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.