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.Follow @goonerdesi