Thoughts On Spurs, Chelsea, Swansea, And City

March 21, 2014

I am leaving for a trip in a few hours and will be away from a computer for the next week. With limited time the best approach seems to be to note key points from the win over Spurs and the three upcoming fixtures.

Grinding a win

This season has been about defending. And it’s worked reasonably well as far as results are concerned. Thus there was no surprise when the Gunners battled with focus and determination to eke out another away win in a difficult fixture.

The game followed, broadly speaking, the patterns that we’ve seen from both sides throughout the season. Spurs had a lot of control but very little penetration. They were physically strong but lacking in ideas. They had a high line that was suspect and there for the taking. It was easy to see why they’ve been at the receiving end of big defeats against the top sides.

Arsenal got the first goal but lacked decisive quality on the counter attacks subsequently, which meant the game was always in the balance. They defended resolutely and collectively but ended up too deep as time went by. The goal might even have handicapped the team but right now the safest bet is on the Gunners holding on to a lead against a side that has been toothless quite often rather than them coming from behind to secure the swashbuckling comeback wins of seasons past.

The Szczesny blunder and the subsequent blocks by defenders typify this Arsenal. When one individual fails miserably, others are there to save his blushes. Chadli’s miss provided the archetype of Spurs’ season.

Was it fun? No. Was it vital? Yes. It gives Arsenal a little buffer from the teams chasing champions league qualification and keeps them within touching distance of top. I still think the Gunners are fourth favourites for the title (bookmakers also have pretty long odds on Arsenal winning the League) but they have the next three games to change that perception.

Chelsea – Can be historic, can be Déjà Vu, can be a boring goalless draw

Wenger has never beaten Mourinho and Chelsea haven’t lost at home with the Portuguese at helm. It’s also Wenger’s 1000th game in charge. You could say the stage is set for a historic, season-defining game that could set the course for a bright future for Arsenal football club.

Then again, the Frenchman’s record against his counterpart, spread over a few years and a fair number of games, is not an accident. Nor is Jose’s home dominance.

His tactics will be quite predictable. Even though they probably can, Chelsea’s priority will not be to dominate possession or produce high quality football. They’ll start the game with the basic approach of not losing. That means controlling the vital central areas in their half and defending the penalty box.

Occasionally, and we might even see that at the start, they will press with intensity. They’ll build on it if the Gunners make mistakes or drop back into a solid defensive shape if the visitors hold their own and play past the pressure. Chelsea’s biggest goal threat will come on quick breaks. They create many chances, probably same as Liverpool or more, but their finishing has been inconsistent. Arsenal will need a bit of luck when the hosts break forward, as will inevitably happen.

When the game is very tight and a single goal can be decisive, a strong defensive side’s goal scoring potential from set-pieces and long range shots can also make the key difference. Arsenal, if they drop really deep, will have to ensure the opponents don’t get a clear sight of goal. Coming back into this game after conceding the first goal will be very tough.

At the other end, the Gunners offer a much more limited threat, particularly with injuries to important players who can produce the big decisive moments. They’ll again need a little bit of luck to go with a brilliant individual moment if they’re to carve the Chelsea defence apart. I think the best approach for Wenger’s side is to make sure they don’t lose. After that, 90 minutes is a long time for something to click in attack.

Arsenal should back their ability to win the second half and make sure the game is not beyond them before the first half ends.

The hazardous nature of Eden’s talent is not lost on any opponent but few have been able to contain it. Sagna will have a big role to play in the game and history tells us he can do it, but it won’t happen without sufficient help. Hazard is very good at stopping and starting abruptly with a change of direction and when coupled with his excellent initial acceleration, he becomes a slippery customer for any one player because the defender can only react to what the opponent is doing and that happens after the proactive player makes the choice. Often the milliseconds spent in understanding what just happened and then reacting to it are enough for a guy like Hazard to burst into space. After that it can be a wreck of dominoes if the other defensive players are not in the right places. As long as Sagna has enough support to discourage inward movement, the Frenchman should be able to do a good job defending the flank and the outside channel going towards the byline.

Chelsea might try to overload that flank with Oscar drifting towards that side and that will simply redouble the importance of getting the defensive bodies in the right areas. Arsenal cannot afford to be as deep as they were against Spurs and cannot allow Chelsea to see as much of the ball in their penalty box.

It might be interesting to put a player like Chamberlain on the same flank as he would offer similar challenges to the Chelsea left back and can possibly limit his forward forays. Just as it proved against Spurs, that area could be Arsenal’s way in.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Flamini – AOC, Giroud, Podolski.

This remains a must-not-lose six pointer in the title race and avoiding a defeat will also help consolidate the place in Champions League spots. Chelsea don’t have too many big games left but they do have a trip to Anfield coming up. With other Champions League distractions still to come, a wobble at home could see them slip further down in the League. It’s a low probability event but Arsenal can get three points if they play their cards right and get a bit of luck.

Swansea – A tricky game between the big ones

The Swans were flying high last season but seem to have come back down to earth this year. Nevertheless, and their current relegation-threatened existence notwithstanding, the Welsh side remain a formidable opponent who, on their day, can upset any of the big sides.

That this fixture will be played when the Gunners are bruised and battered by some seriously big encounters and still looking forward to other decisive battles in the near future is not be ideal. It could lead to a little bit of lack in focus or concentration. At this level such drops can be decisive.

Otherwise, the game should be a pretty standard fight between two technical sides. Arsenal’s advantage will be that the opponents lack consistent quality in the final third. It’s the biggest factor in determining where teams end up in the table and those very close to the bottom are usually struggling for goals or balance or both. It could be another game where Wenger’s side will have to rely on a patient and professional display. Goals should come if they are persistent as the Swans won’t have as strong a defence as the major challengers Arsenal have come up against this year.

The result and performance against Chelsea could also have a direct bearing on how this game is played. A positive one at Stamford Bridge could make this game a lot more comfortable. A negative one could induce the handbrake and make life harder than it needs to be.

Manchester City – Can Arsenal make the home advantage count?

Pellegrini’s side are out of the FA Cup and the Champions League but that could give them further motivation to win the Premiership. It should also help with their scheduling from here on in. They have games in hand and are capable of winning those, which makes them title favourites.

Arsenal have to win such a game to convince many fans and most neutral observers that they remain serious contenders. Of course, that will also depend on the results from the previous two games but, even assuming the low-probability best case scenario of six points from those ties, it’s such home matches that the Gunners haven’t won often enough over the last few years, and that provides sufficient grounds for doubting their title aspirations.

Wenger’s side will not be crowned champions at the end of march but they could drop out of the reckoning. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily a bad thing as the players can focus more on the FA Cup, but the nagging pull of negativity can result in Cup disappointment too if these types of games produce adverse results and poor performances.

It’s hard to predict this one tactically. Wenger went with a very proactive approach in the corresponding away fixture but suffered a bad defeat. Despite some refereeing decisions going against his side, it’s hard to argue the teams were on the same level. City simply have a much better attack and the Gunners could be on the end of another tennis score if they go all out in attack.

Holding firm defensively and playing for one or two big chances during the course of the game will again be the pragmatic approach. Arsenal have found an extra gear against the smaller teams but it’s not always clicked in place against the top sides. Part of it is linked to the nature of their defending as many players are pulled back deep inside their territory. It remains this side’s biggest area of improvement on the collective front.

Can the team defend well a little higher up the pitch? The answer to that question will have a direct bearing on their result against City and maybe even against Chelsea.

The two central defenders and their supporting cast have done very well but a lot of that is linked to redundancy in defence that comes at the expense of options in attack. Mertesacker and Koscielny have been exceptional in and around the Arsenal penalty box but eventually they’ll have to prove they can do it higher up the pitch. Till that happens the bigger trophies will always be a distant dream.

I’ll write more about this once I’m back and get a chance to watch all these games. That should happen at the end of the month or early in April.


Thoughts On Bayern And NLD

March 16, 2014

Sometimes seemingly redundant games also have their share of tense bits and entertaining moments. Arsenal’s visit to Germany certainly did. Bayern didn’t have to win that game, they didn’t even need a draw because they’d go through as long as they avoided losing by two goals. Arsenal had very little realistic chance of achieving the kind of win that would see them through but a bad defeat could potentially hurt them for the rest of the season. So it was understandable that neither side was looking to force the issue.

The first half was tepid. I couldn’t understand what Wenger’s plan was. While it’s inconceivable that he’d deliberately go with high school tactics – Everyone get behind the ball and when we have possession give the ball to this wonderkid who’ll run through the opposition to get us a goal – that’s how the Gunners seemed to be playing. Chamberlain had some promising individual moments but they were the kind that rarely result in a meaningful shot or goal against such a quality side because there was no cohesiveness in attack. Dribble, dribble, dribble, fizzle. Team selection suggested a counter-attacking approach but most of the time was spent in chasing the ball deep in their own half. There was no urgency in pressing higher up the pitch and that negated any possibility of threatening transitions. Özil’s injury must also have played it’s part but it’s a bit strange that a decision to replace him wasn’t taken earlier.

Bayern, for their part, were lackadaisical and risk averse. They got to the penalty box quite often but rarely had a clear look at goal. Fabianski had a lot of touches but very few, if any, significant saves to make in that period. In fairness, the onus was not on them and they were extremely efficient at controlling Arsenal’s offensive forays. They were also up against a very determined and focussed Arsenal defence.

The second half was a better. The Gunners showed more desire but it was the hosts who went ahead. Schweinsteiger’s run from deep was excellent. Both Chamberlain and Cazorla are not used to a central midfield role and were caught napping as the German international ghosted past them to arrive in the box unmarked. His finish was composed and intelligently placed.

Arsenal got the equalizer almost immediately and it was immensely enjoyable. While watching live, Podolski’s push on Lahm looked like a clear foul to me, but slow motion replays brought a seed of doubt. There were no misgivings about the power and placement of his nonchalantly taken shot though and Neuer’s evasive action in goal was priceless. Guardiola’s disgust on the sidelines added to the effect. The controversial aspect would have been much bigger and the entertainment one limited had this goal, in any way, had an impact on the result of the tie over two legs.

It was interesting to see Bayern rattled for a few minutes after they conceded the equalizer. It just shows that when the tactical rhythm of any team is broken the experience and mentality of the players on the pitch doesn’t make a difference. This was Arsenal’s chance but they didn’t have enough quality to take it. The hosts got back into the groove and regained control after that.

There were some promising moments for Arsenal as the game progressed but they seemed the type that the likes of Norwich and Cardiff would produce against the Gunners in the League. Gnabry breaking forward with one or two options in the box and the rest of the team way behind, or Giroud in a situation where he has to make a 20+ yard pass (not a flick or chip) between the defenders to find a teammate in the box is hardly a situation that will consistently result in a goal against opposition of this quality.

In the end the result was acceptable for both sides. Arsenal got a creditable draw that should help sustain the team’s confidence after the win over Everton. Bayern went through to the quarter-final without getting out of second gear. I enjoyed sporadic moments but not the game per se because it never felt like a real contest.

NLD – 3-pointer in title race, 6-pointer in battle for fourth.

At the start of the tricky period in February, the Gunners had a nine point lead over Spurs in 5th place. Now that is down to six and a defeat at White Hart Lane would bring it down to three. With two massive fixtures coming up, there is a very real possibility that Arsenal could end up outside the top four by the end of March. Some fans think that a domestic cup is more important than finishing in Champions League spots and it’s not unreasonable to think of that as a realistic outcome this season.

In order to avoid that, this game becomes a must-not-lose-at-any-cost fixture as even a draw would keep the buffer at six points. Things could get interesting if United beat Liverpool.

The best case scenario, obviously, is a win for Wenger’s side that will help close the gap with Chelsea and could, at least temporarily, place the team in second spot. We’d have to go back to 2007 to find Arsenal’s last win in this fixture, which doesn’t bode well for a positive result tomorrow. On the other hand, this is Tottenham’s performance against the current top four this season,

  Home Away
Chelsea

D1-1

L0-4

Manchester City

L1-5

L0-6

Liverpool

L0-5

?

Arsenal

?

L0-1

They’ve conceded twenty goals and scored once in four games since that draw against Chelsea at the end of September. Arsenal’s win though, while it came early in the season when Spurs had the excuse of not having had the opportunity to gel together, was a much more closely fought encounter where the visitors had decent possession while the Gunners had many chances on the counter-attack after taking an early lead.

There have been phases in all their big games, even the ones with humiliating defeats, where Tottenham have competed with the opponents on a level footing. But they’ve not found a way to score in these periods and their defence has invariably yielded, often without much pressure.

Is this game going to be different? To be honest, I don’t know. At the moment, Arsenal don’t have the same goal scoring potential that City or Liverpool have. Even Chelsea create more on the counter-attacks than the Gunners. This should give Sherwood’s side a greater chance of protecting their goal.

Arsenal’s collective work in defence has also been their biggest strength so it’ll be a big surprise if Spurs get over their scoring struggles. Individuals like Adebayor can prove decisive on their day but it hasn’t happened often enough for Tottenham this year.

All things considered, unless there are crazy individual errors, this should be a relatively low scoring affair. Three goals or less in total would be my guess.

It’s hard to predict the patterns of play in this game. Spurs played on Thursday so it’s quite likely that Sherwood will rotate some of his side. They do have enough players in the squad and fairly good variety, but neither of their managers has found the right balance this season.

Their biggest offensive threat will possibly come from pace and runs in behind, although a cross that finds Adebayor in the box can also prove lethal. Defensively, the main weakness could be at left-back and just in front of the central defence. A quick transition can also expose the space behind their high line.

Wenger doesn’t have many choices given the spate of injuries.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Cazorla, Flamini – AOC, Giroud, Podolski.

Chamberlain could pose a serious threat down the right against any of their left-backs. Cazorla could have fun in the centre with two direct players on the flanks and a central striker who can play one-touch in a forceful, physically imposing manner.

I’d like to see Flamini stay deeper and Arteta play with greater vertical freedom. The Spaniard was very good in that role when playing alongside Song in his first season at the club.

The full-backs should be a bit more conservative with their positioning because Spurs have the pace to trouble the Gunners when breaking forward. Monreal, in particular, can struggle because he is a slow turner and doesn’t always get his body shape right. Sagna is faster at responding but his adventurous positioning can, at times, leave him with a lot to do.

In the recent past, curiously enough, this fixture has consistently defied the odds when it comes to the side-scoring-first-takes-the-points theory. Even two goals leads have been dangerous! But if it’s a low scoring tie, the first goal could again be decisive.


Thoughts On Everton And Bayern Games

March 11, 2014

The FA Cup seemed like Arsenal’s best trophy chance before the game against Everton. After the win and City’s subsequent loss the Gunners are now the favourites. It seems like fate but we probably shouldn’t tempt it.

Even if we hold our horses and don’t think about results at Wembley, the win over the Toffees was, in itself, quite enjoyable. Not surprisingly, Wenger went with a good combination of pace and skill with sturdy defensive base behind them and, along with notable contributions from the substitutes, that proved strong enough for a convincing win.

I thought the start of the game was pretty similar to the League fixture between the sides. Everton were energetic and made things hard for the Gunners in the central third. The key difference this time around was in Arsenal’s ability to play past that pressure.

The build-up to the goal was superb. Starting with Sagna hassling Pienaar and Arteta chasing Barry, Arsenal forced a turnover in the central third. The Gunners then played 9 passes before Özil slotted the ball into the net. 9 players were involved in the move that lasted around 20 seconds. What I liked most was the ability to the players to deal with Everton’s pressure without panicking or losing sight of their own attacking intent. It always helps when teammates are constantly showing to receive the ball.

See the way Flamini calmly dismissed the attentions of Barkley, or the way Arteta received the ball while facing his own goal and found a way to pass forward. Chamberlain’s flick was a tad ambitious but a slip by McCarthy helped Cazorla get a chance to run into space. A bit of luck is sometimes needed for such a move to succeed and you can also argue the speed of Arsenal’s passing played a part in that mistake.

As discussed before the game, both teams were going to struggle with their high lines if the opponents got past the initial press. So it was no surprise to see Everton stretched and in no shape to defend a simple enough run and finish from Özil as he passed the ball into the net without flinching under the pressure of two defenders sliding in front of him.

The visitors’ best hope of troubling the Gunners lay in their ability to press in the centre of the pitch and control possession but once Arsenal showed, through the goal and a few other attacks, that they could break past that congested centre, it was clear Martinez’s side had lost their plan A. After the first 15 minutes or so they spent most of the time till the half time whistle camped much deeper in their half with very rare meaningful forays forward. This meant the game was now completely different from the League meeting.

That one of those occasional breaks resulted in the equalizer was hugely disappointing and a timely reminder that there’s plenty of scope for improving the defensive thought. We are often told players like Flamini ‘break play up’ but this was an excellent example that individuals don’t make that big a difference because the Frenchman was the primary culprit for the goal.

Arsenal had so many bodies forward that any counter-attack was going to be risky. Flamini should have just held his position behind Barkley and forced him to pass the ball backwards. The couple of seconds or so such an  action would take would normally be enough for a couple of players to get into better defensive positions. Sagna, although you can question why he wasn’t a few yards deeper in the first place, would most certainly have appreciated that opportunity to move back from his advanced position. Having picked up a booking for a trademark lunge earlier in the game, Flamini wasn’t in a position to tackle Barkley either.

He did do reasonably well to slow the youngster’s burst and pushed him wide but the back post remained wide open and Mertesacker was taken out of the picture by Lukaku’s movement. One might argue that Özil could have done a bit more to help Flamini but the Frenchman is in the side to ensure the attacking players have more freedom.

Early in the second half there was another scare when a classic Vermaelen catastrophe moment led to a gilt-edged chance for Barkley, who shot over the bar. I did feel in this game one of Everton’s weaknesses was the inexperience of their talented but raw youngsters. Even Lukaku, for instance, had wasted a promising moment after Chamberlain had gifted the ball to him in a dangerous area. In contrast, the Gunners showed experience and composure that led to precision and efficiency.

The three goals Arsenal got in the second half were also very interesting. Did you notice they all came from Baines’ side with mistakes from Barry as well? The full-back was done in by a simple one-two for the second and lacked the pace to recover. Barry made the obvious error but Baines’ positioning and choices were poor. The third goal was again a one-two down the flank with the full-back again left high and dry. This time Barry didn’t even bother going to the by line and Sagna had ample time to pick his pass. For the fourth, Baines again did not have the pace to track back.

I’ve often noted the fact that his attacking contributions have covered up for his limited defensive contribution and this is augmented by the fact that he’s played most of his games under Moyes whose tactics meant he was rarely left without protection. Just as Barry has showed he isn’t exactly suited to starting roles at top sides, Baines too will struggle if left to man the flank on his own at a big club with very high expectations.

Arsenal’s fourth goal was simply outstanding and one that I enjoyed watching more than Rosicky’s goal against Sunderland or Wilshere’s against Norwich, which came against clearly inferior opposition. The precision of the move and the intelligence of the players was top class. The weight on Cazorla’s pass, and the subsequent one-touch actions by Rosicky, Özil, and Giroud were about as perfect as football can get.

Santi gets my vote for the MotM. Özil was just as good. I don’t think anyone had a poor game, although there were individual errors from more than one.

It was good to see Arsenal use width well in this game. I really enjoyed some quick passes out to a wide player hugging the touchline. But Everton were fairly open throughout the game and that makes a big difference as spaces are more readily available for people to get in behind or when receiving the ball on the touchline.

One way to judge whether the Gunners are close their best or not is to see the number of multi-player moves that are created. As we saw with the first and last goal, and numerous other attacks in this game, four or more players combined to break forward. That can only work when the passing is crisp and accurate, virtually telepathic. In that sense, this was an immensely enjoyable and inspiring performance.

Bayern Munich – Go for broke or play for pride?

This is a tricky game. Arsenal came very close to knocking out the eventual champions last season and, in the process, showed that the difference between the two clubs’ quality was not that big. The first 8-10 minutes of the reverse leg also corroborate that. It’s understandable then if Wenger wants to go for another upset in Germany with hopes of doing one better this time.

The flip side is that Bayern will be much better prepared this time around. As much as Arsenal’s win last season was down to their solidity and efficiency, it was also down to the hosts’ mental state and slackness on the pitch. I don’t think we will see a repeat of that and as a result the Gunners could really get caught out by some clever counter-attacking football by the Germans. If the scoreline becomes embarrassing – and we’ve already seen against City and Liverpool that Arsenal have the potential to crumble against such an attack – it will put pressure on the team before the upcoming big games.

An early goal can work wonders for either team. If Arsenal score they can then settle into the game and Bayern will get a bit nervous because it would mean any other goal from the Gunners and this game would be level. Imagine 80 minutes of play left and Wenger’s side within one goal of forcing extra time? That would certainly make the game very exciting, even if it becomes tense and cagey.

The hosts taking the lead will probably secure the tie for them and they can then perform with greater comfort and look to pick gaps as Wenger’s side are forced into extra risks with passing time. It’s the kind of situation where the score can look bad for the visitors.

I think the best approach for Arsenal would be to go for it in the opening exchanges just as they did at home. Bayern are an excellent team but they are not at the same technical level as Barcelona were and that means they can be hassled into mistakes. Doesn’t happen often, of course, but if anyone can do it a Premier League side can.

The Gunners must be wary of Bayern doing to them what they did to Everton, i.e. play through the pressure and expose the high line. To me the role of Flamini in front of the defence and the two full-backs in tracking the tricky wide players will be vital. Vermaelen, if filling in for injured teammates, can come in under extreme pressure through individual skills, overloads, and well-timed runs of opponents. He will need a fair amount of support.

There is also a good chance that Arsenal will spend a lot of time without the ball deep in their own half. The usual tendency against big teams is to defend the central areas with numbers and surrender the flanks. I’m not convinced that’s a good approach, certainly not if they don’t get close to the ball.

Guardiola is likely to be more aggressive in this game and I won’t be surprised if Lahm starts in midfield. Pressing him and limiting his options on the ball will be important if Arsenal want to defend while having attacking options open.

Team selection will probably be down to one or two choices,

Fabianski – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen – Arteta, Özil, Flamini – AOC, Giroud, Rosicky.

I think Santi could do with a break and Rosicky can provide better cover for the left-back. That would give the Gunners a chance to play their recently favoured 4-4-2 without the ball wherein Özil stays a little higher up the pitch.

Another option is to put Sagna at left-back and bring Jenkinson in at right back. I’m not sure that’d be a very clever choice. Same can be said about starting Flamini at left-back.

Finally, Wenger can also play Rosicky on the right and Cazorla on the left with Chamberlain on the bench. Based on the current winds of hype this is likely to be the least popular option but it can work if the individuals execute their roles as they’re supposed to.

This should not be a high priority game for the Gunners and I don’t have many expectations from it. Any result would be alright as long as Wenger’s side doesn’t crumble defensively. If the players also go with a nothing to lose mentality then who knows…


Thoughts On Stoke And Everton Games

March 8, 2014

Earlier today I was talking to a close friend of mine after a long time. He was wondering why I had limited the number of articles and was covering two games in one post. My answer was in the form of a question, “What can I write about this game against Stoke, for example, that I haven’t already said on multiple occasions over the last 3-4 years?”

Their physicality, the ref’s leniency, Arsenal’s inability to force the issue, the slight but significant vulnerability against balls put in the box, a decision or two going against the Gunners proving decisive, handbrake, slow tempo, absence of width, missing intensity, lack of runs in behind… What’s new?

There have been so many “wake up calls” and “lessons learnt” over the last few seasons that it seems pointless to even go down that route anymore.

The visit to the Britannia was always going to be difficult. I’d mentioned before the game that Arsenal’s best hope from this game would be to grind out a result. A clean sheet helps immensely in such cases and if the game had been level with 10-15 minutes to play the result might have been very different. Speculation doesn’t help but the penalty call was the single biggest moment of the game. I guess the only question was – Are Koscielny’s hands in a natural position? I don’t think they were and for that reason I’m not that disappointed with the penalty decision as many of the fans are. There have been enough arguments against this decision and it’s one where everyone can make their own minds up as it doesn’t really matter now. These kinds of games and such refereeing is part of the League. Teams that win the Premiership find a way to counter it consistently.

Team selection and tactics are the usual culprits in the eyes of many after such a performance and result. Alex certainly added some zip after he came on and it’s only fair to wonder ‘what if’. But it’s also important to remember that Arsenal have won once in seven trips to Stoke since their promotion in 2008. It’s hasn’t always been about pace. Last year, for instance, Arsene started with Gervinho and Podolski and introduced Walcott and Chamberlain later in the game. The team still couldn’t score a goal. In contrast, neither pace, nor width were missed when Sunderland were turned over in the previous game, were they?

On one hand, the predictability of this performance and result maginifies the frustration and pain felt, but on the other, it’s important to understand there isn’t a straightforward solution. I don’t think anyone, even Wenger, can put his finger on the exact cause that results in such a display. That’s why it’s so hard to solve. Every team has bad games and extra quality in the defensive third and attacking third can prove decisive. Arsenal missed that in attack and were somewhat unfortunate in defence.

Having greater offensive diversity – different goal scorers, diverse creators, different ways of scoring, more risk takers offset by a sound tactical system, etc. – always helps counter difficult moments because the probability of something working out when all else fails is naturally higher. In that regard, the Gunners are better than most teams and that explains their position in the table. Being better than most is not the same as being better than everyone though, and that’s the level they’ve to reach if the League title has to come to the Emirates. The gap is really not very big but can feel like an insurmountable chasm if the team collapses repeatedly.

Everton – Is FA Cup the best title hope this season?

Looking at the teams in the FA Cup quarterfinal draw, any Gooner would be tempted to think that Arsenal just need to get past Everton and they’ll be one win over Man City away from ending the title drought. Given that the team has already beaten Spurs and Liverpool in the competition, this could be a very enjoyable triumph if it comes to fruition.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. There are three hurdles to cross before a team lands it’s hands on silverware and we’ve seen the Gunners fall at each of these three against teams of varying qualities.

No game is more important than the next one and it’s even truer given the context of this one. The defeat at Stoke has made the League a very distant prospect where the Gunners will have to rely on three challengers slipping up.  And chances in the Champions League are slim after that defeat to Bayern. Go out of the FA Cup and this season could very well be over. Even if it isn’t technically, for a team that relies so much on rhythm and confidence, it’s hard to imagine the players will recover quickly.

Going through to the semi-finals can have the reverse effect. It will soothe the burns received at Brittania and make the game against Bayern less tense. Performances in subsequent big games could also benefit from this boost.

A replay will not be fun but is better than going out, obviously.

Everton are better than Arsenal’s previous two opponents both technically and tactically. Their performance at the Emirates was among the best by a visiting English side in recent years, particularly their ability to press and sustain possession.

The patterns in this game will depend on their mentality and ability to execute their game plan. There should be no reason for them to not come at the Gunners again. It’s an area where we’ve seen Wenger’s side struggle. That being said, pressing consistently over the duration of the game is never easy and errors from individuals or lack of cohesion can make a team look really ordinary. As long as they attempt it though, it should be a fascinating battle.

The other areas of interest include Arsenal ability to break forward when pushed deeper into their own half. Everton’s defence of the central areas in the midfield and around their penalty box. Use of space by full-backs of both teams. And individual battles like Vermaelen-Lukaku or Flamini-Barkley. Team selections could have a say in shaping these battles.

Neither side is particularly adept at consistently defending with a high line yet both like to control possession and push up at every opportunity. This means controlling transitions can be very important to prevent opponents from getting in-behind. The other option, of course, is to drop deeper and play on the counter-attack. An unnatural approach for both sides but one that could be effective if executed efficiently.

Arsenal, at their best, can play through Everton’s pressure and make their tactics looks ill-advised. Throughout the season there have been patches in various games when I’ve simply loved watching excellent combination play at the back. But we have not seen consistency from the Gunners in this regard. It’s very hard to pin-point the cause of this. Playing quick, one-touch passing, particularly deep in one’s own half, is risky and can only work if the individuals are in sync and make the right runs off the ball and choices on it. A player receiving the ball under pressure has milliseconds to make a choice and then execute it. Unless a teammate offers himself in a manner that makes a pass feasible, pressure from opponents can result in disjointed football that is neither here, nor there in tactical terms. Or it leads to long punts down the pitch that simply ease the pressure for a few moments. Both can bring the handbrake on, and once engaged it can be very hard to shake off.

Team selection again offers a few interesting possibilities and poses a few challenges,

Fabianksi – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Flamini – Alex, Sanogo, Cazorla.

I’m not sure Yaya Sanogo has the required shooting skills to be starting for Arsenal right now but he has a presence in a different way compared to Giroud. While Giroud is better at holding his ground, Sanogo can hassle the defenders a bit more, particularly if they are pushing up. That trait alone might make him a better choice for such a game.

Oxlade-Chamberlain still has a lot to learn but again he is the kind of player you want to see in a one-v-one against the opposing full-back. His presence on the right might force Pienaar to take more defensive positions and limit Everton’s offensive options. Or he might get chances to run at the likes of Barry, McCarthy, Stones, and Distin if Arsenal break from deep.

The presence of these players could also give Özil more options to put balls in-behind.

The flip side here is that with such a side the probability of dominating possession would be slim. Arsenal will have to rely more on counter-attacks and their collective defending. Jenkinson might be a useful option on the right if the team has to defend deep. He can be a steady player as long as he is not too adventurous.

The inclusion of Giroud and/or Rosicky can possibly help with ball retention and circulation but there is no guarantee. In the League game Arsenal had less possession even with Arteta, Wilshere, Cazorla, Özil, and Ramsey in the starting eleven.

I’m hoping Everton are not as inspired and energetic as they were in the League game. That would give the Gunners a bit more breathing room on the ball and that can be enough for them to fire. Relying on the opponent being off their best is not a great approach but the Toffees have not found the sweet spot as often in the last couple of months so it’s not unrealistic.


Thoughts On The Sunderland And Stoke Games

March 1, 2014

A football game can become unbearable for fans if their team doesn’t turn up. Most Arsenal fans know this feeling all too well so they’d have sympathized with the plight of those supporting the Black Cats as they failed to put any sort of a challenge at  the Emirates. It shouldn’t take anything away from the Gunners though as Wenger’s team produced some immensely enjoyable football to win the game comfortably. If anything, it was even more pleasing because it’s been such a while since Arsenal cantered to a win in second gear while playing a sumptuous pass-and-move game.

These days I find it hard to write about such a game because there is almost nothing fresh to offer from an analytical perspective and I’m sure the superlatives have long been exhausted. Enjoy the game and forget about it. Some moments will be etched in memory for a long time, like that move for Rosicky’s goal, and the rest doesn’t matter.

A couple of individual performances deserve a mention, I think. Giroud was left out of two big games and has gone through some unsettling personal issues so it was good to see him back and close to his best. His goals were unspectacular in the individual sense but a distracted striker would most probably have missed those chances. The Frenchman’s overall link play was again excellent as was his work rate. One might even say the break was good for him, mentally and physically.

While Wenger was being understandably charitable in likening Rosicky’s performance in that game to some of Bergkamp’s contributions, I did enjoy Little Mozart’s play. It was nice that he was on the end of that move and I hope he scores a few more goals. The Czech star’s displays have been memorable and decisive in some games over the last couple of seasons but I keep getting this feeling that he has more to offer. Hopefully, this game will help with that unlocking process, although continuity, or lack thereof, might also have a role to play.

Özil was conspicuous by his absence. It must have been a tough call for the manager but I’m glad he made it. The break should help him leave the Bayern game behind and also give him some chance to recover physically.

March Madness Begins with Stoke

Last week there was an interesting poll on the official website. “How many points will Arsenal take from their four league games in March?”, they asked. The responses, when I’d last seen the results, showed the majority of Gooners were quite optimistic about the team’s chances.

Points in March predictions

I don’t know what the final tally was but I doubt it will have changed much. Around 85 percent of fans say the Gunners will pick up 7 or more points from these 4 games.

This is very interesting because last year Wenger’s team managed exactly 1 point from these 4 games. And at the moment, after 27 games, the squad is level on points with last season when corresponding fixtures are compared.

For what it’s worth, The Gunners picked up 7 points from these fixtures in 2011-12 including wins over City at home and Chelsea at the Bridge. The year before that they picked up 2 points from these games.

I guess it shows why many fans think we will truly understand how much this side has improved at the end of this month. Interestingly, in each of the previous three years, Arsenal have failed to win at the Britannia. A win on Saturday will automatically give the Gunners more points than in two of the past three years and it seems a minimum requirement if they wish to pick up more than 7 points from these games.

Stoke are no longer the same team they were under Pulis but they aren’t too different either. Furthermore, Mark Hughes has had some success against Arsenal by adopting a physical approach at some of his previous clubs. That should probably guarantee a battle on the pitch after the previous walkover.

Some aspects of the game should be quite predictable. The Potters will defend the central areas and invite crosses into the box as they’ll back their physical and aerial strengths. Crouch will be a constant threat whenever they gain territory and get the ball around the Arsenal penalty area. The visiting players should be prepared for some pushing and shoving, and maybe even some kicks to the ankles as the hosts attempt to disrupt their passing rhythm.

One of the interesting anomalies of this season is that Stoke have scored very few headed goals (2?) in the League and the Gunners are amongst the most, if not the most, prolific in that regard. If memory serves, Özil picked up three assists from set-pieces in the reverse fixture. I’ll be very surprised if we see a repeat of that.

There were phases in the game at the Emirates where Arsenal had to drop deep and consolidate their position with resolute defending. They’ll probably need more of that again.

In six visits in recent times, only once have the Gunners failed to score on this ground. But only once have they scored more than a solitary goal and that was the only game they won, although it is better remembered for a terrible tragedy. I don’t think Arsenal have happy memories from this ground.

Things might change this time around if Wenger’s side can sustain their collective defensive resolve. Arnautovic is mercurial, Odemwingie fast and occasionally lethal, Walters belligerent and a real nuisance, Adams has an inconsistent but troublesome left foot, while Crouch really does enjoy playing against Arsenal. A ground out win, with maybe a late-ish buffer goal, seems the best possible scenario for the Gunners.

Team selection will again be a tricky task. Many reasonable permutations are possible in midfield. I’d like to see the same team as last week with Flamini coming in for Arteta. The left back spot will probably go to the fittest of Gibbs, Monreal, and Vermalen.

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, ? – Flamini, Cazorla, Wilshere – Rosicky, Giroud, Podolski.

I hope Wenger will give Özil more time away from the pitch. Bigger games are right around the corner. I doubt he will do it though. If Özil starts, it won’t be wise to pick both Wilshere and Cazorla in the side. That midfield will not enjoy the game if the ref is lenient and favours the home side in 50-50 decisions.

A player like Podolski can offer useful goal threat in such a game. Gnabry is another interesting option but it’s possible he won’t enjoy the close attention as much.

Litmus test begins…