Thoughts On The Sunderland And Stoke Games

March 1, 2014

A football game can become unbearable for fans if their team doesn’t turn up. Most Arsenal fans know this feeling all too well so they’d have sympathized with the plight of those supporting the Black Cats as they failed to put any sort of a challenge at  the Emirates. It shouldn’t take anything away from the Gunners though as Wenger’s team produced some immensely enjoyable football to win the game comfortably. If anything, it was even more pleasing because it’s been such a while since Arsenal cantered to a win in second gear while playing a sumptuous pass-and-move game.

These days I find it hard to write about such a game because there is almost nothing fresh to offer from an analytical perspective and I’m sure the superlatives have long been exhausted. Enjoy the game and forget about it. Some moments will be etched in memory for a long time, like that move for Rosicky’s goal, and the rest doesn’t matter.

A couple of individual performances deserve a mention, I think. Giroud was left out of two big games and has gone through some unsettling personal issues so it was good to see him back and close to his best. His goals were unspectacular in the individual sense but a distracted striker would most probably have missed those chances. The Frenchman’s overall link play was again excellent as was his work rate. One might even say the break was good for him, mentally and physically.

While Wenger was being understandably charitable in likening Rosicky’s performance in that game to some of Bergkamp’s contributions, I did enjoy Little Mozart’s play. It was nice that he was on the end of that move and I hope he scores a few more goals. The Czech star’s displays have been memorable and decisive in some games over the last couple of seasons but I keep getting this feeling that he has more to offer. Hopefully, this game will help with that unlocking process, although continuity, or lack thereof, might also have a role to play.

Özil was conspicuous by his absence. It must have been a tough call for the manager but I’m glad he made it. The break should help him leave the Bayern game behind and also give him some chance to recover physically.

March Madness Begins with Stoke

Last week there was an interesting poll on the official website. “How many points will Arsenal take from their four league games in March?”, they asked. The responses, when I’d last seen the results, showed the majority of Gooners were quite optimistic about the team’s chances.

Points in March predictions

I don’t know what the final tally was but I doubt it will have changed much. Around 85 percent of fans say the Gunners will pick up 7 or more points from these 4 games.

This is very interesting because last year Wenger’s team managed exactly 1 point from these 4 games. And at the moment, after 27 games, the squad is level on points with last season when corresponding fixtures are compared.

For what it’s worth, The Gunners picked up 7 points from these fixtures in 2011-12 including wins over City at home and Chelsea at the Bridge. The year before that they picked up 2 points from these games.

I guess it shows why many fans think we will truly understand how much this side has improved at the end of this month. Interestingly, in each of the previous three years, Arsenal have failed to win at the Britannia. A win on Saturday will automatically give the Gunners more points than in two of the past three years and it seems a minimum requirement if they wish to pick up more than 7 points from these games.

Stoke are no longer the same team they were under Pulis but they aren’t too different either. Furthermore, Mark Hughes has had some success against Arsenal by adopting a physical approach at some of his previous clubs. That should probably guarantee a battle on the pitch after the previous walkover.

Some aspects of the game should be quite predictable. The Potters will defend the central areas and invite crosses into the box as they’ll back their physical and aerial strengths. Crouch will be a constant threat whenever they gain territory and get the ball around the Arsenal penalty area. The visiting players should be prepared for some pushing and shoving, and maybe even some kicks to the ankles as the hosts attempt to disrupt their passing rhythm.

One of the interesting anomalies of this season is that Stoke have scored very few headed goals (2?) in the League and the Gunners are amongst the most, if not the most, prolific in that regard. If memory serves, Özil picked up three assists from set-pieces in the reverse fixture. I’ll be very surprised if we see a repeat of that.

There were phases in the game at the Emirates where Arsenal had to drop deep and consolidate their position with resolute defending. They’ll probably need more of that again.

In six visits in recent times, only once have the Gunners failed to score on this ground. But only once have they scored more than a solitary goal and that was the only game they won, although it is better remembered for a terrible tragedy. I don’t think Arsenal have happy memories from this ground.

Things might change this time around if Wenger’s side can sustain their collective defensive resolve. Arnautovic is mercurial, Odemwingie fast and occasionally lethal, Walters belligerent and a real nuisance, Adams has an inconsistent but troublesome left foot, while Crouch really does enjoy playing against Arsenal. A ground out win, with maybe a late-ish buffer goal, seems the best possible scenario for the Gunners.

Team selection will again be a tricky task. Many reasonable permutations are possible in midfield. I’d like to see the same team as last week with Flamini coming in for Arteta. The left back spot will probably go to the fittest of Gibbs, Monreal, and Vermalen.

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, ? – Flamini, Cazorla, Wilshere – Rosicky, Giroud, Podolski.

I hope Wenger will give Özil more time away from the pitch. Bigger games are right around the corner. I doubt he will do it though. If Özil starts, it won’t be wise to pick both Wilshere and Cazorla in the side. That midfield will not enjoy the game if the ref is lenient and favours the home side in 50-50 decisions.

A player like Podolski can offer useful goal threat in such a game. Gnabry is another interesting option but it’s possible he won’t enjoy the close attention as much.

Litmus test begins…



Analysis of Bayern Game And Quick Thoughts On Sunderland

February 22, 2014

There were many surprises in this game starting with the line-ups selected by the managers but it ended, unfortunately, in a predictable and disappointing manner. There were some positives for Arsenal but one has to wonder why we end up talking about ‘some positives’ after big games more often than enjoying actual great wins.

There seemed to be three distinct phases to the game.

1) Arsenal’s exhilarating start

Wenger’s side came out all guns blazing. The aggression and purpose showed by the players was simply outstanding. I think this phase lasted from kickoff till the penalty miss, or you could round it up to the first 10 minutes.

I was also surprised by how unprepared Bayern were for such a tempo. Guardiola is widely regarded as a manager who pays excruciating attention to details. But the German side had that deer-in-the-headlights look at times.

The numbers from this phase are interesting.

Passes 1st eight minutes

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attacking third passes 0 to 8 min

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The Gunners were moving the ball quickly and with the kind of midfield fluidity that is visible when Wenger’s team are playing their best football. Wilshere was often the highest in midfield, Özil drifted to the left, and Santi came central or went to the right at will. Oxlade-Chamberlain looked in his elements when he got a chance to run at opponents.

Bayern were looking to press up the pitch but they weren’t getting close to the ball. When they did, Arsenal showed greater tenacity and desire to win the 50-50s. That to me was the crux of the home sides advantage – speed and desire.

Five of Arsenal’s eight chances came in this period!

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It’s worth noting that most of these chances didn’t come from slick one-touch football that carved opponents apart. I think the speed of play was too high for that degree of control. But, in a state of frantic play, opportunities arose from greater willingness and preparedness. For instance, Sanogo was surrounded by Bayern players in the first minute but he fought for the loose ball before breaking forward. Similarly, his shot that forced an excellent save from Neuer came from Wilshere’s tenacity and his own opportunism with an early strike. Bayern had enough players around the ball but they just weren’t fighting hard for it.

The visitors lost some of their composure as the intensity caught them off-guard. This meant their performance in possession was below par and they weren’t in the right shape on transitions or defensive situations.

In a neat little coincidence, the Official Membership Newsletter that I got from Arsenal today had the following words from Rosicky,

When we went to Southampton and Liverpool recently, the big difference was that their opening spell was much more aggressive than us. Basically, if we don’t match our opponents’ fighting spirit and aggression, we can’t expect to win every game just based on our football skills. It doesn’t work like that.

He was talking about the attitude needed for the remaining League games but it could easily have been a lesson for Bayern. It could be that English teams are more used to such a tempo and are not caught unawares but the Germans were simply not ready for it. Don’t be surprised though, if one little spell is enough to ensure Guardiola has his team ready to match any speed the visitors produce in the reverse leg.

A little bit of luck was also involved as two very close off-side decisions went in Arsenal’s favour. Cazorla’s run down the right could have been halted by the flag as could Özil’s penalty winning dart in behind. I am not saying they were off-side as the replays I saw were inconclusive, just that I’ve seen such calls go in favour of the defensive team often enough to acknowledge the role of luck.

Turning point:

The penalty was obviously the turning point. Had the Gunners scored they’d have gained greater conviction as their approach succeeded and the crowd – fantastic on the night, I must say – would have really lifted the atmosphere to another, probably unprecedented, level.

The miss, and the astonishing confidence-sapping manner of it, flattened Arsenal’s momentum in one swift blow. Had Arsenal been dominating through technical or tactical reasons, one could imagine them regaining that superiority at some point in the game. But the fact was they were relying on energy, desire, and belief. These are not so easy to rediscover. Wenger might have said something at half-time to reignite the spark had the team gone in at the break without losing a man. But that was about the only hope.

Not to pile on the misery on a player I love watching and one who’s already receiving unfair criticism in abundance, but Özil wallowing in regret and letting disappointment affect his performance didn’t help. Professionals, particularly those at the highest level, have to know how to get over mistakes and raise the bar when they’re facing the toughest of moments.

I’m not convinced the fact that Neuer and Özil have known each other since their school days had any bearing on the outcome. You can argue Özil knew what Neuer would do just as easily as the opposite has been said. And you can wonder whether either or both players were trying to second guess each other. The simple fact, in my opinion, is that shooting is not Özil’s strength. He doesn’t have the technique for it and it is very different from passing the ball. When he has to pick a pass he can adjust his body shape at the last minute, pause if he has to, or move the ball a little so the angle works. He also has a clear, usually narrow, target. Shooting at goal is like hunting a different beast. That doesn’t mean he cannot ever improve but it’s important to acknowledge this is not the best use of his abilities and puts more pressure on him. He should not be on direct free-kicks or penalties till he’s worked on his shooting technique and demonstrated noteworthy improvements. Of course, it always leaves me wondering what are they seeing in training to put such responsibility on his shoulders in the first place.

Warning Signs:

Bayern had almost nothing going for them during this spell but they still produced a couple of quality shots. These should have served as a warning but I think defending with 4 midfielders instead of 5 – something Arsenal seem to be trying since the second half in Southampton – was always going to be hard for the team that is used to an extra body to help out. Given the consistency of the shape and positioning of the players, I think it’s safe to assume this was pre-planned. And it wasn’t a very good approach because the team dropped too deep and too narrow.

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That is a snapshot from Bayern’s attack in the third minute that led to a shot by Kroos. Notice how much time and space is available in front of Arsenal’s midfield line, which is extremely deep. Players of this quality can pick their passes or place their shots when afforded such luxury. Also see the gap between Koscielny and Gibbs. A similar opening was again visible when Robben went between the centre back and Monreal.

2) Bayern slowly gain control

After the penalty was missed the hosts lost their momentum and their energy levels dropped. There was uncertainty in their actions and as a result, despite their still visible desire to do well, the team wasn’t quite as the same level as they lacked cohesion and were a step behind the play.

This drop also had the effect of bringing the speed of the game to a level that Bayern were extremely comfortable with. A lot of people have said that Arsenal were on top as long as the game was even in numerical terms but this is not exactly accurate.

From the 9th minute onwards the visitors started controlling the ball and territory. They took charge of the centre of the pitch. Whereas earlier the Gunners were breaking their attacks down early in the build up, now the hosts had to drop deep consistently. Similarly, Wenger’s side was no longer able to pass out from the back in the manner that helped them impose themselves in the first 8 minutes. Bayern’s pressing was now quite effective.

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Arsenal made fewer passes from the time the penalty was missed to the time Szczesny was sent off than they did in the phase discussed earlier. And a lot of their passing was long from the back as they just couldn’t beat the Bayern pressing. The odd chance that came – like the long ball that Chamberlain chased down – was more hopeful than genuinely threatening even if it did get the viewers on the edge of their seats.

The visitors on the other hand were quickly settling into a nice rhythm. The diligence of the home side and numbers in and around the Arsenal box prevented clear cut chances but the pressure was building. Guardiola’s side were able to get past Arsenal’s first line of defence with ease when the Gunners pushed up to the centre line. They found spaces between the lines and were able  to spread play to unmarked teammates on the flanks at will.

Robben went close in the 35th minute with a shot from a good position that was blocked by Mertesacker. Soon after that Koscielny had to make a desperate tackle as Mandzukic got into a very promising position in the box. It was almost prescient when Gary Neville in commentary said, “…need to stay in the game here arsenal, sense something’s happening for Bayern Munich…

Within a minute or so of that statement came the decisive moment of the game. See the following images and decide which one came from the second minute and which one from the 37th.

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Kroos had so much time to measure his pass. Monreal not tracking the run was bordering on criminally negligent. It was also interesting that Mandzukic blocked Koscielny as the defender was trying to turn and chase back. I’m not saying it was a foul, just a clever ploy which seemed within the rules. Whether it was intentional or coincidental is something only he can tell.

The biggest culprit, however, was without a doubt the Arsenal goalie Szczesny. His error in judging the flight of the ball, the choice of flying out in that manner, and the utterly unnecessary act of going to ground seem inexcusable.

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See how far away he is from the ball. The way his knees are bent seems to suggest he’s already going to ground. It’s understandable if any player goes for a 50-50 and loses the challenge. I also don’t think it’s fair to criticize someone who has to make a split second decision.

But this was never a contest. Robben would have had a hard time getting his shot away given the way he was stretching to reach the ball. If Szczesny comes out and stays upright, he gives himself the chance to win the ball when the Dutchman has to take a moment to gain his balance while bringing the ball under control. Chances are he could still lose that challenge but at least then it would be close. This was just daft/irresponsible.

It’s not his first mistake either. In fact, if someone in the future gets a chance to analyze players from this generation on an impartial basis, I won’t be surprised if Szczesny is identified amongst the luckiest of his tribe. Over the last two years the Gunners have worked so hard on improving their collective defending that many of his errors are covered for by his teammates. I can’t see him surviving at any other major club for this long.

The worst part is you could see it coming. I covered it in the pre-match notes,

Szczesny is not very good in a one-v-one in my opinion and could potentially be a liability if Bayern get in behind repeatedly.

There is the angle of triple jeopardy with the DOGSO red card and penalty. The merits of the law itself can be debated but in this instance the ref had no choice but to send him off based on current rules. I would like to see some changes in that and related laws but such a discussion is beyond the scope of this article.

3) 10 v 11

I was surprised when Cazorla went out and Özil stayed on the pitch as Fabianski came on. It’s not an easy call and can be argued both ways but my preference would have been to take the German off.

Alaba missed his spot kick and that kept Arsenal in the game. The Gunners did well to reach half time without conceding. The team had to make some decisions in the second half. Did they want to settle for a point? Was there any way they could compete?

I don’t know what they decided but the defensive approach – extremely deep and narrow – meant that it was easy for Bayern to press and box the hosts in and around their penalty box. There was no outlet and seemingly no plan to ease the pressure. It seemed a matter of hunkering down and fighting for their lives.

In terms of physical and mental effort, the Gunners were heroic in their endeavours. But that isn’t always enough. The time and space they afforded the visitors just on the edge of the box was too much and Bayern showed us the importance of patience and a bit of tinkering as Guardiola made subtle changes to his line-up to make the most of the man advantage.

I don’t think the players deserve much blame for the way they defended and conceded, before and after the sending off. The key here is the team’s inability to defend the centre line once the tempo was lost. Arsenal have to learn to defend higher up the pitch and cover more spaces with the players they have. Even with 10 men they should have been able to defend higher up. Of course, we’ve seen the vulnerability with balls in behind when they try that against good teams. These are related issues that show plenty of work still needs to be done before this side can be considered an accomplished defensive unit.

I have covered the difference between assured defending and desperate defending in some detail in earlier articles on this blog. In this game, with so many clearances, blocks, and last man tackles from deep, Arsenal’s defending was far from the assured version. That means they were always going to need a fair bit of luck to keep a clean sheet. It should not take anything away from individual effort – for instance, Koscielny was absolutely sensational – but in terms of organization, tactics, and game intelligence the side has a long way to go if they want to be more competitive in the big games. They’ll not be able to sustain a breathtaking tempo for 90 minutes in game after game and that can never be the basis for defending in big games.

I actually got the feeling Bayern were below their own high standards with their utilization of possession when they had such a big advantage. A lot of their play was individualistic or relied on 2-3 player combinations in the wide areas. You could say they were creating overloads wide on their right whereas Arsenal had extra bodies in central defence, which helped with the blocks, timely tackles, and clearances. The introductions of Muller and Pizzaro certainly helped counter that and it shows Guardiola is constantly looking to make a difference.

The second goal felt like a cruel blow after all the defensive hard work as it’s left faint hopes of a comeback. But you can’t take it away from Bayern they were clearly the dominant side once the frantic tempo was gone.

Sunderland – Opportunity to rise, potential to flop

Arsenal started last season with a goalless draw against Sunderland. That gives the team an opportunity to pick up two points over the corresponding fixture.

This will be another test of Arsenal’s mentality. It’s one of two buffer games before another run of big challenges returns. The Gunners have done well to win such games and that is main reason they are still in with a shout. It is a must win game and the players will have to recover quickly from Wednesday’s exertions. Playing at home should help, more so if the crowd can respond like they did in the midweek tie.

There should be no surprises tactically. It seems like a typical Premier League game against a team on a positive curve when battling relegation. Expect full commitment, organization, and fighting spirit visible in the form of aggressive physical challenges and combative duels. The Black Cats are not a great passing side but they offer sufficient and diverse goal threat. And ever since Poyet has taken over they have slowly become a reliable side in defence with an impressive away record that has them undefeated in six games and includes wins at Goodison Park and St James’ Park. They’re also in the Capital One Cup final and in the FA Cup quarter-finals. It promises to be a very tricky game.

Johnson is their in-form man and Monreal will have to avoid repeating some of his recent mistakes to keep him in check. Arsenal’s best bet would probably be to isolate the attacker against two or three defensive players by pinning most of his teammates back through possession and movement.

Of course, there is the chance that Poyet will set his team up to defend deep. It could be a reversal of roles for the Gunners and hopefully they’ll be up for the challenge. The team hasn’t always looked convincing when the opponents are well-organized in front of their goal but usually against the relatively smaller teams Arsenal find an extra gear at some stage. It’ll be helpful if that comes early in this game. Repeating the start against Bayern would be ideal but not many Premier League teams get caught out by a flying tempo at the start.

I also expect them to use long balls and physicality to trouble the Arsenal defence. It’d be a whole new challenge for the Gunners after the incessant pass-and-move routine of Guardiola’s side.

Wenger will have to make some changes to his line-up to have greater energy on the pitch as the opponents didn’t play in the middle of the week.

I’d like to see,

Fabianksi – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Cazorla, Flamini – AOC, Giroud, Podolski.

I think Szczesny deserves to be dropped for his mistake and disciplined for that flippant, disrespectful, and unjustified gesture. But I’ll be very surprised if Wenger actually keeps him out.

In midfield, many fans don’t like the Arteta-Flamini duo. I think they can work well together as long as the roles are clear. If executed well, they should be able to take the pressure of the four attacking players and the full-backs in such a game, which should leave Arsenal with enough attacking options and width.

Chamberlain should start if he is fit or Gnabry could deputize. Rosicky is another option on the right.

Wilshere and Sanogo ran a lot against Bayern and could do with a break. As did Flamini but he just seems stronger and fitter.

Three of Sunderland last five visits to the Emirates have ended in goalless draws. A point will help their cause but not the Gunners’. If any points are dropped in this game, it’ll be a bigger disappointment than the defeats against Liverpool and Bayern or the draw against United. A win will buy Arsenal some breathing room.


Thoughts On Liverpool And Bayern Munich Games

February 19, 2014

It’s interesting how little details and a bit of luck can alter the entire dynamic of a football game.

We saw this first in the City-v-Chelsea battles. Mourinho had practically the exact same approach in both those games. In the league, City made numerous little errors in terms of team selection, tactics, and choices on the pitch and the feeling we got was that Chelsea were clearly the superior side with the Portuguese manager lauded by many for near perfect approach and execution. Once Pellegrini made some adjustments to his side for the Cup tie, the same approach by Chelsea became pedestrian, unimaginative, and fruitless. City completely dominated the game and fully deserved to progress to the next round.

This shows us the error of our ways when we go overboard in analyzing a game, particularly when said analysis is linked to the result. Arsenal’s win over Liverpool in the FA Cup was another excellent example.

It wasn’t that the Gunners suddenly played much better football, or that Liverpool lost their attacking mojo altogether, but a fair number of little details came together to create the result in Arsenal’s favour. And luck played no small part.

Liverpool again had a few chances at the beginning. Sturridge was wasteful and inefficient. Arsenal also defended the set-pieces better even though the Reds again got a little bit of luck with off-sides. At the other end, whereas Mertesacker had glanced a header wide around the 15 minute mark at Anfield, the Gunners scored from a set-piece in this game.

The importance of the first goal is now well established and it was the subtle details that tilted the scales in favour of Wenger’s side. Had Sturridge taken one of his chance or if Arsenal had switched off at one of the earlier free-kicks, the entire complexion on the game would have been different.

The Gunners were able to drop deep in numbers once they had the lead. This in turn negated Liverpool’s advantage of pace. Instead of having vast spaces to run into, their attackers now had to show they could combine in tight spaces. For most of the first half, after the hosts took the lead, Liverpool created very little. In fairness, they also did not conceded many chances as Wenger’s side was mostly content on securing their advantage.

Fabianski made a massive save at the start of the second half. I loved the way he had his eye on the ball till the very end. Many goalkeepers tend to just jump into a position or stretch their leg out prematurely. For them, a save in such a situation becomes, at least in part, a case of luck because they’re not watching the ball. The Pole, on the other hand, deserves full credit for that save as he watched the ball and reacted in a timely manner.

Arsenal’s second goal, that came soon after this incident, was also quite interesting. While Özil’s through-ball, Chamberlain’s run, and Podolski’s finish were all enjoyable, I thought the key to the goal was Jenkinson’s touch/interception around the centre line. It’s hard to say if it was intentional – and kudos to the youngster if it was – but that one touch interception-cum-pass took the entire Liverpool midfield out of the equation and exposed their stretched defensive line. The subsequent one-two, pass, and finish were high quality individual actions but those are expected from good players at this level when they get so much space.

As is their wont, the Gunners suffered a 10-15 lapse in concentration after creating that buffer. The visitors got one back through a sloppy penalty and deserved another chance to equalize when Chamberlain fouled Suarez. Again, it was that little bit of luck that was decisive.

We can argue that Gerard not getting the second yellow, or Cazorla not getting a penalty for Skrtel’s challenge in the box kind of make up for this obvious blunder by the ref.  Then again, it’s also pretty clear that the patterns of play change dramatically after major events like goals and red cards. So it’s very hard to say these events would have happened had the penalty for the foul on Suarez been given.

To me, if anything, this bit of injustice for Liverpool compensates for the luck they got with the Skrtel off-side decision in the build-up to their first goal in the League. Based on what we saw here, it’s seems safe to say that without a first-minute goal the patterns of play would have been very different in that game too.

I liked the way Arsenal regained control of the game in the final 15-20 minutes and limited the opportunities for the visitors while creating positive moments themselves. Spending that period camped deep in their own half would have proved fatal. They now have to learn to do this more consistently to avoid any reliance on good fortune.

Individually speaking, I think Fabianski, Chamberlain, and Koscielny had good games. Özil was useful but not at the level he can be. Podolski scored one and gave one away with his overall contribution being quite limited. The other three defenders also had fairly good outings. Flamini and Arteta could have done better. The youngster Sanogo looked impressive physically in terms of his ability to duel for position and the ball, as well as his pace. I’m hopeful the two air-kicks he had are not an accurate reflection of his composure and shooting ability. A striker cannot go far without those attributes. He’s very young and playing after a long injury set-back so we should wait a while before judging him. Nevertheless, it’s definitely something to watch out for when he gets time on the pitch.

On the whole, I wouldn’t say it was a particularly great game from the Gunners but it was sufficient to get the result. It showed Liverpool were not as far ahead of Arsenal as the scoreline in the League game suggested and that results can turn on small but significant details. One aspect that did concern me greatly was the sheer number of times Liverpool were able to get in behind even when the team was sitting deep. Bayern will have a field day unless the team improves on that dramatically.

Bayern Munich – Tactically the most complete team of recent years

Based on recent form, according to the broader perception in the press and among fans, and on paper in terms of squad strengths, Bayern are overwhelming favourites to progress to the next round of the Champions League at the expense of Arsenal. I do, however, feel that this tie over two legs can be much closer than many expect it to be. But for that to be the case a simple yet vital question has to be answered in the positive and that’s not easy -

Can the Arsenal defence (the entire unit not just the back five) be trusted to cover structural weaknesses and avoid unforced individual mistakes over 180 minutes (possibly more) of football?

Sounds somewhat familiar? Those are the words I wrote almost exactly a year ago in the preview of the first leg against Bayern. I can copy paste much of the content from that article as it’s still equally applicable!

Based on the Gunners’ improvement over the course of the last year or so, many more fans probably now believe Arsenal can compete while relying on a strong defensive unit than did a year ago.

This is easily Arsenal’s toughest game thus far this season. City, Chelsea, Dortmund, and Napoli were all top quality sides and the Gunners lost some of those games but Bayern are a different beast altogether. That Wenger’s side have lost more of the tough games than they’ve won makes me sceptical about the extent of their improvement in the context of progressing from this two-legged tie.

Heynckes had built a team that could do everything. They could play the possession game, attack with short passes and quick movement, they could sit back and defend while countering at breathtaking speed or utilizing the long balls intelligently, they could press and force lethal transitions, or they could snuff the life out of the game by controlling the tempo. The Bavarians had many players who can run in behind, they could use width, shoot from distance, or run directly at opponents. They could get physical without the ball, didn’t shy away from a tackle, and had willing chasers all over the pitch. When Guardiola took over, I wasn’t sure how the Spaniard’s philosophy would gel with the players they had and the identity that had already resulted in such success.

Interestingly, it’s Guardiola who has adapted his approach to suit the strengths of his squad. By sustaining the diversity that was vital to their success, instead of forcing his intense possession-at-all-costs approach, the Spaniard has ensured the team doesn’t lose a beat. His tinkering has been relatively minor, even if highly specific and noticeable, and with the purpose of fine tuning their already efficient winning machine.

I have a feeling the first 20 minutes of this game could be decisive. Bayern will come with high energy and clear ideas to press and break Arsenal’s possession higher up the pitch. Their movement between the lines and in behind will also be orchestrated to an extent that any degree of laxity from the Gunners is likely to result in gilt-edged chances for the visitors. Wenger’s team will probably need a fair amount of luck and some last gasp defending during this period to ensure they don’t concede vital away goals that hand over the initiative to the Bavarians.

The concern mentioned above, with Liverpool getting in behind quite often, is exacerbated by the quality and intelligence of Bayern’s players. They don’t need to rely on blistering pace to find and exploit such openings because their level of cohesion and precision is very high. The Germans are also much better at finishing off the chances.

Of course, such an approach always leaves gaps at the back and quick passing from Arsenal can result in chances that test Neuer. The Gunners have scored from a few counter-attacks this season but few have come against genuinely big sides. It’s the next step in their evolution as a team and the individual attributes to achieve this already exist in the squad, but we’ll have to wait and see when they can actually make it happen on the pitch consistently.

It’s hard to imagine Arsenal keeping a clean sheet in this game, the recent defensive record at the Emirates notwithstanding. But the closer they can keep the result in this game, the better chance they’ll have of qualifying. That means the players must not panic even if they conceded an early goal. 90 minutes is a very long time and they will get chances to score if they are faithful to their training and skills.

Some details that can affect the result are,

Bayern’s full-backs make intelligent runs and Alaba in particular is very quick. They have to be tracked and must not be allowed to drift into space for cut-backs or crosses without any pressure. At the same time, their forward movement will pose and opportunity for an Arsenal player to break into space behind them. I have a feeling Özil will again have limited defensive responsibility and it will be up to him to exploit these spaces while the wide players track the runs. The efficiency with which players perform these roles will have a direct bearing on the quality of chances created and conceded.

Arsenal have repeatedly shown a tendency for half-cocked pressing higher up the pitch. Bayern can easily play through this and if the gap between the lines is exaggerated the Arsenal defence will be forced to produce miracles or rely on luck beyond a reasonable measure. Without the ball, the players have to perform as a cohesive unit. It is also imperative that the individuals are aware of their roles on transitions and don’t lose possession cheaply in the first place.

Wenger has to earn his wages with the team selection for this game. It’s a tough ask. Some people will obviously ask more direct players like Chamberlain and Podolski be included in the starting line-up. They’d do well to remember Poldi and Walcott started the first leg last year. It didn’t work out too well, did it?! The Frenchman often goes for experience and extra technical quality in such games. That means Rosicky and Cazorla could man the flanks. The risk here is that the team could lack pace to break out of shackles imposed by Bayern’s pressing. With Arteta suspended and Ramsey injured, the options in central midfield are also suboptimal at best. Who is the best player to play alongside Flamini? It’s worth remembering the three forgettable defensive performances this season – Villa, City, and Liverpool – have all come with Wilshere in central midfield (partly at the Etihad). Some fans are enthusiastic about Chamberlain’s qualities in that role. Quite frankly, I see the youngster as a work in progress and someone who is simply not ready for such responsibility in a game like this. His positional sense, tactical awareness, and technical qualities for a central midfield role are clearly inferior to that of Wilshere’s. I’d love to see Rosicky alongside Flamini but Wenger rarely, if ever, plays Little Mozart in that role anymore. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case but it could be linked to his high-risk tackling style, rare but possibly lethal tendency to lose the ball in dangerous areas, and inability to sustain physical output for the duration of the game. All things considered, I’d prefer Rosicky alongside Flamini to the other two options but my guess is that Wenger will go with Wilshere.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Flamini, Özil, Wilshere – Rosicky, Giroud, Cazorla.

I’d love to see Fabianski retain his spot in the side (again something that is extremely unlikely if not impossible to imagine). Szczesny is not very good in a one-v-one in my opinion and could potentially be a liability if Bayern get in behind repeatedly. Both keepers are suspect when dealing with aerial balls floating across the box and the visitors have some interesting variations up their sleeve so the outfield players will have to be extra vigilant on set-pieces.

Chamberlain for Rosicky on the right is also a good option. Ideally, I’d prefer Rosicky in midfield and the Ox on the flank. Wilshere in place of Giroud could make this game very interesting.

It would be exciting to see,

Fabianski – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Flamini, Özil, Rosicky – Ox, Wilshere, Cazorla.

Once again this is a game where one or more of many possible scenarios can play out. At the risk of repeating ad nauseam, the important of the first goal has to be emphasized. That means the team that gets of the blocks quickly, purposefully, and with a visible degree of control will most likely end the game in high spirits. For Bayern that could mean an explosive start with an early goal that sets up the counter-attacking play. Arsenal might be better off by being prepared for the quick start in a way that they can absorb that pressure. Although scoring early always helps, they don’t have to go all out for the early goal because they’re very good at winning second halves. The visitors can’t sustain high pressing throughout the game and opportunities to play will arise as the time goes on.


Thoughts On United and Liverpool Games

February 16, 2014

What a boring, timid, characterless game that was! Both teams didn’t want to lose and succeeded at that.

Moyes went back to the basics as expected and his side defended resolutely. I was surprised how deep they ended up on a regular basis. It was as if Arsenal were playing a pesky midtable side determined to hold out for a goalless draw.

They did have a couple of chances but Arsenal’s clean sheet was well deserved. The problem for the Gunners was that United’s clean sheet was equally warranted because Wenger’s team failed to mount enough serious attacks to break through.

The tension was noticeable. Many little details like Wilshere staying deeper, players collective dropping back upon losing possession, safer passing choices, and so on continuously suggested the psychological damage from the defeat at Anfield was going to cost more points than the three lost there.

Since Arsenal’s problems are often related to a lack of balance, resolving serious defensive issues tends to affect the attacking competency of the unit. I don’t want to get into all the details again because there was nothing new in this game. Over the last two, maybe three, years we’ve discussed different issues that lead to such performances. Part of it is down to individual weaknesses and limitations, some of it has to do with tactics, some with training and related choices, while the rest is about mentality that is affected by those other issues.

The only positive is that a defeat would have been much worse. Nevertheless, a win was not unattainable and Arsenal’s inability to achieve it doesn’t do anything to answer questions raised about the team. Thankfully, others are also inconsistent in their own ways and that’s keeping Arsenal in the mix at the top. That makes it easy to understand why many fans still want to believe in the title challenge but don’t forget to keep an eye on the gap with the team in fifth. A couple of weeks ago that gap was at 10 points. Now it’s 6.

Liverpool – the double-edged sword

There is no doubt Arsenal’s confidence took a big dent after that visit to Anfield. This tie, coming so soon after that one, does give the team a chance to make immediate amends but it also represents a grave risk. Win and the belief levels among the players and fans can again come close to the highs achieved this season. Lose and the draw against United will be forgotten as fresh and genuine questions about this side’s calibre are raised by all and sundry.

The Gunners will not win any medals if they win this game but the season might unravel if they lose.

That means there is extraordinary pressure on the team and not of the positive kind. It’s the kind that induces the handbrake, although it can be argued that it might not be as detrimental as it usually is.

Liverpool are heavily reliant on counter-attacking and early goals help them a lot. A cautious start from Arsenal will not hold any entertainment value but it could take the sting away from the game.

Rodgers’ side have been excellent at home but their record in away games is hardly special. They’ve scored 38 at home and conceded 9. In away games the same numbers are 28 and 23 respectively. The 2.62 points per game that they get at Anfield is far superior to the 1.46 they manage away from home.

They’ve good players all over the pitch but there are enough errors in their game that a patient team which nullifies their offence can exploit to get a win. I don’t expect there to be any surprises tactically.

Arsenal have to resist the early pressure and maintain their concentration. Keep things simple, make the opponents chase the ball, break down their transitions as quickly as possible. That means don’t dwell on the ball in the centre of the pitch, don’t make low percentage passes, don’t worry if a lot of the passing is just sideways and backwards, and ensure that you charge a player down when the ball is lost. For Liverpool it’s very important to move the ball forward quickly. They’ve developed good understanding between their players and are adept at playing incisive long passes. It works best when the opponents has a high-ish line, a transition happens in the centre of the pitch, and the man on ball has a bit of time to pick out his pass. It’s not hard to counter that but the team cannot afford technical errors or the wrong choices.

Team selection is also going to be tricky. Rodgers doesn’t have to worry about a midweek fixture. I think that’s played a big part in their relative success this season just as we’ve seen with Spurs and other teams in the past. Wenger will have to keep Bayern in mind even if he truly wants to focus on one game at a time.

I don’t know if too many rotations are possible. I’d go with,

Fabianksi – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Flamini – Wilshere, Giroud, AOC.

I’m assuming Cazorla is not available due to illness. I wouldn’t mind seeing Özil rested for this game with Wilshere coming into attacking midfield and either Gnabry or Podolski filling in on the flank.

Arsenal don’t need too many attacking players. Most of the ninety minutes will have to be about discipline and game-intelligence if they want to win this tie.

Sagna would be well advised to stay narrower and deeper unless a clear opening presents itself on the flank. Too often an Arsenal full back in wide on the flank halfway through the opposition half when the ball is on the other side of the pitch. This renders the defender useless in case of a quick transition. Gibbs can, hopefully, do a better job against quick and tricky opponents than Monreal did at Anfield.

The two league games between the sides have probably been more diverse than any such set of games between any two clubs in the Premiership. It’s hard to predict how this game will shape up. It could go as the first one did with Arsenal dominating possession and limiting their chances, or it could again become Liverpool’s show, I can imagine it being a see-saw battle with chances at both ends, as well as a cagey affair marked by few chances.

It will be down to the choices made by the managers in terms of team selection and preparation, the execution by individuals on the pitch, and a sprinkling of intangibles like confidence, desire, etc.


Thoughts On Liverpool and Manchester United Games

February 12, 2014

That was the perfect storm, if there can be such a thing on a football pitch.

Arsenal’s individual and tactical mistakes all came to the fore in the just right manner to accentuate Liverpool’s corresponding strengths. Throw in a tiny but crucial dollop of luck for the home side and you get the recipe for a disastrous spell of football from Arsenal’s point of view. For Liverpool it must have been a dream come true.

The first goal is so important in these games. Conceding in the first minute is essentially the worst start a team can make. Look back at the goal and a number of minor details stand out. It started with a throw-in deep inside Liverpool territory. The ball flew over two visiting players who both misread the power of the throw. What if one of them had just got a glance on it to knock it out for a throw?

Even then, it went straight to Mertesacker who could have easily lumped it forward to eliminate any possibility of immediate danger. What if someone gave him a shout to say Suarez was sneaking in behind just as the big German let the ball run across his body in a way that made face his own goal? On another day the assistant ref might have flagged Skrtel offside. Thinking of other days, we’ve certainly seen Arsenal defend such set-pieces better.

Everything fell in place for Liverpool at the start and it just got worse for the Gunners. I didn’t expect Arsenal to win this game, that much should have been clear from the pre-game write-up that mentioned the likelihood of the Reds scoring two or more among other details, but I didn’t expect such a tame collapse from Wenger’s side either.

There are some interesting aspects to discuss from that 20 minute phase of play,

1) Liverpool’s intensity and efficiency.

Rodgers has most likely realized that he doesn’t have the players to perform in a possession based system. It seems to me he’s changed his philosophy from a Barcelona-esque death by possession routine to Dortmund’s waspish stinging rhythm. And it’s working for them.

Normally, if a team scores 4 goals in the first 20 minutes, one would think they had all the play. For instance, Arsenal’s dominance over Napoli was clearly reflected in the passing stats.

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Almost three times the total passes and an even greater ratio for those in the final third shows Arsenal were completely on top. From this degree of superiority, Arsenal managed three shots, all on target, and two goals (While many couldn’t find enough superlatives to describe the Gunners that day, I think I was one of the few who thought Arsenal were inefficient in that game!)

Guess how the figures look in this game,

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Once the risk-reward equation changed for both sides after the opening goal, Liverpool could play a counter-attacking game that best suits their players. Even then scoring 4 goals from those kind of passing numbers is just mind boggling. Liverpool were ruthlessly clinical.

Arsenal had similar number of passes in the final third and had two or three half-chances of their own. Giroud got into a great position in the second minute itself. Monreal got in behind once that resulted in a corner and on another occasion Mertesacker’s header went wide of the far post. If Skrtel’s header had been a few inches higher and the German’s effort had sneaked in, it would have been 1-1 after 15 minutes. That’s how fine the margins can be.

I’m not saying the Gunners deserved to be level, mind. Far from it. The difference between the sides was just too big. But the hosts scored 4 goals and created another 4 good chances from 10 completed passes in the final third and a handful of well-taken set-pieces. Rodgers could not have scripted this himself.

I thought Liverpool’s main strength, which was augmented nicely by high quality free-kicks and corners, was the deadliness of their transitions. Speed of their attacking players was obviously important and very visible. That, however, was not the primary reason for their effectiveness. Sturridge and Suarez played in the reverse fixture too. Did they break free as often and with such impact?

The way they pressed and won the ball back in the central third of the pitch, along with Arsenal’s stunning tactical immaturity on a collective scale, formed the platform on which their quick and clinical players could perform to their strengths.

The way Henderson pressurized Özil into a mistake, the way Coutinho read an opportunity to intercept a pass, the zip with which Sterling and Suarez chased the ball, and the accuracy of their long passes, were all a key part of the equation. They took a fair amount of risk with such an approach because Arsenal could have found a way through with better play. Refer to the half-chances mentioned above and think what a bit more composure could have done for the Gunners. Nevertheless, it is important to be brave and Liverpool should get credit for their willingness to go for it. Wenger’s side made numerous mistakes but Rodgers can definitely claim that his side’s intensity forced many of those.

2) Arsenal’s tactical immaturity.

Okay, crazy things happen and you concede a goal in the first minute. Can’t change that but key is what do you do next? There’s still 89 minutes to play.

It’s simple. Pick up a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. In other words, Don’t Panic.

When a team is trying to raise the tempo and has a clear advantage in terms of pace and individual skills like dribbling and finishing, the smart choice for an opponent with technical advantage is to avoid a vertical end-to-end battle. Stay compact at the back, control the distance between the lines, but keep passing the ball to tire the opponents out.

Had Arsenal kept this game at 1-0 at the end of 20 minutes, things would begin to change. Liverpool didn’t have a particularly solid back four and their midfield isn’t made up of great defensive midfielders. Even their wide players have more of an attacking mindset. They’d have tired and gaps would have opened up.

One of the keys to success of the short passing game is to have many players around the ball so that you have more options to pass but also to close the ball down if it’s lost. Arsenal moved away from the basics and spread out way too much adding an unnecessary element of risk to their game while sacrificing control. The situation was exacerbated by incorrect choices on and off the ball as well as lapses in concentration.

The players at this level have to know that they must keep their cool at all times. Even at 2-0 down there is a lot to play for and they don’t have to get back into the game immediately. We’ve seen more composed performances from Arsenal against smaller teams this season. It seems they are not doing enough in the first half and then they raise the bar after the break to create the decisive moments. Had they trusted their quality and wrested tactical control from the hosts, they could still have come back into the game or at least gone down in a much more tightly fought contest.

3) Arsenal’s individual mistakes

When things go so horribly wrong, it can never be the fault of one or two players. Almost everyone had a role to play and they didn’t do it well enough. There were numerous errors, mostly minor ones, but the kind that came together to contribute to the perfect storm in conjunction with aspects discussed above.

For instance, Mertesacker could have cleared that ball or simply headed it out for a throw. Koscielny could have done better to mark Skrtel for the second goal. Giroud could have done more with the chance he had early on. And so on…

Having said that, I’d still say two players were chief culprits in this game. That both are exceptionally skillful and were probably trying very hard to help the team cannot be an excuse.

Özil’s mistakes were obvious. He lost the ball for the third and fourth goals as well as a chance for Sturridge. The German magician is a lot of things but he is not a guy who is going to shrug of an physical pressure from an opponent with any amount of ease. The fact that he dropped deep to pick up the ball showed his desire to get involved but it also exposed the team.

There was a time, a few years ago, when Fabregas used to start as the highest midfielder. If the opponents pressed hard, Cesc would drop back and that would be that. It was extremely rare that he’d lose the ball. That was a natural part of his game. It is not the same with Özil.

The point here is not to say one is better than the other but to identify differences in playing style and understand its impact on the patterns of play. The probability of potentially lethal turnovers increases significantly if the German drops deep in midfield against a team that is set up to play on quick transitions.

In keeping with the calmer and more mature tactical approach to the game discussed above, Arsenal should have ensured that Özil plays higher up the pitch. On his part, the star signing should have showed greater awareness to danger which would be visible in safer choices on the ball and greater concentration. For instance, he could have played the ball back and wide towards Koscielny when Henderson was pressing him instead of trying to hold on to it and beat his man when the defence was exposed. Similarly, the two misplaced passes that led to a goal and a big chance were both with his right foot. I’d love to know how often he uses that appendage and whether his success with that varies significantly when compared to his natural foot. He has to weigh up the options in a highly risk averse manner if he wants to pass with his weaker foot in those areas.

Then there’s Jack Wilshere. Regular readers know I don’t see the youngster as a finished article many claim he is. And I don’t see him as a great option deeper in midfield, particularly in tough games. This article brilliantly articulates many of my common gripes against England’s next great hope in a manner I cannot. I strongly recommend reading it if you haven’t already done so.

The boy is undoubtedly talented. He produces many positive moments for the team. I don’t doubt his commitment or desire even for a moment. But he doesn’t seem to fully understand the impact of his movement and choices on the balance of the team.

Özil dropping deep was inextricably linked to Wilshere moving up. In games against smaller teams that can work well as we saw against Villa when the German put Monreal in behind and Wilshere was able to advance forward to finish the chance. Against a team better prepared to defend the centre line and one with the ability to punish mistakes, this is a recipe for disaster.

Part of it is of course down to the manager’s choices as I’ve no doubt Wenger encourages Wilshere to get forward and express his attacking qualities. However, knowing when to move forward and where to go is just as important as the skills he has on the ball. Right now Wilshere gets into areas that would be better left for his more creative and effective teammates far too often. The tendency to dwell on the ball or try too much when quicker, better options are available doesn’t help either.

Couple this with his inability to read the defensive aspects of the game consistently and you’ve a player who compromises the output of the team at both ends. Look at the fourth goal. After Özil plays the pass, Wilshere takes a step and half while Coutinho takes four steps to nick it. The Brazilian is anticipating that pass and is on the move. Wilshere is looking around and doesn’t realize he is best placed to receive that ball. Nor is he aware that the central defenders are about 20 yards behind him and have another 40-50 unprotected yards behind them. Had he done so, Wilshere would have gone for that ball and not backed out of the challenge. He had to hold possession or break that play up. There was no other choice.

For the sake of his development and long term future at Arsenal, I hope Wilshere learns the little tactical details that separate a great potential from a great player.

There are many more details that can be discussed but I think these three points cover the bulk. The rest of the game was incidental. Arsenal will get a chance to set things right in the FA Cup tie. Hopefully, the Gunners will have learned their lesson but I’ll only believe it when I see it.

Manchester United – Something’s Gotta Give

Arsenal have only 1 win from their last 10 games against United. Granted, the Ferguson era seems so far away based on United’s current form that such stats can be rendered meaningless. But the reverse fixture showed us that something akin to tactical memory can be enough to force an adverse result. The Red Devils know how to play against Arsenal and there aren’t many teams in the Premier League who remain so steadfastly loyal to their style as the Gunners are under Wenger. Consequently, there is always a chance that United will grind out a result.

On the other hand, Moyes has not won an away game against the erstwhile big four in 48 attempts. It’s hard to imagine he’ll break that record given their recent struggles.

Will Arsenal break United’s stranglehold over them or will Moyes break his duck?

Just as I’ve said about some Arsenal players in the past and even in this article, there is a feeling in my mind that Moyes is trying too hard. He needs to go back to the basics and make his team hard to beat. For large periods, the ability to negate the opposition in order to keep clean sheets was one of Ferguson’s biggest weapons. Moyes has done that with Everton often enough for us to know he can do it. If you can’t win, don’t lose. And if you don’t lose, you give yourself a good chance of winning.

United have to follow Liverpool’s template with a few adjustments. They don’t have the same pace on the break but the technical quality of their attackers, particularly Van Persie, Mata, and Rooney, is exceptional. They can score from half chances and create something out of nothing.

A lot of teams, including Ferguson’s United and Moyes’ Everton, have had success against Arsenal (in relative terms) by controlling the central portion of the pitch in their half. They don’t let the Gunners come into those vital creative zones but instead force them wide. Do it consistently and it severely limits the quality and quantity of chances Arsenal can create which can lead to frustration and riskier moves. It’s a lot of hard work but is not exactly rocket science, which is a way to say it can be done with discipline and determination.

For Arsenal, the key will be in finding the right balance in midfield. It’s very likely that Wilshere will again start in a deeper role in midfield. If so, the points discussed above could again come to the fore. The Gunners have to keep things tight and ensure they don’t concede the first goal. Patience and belief in their own ability to break through later in the game can make the decisive difference.

It could be useful if Sagna stayed a bit deeper and narrow instead of camping on the flank 10 yards inside the opposition half when the ball is on the other side.

I feel De Gea is not very comfortable with low shots very close to his body. Getting his hands down hasn’t worked well so he’s started kicking those balls away. It remains a suboptimal solution and I hope the Gunners test him on that.

In the other penalty box, Wenger’s side will have to be wary of United’s deep crosses. My dislike for crossing as a tactic is well documented on this blog but the response to Moyes’ tactics and United’s current plight has brought this issue into the spotlight now. That said, Arsenal are not particularly good at winning the second or third ball in the box from open play. Few teams get enough players forward to test Arsenal on this but don’t be surprised if back post crosses or even deeper ones trouble the Gunners in this game.

Wenger talked about not making too many changes and trusting the players he has. It’s usually good to have a couple of changes at least, just to have some fresh legs if nothing else, but it’s hard to see where the changes can be made.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Wilshere – AOC, Giroud, Cazorla.

Rosicky can be a big player but where does he fit in? In place of Wilshere or Chamberlain? I’m not entirely sure why Wenger doesn’t play Rosicky deep in central midfield anymore these days because he does a decent job when he drifts into those areas.

Arsenal’s record in big games is not very good and it’s understandable why many fans will be apprehensive about a collapse from the Gunners. Then again, Wenger’s side have recovered from disappointing defeats on more than one occasion this season and that certainly gives hope to those that believe the team can win the title.

I’m not completely sure how this season will end. Can Arsenal win the title and will Arsenal win the title are two separate questions. The answer to the first one is obviously yes. The team has the capability to win it. That isn’t always enough because others are capable too. Answering the second question is much harder. The same questions can be raised about this game and the response won’t be any different.


Thoughts On Crystal Palace And Liverpool Games

February 8, 2014

I guess we can always count on a rampaging ox to destroy a crystal palace, however nicely structured it may be.

The tie was about as predictable as football games get. Pulis again showed no desire or spirit as his team parked the bus. It worked for a while as the Gunners created very little in the first half. Then they switched to a higher gear and scored immediately. Granted, the visitors had a chance soon after conceding and a spell where they were actually competing on the pitch, but it was simply not enough to merit them any points. Their manager’s negative approach to the game meant their best hopes were limited to frustrating the Gunners.

This game can be a good case study of the impact of the risk-reward equation on the patterns of play.

For bulk of the first half the Gunners played it safe. They were trying to score but didn’t really throw everything at the opponents. Most of their play was in front of the two Palace lines.

First half conservative

That image is indicative of the Gunners’ positioning during the first half. They did try to get through but didn’t commit too many players into advanced areas. So when the ball did get played forward, it was either cleared or played back because the man on the ball just didn’t have enough options.

This is can be frustrating from a fans perspective and even for the players but it’s really ok as long as the team in possession does not concede soft goals on the break. Pushing fewer players forward means more are available to quickly attack a clearance and win the ball back. It leads to greater possession, which is a very good way to keep a clean sheet even when it appears to be a tedious attacking approach.

I don’t know how much of it was a conscious pre-game choice and to what extent the manager’s half-time talk made a difference, but Arsenal’s approach was a lot more aggressive (and risky) straight from the start of the second half.

In the build-up to the goal you can see four Arsenal players positioned between the Palace lines.

Goal build up

Pulis can argue that his players made mistakes with their defensive body shapes and such but they were, at least in part, forced by Arsenal’s aggression and desire.

Many of us wonder why Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t make more such runs in the first half. It’s a fair question. But the fact of the matter is that the defenders would have read those runs and dealt with such passes because they were not engaged with other attacking players as they were in this case. It’s related to the point discussed in the previous article where I talked about off-the-ball positions affecting the momentum of play and it’s resultant impact on the events.

The next logical question might be to ask why more players didn’t get between the lines in the first half. That’s where the risk-reward equation comes into play. Just before this goal was scored, a few seconds after the second half kicked off, Arsenal had a similar moment with four players pushing up.

Arsenal taking risks

In that instance, Giroud came short to receive the ball from Mertesacker and lost it with a poor touch. Had Chamakh played a better pass, or if Arteta let Jerome get away, the striker would have been one-v-one against Koscielny with vast open spaces to attack.

Jerome Through

You can see eight Arsenal players in that frame and Monreal is somewhere on the left side in no position to stop Jerome. The reward with committing players forward was obvious in the goal but this incident highlights the risk. No team wants to play a high risk game for 90 minutes. The key is in picking the right moments and making it count.

At the start of the season the Gunners used to take more risks in the first half and often scored early. But then they also had to face extended periods of pressure from the opponents. These days they are more conservative in the first half and I have a feeling it’s linked to the increased number of clean sheets because the opponents don’t come at the Arsenal goal for as long a period.

Again the risk-reward equation is at play. Most visitors know that going at Arsenal can leave them vulnerable at the back. Chamberlain’s second goal was a good example of that as Palace pushed up and left space for him to exploit which wasn’t available in the first half.

As a result, teams tend to play deep and safe against the Gunners. A point is a good result for many visiting sides and some would think they can get something late in the game. But once they concede, their risk when attacking goes down as they have very little to lose. They’re already a goal down and will return with nothing so they might as well give it a go. When this happens early they have a longer period to attack. By controlling the first half and increasing the tempo in the second, Arsenal are able to contain this threat while maintaining their own offensive potential.

I don’t know how much of this is down to deliberate and considered tactics. Sometimes these things just happen because certain patterns develop and the players get a feel for the game. There is also a risk that no goals will come in the second half and points will be dropped. But thus far the Gunners have executed this fairly well.

The only source of concern from this game was the couple of occasions when Koscielny and Mertesacker were separated by five yards or so vertically. It can play opponents onside and can lead to a genuine chance. They will have to be on the same latitude in the big games that are coming up.

Time to prove themselves all over again

A lot of people still doubt whether the Gunners can go all the way. To be completely honest, I too am not entirely convinced they can. I think the position at the end of March will be telling.

You might recall a table I’d made before the Southampton game that showed the results and points from last season’s fixtures corresponding to those that remain this season. This is the updated version,

Arsenal last 16 games

The results against Southampton and Palace went as expected. The Gunners are still only one point ahead of last season when comparing corresponding fixtures. In order to hit 87 points – the average of last 10 winners, although there is a possibility that this season the eventual winner might get less – Arsenal need to gain 13 points over and above the 19 they got last season from these 14 games. That’s almost one point per game more and assumes a win at Anfield. Any points dropped against Liverpool will only make it that much harder in the remaining games.

You can argue 10 points can be gained from fixtures against Sunderland, Stoke, Swansea, and Norwich. Even then the team will need to win all the games it won last season and get more points from other big games, which have been a relative weakness throughout the otherwise impressive 2013 calendar year.

Consistency is the key word. And a truly remarkable level will be demanded of the winner.

Liverpool – A must win game and the first question mark?!

Arsenal have not done the double on Liverpool since 2009-10. And before that it was the invincibles season. That should give you an idea of how tough this game is going to be for the Gunners.

Don’t let Arsenal’s dominance in the reverse fixture mislead you. Rodgers made a tactical mistake in the previous fixture and the Reds have not done particularly well in away games this season, but their home form is impressive. In fact, their current home form is the best in the League and includes a commendable 4-0 win in the Merseyside derby.

In terms of the very basics, I expect the hosts will have one less defender in lieu of an extra midfielder. This should give them a greater chance to compete technically, a battle they lost comprehensively in the reverse fixture.

In Rodgers’ boots, I’d set the team up to press Arsenal collectively and energetically in the central third of the pitch as the Gunners try to play the ball out from the back. Forcing quick transitions would be the best way to utilize the qualities of Suarez and Sturridge. Getting the first goal will also set the team up to play a very effective and efficient counter-attacking game with accurate long passes to meet clever runs that exploit the space that will present itself once Arsenal’s risk-reward equation changes.

Wenger’s side dominated the previous fixture because they brought the ball forward at will and exploited spaces in the wide areas. They won’t get as many openings in this game so they will have to play the possession game as a form of defence for long periods of the game. Or they can drop deeper and invite Liverpool forward. Arsenal have done that with appreciable results quite often this season but I’m pretty certain it’s not an approach Wenger would deliberately choose. It’ll be a sign of players being cautious and playing with a handbrake.

Arsenal are one of the few teams – maybe the only team? – that have kept a clean sheet against the SaS attack. It was a commendable display but, as discussed in the analysis after the game, it wasn’t without an element of luck. I think Szczesny will be busy in this game and will pick up the ball from his net on more than one occasion. That said, the Arsenal defence has pleasantly surprised me before this season and I can understand why others would place greater faith in them.

Defending, as events throughout the season have reaffirmed, is a team act. It’ll be interesting to see how the Arteta-Wilshere pair provides cover to the central defenders. You don’t want to see defenders isolated in a n-v-n situation against this attack.

The space behind the full-backs will also be an area to watch out for because Mertesacker doesn’t like to get pulled wide while the Gunners have a tendency to concede more chances from wide on their left. I’ve read that Rodgers could start with Sturridge on their left flank and Sterling on the right. I’d put Sturridge on the right and give him the freedom to cut inside. Putting Coutinho on the left is also something I’d consider as it could give the team greater balance to counter Arsenal’s strengths.

Wenger won’t tinker much. And he has few choices in terms of personnel.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Wilshere – AOC, Giroud, Cazorla.

Podolski didn’t give the manager enough reason to keep him in the starting line up. You can argue that he needs a run of games but I’m not sure this is a fixture where you want to fiddle with Santi’s role.

That said, Podolski did have a decisive impact in this game last season. It’s a tough call that Wenger has to make and will probably get criticized for it either way if the result doesn’t work out.

Monreal has struggled in one-v-one situations as he gets into incorrect body positions and is slow to turn/recover. Hopefully, Gibbs will be fit and raring to go. In either case, Arsenal could need greater cover on the left flank, particularly if Sturridge starts there.

That brings me to Rosicky who did exactly that against Palace. And his contribution is not limited to defensive positioning and work rate . Little Mozart can work either flank if Wenger wants greater technical quality on the pitch to resist Liverpool’s pressing. Chamberlain has greater pace and more pronounced dribbling skills but Rosicky is more experienced and will improve the team’s technical game. Another difficult decision that.

I feel both teams have the potential to concede and score goals. The one that can minimize the mistakes and shape the patterns of play to suit it’s tactical strengths will have a greater probability of winning. But this game can easily boil down to moments – freakish, magical, or those full of madness.


Thoughts On Southampton, Crystal Palace, And Kim Kallstrom

February 1, 2014

Before the game against Villa, I mentioned the need to take at least 10 points from 12 before the heat arrives. The two point concession there was mostly with the away visit to Southampton in mind. Most away games are tough but to a side that deserves it’s place in the top ten or higher is that much more trickier.

The first half display from the Gunners was noticeably poor. Southampton had more bodies around the ball no matter where it went. That’s a tell tale sign on a team that is successful in imposing it’s tactical will on the game. Wenger’s side was once again caught in a state of tactical confusion. Some players were pushing up while others were holding back. The team was neither fully committed to high pressing nor were they able to offer structural integrity at the back.

As a result, the hosts seized complete control of the game through their energetic pressing, composed passing, and reliable organization. The only thing they lacked was genuine quality in the final third, which meant that Pochettino’s side weren’t able to convert their numerous promising moments into gilt-edged chances and goals. They were the team on top but not exactly running away with the game.

Numerous half chances came and went but only two opportunities come to mind when thinking of clear chances. The goal, of course, was one such. Debatable fouls aside, I thought it was very poor goalkeeping from Szczesny. The Pole came forward and then went back, losing his bearings in the process. Had he read the flight of the ball better and scuttled towards the back post there is a good chance he could have made a save. Other than that it was just another back post cross – one of their main strengths since the Saints have returned to the top flight – and a somewhat contentious physical duel. That said, I don’t think blaming the referee is a good idea here. We see such battles all the time and the defender has to be stronger.

The only other big chance came from a poor clearance from Monreal that rebounded kindly towards Gallagher. The striker couldn’t hit the target.

The second half was different. Arsenal committed bodies forward to press and it paid instant dividends. Take a look at passes made by both the teams in the opening seven minutes of the half,

Passes 45-52

Southampton barely got out of their half. Arsenal had complete control and produced a couple of excellent moves, although we do have to acknowledge some luck when that scuffed shot went in.

Arsenal’s first goal was a delight to watch.

Arsenal first goal build up

The move started with a throw in on the right side in the centre of the Southampton half. The ball made it was all the way to the left, then back, to the right, up the pitch, again all the way across to the left, before a cross brought it towards the right. Sagna was strong in the duel and Giroud was clinical. The quality of possession football and in the final third were both outstanding. It was something the Saints missed. Then again, the budgets of the two sides are vastly different so it’s not an attempt to knock on their players.

This phase of the game was also very interesting in understanding the importance of momentum and resulting off-the-ball positions of players. Throughout the first half the hosts had the momentum and their players were in advanced areas. So, when a deep cross came in from wide on their left, they had players attacking the first ball and others ready to pick up the scraps to sustain pressure.

Early in the second half, Arsenal were on the front foot while the hosts were pushed back. Consequently, when one of those long balls down the channel found a teammate who was able to make space and cross the ball, there were no takers in the box or the other flank. The Gunners were able to recover the ball and comfortably move it forward. Since the Saints were just trying to catch up with the territorial gain (of sorts) their players weren’t even in the position to press effectively. Arsenal broke forward and converted that deep cross into a goal at the other end with the opponents disorganized and unable to close the shot down.

For those who are interested in such stuff, I recommend watching that phase of seven minutes and comparison with some of the football from the first half to see how off-the-ball positioning resulting from momentum shapes patterns of play.

That momentum worked against Arsenal just a minute or so later. It seemed to me the team relaxed just a bit more than they should. Sagna went wider towards the flank when there was absolutely no need to. This created space for Rodriguez to exploit. Arsenal’s forward momentum also meant that the midfielders were just a touch – matter of a couple of yards or so I’d say –  further away from Arsenal’s defence and not in a good position to race back in a timely manner. That Llalana was faster than Arteta is not a surprise. It’s a known fact. The fact that Arteta did not take up a compensating position and reacted a fraction later to the threat probably resulted from the team’s attacking impetus.

To me these are the little details that shape the game not the “Leadership Qualities” that Flamini showed!

It was interesting that the Gunners scored two in a short space of time again and that Arsenal didn’t sustain that momentum for a longer period. It’s hard to, understandably. But they did make the momentum count when it was there and created a few more chances later in the game. Defending in the second half was much better too.

Individually, I’d say Koscielny was MotM. Mertesacker also had a very good game. The two full backs were poor in the defensive areas and the Keeper didn’t do a great job either. Normally, a defender would win that ball or a foul would get called and Szczesny’s wandering tendency would be ignored by most. But he does this far too often. It was an accident waiting to happen.

In the midfield, I don’t think anyone had a particularly great game. Özil’s determination, particularly in the second half, and control of the ball were commendable. Giroud again worked hard but he lacks the ability to go behind a high line which does limit the team in such cases.

On the whole, it wasn’t a bad point to take. There are other games where the team can gain points. But if City’s imperious home form continues and they control their away day fumbles, it will be very difficult for the Gunners to match their consistency unless they take their big game performance to levels we haven’t seen regularly. One problem with big games is that, unlike Southampton, those teams have the ability to punish Arsenal when they can create as many promising moments. And a short burst of intensity is usually not enough to score two goals against such opponents. In the simplest of terms, that explains Arsenal’s form against the relatively smaller side and their struggles in tougher matches.

Crystal Palace – Another must win but also another banana skin

I don’t like Tony Pulis but have to acknowledge his ability to organize a defence and extract a committed effort from all his players. His team can be very hard to break down as they park the bus and cover for each other. And you just have to look at Chelsea’s frustrations against West Ham to understand how annoying and expensive such tactics can get for the side that is trying to force the play and needs the three points.

The tactical aspect is quite predictable. Palace will look for long balls, counter-attacks, and set-pieces. Unless they get a gift from the Arsenal defence or the ref, the visitors will struggle to score in this game. But Pulis has made them hard to beat and it’s based on their ability to protect their goal. The Gunners will also have a tough time finding a way to goal.

I’m hoping Arsenal start off on the front foot and have a real go in the first 10 minutes in the manner they did at the start of the second half at St. Mary’s Stadium. An early goal can potentially open this game up and make things more enjoyable.

Wenger faces a challenge when it comes to picking a balanced line-up.  It’s hard to believe but Arsenal are actually running out of central midfielders!

We could see the Arteta-AOC duo in midfield for this game. As I’ve said often enough, Oxlade-Chamberlain is not ready for this level of football in my opinion, certainly not in central midfield. But if the manager has to take a chance on him, this is just the game. His errors of judgment, tactical mistakes, and tendency to surrender possession will not be as costly in this game. Hopefully!

Arteta has also looked off-colour in recent games. I’m not sure if he’s been fully fit this season. And that’s a concern because he has to compensate for the youngster’s foibles. He could again have a lot of duels with Chamakh and the Moroccan is a wily customer in such battles. With that in mind even Koscielny will have to be careful he’s not baited into a rash tackle when he’s the last man or in the box.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Oxlade-Chamberlain – Gnabry, Giroud, Cazorla.

Wenger doesn’t pick Podolski as often as some fans would like to see. It’s hard to understand but I have a feeling it’s linked to the positions of Santi and Mesut which the manager probably doesn’t want to change. They are his best players and it’s important to get the most out of the duo.

While many fans still feel the team has a genuine shot at the title, I like to keep an eye on the gap with the team in 5th. Arsenal had a 7 point lead at the top before the last set of tough fixtures. That has now vanished. At the moment the Gunners have 9 points on Spurs in 5th and two months of bad-a** fixtures lined up. Unless we see a major improvement and quickly, that lead might also skittle away. With that in mind, anything less than three points from this game will be a shocker.

Can Kim Kallstrom help?

That’s the question on many minds. To be honest, I don’t know what to think of this transfer as I’ve not watched much of Kallstorm in recent times. A few years ago I’d have said the Swede is one of the most underrated players in the world. But his best is behind him now and that best didn’t rise to the levels his potential once promised.

The player he most closely resembles in the Arsenal side is (pre-injury) Rosicky. That’s somewhat of a lazy comparison and isn’t totally fair but it basically captures what I think he can bring to the team. If he has the fitness levels needed (any time on the pitch on Sunday should tell us more) and can cope with the physicality of the league, Kallstrom can be a very useful short term addition to the side. Not similar in playing style and definitely more talented than the Israeli, Kallstrom could have an impact like Benayoun did. Maybe even more. Is that enough for the Premier League title run? I don’t know. Could he be helpful in the race for the top four spots and FA Cup? Yes.

It’d be easy to interpret that as a lack-of-ambition signing but that’s not my point. The secondary target has to be achieved if the primary one fails.

The guy was very good once upon a time. Let’s see where he’s at right now. Some of the older players who’ve come to Arsenal in recent years have offered good value. He might do the same. Free-kicks, shots from distance, combination play in offensive areas, and passes from deep were all his strengths to varying degrees. Hopefully, he still retains the bearings of the goal posts and an eye for a pass. That would help his integration into the side immensely.

It may not be a blockbuster singing but could yet turn out to be a very clever acquisition. The guy definitely deserves some chances before he and the deal are judged.

 


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