was a sacrifice the manager made for achieving the midfield balance he thought necessary to counter Arsenal’s attacking qualities.

It worked to an extent. Swansea saw more of the ball than the Gunners. But Arsenal were also being cautious and minimized the territorial advantage the hosts could gain. Most of their possession was passive, i.e. in their own half or in relatively harmless wider areas. They created one or two half-chances but the visiting central defenders dealt with those. Szczesny was largely untroubled in the first period.

First half pass comparison

In fairness, Laudrup’s side were also defensively solid. Arsenal played fewer passes and very little in that vital creative area just in front of the penalty box. The only noteworthy chance they created came deep in injury time when Gnabry’s run put Giroud in a great scoring position. The striker missed the mark.

The difference between the sides was that Arsenal had an extra gear or two, which would give them much greater attacking impetus. We saw it engaged early in the second half.

According to numbers on StatZone, the Gunners attempted a total of 126 passes into the final third of the pitch completing 85 of those for a success rate of just over 67 percent. In the first half they completed 32 of 49 attempts (65 percent) and in the second it was 53 of 77 (69 percent). The success rates are comparable but the total passes attempted is higher in the second half, which demonstrates greater attacking intent.

But the picture comes to life when we focus on a ten minutes period from the 53rd and 62nd minutes. The Gunners completed 33 of their 37 passes in the attacking third during that period for a success rate of 89 percent. Most teams can’t hit 89 percent passing accuracy over all leave alone the attacking third where it’s always harder to make passes. In fact, at this moment there is no team with average pass success rate of 89 percent!

Arsenal FT passes 53 to 62

This is when Arsenal hit top gear. The first goal was scored after a spell of pressure with many intricate passes strung together. This video captures them all. A Swansea player got a touch of the ball so technically the goal wasn’t built with 20 plus passes but for all practical purposes it was.

In the same period, Arsenal also created a great chance for Özil and the second goal scored by Ramsey. Again it was a move that involved many players all of whom played a vital part.

Arsenal’s 33 successful passes in that period was more than the accurate final third passes in the whole of the first half. This could not happen without quick ball circulation, which in turn indicates excellent movement and, of course, technically excellent passing. It stretches the defence and creates openings.

The thing with these kinds of goals is that there are many potential points of failures. That’s why most teams that try to score such goals don’t succeed! As a result they provide an excellent benchmark for the attacking quality of a team including the understanding between players, their decision making, and technical qualities like final ball accuracy, first touch, and finishing ability.

After scoring the two goals the Gunners sat back again. Laudrup had by then introduced Bony and his side went all out on the offensive because they had nothing further to lose. They were able to advance territorially and played in threatening areas from Arsenal’s point of view.

Swansea FT passes comparison

The Swans made as many attacking third passes in the final half-hour as they did in the hour than went before it. While they did get up the pitch and central, it’s worth noting that their passing accuracy didn’t go up as it did for the visitors during their short but decisive burst of pressure.

The hosts weren’t able to pulls the Gunners apart. Arsenal defended resolutely as a team barring a couple of mistakes. Wilshere’s ill-advised and poor executed back pass to Bony could have been costly. The striker let Arsenal off the hook with a tame shot from a narrow angle. The second one led to the goal.

It came shortly after Gnabry was taken off and it seemed to me that it wasn’t clear who was picking Davies up. Take another look at the passes comparison in the first half and it’s clear Davies didn’t make that many forward bursts in the opening half. But now that Swansea were in a desperate situation he was stationed high and wide. He received the ball in space and cut inside. That might not have been a problem in itself, but for once in this game Koscielny let Bony drift into the hole in front of the defence without going with him. The full-back and the striker played a delightful one-two. Neither Mertesacker nor Szczesny could do much about it. It was a wonderfully crafted goal and Swansea deserve credit for it. They were in ascendancy after that but the Gunners sorted out that space on the right and in front of the box. There were few clear chances created by Swansea after their goal.

As a matter of fact, the Gunners created 4 good chances (Giroud, Gnabry, Özil, and Ramsey) and scored 2, while the hosts got the aforementioned 2 and scored 1. The result and scoreline seems fair that way. Arsenal just had greater offensive quality and were able to create and take their opportunities in a short space of time.

Some might wonder why the visitors didn’t play in top gear straight from kick-off and shut the game off with four goals in the opening half hour if they had the quality to produce those moments in such a short duration. Others might ask why Laudrup didn’t start with Bony and put the Gunners under pressure straight from kick-off. The answer to these is linked to the understanding of the risk-reward equation associated with any game that varies with time and key events. I will try to cover that separately if I get the time.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: I enjoyed the way he collected some of the long balls at the end. Those were routine catches for any Keeper but the young Pole hasn’t always claimed them with such comfort. Made one really big save from a shot by Dyer. Good decision making for the most part. Almost put the team in trouble in the first half when he was casual in ushering a ball out of play. He should have been focussed and determined to keep Michu away from the ball till the whistle sounded. It was too close and the assistant ref could easily have let play continue.

Sagna: Could he have tracked Davies’ run? This was similar to him letting Arnautovic go in the game against Stoke. I don’t know why he doesn’t track these runs but the tendency is not limited to the Frenchman so there has to be some sort of a policy by the coaches which involves transferring responsibility or playing off-side. This is a source of concern as it has failed more than once. Very limited attacking contribution in this game. Hard to say if it was a tactical pre-game choice or something that just happened because he lacks an understanding with Gnabry. Positioning was good and rarely left his flank open.

Mertesacker: Keeps making vital interventions in and around the penalty box as his reading of defensive situations is excellent. Won a couple of headers in the Swansea box but couldn’t direct them towards goal. That is an area of improvement for the big German.

Koscielny: Loved the way he stuck to Bony and made it impossible for the striker to have any time on the ball or an opportunity to turn. Well, except once. Also brought the ball out a few times from the defence but didn’t do anything silly. As with his partner, made a number of useful interventions in and around the box including a couple of vital blocks.

Gibbs: The move for the first goal started with Gibbs nicking the ball deep in the Arsenal half. Another full-back who made a limited offensive contribution but he was the busier of the two defensively. Mostly it was about holding position and slowing the attacks down or forcing them into hopeful crosses.

The back five had a good game considering the quality that Swansea have. They minimized the number of clear-cut chances produced and that proved as important as scoring goals at the other end. But the fact that Arsenal have kept only one clean sheet in the League despite the defence getting excellent support from the front six shows there is genuine room for improvement. The goal conceded was another good example. While someone should have gone wide and tracked Davies sooner, there is no way Arsenal should be conceding that chance with so many bodies in front of goal. The defenders have to cover for that initial mistake.

Ramsey: MotM again. Quick thinking for the assist, goal scoring form remains impressive, as is his defensive work sweeping the space in front of the back four.

Özil:

This is the kind of game where the German is always likely to struggle, by his standards I must add. There wasn’t enough pace or tactical cohesion in the side for him to have opportunities to slide a ball through or create many genuine chances. His game in deeper areas with back to goal is pretty average as is his finishing. These are areas where he has to improve and that meant, all things considered, this was an average outing from the star signing. That’s not a criticism just a matter of fact observation. I’m prepared for him having a few more such games depending on how the patterns of play turn out. It’ll be interesting to see if he can show a steep learning curve of if his development stagnates.

Flamini: Another industrious effort. Keeps running into good areas to support the defence. Passing, as noted previously, has improved significantly. I think there’s more to come from him as he adapts to his new team mates.

Wilshere: Showed greater positional discipline and helped Gibbs fairly well, except the giveaway late in the second half. Restrained his attacking instincts but played a part in both goals with his commitment to win the ball in the build up to the second being particularly enjoyable.

Gnabry: Created a great chance for Giroud. Excellent touch and finish. In fact, 2 out of Arsenal’s 4 shots on target came from his boot. Good defensive work which included safe passing choices and being available for receiving a pass when a teammate needed an option around him. I have already said he’ll go past AOC if he stays fit for a year and plays regularly. Tactically he’s already ahead, physically he’s comparable, just needs to be on the pitch with the big boys for a few games and realize that he belongs and can perform. I do like the suggestion that he should play from the left at times.

The midfielders were reliable when defending and purposeful in a short spell of attacking. It’s a very unbalanced midfield but they are adapting to the needs of the game producing results even if it means sub optimal performances from class players like Wilshere and Özil.

Giroud: Arsenal’s chance creation is limited and modified at the moment and that means he gets very little service. His angles in the box are better than last season but the chance that he missed shows there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Work rate remains exceptional.

Subs: They just added numbers to the deep sitting defence.

Wenger: It’s interesting that he’s again said in the first half Arsenal lacked purpose and sharpness. It’s almost as if he expects the team to play a more expansive style but the players are being cautious on their own. I don’t fully understand this right now but do expect the team to shift to a more proactive style soon. Retaining defensive stability while playing the possession game and searching for creative options will be a massive challenge. They’re yet to prove they can do that but it will be needed if the form has to last over the duration of the season.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Swansea

September 28, 2013

Building on the good work of his predecessors, Michael Laudrup has taken Swansea to the level of the best mid-level teams across Europe. As their win against pretty formidable Valencia side – albeit an out of sorts one at the moment – showed, this game in Wales will be at least as competitive as almost any away game in the Champions League group phases that Arsenal have contested in recent years.

On the other hand, it’s also a fact that Laudrup’s side is yet to win at home in the Premier League. That their two opponents have been likely title contenders in Manchester United and Liverpool is all the more reason the Gunners need a big performance and the three points. They have to match or better the results of their direct rivals.

An 11 game winning streak in away games across all competitions is a strong record to have but it won’t mean much if the Swans record their first home win. The thing is, once a club starts talking about a title challenge in the League, the degree of consistency required shoots up. Obviously, there is more leeway in terms of dropping points for a team that finishes third or fourth than one that sits at the top. Teams will come at you and try to go past you with all their might, and you have to show you can stay one step ahead. If not now then very soon we will have to see how the Arsenal players respond to that pressure.

By now we are all familiar with Swansea’s playing style. They keep the ball on the ground, build from the back through quick passing and constant movement, are fluid in attack with excellent understanding between different individuals which enables combination plays involving multiple players, many of their players are capable of finding the back of the net as well as the final ball, and they work pretty hard as a team to close the spaces down when defending with an excellent goal keeper behind their respectable back four.

The issue with them is one of consistency. They can do it all but can they do it all the time against all opponents. And it’s here that the quality of individual players comes to the fore. Swansea don’t have the budget of the big clubs so they have to rely on top quality scouting and judgment from their manager. It works for the most part and that’s the reason I put them alongside most mid-level European teams. But there are noticeable mistakes in their games too. At both ends of the pitch. There are times when you watch one of their games and feel they deserved more from it. For example, the score in their opening day defeat against United flattered the visitors. But revisit the decisive moments dispassionately and it seems a fair result.

This is important for the Gunners because there will be mistakes from both sides in this game. And it will be decided in favour of one that produces the more decisive moments. Look back at the battles between these sides over the last couple of years and you’ll see that most of them have been settled by mistakes that were punished. Starting with Arshavin pouncing on Vorm’s error almost two years ago, to Thierry Henry’s irresponsible mislaid pass followed by calamitous defending by the Gunners, to the two away wins shared by the sides last season, almost every game was decided by errors that proved expensive.

This could be an interesting game tactically. Arsenal have struggled to dominate possession in many games, which has worked out well for them because the unit has worked cohesively in defence. Part of the reason was that in Arteta’s absence the starting eleven just didn’t have the right balance to play the possession game with too many players lacking positional discipline. So it will be interesting if the Gunners try to change the system once the Spaniard is back. Then again, Arsenal played a pragmatic defensive game in last season’s win at the Liberty Stadium even with Arteta in the side. It is part of the aforementioned 11 game run and that style could just be perfect for this game because it minimized mistakes. Cut out the gifts and force the hosts into producing something special for their goals. If they still score a couple fair play to them. But chances are Laudrup’s side will conceded more openings than they create if the Gunners can retain their defensive structural integrity and work rate.

In a way there won’t be, or shouldn’t be, anything extraordinary about this game. Michu is a threat from his Number 10 position. His runs into the box have to be tracked and his ability to play one-twos needs to be countered. The tricky and pacy wide players should not get space to run into. Bony is the kind of striker who doesn’t need too much time or space to get his shot away. So the central defenders have to be very tight to him without getting rolled. Rangel will get forward and Arsenal’s lack of a proper left sided winger who tracks back consistently could pose certain problems. It can also be dealt with if Mertesacker and Co. do what they’ve been doing – reading the threat and attacking the balls put into the box. Swansea will create one-v-one situations against defenders and Koscielny-esque hara-kiri moments have to be avoided. The point is you are not going to see much in this game which makes you go, “Hang on, where did that come from!?”

While surprises from the Swansea attack are unlikely, I don’t expect Arsenal to keep a clean sheet in this game.

In attack though, the Gunners will have to continue with their inventive ways. Arsenal do not have players who will be able to get in behind the defence regularly in the absence of Theo Walcott. We’ve seen different kinds of goals this season that we don’t often see. Whether it was Gibbs arriving at the back post, or Ramsey timing his runs and receiving passes at the right moment, or the set-pieces against Stoke, or some well-worked counter-attacks, Wenger’s side have found a way to breach the defence against a diverse set of opponents even in games where it’s been hard work. They will need that combination of patience, practice, and precision to break Swansea down.

Many of the first team players got a good break during the midweek Capital One Cup game where the youngsters ground out a result with the help of senior pros in defence. The starting line up for this game should have a more familiar feel. Barring unexpected injury news, there should be two main questions for Wenger to answer – Should Arteta start after his cramps against West Brom and is there a place for Gnabry in the side.

My answer to both questions would be yes and that would mean only one change to the side that won against Stoke at the Emirates last week.

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Ramsey, Özil, Arteta – Gnabry, Giroud, Wilshere.

There is an option to shift Wilshere to the right and bring Monreal in on the left. I think Jack could be excellent cutting in from the right while Özil would love to drift out wide to fill the gap as that seems to be his preferred flank. Those two have worked some excellent combinations and it might be even more exciting this way. Monreal can arrive into the box late or dart in behind to the back post. In theory this is a thrilling option but it’s not always the same in practice. I doubt Wenger will go for it.

He could also put Flamini on the right. Gnabry is very good but he isn’t at the level where he is going to take Premier League defenders on or make darting well-timed runs behind the defence. So if it’s going to be a conservative job on the right he might as well give it to a player more naturally suited to that. But that line-up with five midfielders just doesn’t feel right to me and I, for one, would love to see Gnabry get more and more playing time at this level.

I didn’t cover the West Brom game because there wasn’t much to say. It was an enjoyable victory but with so many changes made by both managers reading too much into the performances would be counterproductive. Probably the only thing to say is that Eisfeld could make a great career as a SuperSub if he so chooses and his manager sees that as a role for one of the players on the bench of seven. More on that some other time.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against West Brom

September 25, 2013

Wenger probably has a bit of a Dilemma before the Capital One Cup visit to West Brom. On one hand, the Arsenal manager knows the need to give many of his key players a breather. But doing so will clearly compromise the chance they have of winning an away cup tie unless the opponents field an equally weakened side, which is unlikely. Maintaining Arsenal’s winning record away from home could prove very useful in keeping the momentum going. Confidence can be a fragile thing as we’ve seen all too often.

Fielding many of his regulars, on the other hand, would significantly enhance the prospects of progressing to the next round of the most meaningless trophy Arsenal contest in. While the rhythm of winning might stay alive for a while longer, the long term cost of straining players could be much worse.

He’s already said the team will be a mix of young and experienced players with more familiar names at the back. This is sensible on two counts. Firstly, Arsenal have more defensive players available and the depth is greater there. Secondly, having a strong defence can lead to a team not losing the game. From there to winning is a jump that can be made with a moment of quality from any individual or a small but decisive spell of pressure from the team.

I guess Fabianski, Jenkinson, Vermaelen, and Monreal pick themselves. Koscielny or Mertesacker could complete a fairly strong back five.

In front of them we might see Flamini and Arteta providing further experience and stability. The Frenchman won’t play continuously once the Spaniard is fully fit so starting him in this game doesn’t seem to be that big a risk. Furthermore, he hasn’t played as many minutes as the likes of Wilshere and Ramsey. Wenger’s technical leader, Mikel Arteta, could ease back into match fitness with this game. But he should only start if there is no risk of losing him to a recurrence of his injury or a fresh but related one.

Having these seven players will ensure that Arsenal won’t be overrun even if Steve Clarke picks his best line up. That will also give the attacking players a bit of a leeway and the inexperienced ones or those lacking in match sharpness could be risked.

Gnabry has already played in a Premier League game and should be another one of the guaranteed starters. Miyaichi has had a few substitute appearances and went on loan to a Premier League club so he could also be deemed ready for a start in such a game. They could take the right and left wing respectively.

That leaves Numbers 9 and 10, arguably the people likely to prove decisive. Bendtner seems like the option for the strikers role, even if it’s more by elimination than by right. Park is visible in the training pictures on the website but I have absolutely no idea what’s going on with him. If he’s fit he could partner Bendtner.

Özil could be a starter in the attacking midfield role considering the fact that he hasn’t played the two Champions League qualification games that other Gunners have and didn’t play constantly in Madrid’s opening games. This would also help his acclimatization process.

The other options for Wenger would be to have someone like Zelalem or Eisfeld in the starting line up with Özil on the bench. To me that would make the attack way too inexperienced.

This seems balanced enough,

Fabianski – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Arteta, Özil, Flamini – Gnabry, Bendtner, Miayichi.

I’d prefer a couple more experienced players on the bench but won’t be surprised if it’s entirely filled with youngsters.

In such a game it’s also impossible to anticipate the patterns of play. A lot will depend on the kind of side West Brom select.

On a general level, Arsenal’s best bet would be to keep things solid at the back as they’ve done in recent games and rely on the trickery of the youngsters and hope that they develop an understanding with the more senior players. All it takes is one goal to win or lose the tie.

Wenger has said that he believes in Bendtner’s individual qualities and it’s more  a question of his attitude and fighting spirit. This could be a good chance for the Dane to show that he has what it takes. If nothing else, a committed display mirroring Giroud’s work rate would be acceptable. The rest will come in due course and might happen for him in this game too if luck goes his way.

I’m not sure I’ll get a chance to watch this game so there might not be a match report after this. Or I might merge a quick summary with the preview of the visit to Swansea at the weekend.


Arsenal 3 – 1 Stoke: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 24, 2013

This was a strange sort of game, but not entirely unexpected. Wenger went with the predictable line-up but with Gnabry coming in for Walcott just before kick-off.

Obviously, a youngster is not going to come in and perform at the level of a pro who has been groomed for a particular role over a number of years. There is no reason to criticize Gnabry but Arsenal did lose any sort of a threat of going in behind as he rarely played on the defensive line. It was sensible from the German prospect because he would not have known when or where to make the runs and his teammates would have been unsure of passing the ball in-behind as well. Nevertheless, it meant the Gunners had somewhat limited attacking options. Stoke did a good job of defending the space in front of and just inside their penalty box. They were also quite efficient at cutting out balls from wider areas, at least in open play. I don’t recall any gilt-edge opportunities that Arsenal created from open play in the first half.

Then again, when one door closes, most top teams find a way to open another. Arsenal scored three goals from set-pieces! I would love to know when that last happened in a single game. Stoke have this image of being a physically and aerially dominant team but they did have dodgy moments when defending set-pieces over the last couple of seasons. The Gunners scoring from a free-kick wasn’t as big a surprise but three in a game is just crazy no matter who the opponent is.

The fact that the first goal came early helped Arsenal’s cause but Stoke’s performance in the first half was quite a surprise. Most teams come hard in search of an equalizer but the Hughes’ side weren’t really pushing up or pressing with any sort of intensity. The first 20-25 minutes were almost played at a soporific pace, which suited the Gunners who were in second gear after scoring.

It could be that an element of casualness cost Arsenal the goal in the first half. Gibbs’ attempt to dink the ball past Cameron seemed a tad frivolous. Flamini did well to drop back into the vacant left-back spot and even Wilshere did a good job of covering the flank. Gibbs should have retreated and dropped into midfield. He could then have swapped with Flamini once the threat was dealt with but he went towards his position. This left Nzonzi free in midfield.

The other problem was that Sagna didn’t track the run of Arnautovic and both he and Mertesacker were deeper than the other defenders. It seemed to me that the Frenchman called out to his central defender in order to transfer responsibility but that exchange was inefficient and their deep position played the attacker on.

This is not the first time Mertesacker has played opponents on because of his tendency to fall back. It is quite possible that the German reads danger faster than anyone else and is moving to thwart it. More often than not this helps the team. But every now and again he does help the opponents as the off-side line is broken and becomes a liability for the Gunners.

In my opinion, Sagna should have gone with his man and Mertesacker should have stayed higher up the pitch. This would most probably have resulted in an off-side or the full-back might have gotten close enough to make a tackle. In such an event, Mertesacker would have been in the right position to attack the rebound if the events played out just as they actually did.

Once Sagna decided to pass Arnautovic to Mertesacker, he should have moved in narrower so that he took up the central defender’s position. Remember that once the winger made that run there wasn’t a second threat on the right side for Sagna to cover.

As with any goal, many different things could have been done by a number of different players to avoid the eventual outcome. I do usually see if the back four lacked support for a goal that was conceded but in this case it’s mostly three of the four defenders who should have done better.

After the equalizer, it felt like Arsenal had raised their game a bit but Stoke were pretty solid in the vital central areas in front of their goal.

It is interesting that the goal came from a corner routine that was tried twice. It was almost as if they knew what they were trying and the first instance didn’t work so they tweaked it a bit.

There was no stoke player on the line at the back post and there was space at the near post between the six and twelve yard areas. The first corner came around the six yard area and Mertesacker won that with ease. His header was going perfectly towards the far post but the man marking Gnabry in the centre of goal was able to clear it, probably without knowing much about it.

The second corner, that came soon after the first attempt, was a bit wider and higher. This gave the German a better angle to work with and he was able to guide it into that vacant space. Koscielny presence there also seemed to indicate that Arsenal had worked on this routine and wanted to have a man who would guide the ball home in case it was going just wide. The Frenchman missed it completely, I don’t know how, but his partners aim was perfect.

After the Gunners took the lead for the second time, the game kind of meandered towards half-time. Then it changed.

The visitors finally showed some purpose to their play and contested the duels with greater intensity after the break. They also chased the ball with real desire. I don’t know if the Arsenal players sensed this and thus decided to sit back or if it was a conscious choice from the coaches at half time.

In either event, the fact is that Stoke saw a lot of the ball in the second half. But the more relevant detail is that they didn’t really know what to do with it. Arsenal were well organized and cohesive at the back. Stoke were limited to crosses and corners. There was some tension in the air, granted, but it was never going to be a problem unless there were numerous defensive errors on the same play. All three of Stoke’s shots on target, including the goal, came from outside the box.

Arsenal did have some chances on the counter-attack. The visitors game the ball away cheaply at times and Gnabry was the receiver of two such passes. One resulted in a shot by the youngster that went straight at Begovic and the other resulted in a shot by Giroud that forced a good save. Ramsey had a chance late in the game and even Özil had an opportunity to test Begovic, albeit with his weaker foot.

The Gunners did get the cushion of a third goal from another set-piece. This time a looping Sagna header went in at the far post.

There wasn’t really any major tactical aspect to this game. It was more about the details on some of the set-pieces, the limitations of Stoke players that Mark Hughes will have to adapt to, and Arsenal’s ability to recover from a sequence of errors that was annoying and expensive

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Can’t blame him for the goal. This time his decision making of when to come and when to stay was good. Looked calm even when pressed in the second half and distribution was useful.

Sagna: In my opinion, his was the biggest mistake for the goal. Other than that it was a pretty solid game. Didn’t go forward as much because he had to cover behind Gnabry and didn’t really have any understanding with the youngster. Took his chance well.

Mertesacker: Excellent Goal scored, poor defending for goal conceded. Had a relatively comfortable game despite Stoke’s possession in second half. Amusing slide celebration, clearly hasn’t worked on it!

Koscielny: Made one very good clearance and was generally there in the right positions. Steady game from the Frenchman.

Gibbs: There was a degree of casualness to his game in the first half, but he raised the bar in the second as there were a couple of moments when he had to be alert to runs. But in the second half his passing was below par. On the whole probably his weakest game this season.

The defenders were up against a very basic attack that lacked guile and creativity so their job wasn’t that hard. The two guys most culpable for the goal conceded went up and scored at the other end. Of course, this won’t happen all the time and doesn’t excuse the mistakes at the back. Given the quality of Stoke’s offence, this was an average performance at best from the defenders.

Ramsey: Mistakes from Begovic aside, the Welshman deserves credit for his anticipation, speed, and simplicity of execution for the opening goal. Difficult to add to things I’ve already said about him in previous game but it’s great to see such high level of consistency from him all over the pitch.

Özil: Is it two assists or three? This was another game in which he wasn’t always pulling the strings but he had plenty of big moments. Some of his passing interchanges with Wilshere were a joy to watch. Work rate was commendable and I like the way he doesn’t shy away from dropping deep even though it’s not his forte.

Flamini: Has been improving in every game since he started his second spell. Passing is becoming more and more reliable, gets into good positions – like covering for Gibbs, and produces a number of useful defensive moments wherever needed.

Wilshere: His diagonal/horizontal movement in the first half was very good as was his connection with Özil. Needs a lot more precision in the final third but that’s not limited to this game and is something that should, hopefully, come with experience. Has become a foul-magnet, probably even worse than Fabregas was. Interesting that the first and third goals came from fouls won by the Englishman.

Gnabry: Saw a lot more of the ball then Walcott does, or even someone like Oxlade-Chamberlain for that matter. Was mostly conservative in possession, with his decision making, and positioning, which was alright. I enjoyed the way he held on to the ball when he drifted across the centre line and made the safer choices to keep things flowing. Very good defensive work and his off-the-ball positioning even in the Stoke half was commendable and resulted in two turnovers that led to shots. If he keeps getting chances and keeps up his rate of development he should move past Oxlade-Chamberlain in the pecking order within a year or so.

The midfield controlled the game well, first with the ball and then without it. MotM should be shared by Ramsey, Özil, and Flamini IMO. There wasn’t a single outstanding performance that was much better than others but these three were the best individuals.

Giroud: Had a couple of good chances – forced a save from one and hit the other way off target. Didn’t always have teammates close to him and was marked tightly which made it hard for him to have a big impact. For example, his link play in the attacking third was almost non-existent through little fault of his own. Another big game physically this time in the central third of the pitch.

Subs: Was good to see Arteta back and at his reliable best. Monreal made a couple of useful contributions in the box but had little else to do. Miayichi produced the chance for Ramsey at the end and might have scored if the Welshman had squared the ball.

Wenger: In recent games his players have found different ways of scoring goals, which is a very encouraging sign. They’ve also shown the ability to regroup and deliver. Mistakes in the defence are there but the cohesive element has been much more dominant. I liked the way the defenders attacked the crosses and set-pieces that Stoke put in the box, it hasn’t always happened and must have been a special instruction for this game. Sticking with the same players (minimal rotation) has worked in the short term but will it be a problem over the course of the season?


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Stoke City

September 22, 2013

Some things never change, some things do.

Arsenal welcome an in-form Stoke side to the Emirates that will be, in some ways, unrecognizable from the long ball merchants we’ve seen in the recent past. Mark Hughes has changed the team’s style to a great extent and they now play with the ball on the ground noticeably more often. Their average passes number (397 per game) and passing accuracy (79 percent) are better than they achieved in any season under Tony Pulis.

That said, Stoke’s main attacking weapons remain the same. They will heavily rely on crosses and balls into the box to create chances. They will also not shy away from hopeful shots from distance as many of their players can pack a punch. Add to that a well-organized, combative defence, and the tendency to get stuck in and you’ll see remnants of the old guard in the revised version.

The aggressive element of their game is going to be interesting to watch because most opponents the Gunners have faced this season haven’t really come at them hard. This game could produce some very interesting football if Hughes is bold and encourages his players to push up the pitch from the kick-off in an attempt to prevent Wenger’s men from playing the ball out from the back. Teams who’ve done this, albeit in patches, have produced some spells of pressure against Arsenal. Of course, it’s a risky strategy – and that’s the reason most teams don’t do it all the time – because if the Gunners get through the initial press they really have the quality to punish opponents. The key is in finding the balance between high pressing and choosing moments to drop back into a strong defensive shape. Succeed at that and you can force mistakes leading to genuinely threatening transitions while retaining security at the back for the most part.

There’s another element of the aggressive game, which is also the unpleasant one. This involves gratuitous kicks to the heel, a flailing arm in the face, an elbow to the back of the head, or a knee to the back, among other tricks of the dark arts. Giroud has faced a little bit of this last season but is likely to be targeted more often because of his form and growing importance to the team. Watch out for his duels/physical tussles with Huth in particular. Özil is also likely to get a welcome to the real Premier League, particularly when he receives the ball with his back to goal. How these players and their teammates react to such challenges will go a long way in determining control of this game. Stoke will struggle if the Arsenal players can shrug it off and they’ll gain some momentum if the Gunners start reacting and get fractious.

The Potters are a very well organized unit but Arsenal should have enough quality to create chances as long as they are patient and adhere to their approach. There will be some gaps between the lines and in wider areas if the ball is moved fast enough. Özil’s movement will trouble the central defenders and if he can interchange positions with Wilshere there will be chances to run at or behind the back four. But the Gunners will have to be exceptionally precise and/or need some luck to get past Begovic who is a very good shot-stopper.

Usually, Walcott is not a big threat against teams that sit deep and narrow. But in this game he could be a force if the timing works out. There are three or four players in the Arsenal side who can play a ball through and they just have to work out the right moments to draw the defenders and slide a ball in-behind. Quick, one-touch passing will be vital and the players need to minimize the tendency to run with the ball into crowded zones. That is more likely to result in threatening counter-attacks than anything else.

In defence, Arsenal will have to do something about their zonal marking aproach on set-pieces. I find it hard to imagine they’ll keep a clean sheet with that tactic against a side like Stoke, unless they really minimize the free-kicks and corners conceded in the first place.

The Gunners have done a good job of attacking the second ball against teams that play the aerial game in the recent past. This is another game where the players will have to be really switched on to pounce on balls that bounce around awkwardly in dangerous areas of the pitch. A lot of Stoke’s threat comes from the ability to make something out of the confusion that ensues in and around the penalty box after a high ball is lumped in and the header won by someone like Crouch or Jones. Crouch, in particular, has had good success against the Gunners. The full-backs will need some support if he pulls away towards their side.

Arsenal have scored first in their last 12 games and the opener could be crucial in this game too. Stoke will become very difficult to break down if they have the luxury of sitting on a lead. In contrast, the Gunners could relish the counter-attacking opportunities if they score first and draw Stoke out more often.

I do prefer some rotation but it seems unlikely that Wenger will make many changes to the side that is getting the results.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Ramsey, Özil, Flamini – Walcott, Giroud, Wilshere.

Once he is fit, Arteta should come straight into the starting line-up but it would not be wise to start him so soon after his return to full training. 20 minutes in this game and maybe an hour in the midweek Cup tie seem like the better options.

There are some positives stats from an Arsenal point of view. Arsenal have won all their 5 games against Stoke at the Emirates and Mark Hughes has lost on all six visits to Arsenal as a manager. The team is also on a strong run of form with 6 consecutive wins, more than any run last season. However, the law of averages can always  come into the picture and on current form there isn’t much to separate the sides. If Arsenal start strongly and score early they could control the game and have some fun. Stoke could pose serious questions if they can use their physicality and pressing to good advantage in the opening exchanges. Both sides have contrasting strengths and weaknesses and the one that manages to impose its style on the game will end the game on a satisfied note.


Marseille 1 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 20, 2013

10 away wins in a row! That could have been a potential banana skin but Arsenal’s experience and patient approach saw them through to a massive result.

It was interesting that Wenger went with his settled eleven and didn’t introduce either Vermaelen or Monreal into his starting line-up. That was a mark of respect for the opponent. In the same vein Elie Baup showed respect for Arsenal by using both his wide players in a highly restricted role. It was a tense game and could, on another day, have ended in a stalemate.

The hosts had the upper hand for most of the first half. Their momentum was built on the foundation of a strong defence. A thought that struck me at half time was,

Any team can line up eight players in two banks of four. That, in itself, doesn’t mean much. Marseille got the spacing between the players spot on, and they made the right choices to close down space effectively in order to negate the impact of Arsenal’s natural fluid style. The Gunners were really struggling to find any incision.

The visitors had only two main attacking options in the first half. A ball in-behind for Walcott, which seemed threatening in the opening minutes but was dealt with subsequently. And some crosses from wide on the right that were also cleared with ease by the hosts.

Looking for Walcott in behind

Looking for Walcott in-behind in the first half

Most crosses from the right in the first half

Most crosses from the right in the first half

On the other side, Marseille were finding space down the flanks, particularly behind Sagna. Valbuena was playing in front of the midfield line of four and often made runs towards the flanks to convert defence into attack. Gignac also did that from time to time.

Marseille created enough unsettling moments and, as stated above, could have got a goal on another day. But their style of play and qualities of players is such that they will not trouble the big teams often enough to be considered a consistently serious threat at the top level.

Valbuena was their key player but he couldn’t do enough to put his team ahead. Another thought I had after the game was,

Despite their dominance in the first half, Marseille’s only two shots on target during that period came in the first three minutes. Their game lacked efficiency as they relied on the wide areas almost exclusively. Baup used his wingers on their regular flanks. I thought this was more to facilitate compact defending than to promote their offensive skills. Having them on the opposite flanks and cutting inside could have created better chances in central areas but that would also have left the team exposed on transitions. It seemed like a safe choice from the manager but one that limited their attacking potential.

Of course, the problem for him was that Valbuena isn’t the type of player who can control the game from deeper areas and take up serious defensive responsibility. If he could do that, either Payet or Ayew might have had a chance to take more liberties in the Arsenal half. Another related issue was that they lacked a player who could drive at opposition defence during quick transitions. A lot of their attacking momentum was slowed down when they got boxed into wider areas. Valbuena was usually higher than the others without the ball and he tended to drift wide instead of going at the heart of Arsenal’s defence. Gignac getting caught off-side when a ball in-behind was on didn’t help matters either.

When they did create some sort of an opening in the middle their players didn’t have enough decisive quality to make the difference. Valbuena’s chance in the 19th minute is a good example as was Fanni’s miss early in the second half. Theo and Ramsey scored from comparable situations.

The second half was different. Initially it seemed to me that the Gunners were deliberately conservative on their left flank in the first half but Wenger’s comments suggest that was not the case.

I felt we were a bit within ourselves in the first half, a bit timid, and Marseille were more mobile and first on the ball…

I felt we didn’t change sides enough in the first half and didn’t find Jack or Özil enough. But Marseille defended very well and stopped us from playing through the lines. We didn’t go in enough behind and overall there was not enough purpose in our game. I insisted more on that at half-time.

Look at the crosses comparison above and you’ll see there was practically nothing from the left side in the first half. Even the passes in the final third were of the conservative variety on the left with more verticality on the right. This changed in the second period.

Gibbs was decisive and passes to and from the full-back corroborate this argument.

Running into space in the second half

Most of the passes he received in the first half, even those higher up the pitch, were of a flat/square variety. These are usually conservative, safer passes designed to keep possession and recycle the ball. There wasn’t much in the form of penetration or verticality. Even in the second half most of the passes were square and safe, which makes sense, but there were enough passes that brought him into influential attacking positions as he ran onto balls in space.

Passes made by the Englishman into the final third also had greater purpose.

Greater verticality and purpose to passing

Greater verticality and purpose to passing

The difference wasn’t earth shattering and it didn’t turn the game around to the extent that Arsenal became the outright dominant side, but it was decisive enough. Apart from a couple of Walcott moments early on in the first half, there was very little offensive threat from Arsenal in the first half. In contrast, most of the chances created in the second period were high quality ones. These include, apart from the goals, shots by Wilshere, Gibbs, and Özil from the left side.

On the basis of this performance it seems safe to say that Marseille will not be pushovers in this group. But it will be surprising if they go too far in the tournament even if they do get through the group because their attack lacks the level of efficiency and diversity needed at this level unless they take a high level of risk and liberate their wingers, which would then affect the defensive shape and the balance of the side.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Handled the shots on target fairly well. Had one moment of communication gap with Mertesacker and one occasion when he came out and barely got a ball that seemed easy enough to collect. Typically adequate performance behind a defence that shielded him well.

Sagna: He got some space on the right in the first half but there weren’t sufficient targets in the box. That cross for Wilshere in the second half was superb. Work rate on the flank was commendable given the number of times he had to chase back.

Mertesacker: I liked the way he covered the flank when Sagna was up the pitch. Used his reach intelligently and prevented opponents from getting in behind or reaching the byline. It did enough to slow the play down for help to arrive. Passing was reliable, made a number of vital interventions in and around the box, and received a boot to the face for his offensive intent! That mix up with the keeper could have been expensive. Once he started to, he should have taken responsibility and booted the ball away cleanly. Seemed to me Szczesny’s call put him in two minds and led to that horrible outside edge to first slip.

Koscielny: Had a relatively more comfortable game than Mertesacker but his covering wasn’t as effective. The chance for Fanni, for instance, came from his side of the pitch. Passing was more adventurous and less accurate than his partner. Surprisingly, went on a run deep into the opposition half when the team was leading by a goal.

Gibbs: MotM in my opinion. Defensive work was exceptional, including that massive off-the-line clearance, even though he had less support than Sagna on the other end. Made good choices with his positioning and passing and provided the ball for both the goals.

The back four had a challenging game but they did a good job for large periods. There were a few mistakes but those happen to all the teams. Look at Ferdinand’s mistakes against Leverkusen, for instance. Once again the Gunners limited the clear cut chances created by the opponents and this automatically increased their chances of winning the game.

Ramsey: Very close second for the MotM. Another humongous effort from the Welshman, easily doing the work of two midfielders. A bit lucky with the goal, and a tad unfortunate to concede the penalty. Defensive work was top class, including that tackle at the edge of the box that made me jump from my seat.

Özil: As discussed here, the German isn’t the type of player who is very comfortable in dropping deep and receiving the ball straight from the defenders, something that Rosicky does well, for instance. Add to that the fact that Marseille really compressed spaces in their half and it was always going to be a hard game for him to influence. There were some glimpses of his talent in a couple of passes for Walcott, that backheel for Gibbs, and the shot at the end that just went wide, but on the whole the performance was one or two notches below his calibre.

Flamini: Another decent game from the Frenchman as he kept things tidy in midfield and offered energy to move into wide areas when the team needed bodies. Passing was more reliable than it has been in earlier games.

Wilshere: As Wenger stated, in the first half he wasn’t involved in the game as often as one would have liked, although that outside of the boot chip towards Walcott was sumptuous. Did show greater discipline in hugging the flank and that helped Gibbs, but his lack of defensive awareness meant it wasn’t always enough. Not his best game but was another opportunity to learn.

It was a mixed bag for the midfielders but they didn’t make any mistakes and worked hard to support the defence. Eliminating mistakes at this level can be very useful. Ramsey’s qualities made a big difference.

Walcott: Good to see him get off the mark for the season after a few missed chances in previous games. And what a goal it was! Superb technique and concentration. Had a chance early on when it seemed he was pulled back, but over time he’ll have to develop the strength to shrug off that challenge. Decent defensive work too.

Giroud: Was hardly ever free from the attentions of the defenders. Didn’t receive any notable service except for that corner he headed wide. Worked hard for the team but this game showed areas where he still has to improve to contribute at this level.

The attackers had an average game but the first goal made a big difference and it was down to individual quality.

Subs: Monreal didn’t have to do much defending and Miayichi’s appearance was only for the statisticians.

Wenger: His experience and quality at this level shows through not only in Arsenal’s performances but the choices of the opposing managers. If the result had been achieved with a bit more rotation it would have been that much sweeter.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Marseille

September 18, 2013

Three of the teams in Arsenal’s Champions League group are common from 2011-12 but the introduction of Napoli in place of Olympiacos has made this a genuinely tough group. That and Dortmund’s form last season has made Marseille to be the least likely team to come out of this group in the eyes of many. But don’t forget the Germans were very highly rated a couple of years ago too but the French club showed their mettle to secure qualification to the next round.

Marseille don’t concede many goals and that means they don’t lose many games. Only one goal was scored in the two games between the clubs from the 11-12 season, Ramsey’s injury time winner at the Stade Velodrome. There’s been a change of manager since then but Elie Baup’s side are as well organized and structurally sound as Deschamp’s team were. Their back four work well as a unit and the two midfielders, Romao and Imbula, offer physicality and discipline in front of them.

Neither of their two defensive midfielders is particularly adventurous but the left-footed Imbula, although often the deepest midfielder in the side, does sometimes drive forward with the ball and is pretty graceful at it. Most of their offensive threat will come from the guile and horizontal movement of Valbuena and the pace and trickery of the wide players, who often line up as inverted wingers. That means the right-footed Payet cuts inside from the left while Ayew does so from the right. Thauvin is another exciting addition but we’ll have to see whether he gets a start in this game. All three are good dribblers and will trouble the defenders if isolated one-v-one. They also possess a powerful, if somewhat inconsistent, shot.

Up front, Gignac is a bit like Giroud in terms of his physicality and movement. The striker’s finishing hasn’t quite risen to the level many had expected from him but he remains a threat, a bit like Giroud was last season. Arsene will hope this turns out to be one of his off days.

Marseille could be a threat from set-pieces. Valbuena provides excellent delivery and Lucas Mendes has been in good scoring form recently. Both their goals were scored by the defender from set-pieces in the last two games against Toulouse and Monaco and he also had a header cleared off the line against Toulouse.

We’ll have to see if Marseille sit with their two banks of four of if they come out and try to express their qualities a bit more. Arsenal have played a very conservative style in their strong run of form away from home, and it includes very limited pressing in the opposition half. Marseille’s defence can be vulnerable if they push up high and there could be some joy in the wider areas for the Gunners if either Payet or Ayew lacks consistency in the defensive work.

The central area will be congested and it will be hard to find space between Romao, Imbula, and the central defenders. However, some of Arsenal’s passing and combination play has been exceptional in recent games and they should be able to create a few chances irrespective of Marseille’s approach.

Wenger does not have many options in midfield or attack so we might see the same six that started against Sunderland take the field at the Stade Velodrome. In that case, I’d really like to see Özil remain central and Wilshere on the left. Interchanging positions when the opportunity arises is completely fine and vital to Arsenal’s approach but if Wilshere stays in the central areas for longer periods it will affect the balance of the side and leave the left back exposed as we saw in the second half against Sunderland.

At the back there is some scope for rotation depending on Vermaelen’s fitness. Monreal could also get a start to give the team some fresh legs.

Some fans also want to see the Gibbs-Monreal pair on the left flank. That could work in theory, and Wilshere could be rested if a full-back takes the midfield role on the left, but I don’t believe either of the full-backs really thinks like a midfielder. They can offer movement and passing up and down the pitch, but we will see very little in the form of instinctive positional rotation from them. This will slow Arsenal’s play down and limit offensive options. So such an approach is more of a defensive choice and seems a bit unnecessary in this game, unless sharpness/fitness of players is a real concern. It seems like a percentage call that the manager has to make.

I’ve not seen teams really press Arsenal high up the pitch thus far this season and it doesn’t seem to be Marseille’s style but they are capable of pushing up if chasing a game. Such a situation could make things very interesting because the Gunners are very strong on the counter-attack but the midfield could struggle to bring the ball out from defence on a consistent basis, resulting in transitions that would be valuable to the hosts.

Flamini’s performance will be important. He doesn’t quite have Arteta’s ability to circulate the ball and his positioning isn’t as intelligent as the Spaniard’s but he does offer greater energy and can chase the ball all night long. He must cut out unnecessary fouls and should try to focus his movement horizontally instead of occasionally looking for forward runs. Ramsey is a vertical player and will at times be away from defensive zones. Arsenal will need a player who can move into wide areas to help the defenders, because Valbuena and Gignac both have a tendency to drift into wider areas from time to time.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Ramsey, Özil, Flamini – Walcott, Giroud, Wilshere.

Vermaelen lacks match fitness so it might be too early to give him a start.

The Gunners have been defensively strong when they’ve worked as a unit but if it fails to click the team can look amateurish at the back on occasion. Arsenal haven’t lost in France in the Champions League and they might be able to extend that record as long as they don’t gift goals to the opposition. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember the qualities of Marseille and respect them even when the easier option might be to worry about the perceived qualities of Dortmund and Napoli and classify the French side as the minnows of the group. I have a feeling Marseille will surprise a few people, but hopefully it won’t happen today.