Thoughts On West Ham And Newcastle Games

December 29, 2013

Unless I’ve completely forgotten some game, that comeback victory at Upton Park was Arseanal’s first such win this season. The Gunners have scored first (13/18 League games, 6/8 Champions League) quite often and that has been one of the pillars of their success thus far but their record after conceding first was very average, to borrow Wenger’s euphemism. With that in mind, the result against West Ham was all the more enjoyable even if it came against the weakest team in the League on current form (2 points from last 6 games).

In such games I do feel that Wenger’s biggest job is probably to ensure his players remember just how good they are. The opponents only had long balls and physicality to rely on, as primitive as a team could get tactically. Even such a style can work if the team has a solid defence to protect it’s goal. The Hammers didn’t have it. They’d shipped 3 goals against Chelsea, Everton, and City before this game and it was no surprise that Arsenal created so many chances.

Although all of Arsenal’s goals came after the hour mark and after Podolski came on for the injured Ramsey, I thought the team could easily have scored a couple or more in the first half if they had a bit more luck and greater efficiency in the final third. Giroud’s anticipation and finishing was again a tad disappointing.

The extra bit of luck was there in the second half. Walcott’s first goal just went through two or three players. It doesn’t happen often. For his second the deflection off the defender at the near post came at a perfect height for him. Again an infrequent occurrence. That doesn’t mean he or the team don’t deserve credit for the goals, but it’s sufficient to remind us that sometimes luck can also be one of the major decisive factors when it comes to converting promising moments into goals.

The third goal, of course, was the most enjoyable of the lot. I liked the way Cazorla got in between the lines, the way Walcott consciously made a decision to pick a pass to Giroud instead of putting in a hopeful cross behind the defence, and the way the striker laid it off. Podolski’s finish was the icing on the cake. It’d be great if we can see more such goals but in most games I’d expect the defensive lines to be closer and a player either blocking/clearing that lay-off or closing Podolski down. Anyway, West Ham were poor, Arsenal took advantage, it was nice to watch, and the points are very useful.

Individually speaking, Cazorla’s cameo in the centre was a joy to watch. The obvious jump to a hasty conclusion from this observation, and an incorrect one in my opinion, would be to say Cazorla should play centrally. I don’t think that’s really the issue here. In the last few games it seems Ramsey has reverted to his problems from last season where he was trying too much. That’s slowed Arsenal down at times and the Welshman has been getting in the way of his more creative colleagues instead of bringing them into play as soon as possible and subsequently joining the attack at the right moment. This has made the game harder for both Özil and Cazorla. Perhaps his injury, unfortunate and undesirable though it is, has come at the right time.

To be clear, the idea is not to suggest Santi can’t play centrally. He’s certainly a good alternative if Özil is injured or has to be rested. But both of them together in central roles would not be a very advisable tactic.

Podolski’s decisive impact was also excellent. He is a very good player to have around against opposition of this calibre. I’m not sure he could have a similarly meaningful effect on a game against the big sides but the German’s return certainly strengthens the team and gives Wenger more options.

The goal conceded by Arsenal was very soft. I’m not sure what Arteta was trying to do there and chances are he didn’t either, which is what led to that poor touch. There should have been another midfielder on the edge of the box. But the bulk of the blame has to fall on Szczesny who spilled a pretty straightforward catch.

The team also conceded a couple of other chances and there was a phase when they seemed rattled. This shouldn’t happen in such games. They must never forget how good they are or the fact that most opponents can’t sustain such physical intensity for the duration of the game, and they need to know deep down that 90 minutes is a very long time. Their chance will come. Those moments when Ramsey was down and even the Arsenal players didn’t put the ball out tell me these vital details are not drilled down into the players’ psyche. The difficult phases of games will come and go if they remain calm and stick to their game. There is no need to panic or lose control of the tempo when opponents raise their intensity or even when they score a goal. That’s a major step in tactical maturity that the Gunners are yet to take.

Newcastle will provide a genuine challenge…

The previous opponents were the worst team on current form (last 6 games) but the next ones are third from top. This will be a tough game. Just like the Gunners have to keep proving they are title contenders, Newcastle’s inconsistency over the last season or two means they too will have to show their quality every week to establish themselves as top four challengers. Both teams have a lot riding on this game.

The hosts have scored first in 12 of their 18 games while the visitors have done so 13 times in as many games. Newcastle have won 75 percent of the games when they’ve scored first and lost only one of those 12. Arsenal have won close to 85 percent of the games when opening the scoring and they too have lost only one such game(that was Villa, the first game). Neither team has a great record when they’ve conceded first. Needless to say the opener could be decisive.

That means this game could be a very cagey affair tactically and both sides will have to avoid mistakes in the opening exchanges. Flip that and you could say the side that takes early initiative in an aggressive and decisive manner can reap the rewards.

Wenger’s side are top of the table based on second half performances, just as they were last season. Pardew’s men only come 11th. It might be advisable for the Gunners to bide their time. The points discussed above – not forgetting how good they are, staying true to their game, maintaining defensive stability and composure, and avoiding panic – can be the difference between three points and a disappointment.

Newcastle will pack the midfield and offer stiff resistance in the central third. They will have much better organization than West Ham and maybe even greater physicality. The hosts will also offer strong competition in the technical areas because their ball circulation is better, they’ve movement that can facilitate attacking play, and they’ve individuals who can shoot from distance or deliver accurate set-pieces. But they will have to leave spaces behind their defence if they want to battle for possession and territory higher up the pitch.

Now that Wilshere is available again, Walcott is getting back to his best, and Podolski is starting to get time on the pitch, Wenger can choose one of many workable permutations based on the kind of game he wants his side to play, particularly if Koscielny and Rosicky are also deemed fit.

I doubt he’ll rest the key players for a game as tough as this one, more so because a relatively easier one at home is next.

Least disruptive option for the starting line-up seems to be,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Wilshere – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.

Monreal and or Koscielny could come into the back four but even if that remains unchanged, the possible permutations in midfield and attack are exciting to say the least. Consider these options,

Arteta, Özil, Flamini – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla;

Flamini, Özil, Wilshere – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla;

Flamini, Cazorla, Wilshere – Walcott, Giroud, Rosicky;

Arteta, Özil, Flamini – Wilshere, Walcott, Cazorla;

Flamini, Cazorla, Wilshere – Rosicky, Walcott, Podolski;

And so on…

There can be minor issues with any of those combinations because of individual quirks. For instance, Wilshere’s decision making and tactical awareness is still a work in progress and that brings some inefficiency to attack and defence when he plays centrally. Flamini is not the ideal midfielder from a technical point of view, particularly in a game where the opponent is likely to press and chase hard. Mobility isn’t Arteta’s strong suit when chasing the ball. Without Giroud the side could be overrun physically. These would be valid concerns and they are only indicative not comprehensive. Nevertheless, if you put together the strengths of these players and try to visualize the team working together in a manner that brings out the best in each individual a lot more often than the worst, it’s not hard to see the players in any of these permutations clicking together in a purposeful and decisive manner.

The only real issue is that Arsenal aren’t always able to get the best out of each player if they’ve not been playing together consistently and that’s where rotations can disrupt the side’s rhythm. Wenger really has an unenviable task here and I wish him all the best with his choices!

Newcastle have already defeated Chelsea (home), United (away), and Spurs (away) this season. All those wins came on the back of clean sheets. They also drew with Liverpool at home. One way to look at those results is that it provides Arsenal with an opportunity to gain points on their rivals. The other way to look at this is that Pardew’s side are playing as good as the other big teams. We’ve already discussed the Gunners’ struggles in games against the other strong sides (2 wins and 11 points from 12 games). That diminishes cause for optimism.

I think both sides deserve to go into this game with their confidence high but they’ll have to sustain that belief and produce a quality effort all over the pitch for 90 minutes to get all three points.

Thoughts On The Chelsea And West Ham Games

December 26, 2013

It seemed, when the line-ups were announced, that Wenger’s intention was to go for a win against Chelsea whereas Mourinho was probably happy to settle for a draw. Without the likes of Mata or Oscar in their starting eleven, there was very limited creativity in the Chelsea side and their manager acknowledged that he was ‘not unhappy’ with a point.

Maybe a moral victory for Arsenal? Maybe not.

The patterns of the game were reminiscent of many of Arsenal’s battles against sides like Chelsea and United, most of which ended with a lot of possession for the Gunners but few chances of note. Usually, such games ended in draws or defeat – if there were errors at the back and the opponents were clinical enough.

This game wasn’t very different. Arsenal controlled the ball but Chelsea had the better chances. Admittedly, there was a big penalty decision that could have changed the game but you do want to see the home side create more, particularly if it has pretences of being the best team in the League and boasts of a positive, attacking mentality.

Apart from a couple of chances that fell to Giroud, who isn’t exactly the best finisher in the League anyway, the Gunners had very little to show for their possession which seemed passive. Part of the problem was that the team was too slow and cautious with their passing and movement, and, at times, tentative and unsure with their touch or weight of the pass. The conditions didn’t help but more than that this was again a matter of a lack of tactical balance between attack and defence.

Wenger didn’t make any substitutions and talked about the need for balance after the game. His team was barely hanging on as it is. Introducing more offensive players might have increased the probability of conceding a goal rather than scoring one. People forget very quickly that we have seen Arsenal struggle to score against big teams with such tactics for years now irrespective of the starting line-up and substitutions. Lazy opinions based on the, “change something, do something different” mindset don’t hold much value when seen in the right context based on historical data. In that sense I thought Wenger was right in keeping the players he had on the pitch. If you can’t win, don’t lose.

Ramsey and Rosicky were needed on the pitch because they cover a fair amount of ground and chase back relatively better. Taking off the likes of Özil or Walcott is not a clever idea because these are the type of players who can produce something out of nothing and you have to give them that opportunity. Arteta was obviously important to the defence. Furthermore, the options on the bench weren’t great either. Bendtner for Giroud would have been a change based solely on hope with limited or no rational reason behind it. Podolski hasn’t played for a long time and introducing him would also have been a matter of hope rather than reason. Cazorla might have produced something but he hasn’t had many decisive moments this season. Think carefully and you’ll see that the calls for substitutions were little more than, “this isn’t working so do something different” rants.

That’s not to say substitutions would not have worked for sure. We will never know. The point is that there is no solid argument to say they would have worked so the manager’s decision is understandable and he has bigger fish to fry.

The real problem that Wenger needs to worry about, and one that has been around for a while, is the issue of balance. Why isn’t his team able to get past such a defence? And it wasn’t a great defensive side, certainly not when compared to some of the defences Arsenal have faced in the last few seasons. Focussing on the incorrect penalty decision alone is a case of denial in my opinion because it completely ignores the obviously limited nature of Arsenal’s attack, something Wenger himself acknowledged after the game.

The Gunners are not very good at wing play and that contributes to this issue as teams can sit deep and narrow. Chelsea’s back four was quite compact and they had three midfielders sitting in front who protected the central areas effectively. The openings existed on the flanks but Arsenal were too inefficient in utilizing those.

Numerous counter-attacks from Chelsea and some excellent chances created by the visitors also exposed Arsenal’s problems in defending against a quality opponent. This consistently limited the attacking potential of the hosts because the players were always wary of the visitors’ threat. When a team that is apparently playing to avoid defeat creates more than the team that goes into the game wanting to win, serious introspection is needed.

It was Déjà Vu in many ways but, at least, it was a point gained in a game that was lost last season and with a referee who seems to inspire results against the Gunners. Many are only talking about the title race but I also have an eye on the race for the top four spots that can get very tight. In that regard this is a good enough result in the short term but this spell of weak performances doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for the long haul.

Visiting Allardyce and Co….

West Ham are one spot and one point above the relegation zone at the moment but visiting a physical side is never an easy game for the Gunners. The problem with consistent struggles in the big games is that it turns such tricky away games into high-pressure, must-win encounters because there is practically no margin for error left. We see the impact of this in the players’ performance in the form of the handbrake, or technical errors, or lapses in concentration, or something else.

This game is quite predictable in terms of tactics. The hosts will sit back and remain compact in the central zones. They will try to frustrate the Gunners with their positioning, discipline, and work rate, and will rely on their physicality to disrupt Arsenal’s rhythm. Balls will be hit long at every opportunity as they look to gain territory in the hope of contesting duels in the visitors’ penalty box. ‘Get there often enough and something might give’, seems to be Big Sam’s mantra.

The crowd will get behind the players who will also gain confidence if Wenger’s side are rattled or show signs of weakness against these predictable but utilitarian tactics.

The Gunners have to find their creative game in this one because the hosts won’t mind a nil-nil draw. They’ve already had four of those this season, which is almost a quarter of their games. And I wouldn’t put it past them to score against this Arsenal defence if the team tries to be too attacking. While West Ham have kept a clean sheet in half their home games, they’ve none against the teams in the top ten. Chelsea, City, and Everton have won at Upton park and all of them have scored three goals. The Gunners will probably need more than one to win. The challenge for Wenger and his players is in finding balance, efficiency, and clinical finishing. But it will start with having the confidence to play their own game at a tempo that unsettles the opposition. The Gunners won’t vary their tactics that much so this battle to control the speed of the game and each side’s ability to stick to their game plan will shape the patterns of play.

The players should all be in good shape right now after that nine day break before the Chelsea game. However, with an eye on four games in the next ten days, Wenger might want to change a few players. Ideally, this should be a game where he can rest some of his key players.

I’d leave Özil out of the side but the Frenchman probably won’t. Bringing Flamini in might be a good idea but it’s tough to decide whether Ramsey or Arteta should sit out. Bendtner ahead of Giroud is another option but I have a feeling we will see that at home against Cardiff rather than in this derby. It’s a shame that Wilshere is unavailable for this game.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Arteta, Özil, Flamini – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.

Podolski is also an interesting option but my guess is that he’ll get a couple of substitute appearances before getting a start.

The Gunners should create a few promising moments in this game and they can get the three points if some of those are converted into goals. They will also need moments of dogged defending at the back because the hosts will undoubtedly find their way to the Arsenal penalty box. In theory this should be a straightforward win for Arsenal and they most definitely need the points. Question is, can they dominate the decisive moments of the game?

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Chelsea

December 23, 2013

Results from the last couple of rounds of League fixtures has meant that the congestion at the top now includes the first place with Arsenal’s lead wiped out. The Gunners could still achieve a two point lead at the summit but for that they’ll have to do something no Wenger side has done – beat a Mourinho team.

We know that success at this level demands consistency. And Arsenal have reliably picked up points throughout the year as they’re still top of the League for the calendar year and if we consider the last 38 League games played. However, as discussed before the Man City game, the Gunners have also been consistently underwhelming in the big games. It’s now 10 points from 11 games against the other six teams that are generally in the reckoning for European places.

One of the joys of football is that you see different ways of achieving success as clubs battle their own sets of problems in unique ways. While we should never lose touch of Arsenal’s troubles, it’s important to keep in mind that other teams have worries of their own. Chelsea, for instance, are yet to win a League game away to a side in the top 10. They’ve drawn two (Spurs, United) and lost three (Everton, Newcastle, Stoke). It seems uncharacteristic for a Mourinho side but reminds us that the path to consistency is fraught with many traps.

The task is to beat them all in a manner better than the rest. That’s the reason we can safely say the table doesn’t lie. At the end of a gruelling season the team that consistently meets various challenges will be crowned champions and that title is usually well-deserved.

Both teams have a chance to conquer some of their demons in this fixture and the prize could be a place at the top of the table. A draw won’t help either side but will minimize the damage. For some managers that could affect the way they approach the game.

Arsenal strong run has been built on a foundation of conservative football. Defend as a team, don’t concede sloppy goals, and the superior offensive quality will generally shine through at some stage. It works in most games but not so much against the big teams. The reason seems pretty clear to me.

Top sides have better attacking units which means Arsenal have to work harder in defence. Small lapses in concentration or judgement don’t always go unpunished in such games. And if the opponents score first it changes the entire dynamic of the contest.

Similarly, the offensive superiority that Arsenal have over smaller teams – often referred to as decisive quality in the final third – is not that clear a strength against teams with better defences. As a result the Gunners have to take more risks in attacks be it in terms of committing more bodies forward, or taking individuals on in risky areas, or attempting low percentage ambitious passes because the obvious ones aren’t on, and so on. All of this has a direct impact on defensive stability because the two are inextricably linked.

Unlike many, I wasn’t surprised by the fact that Arsenal conceded six goals against Man City. Once the team went into the game with an offensive mindset, Szczesny’s goal was always going to take a pounding. The analysis of that game is still pending and there are some very interesting observations to make but given the way my days are going I don’t want to make any promises.

Coming back to the game at hand, I don’t think Arsenal can afford the gung-ho attitude. You might recall the discussion that United won against the Gunners by relying on their tactical memory. Chelsea can do the same if the hosts are too adventurous. Counter-attacking suits Mourinho and he has players with pace and trickery that thrive in open spaces.

Hopefully, Arteta will be back in the starting eleven and that should lead to a greater semblance of order in the Arsenal ranks from a tactical point of view. Wenger’s side have to control the ball and the spaces. It’s ok to pass it around at the back and sideways as long as threatening transitions are avoided. Trying too hard to create against a strong opponent often results in quality chances at the undesired end.

Chelsea aren’t as stable defensively as previous Mourinho sides. Arsenal will get chances if they are patient and defensively stable. They have to prevent the opponents from getting to the attacking third and the Arsenal penalty box in the first 15-20 minutes because that can easily set the pattern for the rest of the game. It will also make the players nervous and affect the quality of their technical game.

It’s hard work but the wins against German sides offer the template to follow. Avoiding individual mistakes is very important but so is having the right shape so that layers of defensive players cover for each other’s errors. No game played at this level is devoid of errors from any team. The key is in controlling the extent of damage at one end and maximizing it at the other.

Thus far, Ramsey and Özil have been Arsenal’s most decisive players. Walcott can join them although he is somewhat of a double-edged sword. Theo’s presence makes Arsenal weaker in defence, relatively speaking, but it generates excellent offensive potential. Again, it’ll be a matter of controlling which aspect dominates.

Most players have had a good rest. Wenger should be able to select a very strong team, although he’ll have to keep an eye on the congested fixture list during the holiday period.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.

The full-backs in such a line-up will have extra defensive responsibilities against the wingers that Chelsea have. They have to be prepared to defend vast spaces on their own as Walcott and Cazorla drift into central areas in search of offensive openings. As a result their forward bursts must be intelligently timed. It’s an area where the Gunners have struggled to find optimal solutions and remains a weakness of sorts.

Considering the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, the Gunners certainly seem to have an opportunity to improve their dismal record against Mourinho’s sides. But Chelsea would be equally confident about their chances. They have broken past the Arsenal defences and know where the gaps will exist. It’s that tactical memory thing again. Wenger doesn’t make major chances to his approach and familiarity is a tool that works well for opponents with quality in attack.

Thoughts On The Napoli, Man City, Tactics, and Mentality

December 14, 2013

Arsenal had a tough time in Naples but they hung on to the second spot. I thought both managers, Benitez particularly, lacked a bit of courage. Had the hosts gone for three goals after scoring the first instead of playing it safe the result could very well have been different.

Wenger’s choices – for instance, the inclusion or Rosicky over Walcott presumably to provide better cover for Jenkinson – were not very bold either. You could argue that both were being pragmatic and showed respect for the opposition’s quality but looking back I’d say it was a missed opportunity for both. Napoli missed out on qualification altogether while the Gunners lost first place and took a dent in their confidence.

I’m not sure there is much to gain from dissecting the performance in great detail but it certainly seemed a game where the players were lost from a tactical point of view. As Wenger said after the game, “We prepared well and were concentrated but we were a bit in between ‘do we attack or do we defend’. It is difficult to cope with that problem.”

Wenger wants his team to play with the ball. He talks about it all the time. I don’t know how many people noticed this but there was a moment, late in the game, when the ball came to Szczesny and he waited, with it at his feet, till someone came to contest before picking it up. Then as the players pushed up and the hosts withdrew deeper, the Pole again put the ball down and took his time with the kick. During these few seconds Wenger was briefly visible on the TV urging his goalkeeper to kick the ball with his lip movement saying something like, “play, play, play…”

It seemed to me he did not want his team to stop playing – remember this is one observation I’ve often made when Arsenal struggle; the off-the-ball movement stops and the Gunners just stop playing their game – and understandably so. But in that moment one could also sense that the individuals on the pitch can’t always execute the manager’s plan.

I think a big part in that is down to Arsenal’s tendency of defending so deep. It’s worked well for the most part – more on that in just a bit – but it does pull the players far away from the opposition goal. It seems to me the Gunners have lost the ability to press higher up the pitch or defend the central third against high quality opponents. This will become more and more obvious before the season ends and we’ll have to see whether the squad and coaching staff can bring out the required changes.

I was looking at the results since the start of the season and the following table captures the performance of the top clubs in the Premier League starting January 1, 2013 and up till fixtures played last weekend.

Premier League 2013 Table

(ignore the lighter shade for United)

A full discussion based on that table alone could run into thousands of words so I’ll just make a few relevant observations here.

Firstly, Arsenal have clearly had the best results. The nearest club, in terms of points, is eight points behind. It’d be a hard lead to lose in the next four games and Arsenal could win the title for the calendar year.

Even from a points per game perspective the Gunners are better by almost a quarter point, which equates to a lead of over 9 points after 38 games. Significant indeed.

The congestion below the top mirrors the compactness of the current League table. In terms of form and consistency there’s very little to choose between most of these teams.

Of course, the title is not awarded based on the performance in a calendar year and right so, but this does provide a decent tool to gauge the quality of a team. Some might argue this is not proof that Arsenal have been outstanding but most will be hard pressed to argue that others are head and shoulders above the Gunners.

There is though, a twist in the tale. It comes when we consider Arsenal’s performances against  these other 6 teams in this calendar year. This is how it looks,

Arsenal vs top 7 in 2013

Not very impressive, is it. Interestingly, three of these defeats and a draw came before the win in Munich in March. Since then the Gunners’ only loss against these sides has come at Old Trafford this season. The two wins have also come this season. Counting only games played since that inspiring win over Bayern, the PPG would rise to 1.5. That’s not very special either but is somewhat respectable. In any case, this table does explain why so many people still say something like, “let them play Chelsea and Man City, then we’ll see what Arsenal are made of.”

Subtract this data from Arsenal’s overall performance and you’ll find the Gunners have won 21 of their remaining 24 fixtures against the rest of the pack picking up 65 points at a whopping 2.71 PPG in the process. That is truly extraordinary.

How can a team be so good against the bottom 13 and struggle to this extent against the top 7? Don’t forget, the League is very close and we’ve constantly seen the relatively smaller sides take points off other big teams. If everyone pummelled the so-called minnows it would have been a different story.

I don’t think there is a straightforward answer to this question. Much of it is linked to the confidence of the players – the handbrake, the inhibited offensive movement (few players in the opposition box for instance), and nervy moments leading to individual errors in defence are all linked to mentality and confidence.

I’m hopeful there will only be a handful of idiots left who would still argue this side lacks winning mentality and all that jazz because that does not explain the form against the other sides. Big players always improve squads – for instance, I’d absolutely love to see Suarez at Arsenal – but this really can’t be down to individual quality as the primary factor. For one thing, Arsenal’s points total for this year is enough to dispute any claims about the squad lacking quality. If other teams were that superior in terms of squad strength it should show in  that first table. There are other ways to analyze this as well but I don’t want to dwell upon it as the point seems sound enough.

Is the problem tactical? Even if it is, we still have to explain how Arsenal have 75 points from 34 games.

I am inclined to believe it’s a combination of tactical issues that in turn affect mentality and confidence which then lead to subpar individual performances. Going into all the details of my thoughts on this matter will take me over ten thousand words so I’ll again limit myself to a few observations that are relevant in the current context.

A lot of this good form is linked with defensive improvement. Most of that has come from very deep defending, almost akin to parking the bus. Look back at the games and see how often the opponents had Arsenal pinned back in their own defensive third. Points for resolve, concentration, and discipline must be given – and are in fact visible on that table – but it does limit Arsenal’s offensive potential. I’ve talked about this lack of balance quite often.

Against the smaller teams Arsenal have invariably found ways to score on the break. Strong defence and an ability to score can consistently equate to three points. This is easier against the relatively smaller teams who

a)      don’t have the quality in the final third to trouble a determined, well-organized, deep-lying defence.

b)      Can’t break up counter-attacks as efficiently and consistently, and are vulnerable when not defending in numbers themselves

On the other hand, the big teams are used to defending against counter-attacks and have greater offensive quality in the final third. That means it’s harder for the Gunners to break forward in a decisive manner and there’s a greater probability of conceding goals or making mistakes at the back. The players seem to know this subconsciously and it affects their confidence, which in turn helps propagate this cycle further.

In my opinion, at the moment this is the simplest way of explaining Arsenal’s strengths and weaknesses and their impact on the results. Someday with more time and significantly greater liberty in terms of word count, I’ll try to discuss more details with examples and explore ideas for change.

For now, this is what it is and the intricacies of the game against Man City have to been understood in light of that discussion.

Pellegrini is building a very exciting team at the Etihad. If I am honest, I’ve enjoyed watching City more than I’ve enjoyed Arsenal’s football because with them I can even have fun watching all the bloopers at the back. They’ve a big advantage in terms of financial muscle that translates into individual quality, particularly in attack, and it shows.

This game should bring the toughest test of Arsenal’s defence so far this season and a comparably challenging one for the team as a whole.

City have been imperious at home. A lot of that comes from their ruthlessness in attack and the ability to score the first goal relatively early. The smaller teams have been dealt with easily but they’ve also played excellent counter-attacking football against the likes of Manchester United, Tottenham, and Swansea who all dominated the ball at the Etihad.

It’ll be nigh on impossible for the Gunners to come back into this game if the hosts score first. That could lead to the side playing with the handbrake on, which will be counter-productive. Arsenal have to play their football, only with greater caution and defensive awareness.

Arteta has to be closer to the defence – in general the gap between the lines must be limited – and very alert to one of the two forwards dropping deeper. Ramsey must also pick and choose his moments to join the attack. Toure and the Welshman have vastly different physical qualities but play very similar roles for their teams. The decisive performance could come from the player who expresses himself better.

Hopefully, Walcott will be fit to start and Wenger will take a chance on playing him. It is understandable that the Theo-Jenkinson combination isn’t ideal for defending the right side in a big game. So much so that I suspect Wenger might even play Sagna if the Frenchman is half fit. Even if that is not the case, this is a gamble the manager has to take with strict instructions to Jenkinson to stay deeper and focus on defending.

On the other flank, we’ll have to see if the Chilean manager goes with Navas or a midfielder. He’ll have an offensive advantage if he picks two strikers and a traditional winger but that would come at the cost of some technical quality, which could become very relevant if the offensive advantage doesn’t translate into an early goal.

Interestingly, both teams are  5-0 when it comes to goals scored and conceded in the first 15 minutes of games. City are 19-4 in the first half (14-1 at home) while the Gunners are 12-4 (8-2). You might be reminded of Arsenal’s inability to convert their chances into healthier first-half leads in some games.

City have conceded more goals than Arsenal, and are 6-6 in the final 15 minutes of games as against 8-4 for the Gunners, but many of those have  been freakish goals and have come away from home.

Arsenal’s best hope would be to retain possession, even if it’s in their own half, and bide their time. Do not commit too many bodies forward, sustain concentration and discipline, track the runs of the attacking players, and don’t rely on the offside line. Despite their exceptional home record, there are defensive mistakes in this City side and patience is the best way to expose them.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.

It might be interesting to have Monreal against Navas, not only because of fresher legs but their familiarity from their time in La Liga.

A more radical option would be to play Walcott centrally with Rosicky or Wilshere on the right.

Mertesacker and Koscielny have done well against some big names in recent times. But in this game they’ll be up against a very well-oiled attacking machine that poses multiple threats. I don’t think they can protect the goal without consistent support. The full-backs will have to be much more conservative than they normally are.

This is arguably the toughest game Arsenal are going to play this year and I think a draw will be a very good result. The Gunners are capable of sneaking a victory like they did at Dortmund but I’d not recommend putting any money on it. City are justifiably the favourites and it’s up to Arsenal to prove what they can do.

Thoughts On The Everton And Napoli Games

December 11, 2013

The game against the Toffees was possibly a bitter-sweet experience for both sides. Martinez’s side showed just how excellent they can be but we also saw the reasons they have drawn so many games when sometimes their football seemingly deserves more. Arsenal had it tough for long periods in the game but the three points were within their grasp at the end. The nature and timing of the goal conceded definitely added to the disappointment.

Some people were surprised that Everton could come to Arsenal and dominate possession but it was something I’d touched upon in the pre-game article. The Gunners have played two very different styles this season, sometimes during the same game.

They look good when pressing technically limited teams higher up the pitch. The likes of Norwich and Hull found it very hard to get out of their half, for instance. They also made the most of certain singular advantages in games against Napoli – where the tempo was just too high for the visitors – and Liverpool – where the Reds’ formation took away any chance they had of competing for the ball on a consistent basis.  But Arsenal haven’t really produced similar pressing and dominance in many of the other games, particularly the big ones. The results against Dortmund and Tottenham, for instance, came on the back of resolute defending in the deeper areas and at the cost of possession.

In this game, it seemed to me that the Gunners were caught in a state of tactical chaos. They were trying to press higher up the pitch but the visitors had the right combination of technique, fluidity, understanding, and bravery to pass their way out of that pressing. They were helped by the fact that Arsenal’s central defenders were not very comfortable higher up the pitch and kept dropping deeper. As a result the gaps between the lines were often very large and it was easier for Everton to play simple short to medium vertical passes that quickly transformed Arsenal’s pressing into frantic acts of chasing back.

The hard working, positionally assured, and committed effort by the central defenders helped keep the visitors at bay. At the same time Arsenal were also helped by the inexperience in the Everton ranks that made them inefficient in the final third. Just as Wilshere often puts the wrong weight on a pass or makes the wrong choice, the likes of Barkley, Lukaku, and other Everton players often got thereabouts in the decisive zones but just fell short of putting it all together.

Ideally, in such a game a tactically mature side would slow the tempo down and absorb the pressure because the opponent is likely to tire. But the degree of frivolity that I’ve noted in recent games was again there and it led to numerous technical errors undermining Arsenal’s biggest strength. I don’t think the players mean to be careless. It just seems that they are trying too hard to create extraordinary moves on too many occasions. Against quality opponents a lot of the one-touch flicks and early passes don’t work. Not only do they lead to a loss of possession it opens the game up for quick transitions.

The players have to learn to bide their time in the build-up because they can be excellent once they are able to advance in numbers as we saw repeatedly when they combined to get in behind the Everton lines. There might be fewer chances created with a more restrained approach but it gives an appearance of solidity, which affects public perception and opposition tactics in equal measure. We have seen such performances from the Gunners and so we know they can do it, it just has to happen on a more consistent basis.

A related issue is that Arsenal have to regain the ability to defend a little higher up the pitch against quality opponents. Defending deep, and effectively at that, can result in clean sheets and results against smaller teams but it won’t always be a clever approach in the big games.

Then again, the equalizer was conceded when the team was sitting deep – something they’ve excelled at thus far this season. It might have been the result of all the pressure Everton had created in the game till that point but I did feel a bit more urgency from Rosicky and/or Gibbs would have made the difference. Could Szczesny have saved a shot that seemed to fly straight over him? Hard to say, it was a powerful shot and I felt there was a slight deflection too.

Another topic that I’d touched upon in the preview was the importance of space in the wide areas when the Arsenal midfielders move all over the pitch. The Gunners could have had numerical advantages in the centre if they’d succeed in moving the ball purposefully but quick transitions and incoherent pressing meant that Everton often had vast open spaces on the flank that they could exploit. Again, it was their inefficiency in the final third that saved Szczesny from having to make many more saves.

All said and done, I thought this game came at a good time for the team. They’re on a high but still have a lot to prove and many areas of improvement to address. It could take some of the playfulness out of their game and bring the professionalism back in. They will need a very professional performance in Italy and the two subsequent games. The results in those games will tell us if this was a good point gained or two vital ones dropped.

Napoli need to win by a margin of three goals to qualify. That’s a tough ask particularly against this stingy version of the Gunners. But it’s not beyond them on their day because they have experienced attacking players and goalscorers.

Italian teams don’t usually play at breakneck speeds but are more tactical in their approach. So it’s more about ball circulation and clever breaks rather than a gung-ho all-action approach. Creating one excellent move can take as little as 10 seconds and if the quality of chance is high they certainly have finishers who can bury it. From that point of view, there is plenty of time in a game to score three goals. However, getting the first one in early might be very important for them and that could force the hosts into taking greater risks.

Wenger’s primary task will probably be to ensure that his players are focussed and don’t make mistakes that gift goals. Let Napoli work hard if they have to succeed and odds are Arsenal’s quality will shine through. On the other hand, we’ve seen Arsenal sides in panic mode that can crumble defensively. It’s not happened recently but the memories are not too distant either for them to be casually dismissed with a wry smile.

Once again spaces between the lines and the narrowness of Arsenal’s defending will be areas to watch out for. Pandev, Higuain, and Co. will certainly offer greater offensive threat if they find the kind of openings Barkley and Lukaku were able to get. You don’t want to see Higuain getting a clear run or shot at goal.

Their full-backs will also pose a greater threat as they will look to pick passes after well-timed late runs instead of swinging in hopeful crosses. Wide players need to be more consistent with their tracking back and the central midfielders more aware of the space in front of the centre-backs, particularly on the edge of the box or just inside.

Arsenal should be able to create a few chances of their own too, especially if they can avoid technical errors. The movement we’ve seen in recent games has been excellent, which in turn has fostered delightful combination play between three, four, and sometimes even more players. A little more efficiency and concentration in vital attacking moments can prove decisive.

It’s hard to say just how many changes Arsene Wenger will make. I’d like to see Walcott on the right as that would give the Gunners a constant threat. To compensate for Theo’s limited defensive skills and given the somewhat tired nature of Ramsey’s last effort, it might be interesting to have Flamini start alongside Arteta. It’d limit the team’s fluidity to an extent but the clever play would be ask both of them to concentrate on defending and sitting deep. This would free up the other more creative players to an extent and avoid the awkwardness of having someone like Flamini trying to play one-twos in tight attacking spaces. The Frenchman knows the league well – in terms of tactics and the pace of the game – so that too could be an added advantage if he starts.

Rosicky for Cazorla is another possibility worth exploring and Monreal could come in for Gibbs. The last two changes don’t give any clear tactical advantage but Rosicky is more comfortable at dropping back to retrieve the ball from the central defenders than Santi, a trait that could come in handy in the absence of Wilshere and Ramsey.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Flamini – Walcott, Giroud, Rosicky.

A defeat in itself will be a setback but getting knocked out of the Champions League could potentially undo all the good work done thus far this season. It seems highly unlikely as long as the Gunners perform close to the level they’ve shown in recent weeks. That said, you won’t be alone if the lingering ghosts of relatively recent disappointments send a chill down your spine.

A draw will see Arsenal top the group and the players must remember their own qualities if they concede an early goal. Giving the players a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might be a good idea!

P.S. In case you were wondering, combining the match preview and detailed analysis is not the new approach i want to take, it’s just a matter of time crunch and my disinterest in repeating many points over and over again. I want to take the level of analysis a step higher without being verbose, but thus far I haven’t found concise explanations for certain observations. Appreciate your patience and support at this time.

Thoughts On Hull And Everton Games

December 8, 2013

Three points and a clean sheet from a relaxed but dominating performance in the Premier League after making five changes to the starting line-up is impressive.

Wenger isn’t always comfortable with rotating players in and out of the starting line-up, and over the last couple of years I’ve come to see such changes as a measure of his confidence in the squad to deal with the level of competition they’re faced with. In the last few years the most common games where we saw numerous changes typically used to be League Cup fixtures, or FA Cup ties against lower league opponents, or dead rubbers in the Champions League once the team had qualified. That Arsene Wenger has felt confident in shuffling his pack for important games – in terms of points and the need for maintaining consistency – like the one against Marseille and now this one against Hull seems to be an indication of the manager’s growing belief in his squad’s ability to express their ideas on the pitch while executing their defensive duties diligently even when personnel vary.

The Frenchman had openly stated that he didn’t expect Arsenal to be at the top so early in the season, particularly after that initial disappointment. In light of that it was understandable that he’d want to play his best players at every opportunity in order to consolidate the team’s lead in the early part of the season. Choices were limited by injuries too. As the Gunners head into a hectic period with many potentially decisive fixtures, the manager’s growing confidence and the fluid yet cohesive performance of the side despite notable changed to the staring eleven are extremely encouraging signs, particularly now that more and more players are regaining fitness.

That’s not to say that Bendtner should start ahead of Giroud in the upcoming big games, for instance, but it does give the manager more choices and even the players on the bench will feel confident that their chances are coming.

You could be wondering, I certainly was, whether resting Ramsey and Özil might have been a better option given the load they’ve been bearing. It could be that Wenger finds them to be his most decisive players and that makes them hard to replace given that one or two of the other big names are not getting their usual goals and assists. This is likely to change once other individuals have more of an end product against their names. The first goal that the Gunners scored should certainly help in that regard.

Not only did we see an excellent assist and a confident finish from two players who’ve a lot to prove, the entire build-up was top class.

First Goal Build-up

When a side can incorporate five changes and still create a move like that – 16 passes, about 35 seconds of possession, all outfield players involved except the centre-backs – in the first minute of the game, people take notice either consciously or without realizing it.

It seemed to me that Hull certainly did and whatever game plan they had, if they had one, was rendered irrelevant as they barely put up a challenge for the rest of the game. At times it felt they were overawed by the quality of Arsenal’s football and were simply hanging in there.

At this point I’ve to say that one problem with the kind of write-up that has preceded this sentence is that it tends to overemphasize the positives of the side. There’s nothing wrong in enjoying such a win and the strong run but we are, as a species, too prone to resort to superlatives. It needs to be tempered because reality rarely dwells in the extremes.

One way to moderate any unbridled enthusiasm is to ask why the Gunners didn’t take full advantage of their visibly obvious supremacy to convert this into a much bigger win. Ultimately, it was again down to the decisive qualities of Ramsey and Özil in the second half.

Towards the end there were some moments of complacency at the back that I doubt Bould or Wenger would have enjoyed.

Job well done, yes. But it remains just another step in a marathon.

Each game is technically worth only three points. However, if we extend the season as a marathon metaphor, every single fixture isn’t exactly akin to equal strides. Some of the games are bigger and success in these takes a team farther towards its goals. Failure has the potential to have an opposite effect. Consider Arsenal’s win against Liverpool for instance, had the result gone the other way the Reds would have led the League by a couple of points right now instead of being four points behind the Gunners as they currently are. And that’s assuming all other results remained the same which isn’t always the case as such encounters affect a team’s confidence. We’ve certainly seen Arsenal stutter in the past to know not to take recovery for granted.

Arsenal’s next few fixtures have the potential to provide the team with the escape velocity that propels them into a healthy lead all on their own. Or they could be sucked down into the congested competitive space just below where six teams reside in a four point zone. The gravity of this matter cannot be taken lightly.

It can be argued that the game against Everton isn’t exactly a six-pointer in the title race as the Toffees have already dropped points against Cardiff, Norwich, West Brom, and Crystal Palace – teams currently in the bottom seven – this season. It seems fair when you consider that, at the time of writing, some bookmakers are offering 100/1 odds on Everton winning the title.

On the other hand, Martinez’s side has already beaten Chelsea and United while drawing with Liverpool and Spurs. Most of those results are at home but their win at Old Trafford came at a location where the Gunners have already failed. Furthermore, as we’ve seen in recent years, Arsenal are one of the few teams for whom the home or away difference isn’t always that significant (Wenger’s team are 4th in the home table and 1st in the away table as of now).

A lot has been made of points gained by the Gunners in corresponding fixtures from last season and this is one where a win would see them better the draw from 2012-13. Man City are the only side that have beaten Everton and it’s always helpful to match or better the direct rivals in tougher games. Dropping points in this game will certainly lead to increased pressure in the other big games coming up.

Everton are a different team under Martinez, although they still have to prove they do better in terms of points and position at the end of the season. Their possession stats are up from 52.9 to 56.5 percent while pass completion has gone up from 79.4 to 83.3 this season. The Spaniard focuses more on technique and ball retention and it shows in the choices of their players. They aren’t as eager to gain territory (longer balls to Fellaini under Moyes an excellent example) but take their time building attacks. As a result their total number of shots per game has gone down a bit (14.9 vis-a-vis 16.7) despite better possession and passing accuracy figures, but they are getting more shots on target (5.7 vs 5.4) and average 1.57 goals a game compared to 1.45 last year. The differences aren’t too big, nor is the sample size, but they do hint towards better quality of chances being created.

The Toffees also have the second best defence in the League behind Arsenal with 0.93 goals conceded per game. Last year this figure was 1.05. They already have 8 clean sheets in 14 games and are likely to better the mark of 11 from the previous campaign very soon.

In truth, that doesn’t tell the whole picture as they’ve conceded 12 goals in 5 of the remaining 6 games. Many of their games, particularly against the big teams, have been open and entertaining with both sides having good chances of scoring. I believe Arsenal will not find them as hard to penetrate as some of the Moyes sides.

In order to do that Arsenal will have to win the possession battle – or play a really efficient counter-attacking game – against a team that’s managed to see more of the ball away from home (58.9 percent) than the Gunners have at the Emirates (54.9 percent). The first goal is likely to have a decisive bearing on these figures for this game.

Everton have some very exciting individuals and this could lead to fascinating duels all over the pitch. Lukaku is making a name for himself and his sheer power is going to test the likes of Koscielny who enjoys going tight to the striker. The Belgian is also good at changing direction, although he tends to cut inside more often, and the defenders will have to be alert to that when covering behind their teammates.

The likes of Mirallas and Pienaar are capable of running in behind a high line so I won’t be surprised if Arsenal start dropping deeper when possession is lost. This would give the visitors a greater foothold in the game but could prove to be the safer choice. As ever though, it’s going to be a matter of maintaining optimum spaces between the lines while playing with a cohesive defensive approach – press together or drop back as a unit. It’s an area where the Gunners have improved tremendously and can again be the foundation of an important result.

Barkley against Arteta is also going to be an enjoyable battle. The youngster is faster and perhaps stronger while the Arsenal man is more experienced and technically superior. We have to see who is able to express his strengths better than the other.

Everton also have quick, hard-working full-backs who could pose a threat if Arsenal’s fluidity in attack leaves the wide areas exposed on transitions. We often see discussions about numerical superiority in certain parts of the pitch because of the movement of players, but it’s worth remembering that in a 11-v-11 game if one side has an advantage in a certain part of the pitch, their opponents will have a similar opportunity in another. It’s going to be a battle with fine margins.

Wenger again has some choices to make for his starting line-up. He could rest different players in this game while bringing in those who were left out against Hull. For example, Arteta and Wilshere could come in for Ramsey and Özil. That way the Gunners would have the freshest possible legs, which could come in handy in a battle that will leave players leggy by the time of the final whistle.

I have a feeling he will go with his strongest side on current form and make changes against Napoli.

We might see,

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

That said, I’m hoping we will see one or two of the regulars rotated with the likes of Rosicky and or Flamini retained in the side.

It’s understandable that most Arsenal fans would be buzzing and feeling positive about this tie but until the Gunners go through a whole season performing week in, week out, there will some butterflies in more than a few Gooner stomachs.

Thoughts On Cardiff And Hull Games

December 4, 2013

Arsenal returned from Wales with three very impressive points. The game was tighter than the final scoreline would suggest, which, of course, reinforces the quality of Arsenal’s performance.

Recently, I’ve felt that the whole team is playing well and almost all players are pulling their weight or even exceeding expectations. This game wasn’t much different with Szczesny making that big save, Özil providing two excellent assists, Ramsey doing his thing, while Arteta and the defenders worked well to control the attacks.

One player who hasn’t been in the limelight is Cazorla. His contribution has been lacking in terms of the obvious decisive moments like assists and goals but I’ve felt that he offers something very important to the team. He’s there when teammates need him in any part of the pitch and he helps Arsenal raise their technical level. It’s not an easily noticeable trait at times and a lot of his efforts won’t add to the number of eye-catching compilations on YouTube, but I’m positive his teammates appreciate what he’s doing. Hopefully, the Spaniard himself won’t be too distraught with this phase away from the spotlight after being the main man for most of last season.

One aspect of Arsenal’s play vital to success in Cardiff was their ability to limit the number of opportunities created inside the box. Admittedly, the hosts did create four or five good chances and on another day they might have scored a goal, but I doubt that would have affected the result. Arsenal have conceded a goal against the likes of Sunderland and Stoke earlier in the season only to go on and settle the game with late goals of their own.

This ability to score goals even when the team is predominantly in the defensive mode has been central to the Gunners’ form this season and nicely complements the team’s defensive qualities. It was only a question of when they scored the second, not if. And if we were counting chances, the visitors certainly created enough to win this game by a couple of goals. In a way, one could argue that a second goal a little earlier in the game would have been extremely helpful to settle the nerves in the Gooner ranks and in countering the buoyancy of the opponents in the second period. Getting the second and third goals in earlier in a few games would certainly go some ways in bringing the fear factor back.

While the team defended well, Wenger and Bould will want better from the individuals, particularly on set-pieces. Indeed, they’d even want the side to concede few free-kicks in dangerous areas against such opponents. That remains an area of improvement and it only reminds us that even though Arsenal are playing very well right now and getting desired results, they have the ability to do better and there is an even higher level of play that they can aim for. Minimizing the impact of luck in the clean sheets is the only way to ensure long term sustainability of defensive solidity.

Next up for the Gunners is Hull City. Steve Bruce is back in the Premier League and has given the Tigers a fighting chance of survival this season. The former United defender has managed mid-table finishes with the likes of Birmingham, Wigan, and Sunderland in the past decade and his teams were often a tough nut to crack.

A key to his success is his ability to get his teams mirroring his own playing style. Lacking in flair or skill they may be at times, but it’s more than compensated by desire, determination, courage, and work ethic. He’s a quintessentially British manager you might say, and the Gunners face another typical English opponent for the Gunners straight after Cardiff. That’s no longer as common as it once was with many of the smaller teams slowly learning and incorporating technical and tactical traits from various continental styles.

Organization, numbers, commitment, and physicality (although probably not in its ugly form) will define Hull’s defensive approach. The formation might vary on paper but it’s basically going to be 8-9 players behind the ball if not more. This works well at home but isn’t always effective on the road, especially against the big sides.

Hull are 10th in the League right now, which is a commendable achievement, but they have only three points from six away games. The solitary win at Newcastle stands out as an aberration as Bruce’s sides aren’t known for their form on the road. In fairness to the Tigers, all their away games thus far have come against teams above them in the League.

The Gunners have to play pretty much the same way they did against Cardiff but they’ll have to be more dominant as they’re at home and this is virtually a must-win game. Converting more than one of the few chances they are likely to create in the first half will help.

The challenge for Wenger here is to find a way to rest some of his players while having a team out there that’s cohesive enough to get a result with a positive performance. Starting this weekend against Everton, Arsenal enter into a run of fixtures that could prove decisive to their title hopes. Spreading the workload over his squad is something the Arsenal manager has to achieve.

Sagna is likely to miss this game through injury so Jenkinson could offer one pair of fresh legs. Hopefully the youngster will be conservative with his choices and leave the attacking space to his more gifted colleagues instead of bombing forward at every opportunity. Focussing his energies on defending will help him and the team. The likes of Monreal, Vermaelen, Rosicky, Flamini and even Gnabry have reasonable claims for a starting spot. Of course, picking them all at once could unbalance the rhythm that is so reliant on continuity, but a couple of those players could come in.

I’m finding it hard to decide who should play and who deserves a breather. Thankfully, it’s not my job. Cazorla, Wilshere, and Arteta have had some breaks this season, Ramsey and Özil less so. One of the latter two could be left out, but they’re so important to the way the team plays that it’s virtually impossible to imagine Wenger resting either of his decisive stars.

We might see,

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

That said, I do hope for more than one change to the starting line up. There are enough players fit now to make three or four changes and still get a good result.

Every game in the League remains a testing fixture. Hull’s victory over Liverpool serves as a good reminder that Arsenal need to sustain their high standards. A lot of people don’t believe in this side yet and it would seem that the only way to change their minds is by repeating performances and results on a consistent basis. Top of the League after 13 games is excellent but it’s only a third of the way to the end and even a five percent drop in quality could render all the good work done thus far futile.

This is a must-win game, the squad is capable of winning it and fairly convincingly at that, but we still have to see what happens on the pitch.