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.


Thoughts On West Ham And Hull

April 20, 2014

Arsenal’s win over West Ham wasn’t as comfortable as a 3-1 scoreline suggests, nor was it a great performance, but there were some genuinely pleasing moments which made it enjoyable and the points always help.

There were shades of early season form in this win, particularly in the way the team defended many tricky moments. Wenger’s side did very well to minimize the goalkeeper’s work even though West Ham got into the final third and the penalty box often enough by gaining territory through their long ball approach. The Gunners were vigilant, disciplined, and working for each other to snuff out any danger from the ball bouncing around in the box.

There was a bit of luck involved, as is always the case in such games. For instance, the ref might have blown for a penalty had Jarvis taken a tumble when Sagna’s foot made contact with his. I didn’t think the contact was strong enough for it to be a foul but we’ve seen even softer ones given. In that sense, Jarvis must be lauded for staying up even if the more cynical readers might wonder whether the winger was too slow to realize he could go down and the opportunity was gone before he could seize it.

West Ham’s goal was one of the few moments where Arsenal’s defence failed. There were more defensive players in the penalty box than were offensive ones but the Gunners, mainly Sagna and Arteta, didn’t show the same awareness and desire to get to the ball as Jarvis did. His opportunism paid dividends. In the build-up, Kallstrom was a tad slow to track the run and that allowed Nocerino a clear sight of goal, albeit from a tight angle.

By my count, this was the sixth straight game where the Gunners had conceded the first goal. They’d lost two and drawn three of the previous five (considering the Wigan game as a draw at full time). This time the response was quicker and that probably helped.

The equalizer came from a poor clearance which, one might argue, was forced by Arsenal’s urgency. In any case, the quality of Cazorla’s pass and Podolski’s finish were simply outstanding.

The second half performance was better in terms of ball and territory control but the number of chances was still quite limited. It was exceptional individual quality that made the decisive difference.

Giroud’s goal was just sensational. He had to win two physical battles – Reid backing in and Carroll shoving him from behind – while keeping his eye on the ball before producing a sublime first touch and a powerful finish with his weaker foot that went through the Keeper’s legs from a tight angle. It’s definitely a Goal of the Month contender if not Goal of the Season.

The vital cushion goal was again down to decisive individual brilliance. That lad Ramsey is back for sure. What a header that was. The ball was going away from goal, he had a tight space to hit, and had to get the weight of the pass just right. Podolski’s finish was nonchalant but hardly easy. The German’s a natural goalscorer.

I thought Vermaelen, Giroud, Cazorla, and Podolski had very good games. Others were at a good level too. I was particularly impressed by the way Giroud used his physical qualities to battle for the ball when the opponents had it or in 50-50 scenarios. In the past he’s done well to hold his ground in front of the opposition box or to hold on to the ball once he has control of it, but in this game the Frenchman showed a desire to use those qualities to win the ball back, or to shrug an opponent off the ball. It was fun to watch and very useful to the team. Hopefully, this won’t be a one off.

Working hard in defence and producing decisive moments when needed has been the story for bulk of the season. It was the approach on which the strong run was built and it has worked well against relatively smaller teams. Sustaining this for the rest of the season could still make this a pretty decent year.

Hull City – Rehearsal for the big one

Steve Bruce has done well at the KC Stadium. Many are saying this is Hull’s best ever season. An FA Cup final and safety in the League (not guaranteed yet but fairly likely) are commendable achievements.

That said, it’s worth noting that Hull have a P13 W1 D1 L11 record against the top 8 this season. And they’ve faced only one Premier League team on their way to the FA Cup final – Sunderland, who might not even be in the top flight next season.

They’ve done well but I will be extremely disappointed if the Gunners don’t win this game. Everton are also yet to visit the Tigers and dropping points here could help them get back in contention for that Champions League spot.

Of course, no team can be taken lightly at this level. League leaders Liverpool lost at the KC Stadium. It can happen to anyone. Nevertheless, there aren’t any standout strengths that Arsenal need to worry about. Like any Bruce side, they are well organized, committed, and disciplined. It’s hard to score against the Tigers. Huddlestone is a useful distributor in midfield and both their strikers – Jelavic and Long – can be a handful on their day. Curtis Davies has had a good season while names like Figueroa, Steve Harper, Elmohamady, and Livermore should be fairly well-known to serious followers of the League. It’s a competitive team.

A steady, cohesive defensive display supported by individual qualities in attack should see the Gunners return with the three points. The biggest challenge will be to overcome their own confidence issues and tendency to stop playing their game. Next in line would be defending crosses and set-pieces while ensuring the home strikers don’t get a clear sight of goal. It could mean some aerial battles and the need for tracking runs into wide channels. Nothing they haven’t done before.

Wenger has some options with players returning from injuries and suspensions. Arsenal also have the luxury of an eight day break before their next game.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen – Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey – AOC, Giroud, Podolski.

Özil and Rosicky should provide strong attacking options on the bench. Flamini can be called upon if an extra body is needed to chase the ball.

Gibbs should play if he is fit.

This was the kind of game Arsenal were winning earlier in the season. The last few weeks have been tough and, as noted above, the Gunners have developed a bad habit of conceding first. it’s important to break out of that. Hull have not been great against the top sides but they will be much harder to crack if they take the lead. Arsenal have not won a single game this season when they’ve trailed at half time. In contrast, the Gunners have won all 12 League games (and all cup ties?) when they’ve led at the break.

Clichéd though it may be, the side that scores first is most likely to achieve its desired outcome from this game.


Thoughts On Wigan And West Ham

April 15, 2014

Mission accomplished. It wasn’t a swashbuckling performance but it was a strong one. It wasn’t stylish but it was satisfactory.

This was never going to be a big scoring game. Wigan are the second lowest scorers among the top six Championship sides that are vying for promotion and their goal per game ratio is more comparable to the mid-table or bottom-half sides from that league than the top ones. Arsenal have also lost their rhythm recently and have lacked ideas, combinations, and clinical finishing in the final third.

Low scoring battles often boil down to mistakes. And they tend to even the game up because defending is very significantly easier than attacking, which means the gap between the teams becomes that much smaller. That said, Wigan deserve great credit for making a game out of this, and we saw further evidence that their success in the competition over the last couple of seasons was not a fluke. I expected energy and commitment from them but their discipline and superb organization surprised me. It did come at the cost of offensive qualities because they rarely troubled Fabianksi throughout the 120 minutes of action. But for Mertesacker’s error, this could have been a hard fought one-nil to the Gunners, which would have looked better and would certainly have been gentler on the nerves of millions of Gooners around the world. In that sense, I’m glad I did not watch it live and kudos to you if you did and enjoyed it!

Arsenal are going through a difficult phase right now and it’s not something they’ll break out of easily because it’s almost impossible to pin-point one or two issues as the source of all the troubles. Without proper diagnosis, symptomatic treatment is the only other recourse and that doesn’t always help. Just like doctors sometimes have to hope that a person’s will to live and his/her body’s internal immune system will have to win the fight over a disease, Wenger right now has to hope that his team’s mentality and the players’ inherent qualities will grind out results. That’s what happened in this game, make no mistake.

It is not ideal but the Gunners are extremely reliant on confidence and coordination for success on the pitch. If one part of the system fails it tends to drag everything else down and we get the appearance that the side lacks quality all over. Once it’s all back up and running, few people will be able to correctly tell just what changed. That’s why the Gunners go on strong runs that catch the popular media and many fans by surprise.

While it’s mostly about the unit, some aspects of individual play were worth discussing. Sanogo looked like a striker with good ideas. I liked the way he shifted the ball from one foot to another and tried to get his shot away on the half turn or pivot. He also showed a decent understanding of spaces in the attacking areas when he went between the defenders or tried staying on the edge of the box for cut-backs. Shooting technique remains his basic problem and it is a big one. The raw material is good but it’s hard to judge how much he will evolve as a striker because it’s fair to expect better technique from a player at his age.

Fabianski had a fairly easy game, for them most part. He came close to saving Gomez’s penalty but it was powerfully and accurately struck. The Pole did come rushing out once late in the game and must have been on the end of some abuse from rapidly beating hearts. His penalty saves were excellent as the ball just didn’t hit him and fly away. Fabianksi kept his eye on the ball till the end and made sure he got enough behind it. There was also an element of luck I think, not just in guessing correctly but also in the ref letting him get away with early starts. The first one wasn’t as obvious but the Arsenal goalie was well off his line before the second penalty had been struck. Sometimes little details work in your favour and help make you a hero. Few people notice and it’s soon forgotten.

I also liked the impact Gibbs made after coming on. Monreal is not a bad player but he isn’t as suited to the English style where a full-back often has to charge up and down the pitch while defending the zone on his own. A couple of factors that make a big difference here is that he isn’t as quick at turning as Gibbs, nor does he have the same power over a long distance run or in individual battles.

Ramsey was impressive, albeit not at his earlier decisive levels yet.

West Ham – Ugliest Game of the Season?

I don’t like Allardyce as a football manager and hate watching his teams. That’s about as polite as I can get when it comes to Big Sam and his ability to turn players into thugs.

Normally, at home, Arsenal would not have that much trouble against teams managed by a manager who uses fouls as a tactical attacking tool. But with their current creative struggles, the “rough them up”, “get in their faces”, and “charge the goalkeeper” set of tactics can prove to be a genuine nuisance.

All Allardyce teams are fairly decent at getting bodies between ball and goal with individuals working hard to track runners and mark their man. They also show enough commitment and desire to hurl themselves as the ball if all else fails. That means getting a clear path to goal – in other words, creating the best kind of goalscoring chances – will be hard. Arsenal will have to find a way rise above their current inefficiency levels in order to put the ball in the net. Small openings will inevitably arise as the visitors chase the ball but a side that isn’t on top of its game – players not linking instinctively, for example – will not be fast enough to exploit these openings. It’s little details like these that can be a difference between a free-flowing or a frustrating performance.

At the other end, the Gunners will have to work very hard to deal with West Ham’s aerial and physical qualities. Long balls, crosses, flick-ons, second-ball, crowd in the penalty box, blocking/fouling the goalkeeper, and relying on set-pieces – primitive tactics they may be, but we can’t argue against their effectiveness in being annoying and potentially harmful in terms of points. Usually, their tactics don’t work as well in away games. A big factor, in my opinion, is that referees tend to give 50-50s in the home side’s favour more often than against them. Nevertheless, it would not be wise to rely on the referee to bail them out of trouble, even if it’s caused illegally. That means redundancy in defence, players being close to each other and alert to possible threats, individuals taking responsibility, and a safety-first attitude will be vital.

I will never tire of saying this – if you can’t win, don’t lose. And if you don’t lose, there is always a chance of getting a goal because 90 minutes on a football pitch is a very long time.

Fatigue will be an issue. West Ham have not played since last Sunday and should be fresh and well-prepared. Arsenal’s fitness news is unclear.

Flamini, as he’d done earlier in the season with his reckless red card, is again suspended when the team could use him.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey – Rosicky, Giroud, Podolski.

Oxlade-Chamberlain should play if he is fit.

Giroud will be needed in the penalty box at both ends of the pitch.

It’d be tempting to start with two strikers in Giroud and Sanogo but I’m not sure this is the time to experiment.

Ideally, I’d like to see Ramsey given a rest and someone like Kallstrom starting the game. But the Swede didn’t look like he was up to the pace of the game when he came on against Wigan and a physical battle as this one might not be the best time for a full debut.

I doubt this will be a great game to watch. Arsenal are not out of the rut yet. West Ham have a poor record against the Gunners but this could be their best chance in a long time to change that just as Everton did. A bit of luck could make it or break it for either team. Fingers crossed.


Thoughts On Everton And The FA Cup Semi-Final

April 12, 2014

It should be spring but for Arsenal it seems like the fall season is here. Arsenal have picked up 22 points in 2014 – the same as West Ham and one less than Man United. And that is largely down to the three wins at the start of the year as the last 11 games have resulted in just 13 points.

It’s not just a matter of points. The team seems bereft of ideas in attack and regressing to defensive errors they’d worked very hard to solve. The struggles of the unit/system are also having a noticeable adverse effect on individual performances. Far too many players are underperforming. This drop in performances is the bigger concern because it hasn’t felt like the Gunners deserved anything more than they got. If anything, they’ve been lucky to get away with a few points when not playing particularly well.

In a way, Everton really benefitted from Arsenal’s slide. I thought the Toffees actually played better in the game at the Emirates than they did in this one. But they produced more decisive moments at home and deserved the three points even if it was made easy for them. It seems the ‘Be a Gooner, Be a Giver’ campaign is back as Wenger’s players were quite generous with their gifts.

The spacing between the lines going awry, opponents getting a lot of time on the ball in dangerous areas, defenders not taking responsibility, individuals conceding possession cheaply and running into blind alleys, and other chronic issues have all returned in varying degrees.

I still can’t believe Vermaelen let that ball run across the face of his goal. What was he thinking? Was he thinking?! Monreal has struggled in individual battles throughout the season and was again exposed repeatedly. Flamini lacked discipline, Arteta pace. Both made many poor choices. Podolski had moments where he sparked to life and large phases of being a deadweight. Almost everyone else was also below par.

At the moment, my biggest concern is that Arsenal seem incapable of getting much from a game if they don’t score first and the possibility of things getting even worse is very real. It’s intricately linked to the inability to defend higher up the pitch. Either the opponents get in behind or the lines are stretched. In either case the goal is exposed. And more often than not it’s been pretty easy for any team with decent quality that most of the top sides possess.

Ramsey’s return was the only positive but it may yet turn out to be a false one. Hopefully, the Welshman hasn’t been rushed and will remain fit till the end of the season. Fingers crossed.

Wigan – The season depends on the Cup

Winning the FA Cup can still make this season a memorable one. If nothing else, it will get a very pesky and constantly growing monkey off Arsenal’s back. It’s been big enough for the last few seasons that it can make getting up after disappointments that much harder. It also slows the team down drastically when they lose momentum.

Ergo, even though I generally don’t care much about results in domestic cup competitions, it’s definitely something that can salvage this season to an extent.

I haven’t seen Wigan play a full game this season but did catch most of their triumph over City and parts of their close win over Leeds last weekend. They are not very different from the side that won the Cup last season and many of their players are still there. In that sense, the Gunners might find it relatively easier to prepare for this game than if they’d come up against a completely unknown opponent from the lower divisions.

Last season’s loses to Blackburn and Bradford were extremely disappointing. Wenger’s side found it very hard to break through a couple of deep-lying, organized, and committed defences. This game will be similar but I doubt Wigan will have the same quality of organization. I think they make up for it through more energetic defending that involves a lot of chasing but Arsenal should be able to get past their first line of defence more often than they did against the two lower division sides last season.

That being said, the Latics will have no trouble defending their goal if the Gunners don’t gel as a unit. The attack needs more ideas, coordination, and invention. Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey could be vital.

Wenger also has to find a way to ensure his team does not concede the first goal. It’ll mostly be about avoiding individual mistakes but they must also remain compact as a unit. Hopefully, the central defenders will feel a tad more confident when defending higher up the pitch because if they are able to push up and compress the field, it makes the pressing job that much easier for other players.

Wenger will probably have to go with his strongest eleven and hope that they can deliver. There isn’t much scope for resting players.

We might see,

Fabianski – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey – AOC, Giroud, Rosicky.

Kallstrom is an option. I don’t know how he’s done in training so it’s hard to say he should start. Sanogo could also be an interesting, if risky, choice as Giroud has been off the boil. Gibbs or Koscielny being fit would help.

A win in this game can still set up a decent-ish end to the season. I don’t think the team will recover from a defeat and the run in could become unbearable. Unfortunately, both outcomes seem equally likely at the moment because first of all the Gunners have to compete with themselves (lack of confidence, individual errors, etc.) and win that battle. It could be a bloody one that isn’t pleasant to watch. So, to be on the safe side, I’m going to skip watching this live. Good luck to the Gunners and everyone who’s decided to brave it out.


Thoughts On Everton And The Predictably Disappointing March

April 6, 2014

Ever since the fixtures were announced, it was pretty clear that the Feb-March period was going to give us a the real picture of Arsenal’s quality and improvements this season. Starting with Southampton at the end of January till the game against City last weekend, the Gunners have picked up 13 points from 10 games. Crystal Palace have done better, as have eight other teams. Of course, some of them had easier fixtures and Wenger’s side had some injuries to contend with but it’s hard to argue this is the performance of a side deserving to be champions.

The thing that rankles most is the sheer predictability of poor performances and the nature of mistakes made. I cannot understand how a man as brilliant as Wenger chose the side he did at Stamford Bridge, and this is not the first time he has done it. The desire to go there and perform with style in search of a win is, in itself, commendable. Chelsea certainly haven’t been in the kind of form that would warrant extra caution or diffidence of any sort. But handing the game to the hosts with such an unbalanced starting eleven beggars belief. In most games it’s hard to argue any one individual could have turned the game on its head but Flamini alongside Arteta would have done so in that one. Anyway, I’d better not dwell on this too much as you’ve probably worked hard to put it out of your mind.

The draw against Swansea was another poor result. The team probably had some soreness from the previous thrashing that prevented them from playing close to their potential. The Gunners have won such games often this season but when you’re defending that deep there is always the risk of a freakish moment taking points away.

At home against City the team did better, in relative terms at least. And if they can build on that the season can still have a very good finish. The best case scenario is simple – eight wins. That would mean an FA Cup trophy and 82 points in the League. In my opinion that would make this season a resounding success irrespective of the actual league position. Here’s the problem though, I just can’t see it happening.

The Cup remains a lottery and much will depend on the kind of pressure the players feel going into the game. For instance, a bad defeat at Goodison park will create a negative pressure while a solid win will create positive pressure/momentum.

In the League, six wins out of six are doable based on the quality at Wenger’s disposal but unrealistic given current form, injuries, and mental state.

Everton – A Must Not Lose At Any Cost Fixture

Arsenal were 9 points ahead of Spurs and 11 of Everton at the beginning of March. Both those teams had a game in hand. While Sherwood’s side have now fallen behind (form worse than Arsenal’s over the last 10 games), Everton have won their last five games and cut that lead down to 4.

Both teams will feel they have the final top four spot in their hands. The Toffees have a slightly tougher run in but Arsenal are perfectly capable of dropping points in games they should be winning. This is a classic six-pointer and could set the tone for the rest of the season. Arsenal’s priority has to be to avoid defeat. It won’t be easy.

The last time Martinez’s side dropped points at home was on boxing day. That surprise reversal against Sunderland remains their only defeat at Goodison Park. Everton have picked up an impressive 2.4 PPG at home. Arsenal have the second best away record in the League but Wenger’s side have won two and lost three of their last six on the road.

The patterns of play will be governed by the intensity of Everton’s pressing and the control Arsenal can show when dealing with it. They won the Cup tie at home by playing through that pressure to take the lead. In this game, I feel, the Toffees will come harder. Breaking their resistance could result in a sweet win but any lack of sharpness is likely to lead to a bitter disappointment.

Arsenal will also have to find a way to prevent the hosts from controlling the ball in the centre of the park. Martinez’s side will consistently find spaces between the lines and in wide areas if the visitors sit too deep or lack cohesion in their pressing. We’ve seen both problems often enough this season for it to be a genuine worry. In fairness, the Gunners did a decent job of pressing in the centre of the pitch when the sides met a few weeks earlier but I expect the tempo to be much higher in this away game.

Everton have good creativity and attacking diversity in their squad along with energy and power. The main ingredient they lack is experience and that has resulted in a somewhat inefficient attack. In other words, they haven’t scored as many goals as their attacking qualities actually merit. The positive for them here is that if the attack does click as well as it can they have the potential to score three or four goals in such a game.

Their defending is very reliant on the midfield pair of McCarthy and Barry. Neither is particularly quick but both are disciplined, read the game well, and work hard. Nevertheless, getting behind that pairing is Arsenal’s best avenue for creating quality chances and it is possible if the passing has that bit of crispness. It’s not beyond the Gunners from a technical point of view but the players’ mindset plays a big part as well. It’s very hard to create the attacking flow if even one or two players are slow with their off-the-ball reactions or if the defence is demanding greater protection in deeper areas. Often these are linked because laborious possession can invite the opponents forward and make pressing easier for them.

Wenger doesn’t have too many options right now. I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Arteta, Cazorla, Flamini – AOC, Giroud, Rosicky.

Gibbs would be the first choice for left back if fit. Apart from that, Podolski on the left with either Chamberlain, Santi, or Rosicky on the bench is the only other option that seems feasible. The selection of the German could lead to a counter-attacking approach, which is not a bad option if the team is tactically prepared.

A late cameo for Ramsey will be interesting but I hope he is not rushed.

Unlike most other games the Gunners have played, a steady first half followed by a win in the second is not likely to be a good tactic for this one because Everton themselves are adept at gaining points late in the game. Arsenal have to cause some early damage and build on it instead of sitting on it. Conceding first is always a problem.

Over the last few years, one of the most frustrating aspects of supporting the Gunners has been the knowledge that they are good enough to win almost any game and, at the same time, the awareness that they can make a spectacular mess with little warning. I don’t know how the game will pan out but I doubt anything will surprise me.