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.