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.Follow @goonerdesi