Cologne 0 – 4 Arsenal: New Signings Impress, Regulars Get In The Groove

August 13, 2012

The earlier pre-season friendlies didn’t quite excite me as much. Maybe it was the fact that many first choice players were missing that necessitated the inclusion of many youngsters who clearly weren’t going to play a major part in Arsenal’s season. These issues also made is pointless to look at the tactics of the team or indulge in any sort of detailed discussion of the events of the games.

The friendly against Cologne was different. We saw most of the players who will form an integral part of the squad and the first team. And they looked sharper and faster than the players had done on the Asia tour.

Before talking about the details of the game it’s important to note that the level of the opposition, with respect, wasn’t very high. This was a team that got relegated from the Bundesliga last season and then lost its talisman. Obviously, it wasn’t going to be a gripping contest. Nevertheless, the Germans were at least as strong, if not better, than the sides Arsenal faced in Asia. The fact that the Gunners could dominate the game to such an extent when they’d struggled on the tour to the far east had to do with two factors – The presence of many first choice players, and improved fitness/sharpness. It seems safe to say the short camp in Deutschland has been helpful.

Coming to the game itself, Arsene started with a mixed line-up by spreading first XI players into the two sides that were going to play either half. Some Gooners thought it would have been better to play the side that is likely to start against Sunderland so they can further develop their on-field chemistry, especially with some new players being integrated into the squad,  but Wenger has enough experience to make the right calls on such matters.

The three big signings of the summer all started in the first half. I shared some of my thoughts about the play on twitter during the interval.

Those were my thoughts in a nutshell as it’s tough to get into details with the twitter character limit. So now I’d like to build on some of those points.

Last season, regular readers might have noticed I often talked about the lack of combination play from the Gunners. Often it was just a cross from the right and a goal, or a chip followed by a phenomenal finish from RvP. There were a fair number of through-balls as well. But we didn’t see 3,4, or 5 players combining in the final third, moving around dragging defenders all over the place, runs from deep exploiting the spaces created, and so on.

In the first half, albeit against modest opposition, the Gunners showed admirable understanding in the attacking half and the final third. This led to decisive and meaningful contributions from a number of players in the build up to high quality chances and goals.

For instance, the second goal came from a penalty that was won following a corner which resulted from a shot by Cazorla. The Spaniard was set-up by a deft headed lay-off by Giroud who received a wonderfully weighted cross from Walcott after the winger took his time to make the choice. Not only was this an exciting combination, there was so much here that Arsenal fans have been dying to see.

Firstly, Theo didn’t rush his cross and make a right hash of it. Secondly, he delivered it perfectly instead of sending it high and wide. Then Giroud didn’t simply aim his header towards goal but showed his awareness though a clever choice and technique through its execution. Finally, Cazorla arrived late in the box and got a good shot away.

Of course, this is just one instance, and while you don’t want to bet your house on Giroud picking a dozen headed assists next season or Cazorla scoring ten goals inside the box, a number of such moves (those involving 3 or more players in the final third) during the game show there is every reason to believe the attacking combinations can add greater flexibility and variety to Arsenal’s goal scoring threat. That should go a long way towards countering some weaknesses from last season and in replacing Van Persie if he leaves.

Good link play also makes individuals look impressive. I enjoyed Walcott’s movement as he popped up all over the final third. His decision making and execution wasn’t shabby either. The Englishman will have to perform in this manner against tougher opponents over a period of time to convince many of the fans but the foundation is there.

Giroud’s movement was superb. This is directly linked with his awareness of space and I believe that’s a natural skill that’s difficult to teach. The way he peeled of his markers in the box is not something everyone can learn through coaching. I also loved the fact that he hit the target with four (all?) of his shots although he probably should have scored at least one having been on the end of so many opportunities. The Frenchman also moved into the channels well and looked like he could be a good target man for out-balls when the team is under pressure. I found that was one of the few weaknesses RvP had so it’s good to have a player who adds something different even if the Dutchman stays.

That said, I still think of Grioud as a prodigious talent rather than a proven player. Being a late bloomer, he’s not played many games against big sides and few at Premier League intensity. The rate at which he adapts can have an impact on the way Arsenal’s season shapes up. I am also keen to see how he plays with his back to goal in front of a well-organized defence that gets tight on him.

Podolski wasn’t always in the game but his finishing was composed and that of a confident player. His tendency to drift inside will open angles for the Gunners when they are trying to build from the back but it will also leave the flanks exposed at times. This will be a tricky balance that he’ll have to learn over time. We also got a chance to see the German internationals opportunistic instincts in and around the box along with his lethal left foot. This can be a source of over a dozen goals for the Gunners. I also enjoyed his penchant for playing some quick one-touch passes in tight spaces.

Cazorla might also have had good fun with that and these two can develop a nimble and crafty partnership to create and finish chances around the edge of the box. Parked buses beware.

The Spaniard looks like he’s fitting in at Arsenal effortlessly. We saw his deft flicks, penetrating vision, and delightfully measured passes. More will surely come. The only area of slight concern I have is his ability to chase back. With Podolski or Gervinho on the left and Cazorla in the middle, Arsenal will put a great deal of defensive pressure on the two midfielders behind them. But I want to see how far, how fast, and how often can the Spaniard chase back before forming any opinions on this.

Coquelin and the Ox formed a relatively inexperienced pair in the middle but they were rarely challenged, nor was the defence.

In the second half Arsenal seemed to take the foot off the gas. They had fewer combinations in the final third. The finishing wasn’t as clinical either. But it seemed alright for a game where gaining match fitness was the primary concern.

Van Persie ran around and tried linking with his teammates but his heart didn’t seem in it. Maybe I’m reading too much into this but it told me he was on his way out.

Gervinho was his typical “exciting and frustrating at the same time” self. His runs, tenacity, and the goal were a delight. But he also messed up a gilt-edged chance created by Arshavin and failed to pick Podolski who was open in front of an empty net. Expect a mixed bag from him all through the season with the dominant side depending on his fitness and confidence levels.

There wasn’t much to say about the defenders but I did notice a number of gaps in the defence that Cologne failed to utilize. I don’t think there’s any cause to condemn anyone for defensive lapses after such a game but it’s safe to say we didn’t see any marked signs of improvements on that front either and it remains a concern.

Overall it was an enjoyable game and has definitely brought the buzz back. Can’t wait for the season to begin.

What Is The Correct Level of Analysis After A Pre-Season Friendly?

July 27, 2012

I haven’t been writing regularly recently and that’s mainly because there’s very little I have to say right now. Didn’t want to read too much into pre-season friendlies and transfer rumours don’t excite me anymore. But today I had a good chat with some people on twitter about the game against City and it’s given me enough thoughts to write this post and make some points that have been troubling me for a while.

Most of the comments on my timeline on twitter were of a positive nature. Broadly speaking I agree with the observations. AOC was lively, it was encouraging to see so many shots from distance and many hitting the target, Aneke played some quality passes, Gervinho produced a number of excellent runs and turns, and so on. There is definitely a long list of positives to be had from this game.

Then there was also the defending. Sloppy goals conceded, number of players seemed to be out of position, breaking forward was relatively easy for City, and so on. If someone wanted, and I’m sure many did, they could turn it into a nightmare scenario for the Gunners.

Now I’m trying to figure out what is the correct level of analysis for such a game. Obviously, the players are still working towards their fitness and it will take some time for them to hit their peak. Arsene said after the last game that they were around 70 percent and needed work tactically and fitness wise. Technically it wasn’t a big problem and that’s understandable because you don’t lose technique during a summer break. Fitness drops and based on analysis of last season’s performances the coaching staff has to develop the tactical changes which then take time to seep through to the players via training. So those are the key areas where work is needed.

Since few, if any, of us have first-hand experience of such high-level training it’s difficult to define the timeframes needed for the impact of the work to be seen. As a consequence condemning the players and coaches too soon can be considered unjustified. But you can spin the argument around and say there’s no need to turn a blind eye to the problems.

In the end what I feel, and this is something I’ve said often enough, is that the analysis or opinions we see usually reflects more on the person who is offering the opinion than providing actual insights about the issues.

There’s also a tendency to extrapolate, and we are all guilty of this at some level or the other, which makes matters worse. Some people will find faults and then jump to doom and gloom conclusions. Others will try to spin the story and say Arsenal have a good chance this year. If we pause and reflect, every season shows us that both extremes are proven incorrect.

Arsenal have been written off time and again for the last five seasons or more. Villa were supposed to overtake the Gunners, Everton too, and these days it’s Spurs or Liverpool. It hasn’t happened yet.

On the other hand, some people constantly claim Arsenal can win the title. And this happens every year irrespective of the squad available. They too are proven wrong.

Why do we do this? What’s the point in saying, “Our defence is still sh*t, we’re f*cked, Wenger out, blah, blah”. At the same time why do we need arguments like, “Well we dominated the ball, and X,Y,Z were not playing, when they come back it’ll be great”. Haven’t we been through all this often enough? Don’t you think we’re just going around in circles repeating the same arguments over and over again? Aren’t we just getting more spin from one side to counter that from the other? Doesn’t it just lead to more anger, hatred, and heartache? If you find it fun then I truly envy you but to me it hurts deeply, as much as losing key matches to sloppy mistakes or refereeing decisions.

Why can’t we keep things simple and specific to the narrow context of the current game? For instance, if it appeared that the full-backs were caught out of position, shouldn’t we ask why were they caught out? Was it an individual error on their part or were they exposed and had to cover a big amount of space? Should Bould be working on the positioning of his full-backs or the broader structure of his team? Don’t you think these should be the starting point of the debate rather than criticisms like, “Jenkinson is utterly useless”, or a diversion like, “This is just a pre-season game”.

I don’t want to offer detailed analysis of this game but I want to use two examples.

I saw Arteta make a number of errors in the first half. Should I jump to a conclusion that Arteta has lost it. That’d be absurd, wouldn’t it? The guy has proven himself over a long time and therefore you could say he’s just rusty and will shrug it off. Because of his consistency in the past it would be fair to label his mistakes as uncharacteristic. I’d agree there is no need to read too much into it.

On the other hand, we’ve seen defensive mistakes from Arsenal time and again over the course of many seasons. So do we simply ignore the same when we see them again and magically hope they’ll vanish by the time the season starts? Or is it better to get into some details and look for answers? I don’t condone abuse even when someone digs deep but can you really blame people for trying to understand what’s going on?

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, since we’ve gone through many of these arguments and observations over and over again, patience is running thin in the Arsenalsphere. People read words and their mind goes back to related arguments they’ve suffered through. This happens to both sides. Those who don’t believe in the manager have seen enough excuses and any attempt to debate can seem to be another apology. Those who want to believe are tired of constant negativity. I am not in anyone else’s head so I could be wrong here and would definitely value any feedback on this but I’ll be surprised if we haven’t all gone through such phases.

I don’t want to offer major conclusions in this post, just some observations and questions. Make up your own mind and tell me what you think is the correct level of analysis for pre-season games or any game for that matter. Do we have to link everything to title chances? Is there still some fun to be had in simply enjoying the game and discussing various observations without worrying about the impact at the end of the season? Is it too difficult to allow a different point of view and at the same time is it ok if someone loses patience once in a while?

I honestly don’t know the answers. I only know what I’d like to see but that seemingly ideal state of the Arsenalsphere seems as distant a possibility as the world solving global poverty or population problems. And that hurts me as much as any Arsenal performance ever has.

PS: Apologies to those who didn’t get a chance to see the game and came here hoping for some observations. The points made here have been eating away at me for a while now and they took precedence over the specifics of the game.

Thoughts On The Emirates Cup Performances

July 31, 2011

A lot of excellent football, some dodgy refereeing decisions going against Arsenal, and absolute chaos as the back – nothing seems to have changed.

Another stupid goal conceded towards the end means that this Cup will linger in Gooner memories as one that has further reinforced, if that were possible, the need for significant defensive improvement if the Gunners want to challenge for the top honours this season.

I have been convinced for a while that without the right addition to the coaching staff this team is going to struggle. In the first game both goals were conceded from open play, even though defending from open play was considered a strength last season. So is it the same weakness or is it a new one?

Against the New York Red Bulls the goal was conceded from a set-piece after a scramble so I consider it partially a set-piece situation and partially open play. And just as I have pointed out before, there are so many different players at fault that buying one or two is never going to solve the problem. Indeed, in this particular case, the goal was conceded by a 6’ 3” English centre half who is as physical as they come.

The only way of improving is to get to the root of the issues. It’s easy to say defense is the problem. Anyone who hasn’t watched a lot of football can also identify that. But unless the real problem is diagnosed, it can never be treated. I will try delving into some details before the season starts.

There were plenty of positives to take from the two games. The players moved the ball well in both games. The quality of pressing was better. Gibbs, Afobe, Gervinho, Rosicky, Vela, Arshavin, and Walcott all offered some encouraging signs. Wilshere and Van Persie have picked up from where they left off and will probably get better.

Interestingly, the team seems to be working on a different approach to defending set-pieces. I am worried this zonal marking style is a disaster waiting to happen because the players don’t seem to be completely aware of their roles. There is still time though and two weeks of training can definitely lead to better defending with the zonal system.

On the whole though, some key ingredients are lacking and this squad does not look like championship contenders. Without Cesc, this team and this particular style of play will not be as impressive as it is with Fabregas in the side. Wenger has to sort that one out and will have to modify the playing style to suit the other players if Cesc is transferred. No one in the present market can fill in that role.

Nasri is as talented as anyone available in the market but even he cannot take over from Fabregas in the same system. For the Frenchman to succeed in an advanced midfield role the team would need two dedicated defensive midfielders behind him and will have to adopt a style similar to Inter, Real or the Dutch national side where counter-attacking is the key and the forward players are able to find lots of space in the opposition half on a regular basis. Nasri cannot thrive in the possession based style in which Fabregas dominates the show.

I hope the transfer dealings are settled in the next week or so. It is imperative the key players get settled into their roles and get some time to gel together. There are some big games in the opening few weeks and an unsettled side could easily be found wanting.

On the other hand, one can put some faith in the Arshavin philosophy. In the last two seasons Arsenal have won the Emirates Cup, and rather comfortably at that, but it didn’t lead to any success in the trophies that matter. This time it could be different.

Thoughts On The Cologne Game and JET

July 25, 2011

Once again Arsene put the same eleven players on the pitch. Well, almost. Gervinho did take the place of Young Miyaichi but the rest of the starting line-up was same as the bunch that impressed in the Asia tour.

Many of us were eager to see how Gervinho performs, and I for one wasn’t disappointed. Far from it, I was well and truly enthralled by the half an hour he got on the pitch. Arsene probably bought him for his intelligent movement, well-timed runs, and the general ability to get into good positions on the pitch. If he can sustain the composure and finishing we saw in this friendly, the Ivory Coast striker will better the goals scored by Nasri and Walcott last year as I feel he is more natural in that role that any of the wide players Arsenal had last year. Previously, I had expressed concerns about his finishing, which seemed completely unfounded on the basis of that performance, but I’ll reserve my judgment till the end of the season. I think he will score when the opposition allows him space to exploit behind the defence. The true test of his finishing will come against tighter defences and parked buses. Nonetheless, Gervinho made as good a start to his Arsenal career as possible and that’s all that matters for now.

Like the previous two friendlies, this game too had the clichéd ‘game of two halves’ feel to it. Arsenal dominated the first period with excellent work in midfield by Song and the irrepressible Jack Wilshere. That kid is only going to improve and will undoubtedly end up in the team of the year when the votes are cast. They were ably supported by the back four and the front three who did their bit of chasing back and pressing. The new man impressed with his willingness and ability to provide support to Gibbs.

In an otherwise well controlled first half, and despite the best efforts of all the players, Arsenal had a few iffy moments when it seemed the defensive weaknesses were peeping from behind a curtain of wonderful free-flowing football.

The own-goal conceded by the hapless Jenkinson was indeed a once in a lifetime fluke that he wouldn’t actually score if he tried a hundred times. As I have said before, Arsenal concede so many freak goals because the defence gets into a mess more often than the other top teams. It’s a simple matter of percentages and, while we might not see the same accident in competitive games, there is no doubt other flukes are going to hurt the Gunners at vital moments unless basic problems in defence are sorted.

On the positive side, apart from Gervinho, Gibbs looked like he is getting back to his old self, Walcott put in some good balls into the box, Wilshere showed he is ready to chip in – literally and otherwise – with more assists this year, Vermaelen and Koscielny were actively looking to spread the ball from the back, and the delivery on the set-pieces seemed more meaningful (maybe it’s just me on this one).

The second half team once again lacked cohesion. There were too many individual moments when players tried to run with the ball or create something. There wasn’t enough focus on retaining the ball or the shape of the team. This put the defence under pressure but some good work by Mannone, some last gasp blocks by defenders, and Cologne’s lack of quality in the final third meant the equalizer was never scored.

Rosicky played some passes that were pleasing to the eye. But his work rate just isn’t good enough for a deep lying midfield role. It’s surprising because he has the talent and the ability to play that role. He can tackle, hold his own in a one-v-one situation, bring the ball out from defence under pressure, and play the simple passes or the exceptional ones. This performance reminded me of his pre-season games and early League ones from last season where he looked sharp. It could be that he loses interest when he doesn’t get enough minutes. It’s a hard one for the manager to solve but he has to get more from Little Mozart and that has to start with a much higher work rate.

Arshavin looks like he has rediscovered his shooting boots. Last season the Russian hit too many shots into the top tier or near the corner flag. In this game he tested the goalkeeper twice and went close on one occasion. Again it’s something that has to last the whole season for it to be valued.

Based on the recent rumours, it seems likely that there will be some significant movement in the transfer market. Wenger has mentioned the need for signing one more defender and there might be others if some players are able to secure their moves away from the club. I don’t want to speculate on most stories but one that intrigued me was the possible departure of youngster Jay Emmanuel-Thomas.

Only last season Arsene had said that he was banging on the first team door with both hands. Now he seems surplus to requirements and good enough only to interest Championship sides? Even the newly promoted Premiership teams are not interested in taking him?

To be honest, I am not surprised by this because I have always been sceptical about his attitude. JET looked like a lad who could dominate the reserves level and create some moments of real magic even in Championship games but just didn’t have the mental discipline to stay focused and perform week in, week out.  In fact, I won’t be surprised if Aneke and Afobe go the same way, especially the former.

It’s a real shame because technically and physically JET had a lot to offer. I don’t know if this mental weakness is an individual issue or one that is somehow linked to the training given to these youngsters. I don’t know the details so don’t really want to judge but it is possible that focus on technical development alone (while ignoring the results aspect of the games being played) could have had an impact on the players’ mentality. It’s a difficult balance to achieve. At a young age one would not want to force the kids to play for results. That would just produce hoof merchants. But an unwavering emphasis on technical skills could just as easily create footballers who can dazzle occasionally but can’t dig in deep when required. A top player needs the right combination of technical, physical and mental abilities. If any one is missing it can finish a career before it begins.

I am sure Wenger and coaches will be as disappointed as the fans if not more. They would not want to invest years of work into some kids only to sell them to some Championship clubs. They’ll have to look at the way the academy works and identify the problems. Only that can lead to a solution and better results with future prospects.

I do hope the transfer document, if and when it is signed, will include a buy-back clause alongside a good sell-on fee. You never know, a couple of years fighting for his place could just be what JET needs for he seems to have everything else.

Youngsters Impress In A Comfortable Start To Pre-Season

July 13, 2011

Arsenal kicked off the new season with the first friendly against Malaysia XI in Kuala Lumpur. Wenger started with a youthful side that included Ryo Miyaichi and Carl Jenkinson alongside established young guns Wilshere, Ramsey, Walcott, Gibbs, and Szczesny.

Chamakh, Song, Koscielny, and Vermaelen were the only experienced pros in a starting eleven that dominated the first half in the now standard 4-3-3.

The opening goal came from a rookie mistake by the defender as he brought down Wilshere inside the box. Ramsey put the spot-kick away with ease after establishing his right to do so with Wilshere who also looked eager to kick-start his season with a goal.

It could have been two soon after when Wilshere found Walcott in space just inside the right corner of the box. The goalkeeper closed the angle well but was lucky not to concede a penalty as Theo slammed it over.

After that the game settled down a bit as the home sided defended better while the Gunners didn’t really show any urgency, rightfully so.

Walcott scored the second in the 37th minute to cap a well-timed run and a delightful pass with a deft finish.

There isn’t much to analyze in such a game but the noteworthy aspects of the first half were

  • Miyaichi’s impressive skills on the ball and his willingness to chase the opponents tirelessly
  • Jenkinson’s ability to close down his man to prevent crosses and his ability to deliver some measured balls into the box
  • Wilshere looking as if he’s picked up from where he left off
  • Walcott to carry his scoring touch forward, touchwood!

On the flip side, I thought Ramsey still looked a bit rusty and needs more games but his class shone through fleetingly.

Arsene made eight changes at the start of the second half as Jenkinson, Miyaichi, and Ramsey were the only ones to keep their place.

It was a surprise to see Denilson playing in a deeper role behind Frimpong who looked bigger than last time I saw him (could be my eyes or mind playing games).

Rosicky started on the right but took a free role and was creatively involved in a number of moves. One such led to the third goal, another sublime chip from Vela. Perhaps he has taken the Lays slogan too sincerely? On a serious note it was good to see Vela get on the ball more often. His movement and touch was wonderful as was his vision when he set up Ramsey and Rosicky, both of whom blasted over when well placed in sight of goal. Nevertheless, he did display a tendency to overcook shooting chances. Arsene has to find a way of eliminating this habbit. If the Mexican has to succeed he needs to know the corners of the goal and has to put his foot through the ball on occasion instead of searching for a cute finish.

Sagna, Nasri, RvP, and Arshavin came on for the final half hour or so as the three starters from the first half and Denilson made way.

The game lacked cohesion even though Nasri got on the ball quite often in a central attacking midfield role. Van Persie played a couple of defence splitting balls but that was it.

Arsenal did manage a fourth in the final minutes when Rosicky headed home a deflected Arshavin cross. That must be a collector’s item.

Even in such a game the defence didn’t look very convincing. I don’t want to read too much into this but two aspects need urgent improvement. Arsene has to find a way of reducing the number of times opponents are able to move from their box to the Arsenal defensive third within seconds. He also needs to sort out the off-side line. Some might also say the central defenders need to do a lot better with their heading, especially Djourou and Squillaci. I am convinced Arsenal will struggle without a key addition to the coaching staff but don’t want to bang on that tired old drum at this stage.

There was an incident in the game that deserves special mention. In the second half, the ref penalized Mannone for holding on to the ball for too long. I don’t think the Italian took more than second or two over the allotted six but the ref seemed a stickler for rules, at least that one in particular. It could just be that he wanted his moment in the spotlight and a chance for the home side or that he hasn’t been spoilt by commentators blaming such decisions for spoiling the game. In all honesty, I’d love to see a lot more of such calls in the Premiership and the Champions League.

On a related note, I want to share the pain of logging into Arsenal Player this morning. I am sure many of you must have been frustrated by a server that quite simply was incapable of handling the demand. Did they really underestimate the fan interest or was this just another technical blooper? Hope they sort it out before the next game. I did watch the second half on Arsenal Player and the quality was impressive even though the stream jumped a few seconds occasionally.

And now for something completely different. The following isn’t related to Arsenal or football but it isn’t often that I fall out of my chair laughing, so thought it was worth sharing,

According to a recent report in “The PseudoEngineer”, Bolivian scientists have wrapped copper wire around Guevara’s body and surrounded him with magnets. This is because he is turning over in his grave so rapidly due to the commercialization of his image that he now powers most of South and Central America by himself. He is thus the most prolific revolutionary in the history of the world, making over 200 revolutions per second.

Source: Uncyclopedia entry on Che Guevara.

Elementary Errors Cast A Shadow Of Doubt On The Forthcoming Campaign

August 7, 2010

Before the game against Legia Warsaw started I didn’t know what to expect. Within minutes from the start it was clear that this was going to be a tough battle that will expose our weaknesses.

Legia pressed high up the pitch and maintained a high tempo. They also used the channels and the long ball to good effect. This is a strategy that Fulham have successfully employed against us in recent seasons and this team in White looked like a clone of the Hodgson side.

Arsenal had a very weak midfield. Frimpong wasn’t able to keep up with the tempo of the game and Wilshere looked more like a Bolton midfielder than an Arsenal one. I don’t think either kid was really at fault, the simple fact is that neither of them is ready for a midfield starting role. Wilshere is also a kind of player who likes to run with the ball and that takes him out of position quite often. In the system we play, the second midfielder needs phenomenal off the ball movement and quick, sharp short passes. This allows us to maintain possession and keep the rhythm going. With Wilshere in that role we will always struggle when the opposition presses so high up. The youngster is more suited to the advanced midfield role that seems reserved for Cesc or Nasri. Anyway, both Frimpong and Wilshere would have gained a lot from this experience and I don’t really worry about the mistakes they made.

Sadly for us, the inexperienced midfield was exposed further by some awful football by Rosicky and Walcott. Rosicky should have used his experience to control the tempo but he played as if he had Song and Cesc with him on the pitch. Too often he passed the ball to a youngster under pressure or failed to offer himself to receive a pass. To be fair to Walcott, the midfield wasn’t working and we couldn’t use his strengths. He was hardly given the ball with any kind of space to run into and that made his life really difficult.

Considering the fact that four out of the five in midfield were not having a good day it was not a surprise that we conceded three in half an hour or so. Many writers will find it easy to blame the keeper and the defensive partnership but I thought our problems were far more fundamental and systemic and not completely down to individuals.

For instance, see how the first goal went in. The opposition keeper kicked it long and Koscielny got the ball. It bounced off him towards the centre circle. The opposition player took it and was pressurised by Wilshere. The player held on to the ball and ran back all the way to the spot where his left back would have been. Wilshere followed him till there and that left a huge gap behind him. Walcott and Nasri joined Wilshere in pressing the ball but none of them was decisive enough and all three were taken out of the game by one simple turn and pass.

Think about this again. Three of our five midfielders were out wide on the right in a five yard area. Once they were completely out of the game it was easy for a Legia player to receive the ball on the wing. Sagna went with the runner, Frimpong came to cover on the flank and the whole centre was exposed. The scorer Cabral received the ball in the centre circle, ran unopposed up to the edge of our box and smashed it past the keeper. No defender closed him down.

This goal showed why we conceded key goals from counter attacks last year. There were five or six players at fault. I wouldn’t blame them as individuals but I would certainly blame the defensive drills they have been doing. It doesn’t matter whether we call it 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1, if our players don’t get their defensive balance and positioning right we will concede plenty more this season.

The second goal exposed further problems that plagued us all through last season. The opposition winger was able to easily receive the ball and run down the channel almost to the byline. Sagna did a decent job of cutting his cross by conceding a corner. Most teams would have defended it easily. Arsenal could not.

There were six or seven players in front of the goalkeeper. There was no way he was ever going to get the ball. He still went for it and I’m sure it was because he has clear instructions to go for almost every ball. We’ve seen Almunia, Mannone and Fabianski do this far too often to think it’s their decision making that’s flawed. The flaw is with the person who decides how Arsenal will defend set pieces. There is no way the keeper should be forced to go for that ball.

Frimpong wasn’t able to read the flight and head it clear. Chamakh was more interested in grappling with his man even though he has the talent to judge the flight and attack the ball. All of this is down to the training we do. Arsenal are crying out for a top class defensive coach. I’m convinced even if we sign the best keeper in the world the same problems will continue unless the approach to defending changes.

I can do the same analysis for all the goals we conceded in this game. I can also prove these points by a frame by frame analysis as I’ve done in the past. But it’s not the fans who need to understand this, it’s the people in charge of defence who need to get it. For each goal we conceded there were three of four elementary mistakes and we will lose some crucial points during the season because of similar mistakes.

I’m also worried about our midfield. With the injury to Ramsey we have been short and unless Song, Diaby, Denilson, and Cesc return soon and hit the ground running, we could surrender the title challenge within the early months. I hope Nasri doesn’t come back crocked from his meaningless friendly for the national team. Given our luck with injuries that seems quite likely!

I was really frustrated by this game but there were a few positives as well. Nasri obviously was brilliant. Chamakh had a very good game and the goal he scored is the kind that will help us against stubborn defences. Vela too had a decent outing as he picked up three assists. More than any of this I was happy with Wenger’s flexibility. It seemed to me that we changed the system in the second half.

Nasri dropped deeper and we got better cover on the wings in the form of Gibbs and Eboue. Vela was playing more like a second striker. It was a fluid system but looked more like a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1. It wasn’t surprising that we controlled the tempo in the second half and scored half a dozen goals. It just highlighted the fact that all our problems started with a weak midfield that couldn’t handle the tempo and pressure.

At the end of the day, this wasn’t the way to go into the first game of the season; especially one away at Anfield against a manager who knows how to play against Arsenal. The positive side is that not many teams are going to win at Anfield so we are not in a must win situation. But a poor result in the first game will affect the confidence in the squad and the mood of the supporters.

Arsene has his work cut out and he has to come up with some answers in the next week. It won’t be easy but he’s done it before.

Pre-Season Shows Arsenal Have The Opportunity To Make A Flying Start

August 5, 2010

While I’ve been watching all of Arsenal’s pre-season games I’ve also kept an eye on the scores and highlights of the pre-season preparations of our rivals.

It’s interesting to note that Chelsea have now lost three straight. United also have two losses (that I can recall without really thinking about it), City have not impressed in any game, and Tottenham were trashed by Villareal and haven’t really been that good.

Before I go further I have to acknowledge that these are just pre-season games and we don’t have to take them as seriously as some writers did while criticizing our defensive issues. Once these teams get into their rhythm all of them will perform much better than what they’ve done so far. Some of them will undoubtedly challenge for the title while others will be there or thereabouts with a top four shout.

However, one point that seems clear is that none of these teams have been able to train as well as they would have liked. Redknapp openly admitted this but I’ve not seen similar comments from others. Nonetheless, no one has claimed that their pre-season preparations have been ideal.

We’ve all seen that United have been relatively slow off the blocks in recent years. I expect the same from Tottenham and City this year. Chelsea will be an interesting case and I think a lot will depend on their transfer activity in the coming days.

Arsenal, on the other hand, have had a strong pre-season. The quality of the opposition wasn’t exceptional but can you really say that Sturm Graz are not a better team than, say, Kansas City Wizards!?

One note of concern is that our first choice midfield has been missing all through the preparations phase. I’m not sure how big an impact that will have in the early weeks but most of the rivals have had their key players at the World Cup and they are all taking time to get back into the groove.

I think the depth we have can come to our advantage. In the likes of Walcott, Wilshere, and Gibbs, we have international quality U-21 players who are fresh and raring to go. Add to this top class players like Vermaelen, Arshavin, Chamakh, and Nasri, who all missed the World Cup and have benefitted from a complete pre-season, and we have a good starting eleven that is ready to perform.

We do have a tough start with away games at Anfield and Ewood Park on either side of a relatively easy home game against newcomers Blackpool. I think Liverpool have plenty of fitness issues of their own. Torres is returning from an injury he picked up in the World Cup and I’ll be very surprised if he is ready to play at his best in the first game. Apart from Torres, the insolvents don’t really have a striker who will trouble us. Their other key players like Gerrard, Cole, and Johnson have all just returned to training so I don’t expect them to be at the top of their game either.

I don’t really know much about Blackburn’s preparations but they are a team we should beat even if they’ve had a good pre-season. By then hopefully we’ll have a new goalkeeper and our physical players like Song and Diaby will have had a chance to get match fit.

On the last two occasions that we won the Emirates Cup we had a good start in  the League. In 07-08 we won six and drew one in the first two months. Last year we won four and lost two but they were both genuinely tough away trips and even then we dominated the game at Old Trafford.

With the fixtures we have in the first two months we have a good chance to be unbeaten and even win most of our games. I believe that will give the team a positive momentum that can add to the belief within the squad and set us up for the tough winter months.