Arsenal 0 – 2 Chelsea: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 31, 2013

Wenger went with Ramsey and Wilshere in midfield and Miyaichi got a start, presumably because Gnabry wasn’t fit. It was a fairly strong line-up and certainly one that could compete with Chelsea’s second string, which, as discussed in the preview, could easily serve as a starting eleven at many Premier League clubs.

While the tournament itself is of little interest to me, the fact that Wenger played many of his regular players – some from the beginning and some as substitutes – showed he desperately wanted a win. However, numerous old failings were again visible as Chelsea controlled the game, first through possession and later through defence. The quality of Arsenal’s football certainly poses some questions about their ability to last the distance while performing against big teams, and cannot easily be brushed aside simply due to the stature of the competition.

The Gunners looked a little tentative early on and made a number of technical errors in the first five minutes or so. This allowed Chelsea to establish a rhythm and they dominated the ball. The absence of Arteta and Flamini was continuously felt in different ways but the players on the pitch worked hard to get bodies between the ball and goal thereby limiting the impact of any threat the visitors posed.

This wasn’t a case of good defending but a matter of working hard to somehow keep the goal protected. There are certain patterns which, when repeated, give us a good indication that a team is not controlling the game defensively.

For instance, when a striker is regularly able to move into space to receive and lay off the ball, opposition’s midfield runners can find open areas to attack, and many players from the defensive side are facing their own goal and chasing back, it’s safe to assume the defence is in the scramble mode. The image below is a decent example of this as Eto’o has dropped between the lines – gap is huge – and Mata is able to run into the space behind the full-back. Many Gunners are looking at Fabianski’s goal and chasing back including the two supposed defensive midfielders and a full-back.

Defensive Scramble 1

Usually, the oppositions attacking efficiency determines how threatening such instances are and the defensive side has to rely on a bit of luck as they try to slow the attack down and get a crowd around the ball.

Defensive Crowd

In the example above, Vermaelen slowed play down and the Gunners were able to somehow win the ball back by sheer weight of numbers. But look at the vast open space in front of the defence and the acreage that Eto’o is in. In such cases, the probability of conceding freakish goals is high because of these open areas where the ball could easily find its way to through a deflection. Instances of defenders getting in each other’s way because of their proximity and focus on the ball are also more likely than in cases where the shape of the team is not good.

The following example came in the 11th minute when quick feet and a nifty back heel by Mata gave De Bruyne a chance to run into space.

Defensive Scramble 2

Vermaelen gets sucked out wide as does Wilshere. Monreal is chasing back. Look at the gaps that have opened up (black circles) and the distance between the two central defenders (yellow line). There are many runners who can attack these spaces (red arrows). Only poor choice and executions by De Bruyne slowed this attack down and gave the Gunners a chance to regroup. Even then Willian was able to receive the ball in space and get a shot away.

It is important to remember that snapshots don’t really prove anything and you can find any team out of shape for a short instance if you really go looking. The pictures above are only illustrative. But when you see such problems over and over again during the game it’s clear that the defence is not at the level it should be and the side will inevitably concede a goal or two.

The two goals conceded by Arsenal were both down to numerous defensive weaknesses. ‘Corner to the Gunners, goal to the opponents’ will soon become a cliché. Jenkinson will obviously get bulk of the blame, and he should, but it’s worth noting what a mad scramble it was with many players chasing back as they could not control the break from Chelsea higher up the pitch. The ball was skied and had vicious rotation on it because it deflected from a desperate, perhaps ill-advised, attempt at a sliding tackle.

It was again a freakish goal. Azpilicueta will probably not score another such goal this season. For the Gunners it’s a unique goal to concede in that the exact pattern will likely not repeat but it’s also a very predictable goal to concede in that defensive scrambles will gift very soft goals to the opponents.

The second goal represented different types of problems. It starts with two horribly miscued attempts at clearing the ball. First, Koscielny goes to head a long ball and only manages to head it backwards even though he is under no pressure. Then Jenkinson shanks his clearance and it goes out for a throw. From the resulting throw both central defenders are attracted to Eto’o who’d made a run towards the byline. His flick back results in an aerial duel between Willian and Wilshere before the ball falls kindly to Mata whose technique to control and shoot is exemplary. Again there was an element of luck involved as Willian’s header wasn’t exactly a controlled pass. The shot also bisected the defensive players and swung at just the right moment to veer past Fabianski. But with central defenders getting sucked out of position and the defensive midfielders lacking certain physical qualities and ability to read the danger, Arsenal invited misery upon themselves.

Chelsea could have scored more had they been more efficient. But this was their second string and it showed. Even then Vermaelen seemed lucky to escape without a red card at the end as Dowd probably considered the score and time left before letting the Belgian off the hook. That was another instance where Koscielny could only head a long ball towards his own goal.

Having said all that, it’s very important to note that it wasn’t simply a case of inept football from the Gunners. Far from it. There were phases when they were pretty solid defensively and also moments when they produced some quality moments at the other end of the pitch.

Difference was that Chelsea were, for the most part, extremely well organized and maintained excellent spacing between their players which meant they could close threatening moments down or force the Gunners into producing something special.

Arsenal also struggled a bit because two of their starting attacking players were clearly below par for such a game, albeit for different reasons.

Bendtner seemed like a player who was very low on confidence and his touch wasn’t up to scratch. Furthermore, he’s always had a weakness that has limited his output at the highest level – the Dane does not make runs for the sake of running. Van Persie excelled at this and Giroud has picked up where the Dutchman left off. Strikers at a club like Arsenal, where football is so intricately linked to movement, have to be constantly on the move. Whether the ball arrives or not is irrelevant. They have to spot gaps and keep moving. It can be a tedious job at times but it opens the game up for the side. The problem with Bendtner is that he only seems to make runs when he sees the ball being played into a space. And that means he’s static for certain periods of the game, locking up vital portions of real estate on the pitch and making the job of defenders that much easier.

Miyaichi is clearly a kid who is not ready for such games and it would be harsh to expect too much from him. He needs a loan spell at a Premier League club, or a Championship side, or a strong club in a foreign league where he plays regularly. There is just no substitute for regular game time for the level he’s at.

Arsenal had some promising moments after Özil and Giroud came on the pitch but Chelsea always seemed in control defensively, even if they had to park the bus at times.

The lasting memories from this game will be of the defensive errors, some pretty combinations from the Arsenal midfield, and the moments when they seemed to run out of ideas when confronted with a sturdy blue wall in the Chelsea defence.

Individual Performances:

Fabianski: Could he have done better for either goal? Maybe. Certainly for the first a case can be made that he could have read the situation quickly and moved a little earlier. Jenkinson was never going to generate enough power to loop the header over him. Didn’t have many big saves to make and his handling of balls that came at him was confident.

Jenkinson: Villain No. 1 in most peoples’ books I guess. Some fans got carried away with his performances last season but, as I’d noted, it was more down to the limited nature of his role in those games. He is not a player who can be relied upon to move up and down the pitch while constantly maintaining a good position and making all the right choices. He should primarily be asked to focus on defending and keeping things simple with occasional forward forays when space opens up. This game seemed to hectic for him and even his crosses and other attacking moments seemed rushed and clumsy.

Koscielny: Made a number of important interventions in the box and further up the pitch when the side played a high line. But he also lacked concentration at times. The two instances of headers going backwards are good examples. Also struggled against the power of Ba when playing a high line against the striker. Can’t fault him for the first goal but shares the blame for the second.

Vermaelen: Had to spend a lot of time covering behind Monreal and did well to break up or slow down quite a few attacks. Another one who shares some blame for the second goal and shared the struggles of Koscielny against Ba. Lucky to avoid a red card. I was surprised he didn’t venture forward a bit more for some long range shots or getting on the end of crosses. The lack of a proper defensive midfielder might have held him back.

Monreal: Opponents got past him quite often with one-twos and quick interchanges which meant he was seen running back towards the Arsenal goal way more often than a defender should. Part of the problems was that the team wasn’t compact and he didn’t get sufficient timely support on the flank. Attacking contribution much better than Jenkinson’s but his final ball had scope for improvement.

The defenders had a tough game and made numerous mistakes. Better communication and awareness could have prevented the second goal. Mertesacker’s ability to read the game was sorely missed as was the presence of Arteta or Flamini in front of the back four.

Ramsey: Very hard working game in defence but he is not the guy who is going to hold position in front of the defence and keep things simple. Missed having such a player beside him. Was also trying to make things happen at the other end but didn’t quite have the right understanding with teammates and the spaces were too tight, time too short for working it out on the go.

Rosicky: On occasions, his manipulation of ball and space was a joy to watch as was his link play with Cazorla. But it was usually a bit too far from the Chelsea goal. Didn’t do enough to help the defence at times and should probably have played alongside the striker or made runs in behind with greater frequency.

Wilshere: Some of his runs with the ball troubled the Blues. For instance,  the run that saw Mikel picking up a yellow card had the opponents scrambling, while another one led to Giroud’s shot that forced an excellent save from Schwarzer. Defensively, he tried but again he isn’t a guy who naturally reads that aspect of the game. Also his choices and execution in the final third still leave a lot to be desired.

Cazorla: Like Rosicky, he too produced some easy-on-the-eye moments. But not enough, and certainly not in the decisive areas. Work rate was good and he surprisingly curbed his instincts to shoot. Corners could have been better.

Miyaichi: Have discussed above.

The midfield was not particularly well-balanced and that made it hard from a defensive point of view. Throw in the limitations of the two attacking players discussed above and the starting eleven was lacking something on either end of the pitch. The four main midfielders couldn’t quite compensate for it and they didn’t have the experience, mutual understanding, or skill to control the tempo, and thus the game, through their passing and movement. They also got in each other’s way at times when it seemed they were trying to work things out on the go. Sometimes it does feel a slightly higher degree of functional rigidity would help.

Bendtner: discussed above. I don’t think he was simply slacking off, just that he doesn’t have the drive (or the game intelligence) to keep running selflessly but in a tactically meaningful manner.

Subs: Özil and Giroud’s arrival did give Arsenal greater attacking impetus but it only went till the edge of the Chelsea box where a Blue wall held firm.

Wenger: The big games are here and his sides have lost to Dortmund and Chelsea through terrible defensive mistakes while not showing enough offensive bite. Deja Vu? It’s easy to dismiss this competition’s importance but the patterns seen in this game are concerning. Arsenal have struggled without Arteta and they will do so again, particularly when Flamini too is missing.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Chelsea

October 29, 2013

The fixture list is definitely a little harsh on Chelsea as this game comes just two days after their big League encounter against Man City last Sunday. But then you look at the amount of money they’ve spent and the options Mourinho has and there seems little reason to feel sympathetic. Demba Ba, Eto’o, Mata, De Bruyne, Willian, David Luiz, Obi-Mikel, Essien, Azpilicueta, and Schwarzer could all start regularly at many of the Premier League teams. Mourinho will probably have to rely on no more than a couple of youngsters.

With a team that strong, tactics would become irrelevant unless Wenger puts out a competitive midfield. Should he? That is the question.

It would be interesting to see Wenger’s record against Mourinho. Is it P8 W0 D4 L4? The Portuguese manager is exceptional at setting his side up to not lose. And then he usually has enough quality players and good enough ideas to nick a win.

Given the number of changes Wenger will have to make, it seems safe to assume they will concede a goal or two, at least. The Frenchman’s teams work best when there is continuity and the players have a feel for the game. That doesn’t work with wholesale changes.

With that in mind, Penalties might be Arsenal’s best hope and that too only if they can remain defensively resolute for the duration of the game and extra time.

Flamini and Arteta are absent so Wenger has to either go with a youngster like Hayden as the defensive player or start both Jack and Ramsey. I’d just throw Hayden in at the deep end and see what he can do against the likes of Mata, Willian, and De Bruyne. Wilshere and Rambo have bigger fish to fry soon enough. Even then, Wenger will probably have to play one of those two. Jack should get the nod if he is fit (problem is nobody seems to know whether he is fit or not!).

Rosicky could get a nod at the top of midfield with Bendtner leading the line. Gnabry deserves a go against the big boys and he could have a very interesting battle on the right if Mourinho plays Bertrand at left back.

Fabianksi, Jenkinson, Vermaelen, and Monreal should get a start and that leaves a couple of places to fill. Mertesacker would be the ideal partner for Vermaelen because the German is exceptional at reading the game and can be a calming influence.

On the left of midfield, the choice seems to be between the youngster Miyaichi and Cazorla. Santi seems the better choice as he’d bring experience and technical qualities to the side.

I’d like to see,

Fabianski – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Hayden, Rosicky, Wilshere – Gnabry, Bendtner, Cazorla.

That seems like a strong enough side to me. But does it stack up against the team Mourinho can field? It’s a shame Flamini is injured.

Arsenal have some pace and trickery in that midfield. They can trouble the likes of Mikel and Essien if they move the ball quickly. But pushing up the pitch in numbers against any Mourinho side is always a risk. Wenger might be tempted to play Vermaelen and Koscielny together if he wants pace in defence. That will make the game very, very interesting but might make Fabianski’s life miserable.

Avoiding early mistakes will be extremely vital. Going behind will force the Gunners to be even more adventurous and the scoreline could potentially get bad enough to defenestrate all confidence while giving weight to questions about the squad’s qualities and depth.

Bendtner’s movement and link play will have to be top notch. Gnabry or Rosicky will have to continuously join the attack on the defensive line or look to get in behind. If Chelsea have Kalas and Bertrand in the back four, the Gunners should look to force mistakes through their movements by engaging these youngster and forcing them into choices and areas out of their comfort zone.

This tournament is a complete waste of time in my opinion. So I don’t really care about  the result of this game. As long as the key players are able to get a break and those who play don’t get injured, it will be a success in my book.

Crystal Palace 0 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 28, 2013

Wenger went with the expected line-up making just two changes to the side that lost to Dortmund. It was a pretty straightforward game and the only two questions were whether Crystal Palace will change their style and buckle down to make things difficult for the Gunners, and was the law of averages going to favour the hosts in the form of  a big refereeing decision going their way?

It all went to plan in that sense. Keith Millen didn’t follow in Holloway’s footsteps as the Eagles played five across midfield in a very compact system. They cut out the spaces between the lines fairly effectively and defended the central areas pretty resolutely with effective redundancy built in.

The Gunners did enough to grind out a win and on the balance on play they deserved all three points along with their second clean sheet of the season in the League. It wasn’t a great game to watch and there didn’t seem much to analyze in it either so i’ll just touch upon some of the observations that stood out.

This wasn’t the first time Arsenal came up against such a well-organized, deep sitting defence, and it wasn’t the first time Wenger’s side struggled to open such a team up.

There were a few positives in the way they played on the right flank. I liked the way they were trying to find their way behind that defence with quick interchanges. It didn’t work out in this game, at least in the first half, but the attempts were appreciable. Players were getting on the defensive line, Özil was finding little pockets in very tight areas, Sagna was offering good width and tenacity, and there were some attempts to run in behind.

There were some promising moments on the right side which fizzled out as the final ball was lacking, or the angle was too tight, or a defensive player made a crucial intervention in the nick of time, but this is something Arsenal haven’t done often and it was pleasing to see. It’s certainly much better than passing sideways and backwards or sticking hopeful crosses into the box where just one attacker was surrounded by many defenders.

Of course, they did much of that in this game too – it’s not something that will go away overnight – but there seems to be more diversity to their approach now. Urgency and efficiency – both seemingly lacking in this game – should come once they get the confidence to play their game in such tight spaces.

The penalty at the beginning of the second half showed the merits of what they were trying to do even though it was largely down to a terrible challenge. There’s always a chance of defensive players making such mistakes if you get quick-footed attacking players behind their lines because an element of panic can easily set in.

The game turned on its head when a big decision from Chris Foy reduced Arsenal to 10 men. While it’s hard to begrudge Palace getting a bit of luck, the decision itself seemed ridiculous in more ways than one.

I’m not sure it was a foul. Chamakh played the ball, which went straight ahead, but then the striker leaned and stepped towards his left bumping into Arteta. Given Chamakh’s history I’m pretty sure he was looking for that contact.

Even if we assume it was a foul, it’s very hard to say that was a goal scoring opportunity with a guy like Chamakh chasing after it.

Then there is a matter of consistency. I recall David Luiz committing a similar foul against Everton – albeit just inside the opposition half – and getting away with a yellow card. That one was unquestionably a foul and a cynical one at that. It’s just that some referees make these calls and others don’t.

The bigger issue for the Gunners  though was just how easily they got caught up in such a mess despite having a corner at the other end. It happens way too often and Arsenal will find it hard to perform consistently over a season with such weaknesses.

I did like the way they dropped back and held a decent shape. Wenger’s substitutions were effective.

The hosts only managed a couple of long range shots even with their man advantage. Szczesny made very good saves but it was the team work in defence that ensured the clean sheet. Palace didn’t have a single shot on target from inside the box.

There was a small phase of 5-10 minutes when Arsenal weren’t able to string together many passes but after that they also did a very good job of building attacks. I thought Arsenal created more promising moments than the hosts despite being a man down.

The second goal was particularly enjoyable because it stood for desire and determination.

Given the hard-fought nature of the encounter, an argument can be made that Wenger was right in selecting such a strong line-up. Perhaps he was. I do feel Arsenal have to learn to get results in such games while playing a few more of the second choice players if they wish to see success in the long term.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Made two very good saves, particularly the first one (if he did actually get a touch). Was extremely shaky against balls in the air. Distribution was good.

Sagna: As discussed above, he offered good width and tenacity in the attacking areas although at times it did feel like he got too close to the winger. A couple of crosses were very good but he also lacked a bit of composure when he got into dangerous spaces in or on the edge of the box. Was largely solid defensively.

Mertesacker: First half was mostly a comfortable period but he was busy once Arsenal went down to ten. Excellent with his positioning and made more tackles than he usually has to. Made some vital interventions in the box, including the occasion when he just got his head to a ball that seemed destined for Chamakh’s forehead. Passing was simple and effective.

Koscielny: I enjoyed a couple of his long diagonals. That’s something in his repertoire that can come in very handy and should be developed. Steady game defensively. Might possibly have been more alert to prevent the lay-off that led to the first Szczesny save.

Gibbs: Very busy game defensively and saw a fair amount of the ball even though Arsenal built most of their attacks down the right. Didn’t seem to know what to do on more than one occasions when he had the ball in space in the attacking areas. Should have stayed deeper and then tracked Chamakh’s run instead of bombing forward when Arsenal already had eight outfield players in and around the box.

Monreal: Looked like he was enjoying his time in the attacking areas. Played a good long pass in the build up to the second goal, created a very good chance for Özil, and almost danced his way through to the goal. Defensive work could have been better.

The defenders have been doing well and have limited shots on target from truly dangerous areas. It was again the case in this game. But looking at the quality Palace had there were a few disappointing instances too. Gibbs as discussed above should have been alongside Arteta and chasing back. There was also that moment when Chamakh was completely free in the box and the ball just sailed over him by an inch or two. That should not happen but in that instance Gibbs had to defend against two players and he went to cover the one behind him.

Arteta: Took his penalty well. Was having a typically controlling game before he was harshly sent off.

Özil: Was excellent at getting into space and linked a lot of the play on the right side. He did drift towards the left as well but Arsenal weren’t able to work much on that side. Good work rate after the team went down to ten but there were moments when he seemed tired or just annoyed at all the kicks he’d received. Could probably have done better with the late chance that came his way.

Ramsey: Composure when scoring goals is easy to see but the ability to hold off till the right moment before playing the final ball is just as important. I enjoyed the delicacy and timing of his assist. Work rate was excellent and he was one of the players contributing to the combinations down the right side.

Cazorla: Had one or two moments on the right side where he looked threatening but it was a more subdued performance from him in general. Not sure he enjoyed the game.

Gnabry: Almost won a penalty in the first half, did win one in the second. Made very good vertical runs when he had the chance, also created that chance for Ramsey, and didn’t shy away from responsibility even in very tight spaces. It’s very easy to forget his age when watching such efforts. Decent defensive work.

Flamini: Unfortunate to pick up a groin injury, and that too so early in the game.

Wilshere: Very disciplined defensive work and played a couple of delightful passes, one of which almost put Monreal through.

The midfielders had a good game and were again the decisive factor in Arsenal’s dominance. They might have been guilty of a slow-ish tempo at times or of making a few too many safe choices but the combinations and penetration on the right bode well for the future.

Giroud: Took his goal well and played a big part in the build up but he also missed some very good chances. For instance, the second cross from Sagna was simply sensational. Even Özil’s cross that he chested should have been put away. Work rate was good but his touches and flicks didn’t quite work in very tight spaces.

Wenger: The result is good for the short term and his team are showing more variations when up against a very tight defence, but they remain vulnerable on the break and the lack of rotations is worrying

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Crystal Palace

October 26, 2013

Crystal Palace have been very unlucky this season. A few big decisions have gone against them and it’s made their life harder that it would anyway have been. But among the Premier League teams, they’ve also been a side that, from the little that I’ve seen, seem to be most lacking in concentration and determination.

At this level, none of the teams should be taken lightly. A few refereeing decisions and a quality effort from any defence and goalie can make a team highly competitive. Throw in a set-piece goal or lack of concentration from the supposed favourites and the odds on an upset can shift dramatically. Arsenal have already experienced this in the home banker against Aston Villa. Nevertheless, if there was one team against whom Wenger should ideally be able to make changes to the squad and still get a win, a side without any clean sheets in the League thus far, one with a caretaker manager who probably doesn’t have a shot at taking over full-time, and coming into this game with a run of five consecutive defeats would be it.

Crystal Palace have a lot of familar names in their ranks. Chamakh, Cameron Jerome, Jerome Thomas, Gabbidon, Guedioura, Barry Bannan, Jimmy Kebe, and Digkachoi among others have all featured in the Premier League before and have put in some decent performances. But the problem for them seems to be that none of these players have shown genuine consistency at the highest level. In a way, I get a feeling their football is too fragmented and lacking the feel of being a team.

Part of the problem could also be that under Holloway they’ve tried to be too adventurous at times. That means instead of focussing on keeping things tight and waiting for their chance they’ve tried playing out from the back even when the players didn’t seem ready for such a game at this level. It’ll be interesting to see if Keith Millen will continue with the same philosophy or if he sets his team up to defend and make it hard for the Gunners. In either case, pressing high up the pitch could yield dividends.

Most teams have found it fairly easy to break open their defence. Even though their total number of shots conceded is not very high (13.9 is just one shot per game more than Arsenal’s 12.8), the number of clear cut chances conceded seems to be troublesome. Along with Sunderland, Crystal Palace are the only other League side without a clean sheet this season (Arsenal have only one, won’t get a better opportunity to get the second) and they are conceding over two goals a game. The gaps between their lines and those between individual defenders in the back four are often quite large and easily exploitable. The Gunners could have an enjoyable outing and a great offensive game  if they can get off the blocks quickly and score the first one early.

One might argue Ian Holloway’s sides are not going to be the best defensive ones in the League but the worry for the Eagles is that their attack hasn’t clicked either. Their passing has been erratic and the forwards have shown very little in the form of understanding and combinations even though they have some appreciable and diverse individual qualities. Chamakh, for example, can be very good at holding the ball up and bringing others into play. Gayle, Puncheon, and Bolasie are quick and tricky. Jerome has scored some impressive goals in the past. They just haven’t performed as a unit and have failed to score in 4 of their 8 League games.

Millen’s best hope would be to keep things tight and hope his pacy attackers can get something on the counter or their physical qualities help them nick something from a set-piece. If the Gunners are not sharp, they will have a decent chance.

That brings me to the issue of rotations and the need for keeping players fresh. It’s hard to imagine Arsenal cannot win this game with the following line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Arteta, Rosicky, Flamini – Gnabry, Bendtner, Cazorla.

Most of these players have not played continuously. They should be fresh and hungry. It’d be great to give most of these players two games in a row with the Capital One Cup tie coming up in midweek. That should also give the likes of Ramsey, Wilshere, Özil, and Giroud a good breather before a string of big games.

This is a question I’ve raised on a number of occasions – what’s the point of squad depth if it’s not used when needed?

That said, I’ll be amazed if Wenger makes many changes. Probably Flamini coming in for Wilshere and Cazorla for Rosicky are the only two changes I expect to the side that lost to Dortmund. In that case, Ramsey will be pushed to the right. It’s sub-optimal but should work if the off-the-ball game is sharp.

We are likely to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Flamini – Ramsey, Giroud, Cazorla.

The trade off that Wenger has to consider is freshness at a later date, chances of key players picking up injuries in a physical game, and more match-time for squad players vis-a-vis the probability of dropping points in a fixture almost all rivals will win. This is an absolutely must win game and that is likely to sway the manager’s opinion against many rotations.

The only way I see Crystal Palace get something out of this is if their physicality disrupts the Gunners, particularly if the referee is lenient or the law of averages results in a big decision going in their favour. That and, of course, any extension of the ‘Be a Gooner, Be a Giver’ campaign following the midweek generosity.

Arsenal 1 – 2 Borussia Dortmund: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 24, 2013

That was a great game of football where two very good teams showed immense respect for the opponents and worked hard to negate their strengths. Such contests are usually settled by individual moments of quality or mistakes. In this case I thought all goals were a result of mistakes, and in big games involving such instances, the odds are, unfortunately, on the Gunners to lose. In that sense, the result was hugely disappointing but not surprising.

As Wenger said after the game,

If you look at the number of saves our keeper had to make tonight and you concede two goals, you can say that we can only look at ourselves for not being mature enough in situations like that. If you cannot win the game, you don’t lose it. Especially in the second half when we were on top, we made things difficult for ourselves by giving them the second goal.

This just happens far too often, and with varying team members and tactical approaches, for it to be written off as an adverse accident. I’d say this was a predictable mishap but also one whose frequency has been curbed in recent times. The next couple of weeks are rife with accident prone areas so we will get a chance to verify the accuracy of the previous statement.

Don’t get me wrong, Arsenal weren’t bad per se. Nor were Dortmund on a different level of class as many seem to suggest. In fact, I thought the Gunners played really well for large parts of the game in defence and attack. But look back over the last few years at all the big games played and you’ll see that Wenger’s side have suffered a lot more than their opponents whenever such ties are settled by individual mistakes, particularly when there are numerous errors in the build up to the same goal including experienced players simply switching off.

The game started as expected with Dortmund relying on pressing and transitions. They had two attempts in the first six minutes. At that rate they would have tallied up around 30 shots by the end of the game. But both of those were hopeful punts from distance rather than worthwhile chances. Even so, the Gunners adapted their game early on and sat back in a strong defensive shape. The visitors did the same when they lost possession although their pressing was more intense and they didn’t drop back onto the edge of their box. Instead, their defensive approach was mostly about denying space in the central third and defending the space behind their back four by making it hard for Arsenal to pass or run into those areas. This is their bread-and-butter and I’d covered it in the preview so won’t get into it again.

The important point to take home was that neither side created much. Look at the passing charts of both teams in the first half and you  can see how sparsely populated the vital central attacking areas are.

First Half passing comparison

Dortmund managed a few more passes in the black box than the Gunners but they never really threatened. Most of their chances created were hopeful long range shots that didn’t even hit the target.

That’s also the reason the goal conceded by the Gunners was so disappointing. Ramsey had the chance to play a very simple first-time pass to Özil. I doubt he ever realized that pass was on. Instead, the Welshman attempted to dribble his way out across his own penalty area. Such tactical immaturity is agonizing for the fans, the manager, and the player himself.

Arsenal’s equalizer came from a cross on the right side that left Subotic and Weidenfeller in a muddle. It seemed to me that the Keeper had it covered and if the centre back had left the ball Giroud would not have gotten it. But the Serbian international went for a risky clearance and only succeeded in deflecting the ball away from his teammate with the gloves. It was good to see Giroud score an opportunistic goal, he doesn’t do it often enough right now.

The pattern in the build up was the fourth occasion when Arsenal had found a full-back in space and this was the only occasion when the cross came into a dangerous area. This too, remains an area where the team can improve. When you know the opponent is this good at defending the central areas you need greater precision and coordination in attacking from the wide areas. Arsenal did create some decent chances in the second half from wide on the right but that came at the risk of exposing the defence because greater numbers were committed forward.

That brings me straight to the game in the second period. The first 15 minutes or so were very similar to the opening 45 and neither side created anything of note.

45 to 60 passing comparison

The entire game changed when Wenger introduced Cazorla for Wilshere. I would have been tempted to make that change at half-time but these are always tough decisions and I’m glad he didn’t wait till the 70th minute!

60 to 81 min passing comparison

For the next 20 odd minutes Arsenal had a period of dominance they’d not experienced in the game before. I recall three good chances created during this period. Two fell to Cazorla and the other was an inviting cross from Sagna for Giroud. The Gunners just lacked a bit of efficiency and credit must also go to the visiting defence because these weren’t exactly gilt-edged opportunities.

Dortmund had only one shot in the second half. That was on target and proved to be the winner.

There are a few interesting discussion-worthy points about this goal.

Firstly, there was a very weak header from the highly rated Bender than came straight to Giroud just outside the box. The midfielder would have looked a major culprit had the striker buried his volley. But the Frenchman fluffed his attempt, whether it was a shot or a touch is hard to guess. Hummels too had made an error just a short while before when he passed the ball straight to Cazorla. Such errors are forgotten when the team wins.

Then it’s worth noting that Arsenal had a 5-v-9 in the attacking third when the ball was cleared following Giroud’s loose touch.

Arsenal facing 5 V 9 in attack

Count the number of Red and Yellow shirts. Weidenfeller is  just to the left outside the frame. That means only Lewandowski was further up the pitch for Dortmund. Arsenal had Rosicky, Özil, Arteta, and the two central defenders between this play and Szczesny’s goal.

Also note how high up the pitch Sagna, Gibbs, and Ramsey are. These are player with dual roles i.e. they join in attack and have to work hard for the defence. In this instance, all three are in very advanced positions.

From such a situation, the Gunners somehow contrived to end up 4-V-5 in their own box in a matter of seconds (again not including the Keeper and Grosskreutz is technically not in the box but he played a vital attacking role deep in Arsenal territory).

Dortmund 5 V 4 on counter

Just imagine how many players have to goof up for such a situation to arise from the position they were in at the other end. It’s also important to note that of the four players in the box one is Gibbs who had chased all the way back. And the other two on the left of the image are Sagna and Cazorla who were also in the attacking third just moments ago. There is no sign of either Rosicky or Özil. That’s just irresponsible, and from players with that kind of experience it’s simply awful.

In theory, Özil probably should have chased back because he was on the flank and should have covered behind Sagna. But he’s not a guy with a defensive mind. In which case a more defensive minded midfielder should have compensated. But sadly, Rosicky isn’t the most aware in that regard either.

Szczesny, too, was very poor for this goal. He seemed to come for the cross and then stopped before realizing he had to move across the face of his goal. He had time to get closer to the striker and cover the angle to the near post. After that if Lewandowski scored at the far post it would have been a more deserving finish because Koscielny was also in a good position to clear any shots going that way. But the Pole left a hole that proved to be Arsenal’s grave on the night.

This is not all either. There were other opportunities for the Gunners to break this attack when Lewandowski first reached the clearance and Dortmund got a chance to control the ball. More proactive defending or even a foul would have broken play up before it ever got serious. It seems safe to speculate that it would have ended in a draw at worst because the visitors seemed content with a point. They had offered very little in the preceding 20 minutes and were on the receiving end of some chances.

Arsenal have done this to some teams in the recent past, i.e. hit them on the break with ruthless efficiency against the run of play. Dortmund just gave a dose of that medicine to Wenger’s side.

That the Gunners couldn’t muster any sort of an attack in the final 10 minutes after the goal was another disappointment on the night. But it was also a measure of Dortmund’s professional style and their ability to see the game out in the Arsenal half.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: His distribution was good as he often spotted players who were free and found them accurately. Had very little to do in terms of saves or dealing with crosses. Should have done better for both goals but the first can probably be excused. However, his attempt for the second showed an error of judgment. Goalkeepers have to read these situations quickly as the play is in front of them and they can see most of the field. I’m not convinced he reacted quickly enough to what would have been a speck of yellow moving in his peripheral vision when his eyes were on the ball. That’s sometimes the difference between there and thereabouts.

Sagna: He found some space on the right on a number of occasions but only once or twice did he deliver the right ball. Then again, without defensive mistakes even that one troubling cross might have been enough to win the game. Did well against Reus for the most part. Couldn’t really have chased back for the second goal. Passing accuracy was way below his standard but I chalk that down to Dortmund’s pressing quality.

Mertesacker: Made a couple of important clearances in the second half but he had a fairly uneventful defensive game otherwise, particularly when considering the quality of the opposition attack. That’s also a tribute to Arsenal’s defending as a team for most of the game. Don’t think he shares the blame for either goal although you can argue he should have done more to win the clearance that started the counter attack.

Koscielny: I thought he had some impressive moments, particularly in individual battles with Lewandowski and Co. The stats say, and I hadn’t noticed this during the game, that he completed all 65 of his passes, which is just unbelievable against such pressing. Don’t think he should be blamed for the first goal but he did seem to move away towards the left when Ramsey did the same. It was as if he expected the Welshman to come away with the ball and wanted to create a passing option. A more experienced defender might have closed the gap between himself and Mertesacker. That way he might have had a chance to tackle Lewandowski. It’s a bit of a long shot but the gap between Arsenal’s central defenders in the build up to the first goal did stand out.

Gibbs: Had a good defensive game on the left flank with numerous useful interventions. This came about from good positioning, work rate, and calmness even under pressure. Wasn’t able to contribute much to the attack.

The defenders had a decent game. It’s hard to blame them for either goal although we can argue they could have done slightly better. The full-backs offered limited attacking utility but it seems linked to Arsenal’s inability to develop the crossing game in any purposeful manner.

Arteta: Incredible defensive work with excellent tactical awareness to get into very good positions, and won most of his individual duels. Also superb with his possession play, which was vital to minimizing lethal turnovers.

Özil: Arguably his weakest effort in his fledgling Arsenal career to date. Rarely found any space to do his thing and Arsenal didn’t have players who could get in behind. Still created a couple of very good chance once Cazorla was on. One of the two main culprits for Dortmund’s winner.

Ramsey: Wasn’t able to get in the game and saw much less of the ball than he usually does because he didn’t have the off-the-ball game for such a contest. Defensive work was decent but that mistake casts a dark shadow on everything else.

Rosicky: He seemed like a player who could bring the much needed verticality to the side and was looking to find teammates behind the Dortmund lines more often than anyone else. Also went very close with that shot. But his lack of urgency for the second goal was a major blot given the experience that he has.

Wilshere: 1/6 with his take-ons, only attempted 20 passes in an hour played and with just 65 percent accuracy. You could still pick out 3 or 4 highlights worthy individual moments but overall a disappointing game. I’m not convinced the effects of any injury were the main reason.

Cazorla: Joint MotM with Arteta in my book despite playing only for half an hour. He just got into very good positions and that opened up the game for other players too. Excellent in individual moments and very unlucky with the shot that hit the bar. Could probably have picked a clear pass to Özil instead of the disguised, tougher one for Giroud when Hummels made a bad mistake and gave the ball away.

The midfield was always going to have a tough battle against some of Europe’s best. The mistakes that led to the goal were extremely disappointing but they also produced some high quality football and overall work rate was commendable.

This might be hard for many fans to follow, particularly those with a strong emotional way of looking at things, but I thought Ramsey and Wilshere were exposed a little bit in this game. In the last few years we’ve seen many hyped up British midfielders come up short against top class European opposition and that seemed to me the case in this game with respect to those two. I don’t exactly mean this as a criticism but it should serve as a timely reminder that they both have a lot to learn. For example, Cazorla’s movement, technique, and choices were so much more developed than anything Wilshere could offer in a comparable role. Experience, of course, plays a big part but the youngsters have to realize just how far they still have to go.

Giroud: In the first half he did really well to get in behind after winning individual duels with defenders. The first one led to a free-kick and a chance for Koscielny, while the second led to Rosicky’s shot. Work rate was again top notch. As stated earlier, I also enjoyed the opportunistic nature of his goal. A lot of his flicks and one touch passes did not come off as the pace of the game was high and margin of error very low. That remains an area of improvement. Also had to develop his ability to play on the shoulder of the last defender when they’ve such a high line.

Subs: Bendtner and Gnabry had very little time on the pitch.

Wenger: There’s been genuine improvement in defending in 2013, even if it’s more of the dropping deep in numbers variety, so I’d like to see the next few big games before reading too much into the errors. For now they were just a jarring reminder of the mistakes from the recent past that can return if concentration drops or players take unnecessary risks. But if the errors are repeated and many points dropped, he will have to reconsider his approach to the game including the coaching set-up.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Borussia Dortmund

October 22, 2013

You’ve seen the fixture list, haven’t you? With the exception of Crystal Palace this weekend, the Gunners face tough tests against Dortmund, Chelsea, Liverpool, Dortmund, and United in the next 20 days. It’s simultaneously a mouth-watering set of fixtures and a nerve-wracking one that will undoubtedly give us great insights into just how good this Arsenal squad is.

It begins with Jurgen Klopp’s Champions League finalists visiting the Emirates for the second time in the last three years.

Dortmund have gained a lot of new fans in the last couple of years, for many of whom they are the second team they like to support when watching as neutrals. I’m sure plenty of Gooners fall into this category.

Klopp has created a thrilling style of play, which is always exciting to watch because of the numerous attacks they create. Tactically, their approach isn’t a novelty but the Germans have refined some of the standard principles to the verge of perfection. I see their philosophy based on two core strengths.

Controlled, cohesive pressing…

Dortmund are exceptional at pressing high up the pitch but not in the manner of the Barcelona wolf packs with their oft-mentioned six-second rule. Lewandowski and Co. stand off the defenders initially before they start the process of closing play down. The opponents can play a few passes between the central defenders, full-backs, and maybe even the deepest midfielder but the Germans systematically close the ball down until they box the player on the ball into a corner with very few options. Usually, this is inside the opposition half or the centre of the pitch. They force a mistake from the man in possession resulting in a turnover.

When you watch the game, try and see how diligently and efficiently they close passing channels down. They don’t always mark man-for-man but the positions they take up just render most passes unsafe. This isn’t exactly an earth-shattering tactic in itself – most teams who set out their first line of defence around the centre line make exactly the same attempts, even the Gunners have used this tactic on quite a few occasions – but the precision of their positioning and cohesion with which they move makes it a delight to watch, unless your team is the one struggling to get forward.

One of the cornerstones of their success is the sheer number of times they can force opponents into giving the ball away while being out of shape. And that brings us to their second pillar of strength,

Lighting fast transitions…

Since teams are spread out when trying to build play from the back, any transition from central areas or in the defensive half is likely to put the side in a state of bother. Throw in the understanding between the Dortmund players which enables instinctive passing and movement alongside their excellent technical qualities and pace, and there usually is a shot on goal before the defenders can get to their positions. In that sense, Klopps side are prolific attackers and have seriously troubled even the best defences around Europe.

Their success is normally linked to their efficiency on these transitions. When they take their chances they can run up big scores even against teams like Real Madrid and Man City. They lose to the likes of Borussia Monchengladbach when the touch in front of goal fails them.

These tactics make them an extremely dangerous Cup side, particularly for teams that like to build from the back.

The supporting cast of skills…

The approach discussed above takes care of their defending as well as their attacking. Since they are so interlinked many people don’t realize Dortmund are primarily a counter-attacking team with a strong focus on defending.

Klopp’s side are also very good at picking out long passes and transferring defence to attack through those when pressed high up in their own half. Lewandowski has grown as a striker over the last couple of years. He has an all-round presence now and constantly helps his teammates build attacks through his movement, passing, and work rate. He is also a lot more potent in and around the box. I won’t be surprised if in the future it’s revealed that Klopp worked with him on this including studying the performances of the likes of Van Persie who impressed the manager the last time the sides met.

Their defenders are very good at chasing attacking runs and they also take up good positions in terms of distances from the attackers, which allows them to make different choices, i.e. whether to step up, or to go for the interception, or go engage in a duel, etc., depending on the qualities of the opponents.

What does it all mean for the Gunners…

Arsenal have the stronger midfield of the two sides. Dortmund have greater pace and better diversity in attacking players. The defences are comparable with the visitors having a slight edge in central defence but the Gunners have stronger full-backs.

For Wenger’s side, the crux will be in establishing their midfield dominance. They have to get past Dortmund’s pressure through their technical qualities and mobility. If they do that they will have a chance to run at the Dortmund defence and a fairly high line. I believe the Germans are vulnerable once the ball goes behind the first line of defence but it just doesn’t happen as often.

The Gunners must also ensure they do not succumb to transitions with players out of position in an attempt to create passing channels. This is a tricky balance to achieve. Alternatively, they could cede possession and sit deep as they’ve done in many games this season. If they can retain concentration and defend the vital areas, opportunities to counter-attack will arise. But it has to be assured defending not desperate chasing. Arsenal might not recover in this game if they have the kind of slump we saw against Norwich.

I’m eager to see Klopp’s risk appetite in this game. Arsenal don’t have as much pace in the side right now and he could be tempted to maximize on his team’s strengths but setting them up to really compress the pitch in the central areas and the Arsenal half since the Gunners won’t have runners who can’t be caught unless the defenders doze off. Such a choice would make this game very exciting because it will give the hosts an opportunity to work their combinations and look for space in behind.

The Germans could also withdraw their first line a little deeper to cut down the space between the lines in order to negate Arsenal’s strengths. I guess the team that imposes it’s style in the opening minutes will dictate the patterns of play. The first goal could be massive, particularly if the visitors score it. I don’t think Arsenal scoring first will make that big a difference because Dortmund will keep coming and I expect them to score in this game. Whether it’s just the one or more will depend on Arsenal’s concentration, discipline, and work ethic.

Wenger’s starting line-up…

With Flamini missing, Arsene doesn’t have too many options in central midfield. He has to go with Arteta and Ramsey. The back five will probably be the same, although a case could be made for fresh legs from Monreal. I doubt he’ll enjoy the contest against Aubameyang’s pace and Gibbs seems better suited for that challenge. But Monreal against Blaszczykowski would not be a mismatch. Özil and Giroud are also guaranteed starters.

That leaves just the two openings in the wide areas and the choices are between Wilshere, Cazorla, Rosicky (and maybe Gnabry? It’d probably be too big an ask for the kid). Rosicky on the left for his greater work rate and ability to go vertically and Wilshere on the right would be my choices. Santi is a class act but he looked like he was off the pace in the previous game and his style might just crowd the centre. That said, we have to acknowledge the guy is capable of changing the game with individual quality and would probably represent a bolder statement of intent from the manager.

I’d like to see,

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

Dortmund will undoubtedly create a lot and I’ve no doubt many people will hastily link that to Flamini’s absence. But Wenger will want his side to focus on their performance in Munich last year which triggered this excellent run of form. That remains the ideal blueprint for playing against such sides with or without the Frenchman.

Of course, it could be that one German side brings to an end a period of positive results that began against their national rivals just at a time when the fixtures are perfect for a string of poor results. Dortmund have won only one of their last eleven Champions League away games so a defeat for the Gunners will definitely raise genuine questions about their quality and could also affect the confidence of the side going into this crucial period. This is going to be a hard fought game but Arsenal have to repeatedly prove they can perform in the big games before any title pretensions are taken seriously.

Arsenal 4 – 1 Norwich: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 21, 2013

That was a lot of football packed into 90 minutes! Most of it was high quality and both teams deserve credit for their display. Arsenal produced breathtaking moves at times but Norwich too, showed bravery and commendable technical qualities. The scoreline flatters the Gunners a bit because the game was close for a long while but it is also a reflection of their superior quality in the decisive areas.

The first observation, and one that shaped a lot of the game, was the pleasantly surprising approach by the visitors. I’d expected them to sit back with their lines relatively close to each other for most of the game but they came out with a positive attitude and tried playing their game. Attempting over 500 passes at the Emirates is no mean feat.

The key aspect to appreciate here is that when a team sits back it’s so far away from the opposition goal that they have to rely on long balls to gain territory. But the visitors didn’t pull 8 or 9 outfield players deep into their half so they always had the chance to play out from the back.

The flip side of this is that the Gunners found a fair amount of space in front of their defence. If you look at the first goal – When Cazorla receives the ball and cuts inside, there is virtually no one blocking his path. Jack too is unmarked. Norwich had a narrow, flat back four – something they would be used to – but there wasn’t a second line in front of that. Tettey was the only one sitting in front of the back four.

Often it’s said that having a defensive midfielder with physical qualities sitting in front of the back four is the way to break down attacks, but look at that goal and you’ll agree it doesn’t work in all instances. Of course, the precision, vision, and understanding shown by Cazorla, Wilshere, and Giroud was other-worldly. It’s really the kind of goal that shows us why the so-called smaller teams come and park the bus at the Emirates. Five players are not always enough to stop such attacks. Although Hughton will probably agree that his full-back should have been tighter on Cazorla the moment the winger received the ball and his back four should have been compressing the space a little higher up the pitch.

Another very interesting observation in this game, particularly in the opening half-hour or so, was Arsenal’s pressing high up the pitch. It was sensational. As stated earlier, Norwich were brave and were trying to play their football, but the Gunners just suffocated them and turned the ball over in their own half on quite a regular basis.

Things changed after a collision that left Flamini with double vision. The Gunners seemed to lose their rhythm. Norwich were then on top for the final 10-15 minutes of the half.

Look at the difference between passes attempted and completed by both sides.

First, from kick-off till around the 32 minute mark.

Passes Comparison 0 to 33

And then, from the 33rd minute to the end of the half. Norwich’s passing accuracy was incredible. Passes comparison 33 to 47

With these, we throw in the tackles and interceptions made by Arsenal, again divided along the same time frame. Arsenal tackles first half

Of the 10 attempted tackles in the first half hour or so, 8 were around the centre circle or higher up the pitch. Only one was in that zone for the rest of the first half.

Arsenal interceptions first half

Similarly, there are no interceptions higher up the pitch after the 32nd minute till the interval.

Now, the dumbest explanation you are likely to read, and this could be a fairly popular opinion, is that Flamini is a great defensive player and his absence made the side vulnerable.

The Frenchman is a very good player and the substitution had an impact on the game but assuming any causal relationship between the unavailability of his defensive qualities and Arsenal’s slump is silly. It can be rubbished by pointing numerous instances in the recent past when the Gunners have lost control and have been pushed deep into their own half even when Flamini has been in the side along with countless comparable situations (playing well and then suddenly losing the grip or starting horribly and then recovering to dominate) over the last few years when Flamini wasn’t even in the squad.

But more importantly, the point to understand here is that any Wenger side playing well is a work of art reliant on rhythm with the players having the feel for the game in unison. The Frenchman is not good at producing functional sides where one player can be pulled out and a similar one inserted without any change to the output. That’s also why rotations don’t work so well for him but going down that road will be a major digression.

Coming back to the point at hand, Flamini’s absence disrupted Arsenal’s rhythm. The inexplicable swapping of Wilshere to the left also contributed to the chaos. The Gunners suddenly didn’t know how to build from the back and how to press higher up the pitch. Every player’s game was affected in terms of his positioning and choices made on the pitch.

Flamini wasn’t the only one pressing or winning balls back. In fact, the Frenchman only made two interceptions and no tackles in his time on the pitch, with only one interception in the opposition half. Most of the defensive work was done by the other players. For instance, look at the defensive dashboards of Cazorla and Sagna.

Cazorla first half defensive work

Sagna first half defensive work

Notice their tackles and interceptions higher up the pitch. They just couldn’t get to those areas once the team lost it’s mojo.

Now recall that Norwich were actually playing well but were thwarted by Arsenal’s pressing and you’ll see how they suddenly came to life. The game at this level works in small percentages. A 2-5 percent drop in Arsenal’s output would be enough to give the visitors the upper hand. They were able to build from the back and pushed the Gunners deep. Hughton’s side also did an excellent job of recovering the ball high up the pitch during this period, which meant Arsenal didn’t have a way out.

When the Gunners lose their rhythm or get into a muddle tactically, one tell-tale sign to look for is the lack of off-the-ball movement. You’ll see a lot of players who are static without the ball and waiting for something to happen that would tell them what to do. That kills Arsenal’s game because it’s so inherently reliant on movement. Opponents can feel confident when pushing up and pressing high because this lack of movement ensures the ball won’t be passed quickly to beat their pressure. Even the whole ‘lacking leadership’ saga has it’s roots in this but again it’s a major digression I want to avoid.

The fact that the Gunners can go from the sublime to the ridiculous in the same game when their flow is disrupted remains a major concern. Against the smaller teams they have shown – as was again the case in this game, kudos – that they can defend the vital central areas even when they’re not playing well and thus minimize the number of quality chances created. Norwich only managed two shots on target during their period of domination and both were relatively easy to save hopeful punts from distance.

The second half started where the first had ended, although Wilshere had moved back to the right and Santi to the left. The first ten odd minutes belonged to Norwich. The Gunners were unable to build from the back while the visitors pushed up the pitch.

Passes comparison first 12 minutes of the second half

Something very important happened during this period though, that isn’t quite captured by that chart. Arsenal scored the second goal. It was against the run of play but it’s quickly becoming a trademark for this team. The ruthless efficiency of that move knocked most of the stuffing out of Norwich sails. Giroud with another pin-point assist. Özil with a header! It didn’t quite have the visceral quality of the first goal but it was the more valuable one in my eyes.

After the goal the tension was lifted and it led to a degree of laxness among the players and then to a soft goal conceded. That was Norwich’s only shot on target from inside the box. It did bring back some nerves but the third and fourth goals settled the game. And when you look back it’s pretty clear that even during the closely fought periods or spells when the Canaries were flying high, the difference in class in the attacking third was evidently decisive.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Made a couple of decent saves from long range shots. Positioning and decision making was good. Might have done a bit more to slow down the game when the team was struggling but that doesn’t mean he shoulders any blame for the weaker periods. Deserves to be happy with this display.

Sagna: Did a good job of joining the attack and pressing high up the pitch. Excellent at defending his flank when the team was pushed back. Crossing seemed below par except one ball that forced a desperate clearance from Turner. Good understanding with Wilshere as neither got in each other’s way.

Mertesacker: Made one vital block and several useful clearances. Passing was super reliable.  Interesting that he was 24/24 for passes in the first half but only 2/2 between 33 and 47 minutes. Went very close to scoring at the other end when his header sailed agonizingly wide late in the game. Unfortunate that his attempted clearance flew straight to Howson.

Koscielny: Was the busier of the two defenders as Snodgrass was more of a threat than Pilkington and Norwich built a lot from their right. Reliable with his positioning, choices, and physicality in duels. Got on the ball only half as much as his partner but made judicious passes when he had to.

Gibbs: Like Sagna, the Englishman too made good offensive contribution, and his was a bit more intricate than being available out wide and putting balls into the box. Created a great chance for Giroud, for example. Unlike the Frenchman though, Gibbs’ passing was not as consistent as it should be. Of course, it was harder on his side as the visitors had more players there, but he could have avoided a few unforced errors. Couldn’t close Howson down quickly enough but I don’t blame him for the goal.

The back five had a pretty solid game and did an excellent job when the team was under consistent pressure. They could have done with a bit more support for the goal because Norwich were really pushing for the equalizer.

Arteta: I recall getting annoyed at a couple of misplaced passes by the Spaniard. It happens quite often these days and every time I look back at the game it turns out that those were the only bad passes from close to a hundred attempts. Point is, he is so good and reliable with his passing that every misplaced one has a jarring effect when watching his free-flowing style. Worked hard in defence to go with his excellent controlling game. Not in a glamorous way, but he kept the vital areas pretty well protected.

Özil: Delighted to see him among the goals. What a run that was to get on the end of Giroud’s cross. How many times will Arsenal score four without an Özil assist?! It’s great to see the creative burden shared and it should encourage him to continue developing other aspects of his game like dropping deep and getting into scoring positions in the box.

Flamini: The points made above were not an attempt to take anything away from the Frenchman who had a very good game before he had to leave the field. His positioning was good as was his commitment and passing.

Ramsey: I thought he started slowly and suffered a bit when the team didn’t quite have the right flow. Didn’t see much of the ball (Attempted only 4 passes and received 3) in the 10 odd minutes of the first half after he came on for Flamini. Grew into the game in the second half and played a big part in re-establishing Arsenal’s control. His goal would have received a lot more air time had the first goal not caught everyone’s fancy. The close control, composure, confidence, and change of direction were simply excellent.

Wilshere: Great work in the build-up followed by an amazingly cool finish. Also got a good assist for Ramsey’s goal. Struggled when he was on the left wing. Looking back he’ll probably feel there’s room for improvement in his play (precision, choices, etc) in the final third. I still find it hard to see him as a finished product, which does make him a genuinely scary prospect for the future. Such games are great for his development and the right wing could be the platform for calibrating the finer details of his attacking game.

Cazorla: Played a vital part in the build up to the first goal. Did a good job of winning the ball back higher up the pitch. Didn’t feel like he was at his best, which again bodes well for upcoming games when he’ll hit full flow.

Rosicky: Brought more energy and dynamism to the side after Cazorla tired. I did get a feeling he was cruising a bit and didn’t quite hit top gear.

When the Arsenal midfield clicks as a unit, the world notices. And when they don’t, virtually any team can dominate the Gunners. We saw both sides in this game but their quality in the attacking third was a class apart, and they made up for the weak moments through sheer determination. Well mostly, because there should have been another midfielder tracking Howson for that goal.

Giroud: Özil would have been proud of the precision of his assists. The Gunners will get a lot of joy if they can get balls to his feet and bodies closer to him in the attacking areas. Work rate was again top class. Almost scored, that was a great save by Ruddy.

Bendtner: Had the least time on the pitch of all the players but I liked the vibes that I got from his movement and body language. It just felt like he was ready to knuckle down and do what was needed to play a constructive part in the squad. Other things will come.

With the midfield as dominant and decisive as it is and given the way Arsenal play, the lone striker won’t always get too many chances to score (these will be spread around). So they need to put in a shift and contribute in other ways. Giroud is on the right path to becoming a complete all-round striker and Bendtner has certain unique qualities to offer of his own if he can match his competitors work ethic.

Wenger: Some of the moves in this game must be the kind of thing that makes all the hard hours worthwhile. It’s the stuff he can see in training, the kind of details that make him believe in the players and back them to the hilt. Can he find a way to bring this out more often while controlling the slumps? As said earlier in the article, these slumps could prove costly against better teams.