Thoughts On Marseille and Cardiff Games

November 30, 2013

The midweek Champions League tie turned into one of the easier games of this season once Elie Baup decide to rest some of his key players, presumably in an effort to keep them fresh for Ligue 1.

Wilshere’s early goal was well taken and from there on it was only a matter of how many Arsenal score. The attacking inefficiency, that I’d touched upon in the preview, gave the visitors a chance and there was some tension in the air till the second goal went in after the hour mark.

Jack’s performance on the flank was enjoyable. As against Southampton, it felt that most players played well at their expected levels. Ozil was a bit inconsistent, particularly in front of goal, but that’s never been his strength and remains a major area of improvement. Some of Ramsey’s chipped passes behind the defence were also very encouraging even when the player at the receiving end was caught off-side. Hopefully it’ll be something they continue to work on.

The only other notable observation from the game was that at times it feels Arsenal’s play is a bit too casual in such games. There’s nothing wrong with players having fun on the pitch but sometimes in such games when it tends to affect the efficiency of their performance, one can sense a lack of tactical maturity in the side. This works both ways – they should not be so nervous in the big games that the dreaded handbrake comes into play and they shouldn’t be so playful that it starts affecting the end product. Ruthlessness is a quality they have to achieve. It will take a little time but producing a 5-0 sort of a result – something they were well capable of in a game where the opponents aren’t getting near the ball like Marseille didn’t – tends to send out a stronger message to rest of the teams and helps the confidence of the players no end.

The casual nature of the performance also meant that the visitors had more of a look at the Arsenal goal than they should have and they had hopes of getting something from the tie even in the dying stages. Offensive ruthlessness can also help with defensive solidity because the opponents lose their motivation and are concerned about avoiding an embarrassing scoreline.

He might not have said anything publicly after the game, but Wenger’s expression throughout the game communicated the unease he probably felt because of the performance. That doesn’t mean it was a bad game, just that the players are capable of much better.

Cardiff are likely to pose a completely different challenge. In many ways they’ll be the archetypal Premier League opponents – well-organized defensively, committed in challenges, strong in the air, relying on counter-attacks and set-pieces, and determined to fight till the very end.

The Gunners will have to minimize their opportunities of putting balls into the box from open play as well as free-kicks and corners. Cardiff have the knack for getting numbers into the opposition penalty area when they get into crossing positions and are fairly successful at getting on the end of balls put into the box .

They also have some talented individuals across different positions who can influence the outcome with decisive contributions on their day. Mutch is capable of excellent technical quality and can produce final balls and goals from half a chance. Campbell has his moments in front of goal. Odemwinge is quick and has already scored against Arsenal whereas Medel is combative by nature yet reliable in possession.

The Gunners, if they play to their potential, should be able to dominate possession and create a fair number of chances. But they’ll have to find a good balance between patience and penetration. Also, as discussed above, offensive efficiency will be important.

Wenger’s men will also have to be clever with their choices, particularly choosing when to press higher up the pitch and when to dropping back. Cardiff are capable of playing two or three passes in defence to absorb the pressure before breaking forward. Incoherent pressing can therefore leave the team fragmented and vulnerable. The safer option is to drop back more often but that invites the opponents forward and closer to Arsenal’s penalty area. Given their strengths in the air it would not be wise to sit too deep against such a side.

Wenger was able to rest a few players against Marseille but will probably pick his strongest eleven for this game.

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Ozil, Ramsey – Wilshere, Giroud, Cazorla.

Walcott still seems short of match fitness. Rosicky had a lively game against Marseille but I’ll be surprised if he keeps Santi out of the side again. Gnabry could benefit from more playing time but will Wenger leave senior players out to accommodate him?

It’s a game Arsenal should win but I bet City and United fans felt the same when their sides went to Welsh capital. There are no easy games at this level and given their unique strengths I expect the hosts to score in this game. The Gunners will need better efficiency in attack if they’re to take all three points.

Thoughts On Southampton And Marseille

November 26, 2013

The win against the Saints was a good one in terms of performance and obviously useful in terms of consolidating the position at the top. However, there wasn’t much in that game from an analytical point of view. It was pretty much the Arsenal we’ve seen for the most part this season.

The visitors tried pressing up the pitch but Arsenal’s midfield and technical quality in general was just too good. In the end it seemed Pochettino’s men were often chasing the ball valiantly but in vain. I doubt there were any turnovers that led to attacks on the Arsenal goal. Apart from Arsenal’s ability to move the ball, you could also see Southampton are still new at this and have a lot to learn before they master such a style of play. On a number of occasions their pressing was reactionary and individualistic rather than cohesive, although the energy, persistence, and the attempted methodical nature might still be enough to rattle most teams in the League.

Similarly, you could see their build up from the back is also a work in progress. Boruc was palpably the culprit for the first goal but any manager who wants his Keeper to play passes like an outfielder has to instruct his defenders and midfielder to provide options when the custodian has the ball. Nobody moved when Boruc was getting cornered. It was a systemic fault and I’m sure Pochettino will look to improve all aspects of his team’s play instead of relying on simplistic solutions like kick the ball away.

The Gunners were again excellent in defending as a unit. I don’t recall Southampton having any clear shots at goal. A couple of volley’s from the edge of the box were their most noteworthy moments. Of course, there is some tension when the lead is limited to a solitary goal as the possibility of a freakish equalizer can be felt in the anxious breaths of fans and players alike whenever the opponents advance to the penalty area. Then again, the tendency to concede such goals was directly linked to deficiencies in the defensive unit so solidity on that front does provide greater comfort and reliability.

The only slightly iffy moments I recall were from Arteta when he miskicked his clearance on the edge of the box and when he gave the ball away leading to that chance for Rodriguez. Mertesacker too was caught flat footed once or twice. The fact that others stepped up and covered for errors from the most reliable defensive players bodes well for the future. It’s that layering thing I’ve talked about.

The attack is still not there and I think it will take a little time to get the exact balance between protecting the goal with assurance and attacking the other end ruthlessly and efficiently. It’s happened in some games but part of that was down to the defensive quality of the opponents. Southampton were pretty well organized and worked very hard to limit opportunities for the Gunners. Even then some of the interchanges in the midfield were delightful. They are moving around well but not quite finding either the right positioning in the box, or the final ball, or the shot. Bit of that is down to luck – like hitting the post – but it’s also about probabilities. The more and better chances you create the better your probability of scoring beautiful goals. On the other hand, the team did benefit from a different form of luck. Boruc probably won’t make that mistake again and I doubt Fonte will concede another penalty of that nature. The goals Arsenal got were odd in that sense. But on the whole it was a deserved win.

Individually speaking, it’s hard to pick one outstanding player. I thought everyone played well even if Mertesacker and Arteta were maybe two percent below their usually exceptional standards. Giroud was decisive and probably deserves the man of the match award.

I don’t expect the Marseille game to be very different. The dynamic of the Champions League group has worked out in such a manner that the French side appear to be the whipping boys. But they are a pretty good team in their own right and can still cause an upset if Arsenal drop their level even by a short margin.

Elie Baup’s side are physically strong and fairly well organized. If in his boots, I’d ask the team to press Arsenal really high up the pitch like Southampton did but with greater urgency and anticipation when closing down players off the ball. They haven’t got much to lose and by giving it their all they could regain some pride. Arsenal don’t enjoy it when teams get really tight to them in a physical manner, something Southampton tried but didn’t quite succeed with. It’ll also be interesting to see if they leave at least one of their tricky wide players up the pitch and closer to the striker who was isolated at times in the reverse fixture. That would also give Valbuena greater creative possibilities. Starting without a recognized central striker and playing the extra midfielder could give Marseille greater technical balance to counter Arsenal’s main strength.

Wenger’s side have shown high levels of concentration, discipline, and structure in most of their games. Same again should limit the opportunities that the visitors can create. However, there are times when it seems Arsenal do drop a little too deep. It’s good while it works but the margin of error is very fine when you’re on the edge of your own box or just inside. It’s certainly not good for the nerves and also limits the number of counter-attacks a team can create. Dortmund, for instance, look a much more offensive side even when they’re predominantly defending because their off the ball work is aggressive and higher up the pitch. I’m watching every game hoping Arsenal will move up the pitch a bit more but for now it seems results are the priority and it’s hard to argue against that.

Wenger has the opportunity to make a couple of changes to bring fresh legs in. Flamini is available and Rosicky could be ready for another start even if the game is still too early for Walcott. But given the importance of the tie, Wenger will probably not tinker with the line up from the Southampton game.

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

If things go according to script this would be another tight game where the Gunners show that little bit of extra decisive quality in the attacking third to get three points, but I won’t be surprised if a lack of offensive efficiency proves expensive. Either way, except in the event of Marseille crumbling mentally as they’ve little to play for, I don’t expect more than one goal to separate the teams at the end.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Southampton

November 23, 2013

The week before the international break was a tough one for the Gunners with some high profile fixtures but they came through it with reasonably good results. The next game is against a club that doesn’t have as big a name as the preceding trio but will undeniably pose as big a challenge.

Defensive solidity, derived from team work, structure, and discipline, has given the Saints an excellent platform from which to contest their games. If you can’t win, don’t lose. And Southampton are slowly becoming very good at not losing. It’s given them confidence and they’ve gone on to convert many tough fixtures into noteworthy results.

It’s too early right now, and the levels are vastly different, but in terms of playing style Southampton are a bit like the Premier League’s Dortmund. They are energetic, press cohesively, and make it very hard for opponents to build their attacks through the midfield. In attack, the Saints rely on combination plays with the attacking midfielder and left winger often looking to make runs in behind while the striker is developing into a very useful all-round contributor.

In tactical terms then, the Gunners will face similar problems as those posed by the Germans in the Champions League, although United probably executed the game plan even better when they denied the Arsenal players any time or space on the ball. Southampton will attempt to repeat that and the first half, in particular, could be a very tight affair. Wenger’s side will have to, firstly, make sure they don’t lose possession cheaply in areas conducive to quick transitions. Then they’ll have to work hard without the ball to get into spaces that will only appear fleetingly. The success of this and their technical efficiency will determine how quickly they can move the ball. That will form the crux of their offensive game. A quick tempo will be absolutely vital to getting past the first line of defence in order to push their back four deep or get in behind.

Southampton’s back four have received plaudits this season for keeping their goal secure and Boruc behind them has been excellent in games when he’s been called into action, but I have a feeling they can be troubled if Arsenal can break their well-spaced, cohesively moving pressing system.

At the back, the Gunners will have to watch for clever one-twos and runners getting in behind from wide areas or the midfield. The players worked hard against Dortmund and were able to defend the crucial zones and once again Arteta’s role is likely to be decisive. Concentration is easier to maintain when playing against bigger names but could prove equally costly if lost against intelligent and technically adept, even if less renowned, individuals from relatively smaller teams.

Southampton have also retained their previous strength of back post crosses and Lambert provides a good target in the box. I won’t be surprised if he pulls towards the back post to duel with the full-backs in the air, particularly Gibbs. Arsenal will have to deal with his knock downs because the visitors’ well-knit system means they can get bodies forward in numbers.

A couple of players returning from injury provide more options to Wenger but lack of match fitness will probably limit their chances of starting this game.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Ozil, Ramsey – Wilshere, Giroud, Cazorla.

Gnabry and Rosicky are other options for the right flank. I’d prefer the German youngster because he can bring something different to the attack in terms of engaging defenders and going behind them. Wenger will probably prefer the more experienced Czech star if he’s fit.

Walcott could be a decisive substitute in the final half hour or so if the game remains tight.

This game has that banana-skin feel to it because the opponents don’t have much to lose and are on a run of form where everything seems to be clicking for them. For that reason, three points would be immensely enjoyable and could help consolidate the lead at the top but should not be taken for granted.

Manchester United 1 – 0 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

November 14, 2013

When two teams are separated by a solitary set-piece goal after a tense and tightly fought encounter, it’s hard to accurately identify just how much of the football was good and what exactly went wrong.

I thought it was very similar to many of the big games Arsenal have played in recent years, particularly against United, but also noticeably different in certain very significant details.

Muscle memory is important in sport but soon, at least in football, we might even see  a term called tactical memory.  The whole point of training is to make players familiar with certain patterns so they can deal with game situations of similar mould in a desirable and efficient manner. But sometimes players have to be very specific in their functions when dealing with a certain kind of opponent and I thought United played this game just as they’ve done under Ferguson’s successful formula.

I haven’t seen the Red Devils play with this intensity while maintaining such structural solidity for most of this season but it was as if they knew just how to close the Gunners down. The basic idea is to compress play in the central third. Deny opportunities to pass through the middle through clever and precise positioning, channel the ball towards the flanks, use the touchline, and press the players on and off the ball to force turnovers.

One could argue that the Gunners were below par and were physically weakened by their battles against Liverpool and Dortmund earlier in the week. But that argument doesn’t hold water when you consider that almost all Arsene Wenger sides have struggled to score at Old Trafford. The Gunners haven’t scored more than 1 goal at this ground in the League under the Frenchman except in that entirely forgettable game. It’s not a matter of chance or details like form, fitness, or the quality of individuals available to each manager.

In recent years, Ferguson was able to identify how Arsenal wanted to build their attacks and found a way to negate that by having his players track runners. In this game many of the Arsenal midfielders were below par with numerous technical mistakes that were seemingly avoidable. But we must not ignore the intensity of United’s pressure in the early part of the game that partly forced these mistakes, as did their ability to channel play into areas they wanted to defend, which were away from the open central zones and more towards the touchline that is a defender’s friend.

United Interceptions United Recoveries United Tackles

Notice how United’s tackles, interceptions, and recoveries are mostly concentrated in the central portion of the pitch. Furthermore, the defensive actions – tackles and interceptions – are more concentrated towards the flanks than they are in the centre.

Most managers at this level can understand the theory but the crux for United has been their ability to execute it on a consistent basis from a defensive point of view and having players who provide a constant attacking threat.

The Gunners simply did not have the time to look up and pick out their passes and they didn’t have enough predetermined ideas that they could execute using their strengths. United were better in individual duels too which made a big difference. The Gunners only succeeded with 5 of their 22 attempts at taking players on. The hosts won over 85 percent of their tackles while the visitors only succeeded with 73 percent. Even in the air, Moyes’ side won 24 duels compared to 17.

While aerial duels are largely individual battles, most of United’s defensive strength was down to their ability to defend the right spaces and manipulate the play into tightly controlled zones where they helped each other out.

Arsenal weren’t far behind in this regard either, and this is one area where the team has improved significantly over the last couple of years. In the past, United might have created a lot more chances once they switched to the counter-attacking mode in the second half or when they had moments of persistent pressure in the first half. The Gunners were able to retain their defensive shape for large periods and limited clear chances.

The difference between the two sides was in the manner in which the defensive phase ended. United were more assured positionally and tactically. This meant that they were able to turn defence into attack more often. It would not appear to be the case if you weren’t watching closely but Arsenal actually had to limit the bodies they could send forward because of this threat and their limitations in terms of the depth and consistency of defensive thought throughout the unit.

Secondly, the Gunners were pushed back deep into their own half more than they should be. But this is the new Arsenal defence as has evolved over the last couple of seasons or so. In fact, if you remember reading, a lot of the analysis from last season covered the lack of balance between Arsenal’s defence and attack. The positioning of the players plays a big part in that. If eight or nine players are drawn into the defensive third, it will always be hard for the team to break forward in numbers. It has a direct bearing on the number and quality of chances that can be created.

I’m fairly certain Wenger doesn’t like his team defending that deep and won’t be surprised if that is an area of contention between him and Bould but going in depth on the subject is a digression this article cannot indulge.

Think about it and you’ll recognize that even this season the Gunners haven’t created that many chances in many of their games. The big wins that have come, barring an exception or two that can be explained by other tactical factors  – Like Liverpool’s formation or Napoli’s inability to deal with that tempo, have generally been down to solid defending and goals scored from limited attacking opportunities.

In that sense, Arsenal have been very efficient in most of their games. On another day they might have managed to put one of Sagna’s crosses into the net or the moments they created on the edge of the United box might have resulted in a goal. Sunday was different. Their efficiency was back down to normal levels. In contrast, their opponents had that one moment which worked perfectly for them. Or you could say the hosts were impeccable defensively while the Gunners made little but decisive mistakes in defence. United would not have been able to sustain their pressing for the duration of the game so avoiding mistakes in the first half was always going to be vital.

I did want to see how the team reacts to conceding the first goal and while the result wasn’t a good one there were promising signs in the performance. The team created more threatening moments – albeit not enough in number or potency – than they have against the likes of United and Chelsea in the past where it seemed like a bunch of talented youngsters were trying hard but senior professionals were handling them with ease while creating chances on the counter as the technicians ran out of ideas and left gaps at the back. There was a palpable lack of ideas in this game too, and there remains an undeniable need for developing wing play, set-pieces, and other aspects of the attacking game, but on the whole this felt like a much more closely fought game.

In the upcoming fixtures, the Gunners will need greater attacking diversity and the struggle in the search for balance will not end any time soon as they won’t always be able to rely on efficiency in attack. But performances like this one show they will be in with a fighting chance as long as the work rate, concentration, and discipline are sustained from a defensive point of view.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Had a fairly uneventful game, which is strange considering how close it was, but also understandable given the recent defensive stability.

Sagna: Put in a couple of sumptuous crosses in the second half and looked like a threat once United dropped back and he started receiving the ball in some space. Defensive work was reliable as usual but Kagawa was hardly going to be a big threat. Did well when their strikers pulled towards the flanks.

Koscielny: Made a number of important interventions in and around the box. Chased the strikers deep when he had to. Good to see he didn’t get turned when he went tight and higher up the pitch. More composure before shooting would have helped when he got the time to chest the ball down on the edge of the United box.

Vermaelen: Was even more involved than Koscielny with tackles and clearances at vital moments. Another player who has history of faltering when chasing strikers up the pitch so reliability on that front was appreciable. I would have liked him to join the attack more often, particularly in the final 20 minutes or so but by then Wenger had removed other players who could have covered for his movement. Why was he taking that free-kick!?

Gibbs: Much better after a tough time against Dortmund. Did lack composure in possession on occasion, which added to the team’s inefficiency. Hopefully, with experience his decision making should get sharper as he learns to pick his moments. Strong game defensively against Valencia who has shown the ability to get past full-backs.

The central defenders worked hard and avoided errors in their attempts to keep the goal protected. It was a pleasure to see them knock the ball out when under pressure instead of trying suicidal reverse clearances and what not. The full-backs also did well in terms of their positioning and concentration but the manager has to find a way to extract more from them when going forward in such games.

Arteta: The only midfielder who was consistently reliable in possession. The role in front of the central defenders is a vital one for a possession oriented side and almost all of his teammates are liable to the odd fatal error if they have to take on the mantle in pressure situations. Defensive work was again excellent.

Özil: Started centrally but drifted to the wings quite often as he found no space in the middle of the park. Some people have expressed surprise or disappointment at his performance in a big game but it’s worth remembering the German is the ultimate team player. His game is reliant on what his cohorts can or cannot do. His level will usually drop when that of the team drops. Can always create something out of nothing but even then a runner/finisher is needed.

Flamini: Decent defensive work in terms of chasing the ball and getting into useful areas. Very limited quality in possession.

Ramsey: Saw a lot of the ball and was trying to do a lot at times, which was another thing that contributed to the team’s inefficiency. As discussed on this blog, he’s made poor choices in a few games this season but when the match is won it’s not something everyone notices. These tendencies tend to stick out in adverse results. Lacks maturity at the moment and the calmness to pick and choose the right options in certain game situations. That won’t come overnight. On the positive side, work rate was again excellent, particularly from a defensive point of view.

Cazorla: Was the player who could have made a bigger difference than the others because he can take individuals on. But Arsenal weren’t able to isolate him one-v-one against a defender. Doesn’t have the tendency to join up with the striker or run in behind which limited the contribution he could make in tight spaces.

The midfield was below par and that was the primary source of Arsenal’s problem. Part of that was forced by United’s tactics and their ability to execute them with such diligence. Another linked aspect was Arsenal’s inability to develop predetermined plays for certain situations and their tendency to drop deep for defending. But individuals also have to take responsibility and there is room for improvement in everyone’s performance.

Giroud: This was another game that highlighted his technical limitations. He’s improved this season but a lot of his one-touch passes and flicks still result in turnovers. He’s quite good at holding the ball up once he has it under control but doesn’t control it as consistently as a top level striker should. Inability to get behind the defence remains a big weakness. It’s surprising/annoying that Arsenal can’t use his physicality and aerial presence to greater effect in the opposition box.

Subs: Wilshere was energetic, bringing Gnabry on earlier might have been interesting, Bendtner seems to be nowhere near his best.

Wenger: His side have lost three and won two of the five big games, hardly a great achievement. But there are obvious signs of improvement and the work done is producing some returns. He’ll want to ensure they can go further on the same path but faster. Keep avoiding mistakes and find greater diversity and variation in attacking options. Return of injured players will help but there is scope to change things tactically.

Thoughts On Dortmund and United

November 10, 2013

If you can’t win, don’t lose. And then sometimes if you don’t lose, you can win! Dortmund did that to the Gunners at the Emirates when they scored the winner with their only meaningful attack of the second half, so it was nice to see Arsenal returning the favour in Germany.

I’ve been on the road all week and barely found time to catch up with the game. Apologies to those who were waiting for the report. Before starting the discussion on the United game I’ll just cover some observations from the win in Dortmund as it seems too late to go in depth.

Klopp’s side are excellent on transitions but they are not that potent when they come up against a well-organized defence and a team that doesn’t lose the ball to their pressing. As a result the first half was extremely tight. Arsenal were mostly secure but the hosts did create a couple of big chances down their right flank. Having the central defenders in the right positions helped and this was enabled by hard work from the midfield that ensured they weren’t exposed and dragged all over the place. This was another big game where the defending of the team as a unit was appreciable. Do that, avoid mistakes, and you’ll always give yourself a genuine shot at winning any game.

The beginning of the second half did throw up some problems for the Gunners. Usually, it’s Wenger’s side who push on after a tight first half to establish their dominance following the break. In this game it seemed Klopp’s side came out with certain ideas and executed them well to break forward repeatedly. No one would have grudged them a goal in that period but just as the Gunners failed to convert their domination to a decisive lead in the reverse fixture, Dortmund failed to get past Szczesny.

Arsenal’s goal was also interesting in many ways. It came against the run of play but wasn’t a counter-attack. It was a very ‘English’ goal and flew in the face of Klopp’s pompous ramblings from before the game. It started with a long ball towards a big centre-forward that his central defenders couldn’t quite deal with, and was finished after two physical and aerial duels in the box that his defenders lost.

I accept that one off incidents don’t prove much but these kind of moments reinforce my belief that many highly rated European teams would not look quite as good if they had to play regularly in the Premier League. The point is not to say one league is better than the other but to highlight the different nature of the beast that is the English Premier League. It’s a hard one to tame and the process takes a lot out of teams in a way few other competitions do.

The most pleasing aspect of the game was Arsenal ability to see the game through without conceding any worthwhile opportunities. Although that late incident between Mertesacker and Lewandowski showed just how tight a rope the Gunners walk on. I have seen those given. That doesn’t mean it was a nailed on penalty – and I thought the Dutch referee was very good in dealing with the Polish striker’s gamesmanship for most of the game – but it certainly was the kind of event where your own fate is out of your hands.

The ease with which Dortmund were able to go from a free-kick near their own corner flag to such a moment in the centre of the Arsenal box in a matter of seconds shows us just how much Arsenal still have to improve. Indeed, it’s their defensive ability that has allowed Dortmund to forge their recent reputation even if their attacking exploits take up the most column inches. The Gunners have shown good resilience in the last couple of games but it will take a lot more work before teams start wondering how they’ll score against Arsenal. And until that stage is reached, the sceptics will always have a question or two to raise.

In terms of individuals, it’s hard to pick a MotM after such a game where many players performed equally admirably in different sort of ways.

As a slight negative, it can be said that Gibbs did have a tough time in one-v-one moments and the covering defending on the left wasn’t quite as reliable as it was on the other flank.

Tactically, it was good to see Özil spend a lot of time on the right with Rosicky filling in centrally to provide additional defensive tenacity and work rate. Özil also tracked back when he had to, unlike the previous game, and produced one memorable clearance that his defensive colleagues would have been proud of.

Moving on, Sunday brings the opportunity to end a big week on a real high and enter the third straight international break in a confident state. Despite the two wins this week the Gunners are still 2-2 as far as big games are concerned, and doubts about their credentials will resurface if they suffer a defeat at Old Trafford.

It’s an interesting fixture in that both sides have a lot to prove and have much at stake. Apart from the obvious points related dynamics, United have the opportunity to show they’re getting back into the groove under a new manager who is unproven for this level in many eyes. Their eight game undefeated stretch will not amount to much if they falter against the League leaders and lose another big game. They’ve not won any of their five League game against sides currently in the top half of the table.

In a similar vein, Arsenal and Wenger have to show they’re past the Ferguson stranglehold.  The Gunners have only won one of their last nine League games against United and at times I felt the French manager and his wards had a bit of a mental block in this fixture. But their record against Moyes is much, much better. This game should tell us how much of either record was down to the quality of players available to each manager and what extent of it was attributable to managerial acumen.

In this game I expect United to be well organized defensively, a strength that they are slowly rediscovering. The key, though, will be in their ability to press the Gunners and work defensively a little higher up the pitch. Ferguson relied on persistent man-marking and tracking of runs and that’s a strategy Moyes could tap into. At Everton, the Scot often had his team chasing the ball at a very high intensity and in a methodical manner, almost akin to the pressing that works so well for Dortmund. But the Toffees didn’t have the individual attacking quality that produces the decisive moments for the Germans. Moyes will be hoping the likes of Rooney and Van Persie can provide that for him at his new club but thus far he hasn’t been able to make this United side work at the same frantic pace so the threat for the Gunners is likely to come from different sources.

Moyes does like using the width of the pitch when attacking and Arsenal should expect consistent forays down their flanks. In the previous game Rosicky and Özil swapped places but the Gunners might be tempted to have a more diligent tracker on the right side of midfield. Özil can always drift into that space when Evra is looking to go forward.

Mertesacker and Koscielny have come up against some top class strikers in Suarez, Sturridge, and Lewandowski. But in my opinion, the two they’ll face on Sunday are a cut above. Van Persie’s technique and the ability to create space for himself is exceptional while Rooney has always enjoyed playing against the Gunners. That team work in defence I was talking about earlier will again be vital but it might not be enough. Considering what I’ve seen in the last two games from the Gunners and the qualities of the various attackers they’ll face, a clean sheet will come as a pleasant surprise.

Arsenal will most probably have to score two or more to win this game. I doubt Wenger’s sides have scored 2 or more at Old Trafford in the Premier League (the 8-2 never happened!). It’s worth noting that the big games they’ve won in recent times (Bayern, Spurs, Liverpool, Dortmund) have all come on the back of defensive shutouts. I’m keen to see if the Gunners can win a big game where both sides score, particularly if they concede first. Not that I want them to, the stats are pretty convincing as far as the importance of the first goal goes.

Wenger doesn’t have too many choices but Flamini could be back in contention. An amusing cult seems to have developed in support of the Frenchman but the last two performances remind us that the team had been playing well way before he was anywhere in the frame for a comeback. His presence could, nevertheless, help the team if they are going to sit back and play another defensive game.

I’d like to see,

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

Flamini can support Sagna when Evra drives forward while Ramsey drops into the central area and Özil stays a little higher up the pitch to break into space. But such an approach would be a consciously taken tactical decision and I’m not sure if Wenger prepares such micro-details for his team to follow. With that in mind, I won’t be surprised if Ramsey starts on the right flank.

In any case, fluidity and the ability to fill in for each other is vital to the way Arsenal play. The team will get some joy in the attacking areas if they can interchange positions without getting in each other’s way.

An away game at Old Trafford has been a lost cause for most teams for a long, long time. Arsenal have only won there thrice in the Premier League era. But this is a whole new ball game and the Gunners have the opportunity to reset the record. They have the ability but can they translate that into points?

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Borussia Dortmund

November 6, 2013

It’s just been a couple of weeks since the two teams last met. Very little has changed in that time and we should expect a very similar game. I covered Dortmund’s pressing style in the previous article so won’t get into the details again but it’s definitely something that could prove decisive depending on how aggressively they start this game.

Bulk of their attacks are created from transitions following pressure on the ball high up the pitch. The Gunners did well to control that at the Emirates and will want to produce a similar technical display again. Partly though, the home side’s intentions will also play a big part in the way the patterns of play shape up. For instance, Klopp could pick Aubameyang on the right instead of Kuba if he really wants to go for it. The Gabonese striker makes a few technical errors at times and will not be as consistent with defensive duties as the Polish winger would but his speed can seriously trouble the Arsenal defenders. It’s a question of balance and the German manager’s choice will tell us just how confident he is of his side’s ability to counter the Gunners’ technical qualities. Blaszczykowski starting the game would imply a more cautious mindset from Klopp while Aubameyang would be the bolder more provocative choice.

Lewandowski has been exceptional at home and the team in general combines really well on a pitch they know intimately. A lot of their movement is instinctive and relies on blistering pace, which is easier in a more familiar setting with the support of the crowd behind them. The Gunners have already seen the consequences of dropping their concentration against this side and they’ll want to avoid gifting goals to ruthlessly clinical opponents. Their defensive performance against Liverpool was good and against Dortmund in the previous game was better – though still not good enough. So, the output to aim for is their display in Munich that started the whole turnaround.

The first goal will again be massive.

One thing I really enjoyed watching against Liverpool was that the midfielders didn’t get in each other’s way. Their movement was very fluid but it had good horizontal and vertical balance. There were players making forward runs, those coming in from the flank, yet others who were keeping an eye on the deeper areas. Finding that balance was easier against the Reds because they couldn’t match Arsenal’s technical qualities and the use of a flat back three limited their numbers in the central third. Dortmund will not suffer from a similar handicap. Consequently, the midfield battle in this game is going to be fierce and the Gunners will have to work very hard to find the right combinations.

The success or failure of the midfield will be seen in various patterns during the game. For instance, Giroud being isolated in attack or the lack of purposeful vertical runs from midfield will suggest the midfield is struggling to get past the pressing into open areas. On the other end, attackers running at defenders with many Arsenal players chasing the ball while looking at their own goal will be an indication of spacing problems between the lines. Ideally, you want to see bodies between ball and goal offering layers of protection and then sharp purposeful passing in the attack. Dortmund won’t concede too many chances, and that in itself should not be a concern, but it’s important that the team doesn’t get caught up in a sterile passing rhythm that can be hard to break out of.

Wenger doesn’t have too many options. If Gibbs is fit he should play. Gnabry for Rosicky is worth considering. The youngster can offer a different kind of threat and this experience could help him a lot in the long run. But Wenger also has to consider if he’s physically fit and ready for such a gruelling encounter. The option to give him 20-30 minutes at the end is always open.

We might see,

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

Arteta will again be the key player for the Gunners but others like Ramsey will have to be rock solid from a defensive point of view. It was the failure of other midfielders that resulted in both Dortmund goals in the reverse fixture.

Arsenal have lost their last three home Champions League games against German opposition but on the previous two occasions their performance in the away leg was better. They have to be cautious without applying the handbrake and have to play their attacking game without losing defensive awareness. It sounds simple enough when put in words but different sets of players at Arsenal have found it hard to execute on a consistent basis over the last few years.

If you can’t win, don’t lose. That was the boss’ message after the previous disappointment. Can the players get it right on the pitch?

Arsenal 2 – 0 Liverpool: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

November 4, 2013

Okay, from now on I’m limiting all predictions to ‘a draw or worse’ as far as big games are concerned. On a more serious note, I accept the comment which says it’s not good to say something like that when many fans visiting a blog want to believe. Not that I’m going to change my opinions, but there certainly are better ways to articulate a point, or three. That the article was written after a whole day of driving to attend a funeral (someone in the extended family, not very close to me personally) cannot be an excuse.

Anyway, let’s start the discussion on the game that was a very good performance from the Gunners resulting in an important win that goes some way in countering the questions raised by defeats against Dortmund and Chelsea. Nevertheless, as I’ve mentioned often, such wins have to be way more common than defeats or draws if the Gunners have to sustain serious title hopes over the course of the season.

At the moment, that is not the case – partly because the side hasn’t played that many big games, and the next few games will tell us more – so we can’t really read too much into a win of this nature, however enjoyable it is from a personal point of view as a fan.

Most analyses  and opinions that I’ve read after the match have done the typical spin-most-things-in-favour-of-winners routine. To me, this was a game which showed why Arsenal consistently finish in the top four despite challenges from various clubs and even when many people write them off, but it was also one which showed why the Gunners haven’t really won anything.

In many ways, Wenger’s side had actually played better in the game they’d lost against Dortmund than they did in this one. That doesn’t mean Arsenal were poor in this game – remember, this isn’t an either-or state where a team is either very good or very bad – but they were certainly a tad lucky at times.

Against Dortmund, for instance, the Gunners were punished on both occasions when they were sloppy. In this game, they got away with six instances for one reason or another. Henderson’s run in the first half, Atkinson stopping a quick restart, the two lapses in concentration by Szczesny and Mertesacker towards the end, Suarez’s run in the 49th minute, and the Suarez shot that grazed the upright.

In the recent past, Arsenal’s ability to minimize quality chances for opponents has been impressive but that was not the case in this game. In fairness, given the individual qualities of Suarez and Sturridge, this was always going to be one of the tougher tests in that regard.

The patterns of play varied as the game went on. There were four long balls in the opening minute as both sides pressed up the pitch and neither got control of possession. Liverpool settled in quicker as the Gunners were perhaps a bit tentative. But the interesting part was that the visitors dropped back into their own half very early in the game, probably in the first five minutes or so.

Instead of pressing on the centre line or inside the Arsenal half, Rodgers’ side were trying to remain compact a good 10 yards or so inside their own half. This was a major tactical win for the Gunners, founded on their obvious technical superiority, and it meant transitions were always going to be that much less dangerous due to the time it would take to turn over.

Even when Henderson broke forward, if you look closely, it seems that the three defensive Arsenal players were keen on protecting a passing opportunity towards Suarez or Sturridge instead of stopping the midfielder’s run from so far out. Mertesacker stayed wide with the Uruguayan while Koscielny stayed towards the Englishman. There was a big gap between the two central defenders but even then Arteta, too, was positioned in the passing channel towards Sturridge.

This worked well for the Gunners in that instance as Sagna had the time to chase back and force a rushed shot. But a better player advancing forward would have caused serious trouble. In fact, one could even argue that the lack of quality behind Suarez and Sturridge was consistently exposed by Arsenal and highlighted technical weaknesses within Liverpool ranks that affected their attacking options and ability to control the ball. This worked in Arsenal’s favour throughout the game.

Liverpool’s formation was part of their problem as it was not suited to pressing higher up the pitch because the wing-backs could not come inside to track Arsenal’s wide players constantly going narrow and swapping positions with other midfielders. The Gunners scored when they bypassed an ineffective pressing attempt. When Arteta received the ball there were five Liverpool players pretty high up inside the Arsenal half. But their pressing lacked cohesion and the Spaniard was able to advance down the pitch with relative ease. Sagna, too, was able to break forward into space while Cazorla came into the box unmarked.

There was an element of luck in this goal for the Gunners as the ball could have deflected anywhere from the upright but it came into Cazorla’s path. Then again, it can be argued that Arsenal made their own luck by exploiting space with appreciable coordination and precision.

Arsenal’s midfield dominance was also seen in the numerous combination plays that led to shots on target or near misses with the final ball lacking quality. Their wing-backs stayed so wide they were hardly useful while Lucas and Gerrard had a hard time in front of the flat back three. This is where Rodgers’ reluctance to play Agger is very surprising as he is someone who can step up to make a difference but that’s only a minor side note in this analysis.

The visitors improved in the second half with the introduction of Coutinho for Cissokho as they got one more body in the midfield and their defence was spread out more efficiently. The Brazilian was erratic but his passing did get more out of the attackers, particularly Suarez.

It’s not a surprise most of Liverpool’s quality moments came in the second half and they looked a much better team in that period.

Even then the Gunners had their own spells on counter-attacks – Giroud could have done better on a couple of occasions – and continued working impressive combinations involving three or more players. If anything, I was a little disappointed Arsenal didn’t have more efficiency in their attack as they could have scored four!

Ramsey’s goal was a bit special and reflective of his current form. The way he waited for the ball to drop perfectly instead of snatching at the opportunity was a sign of confidence and composure. Liverpool’s inability to close him down despite the waiting period betrayed their structural and individual weaknesses.

Ultimately, the game ended 2-0 but it could easily have been a 2-2 draw or a 4-2 for the Gunners depending on either team’s efficiency.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Didn’t have too many saves to make – somewhat fortunately – but did well to go wide and snuff out the angle on a couple of occasions. Again lacked judgment when coming for a couple of crosses and almost handed the ball on a plate to Sturridge. Can he do better with his long kicks?

Sagna: Excellent run and cross for the goal (It was probably the only cross the Gunners were successful with). Good recovery pace and did well to force Henderson’s error, but one might argue he could have sensed the danger a little sooner. Didn’t see as much of the ball as he usually does but was quite judicious in possession. Same can be said about his positioning and choices.

Mertesacker: Often got into very good positions in the box to cut out danger. I liked the way he stayed with Suarez when Henderson was charging forward. Provided stability and calmness at the back. Lucky that his late giveaway wasn’t punished and that remains the only blemish in an otherwise impressive performance.

Koscielny: A lot more aggressive and busier than his partner. It was interesting to see him get tight to the strikers a lot more often and was largely successful in denying them space. But there were two or three occasions when the strikers got the better off him – Sturridge left him on his backside in the first half, Suarez produced an audacious moment to run in behind in the 49th min – and that could have been costly on another day. Passing was very limited but completely reliable.

Gibbs: Probably did enough to deflect that Suarez shot onto the post. Also well positioned when Henderson shot over the bar. Strong defensive game, although did benefit from having a weak opponent in Flanagan. Chose his attacking moments wisely but he can do better with the final ball or choice in a crowded space.

The defenders had a good game and covered well for each other. The full-backs were cautious with their positioning and rarely left the central defenders on their own, which was important against such quality attackers. For instance, when Sturridge went past Koscielny, Gibbs was there to put pressure on him. They did so without compromising attacking intent, which led to a well-balanced performance that gave Arsenal a tactical edge. The central defenders, for their part, were mostly very good at closing the attackers down. Mertesacker might not have made many tackles, but his positioning often broke opportunities down.

Despite that, the five percent or so time when they had a drop could have resulted in a couple of goals for Liverpool and that is something they have to tighten up on, particularly in big games. The truly big teams do not give opponents a sniff.

Arteta: Saw a lot of the ball and was again exceptional on and off it. Easily the MotM in my opinion. Superb defensive support and showed why Wenger calls him the technical leader in a side blessed with such gifted individuals in midfield. Very good at choosing the direction and timing of his passes as well as movement. Provided the foundation for the players in front to shine on.

Özil: Really enjoying his work rate and ability to blend in as just another very good midfielder instead of a prima donna through whom everything must flow. Also love the way he just waits and shift the ball slightly or alters his body position to thread the proverbial eye of the needle. That ability helped with the assist for the Ramsey goal. Had a couple of decent chances to score and shooting remains one of the major areas of improvement. There are moments when he doesn’t seem happy and I cannot quite understand if it’s limited to a mistake by someone or something deeper.

Ramsey: Outstanding goal. Top level work rate. Many very good touches in the attacking areas as he linked beautifully with other more highly rated technicians. But in those areas you could also see room for improving his efficiency, which could make him a seriously scary prospect for opponents.

Cazorla: Very well taken goal, particularly like the way he maintained his concentration after the header and placed the shot intelligently to avoid Skrtel and Mignolet. Created a very good chance for Giroud and work rate was pretty good including some useful defensive moments.

Rosicky: His combinations with others were a delight to watch. Started early with the first shot on target and was involved with many attacking moves. Filled into central roles seamlessly when others moved around the pitch.

All five midfielders played more passes than any of Arsenal’s defenders. That doesn’t happen very often. But in this game it showed two things – the defenders were cautious and focussed on their job of keeping quality attackers quiet, and the midfield took responsibility to establish Arsenal’s dominance through technical superiority. The intelligence with which they interchanged positions without leaving any area truly exposed from a defensive point of view is worth appreciating.

Arsenal will trouble most teams if they can consistently produce attacking moves that involve four or five players. But Liverpool’s lopsided shape was also responsible for the space available to the Gunners so we have to see whether they can retain such offensive quality and defensive balance against even stronger opponents.

Giroud: At this rate he will end the season as the most useful all-round striker in the big European leagues. Not the best goalscorer – again showed he can improve on that front – or the most prolific creator per se, but someone who gets involved at various stages and constantly helps the team function better as a unit. Useful presence in the box when defending set-pieces as well.

Subs: Monreal was reliable in possession and combined well in attacking areas, Vermaelen and Jenkinson had limited time on the pitch.

Wenger: It was good to see more caution from the full-backs. Good defensive layering. The central defenders were also constantly aware of the threat posed by the opposing strikers and focussed their efforts on minimizing those. I don’t know how much of this was a result of conscious decisions taken by the manager and his staff and what part was simply the players knowing what to do. Some of the pressure is eased with that win but it is by no means enough. Bigger tests await and, as he said, the team cannot afford to take a little breather.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Liverpool

November 2, 2013

Liverpool’s 3-5-2 (or 3-4-1-2 if you prefer fancy formation labels) has been quite successful and it will be interesting to see if Rodgers deploys the same system against the Gunners. The strength of their approach lies in two factors – Suarez and Sturridge have been excellent in attack, and the three at the back give them additional defensive security which they’ve used intelligently after taking leads as they absorb pressure and use the space well through their attacking stars.

Wenger’s side will face a massive challenge in stopping the SAS partnership because they’re both extremely mobile and tricky. Mertesacker’s lack of pace will inevitably force the Gunners deeper. It could easily end up sucking the full-backs and defensive midfielders back and Arsenal could have a tough time breaking out of their own half, particularly in the early part of the game if the visitors show urgency with their pressing. Rodgers could use Henderson in place of Moses to help with this.

Liverpool will not be able to sustain high pressing for 90 minutes so their best bet would be to force early mistakes and get a goal or two. This is something they did last season as they took a two goal lead. I’m not convinced this season Arsenal will be able to get back into the game if they go down by a couple of goals. As with every big game, the first goal will have an immense impact on the way the game shapes up.

Arteta is going to have a busy outing. He is the point man for the Gunners if their passing and possession game has to click because he is the only one who can consistently receive the ball from the defenders even under pressure. The Spaniard’s off-the-ball positioning will also be very important when the visitors press high up the pitch or break forward at pace. Flamini will be missed. Hopefully, Ramsey’s energy will make up for his forward-going tendencies. The midfielders will also have to watch out for their cut-backs from the wide areas that often come back and across.

Suarez will move into the channels, particularly down the left, and Liverpool are very good at working one-twos in such areas. So, Sagna too is going to have to be careful with his runs. Bombing forward and standing right next to the attacking midfielders is not a clever approach and could prove costly in this game. He might be better off staying deeper and leaving the right flank for Ozil or Ramsey to overlap.

Liverpool’s back three can be flat at times and that means Arsenal could get overloads in central midfield if the wide players pick and choose their movement wisely. This could allow the team an opportunity to break away from the initial pressing and run at the visiting defence.

We’ll have to see if Liverpool are brave and hold a high line or if they drop back to the edge of their own area. When they drop back their three in defence quicky becomes a five with another layer in front that has a couple of midfielders (Gerrard and Lucas probably) and another of the attacking players chasing back. I expect them to compress the play up the pitch in the first 15-20 minutes, at least.

Wenger doesn’t have too many options to pick from as far as his starting eleven is concerned.

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Ramsey, Ozil, Arteta – Wilshere, Giroud, Cazorla.

In the Frenchman’s position, I’d be tempted to include Rosicky ahead of Wilshere on the right, but I doubt Wenger will go for that unless the youngster is bothered by his injuries.

It’s a shame none of Arsenal’s quick players are available because they would certainly have pushed Liverpool back or troubled their high pressing.

This is the first game this season where the Gunners had dropped point in the corresponding fixture last season. They’d won all the nine played thus far if we compare Crystal Palace with Reading (or any of the other relegated sides). In that sense, Arsenal are -5 when it comes to points from corresponding fixtures and they’ll have to make up the numbers from the games they didn’t win in 2012-13. Will this be the first of those?

Wenger again pointed out that Arsenal didn’t play particularly badly against Chelsea or Dortmund but lost because they gave soft goals away. I agree with that, but the sheer frequency of gifting goals and points has made it very hard to believe these errors will be cut out any time soon. And because of that, I think a draw will be Arsenal’s best hope from this game even though they have the quality to win it.