Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Liverpool

November 2, 2013

Liverpool’s 3-5-2 (or 3-4-1-2 if you prefer fancy formation labels) has been quite successful and it will be interesting to see if Rodgers deploys the same system against the Gunners. The strength of their approach lies in two factors – Suarez and Sturridge have been excellent in attack, and the three at the back give them additional defensive security which they’ve used intelligently after taking leads as they absorb pressure and use the space well through their attacking stars.

Wenger’s side will face a massive challenge in stopping the SAS partnership because they’re both extremely mobile and tricky. Mertesacker’s lack of pace will inevitably force the Gunners deeper. It could easily end up sucking the full-backs and defensive midfielders back and Arsenal could have a tough time breaking out of their own half, particularly in the early part of the game if the visitors show urgency with their pressing. Rodgers could use Henderson in place of Moses to help with this.

Liverpool will not be able to sustain high pressing for 90 minutes so their best bet would be to force early mistakes and get a goal or two. This is something they did last season as they took a two goal lead. I’m not convinced this season Arsenal will be able to get back into the game if they go down by a couple of goals. As with every big game, the first goal will have an immense impact on the way the game shapes up.

Arteta is going to have a busy outing. He is the point man for the Gunners if their passing and possession game has to click because he is the only one who can consistently receive the ball from the defenders even under pressure. The Spaniard’s off-the-ball positioning will also be very important when the visitors press high up the pitch or break forward at pace. Flamini will be missed. Hopefully, Ramsey’s energy will make up for his forward-going tendencies. The midfielders will also have to watch out for their cut-backs from the wide areas that often come back and across.

Suarez will move into the channels, particularly down the left, and Liverpool are very good at working one-twos in such areas. So, Sagna too is going to have to be careful with his runs. Bombing forward and standing right next to the attacking midfielders is not a clever approach and could prove costly in this game. He might be better off staying deeper and leaving the right flank for Ozil or Ramsey to overlap.

Liverpool’s back three can be flat at times and that means Arsenal could get overloads in central midfield if the wide players pick and choose their movement wisely. This could allow the team an opportunity to break away from the initial pressing and run at the visiting defence.

We’ll have to see if Liverpool are brave and hold a high line or if they drop back to the edge of their own area. When they drop back their three in defence quicky becomes a five with another layer in front that has a couple of midfielders (Gerrard and Lucas probably) and another of the attacking players chasing back. I expect them to compress the play up the pitch in the first 15-20 minutes, at least.

Wenger doesn’t have too many options to pick from as far as his starting eleven is concerned.

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Ramsey, Ozil, Arteta – Wilshere, Giroud, Cazorla.

In the Frenchman’s position, I’d be tempted to include Rosicky ahead of Wilshere on the right, but I doubt Wenger will go for that unless the youngster is bothered by his injuries.

It’s a shame none of Arsenal’s quick players are available because they would certainly have pushed Liverpool back or troubled their high pressing.

This is the first game this season where the Gunners had dropped point in the corresponding fixture last season. They’d won all the nine played thus far if we compare Crystal Palace with Reading (or any of the other relegated sides). In that sense, Arsenal are -5 when it comes to points from corresponding fixtures and they’ll have to make up the numbers from the games they didn’t win in 2012-13. Will this be the first of those?

Wenger again pointed out that Arsenal didn’t play particularly badly against Chelsea or Dortmund but lost because they gave soft goals away. I agree with that, but the sheer frequency of gifting goals and points has made it very hard to believe these errors will be cut out any time soon. And because of that, I think a draw will be Arsenal’s best hope from this game even though they have the quality to win it.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Sunderland

September 14, 2013

It’s hard to think beyond Mesut Özil, isn’t it? Hard to wait for the game to begin but wait we must. And while we are at it let’s just chat about a few things we are likely to see in this game.

Recent encounters against Sunderland have been tense affairs with some disappointing results. It’s hard to predict the result of this game but I have a feeling we will see a very different game from the hosts.

Di Canio is not O’Neill, thankfully, and he will not set out to frustrate the Gunners. It will be a surprise if Sunderland don’t come out to play. That doesn’t mean they’ll chase the ball in Barcelonaesque wolf packs high inside the Arsenal half, but their football should be relatively more proactive with greater offensive intent.

We’ll have to see whether the Italian is brave enough to play two strikers against Arsenal or if he will take the safer route of an extra body in midfield. The Black Cats have good quality attacking players with diverse attributes in the likes of Fletcher, Altidore, and Giaccherini. For instance, Fletcher is a very capable and intelligent finisher in the box while Altidore offers pace and physicality. Giaccherini is more versatile and can contribute to attacks from wide areas as well as making well timed runs and good use of space. They can be a handful to many defences if they  can work together as a unit. But that’s where their problems lie at the moment. Having made 13 additions to the squad during the Summer, Di Canio will probably need some time to discover his best eleven.

Sunderland haven’t been poor in their first three games but they’ve been patchy with serious defensive lapses that have proven very expensive. Their fans will be hoping the international break would have given the coaching staff some time to work with a few of the players which might result in a more compact display. Somehow I doubt that will be the case for the duration of the game. It will be a complete shock if the Gunners don’t create a few good quality chances in this game. It could be a good test for the clinical nature of their finishing, and that might have a bearing on the result.

Of course, Arsene Wenger’s choices will also have an impact on the ebb and flow of the game. After the Aston Villa fiasco the Gunners have gone into their shell and have collectively dropped deep to cover up the weaknesses of the Ramsey-Wilshere pairing in midfield. Will the undisputed talents of Özil give Arsenal enough attacking incision to compensate for the holes at the back? Could greater adventure from the visitors open the game up for the Black Cats as well?

In my opinion, the wiser choice is for Arsenal to play cautiously and ensure games are not lost or points dropped due to gifted goals while Özil gets a chance to acclimatize to his new teammates. That said, the players will also have to read the game as it develops and adapt accordingly. If it seems that the opponents aren’t clicking together as a unit and gaps appear in their ranks rather easily, the best approach would be to go for the jugular rather than to sit back and give them the time to gain confidence.

On the other hand, if I were in Di Canio’s shoes, I’d want my team to see whether Arsenal want to revert to their patient possession style. Pressing the deepest midfielder and attacking the space in front of the central defenders could be a profitable approach if the Gunners decide to play out from the back on a consistent basis with Wilshere and Ramsey in the staring eleven behind Özil. Both of those players are yet to demonstrate they can shoulder the responsibility of bringing the ball out from defence on a consistent basis without players like Song or Arteta taking bulk of the burden.

Essentially, this is a game where a lot of depend on how the opening exchanges pan out. The team that finds the tactics to suit the players it has out on the pitch faster than the other will have greater chance of controlling the dynamic of the game, and as a result the outcome  too.

Wenger also has the option of starting with Flamini at the base of the midfield. While his energy and defensive work was commendable against Spurs, I don’t see the Frenchman as a regular starter because he doesn’t bring enough other attributes to the team. Furthermore, his defending is more of the visible, energetic kind rather than the subtle, controlling type which is vital in dominating games in the patient, possession-based style.

Unless Özil is unfit (due to illness), or Wilshere is in need of a rest (he really should get more than he does at the moment), there isn’t enough of an argument in favour of starting with Flamini in this particular game. It might be against a team that’s on top of its game but that’s clearly not been the case with the Black Cats.

Preferred line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Ramsey, Özil, Wilshere – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.

(I’ve been told by readers on twitter that Mertesacker has not traveled with the squad, in which case it’s highly likely we’ll see Sagna preparing for his future role, and Jenkinson too)

That’s not the most balanced side Wenger will put out this season but given the struggles of the opponent it seems like the best opportunity to see how Wilshere and Ramsey would fit behind Özil. I have my doubts about this but it would be foolish to say players of such quality can’t find a way to play with each other without ever giving them the opportunity to try. The key is in seeing just how many problems are created for both sides and whether those for the opponents far outweighs those for one’s own side. The probability of getting away with mistakes is greater in this game given the disjointed nature of some of Sunderland’s performances.

However, in the last year or so I’ve also noticed that something goes horribly wrong almost every time I start to think this is going to be an easy game. And the chances of that are always higher when Wenger has to make noteworthy changes to his team’s approach. His team’s are at their best when they can stick to an approach and string together a run of form with the players growing into their roles. The introduction of Özil can be a game changer in the positive sense but it can also be disruptive to that process, at least during the initial bedding in period.

In any event, this is going to be a game worth watching and, if the Gunners play anywhere near their potential, Özil’s debut could be a memorable one.


Thoughts On The Robin Van Persie Situation

July 5, 2012

By now you must have seen this statement on RvP’s official website announcing his decision to not renew his contract with Arsenal.

This was probably an unsurprising yet gut-wrenching moment for many Arsenal fans. Ever since his decision to postpone talks to the summer, which only led to a ban on media interaction imposed by the club, there have been indications that Van Persie was not happy at the club and will not renew his contract. But the manner in which he’s acknowledged the growing fears is massively disappointing.

I have seen many reactions to the Dutchman’s statement. Hurt or pain is by far the most common sentiment expressed even if people have different ways of dealing with it. Some have channeled that into anger or, worse, hatred towards the player. Others have rationalized and said that Arsenal can win without last season’s Player of the Year. There are also those who’ve found a way to blame Wenger for this scenario while others are against the board or the CEO.

None of these views are completely incorrect or unjustified. However, hardly any respectfully examines the situation from all sides’ perspective.

Let’s start with the player – What’s in it for RvP?

The most common interpretation I have seen seems to be one that Van Persie wants more money and has had his head turned. This line of thought suggests that the Dutchman is trying to force the club’s hand so that he can sign a vastly improved contract at a super-rich club.

Maybe that’s the case. I am not inside the striker’s head so I can’t be certain. But if money were the most important factor why would he not go to Russia or China? Or even if he wanted to stay in Europe, why would RvP not wait another six months when he could sign a staggering new contract in January at a club of his choice as a free agent. Surely, he’d get a hefty signing bonus as the acquiring club will not have to pay any fees to Arsenal. That reason might also tempt some of the biggest clubs in European football if they’re not already interested now due to the fees that they might have to pay.

So why would a reasonably intelligent man sacrifice so many choices and such possibilities to force the club’s hand? The cynical view might be that his value will drop in the next six months, especially if he gets injured, but that really is a matter of luck. Every club that wants to sign him now knows his past record and it won’t dramatically change come January.

If I were Robin and I really wanted a big money deal I’d strongly focus on producing an extraordinary first half of the season for Arsenal in order to secure what could be the biggest deal anyone has seen in football.

Given these thoughts, I find it very hard to accept this is about the money and it is unfortunate that so many people have formed such opinions based on pure speculation. Van Persie will get big money wherever he goes but that will be the effect of his talent and work ethic, and not the cause behind his statement.

Discounting money as a factor we come to the reason mentioned by Arsenal’s captain (former?) in his statement – “it has again become clear to me that we in many aspects disagree on the way Arsenal FC should move forward”

It’s purposely vague but the bottom line seems obvious. He wants to win major titles, with the team and as an individual. Arsenal have not fulfilled that ambition in recent years and there can be genuine doubts about their ability to do so next year.

Of course, the club have strengthened and significantly at that. Podolski and Giroud are not inconsiderable acquisitions. Clearly though, it’s not enough for the Dutchman. There is an interesting viewpoint that nothing Arsenal did in the market would have convinced him to sign.

This is not hard to see. In order to win the league these days a club has to have strikers worth £25-30M on the bench. Think about the likes of Dzeko, Berbatov, and Higuain, or Shevchenko if we go back a few years. They should also have enough depth to deal with any injuries or issues with key players. Think about Tevez and how City had to deal with him. The Nuri Sahin’s of this world, a class act at a team like Dortmund, are only fillers at these footballing superpowers. And this is not limited to strikers or attacking players, you need depth across all positions in the squad.

To win major trophies like the Premier League, La Liga, or the Champions League teams need a blank check and a squad so deep even the B team could compete for European places. Some clubs do get success through parking the bus shamelessly, but diligently and with superb coordination. It’s worth mentioning that even those squads are assembled at significant cost and the success is over a  short term.

According to this article by Zach Slaton published by Forbes, Arsenal had the sixth highest total expenditure on players in the Premiership and should have finished between 4th and 10th in the last four years. While it does show Arsenal have overachieved given their spending and again highlights Wenger’s ability to get the most bang for the buck, there can be questions about how far the club can go with such a spending policy.

Can we really fault an ambitious, talented, and hard working individual for demanding more or better? Frankly, if I put myself in van Persie’s boots, I’d have similar doubts. As a fan I can find reasons to believe and ways to assuage the disappointment at the end of the season but for a true champion with few years left at the top it’s not the same.

That brings us to related questions like – Can Arsenal win major trophies? What do they have to do in order to achieve that?

The Gunners claim to have a self-sustaining model. To a large extent I agree with that assertion. However, as with most things Arsenal, that is not the complete truth. I am not an Usmanov fan and I don’t think having the Russian on board is the solution to all problems but some of his arguments are not without merit.

In this open letter, his company Red & White Securities Ltd. make the point that, “The self-financing was created to suit the major shareholders at the time, all of whom subsequently sold their shares.”

Kroenke and Usmanov between them have spent close to a billion pounds in acquiring the Arsenal shares. How much of that money has actually gone into the club or squad development? Look up the total amounts spent by Abramovic, Sheikh Mansour, the former and current Liverpool owners, and other foreign owners. Compare them with the Arsenal duo. Pay special attention to the ratio of money spent on squad to that spent filling the pocket of certain individuals. The Gunners are clearly lagging behind.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying Usmanov should be allowed to invest or that the self-sustaining model is wrong. Just that given Arsenal’s approach it is not difficult to see why a brilliant player would not be convinced about the team’s chances to win. He’s not a fool, he can see what’s going on at other clubs and at Arsenal.

Those supporting the self-financing model, myself included, will have to accept that the club will remain strong enough to challenge for the titles, especially as long as Arsene is in charge of the football, but will more often than not fall just short at the final hurdle. UEFA’s Financial Fair Play might make an impact over the long term when the owners decide they don’t want to or can’t sustain their egregious spending but no one’s going to hold their breath.

Since I lack the resources to dig into and discover the real intentions of Billionaires like Usmanov and Korenke I don’t have a clear solution to offer. Yes, many people like straightforward answers. That’s how over simplified narratives develop and gain popularity. But those have little practical value except perhaps in debates with friends or foes.

One person who can do without such trivialized narratives is Arsene Wenger. In this saga he is probably the only person who has the respect of all parties, or at least of the majority. The previous and current owners trust him, even if it’s mostly about making more money for themselves. Majority of the fans know how important he is to the club and how the club have overachieved given the constraints he’s faced. Van Persie has become the player he is because of the manager’s faith and guidance. The striker has acknowledged this often enough.

Nevertheless, it’s Wenger who is once again finds himself between a rock and a hard place. It will be tough for him to get the best out of RvP next season and even harder to replace the striker. People talk about van Persie’s injury record or his age and find ways to rationalize that it’s best to sell him. If it were that simple Wenger, a man who takes major decisions based on detailed analysis of facts, would have offloaded the Dutchman a while back.

The simple truth, and this is very hard to take no doubt, is that it is virtually impossible for Arsenal to replace Robin van Persie over the next season or two. They will, in all likelihood, find it impossible to financially compete for a player of similar class even if they manage to identify one.

Players like Cesc and Van Persie are a rare breed as far as footballing talent goes. The manager will have to change the entire style of the team to fit a replacement in. Of course he’s done it in the past but it’s important to note that Arsenal keep coming close to the title without winning it. Retaining the big players is one vital cog in that winning wheel. It’s something Arsenal have sorely missed and Wenger knows this better than anyone else.

There is no guarantee that Arsenal will win with RvP in the side but the odds of the Gunners tasting success in major competitions without such a player are distinctly lower. With that in mind it’s understandable if Arsene still wants to retain the services of his captain but he will have a hard time either way as the fans will not be so kind or thoughtful.

That brings us to the most interesting and divided stakeholders in this saga, the fans.

We are a curious species. When players and managers offer empty platitudes we are displeased. Yet when they speak their mind we aren’t completely happy either. Fabregas rarely said anything last season amidst all the speculation and many fans didn’t take too kindly to it. Now that RvP has released a seemingly honest statement, even if people have turned it into a sinister plot, many fans have turned on the player.

The beauty here, and it’s a perverse kind of beauty, is that the statement in itself is harmless. Many saw it coming. The damage is not done by the words on the Dutchman’s website but by the reaction to those words by the fans.

If everyone accepted the status quo, and this is clearly an idealistic scenario, and simply went on with their jobs things would be different, easy even! The players are professionals they can deal with it. The manager was prepared to play Nasri last year and he will have no qualms over selecting Van Persie this season. Arsenal would have a strong squad and they could prove the striker wrong.

But the fans will react. And that reaction will cause all the mayhem. Arsenal are now in a spot not because of the statement but because of the way so many perceptions and opinions have changed. The club will most probably be forced to act even if it wasn’t in their initial plans.

There is a valid argument that the reaction has been induced by the statement from RvP, which many have deemed ill-advised and needless. But make no mistake this response from the fans has not been forced. Each one of us has a clear choice in front as regards to the manner in which we deal with Van Persie from this point forward. How many will do the right thing?

On a broad but related note, have you wondered why politician after politician, irrespective of the country, culture, or nature of politics, feeds us lies and false promises? Why do so many people in the public domain put up an act to shield their real selves? Why is there an overabundance of simplified narratives and a real dearth of meaningful analysis in any walk of life? It all comes back to us and how we deal with the naked truth and disconcerting details. This RvP chronicle is a classic example.

Most Gooners can say they have a right to be angry because of the love they’ve shown to the player and the loyalty towards the club. But is that completely true? Was the love a function of RvP’s performances or was it unconditional? Those fans who sang Denilson songs, to take one example, when the Brazilian was having a tough time could claim their support is unconditional but how many such individuals are there? If the support and love from the fans is contingent to a player’s efforts on the pitch and can turn at such short notice, can anyone honestly blame a player for putting his own interests first?

It’s easy to demand loyalty but few walk the path they want others to tread.


So where does all this leave us? What next for the Gunners?

There are only two ways this can go although there are subplots in either case.

My personal preference, predicated on the assumption that it is also Wenger’s choice, will be to keep RvP. Risk a return of his injury woes or a drop in form and gamble on the fact that he’s looked really solid in the last year and a half. Ensure a clear understanding that he’ll deliver the work rate that is vital to converting his talent into genius on the pitch. Groom Giroud, ease Wilshere back in, see how others like Santos and Podolski do over the course of the season. Look for answers to some structural issues, chiefly defensive ones, with the likes of Steve Bould at the training ground. Hope that the fans will back all the players who wear the shirt.

This way Arsenal could have a strong enough squad to compete for the trophies even if they don’t win one. A conscious focus and tactical shift could see this squad performing better in domestic cups and they can go all the way.

RvP might change his mind along the way or Arsenal get some time to find a solution to replace him.

The only real problem here is the loss of transfer fees. The significance of that can only be gauged by the actual amounts that are offered by clubs and not those rumoured in the tabloids. Kroenke might step in and make a decision as he reportedly did with Nasri last season. Arsenal have to take the risk on RvP’s age and injury concerns. You cannot build a competitive squad with relevant and meaningful experience if you quibble over such possibilities.

The other option is to sell the player. This is likely to the more commonly advocated alternative but I am yet to see a strong case made for selling the player that does not seem like rationalization. There is no doubt in my mind the Gunners will be significantly weaker if they sell the Dutchman. This isn’t the same as Henry in his last years at Arsenal where he was clearly dominating/suppressing the other talents in the side. In 07-08 the players were liberated when the Frenchman left but RvP’s departure will not have such an impact. If anything, the Dutchman is getting more out of his teammates through is intelligence, movement, and work rate.

That said, there is no doubt the club is bigger than the player and will survive. The Gunners might not win without the star but they should still compete for the top spots. If the structural issues are sorted and the new signings hit the ground running they could also end up with a bigger points haul than last season.

I don’t think selling RvP will be a disaster but it will be a massive setback that will significantly affect the odds of success in the coming years.

Arsenal 1 – 0 Man City: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

April 9, 2012

Even with City’s dodgy away form in recent weeks this game was always going to be a test of Arsenal’s abilities. Was the QPR result a blip or the beginning of yet another slump? On the back of that performance there can be no arguments. The macro-level stats in the following tweet make the case quite clearly.

Arsenal dominated the game and secured a well-deserved win thanks to Mikel Arteta’s thunderbolt. But it wasn’t plain sailing as the stats might suggest.

Arsene brought Benayoun into the starting line-up indicating he is intent on using a technical player in games that are likely to be more challenging. City were without Silva and started with a strange-ish eleven.

Mancini picked Balotelli on the left and Aguero down the middle with Nasri in an advanced midfield role and Milner on the right flank. Toure and Barry were behind them. It’s hard to put any kind of numbers to this as the shapes they took up seemed incoherent, as if they weren’t used to it and didn’t really know what to do.

Arsenal dominated the first quarter of the game. The screen flashed a stat showing 78 percent possession for the Gunners in the 23rd minute. By then Arsenal had also had four shots and a penalty claim. In fairness though, only one was a gilt-edged opportunity that came in the 16th minute when a Van Persie header destined for the goal was cleared off the line by Vermaelen.

After the midway point though, City got back into the game and it was fairly even. Balotelli had a good chance from a corner that was blocked. The Gunners didn’t create any more chances in the half.

Yaya Toure’s injury and Pizarro’s introduction coincided to an extent with a change in City’s fortunes but I don’t think it was the cause of the change in the game. Some other factors seemed more relevant.

Firstly, Arsenal came off the blocks with a very high tempo and pinned the visitors back through incessant pressing high up the pitch. This was hard to sustain and the hosts eased off midway through the half. This gave the Blues a better chance to bring the ball out from the back.

Secondly, after Yaya went off, Mancini shifted Nasri to the flank and brought Milner into a central role. The former Arsenal man was chasing the ball energetically but was reactive and didn’t quite do a job as the first line of defence. Milner showed better defensive awareness.

Thirdly, Toure wasn’t having a very good game defensively either as was evidenced by his early booking that was picked up when Rosicky turned him with ease in the 2nd minute. His injury didn’t help either and it was as if City were playing with 10 men.

Finally, Balotelli – having survived numerous punishable offences including a horrendous straight red tackle – pushed up the pitch and City started looking for a diagonals and other passes in his direction which pinned Sagna back.

City started the second half brightly and had a decent spell early on. Their best chance came in the 53rd minute when Nasri’s chip into the box was headed towards goal by Aguero. It’s quite possible the striker was put off by his own man as Zabaleta too attacked the same ball.

Gibbs then went off, presumably due to another injury, as the visitors continued their forward push. Santos’ first involvement was a hoofed clearance before Benayoun made a sliding block. The Brazilian then picked up a booking for hauling Balotelli to the ground.

Arsenal started getting back into the game around the hour mark. Benayoun produced a swerving run from the left but his strike lacked venom and went straight at Hart. A couple of minutes later Van Persie evaded the attentions of Kompany and found himself in space near the penalty spot. Song’s chip was delightful as ever but De Kapitein was unlucky as his header only found the post. Hart was stranded.

In the next few minutes both sides had some half-chances as the game remained a cagey affair.

The final 20 minutes were all Arsenal as the Gunners once again switched to a higher gear. This is usually the time they pin the opponents back and find a late winner. But occasionally it’s also the period when they concede the sucker punch. In this game, City faded away and never looked like scoring on the break.

In the 76th minute Arsenal had a number of chances within moments. Sagna’s clever square pass found Walcott in the box. Theo’s cute flick was goal-bound but Hart tipped it onto the post with his fingertips. Vermaelen couldn’t find the open net from the rebound. His scuffed effort came straight at Benayoun who missed from two yards. Some must surely have felt Arsenal had blown their chance away but with this team you can be sure they’ll keep going.

Mancini tried to make something happen by bringing Kolarov on for Nasri. This gave the visitors better protection down the left and Balotelli had more joy down Arsenal’s left. It made you wonder why was he playing against Sagna all this while in the first place?! The City boss also introduced Tevez for Aguero, which was another surprising move given the fact that Balotelli was walking a tightrope.

The goal when it came was a bit out of the blue. Barry tried to play the ball out under pressure by chipping it towards Pizzaro. The Italian wasn’t able to control it as Arteta won the duel. This opened space up for the Spaniard and he let fly adroitly. His placement was impeccable, his technique sublime. The Gunners needed something above and beyond the quality they’d already produced. This goal certainly was an exceptional, decisive individual moment.

Arsenal then held on with ease and could have added another in injury time. Ramsey’s recent form woes probably weighed on his mind as he missed the chance to pick a teammate or hit the target when well-placed.

Balotelli finally did see red after his second booking and if he doesn’t play again this season it might actually work in City’s favour.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Had to ensure Aguero’s header wasn’t dipping in but didn’t have to make any other saves in the whole game. Had one or two iffy moments with his distribution in an otherwise comfortable outing. Snuffed a dangerous moment in a timely manner by charging out and clearing.

Sagna: Had a lot of space on the right as Balotelli didn’t track back well enough. Attempted the most crosses, 13 – more than any two other Gunners combined – but didn’t find a teammate with all but one. It was more of an issue with Arsenal having fewer bodies in the box than the quality of crossing. Did create a good chance for Theo that led to the succession of chances. Also saw a lot of the ball and was involved in the most duels, which made this another battling display from the Frenchman.

Koscielny: Picked up a booking and will miss the next two games but had a good game other than that. Was almost always in the right positions and used his strengths well. Decision making was spot on – dueled when he had to, cleared the ball when there was risk, and showed composure when needed. There was one moment when his decision making failed and Balotelli got in behind, but Szczesny bailed him out by coming out and clearing the danger.

Vermaelen: Got the dubious distinction of blocking his captain from scoring, pulling a bendtner some might say, but overall it was a very effective defensive effort from the Belgian. Didn’t get on the ball as often as he usually does but put in a focused shift at the back by limiting his forward bursts. Won all 4 of his tackles and 6 of his 9 ground duels while making 4 interceptions.

Gibbs: Saw a lot of the ball in the time that he was on the pitch as Arsenal made much better use of the left flank than they’ve done in many recent games. Had very little to do defensively and played more than a third of his passes in the final third.

Santos: Had a tough start against Balotelli but found it easier after the Gunners regained control of the game and pushed forward. Didn’t look completely match fit.

The Arsenal back five had a relatively comfortable game. They curbed their attacking instincts and stuck to a plan. Aguero’s inability to trouble them in the air, Balotelli’s petulance, Silva’s absence, and City’s generally chaotic play helped their cause.

Song: It was a physically combative and dominant effort from the Cameroonian as he was involved in 18 ground duels, of which he won 11, and 4 aerial duels (all successful). Was lucky to survive a horror tackle from Balotelli. Created a quality chance for RvP but was also very wasteful or overambitious with some of his passing.

Arteta: Again had the most touches and most passes as he kept the ball moving. Put in an intelligent defensive shift characterized by his team-high 5 interceptions. Whipped in a number of quality balls from set-pieces. Capped it with the match-winning strike.

Rosicky: Was extremely influential in patches but also went out of the game in patches. Made most of his passes in the final third including the impressive dink over the top that led to the penalty shout. Another one who did well in his duels and wasn’t overawed physically.

In recent years the Arsenal midfield was criticized for its lack of physicality but these three players dominated what was arguably a weak opposing midfield that also lacked tactical clarity. It shouldn’t take anything away from their efforts which were, er, central to Arsenal’s control and ultimately the result.

Walcott: The first half was a struggle for Theo as he couldn’t get into meaningful spaces. Had one good attempt in the second period but more is needed.

RvP: Van Persie was unlucky with a couple of delightful headers. Work rate was again superb and helped out as an extra midfielder through his movement and passing.

Benayoun: Did well to bring the left side into play more often. I thought he was given a more conservative role, especially early on as he helped sustain the pressure but didn’t venture forward quite as much. This was reflected by the fact that he attempted more backward passes than forward ones and very few into the box. Also contributed defensively by winning 3 of his 4 tackles and 6 of his 10 duels. Did get into shooting positions thrice but couldn’t make it count.

I thought the front three were not that effective partly because Arsenal had a cautious approach despite the apparent dominance. This meant they didn’t push too many bodies into the box even when a wide player had a good crossing opportunity. It paid off as City rarely got a chance to break at pace. On the whole this wasn’t a glamorous-looking night for the attacking players but one that focussed on efficiency and working for the team.

Subs: Ramsey will be probably be vilified by many for his miss but he needs support more than narrow-minded abuse. Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t have much time.

Wenger: I thought Arsene found the perfect mixture of cautious but aggressive play. Going gung-ho could have been suicidal while an overly cautious approach could easily have led to nervousness and mistakes at the back. In contrast to City, Arsenal seemed to have tactical clarity throughout this game and the manager deserves credit for that.

How Do England Stack Up Against Arsenal’s List Of Weaknesses

July 28, 2011

Just over a week ago I made an attempt to document all the complaints against Arsenal in a comprehensive list of weaknesses. As I’d mentioned at that time, I did not agree with many items on the list but was compiling it for the sake of having a reference point.

Today I want to compare the English national team against that collection of gripes. Please don’t mistake it as a judgment on the English team. This is simply a comparison to see how many of those criticisms are applicable to the Three Lions.

I’ll start with the issues against the players

  1. Strikers (and others in general) are not clinical enough
  2. Club lacks a 20 goal a season striker

Over the years, England have had the likes of Shearer, Lineker, Wright, Rooney, and many others who have scored plenty of goals, at least at club level. I’d think the first two points are not valid as far as the English national team are concerned.

  1. Big stars were never replaced

The best players from the club teams get picked for the national side. This argument does not seem valid either.

  1. Players lack a winning mentality

Many of the players have won titles with their clubs.

  1. Players lack leadership

Critics of Arsenal often mention the likes of John Terry as the kind of leader Arsenal have been missing. Tony Adams and others have provided leadership through the years.

  1. Central defenders don’t command their area

Fans often say the Gunners need defenders like Tony Adams, Rio Ferdinand, Terry, and others.

  1. There is no organizer in the team

Similar argument as the points 5 and 6.

  1. Full-backs can’t cross

England have had an abundance of full backs who can cross

  1. Full-backs can’t block crosses

There have been many English full-backs who defended their flanks really well for their clubs.

  1. Very few players can attack balls put in the box

No shortage of such players in the England ranks

  1. Players can’t defend set-pieces

Often the national defenders are amongst the best in the league at defending set-pieces.

  1. Can’t defend long balls

Same argument as point 11

  1. Attacking set-pieces are wasted

The current national side has players like Young, Gerrard, Lampard, and others who can provide excellent delivery. In the box there are players like Terry who have scored many goals from set-pieces. Similar strength was available in the past.

  1. No consistent free-kick taker

Partially same as 13

  1. Club lacks a world class goalkeeper

From Seaman to Joe Hart, England have had plenty of highly rated goalkeepers. There might have been small patches where the Keepers were not as good.

  1. Don’t shoot from outside the box often enough

The Three Lions have almost always had a number of players who can score from outside the box and aren’t shy of shooting.

  1. Not physical (big,tall) enough for the Premier League

Hard to say this was ever applicable to the English side.

  1. Lack grit and determination

Well the argument is more like Arsenal lack English grit and determination.

  1. Some players are lazy

Aren’t English players supposed to be more industrious? There might have been some lazy ones though.

  1. Some players lack commitment

Do the English lads lack commitment while representing their country?

  1. Get injured on a regular basis

Hard to say whether this is valid or not about the national team.

  1. Cannot hold on to leads

Similar argument as point 5, 6, and 7. Players like Ferdinand and Terry are hailed as those who can help the team hold on to a lead.

  1. Cannot counter-attack at pace

Again, the national side does not lack players who can break at speed.

Now let us look at the criticisms levelled against Wenger and his staff

  1. Tactically – Anywhere from weak to utterly clueless

Are all those who have managed the English side tactically clueless? Looking at the resume of people like Capello this is hard to accept.

  1. Defensive coaching is poor

Can we comment on this aspect with regards to the national team?

  1. Playing style lacks balance

England have a wide variety of players available for selection. Does the national team lack balance and has lacked balance for years?

  1. Lack of a plan B

With people who can cross, those who can shoot from distance, clinical strikers, tall strikers, leaders, and those who can hold on to a lead, it’s hard to say England lack a plan B.

  1. Blind to obvious problems

How many English managers have been blind to the obvious problems?

  1. No/Poor training on attacking and defending set-pieces

I don’t really know enough to comment on this

  1. Reluctant to spend money

Irrelevant. Big stars are available for selection.

  1. Arrogant
  2. Stubborn

Hard to say so many English managers have been arrogant and stubborn.

  1. Gives ridiculous interviews/ Makes excuses

I haven’t really heard enough interviews to comment on this

  1. Rewards underperforming players

Don’t think this is applicable to the Three Lions

  1. Happy to finish fourth – lacks winning mentality

How many England managers have lacked winning mentality?

  1. Prefers tika-taka football and ignores the other needs of the team (many points mentioned under players)

Again, hard to say such an argument is applicable to the men who have managed the national side.

  1. No 2 and others are ‘Yes  Men’

Same as 13 above.

  1. Medical staff cannot keep players injury free

I don’t think the national medical staff has that big a role as most of the players are treated by the club medics for majority of the season.

Apart from this list there were some suggestions from the readers

1.       Not Enough English Players

2.       Protects the French players/Foreigners

Can’t say these two are applicable to the national side

3.       Wenger is inflexible with formation and approach

Have all England managers been inflexible?

4.       Money being spent on Real Estate projects and not on the squad

Does not seems relevant in the context of the national side.

Now ask yourself a simple question. When was the last time England won anything of significance?

As a number of people didn’t get the point in the previous article, I want to emphasize that I am not trying to judge the English side or make fun of them. I am just analyzing their performances within the context of the weaknesses that Arsenal supposedly have.

My original list had 38 issues and if we add the four from the readers it gives us 42 separate points that people have used to criticize the Gunners. Very few, if any, of these are applicable to the Three Lions. Still the end result isn’t very different. What do you think is the reason?

Don’t take my word for it. I haven’t analyzed every point in detail. That would need a book not a blog post. Just think about it. The list is in front of you. Look back at England’s performances over the last few decades. Try and explain them.

As I said, I am not judging. I have some thoughts on the issue but will leave them for the next post as this one is already quite long. I am travelling for the next couple of days and after that we will have the Emirates Cup to talk about so I will return to this subject after that tournament.

Thoughts On The Cologne Game and JET

July 25, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vermaelen Touches Upon A Critical Topic

July 21, 2011 had an interesting article today with some quotes from Thomas Vermaelen. In essence, the Belgian said that the Gunners have to leave the past behind and make a fresh start from scratch.

Everybody starts from zero and everybody has to start again.

You get a new chance and that’s always a good feeling when people give you another chance to win something. The past is behind us and it’s good to look into the future.

That’s what we do now – we start all over again with a new chance and we will go for it this year.

The words are alright. As is the sentiment. Players have to focus on the future and build from the ground up this season. But this is one of those things that is much, much, much easier said than done.

We live in a world where every moment on a football pitch is linked with trophy chances and in the case of Arsenal it tends to be extremely negative. If people can look at a couple of pre-season friendlies and predict disaster, one can only shudder while imagining the reaction to some set-backs that are bound to happen during a long, strenuous season.

On top of it, if my observations are valid, almost every media outlet is highlighting negative stories around the club. There is no doubt in my mind that ghosts of seasons past will be dug up the moment a game is drawn or lost.

It’s hard to say how much the players are affected by the noises on the web or the asinine dross in the press. I doubt any human being can remain completely unaffected by stories that are repeated endlessly. And this is where it’s going to get tricky.

Most, if not all, Gunners have been put through some sort of a psychometric test. They are undoubtedly strong minded and talented individuals who will focus on their training and performances. But what happens when someone makes a mistake, and there is no doubt someone will, sooner rather than later, because that is part of the game and happens to the best of players.

Will the seeds of doubt germinate in the minds of one or two players? Will it then spread to the others?

Imagine a situation when the team is defending a set-piece at a critical moment; say just before full time with a one goal lead. What if someone like Djourou of Koscielny is reminded of the past? Will that minor distraction be enough to drop the focus/concentration by maybe 5-10 percent? What if that leads to a goal?

I believe we have come at an interesting point in this discussion.

It would be easy to say this is definitely going to happen and there is no hope for this team. As I have said before such an attitude has zero constructive value.

Some could also say that these players are professionals and have to perform irrespective of the past mistakes. Ideally, that would work. Practically, it’s not that simple.

If you are the manager, how do you ensure the players will be able to keep the past mistakes out of their heads?

Will buying one or two players suffice? Is it necessary to bring in a sports psychologist? Does better and more intense training lead to enhanced confidence? Is better and positive communication the answer? Perhaps a combination of all these and more is needed.

I believe this year more than ever in the past, Arsene faces a massive challenge in keeping the squad together and the morale high. If the start is anything like the start in 2008-09 (5 losses out of 14), the season will be over before Christmas and all hell will break lose in the stands and the training ground. The damage could be irreparable.

Since I don’t have a solution I will just keep an eye out on the events as they unfold and read/listen to the interviews to see if something is being done. There could be something for us to learn or to lament.