Arsenal 1 – 0 Besiktas: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

August 29, 2014

Besiktas came to the Emirates with nothing lose and almost went back with everything. Almost…

This was another tough outing for the below par Gunners who are still searching for some fluidity and understanding between the midfielders who are central to all of Arsenal’s play.

The first half had few chances but was generally marked by low quality football. Opportunities arose from bad mistakes and they were squandered by misfiring attackers. For example, Wilshere and Cazorla both got a great sight of the Besiktas goal from cheap giveaways by the opponents but neither came close to hitting the target. At the other end, Pektemek could have been clean through in the first minute but chose to play the ball back to Demba Ba. Counter-attacking chances were continually missed by both teams throughout the game.

It also seemed like Lady Luck had taken to the Suave Frenchman in charge of the home side over his more rugged counterpart sitting in the stands. There were two big controversial penalty calls in the first half that went in favour of the Gunners. My initial feeling was that Debuchy got the ball and that Wilshere had just done enough to avoid contact. Replays at half time seemed to show the French full-back missing the ball and later I read Wilshere acknowledging that he’d touched the opponent. With the benefit of hindsight and slow motion replays, I think it’s safe to say the Gunners got away with two penalty decisions, one of which could easily have been a second booking.

In the recent past, although not in the last couple of seasons, Arsenal used to suffer a lot at the hands of the referee, so I can certainly empathize with the frustrations of the supporters of the Turkish side. Qualifying for the Champions League proper could have been a really big step for them.

Wenger’s side did get some sort of rhythm towards the end of the first period and scored a nice team goal. Debuchy’s initial run was well-timed and his cross, while hopeful, was difficult to clear. Monreal’s positioning in the box was ambitious and his calmness in winning the header to direct the ball to Wilshere was appreciable. Jack played a decent one-two with Özil before Sanchez slotted the ball home. The goalkeeper should probably have done better but he might have been caught off-guard while expecting the Englishman to strike the ball.

This was harsh on the visiting side but as Bilic said, “…they [Arsenal] showed that little bit of extra quality in the box.

The second half started where the first had ended with the Gunners in control. Wilshere gladly received a loose clearance in the box and set up Sanchez. The Chilean’s shot, or was it a square pass, was cleared for a corner. The Gunners had numerous other chances to score, mostly on quick breaks. Özil, Sanchez, Cazorla, and Oxlade-Chamberlain could all have done better to make the game more comfortable for the home side. Debuchy and Koscielny also had the chance to double the lead from a well-struck free-kick.

Slowly, around the hour mark, the game started becoming very vertical. Arsenal didn’t have as much control of the midfield and the visitors were looking threatening. And the direction of attacks swung completely once Debuchy was sent off.

It seemed like a very harsh decision even if the referee called it for some pushing before the actual ball-winning tackle, which didn’t seem like a foul at all. I wonder whether the referee was influenced by his mistakes in the first period and saw this as a way to make amends. From that point on the Portuguese official completely lost the grip on the game (not that he was impeccable before).

The final 15 minutes were extremely tense. While the visitors didn’t muster a single shot on target and only three off target in the whole game (four blocked), Wenger’s side were defending so deep that any momentary lapse in concentration, or individual quality, could have proved extremely costly. Don’t forget that Arsenal had conceded from the first shot on target in both their League games.

This time around the numbers in the box were enough. Top notch focus and determination helped. When one player made a mistake a teammate was there to knock the ball away from danger. I also felt Besiktas should have thrown a few more bodies into the box.

The bottom line is that Arsenal are through. Besiktas deserved more and these are the games where I feel both teams should progress. There is no doubt the Turkish side are better than many of the clubs who’ve made it to the group phase. Good luck to them in the Europa League and the domestic competitions.

Wenger’s side clearly have a lot of room for improvement. Mertesacker touched upon the crux of the problem.

That’s still a tough challenge for us – to get ourselves going, to find our passing game. We’ve only trained two or three times together and this season makes it really difficult for us to stick to our game. We have to find ourselves still.

Arsenal’s spirit and mental qualities have been exceptional. But these eventually break down if the team has to produce backs-to-wall performances week in, week out. Hopefully, the manager will be able to work his magic before it’s too late.

On a side note, it’s worth noting that big, strong defensive midfielder Atiba Hutchinson wasn’t really able to “destroy” many of Arsenal’s counter-attacks. The attacks broke down for different reasons illustrating how percentages work in favour of the defensive side. It’s also interesting that Wenger praised the Canadian’s display after the game, and deservedly so because he did a lot of things well. Most of Arsenal’s counter-attacks were not his fault and there wasn’t much he could have done to break them up.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Incredibly, for such a tense game, the Pole had a relatively comfortable time in goal as the visitors failed to hit the target. Didn’t have to deal with one-v-ones or many crosses either. His handling of the ball was efficient and error free.

Debuchy: Made a number of very exciting forward runs. Also made a few useful interventions in the penalty box. Showed good understanding with AOC. I thought his first foul was really unnecessary and rash. Was lucky and then unlucky, as discussed above.

Mertesacker: His error in judging the flight of the ball led to the first penalty situation. Another ball flew over his head late in the second half and Demba Ba could have scored with better contact. Wasn’t really beaten in other individual duels but I’d hoped he would bring greater composure to the team’s play, particularly in the second half.

Koscielny: Played Pektemek onside in the first minute and was caught a bit flat-footed when Mertesacker missed his header. Apart from that I thought he had a good game. Was alert in the box and almost scored at the other end.

Monreal: This was arguably the Spaniards best game in an Arsenal shirt, at least from a defensive standpoint. Created a great chance for Oxlade-Chamberlain and contributed to the decisive goal but we do expect good attacking quality from the former Malaga man. I really liked his defensive work – concentration, attacking the ball, positioning, etc. Was helped by decent support and didn’t have to deal with quick, tricky players running at him, but more of such efforts will considerably help the team’s cause in the long run.

The defensive players made some mistakes and rode their luck a bit. The two on the right side could certainly have done better.

Flamini: The physicality and broken nature of football meant that this was his kind of a game. Passing was efficient even if not as prolific as the position demands. Lots of tackles all over the pitch and very useful presence in and around the box.

Wilshere: This was close to the Jack of old- turning past players, driving at the opposition defence, combining in tight spaces, exuberant tackle attempts. This was a quality effort from the veteran youngster but I also feel he’ll have to do much better if he wishes to get close to fulfilling his early promise and hit the World Class level. These are the main areas where he needs to improve –

1) Losing the ball cheaply – He lost the ball cheaply in the first minute through an attempted outside of the boot pass. This led to the first threatening counter-attack. Did something very similar again in the 11th minute and play was broken by a foul by Mertesacker. Even the pass for the one-two before the goal was a soft touch and only the alertness of Özil kept the move alive. His ideas are good but the execution isn’t always up to scratch.

2) Decision making – Remember the counter-attack when he picked up the ball around the centre line and had three runners in front. And early ball for Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been much better. Instead he ran with it for 25-30 yards before finding Sanchez with a pass at a very awkward height. In such cases you see his thinking needs to sharpen up. These are never easy choices but the truly top players make them a lot more consistently.

3) Tackling – Absolutely must stop lunging at opponents, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. It’s related, at least partly, to being slow to read the danger and thus having to catch up and cover greater distances which his lack of speed doesn’t allow. The solution is to develop defensive intelligence. He’s working on it – I see him looking around a lot more when the team is defending – but still has a long way to go.

4) Technique – Some of his touches and passes are exquisite. But he needs much better quality and consistency on the outside of the boot pass if he cannot develop his right foot. In that attack discussed in 2 above, I cannot imagine him finding Özil on the left with his current technique. The only way he would be successful is by completely opening up his body, which would then telegraph the pass to defenders. Hard to see him scoring with his right if Sanchez hadn’t taken over.

His desire and physical effort were excellent throughout the game. Technique, awareness of space, and tactical play was also really enjoyable. But it’s one thing to appear heroic and dominant in a hard-fought qualifier against Besiktas and quite another to be the fulcrum of an Arsenal side that wants to dominate major Champions League and Premier League games.

Cazorla: A close second for the MotM in my opinion. He’s not had a great start to the season but the effort in this game was much better. Defensive work when the team was down to 10 was outstanding. Still needs to protect the ball better in physical games.

Özil: Not a game he’d want to remember. Missed quite a few chances to put Sanchez in behind. Didn’t seem to be on the same page as his teammates at times. Did put in a lot of running up and down the pitch, often thanklessly.

AOC: Good understanding with Debuchy, made some powerful runs early on, picked a nice cross-field pass for Cazorla, and I liked the way he dropped deep at times to let Debuchy or Sachez use the space on the right. Should really have done much better from that chance just before the red card.

The midfielders faced a tough physical battle. They were good in patches but didn’t combine as well as they can. Individually, they all had room to do better. Appreciable hard work at the end.

Sanchez: My MotM. Extraordinary work rate, produced the decisive moment, constant clever movement, never gave up. Will still get much better as the team dynamic evolves but this game showed the first signs of what he can offer even when played as a central striker. Could have done better with a couple of chances but don’t forget it’s the hardest thing to do.

Subs: Chambers was unlucky to be booked and didn’t have too much to do. I thought Rosicky for Özil around the hour mark might have helped the team quite a bit.

Wenger: Achieved a major target and hopefully that will liberate him a bit more in the transfer market too. Team dynamic is still a work in progress. Relying on Sanchez as a centre forward could be a masterstroke or a disastrous decision. I’d prefer it if he didn’t take the gamble, but is there a top quality alternative available?


Everton 2 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

August 26, 2014

Often it’s difficult to judge if a team seems dominant because they’re playing well or due to the weaknesses of the opponent. But unless you can determine the dynamic that is driving the patterns on the pitch, any analytical process will return a flawed output at best.

I was expecting a low to average quality game between two sides that are yet to hit their stride and that’s what we saw. For most of the game, and particularly in the first half, it appeared that the hosts were playing well but they will really have to up their game if they want to have any realistic hopes of challenging for the Champions League spots.

Everton

Their attacks were mostly limited to long balls played down their left wing and that controversial counter-attack for the second goal. In total, we can count three very good attacks from Martinez’s side. Two resulted in goals and the third was a chance for Mirallas. Apart from that they created little in terms of quality chances even if there were a few threatening moments (Baines getting to the byline, Mertesacker slip letting Lukaku run at Chambers, etc.)

Their combination play was extremely limited and very little came down their right side. See the following comparison of their attacking third passes with the corresponding fixture from last season. Notice the density of the smaller lines that represent short passes which are an indication of combination play.

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Their individual moments of quality were also limited. For instance, they had fewer dribbles or take-ons

Everton Takeons

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They weren’t able to bring Lukaku, Naismith, or Coleman into the game as often as they did in April. The two strikers received about two-thirds of the passes they did in the previous game. Naismith was involved in a lot of short passing when the Toffees won but this time he seemed more a target for vertical balls in a limited role. He had almost no involvement on their right flank. Coleman rarely saw the ball in the attacking third in this game as against his very influential attacking contribution from the last one.

Lukaku Passes Rcvd

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Naismith Passes Rcvd

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The impact of this can be seen from the quantity and quality of chances they created. The Toffees managed a number of shots from central areas and inside the box when they won but in this game they created fewer chance and nothing of note except the three big ones mentioned above.

Everton Shots

They also completely faded away in the second half. It was similar to their drop in performance against Leicester. Comparison with last season’s game illustrates this further.

Everton 2n Halves Compared

Recall that we’d talked about controlling the ball as one of the key aspects of defending. 113 passes out of 158 is something one would expect from a mid-table side.

Arsenal

Wenger’s choices for the starting line-up were somewhat surprising. I understand that some fans have been hoping for more pace in the side, particularly with the inclusion of Oxlade-Chamberlain. Alexis as the central striker is also a choice many wanted to see.

It bombed.

In theory, the Gunners could have produced some very fluent football with six players capable of playing the pass-and-move game. In practice, Arsenal were rudderless and failed to create much, despite the opponents lacking some of their usual defensive qualities. Wenger’s side managed five shots in the first half. All were taken by Oxlade-Chamberlain. All were off target.

Sanchez was not on the same wavelength as his teammates, was often isolated, and never saw the ball in actually dangerous areas. It seemed like he was too mobile for his own and the team’s good.

Giroud’s arrival made a big difference. He became an excellent focal point for the team. But we must also note that Everton really dropped in quality in the second half. Giroud played most of the game there in April and wasn’t half as influential. So it wasn’t just about the Frenchman’s physical presence or other qualities, it was a combination of things, chief among which was the hosts’ poor performance. This culminated in absolutely abysmal defending for the goals, particularly the first one.

Goals

Arsenal were not really tested in defence, except for many balls played down their right flank. Chambers or Debuchy got around to dealing with most of these. But if you keep leaving that space open, sooner or later the opponent will capitalize.

Arsenal conceded their first goal from a well-worked set-piece. While the hosts deserve credit for the clever use of space and ball, it’s hard to keep track of the number of mistakes Wenger’s side made.

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Arsenal have 7 players in the defensive line against 3 attackers. Even then Naismith is sort of free. Oxlade-Chamberlain is in a pointless position. Everton have two players free wide on the left and acres of space. AOC could easily have been near Osman with Ramsey a little higher and central. I don’t really understand what the thinking was here. Alexis is the sole guy chasing the ball. This is a classic example of what I’ve called “Crowd the centre” tactics from Arsenal. Get enough bodies in central areas in front of goal and it’ll be very hard for opponents to score.

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Once Barry plays the ball wide, we see Debuchy and Oxlade-Chamberlain moving towards the right flank. They’re too late and have little chance of making a difference if Everton played quick passes (which they obviously did).

It’s interesting that Sanchez is in front of Barry but he is also caught ball watching and doesn’t notice the Englishman sneaking past him into the space on the edge of the box.

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The Gunners went deeper into the box when the ball went wide and then tried to push up when it was passed to the assist provider. Chambers was not able to push up in time but this probably would not have mattered because Coleman was anyway onside.

Özil made the obvious mistake of not tracking the run of the full-back. But I simply don’t see the point of giving one of your key attacking players such a role. If anyone in this team can be excused for not having enough defensive awareness, it’s Özil. Note that I’m not condoning the error, just saying that it was the most understandable one and should be avoided by altering the roles.

Szczesny was in a bad position because once again his first instinct was to go towards the ball.

Szczesny Goes To The Ball

The forward steps that he takes eat up valuable time. This meant he wasn’t in position or well balanced when the header was struck, and that in turn meant he was late in getting his arms up.

Szczesny Still Getting into position Arms used for balance Ball already on its way

The above snapshot was taken when the ball was already halfway towards him after the header by Coleman. Szczesny is still in the process of moving to his left and his arms are just trying to provide balance to that motion. By the time he gets that left foot down and tries to move his arms up it’s too late.

This was a header I’d expect a good goalkeeper to save. The Pole made a very similar mistake against Southampton last season when he conceded at the back post.

Counter-Attack

Everton’s second goal came from a brisk counter-attack. There is genuine reason to blame the referee for this one. Even if the foul on Mertesacker is considered debatable, there was no question about the off-side and the assistant was well placed to make the decision.

That said, there are a few aspects worth noting and areas where Arsenal will have to improve.

  • Lukaku did not track Monreal. Everton left him higher up the pitch (along with Naismith and Mirallas to an extent) and made sure they defend well with seven players. You don’t want to see your best attacking players forced to track back all the time. This is something Arsenal have to learn to do.
  • Chambers made a very rash decision to dive in. Had he stayed on his feet and slowed Lukaku by showing him out wide, the sprint back by Özil could have resulted in an extra body enough to limit the threat.
  • Flamini, the destroyer, wasn’t able to break play up. Far too many people simply assume a tough tackling player will prevent counter-attacks. It just doesn’t work that way.

Szczesny conceded through his legs. It was just awful. I remember a lot of such goals scored a decade or so ago when many one-v-one situations led to goals between the Keeper’s legs. It shouldn’t happen in the modern game.

The opponent should be forced to beat the goalkeeper over one of his legs. This is important because if the ball goes between the legs it’s guaranteed to go in goal. But if you tuck one knee in and close that gap, chances are the opponent will either hit your knee or can miss the target when going for the corners.

Again, Arsenal’s current first choice goalie has previous with such errors. It’s just very bad goalkeeping.

Ramsey’s Tap-in

Arsenal’s first goal came out of nothing. Everton had 7 players in and around the box but they just all went to sleep. No one went to close Cazorla down and Ramsey’s run wasn’t tracked. Osman, Baines, and Coleman could all have done better. Very poor defending.

Cazorla’s composure and accuracy of pass should be appreciated. Ramsey’s ability to keep going and his instincts in the attacking area are also worth commending.

Giroud’s Equalizer

When you have a big striker you expect him to score some really physical goals. Bully the defender and just knock the ball in. The Frenchman doesn’t do this often enough but in this case it was perfect execution. Monreal’s cross was well directed too. Nonetheless, any manager would be disappointed if his team conceded such a goal.

On the whole, I felt the hosts were well below their best all over the pitch. It’s also the reason this game seemed like one that Arsenal should have won. The title race is long and ruthless. There will be enough games that are really tough and a few where luck simply won’t go Arsenal’s way. This wasn’t one of them. Dropping points in such games, irrespective of what happened here last season or what will happen to other teams on this ground once the Toffees rediscover their mojo, is something the Gunners can ill-afford.

Based on his decisions this summer and thus far in the season, I have a feeling Wenger has taken a big gamble on the young British talent at his disposal. And if this game is anything to go by, Wilshere and AOC are a long way from deserving starting spots in an Arsenal side that wants to contend for the major titles. Both possess a fair amount of individual qualities and potential but lack the ability to make the right choices that’d make the whole team better.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Terrible (as discussed above).

Debuchy: A lot of attacks came down his flank and at times he was a little higher up the pitch than necessary. There were also times when he was caught in a situation where Mirallas was moving in while Baines was running down the flank without being tracked. The Frenchman made the right choices for the most part and that limited the number of chances that could be created from that flank. Didn’t get on the ball often enough for my liking and understanding with AOC or Sanchez could have been better.

Chambers: Had to cover behind Debuchy quite often and he did that well. Passing was quite composed. I really like the way he stayed with Lukaku when the striker ran across the face of the box after Mertesacker slipped and fell while trying a back pass. Bad choice to dive in as discussed above. Also has trouble with balls played behind him. For instance, when Naismith headed that ball in behind, the youngster turned 270 degrees from his right to face his own goal and chase instead of a simple 90 degrees to his left. That suggested he lost his bearings for a bit. In defence, that can be the difference between a clean tackle and a foul or even a goal.

Mertesacker: Had a tough time when isolated one-v-one but that happened rarely. Not sure if he was supposed to be organizing the team for the set-piece. There was less action on his side of the pitch.

Monreal: Was more involved on the ball than his teammate on the other flank but had significantly less work from a defensive point of view. I was surprised the hosts didn’t try to isolate his against Lukaku or Coleman. Good assist.

The defenders had a few tough moments to deal with and they did alright for the most part by limiting spaces to the wider areas and quickly covering for each other when the ball reached the final third. As a result the goal wasn’t exposed as often. The second goal should have been ruled out but the team needs to learn it’s lessons. Set-piece defending was again poor but it’s not just limited to the back four. The whole team and the coaching staff have to take responsibility.

Flamini: Passing was reliable but he should have been a lot more involved in ball circulation. That’s one of his major weaknesses. His tough tackling style wasn’t really useful as he made just two tackles. Five fouls, while not in the Chamakh category, is still a bit too much. As the deepest midfielder in the 4-1-4-1 of the first half, he wasn’t quite sure whether to stay with Naismith dropping deep or to cover the right side.

Ramsey: Tough game, wasn’t able to influence the attack or help with the defence nearly as much as he can. Came up with a big goal.

Wilshere: This was another game where he didn’t make any obvious mistakes but just couldn’t help make the team better. Needs much faster speed of thought if he has to play in the centre with a guy like Özil on the flank. Completed 1 of his 5 attempted take-ons. Will be much better if he starts using his passing array a lot more and limits the whole “driving at opponents” bit to a few carefully chosen moments.

Özil: Stuck on the left and just his first game of the season yet seemed like the best player on the pitch. Error for the goal aside, it’s hard to find any faults with his performance. Played a lovely through-ball for Wilshere, set-up AOC with a good cut-back, another chance for Chamberlain came when one of his through-balls for Monreal forced a panicky clearance from Coleman, and many other small moments of quality all over the pitch. Deserved better support and intelligence from his teammates.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Somewhat wayward and wasteful with shooting. Ran into crowds quite often. Created a good chance for Giroud early in the second half. Was lax with tracking Baines. Disappointing performance on the whole.

Cazorla: Had only a few minutes on the pitch. I liked his professionalism and focus. Excellent weight on the pass for Ramsey.

The midfield was all over the place in the first half. The movement itself was decent but understanding and speed of passing was not up to scratch which constrained the quality of attacks they could build. Promising moments in the final third were squandered by poor choices or execution.

Defensive support was good. Covered the central areas well, except one or two cases.

Sanchez: Had only one touch in the opposition box. Wasn’t on the same wavelength as anyone else. Wenger talks about physical fitness but to me it seems more a case of role definition. He’s another player who’s trying too hard and needs to simplify things. Let others do bulk of the work and focus on getting into the vital attacking areas. I did enjoy the time he tracked Mirallas all the way back to prevent a counter-attack after losing the ball through a bad touch.

Giroud: Looked hungry and got into very good areas. On another day he could have scored more. That goal against City and this one show the kind of qualities he has. But there have been a few false starts so I’m waiting to see if these can be replicated. News of his injury, if true, is disheartening.

Campbell: Only had a few touches, overhit a couple of passes, just good to see him get his Arsenal debut.

Wenger: Still searching for his best eleven. Has clearly put faith in some of the younger players and his reputation could be at stake more than ever before because big players have been available and Arsenal have fewer financial restraints.


Besiktas 0 – 0 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

August 21, 2014

Arsenal returned from Turkey after a below par performance that was still enough to get an acceptable result. A win would have helped but a goalless draw is by no means a disaster.

I thought Besiktas worked very hard in this game and played close to their full potential. The pitch helped them a little as did the fact that Arsenal didn’t seem to be on the same fitness levels as the hosts (understandably so). With that in mind, it’s reasonable to expect better quality from the Gunners in the return leg and the visitors should find it tough at the Emirates.

That being said, a few very obvious and oft discussed problems were patently discernible in the Gunners’ performance. These have been covered so often that I’ll just list them in bullet point form rather than discussing the details

  • Playing Ramsey and Wilshere in central midfield makes the team output weaker.
  • Very few runs in behind the defence
  • Failure to establish midfield dominance against a team that pressed with energy and passion
  • Inability to press coherently in the opposition half
  • Inability to defend the centre line/force turnovers leading to counter-attacks form that zone
  • Not getting enough bodies in the opposition box
  • Inefficient attack with many promising moments squandered

This game can be a classic case study for what I’d said should be the first law of football – Defending is significantly easier than attacking.

Look at the amount of final third action on both sides of the pitch. Sure, we can blame Giroud, but what about Demba Ba’s missed chances? Arsenal were irrefutably inefficient, but can you then really praise Besiktas who missed just as many chance, if not more?

Decisive quality in the attacking third makes a huge difference. Neither side had it. The defensive players had a good game but also rode their luck. The percentages worked in their favour.

The game was played at a very fast pace, which worked well as far as knocking Wenger’s side out of their rhythm was concerned. The Gunners should be able to go into such games and establish control over the central third through their technical skills irrespective of the pitch conditions or fitness (relative difference was marginal). They couldn’t do it, just as they struggled in many games last season.

The difference was that this time they didn’t really sit back and defend with as much assurance as we saw last year. They also weren’t able to produce that small 5-10 minute period where they went up a couple of gears to score a goal or two. Many games were won last season on the back of such details.

In this game, it seemed to me that Arsenal were tactically unsure. They were trying to defend the centre line but weren’t really doing a great job. It was adequate most of the time but not sharp enough to result in transition opportunities.

The attacking ideas were chaotic too. At times, Sanchez was trying too much on his own down the right flank. Giroud was erratic and many moves broke down due to poor touches or choices by the Frenchman. Ramsey wasn’t getting into the areas he usually does to support the forwards. Wilshere wasn’t either. Santi has been ineffective during the first two games of the season and I have a feeling it’s linked with the unbalanced midfield. They don’t find him when they should, nor does their movement bring the best out of his passing. Arsenal’s left side was almost non-existent from an attacking perspective.

The hectic nature of the game meant that the gaps between the lines were often too big and the midfield was neither able to join the front line in any purposeful manner, nor did they protect the back five consistently.

The main positive for Arsenal is that despite all the problems the game still ended on even terms. It’s hard to imagine Wenger’s side doing worse at home so they should sneak by. Of course, Arteta’s injury and Ramsey’s suspension will make matters tough. Nevertheless, the Gunners should still be favourites to progress as long as they don’t make any serious errors to gift away goals.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Was almost caught out straight from kick-off but he had a decent game after that. Didn’t really have to make any difficult saves but he looked confident with the things he did have to deal with. Was lucky Ba missed on the near post as he was well beaten.

Debuchy: Almost everything came down his flank and he did well. I like the fact that he’s been able to increase his involvement with play and passing accuracy numbers. Delivery and choices in the final third could have been a little better, but he was by no means the worst on that front. His high positioning did put a little more pressure on Chambers.

Chambers: Worked hard and got into the right places most of the time. Good composure and an excellent performance for his age and experience levels. But it’s important to not forget those qualifiers. Made two bad mistakes that could have led to a goal and the whole tie would be looking very different had either one or both gone in. One was obvious for the Demba Ba chance, but I also thought he was out of position and unaware of the threat when the ball was played past him early in the second half for that clear sight of goal for Sahan. Even the other Demba Ba shot came when the striker pulled away from him. Did he also miss a chance from a corner towards the end? The hype machine is in overdrive but I’d advise caution in building up expectations.

Koscielny: There was less action on his side. Wonder if Besiktas made a conscious decision to target the youngster playing next to him. Probably the player who performed closest to his potential.

Monreal: He is a better player in the attacking half than he is in the defensive one but hardly ever got forward in this game. Passing was uncharacteristically unreliable as Arsenal struggled to build anything from the left. This was at least partly related to poor movement from teammates on that side. Luckily, he didn’t have much to do defensively and practically no one-v-ones to worry about.

The defensive players did well. Some of it was down to their quality and effort while the rest was down to the opponents missing the target. As I said earlier, the percentages worked in their favour.

We’ll have to keep an eye on that gap between Debuchy and the right sided central defender. The Frenchman stays so high up that soon opponents will start targeting that zone as Besiktas almost successfully did in this game.

Arteta: Was having a steady game before his injury. Wasn’t able to set the tempo for the Gunners and did look a little troubled at times when the distances between the lines increased.

Ramsey: Towards the end of last season and earlier in preseason I’ve said that Ramsey will lose form and struggle to keep his place as a guaranteed starter if the decisive moments stop happening for him. This game was a good example of the kind of problems he can face. The point is not that he isn’t playing well or lacks quality. He just doesn’t always make the right choices, which are often the simpler ones. His sending off was harsh but it came from an unnecessary moment of trickery when a simple pass to the right was available. Playing with Wilshere also makes things tough, particularly when Alexis is also new to the system and still adapting. Hopefully, the frustrating moments won’t build up and the decisive ones won’t dry up all at the same time.

Wilshere: Just looking at him play, it’s hard to say the youngster has done much wrong. Like Ramsey, he is another who doesn’t lack quality or desire. But he does lack tactical maturity and an understanding of the details that make the team perform better. At the moment I feel both Ramsey and Cazorla are underperforming because Wilshere is not quite connecting with them as Özil did last season. His off the ball movement, choices in possession, and defensive thought are all suboptimal. One example was the horrible high pass he played back to Koscielny that eventually led to a booking for Monreal.

Cazorla: At the moment, Santi has the biggest gap between quality possessed as against output produced. It’s very hard to put a finger on the exact cause for this. He’s never been quick and you don’t expect him to run past players to make things happen so a lack of that cannot be a reason to blame him. The problem is probably more with the level of understanding with others and the dynamic of the pass-and-move game not quite working out.

Sanchez: He was simultaneously the guy who was making something happen for the Gunners and the guy who was running into cul-de-sacs and squandering promising moments by missing opportunities to combine. I’m not quite sure what Wenger has asked him to do. It seems very odd that instead of playing up against the defensive line and using his intelligent off-the-ball runs, the Chilean is playing more like a midfielder and also looking for the ball to come to his feet rather than going into space.

Flamini: Got booked for an unnecessary tackle, squared up to opponents when things got heated up after a Wilshere challenge, decent job in front of the back four where, rather strangely, he wasn’t really tested.

The midfield failed. It was their job to control the ball and territory. Everything would’ve flowed from that but it never happened. The opponents gave them very little time and the pitch wasn’t perfect, but they have to overcome such challenges for there will be many more in the course of the season.

Giroud: Poor. Touches were disappointing, finishing left a lot to be desired, let his teammates down more often than I can remember. Sometimes having a player with exceptional final third quality can bail you out when the team is otherwise having a bad day. Giroud never looked like he’d deliver. Another player who is a long was off his best. Let’s hope much of that has to do with fitness.

Wenger: Far too many age old problems still exist. There will always be a reason – Opponent played deep, pitch was bad, players were tired, etc. – but none of those qualify as a valid excuse anymore. I have said this for at least three years now – the single most important change Arsenal can make is an addition to the coaching staff. The team has to learn to press higher up the pitch more coherently, they have to be a lot more competitive and threatening when defending the centre line, and they have to find alternate attacking modes when the regular game isn’t working.


Arsenal 2 – 1 Crystal Palace: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

August 18, 2014

The start to the Premier League was always going to be tough for the Gunners, as indeed it was for many other teams. Manchester United lost at home despite numerous seemingly strong performances in preseason. Everton drew, Tottenham got lucky, and the top two from last year had to fight very hard for their wins.

In that sense, and with the knowledge that the Gunners are missing key players, the result against Palace was a welcome one. As Wenger often says though, we must step back from the result and analyze the game without taking it into consideration.

It wasn’t a great game of football from the Gunners. There’s no denying that. At the same time, no one should turn a blind eye to the mitigating circumstances and the difficulties faced by other teams that are fighting for the same prizes. Our analysis must, therefore, differentiate between the problems that were understandable and excusable, and those that need to be addressed urgently.

I’d have easily accepted the reasons (insufficient preseason, key players missing, new players still adapting, etc) for the below par effort had this been a one-off performance. But look back at last season objectively and you’ll recall quite a few game against mid to low level teams where Arsenal had to grind out a result. Playing ugly and winning can be a good thing, but only when it’s a rare occurrence in an otherwise dominant run. Last season the Gunners had successful periods but they weren’t dominant ones. And that was the reason I wasn’t too excited about the title challenge. You could see it crumbling once the big games came around. The first blip came in December and then it was all over by the end of March.

Teams that have to consistently fight very hard to beat the smaller clubs will not be able to repeat those performances against the big sides who offer a much more potent attacking threat and are, as an extension, more secure at the back. So, while we should acknowledge the issues that affect the team, it’s very important to also realize there are certain deeper problems that offer genuine cause for concern.

1) Too slow in the central third

I was expecting Palace to sit a little deeper with their two lines right on top of each other with a gap of around 5-7 meters. For a while, thus, it surprised me when they seemed to be pressing around the centre line. Closer observation made things clearer.

Palace were really just sitting back, about 10-15 yards inside their own half, while maintaining good spacing from a defensive point of view. The Gunners had the ball around the centre line but instead of moving it around quickly, too many players were looking to make something happen all the time. Their desire and spirit were admirable but their tactical maturity and game intelligence were not.

When pass-and-move works as it’s supposed to, the opponents are constantly chasing the ball and have very little time to catch their breath. But sometimes the players in possession don’t make the simple pass that’s become available due to a teammates movement and instead wait for another opportunity for a better pass further forward. This discourages the teammate who’s showed for the ball while the others up front are waiting because they have very little space in a congested area. The rhythm of the possession game is disrupted and the opponent gets a chance to close the ball down higher up the pitch.

This explains how the Eagles were able to press the ball in the centre. They were not very good at it though and committed many fouls. They committed 19 fouls in this game and 12 of those came in the central third of the pitch.

12/19 fouls in the central third

12/19 fouls in the central third

Better teams would have a few successful tackles there instead of the fouls and these would lead to very dangerous counter-attacking opportunities.

To an extent, Arsenal’s problem was understandable. The two players on the right flank were debutants and the midfield combination, with Wilshere and Ramsey in box-to-box roles, isn’t the usual one. Sanogo hasn’t played too many games at the centre of the attack either. It’s hard to find fluidity under such circumstances.

Most of Wenger’s teams played their best football when the players get a run of games together and there is some stability. While it is completely understandable, it’s also not good enough to win the major titles anymore. Injury problems, need for rotations, fixture congestion, and other factors mean that the same line up cannot play bulk of the games. It is, as a result, absolutely imperative that Wenger finds a way to develop the tactical level of his players so they can find the fluidity irrespective of the starting eleven and other circumstances.

They have to rely on their passing and movement to create pockets of space rather than waiting for space to appear in which they can play the killer pass. It can be tedious, but the degree of precision and efficiency they achieve in this process will have a direct bearing on where they finish the season.

2) Defensive thought and set-piece preparation

Palace were resolute in defence and worked very hard. Credit to them for that. However, it’s impossible to say they offered any offensive threat whatsoever. Despite that, the Gunners some contrived to make mistake after mistake in gifting them a goal. This is another major cause for concern.

It started with a poor pass from Chambers. Part of it is excused by his youthful exuberance and inexperience. We can also appreciate that he was trying to do something positive. This though, was another case of a player taking unnecessary risk when many simpler options were available. It is very important that defensive players (Centre Backs, Defensive Midfielders, Full Backs in defensive positions) are constantly aware of the shape of the team at any given moment and work very hard to ensure they don’t lose the ball. And never in a central area because that completely opens the game up for the opponent.

Once Chambers gave the ball away and the counter-attack was on, the second mistake came from Szczesny. He’s been trying to play the sweeper, as was obvious from a couple of preseason games, but he clearly doesn’t know how to pick the right moments. I thought Koscielny was in a good position to deal with the ball and the Pole could have stayed back without any problems.

Having decided to charge forward, Szczesny again betrayed his inability to assess danger as he lumped the ball forward into a very dangerous area where there was no teammate to challenge a grateful opponent. I don’t know whether he was trying to play a pass-cum-clearance, in which case it was poor execution, or if simply didn’t think about what he was doing. The best option for the ‘Keeper in such cases is to put the ball out of play. This gives everyone a chance to get back into position. Obviously, he’d have to adjust his body shape as he arrived at the ball in order to hit it towards the touchline. Time would not have been a problem had he been clear about it from the moment he sensed danger.

The errors by Chambers and Szczesny show a lack of defensive thought that has repeatedly plagued the Arsenal defence over the years in one form or another.

Koscielny made a good block (although the shot was probably going wide) and then a good tackle as the ball went out of play. The danger should have been averted but for Arsenal’s set-piece vulnerability.

There must have been some analysis in the summer that suggested that the Gunners didn’t need a man on any post. Maybe there is merit to it, which will be proven in the long run. This is something we should keep an eye on.

The main problem in defending that corner seemed to be a poor understanding of roles.

For instance, Sanogo was at the near post. Usually strikers are needed there and do a good job of clearing such balls. However, when Chamakh made a run and took up a position just in front of him, the youngster seemed confused. Koscielny then pointed, and presumably said something, after which the lanky forward went a couple of steps ahead to mark one of his predecessors. That little movement probably meant the ball was able to float over his head and drop perfectly for Hangeland.

The goalscorer’s run and Arsenal’s response to that also showed the problems with the requirements of the system as understood by the players. Initially, it was Sanchez marking the giant defender. In fairness, the Chilean was simply marking a zone (probably pre-assigned in training) that the Norwegian was occupying. At first Alexis went with the run of the former Fulham man, as if by instinct. And then, confused, he let him go, glancing back with a worried look to check if his zone had been compromised. All this while, Koscielny was not aware of his counterpart’s movement and it was too late by the time he reacted.

A lot of these things came together for that goal to materialize. Had Arsenal put a man on the back post, or if Sanogo had held his ground, or if Sanchez communicated to Koscielny the moment Hangeland made that run, this goal could have been averted or at least made much harder to score with pressure on the header.

Mertesacker’s return should help things but I think a lot more work is needed on the training ground.

3) Too many take-ons

The Gunners attempted 37 take-ons and lost most of them.

Arsenal Take-ons

Alexis was successful with 3 of his 10 attempts. Ramsey managed 1 out of 6. Sanogo had a fifty percent success rate from his four attempts and Cazorla did just better with 5 out of 8 (although he lost a couple that broke promising moments down).

This numbers are too high and corroborate the tendency to do too much as discussed earlier. When things are not going your way it’s better to revert to the basics and keep things simple. I’d rather they lost possession trying intricate combinations with quick touches, or when making more runs in behind, or via intercepted through-balls rather than lost take-on attempts.

That said, we should see some improvement on this front once the players get their sharpness back. Nevertheless, it would be better if they’re aware of their sharpness levels and make appropriate choices based on that.

The Positives

Apart from the result of course, there were a few other details that were appreciable.

The equalizer was well worked and Koscielny’s header was clever because it was a tough angle.

I also liked the way the team kept going till the end. Wenger made good substitutions. Their concentration levels right at the end were excellent and I also enjoyed the way Koscielny and Giroud directed their headers purposefully.

Debuchy took up really aggressive positions and that can lead to threatening moments if used well.

Some other positives are covered in individual analysis.

This section is much smaller than the problem areas discussed above but don’t take that to be a ratio of the bad and the good from this game. Areas of concern need some elaboration and thus that write up is much longer. We expect Arsenal to win such games, which in turn implies the team is really good. There is no need to explain the strong points we see every day.

Individual Performances

Szczesny: Was a spectator for long periods. Handling was good when the ball did come at him. Didn’t have any saves to make. The lack of defensive thought discussed above is a concern. Could he have done more to organize the defence for the first corner?

Debuchy: Saw a lot of the ball and used it well. I loved his shot on the swivel in injury time and the positions he took up in the box when the ball was on the other flank. Wasn’t really tested in defence. I’m not sure if his aggressive positioning was just natural or part of the game plan. Will have to keep an eye on this in other games and see how it changes based on the opposition. It’s important that the full back doesn’t lose sight of his defensive duties or get in the way of his more talented teammates.

Chambers: One mistake, bad as it was, shouldn’t take too much away from an otherwise assured outing. Was confident on the ball, got tight to the attackers and made tackles when he had to, didn’t commit unnecessary fouls and was wise enough to make one when the opponent got away from him (we’ll have to see how he handles better and faster opponents). Had these moments of stepping out of the defence with the ball, but they seemed hesitant. He can do more with the ball but it’s only fair that some time and experience is needed.

Koscielny: Excellent goal, great block and tackle, good helping hand (or head) for the winner, could probably have done something more to prevent the goal, reliable distribution, seems like he’s picked up where he left off last season.

Gibbs: Was a lot more conservative when compared to his teammate on the other flank, which was a safe choice. Passing could have been better. Seems a little bit off his best at the moment.

Monreal: Was very good in the attacking areas with his positioning, runs, and passing. Gibbs could learn form that. His weakness in one-v-ones was not tested.

Apart from the mistakes discussed above, the defensive players had a very comfortable game. There were times when the full backs were diagonally opposite in the opposition half with Debuchy near the penalty area and Gibbs around the centre line. I’m not sure if this was a conscious tactical choices based on their qualities or if it just worked out that way.

Arteta: Typical game from Arsenal’s captain. Helped with ball circulation constantly, kept things simple and brought others into the game, got into good defensive positions, I liked the way he dropped back at times to let Chambers step up.

Ramsey: Another player who saw a lot of the ball and worked hard constantly. That said, it wasn’t a particularly good performance. He really needs to simplify his game and learn to pick his moments. I don’t know how long these decisive moments are going to last and it’d be a shame if the team dropped points when players are trying too hard.

Wilshere: Was a foul magnet. Played deeper than Ramsey and didn’t venture forward as much. A decent outing but passing could have been crisper/quicker.

Cazorla: He hasn’t looked at his best all through the preseason and this game wasn’t very different. Just seems a little off-the-pace and a couple of promising moves broke down when he was tackled. Movement is good and I think he will do better if the central midfielders and the wide player on the right make full use of his vision and technique. Wenger will probably give some thought to starting him in a central attacking midfield role while Ozil finds fitness.

Sanchez: Saw so much of the ball he seemed more like a midfielder than a forward. Came inside all the time and made a few runs in behind. I’d have preferred it if he spent more time on the defensive line threatening the space behind. Passing needs some calibration. His dummies, the angles on some attempted through-balls, and general movement highlight a great football brain. Now Wenger has to get it to synch with others in the team. Had some interesting moments when playing on the left. I think he can do better from there if he wants to keep coming inside because that provides a more natural passing angle for him as a right-footed player.

Chamberlain: One powerful run that lacked end product. Steady effort otherwise. I think his running on the right and Sanchez on the left can be very interesting in some games.

Crystal Palace completed 123 passes in the game. Arteta was on 100, Ramsey 92. The midfield was in complete control of the ball and territory. But they have to convert that control into greater incisive threat.

Sanogo: His technique is poor and that will limit the contribution he can make, particularly in games where space in the attacking areas is very tight. Also showed his immaturity at times. For instance, he had a great chance to play a one-two with Sanchez and get in-behind but he went for a wildly ambitious shot from outside the box.

Giroud: Had greater presence than Sanogo and was a lot more involved. Good header in the build-up of the winner. Had a couple of other moments in the box that could have troubled Speroni on another day.

Wenger: Some of the problems mentioned above are not new ones, even if the players are new. He’ll have to solve these issues if any sort of a challenge has to last the distance.


Quick Thoughts On West Brom And Norwich

May 11, 2014

Arsenal’s fourth one-nil win of the season took the Gunners to 76 points. Only seven times in the entire Wenger era (or the Premier League period for that matter, including the first three seasons that had 42 games each) have the Gunners picked up more points. A win against Norwich will make it the fifth best points haul in the same time frame.

It is still not where it should and can be, but it’s tough to dismiss the performances or the quality of the squad as substandard. Much of the results this season have been, as obviously noted by many, built on a strong defensive foundation. The same was the case against West Brom.

After a strong start and an enjoyable, well-worked goal – once again a good set-piece variation with quality delivery, and Giroud contributing with his head while using his physical strength – the Gunners became sloppy as time went by. They had enough decent-ish chances to score the second but the cushion goal never came. Collective defending in front of two strong central defensive performances was needed to hold fort and secure the points.

I liked Özil’s movement into the wide areas and his ability to find Podolski’s runs, Cazorla’s positioning and timing in the centre, and the fact that Arsenal built quite a few attacks down their left. But it’s impossible to shake the feeling that players of this quality can do much better. Maybe they were going through the motions because the result didn’t really matter. Nevertheless, it was good to see that the sloppiness didn’t extend to the defending.

Norwich – Momentum Matters

It’s unlikely that the Canaries will stay up. It’s hard to guess how a team will play in such a situation. Each player will probably react in a different way and that might affect the overall output of the team. Or they could all buy into the idea of bowing out with a positive memory and give it their all.

Arsenal don’t have much to gain except, as discussed above, taking the points tally to their fifth best in the Premier League era. That said, there might be something in this game for the Gunners from a psychological point of view. Going into the FA Cup final on the back of five wins will probably have a favourable impact on how the team starts that game, if not the whole performance.

Norwich have the 3rd worst defence in terms of goals conceded with 60 shipped in 37 games. But you’ll be surprised if you haven’t already noticed, the Canaries have the fourth best defence at home with just 16 goals conceded in 18 games. Liverpool had to fight for a win there recently while City and Everton have dropped points at Carrow Road.

Their problem is the League’s worst attack. And because of that I’ll be extremely disappointed if the Gunners don’t keep another clean sheet, which would be their 17th of the season. Never since 2000-01 have Wenger’s side kept that many in one League campaign.

Since it’s hard to guess the patterns of play, I’m just hoping Arsenal will be professional and focussed enough to get the job done. It’ll be nice to have more memorable goals and a repeat of the reverse fixture but it’s not a necessity. More variations on set-pieces and different attacking combinations should indicate that the team and coaching staff are using the time well.

Wenger could be tempted to start some of his fringe players but I’d like to see a strong eleven getting in the groove for next Saturday. Rhythm is very important for the Gunners.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Cazorla, Giroud, Podolski.

Fabianski in place of Szczesny would be an interesting choice. That would probably complete the ideal line-up for the FA Cup final based on current form and fitness.

Of course, Ramsey should not be risked if he is not fully fit. That applies to pretty much any player at this stage and, in that regard, I was glad the Welshman didn’t feature in the final home game of the season.


Quick Thoughts On Newcastle And West Brom

May 4, 2014

Happy St. Totteringham’s day to you. It was also made sweeter by the knowledge that 4th place is now safe. That certainly makes this one of the most enjoyable weeks of the season.

The football itself wasn’t great, but it didn’t have to be. Newcastle never really turned up as a team and there were enough individual mistakes to make this a comfortable win for the Gunners. Throughout the game it seemed like their players were trying, at least on an individual basis, but Pardew’s side failed to generate any form of cohesion in attack or defence. Sporadic moments of quality, coupled with Arsenal’s average performance, kept the game close for a while.

It was nice to see Arsenal score from a quality set-piece. Krul should have done much better but you can’t take anything away from Cazorla’s delivery or Koscielny’s desire and deft touch. In general, I enjoyed various variations on corners and free-kicks. The movement of players in the box and the pace and angle of delivery were mixed up rather well and often resulted in threatening moments. Hopefully, this won’t be a one-off.

There was still some tension in the air till the second goal went in. It was a clear off-side but I doubt anyone will argue this game would have had a different result had the flag gone up. Giroud has to finish some of those type of chances. I don’t know if he can improve on such details but it’s pretty clear that he will struggle to have a long career at the top level if he keeps missing as often as he currently does.

The second half seemed like a formality. Özil’s cross for the third goal was superb as was the French striker’s header. I don’t fully understand why Giroud doesn’t score more from more headers. He has all the attributes to contribute with his head in the box – to score and set up goals – but Arsenal haven’t really used that strength well and he’s come up short on a few occasions when the service has been good.

West Brom – Three points will still be good

Arsenal no longer need any points as far as the League table is concerned. Finishing 3rd is highly unlikely and 4th is in the bag. Nevertheless, winning the last two League games should still be a priority because it will affect momentum going into the FA Cup final and possibly even the preparations for next season. Imagine finishing 10 points above Spurs after all that was written during the last summer and at the start of the season.

The Baggies are not theoretically safe yet but they should most probably survive. It’s been a strange season for them because the individual quality in that squad is definitely better than the League position and points they’ve achieved. It’s partly reflected in the fact that they’ve drawn 8 of the 11 games against the top 6. Chelsea, Everton, and Spurs failed to beat them this season. Arsenal could be next on that list if the Gunners don’t turn up with their A game.

I find them quite unpredictable. They’ve scored some impressive goals but overall they’ve also struggled to put the ball in the net, even against the smaller teams.

Amalfitano has a bag full of tricks while Berahino has skill as well as pace. They can be troublesome if they get a chance to run into space. Sessegnon – remember the hype last season? – is another useful player for counter-attacks but has had an underwhelming season.

For the most part, Arsenal’s biggest defensive challenge in this game will be to minimize opportunities for runs in behind and avoiding isolating defenders in n-v-n situations. It should not be too hard as long as the midfield remains focussed and diligent.

Breaking down their defence is not always easy but they’ve conceded over 1.7 goals per game on an average in away games and have only one clean sheet in games against the top 8. Arsenal should break through as long as they are patient but persistent. Spaces should arise in front of their central defence and behind the lines if they push up. With Ramsey, Cazorla, and Özil clicking well in recent games, I’ll be very surprised if the Gunners don’t create some quality chances.

With the pressure off in the League, it’ll be great if we see Wenger’s side going out on the pitch to enjoy their game. Sometimes that can unshackle a team, particularly one that is so reliant on combination play.

The manager might be tempted to make a few changes to his starting line-up to see how some players fare. But given what I’ve seen from Arsene over the years, I have a feeling he will go with a very strong starting eleven so that they develop some rhythm building up to the Cup final.

We might see,

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Cazorla, Giroud, Podolski.

It seems Sagna has picked up an injury. Wenger does, at times, use injury as an excuse when he’s leaving a player out, but I don’t see the point in deliberately dropping the French full-back unless he’s in negotiations with another team and not completely focussed. It would have been good to see Sagna complete the season with his impeccable professionalism. Will he be left out for a couple of games and then brought back for the final? That’ll certainly be odd. Hopefully, it’s really just a minor injury and nothing else.

Before ending I wanted to mention this World Cup Prediction contest on Betting Expert. There’s over €10,000 worth of prizes to be won. Check it out if that sort of thing interests you.


Thoughts On Hull And Newcastle

April 28, 2014

The visit to the KC Stadium turned out to be a fairly comfortable one, as expected. Hull have not done very well against the big sides and their performance in this game didn’t merit any points either.

That’s not to say the hosts were pushovers. The first half-hour was competitive. Both sides had some half-chances and Arsenal had a clear penalty denied. Hull, as most Steve Bruce sides are, were compact an well-organized in front of Steve Harper. The Gunners weren’t getting a clear sight of goal and some individual quality was needed. It came in the form of a combination between Özil, Cazorla, and Ramsey. Their movement, understanding, and technique were excellent which put the Welshman in an excellent position to score. He was his usual efficient self.

I enjoyed the second goal a lot more. The counter-attack started with a feisty challenge – we’ve seen these called as fouls – and ended with a sublime finish. I loved the ground Ramsey covered and the way Podolski simply struck the ball instinctively. The German is such a natural finisher it’s a shame he doesn’t do more on the pitch or he’d be one of the best in the world. His assist provider again showed his uncanny knack for getting into the right spaces at just the right time.

That tendency was fruitful again for the third goal as Ramsey arrived at the top of the box at the perfect moment to meet Cazorla’s cut-back. When in full flow, these players make football look very easy. The kind of impact Ramsey’s had this season, not just in decisive moments like goals and assists, but also in making others better by his instinctively astute positioning, has made him practically irreplaceable in the side. It’s good, obviously, but also a bit concerning because without him the output of the whole side drops and there isn’t an equivalent replacement in the squad at the moment.

Hull, in fairness, did have some moments which could have gone their way on another day – Livermore’s shot that struck the bar, for instance. But on the balance of play this was a comfortable win for the Gunners and I doubt that would have changed even if Hull had scored with one of their attacks.

Newcastle – The vagaries of form.

The Magpies ended 5th in the League not too long ago. The very next season they also flirted with relegation. After the first 18 games of this season, it looked like Pardew’s side were back on track as they were 6th in the Premiership just 6 points off the top. Since boxing day though, they’ve lost 12 of their 17 League games while picking up just 13 points. Supporting the Toon should probably be prescribed remedy for any football fan found criticizing his club’s short term form.

The likely patterns for Monday night’s game, therefore, are a bit hard to call. There have been a couple of big scoring games between the sides (7-3,4-4) but four of the last seven encounters have also seen a solitary goal or less. The only common element has been that every game has been tight – even last season’s double-digit thriller was quite even till the final 15-20 minutes – and that Arsenal have not lost since 2010 when, if memory serves, Chris Hughton oversaw a win at the Emirates on the back of an Andy Carroll goal.

Life is not the same for Carroll, Hughton, or Newcastle but the Gunners are in a familar position of needing to win in order to ensure their spot in the Champions League qualifiers.

For the most part, I’m inclined to believe this should be a win for the Gunners. It could also be a comfortable one if the visitors fail to turn up as they’ve been prone to off late. But Pardew’s return to the touchline and Sissokho’s to the starting eleven might lift them. Wenger’s side should be prepared to grind out a result if things don’t work smoothly.

Having the decisive players back and the rest between games should help. The combination play in midfield and attacking areas is getting back to a high level and Newcastle’s main aim will be to disrupt Arsenal’s rhythm. Sometimes, with their manager’s encouragement, this can lead to the Geordies getting too physical. Arsenal might have to ride the challenges, so to speak, in order to establish their tactical will on the game. Part of that will also include not losing the ball when shoved and is applicable to the likes of Santi and Özil who aren’t still suited to such battles.

The defence has some standards problems to deal with. Remy has pace and finishing skills, Sissokho is powerful, and set-pieces can always be a problem. If Arsenal concede a goal it will most probably be linked to a terrible individual mistake or two.

Newcastle’s best attacking hope is to press aggressively in the central third of the pitch. Most teams don’t use these tactics against the Gunners, probably for fear of exposing their backline and goal, but bravery is sometimes needed on the pitch. With nothing to lose, given their position in the table, Pardew should take this chance to be bold and proactive. That could make this a very interesting game to watch and a truly challenging one for the Gunners.

The visitors will have to rely on luck if they let the hosts control the ball and the centre of the park.

Wenger should be able to pick a very strong team,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Cazorla, Giroud, Podolski.

I don’t like Cazorla on the right but he seems to have a very good understanding with Ramsey and Özil.

The importance of the first goal remains as high as it’s ever been.