Thoughts On The Coventry And Southampton Games

January 28, 2014

It’s always good to have one of these relatively easier games in the mix when the team isn’t playing at its best. With respect to Coventry, this was a game Arsenal were expected to win comfortably and they did just that. It’s the kind of fixture that you enjoy and forget so I don’t want to dwell on it too much. Here are a few thoughts that stayed with me after the game,

The visitors looked better in the second half. Part of it was certainly related to their willingness to work harder in pressing higher up the pitch. It could be that they were simply overwhelmed by the occasion in the first half because Steven Pressley was constantly gesturing for his player to push forward. They just couldn’t execute it.

If I were an opposing manager against this season’s Arsenal side, I’d certainly want my team to play as high as possible. The Gunners have produced some breathtaking moves on the counter-attack in some games but they also seem their most vulnerable when teams have a go at them and disrupt the passing rhythm from the back. Losing with diffidence is hardly the way to go.

Anyway, there is no point in being too harsh on the Coventry players. I’m sure they’ve gone back thinking they could have done better.

Wenger’s team selection was interesting as the manager picked a very attacking line up with many senior players starting. The central midfield offered practically no protection in front of the defence but the visitors just didn’t have, first, the mentality to attack, and then, the quality in the final third to make a difference. Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain might one day play together at the heart of England’s midfield according to Wenger but I doubt we will see that combination again in the Arsenal midfield any time soon.

When the Coventry fans put up that ‘Why?’ banner in the first half, for a moment I thought it was an impromptu gesture from some Gooners wondering about Özil’s inclusion in the starting line-up. Equally baffling was the introduction of Santi and Giroud at the end, although I doubt either will complain with a goal against their names. Perhaps Wenger just thought the game was getting away from the players on the pitch and he needed to show he was serious.

On a more positive note, it was good to be reminded of Podolski’s finishing qualities even if most of us haven’t actually forgotten them. Özil and Mertesacker picked up the assists for those two goals and with Zelalem’s bubbling potential also visible later in the game, this might just be the night when Wenger’s officially become German.

Fabianski had another decent outing. If football had room for über-specialists, Jenkinson would become a wanted man for his kick-chase-cross prowess.

As I said, just a comfortable outing with very little to take seriously.

Southampton – Warming up to the tough times

As discussed before the last game, the win against Fulham put the Gunners one point ahead on points when compared to corresponding fixtures from last season. The importance of this comparison will become even more obvious from the following table,

Results from final corresponding fixtures - 16 remaining games

I have substituted Crystal Palace for Reading and Hull for Wigan, not ideal but should suffice for the purpose of this discussion. LYR = Last year’s results. PTS = Points from corresponding fixture.

Arsenal picked up only 23 points from these 16 games which include 5 defeats and 5 draws. The exact same results – practically impossible – will see Wenger’s side end with 74 points. 87 points is the average tally of the winners over the last 10 years and the Gunners need to gain 13 points from these fixtures to hit that mark. Not impossible by any means but working out how such a target can be hit – and exploring other possibilities for the final winner’s tally – is an interesting exercise. There are many games where points can be gained and some where they could even be lost. I’ll leave you to play with various permutations while focusing the rest of this article on the next game.

The Saints proved a tough nut to crack when the Gunners visited St. Mary’s Stadium last year. It was Arsenal’s first game in the impressive 2013 calendar year and Nigel Adkins was still the manager there. How things change!?

But they also remain the same. The Gunners are likely to face a very stern test once again despite the home side’s pretty average showing against the top 10 thus far. Pochettino’s side has one win in 10 games, with none in the 4 at home, against teams in the top half of the table. You could also say that defeat to Arsenal derailed their season in some ways. Flying high in third position before that, the Saints lost three straight and only picked up 5 points from their next 9 games.

Many thought their defeat at the Emirates was unfortunate but I did get the distinct feeling that the quality of their pressing was not at the level required for their form to last. Furthermore, their possession play is also a work in progress.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to belittle the fantastic work done by Pochettino or the quality of his players. It’d be great for the league if many other clubs with limited resources could produce such teams. It’s just that they are a little bit below the top eight in terms of quality and consistency even if well clear of the remaining eleven teams. That reflects nicely in their island-like position in the table over the last few weeks.

Southampton’s best hope from this game, and one that isn’t too unrealistic, would be that their pressing works better than it did in the reverse fixture. They need greater cohesion and quicker starts to the press but that alone might not be enough as they’ll have to rely on technical and/or tactical mistakes from the Gunners. It’s possible given the lacklustre form we’ve seen in the not too distant past and the fact that some players will be returning to the starting line up after injury layoffs means coordination amongst the visitors might not be ideal.

Wenger’s choices in midfield will also, obviously, have an influence on the patterns of play. Wilshere is likely to be out of contention as is Walcott. Arteta and Ramsey could be back. I don’t know if Rosicky is available or not.

I’d think Arteta, Özil, Santi, and Giroud are certainties for the front six. Wenger could pick between Ramsey and Flamini based on fitness or he could start both if he wants an extra midfielder in the side. The Frenchman does that sometimes in tricky away games and it tends to slow the game down but it also increases the likelihood of ball-retention and defensive stability.

Ramsey’s return to the side, and hopefully to form, could be vital to the team’s chances as he has the energy to join up in attacks on a consistent basis.

The defence will also have their work cut out. It won’t be the one-dimensional long-ball approach like Villa had, Lambert won’t cut an isolated, disinterested figure like Berbatov, and their players have the quality in the final third to convert the chances that Coventry squandered. They are strong in the air, can score from distance, and make clever runs/combinations if given space in the final third. Arsenal have to get their unified defence back and working without glitches. The Gunners won’t create too many chances in this game so the distribution of points could very well depend on how solid the defence is.

We might see,

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

Some fans don’t like Arteta and Flamini in the same midfield. I don’t have a problem with that selection as long as there are other attacking ideas being executed. It’s definitely not a bad combination in a game where the team could end up defending deep.

That said, Rosicky on the right with Ramsey replacing Flamini in midfield would be better. Little Mozart has a nose for sniffing out offensive opportunities but it might need some mending!

There is a possibility that Wenger picks Monreal ahead of Gibbs. Both are very good.

Many fans probably want to see Oxlade-Chamberlain in the staring eleven. I’m not convinced he does enough on the pitch to get a start in a game like this. Wenger, if he has enough faith in the rest of his starting line-up, could pick the youngster to further his development. On the job training is often a necessary tool in the final stages of polishing a raw talent.

A more adventurous front six would be – Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey – Özil, Giroud, Podolski. Full backs would provide the width, Podolski the fire power, Giroud the anchor, while Özil and Santi pull the strings. It could work well if the defensive midfielders show positional discipline and concentration. I don’t see Wenger going for it though.

This is an opportunity for the team to pick up two more points over last season but they’ll have to raise the performance above the quality levels we saw against the likes of Villa and Fulham in order to return with three points.

Thoughts On The Fulham and Coventry Games

January 24, 2014

Arsenal are clearly not playing at their best right now but the results keep coming. It’s important even if it’s not as enjoyable as all of us would like it to be. The performance against Fulham was much better than the one we saw at Villa Park and the three points weren’t in much doubt even during some frustrating moments of the first half.

It’s hard to say anything was wrong, per se, with the way Arsenal were playing except that the pace could have been higher. Fulham did make it harder for the Gunners with as many as 9 outfielders camped deep in their own half for long periods. It was a surprise because the Cottagers are generally a bit more of a footballing side than that. New manager and his attempts to get the team out of a mire I guess.

I thought Meulensteen missed a trick when he went with Berbatov as his lone striker at the start. The Bulgarian was too isolated and is not the kind of player who will make things happen for his team through sheer determination and hard work. Playing him deeper with Bent up top might have caused Arsenal more problems as the former United man would have helped keep the ball a bit better and is capable of picking passes out too. Bent’s pace in behind would have been useful to gain territory and create chances on the break. Then again, hindsight is always 20/20.

Arsenal’s main problem was again about lack of players going in behind. Way too much of the play was in front of the defence. But I don’t mind a patient first half when the team has an extra gear or two to hit as the game progresses. Not conceding early and wearing an opponent out is a good enough strategy when you have the League’s best second half record.

There wasn’t a novel tactical element to the game. Arsenal simply took a few more risks in the second half and pushed more players higher up the pitch. It pushed Fulham from the edge of their box or just outside to somewhere between the penalty spot and the six yard box. This in turn opened up more angles for penetrative passes and positions from which to take shots without having a slew of bodies between the ball and goal.

Cazorla’s decisive contribution was a delight to watch. Wilshere’s tendency to contribute to decisive moments is also coming along nicely. I did get a feeling at times that the youngster was too high up the pitch in the first half without really committing enough to get into the box. It might have been more productive had he stayed a tad deeper so Santi and Özil got more space, or if he pushed into the box and beyond these guys as he did at times in the second half.

Özil did seem a little below par in this game. Not in terms of work rate for the team but there were some uncharacteristic unforced errors in his game. I don’t think shooting or scoring goals has ever been his strength. That’s an area where he’ll probably need some help from Wenger and the coaching staff. It’s not just about willingness to go for goal, he needs to work on his shooting technique, awareness of the goalposts, and belief that he can contribute in that manner.

This was Arsenal’s league-leading 10th clean sheet of the season. It came about without much fuss and was probably among the easier games for the back four and Szczesny. Bent did have a great chance right at the end and that only serves to remind us how a momentary lapse in concentration can prove costly.

One interesting detail – something that I’ve seen quite often this season – was that Arsenal’s two goals again came in a short space of time. Earlier in the season I’d talked about the Gunners’ ability to raise their level and hit back if the opponents scored. This tendency was vital to the strong run that took Wenger’s side to the summit. It’s good to see the players haven’t lost it despite a few injuries and rotations. Most teams can’t sustain a high-risk, fast-paced approach for the duration of the game. But having the ability to hit that zone for short durations and making it count inspires confidence.

Coventry – Tough to take it easy

 This articles does a good job capturing the contrasting states of the two clubs with useful details on Coventry’s plight. Almost all of that is off the pitch though, as Steven Pressley’s side have suffered only one defeat in their last eleven competitive fixtures. But for the 10 point handicap imposed on them, the Sky Blues would be in playoff positions.

Does that make this a massive test for the Gunners? No. But it remains a potential banana skin that could result in a painful stumble.

In football, defending remains significantly easier than attacking. And that means the relatively smaller teams always have a chance if they can produce the work rate and discipline needed to keep a clean sheet. Remember the dictum – if you can’t win, don’t lose. And the corollary of sorts – if you don’t lose, you can sometimes sneak a win.

For the visitors this game is mostly going to be about playing with a nothing-to-lose mindset coupled with a desire to prove themselves against the best. For them, and with all due respect, an upset in a game like this could be the highlight of the season. Losing won’t make much of a difference. Such a scenario can sometimes lift a team to great heights or it can result in an indifferent performance, particularly if the start is poor and they go behind. We’ll have to see how the patterns pan out.

Arsenal don’t have to do much different for this game, they just have to play their game. A steady mix of concentration, work rate, patience, and composure should do the trick. And, it goes without saying, avoid gifting goals.

It’s interesting that Wenger says Ramsey and Arteta are not available. It’s speculation but I think one or both would have been in the squad had this been a game against one of the bigger sides. That’s not to criticize the manager, I actually like the idea of giving his key players extra time to recover. Hopefully, he’ll extend similar courtesy to some others who are likely to be very busy in February and March.

I’d like to see,

Fabianski – Jenkinson, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Flamini, Wilshere, AOC – Gnabry, Bendtner, Podolski.

With Özil, Giroud, and Santi on the bench, Arsenal should have enough firepower to turn things around if they don’t go according to plan.

Of course, many will say that the club should not take the competition lightly and the players have had enough rest over the last couple of weeks. That’s true from a short term point of view but the miles logged in every game start having an effect as the season reaches the business end. I’d prefer if key players like Özil, Mertesacker, and Giroud had extra reserves at such times because the big games will come thick and fast after a couple of weeks.

The starting line-up mentioned above is not an ideal combination but the players should have enough to get the result. Many of them could use the minutes on the pitch anyway. They just have to avoid frustration if the combinations don’t click early on. Trying hard to force things can have unintended adverse effects.

Having said all that, I’ll actually be pleasantly surprised if Wenger does indeed rest so many of his big players. Last season’s disappointments are still fresh in memory and he’ll certainly want to avoid a repeat.

Thoughts On The Aston Villa And Fulham Games

January 18, 2014

The win at Villa park seems to fall in the bittersweet category. It’s always good to see the team is capable of grinding out results when they aren’t playing particularly well. On the other hand, there’s no fun in watching the side make a meal out of a contest that seemed pretty straightforward and could have been closed out without much ado.

It was the classic cliché of a game with two halves that had entirely disparate dynamics. Arsenal coasted through the first one. They had bulk of the possession and did an effective enough job of neutralizing Villa’s threat from long-balls and pace on the break. That said, Wenger must have been disappointed with the paltry number of chances his side was able to create against a predictably dogged and deep-seated home defence. Lambert, in contrast, would have been encouraged by the few moments his side were able to create in the first half when their pace and/or long balls troubled the Arsenal defenders who were covering large spaces.

The two goals for the visitors came in a minute but other than that it’s hard to recall Guzan being seriously tested. Arsenal’s main problem in attack seemed to be a lack of runners willing to go in behind. Walcott was sorely missed but it’s worth recalling that he often struggled against such a deep and congested defence. Nevertheless, it was obvious that Gnabry still has a lot to learn about movement on the pitch and his limited contribution meant that others had to do more.

A related issue was the nature of the central midfield duo who were, at least notionally, supposed be the deepest midfielders. The players in this role have to do a lot to circulate the ball so that others get time to change their positions as the team searches for openings. A lot of offensive play is linked to the quality of off-the-ball movement and such movement is only possible in an attacking manner when the team has possession. Those seemingly innocuous sideways and backwards passes can be very useful to the team when executed astutely. In this game though, neither Wilshere, nor Flamini were ideally suited to do that simple thankless job. The Frenchman is a reactive player and has shown in his second innings at Arsenal that he cannot be the driver of possession football. His game is more suited to responding and chasing, and that has its own merits, but not as much to facilitating build up in a proactive manner.

Wilshere’s was a mixed bag of a performance. If you wanted to, you could make a compilation that made him look a world class player with select moments from that game. At the same time, there were enough examples of a guy who still has a lot to learn as he made tactical and technical errors all over the pitch. Of course, he played a part in the two decisive events of the first half and that cannot be taken away. It’s an area where he’s shown genuine improvement this season and there is every reason to believe he will get better in other ways too.

Villa offered a greater goal threat in the second half and were arguably the better team. Better might not be the right word but the hosts certainly deserved to win that half.

They pushed up the pitch and pressed with greater vigour. This Arsenal team will struggle, particularly when Arteta is missing, when the opponents can press cohesively. Most teams can’t sustain that cohesion or the energy required to execute such a task over a long period so it’s important for them to be selective. Villa did a great job of gaining territory with their long balls and were very clever when choosing their moments to press. As a result, the Gunners created very little in that half and there were quite a few nervy moments at the back.

Mertesacker and Koscielny deserve a special mention for their excellent work in the centre of Arsenal’s defence. While Villa’s attack was inherently inefficient, we’ve seen Arsenal teams crumble against rudimentary tactics in the not so distant past. The central defenders have to command the most vital defensive areas and the duo did a commendable job. Again.

To be fair, the full-backs and other outfielders also deserve credit for their disciplined and hard working supporting role. Yes, Cazorla made the obvious error that led to the goal. It was entirely avoidable. But I did get a feeling that Özil and Santi were doing the kind of work they shouldn’t have to do as often. You don’t want your most creative players running around all the time to support the defence or to facilitate possession play. These two were Arsenal’s most prolific passers. That would not happen if Arteta and Ramsey play through the middle as they would both clock around 90-100 passes in such a game leaving the likes of Cazorla and Özil with greater freedom. Özil to Cazorla and the reverse of that were the two most prolific pass combinations for Arsenal in this game. That is not the best case scenario and links to the problems with the central midfield combination discussed above.

Take a look at individual stats for defensive moments and you again wonder why someone like Cazorla has so much responsibility. In the end it’s fair to say the Spaniard didn’t have a great game but he did make sacrifices for the team – something he’s been doing for a while – and Wenger has to find a way to minimize the need for that.

Özil was the MotM for me. It was an excellent central midfield performance. Not filled with as many highlights-worthy moments as all of us would like to see but it was an extremely mature and responsible effort.

Fulham – Chance to gain points over last season’s tally.

Some people don’t like it while some others use it as a weapon to knock the team’s accomplishments, but I simply like to use the comparison with last season’s corresponding fixtures as one of the benchmarks to measure the improvement this squad has shown.

The win at Villa gained two points over last season as the Gunners had only drawn there but, by my cursory count, the team is still at -1 when this seasons points are tallied with those from last year. Fulham at home provides an opportunity to take that number into the green zone and, if you’ve read my previous article, it’s needless to say this is another must-win game for Wenger’s side.

Rene Meulensteen has taken charge of a very interesting bunch of players. They are undoubtedly a talented football outfit but after a point talent is not the defining factor. Attitude linked with desire and diligence can have a much greater impact. In that sense Berbatov probably typifies the Cottagers. They can produce some breathtaking moments and the aforementioned corresponding fixture from last season should still be fresh in most players’ memory for them to make the same mistakes twice.

This could be a possession battle if Arsenal don’t do an effective job of pressing higher up the pitch. And that could be a double edged sword because trying to press and failing to find cohesion can leave the defence exposed.

Meulensteen’s choices in defence and midfield will also have a big impact on the patterns of play. He could go with the experienced Hangeland and the youngster Burn. It would not be a settled premiership defence but could have the ingredients to abet positive play.

The Dutchman will also have to find some support for Berbatov. Taarabt is a mercurial talent, not unlike the Bulgarian, but the visitors will have to push more players up in support. In this context, I must say their failure to get more out of Bryan Ruiz has been a surprise. Bent probably enjoys playing against the Gunners and I won’t be surprised to see him have an impact moment at some point.

Arsenal should be able to create enough chances to score a couple of goals against the Fulham defence that has lacked consistency to say the least. We’d have to go back to 2009 to see the last time the Gunners failed to score against the Cottagers and hopefully that run will be extended. The players should find more space than they did against Villa but at this level they tend to disappear quickly so a faster tempo will be needed.

Wenger doesn’t have many players available so it’s hard to see too many changes to the starting line up. We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Flamini, Özil, Wilshere – Gnabry, Giroud, Cazorla.

I don’t see the point in starting Rosicky with a mask on his face after he suffered that broken nose at Villa Park. Use sparingly as needed.

Oxlade-Chamberlain and Podolski provide interesting options and I can see them starting on the flanks. It would give Arsenal greater vertical threat and goal-scoring potential even if it comes at a slight cost of defensive vulnerability including possession loss.

Wenger does take more risks at home.

Arsenal’s last six games against Fulham have resulted in a W2D3L1 record, which isn’t exactly special. The two wins have come in the last two fixtures after four winless efforts from the Gunners. That could be a sign of change. Both teams usually score in this fixture. Arsenal have conceded 1 goal in the last 8 games at the Emirates so it will be interesting to see what gives. The Cottagers are yet to win away to Arsenal but even if they take a point it would be very useful to their cause while hurting the Gunners immensely.

Thoughts On The Tottenham And Aston Villa Games

January 13, 2014

It should have been 5-0. I guess that’s the only complaint you can have from Arsenal’s big win over their bitter rivals in the North London Derby.

I’d expected it to be a tougher game but only one team showed up with their A-game. Wenger put Walcott up front and Gnabry coming in on the right worked out perfectly. Changes like that shouldn’t have created as big a gap between the two sides though, and it seemed to me that two distinct factors led to Arsenal’s dominace.

The main problem was with Tottenham’s chaotic system. I don’t mean it in the 4-4-2 vs 4-2-3-1 kind of way where two central midfielders are overrun by three opponents. It’d be a popular tack to take but doesn’t correlate with Spurs’ higher possession (was pretty even even before Arsenal went down to 10). Nor does it tally with other observations like Sagna being free on the flank to play that pass to Gnabry. Sherwood’s side would have had the full-back well controlled had they got fewer bodies in the centre. But Eriksen, who was notionally playing as a left-sided midfielder, often drifted inside and evened the numbers up or, occasionally, gave his side the numerical superiority in specific zones.

You could go through the game and pick moments when Arsenal had fewer bodies in the centre and you could find moves where Spurs were outnumbered in that area. The game is fluid and simplifying it to that extent hardly helps. What matters is the way a team is able to use its advantage.

This is inextricably linked to the attacking players’ ability to combine and create, but we must not forget the role of the opponent’s defensive structure and individuals involved contributes almost as much, if not more.

We could see remnants of AVB’s high pressing game in the positioning and choices of some players and with the central defenders dropping deep quickly we also saw Sherwood’s influence. The problem for Tottenham was that it led to a confused defensive approach and created big gaps between the lines.

See the amount of space Gnabry had when he received the ball. The visiting midfield was in no position to help the defence. It was a common occurrence throughout the game. And those who’ve followed this blog over the last few years will need no explanation on just how difficult life can get for defenders who are left without support against quick and tricky opponents.

Even when time and space are available, the attacking players still need to be on the same page in order for a promising moment to result in a good quality chance. The way the Gunners combined in forward areas was a real joy and, even though you can argue such space won’t always be available, it’s impossible to ignore the timing of Walcott’s movement, Cazorla’s technique, and Gnabry brimming potential. Finishing could still have been better, particularly from Theo, but they did very well for an attacking trio that had not played together before.

Sidebar – Walcott’s injury was a shame. His uniqueness means it will be a big loss. But I think the team can cope with it as long as they continue to attack and defend as a unit.

Coming back to the main topic, the second defining aspect of the game was Tottenham’s  inability to convert many of their promising moments into meaningful chances. I don’t think Arsenal’s defending was particularly outstanding in this game. There were many individual moments from which the visitors could have sprung more threatening attacks. For example, when Soldado dropped into pockets between the lines and showed good control of the ball, or the time Spurs worked space on the right flank, and so on. The fragmented nature of their attack – perhaps also a result of tactical execution that was neither here (read Sherwood) nor there (AVB) – meant that the Gunners got enough of an opportunity to recover and solidify their defences.

As the game went on I also sensed a degree of resignation in the visiting ranks. It was as if they realized it was a lost cause and didn’t quite give their all. It certainly didn’t have the feel of a feisty local derby in a Cup tie. That probably explains why they just couldn’t get anything going even with a man advantage towards the end.

Villa Park – Another must-win game!

It can start to get a little tedious when almost every game gets the must-win label. Trust me when I say I understand that and this is not just a case of trotting out tired clichés.

On an average, in the last 10 years a team winning the title has won over 27 league games.

Arsenal have demonstrated some troubles against the big sides all through 2013 and we have no real evidence to assume it’s all going to change overnight. So if we assume the team is not going to win more than 3-4 of their 12 games against the other six major sides,  it would mean they cannot afford to drop points in more than 3-4 of their other 26 games. Two of those have already come in the form of West Brom and Aston Villa and the team still has to go away to Southampton and Stoke. Newcastle at home won’t be very easy either. You see how tight the margin is?

Yes, in theory, Arsenal can drop points in this game and recover those elsewhere. But the competition is tightening up now and consistency will be tested. City have already started getting a grip on their away from with impressive wins at Swansea and Newcastle. Including this game, I think the Gunners can afford to drop points in only one of their next four League fixtures. Anything less than 10 points out of these 12 could make the months of February and March very troublesome.

This is not a very hard game to call tactically. Villa are mostly about pace, particularly when playing teams like Arsenal. They have enough pace and, more importantly, players who know how to use that pace when offered vast open spaces. They can be fairly well organized and tough to break down. Take more risks and it gives the likes of Agbonlahor and Weimann their favoured opportunities.

Confidence is also a big factor in such a game and it sways over the course of the game. A few minutes of resolute defending with a chance or two on the break can give the hosts enough to believe they can get something from this game. At the same time, we’ve seen how even a slight whiff of defensive vulnerability affects the Gunners’ offensive potential. It doesn’t take much for the handbrake to come on and, frustratingly, it seems like an involuntary thing that is hard to control.

Wenger’s side has to retain the defensive stability on which this title charge has been built. Do not gift goals or even decent chances because that will have an impact on the patterns of play. Arsenal will win this game if the players believe in their ability and have patience for the duration of the game. Chances to win the game will come. Villa can be very dogged on their day but they have the second worst home record in the League and exactly two clean sheets in 10 games at Villa Park.

Apart from that fluke against City, their only other home win has come against Cardiff. Lambert’s men have lost all five home games starting with Liverpool in 4th going down to Newcastle in 8th while conceding 10 goals and scoring only one in the process.

It’s not clear whether everyone is available for this game from a fitness point of view. Assuming Ramsey, Gibbs, and AOC are a little short to start, Wenger could go with a team like

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Özil, Flamini – Wilshere, Giroud, Cazorla.

Gnabry on the right remains an option, and one I’d like to see in games like these, but Wenger probably has his reasons for keeping the youngster out.

Podolski on the left would provide more of a goal threat but it’s hard to justify leaving Cazorla out and I don’t see him being that effective drifting in from the right flank.

Rosicky will probably feature at some point during the game.

Wenger should be able to pick a very strong line-up with two or three good options on the bench. The Gunners simply have to prove themselves over and over again till they actually win something. This is just another step in the marathon.

Thoughts On Cardiff And Tottenham Games

January 4, 2014

Arsenal had a few key players missing, which showed in the form of attacking inefficiency, but the game against Cardiff was one where the squad had to show its depth. It got a tad frustrating towards the end but the pressure, and substitutions, paid off. You need a little bit of luck in such games but relentless pressure always helps.

I was a little surprised Bendtner didn’t start the game. Podolski is probably going to get more game time in the coming weeks than the Dane – even if he hadn’t been injured – so Wenger might have felt the need to give him the opportunity to come up to speed. The German is one of Arsenal’s best goalscorers but he doesn’t quite have the movement, work rate, or thought process to truly excel as a central striker at the big club. He’s the kind of player who’s more likely to score from a good chance than most others but the Gunners missed Giroud’s qualities and that affected the quality of chances that were being created. As a result, the attack rarely reached the point where Podolski’s finishing proficiency could make a difference.

It’s not fair to put all the blame on the German though. Blame might not even be the right word. There were just a lot of little details that, in concurrence, made the Arsenal attack blunt in the decisive areas. For instance, Walcott remains a very frustrating player even when he always poses a threat. He’s the kind of guy who can produce a decisive moment out of nothing but is also prone to many annoying phases where he loses the ball cheaply or makes the wrong runs, etc. Similarly, Wilshere constantly displays excellent attacking potential but his choices and execution often betray his inexperience. Ramsey’s attacking input was also missed. Individually, none of these are major issues. All together, they can take the attack down a few percentage points, which can level the game up against a well-organized and hard working defensive unit.

In such games, the fear always is that the opponents will nick a goal from a freakish situations. One of the measure of Arsenal’s defensive improvement is the drop in such goals and that helped again. A team with that much offensive potential can always score. Not conceding, therefore, really holds the probability of winning high even late in the game.

Tricky FA Cup Tie…

Normally, Wenger makes some changes to the side for the FA Cup 3rd round as it comes during a period of fixture congestion. A string of injuries also increases the need for rotations. But this time the draw brings Tottenham to the Emirates and it’s clearly as important as any Premier League game.

I’m not a big fan of domestic cup competitions and wouldn’t really mind if Arsenal went out of the FA Cup, but we could see some longer term adverse impact if that were to happen in a home game against Spurs.

Tim Sherwood has brought Adebayor back into the fold and the striker has justified the manager’s faith in recent games. The Togolese can be an absolute beast when in full flow – the phase just doesn’t seem to last very long – and I expect Arsenal’s defence to have a challenging night. Wenger will probably not be able to rest Mertesacker, who really could use a break.

Spurs have used two strikers in the last few games and that could make the game very open. The Gunners did well against Suarez and Sturridge earlier in the season but this isn’t simply a matter of numbers. The tactics of the team as a whole has a big impact on the patterns of play and that determines whether the presence of two strikers is a positive or a handicap.

I won’t be surprised if Tottenham start the game with high intensity pressing in search of turnovers and the early goal. After a while they will probably play deeper and narrower with four midfielders closer to the defensive line that won’t be as high as it was in the Vilas-Boas era. It is here that the intelligence and work rate of the strikers – their ability to offer an outlet, hold the ball, and attacking the space behind the Arsenal defence – can make a huge difference.

Adebayor, in particular, can really trouble Arsenal if he pulls wide on the right behind Sagna or drops into the space in front of Mertesacker, who’ll prefer to drop back at every opportunity.

The other side of this equation is that Wenger’s side could find greater space in the central third if the Spurs strikers don’t work consistently to press Arsenal’s deepest midfielder. Holding the ball for long periods can frustrate the opponents and lead to mistakes in defence.

I’m not sure Arsenal will have the confidence to press higher up the pitch. This could see the team dropping back and allowing the visitors possession in their own half and the middle of the pitch. It worked in the reverse fixture when a lead was to be protected but won’t be a very clever idea in this game. Wenger’s side have a league leading 9 clean sheets and another 9 games where they’ve conceded just one goal. But don’t be surprised if Tottenham score in this tie. That means the hosts are likely to need two or more goals if they are to progress to the next round.

Wenger’s biggest decision will be the name of the player at the top of the attack. In my opinion it’s not worth risking Giroud even if he’s fully recovered. The Frenchman will be needed till the end of the season and the next two months are like a minefield in terms of dangerous fixtures. Bendtner is not available and Podolski isn’t exactly suited to the role. Walcott too won’t be an ideal choice if the visitors drop back quickly but he could be a useful outlet if Arsenal are going to sit back.

I’d like to see,

Fabianski – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Rosicky, Flamini – Wilshere, Walcott, Cazorla.

It can be argued that bringing Fabianski in for such a game is not advisable as he lacks match practice.

Flamini would have a big role to play defensively to ensure the central defenders aren’t left in a 2-v-2 against the opposing strikers.

I’d like to see Wilshere and Walcott swapping positions while Cazorla drifts inside to pull the strings. Rosicky’s ability to play in the deeper midfield areas and his tenacity should help minimize the risk in central areas. One of the three central midfielders will also have to track back on the left flank if Santi goes wandering. Communication will be important to avoid exposing Monreal to a 2-v-1 on a consistent basis.

There are a few other permutations possible and it’s hard to say one choice is better than the others but I’d strongly prefer it if Arsenal don’t repeat the attacking combination we saw in the previous game.

The improved defence has been integral to Arsenal’s strong run of form. Nevertheless, I have a feeling the Gunners will have to show greater tactical balance to advance to the next round against an opponent that will offer genuine a goal threat.

Thoughts On The Newcastle And Cardiff Games

January 1, 2014

Few teams will win at St. James’ Park this season. Arsenal’s hard fought triumph will count for three points on the table but it’s worth more because some, probably most, of the rivals will drop points when visiting Newcastle. That this result was achieved without key players like Ramsey and Özil makes it all the more pleasing.

Wenger knew this game was going to be a battle and this was reflected in his decision to start Rosicky in a central role with Cazorla on the left flank. The Spaniard is undeniably a greater creative threat but the Czech star offers more energy and tenacity in the centre of the park. It was a matter of deciding which qualities will be needed more and Wenger got it spot on. Cazorla’s defensive weaknesses were visible throughout the game as Debuchy enjoyed plenty of time and space in the offensive areas. From a tactical point of view it’s always better to concede space out wide rather than down the middle, and that was the reason Arsenal remained relatively secure at the back for the most part.

I thought the attack lacked a bit of cohesion but it was understandable given the absence of Arsenal’s most decisive players. Newcastle also deserve credit for their hard work and discipline in the central areas and on the edge of their box. They did lose concentration on one set-piece and the Gunners made it count. It wasn’t the kind of goal we see often – I’d like to find out how many goals Giroud has scored from a set-piece – but the ability to find a solution when conventional methods aren’t working is always a sign of a strong side.

The missed chance immediately after the goal was disappointing. Just a little more composure from either Walcott or Giroud might have made the end a lot more comfortable.

The defence was tested throughout the game and they stood up to the challenge admirably. Most of the attacks early on where from the wider areas and they didn’t result in clear shots on goal. Had Debuchy controlled that ball over the top early in the game we might have seen an entirely different encounter, but defending remains much, much easier than attacking because it’s always hard for any player to convert such moments into shots, and shots into goals. You can’t blame the team too much if that’s all they’re conceding. Furthermore, the defenders did well after that initial opportunity and got tighter to runners who did manage to control such passes.

The last 15-20 minutes felt like a separate game altogether. Ameobi came on and Newcastle went long at every opportunity. The Gunners were pushed deep into their own half and Wenger responded by asking Sagna to play as an auxiliary central defender. It was backs-to-wall stuff but the players did just about enough to cover for each other. They made good clearances or attacked the second ball when the initial attempt didn’t get the ball out of the danger zone. It was effective, even if somewhat difficult to bear. Luck is also a factor when the team has to rely on multiple clearances and the presence of numerous bodies in the box.

In such circumstances, I do wish the team learns to keep the ball for longer periods and is alert to counter-attacking chances. For instance, that moment when an early throw would have seen Bendtner clear in the Newcastle half late in the game highlights the need for remaining switched on.

Cardiff at home is another must win game…

Wins at West Ham and Newcastle have given the Gunners a great end to an impressive year. They’ve also taken Wenger’s side back to the summit. But as we’ve seen with Liverpool over the last couple of matchdays, two blips and the side could drop out of the top four. There just isn’t any kind of wiggle room and that makes this game against Cardiff at home another must win encounter.

It should be a simple enough game tactically. The visitors will defend the central areas and rely on long balls and counter-attacks for breaking forward. Their chief threat is aerial but they also have good pace in their ranks. Arsenal have won against the Welsh side recently and it’s hard to imagine many things that have changed. Cardiff have the second worst away form in the League and if the Gunners perform anywhere close to their potential they should take the three points fairly comfortably

That said, complications can arise if Wenger can’t put out a strong-ish line up. Ramsey, Özil, Gibbs, and Giroud are likely to miss this game. That shouldn’t be a problem in itself. Things could get troublesome if Monreal, Walcott, Rosicky, or other players are also declared unfit.

We might see,

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Sagna – Arteta, Cazorla, Flamini – Walcott, Bendtner, Podolski.

Wenger has to keep an eye on the FA Cup tie against Spurs at the weekend. He needs a strong side for that one too.

The above line-up assume both Monreal and Vermaelen are ill. If fit, they should both start. Gnabry could also be a good choice for a game like this.

Once again there are many permutations that Wenger could choose from depending on player availability. He needs to find the right balance between attack and defence. That means a team capable of breaking through a narrow, deep-lying defence, and a unit capable of defending against long balls, crosses, set-pieces, and quick breaks by one or two players.

Arsenal’s home form isn’t the best in the League and this game provides a good opportunity to improve on that. Any dropped points here will bring the pressure straight back on.

Arsenal had a great 2013 but the year didn’t start well for the team. Here’s hoping 2014 just gets better starting with the opening game. Wishing you all a very happy new year.