Arsenal 1 -3 Aston Villa: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

August 18, 2013

In the preview I was talking about how every possible result was conceivable. The opening minutes gave the impression that this could be a comfortable win. Then there was a period when the team switched into the allow-the-opposition-back-into-the-game mode. At half time many fans must still have been confident that a result could be ground out. Anthony Taylor did his thing and Villa took the lead. For a while, even at 1-2, and then with only 10 men, it seemed like the players were fighting and a draw was possible. In the end, the worst possible outcome ensured there will be tremendous pressure on the manager and the players for foreseeable future unless they string together a run of form that is, at the moment, inconceivable.

Given the lack of depth on the bench and the frustrations of the summer transfer window, it’s easy to understand why many fans instinctively linked this result with a failure to sign quality players. There is a correlation there and top class players always help a team, that much is undeniable. Similarly, there is no possible rational way to suggest this squad does not need additions. However, I find the lack of action in the transfer market to be a separate problem and don’t believe the result of this game was down to the blank slate labelled ‘New Acquisitions’.

The point here is not to defend the state of affairs as they stand but to focus on the actual problems from this game, which, if you think really hard, are actually a lot more alarming than Arsenal’s inability to sign players. You might not realize this right now but if the issues we saw on the pitch are not addressed, new players are not going to make a big enough impact. With that thought in mind I don’t want to spend too much time on transfer talk in this article. Let’s stick to the events of the game.

The start was, as previously noted, quite comfortable. I thought Villa were a bit tentative and lacked cohesiveness, a problem we’ll later associate with the Gunners. They set out to defend around the centre line but their pressing wasn’t coordinated across the board. The hosts found it fairly easy to move the ball around and the goal came from a fairly simple sequence of events despite the length that the ball travelled on the pitch.

Wilshere’s composure and ability to turn and lose his man started it deep on the left in the Arsenal half. Rosicky held off Vlaar’s pressure and turned away from him into space, which resulted in a broken back line for the visitors. Oxlade-Chamberlain held his run and was released into acres of space. Giroud was completely free in the box and guided it in deftly.

After the goal the Gunners maintained decent possession but signs of trouble were visible as early as the 10th minute when Arsenal’s 4-4-2 off-the-ball shape was visibly static as Villa exploited space down their left flank. That particular move didn’t result in a highlights-worthy moment but Lambert’s men, or boys, were slowly growing into the game. In contrast, Wenger’s wards were slowly drifting away as they couldn’t quite decide the level of risk they needed to take or the kind of intensity that had to be maintained. After the goal I don’t recall any noteworthy chance being created in the first half.

This lack of clarity from a tactical point of view (often after an early lead has been taken) has been a long standing problem and has cost the team valuable points over the last couple of seasons. It paralyzes the team, creates the impression that players don’t care, and gives the opposition greater belief and momentum.

Once the visitors realized they could get something from this game it was only a matter of when, not if, they were going to score. The equalizer was an unbearably soft goal to concede made worse only by its sheer predictability as Ramsey and Wilshere combined to leave a massive hole in front of the defence that sucked Koscielny in and made Agbonlahor look like Messi for a moment.

The goal obviously gave Villa greater confidence and that in turn helped them with their defensive structure and solidity. They also went increasingly harder for the 50-50s with the referee seemingly keen on levelling the technical disparity between the sides.

Six minutes just after the hour mark changed everything with utter incompetence being the kindest words one could choose for the Ref’s performance. A seemingly excellent tackle was deemed to be a foul and a penalty awarded to Villa with a Yellow card given to Koscielny. Soon after the Frenchman was sent off for a second bookable offence, which, while it can be considered a yellow-card offence, was the kind of challenge most officials let slide with a stern warning. There is no doubt Taylor played a starring role in Villa’s victory but blaming him for the defeat would cover over way too many cracks in the Gunner ranks.

We have to wonder why Arsenal keep getting into such messy defensive situations on so frequent a basis. How can a ‘proven player’ and a ‘star acquisition’ like Cazorla be so lax as he was when Agbonlahor pinched his pocket in the build up to the second goal. From what should be a harmless position just inside the Villa half from Arsenal’s point of view, it took the Englishman three unchallenged touches to get into the hosts’ penalty area. It’s said that you make your own luck but in Arsenal’s case with a complete lack of shape or defensive awareness it was more of a matter of inviting your own misfortune.

Having had the booking, one could again say Koscielny should have been a lot more careful. But while going forward in search of the equalizer the Gunners again left gaping holes in front of the defence and the Frenchman succumbed to his own aggressive temperament. A long punt forward, which was just a clearance and bounced off the back of Benteke’s head, actually fell to the rapidly advancing Weimann with no midfielder/fullback in a position to support the central defenders. I don’t know of any other club with pretentions of being one of the top European sides that gets into a tragi-comic defensive disarray this often and as easily.

At the end of last season there was genuine effort and improvement in this regard but, as I’d noted at that time, it came at the cost of offensive potency and was not something Wenger was going to live with for too long. Arsenal need that calibre of collective defending AND have to find greater incision and goal threat in conjunction with that. Focus on flair and attacking desire that comes at the cost of stability at the back will often lead to situations where the team starts conceding chances and loses confidence. As we’ve seen, confidence once lost can be a very hard thing to regain.

A related observation was that Arsenal did seemingly try to emulate the German 4-4-2 with the advanced midfielder pressing alongside the striker but most of the Gunners lack the tactical know-how to execute that in a ruthless and efficient manner with minimum risk. I should not single Arsenal out though, as I’d discussed here it’s an approach that the German clubs appear to have refined with years of work. Most other teams are not as efficient and effective at executing it. This won’t click for Wenger and his players any time soon and could be a very risky strategy for the short term.

Despite going down to 10 men the Gunners should get credit for their fighting spirit. Rosicky and Cazorla could have brought the team level but Guzan produced quality saves.

Villa’s third goal killed the game and it was again a very soft, typical Arsenal gift – Corner to the Gunners, goal/chance to the opponents. How often have we seen that?! When Cazorla took that ill-advised shot from outside the box you could see 10 Villa players in their own box and one just outside in the arc on the edge of the penalty area. The eventual goalscorer was the same guy who blocked Cazorla’s shot on the edge of the box!

Arsenal had six players beyond the 18 yard line including Walcott near the corner flag, Cazorla was on the edge of the box, and two players were behind him. How does a team go from that to a clear one-v-one for the opponent against their goalkeeper within a matter of second with just one worthwhile pass?! The lack of defensive awareness and the tendency to get lost in ball-watching is beyond alarming, it’s been one of the core issues preventing Arsenal from fulfilling the potential the team otherwise has. This isn’t an issue one or two transfers can solve unless Wenger finds the perfect coach to add to his team.

There are a couple of other issues that are worth discussing. Arsenal struggled against Villa’s physical challenges in this game, some of which were clearly fouls, but it wasn’t that Lambert had sent out a particularly physically imposing side. While the physicality angle was clearly visible, it wasn’t so much about physical attributes as it was about the manifestation of confidence and tactical clarity in the form of greater desire and sharpness. On the other hand, Arsenal were slower in the minds than is needed for the kind of game they want to play because of a lack of tactical clarity and this resulted in a reactionary performance rather than a proactive and dominant one.

The other point is that Villa didn’t win this game by having better individuals on the pitch, they won it by having better cohesive output (with a generous dose of luck). In that sense, buying more players is not going to help Arsenal if they cannot have the whole unit on the same tactical page. Of course, one might say for that to happen a clearly comprehensible tactical blueprint must first exist but that’s a whole different can of worms that I don’t want to touch right now.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Got lucky with the first penalty but didn’t have any control on the save as it went straight back to Benteke. Might have been sent off if the ref hadn’t played advantage. Not a confidence-inspiring display.

Sagna: Took a lot of blows and a serious fall for the team’s cause, also did a decent job at left back. Did not make any sort of a meaningful offensive contribution and it might have been better if he’d stayed a little deeper. For instance, it might have been easier for him to track Weimann’s run that got Koscielny his second yellow card.

Mertesacker: Had a steady enough game.

Koscielny: Very unfortunate to concede the penalty and the subsequent sending off was also harsh. But he should also know how to stay on his feet, particularly after he’s been booked. This wasn’t a day he’d like to remember.

Gibbs: Was looking good before he picked up that injury. It’s one of the smaller details but his presence would have helped the team’s balance.

Jenkinson: He was effective in a conservative role at the start of last season and needs to go back to that. Focus on defending and get it right, keep things simple, and the rest will come later. At the moment he looks a bit out of his depth when he tries to emulate the level of involvement that Sagna offers.

It couldn’t have been a great day at the office for the defenders if the team conceded three goals but the quality of officiating and the performance of the midfield does lessen the blame falling on their shoulders.

Ramsey: Work rate was excellent and he was trying till the very end but I thought he should have played more horizontally in Arteta’s absence and left Wilshere more room a little further up the pitch.

Rosicky: MotM, if one can be given after such a performance and result. Desire was always there and he was involved with everything Arsenal did offensively including the pre-assist for the goal, the two chances that he created for himself with clever one-twos, and the chance for Cazorla. His ability to beat the opponents in one-v-ones was excellent. Finishing could have been better. Needs to graduate from unnecessary and risky sliding tackles to a more intelligent form of defending.

Wilshere: Another one whose effort cannot be questioned and he does bring something special to the side, just not on a consistently decisive basis to cover up his lack of defensive awareness and recovery pace. There is a big learning curve in front of him if he has to go from a massive potential to a truly big player. Does deserve better protection from the referee.

Cazorla: Didn’t look ready but that doesn’t excuse the kind of performance he put in. Let his teammates and coaches down badly, not to mention the fans. His touch was poor, bordering on careless at times and that resulted in two turnovers that got Koscielny booked. Very bad choice to shoot from the edge of such a crowded box when a better pass down the inside channel was available. Having taken the shot he should have been alert to Luna’s movement but instead was simply watching the ball. Very disappointing from an experienced pro.

The midfield did not do enough to protect the defence and they did not have enough guile, skill, or coordination to offensively compensate for their defensive lapses. There is a strong case to be made for a top class defensive signing, particularly now that Diaby and Coquelin are also not there. But that doesn’t mean the players who are there shouldn’t be doing much better.

Walcott: Not his kind of game. Villa played deep and narrow for large periods and he was crowded out whenever he got near the penalty box. Nobody found him with a ball in behind with Wilshere missing the best opportunity by under-hitting a pass. He is a limited player and when the team can’t play to his strengths he will make a limited contribution. Surprising that he takes free-kicks.

Giroud: Good goal, combined beautifully with Rosicky on a couple of occasions, and another player whose effort was top notch. Finishing quality has always been average and that showed in some of the half-chances that he got. Needs to bring others into the game more often but that’s a matter of developing collective instincts.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Did well to hold his run and picked his pass well for the assist. Has to make himself available more often and be involved more. This was still a very individualistic performance from a player who has the potential but lacks the knowhow to benefit from his teammates’ skills.

All the three have something special to offer but they also have their own sets of limitations. In a game like this where the opponents gain confidence and hold their shape while the Gunners lose their tactical clarity, it’s always more likely that the limitations are exposed rather than their skills shining through. Again, there is a strong case to be made for buying a world class player who can make things happen but I’m not convinced there are too many around who would come to Arsenal (I don’t put Higuain in that category as he too has many limitations, Suarez might be the only (fading) hope).

Subs: Podolski came on very late in the game and I’ve covered the other two above.

Wenger: He will get a lot of flak for lack of signings but I’m more concerned by his inability to strike a balance between attack and defence for the duration of a season irrespective of the players he has out on the pitch. In my opinion this is linked with not having coaches from countries that are a little more advanced tactically and technically when compared to England/Britain.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Aston Villa

August 17, 2013

This summer has flown by so quickly I’m finding it hard to digest the fact that the new season kicks off today. But based on previous experience it’s not hard to understand that for most fans competitive action involving Arsenal could not begin soon enough. Let’s get straight to the game at hand.

It’s nigh on impossible to predict just how either side will perform in the first game of the season. Pre-season form is hardly a reliable measure and estimating the impact of transfers, especially the kind that Villa have made, is going to be a hard task even for Paul Lambert.

The Gunners are in a familiar boat, regrettably you might say, so it’s a little easier to anticipate the patterns of play we are likely to see. I haven’t had a chance to note the outstanding observations from the previous season but one of those was the improvement and importance of the collective defending.

Since the start of last season many players talked about working on the ‘shape of the team’, and we did see the results in the form of a compact display in many games, which, while it came at the cost of offensive potency, did result in vital points. On the other hand, the search for balance between an incisive attack and a stable defence was a season long quest that didn’t really end on any sort of a definitive note.

This pre-season I saw the team express it’s offensive qualities in patches that produced enthralling football but those were also marked with defensive lapses. At the same time there were periods of composure and control at the back (long periods against City for example) when the team seemed at ease without the ball.

The question is, what will we see at the Emirates today? At the time of writing I honestly can’t decide what mood the players will be in. If they are really confident we could see them coming out with greater offensive exuberance and that in turn will undoubtedly give Villa a few chances on the break. A more conservative mentality, that was so useful at the end of last season, could see a tight opening period with the hosts shading it towards the end phases.

Given the absence of Mikel Arteta and players like Diaby or Coquelin who brought in certain helpful defensive traits when they played in 12-13, I’m conditioning myself to be prepared for a few lapses in positioning and decision making from the midfield that will expose the back five. It won’t be a surprise if Lambert’s side score a goal or two tomorrow as long as they take their chances.

That means the Gunners will need two or more goals to win this game. Giroud showed an improved awareness of the goalposts during the pre-season games and Ramsey made some excellent offensive contributions. Walcott wasn’t quite as clinical as I’d like him to be during the friendly fixtures but his standout individual qualities can always be decisive. Add the talents of Wilshere, Cazorla, and Rosicky into the mix and there is sufficient reason to be optimistic about Arsenal’s chances against the Villa defence.

Wenger’s choices in midfield will be telling. Ramsey and Wilshere are exceptional talents with big futures ahead of them but will they have the maturity to curb their instincts and choose their moments for maximum impact if chosen to play in the deeper areas, particularly in tandem?!

The concern is not that Arsenal do not possess enough players to create and score goals against a young visiting side but more that an imbalanced midfield could give the visitors an early impetus while sucking the confidence out of the hosts, particularly if the crowd gets restless and starts heckling. It could easily turn into a very long 90 minutes if that dreaded handbrake comes on.

The back five can protect the goal as long as they get requisite cover from those in front. The entire team has to defend as a unit, something they showed they were capable of last season. Mertesacker’s leadership will be tested if the midfield duo in front is inexperienced and impetuous.

Wenger could also compensate for the loss of Arteta by asking Sagna to take on a more conservative role. By staying deeper he could cover his flank and probably free Koscielny up to cover behind Gibbs. However, I think the bigger problem could come from the fact that Benteke is likely to pull towards the left and could then link up with teammates to release Weimann or Agbonlahor in behind. Mertesacker would have a very hard time against the pace of the attackers if the Belgian constantly engages Koscielny in duels. Again, Sagna’s presence in deeper areas and his ability to track the runners before making vital interventions could prove decisive.

With all that in mind, I’m going to watch the first game to see – 1) How much confidence the players have, 2) The kind of fitness and concentration levels they show and the quality of their performance late in the game, 3) Their ability to hold on to or turn around the result depending on the circumstances, and 4) Whether the crowd has a positive or negative impact on the performance.

Arsene has a few choices to make for his starting eleven. The back five should probably pick themselves, although Fabianski might say he deserves a start ahead of Szczesny.

The midfield is where the big question marks are. I’d not pick Cazorla with Wilshere and Ramsey. Rosicky would add a bit more discipline without forcing Santi into a conservative role. Little Mozart is also more natural at dropping back if his younger cohorts dash forward more often than necessary. Is he fully fit?

I’d like to see,

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

The upcoming weeks have some crucial fixtures and confidence could be a big factor. Any kind of a performance/result combination that helps on that front should be good enough. Obviously, a win will always help and the bigger the better, but that’s not the only option. For instance, if the team completely dominates the game and only picks up a point because Guzan produced some miracle saves, then that too could help with the confidence. Similarly, a late turnaround or a dramatic comeback to even tie the game can generate positive momentum. In the same vein, a late collapse, even if it’s just a draw, would be just as crushing as any defeat.

Right now I can imagine an easy win, a ground out result, a score draw, and a bitterly disappointing defeat all happening with equal probability. Some fans will be a lot more optimistic and others will take a grim view. Whatever you chose, don’t lose sight of the relevant details and don’t forget to enjoy the game!

Thoughts On The Champions League Group Phase And Second Round Possibilities

December 8, 2011

After a long time, Europe’s premier competition has thrown up a few surprises and plenty of excitement. At the time of the draw few, if any, would have expected United to bow out. Fewer still would have expected the Gunners to qualify from a tough group before the other three English clubs and with a game to spare. City had a tricky set of fixtures so their plight is not that big a surprise, although, given their scale of investment, it sure seems shameful. Looking back, this opening phase does put a lot of things in perspective.

Not that long ago there was all this talk of Arsenal being in a crisis and some even suggested the Gunners will first, struggle to get past Udinese, and then after they qualified, fail to get out of the group. These thoughtless opinions fell flat as most doom and gloom predictions usually do.

The problem with many pundits and the misery brigade is that they jump from observations to conclusions without going through a due analysis phase. I doubt even the staunchest Wenger fans or positive Gooners will ever claim this was a great summer for Arsenal. The squad was stretched at the beginning of the season and the start for far from ideal. Observations along those lines were valid. But people form erroneous opinions because, among other things, they don’t realize just how important Wenger’s experience and football knowledge is.

Last season Lille, Porto, and Borussia Dortmund were flying high. They were collecting accolades, deservedly so, from all and sundry for their domestic title winning exploits, and in the case of the Portuguese side it also included the trophy that will be coveted by the Manchester clubs this year. What I want to know is, how many of those showering compliments at these sides have noticed that all three have been dumped out of the group phase this year? Dortmund and Lille finished bottom of their group while Porto came in third behind APOEL and Zenit!

The point here is not to berate these clubs. Their players, managers, and staff must be trying their best. And there is no shame when it doesn’t work out because sensible people realize being consistent at the highest level is extremely tough. And that is why Arsenal’s consistency has to be acknowledged and appreciated. Winning trophies in Portugal, France, or Germany is commendable. But that does not mean those teams are better than Arsenal. So even though the Gunners haven’t won anything in ‘whatever’ years, they have been doing better than many of the trophy winning squads around Europe. If the recent Arsenal sides had been playing in one of these leagues with lesser competition, they’d have won the titles. It wouldn’t have made them better than what they were but the perceptions of many would have been different. So if you think about it calmly, it would seem the problem is more with the perceptions than with Arsenal FC. That is the reason Arsene calls it “artificial pressure”. Sadly, when fans get so caught up in it, even the players get afflicted.

Don’t get me wrong, the idea is not to say everything is fine and the Gunners don’t have any cause for concern. Those who have followed this blog for a while know I always voice my opinion about problems that I believe are hampering the Arsenal title challenges. Indeed, just yesterday a number of regular readers told me I was becoming too negative!

Criticism per se, is not wrong. But those wishing to voice their concern must demonstrate that they are at least trying to understand the developmental work being done. Unbridled negativity is detrimental. Problems, whatever you might consider as one, should be discussed within the right context. For instance, I would say the first half against Olympiacos was embarrassing. You may agree or disagree but nothing can take away the achievement of the team that provided the cushion for that disappointment. There is no sense in jumping from the observations about that half to predictions about a disastrous season.

One just has to look at Arsenal’s games against Marseille and Dortmund to get an idea about the amount of effort being put in the by the players and the manager. Those were not flukes. And looking at the performances of the other English sides, I can’t believe any of the three would have gone unbeaten in those four games. Throw in the current run in the League and one can see the foundations of a strong side building.

Of course there are areas of improvement. Games against Fulham, City, and Olympiacos have showed just as much. There is an issue with depth, especially given the injury problems that Arsenal invariably have. One can also ask questions about tactics and the defence. Some of you might have other complaints as well, I have just pointed out thoughts at the top of my mind. It’s fair to raise these questions but they should always be discussed while keeping the progressive effort in the background.

As I discussed in this article about Arsenal’s So Near Yet So Far predicament, the positives far outweigh the negatives at Arsenal. They always have. One just has to learn to see the broader picture.

Moving forward, the second phase throws up some interesting possibilities for the Gunners. Napoli, CSKA Moscow, Basel, Lyon, Bayer Leverkusen, Zenit St. Petersburg, and AC Milan are all likely opponents. If all the key players are fit I would be glad to take any of those sides on, but if I had to choose I’d go with Basel or Lyon.

From the quarter-final stage onwards, if Arsenal get through – let’s not be presumptuous, it’s a lot about luck. Barcelona could draw Madrid with Bayern in the same segment of the draw. Who knows how things might turn out. Only one team can win it and a bit of fortune will certainly help. It’s worth noting that I am not claiming Arsenal are as good as the other sides mentioned. A lot more needs to be done before the Gunners can reach the level we have seen from these European giants this season.

Speaking about luck, fitness will be a key factor. Wilshere and Diaby are to come back and hopefully the full-backs will also return one by one. As long as the Gunners don’t lose more than they regain things should be fine. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a one-to-one relationship though. Arsenal could have everyone back but losing Van Persie will still be a massive blow. That’s just the way things are. You cannot get players of that calibre easily.

In fact, the struggles of Chelsea and City (and Liverpool in the League) again prove that buying can never be a quick fix. It’s taken close to a Billion petrodollars and over three years for City to build a team that looks like it can win the Premiership. But they still can’t hack it in the Champions League. Chelsea tried going for youth in the last few years and failed miserably. Now they’re back to buying big but it hasn’t worked out so well thus far. Finding players better than the ones at Arsenal is not an easy task. I know people can throw names of Squillaci, Djourou, Arshavin, and the likes at me right now but these things are just not that straightforward. Anyway, that is a discussion for another time. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to see Arsenal getting a world class striker, playmaker, and a versatile defensive player. Just that when it doesn’t happen I will still respect the work being done.

Arsenal 2 – 1 Bolton: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 26, 2011

When I saw the starting line-ups, my initial reaction was that this was going to be a very tough game that will demand a special performance from the Gunners if they were to qualify. After the final whistle, I doubt anyone will argue that it wasn’t an exceptional effort from an interesting collection of young and experienced footballers in red and white.

Arsenal had Yennaris and Miquel in full back positions while Coquelin and Frimpong manned the centre of midfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain was the right sided winger. The other six players in the side were an experienced lot but most of them haven’t had enough games this season.

I thought the first half was a cagey affair as both sides were intent on keeping it safe. As we have seen in some of the recent games, the Gunners kept the midfield deeper and closer to the defence. This made the team fairly solid at the back. Rarely was a defender exposed. But it meant a shortage of numbers and runs in the attacking areas.

Bolton had similar tactics and dropped back when the Gunners were in possession. I must say that was a real surprise and is probably a reflection on their abysmal confidence at the moment. A more positive start from the visitors would have tested the mix-n-match selection that Arsene had to put out.

If memory serves, the opening period was just about shots from distance. Pratley was the first to test Fabianski with a blistering strike. That was Bolton’s first real attacking move after 20 minutes of Arsenal’s dominance. The Gunners though, weren’t really able to make the possession count till that time.

A couple of minutes later Park tested the Keeper from 25+ yards. Soon after, Kakuta beat Miquel with a stepover but then hit it straight at Fabianski. In the 33rd minute Benayoun fashioned a half-chance from a difficult angle on the left edge of the box but couldn’t get enough curve on the ball. Vermaelen then forced a big save from a set-piece that was rolled to him by Arshavin. Finally, shortly before half-time, Arshavin and Park combined to create an opening for the Korean skipper. His strike from the edge of the box was well directed but Bogdan was able to parry it for a corner.

There wasn’t much in it as the youngsters were working really hard. Bolton weren’t playing a dirty game and that helped.

Coyle, after sensing an opportunity, must have instructed his players to press higher up the pitch. Within a couple of minutes of the restart, Muamba caught Frimpong in possession halfway inside the Arsenal area and then went on to finish after exchanging passes with the impressive Pratley.

The visitors were able to pin Arsenal back but were caught on the break twice in quick succession. Less than five minutes after scoring, Bolton were camped in the Arsenal half and were threatening the goal from a corner situation. Fabianski was able to make the save and launched it forward towards Benayoun for a quick break. For a moment the throw appeared ill-advised as the Israeli was dispossessed. But Benayoun and Alex did well to win the ball back. The youngster lobbed it into space wide on the right for his senior teammate. Benayoun sensibly held the ball and waited for support. Arshavin accepted a pass and ambled into the box looking for options. With no real passing options available, the Russian placed his strike beautifully into the far corner.

A couple of minutes later Ju-Young Park scored the winner from another fast break. Coquelin did brilliantly to win the ball inside the Arsenal half and play it forward to the Russian with one touch. Park had strayed off-side but Arshavin held the ball long enough to give his striker a chance to adjust as the Bolton defenders backtracked. The Russian captain’s ball was perfectly weighted and the Korean skipper planted it into the far side with one touch.

Subsequently, Bolton tried hard and created a number of chances. Fabianski was a bit shaky but did enough to keep the ball out. At the other end Arsenal too had some opportunities on the break but couldn’t get the extra goal cushion.

Towards the end, worryingly, Frimpong and Vermaelen came off with injuries. Hopefully, it won’t be serious.

It wasn’t a sublime performance but the diligence and determination of the players was commendable. It was a physical and mental challenge, and one that the youngsters have passed with flying colours. And as Arsene said, credit to the experienced players for taking charge and making their quality count.

Individual Performances:

Fabianksi: Made a number of vital saves but had one or two iffy moments where Bolton fans would say he got lucky. Looked fairly confident and that is important.

Yennaris: Superb. Just loved his positioning, tackling, and tenacity. Best of the five youngsters on the pitch. A very pleasant surprise.

Squillaci: Looked better than Cahill to me! Definitely a more assured performance reminiscent of his good period with Djourou in defence. Won a number of headers, was present in the right areas, fairly composed on the ball.

Vermaelen: Very dominant at the back. Read the game well, made a number of vital tackles, great strike at goal. Did make a mistake of leaving a cross  for Fabianski once when Klasnic got in behind. Overall a very satisfying return. More is definitely expected.

Miquel: Struggled a bit in one-v-one situations but did well when he got tight to his man. Looks like he’s grown in confidence and physically. Has to improve his contribution in the attacking areas but that’s for a later date.

I thought the defenders did very, very well. The full backs didn’t bomb forward as often as their first team counterparts do. It was a safe approach and a shrewd one. Bolton still created some chances late in the game and there are gaps in the collective defending but individually it was fairly good.

Coquelin: A touch erratic with his touch and passing but looked technically better than some of the Bolton first-team players. Very energetic performance with appreciable defensive tracking and tackling.

Benayoun: Swapped positions with Arshavin and moved over the pitch seamlessly. Wasn’t as influential on the ball as I’d have liked but clearly it’s a matter of having the right understanding with others. That takes time and regular games. Also worked hard defensively, especially providing good cover on the left.

Frimpong: Was a beast physically and won a number of individual battles. Made some excellent tackles as well. But there was a lackadaisical part of his game that saw him caught in possession a few times and led to trouble. Needs more urgency even if just playing the ball out from the back. It’s a mental issue as he certainly has the ability to do better.

The midfield wasn’t as dominant as Arsenal’s usually is but that was to be expected. They still outperformed and, more importantly,  outworked their experienced opponents. Must have been a great experience for the young duo.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Probably the most erratic Arsenal player on the pitch. Has bags of talent but also a long learning curve ahead. Kakuta is an excellent example of how a talented player could struggle to make a big impact. Needs to listen to Arsene and continue working hard without paying any attention to unnecessary hype.

Park: Wasn’t in the game for the first twenty minutes despite Arsenal’s possession dominance. Got some confidence after his first strike on goal. Impressed with his shooting technique and movement. Good work rate.

Arshavin: Better physical effort than usual. Excellent finish, wonderful assist. His class was apparent and did well to guide the younger players constantly. MotM in my opinion.

The attackers were isolated for large parts of the game but delivered when they got a chance to combine. Their vision, passing, and finishing was a couple of notches above the visitors’ strikers.

Subs: Miyaichi showed exciting pace, determination, and footwork but needs to develop physically or he will be brushed off the ball far too easily. Ozyakup filled in efficiently for Frimpong. Boateng wasn’t really tested in the final five minutes as the Gunners had bodies back when needed and Bolton missed their half-chances.

Wenger: Hats off to the manager for getting a result with such a young side. He’s clearly taken a very conservative tactical approach in the last few games to rebuild the side’s confidence and it’s paying dividends even if at the short-term cost of flamboyance. In a way it was amusing to recall some people actually suggested last season that Coyle should replace Wenger at Arsenal.

Could Arsenal Have Done Better In The Transfer Market?

September 2, 2011

Like most fans, and quite probably Arsene Wenger himself, I wanted to see decisive action from the Gunners in the transfer market. Sort out the situation with those who want to leave, sign replacements in time, have a good pre-season, and start the season with confidence and stability. I will be surprised if anyone, irrespective of their feelings towards the manager or the board, disagrees with that. But the simple fact is that it didn’t happen.

At this point one can either go on and on about how it should have been and why it’s all a mess or actually put in some effort to comprehend the behind the scenes activities.

I want to share my view of how things might have gone. This includes a fair bit of speculation but I’m trying to see if it all makes sense instead of some individuals looking like complete fools, which we know they aren’t.

Clearly, the most important transfers were those of players who went out rather than those who came in. I have no doubt in my mind, at the start of the summer, Wenger wanted to keep Fabregas and Nasri.

Given the way these transfers were protracted, it is understandable that some fans don’t really care for one, if not both, of these players. But that does not change the fact that their quality is very, very hard to replace. Almost everyone agrees about the talent that Cesc has but Nasri is a bit open for debate due to a lack of tangible contribution in the latter part of the previous season.

What I do know is that Mancini spent a crazy amount of money for someone in the final year of his contract (That might actually be the world record, need to check). And Mancini is neither a fool nor is he short of options/resources. Blanc and Ferguson also rate Nasri very highly and United too made a sizeable bid if reports are to be believed.

So it is clear that players like Nasri are not easy to find even when you have the money. His performance in the first game for his new team kind of reinforces this point. Anyway, my intention is not to eulogize a player who has left but to establish the point that Wenger wanted to keep Nasri and Cesc and for good reason.

We don’t know when it was clear that these players must be sold or whose decision it was. That makes any analysis extremely complicated.

Some very astute writers have mentioned that Wenger should have set a deadline for Barcelona. Pay X amount by so and so date or the transfer is off. It is a logical approach and indeed many teams do place such conditions. Why then did Arsene not do it?

Is it a simple matter of indecision? Do you really think someone who is working hard every day to improve this team, could clearly see the impact of dragging this on, and has more experience in such matters than almost all of us put together would not make the transfer simply because he cannot make his mind up?

Or do you believe Wenger (and anyone in the staff) does not know the concept of setting a deadline for transfers? Is it such a difficult thought or do we give the guy who has demonstrated more intelligence than most some benefit of the doubt here?

I don’t think setting a deadline could have worked till the first competitive game came up, which is when the Cesc transfer gathered momentum anyway. Any deadline before that, and Arsenal might actually have set one, would be meaningless.

Suppose Arsenal set a deadline before the Asia tour. Barcelona refuse to meet the asking price but tell Fabregas to hang in there as they are working on generating some money through fringe player sales. It’s not the right thing but we know they had been in touch with Cesc for over two years but that is a separate issue so I don’t want to digress.

At that stage if Fabregas refuses to travel, what choice do Arsenal have? Let’s not forget he is a human and not a machine who can switch his mental focus and energies at the press of a button. Should Wenger force him into the starting line-up? What impact would it have if he didn’t concentrate and the fans turned on him? What chance would Arsenal have of actually keeping him and getting some value out of him after that? It would have played straight into the hands of Barcelona if it became clear that Cesc had no future whatsoever at Arsenal.

My best guess is that Arsene left Fabregas out because he was in no frame of mind to play, especially in pre-season friendlies, and was trying to create a scenario where the Spaniard would choose to stay. Whether Cesc put his foot down and demanded a move or the board refused to back Wenger is hard to speculate. I feel if Cesc wanted to push a move through he could have done it earlier – he too must have suffered a lot – but he has shown a lot of class and values in his eight years at Arsenal so I find that hard to accept.

Ultimately, the only realistic deadline of a competitive game came and Fabregas knew that by refusing to play at that level he will be hurting the club that he loves. Excuses like injury cannot go on forever and being cup-tied would make things very difficult. Something had to give and the move happened in a manner that suited Barcelona and Fabregas but not Arsenal. With hindsight and all the facts, it might emerge that Arsenal/Arsene made some mistakes in handling this situation. Given the complexity involved, I will be amazed if some mistakes were not made. But please, let’s not turn this into a video game where one click can sell a player and another can buy one.

The Nasri saga was perhaps intertwined with the Fabregas move. This is pure conjecture but I believe Arsene would have let Nasri go earlier if Cesc was staying. Replacing two players of this level is just not possible in the current market on Arsenal’s budget.

If we believe the strong rumours in the press, sizeable bids for M’Villa and Goetze were turned down. According to reports Arsene was also interested in Jadson, Lucho Gonzalez, Gourcuff, Cahill, Jagielka, and others. Some of those might have little substance but there can be little doubt Arsenal have been actively looking for players.

When sellings clubs are not under pressure it’s hard to force the transfers through even if a club is willing to pay. If Cesc and Barcelona didn’t have the relationship they had, Arsene probably would have shown a lot more determination in keeping Fabregas than Bolton or Dortmund did, for instance.

There is an argument that Wenger could have sanctioned the moves for the likes of Gary Cahill at their asking price. It would have given the team a much needed boost and the new signing some time to settle in. After all he did that with Gervinho and, for whatever it’s currently worth, with Jenkinson and AOC.

The point that many people miss is that signing a player is not just about his fee or wages, both of which are major factors undeniably, but it is also about having a more comprehensive longer term plan. If Arsenal pay over the odds for two or three players, it would put a significant dent into the budget and would leave little room for a plan B in case someone flops or picks up a serious injury.

It’s not a simple matter of being stingy or stubborn. Why do you think Ferguson and Wenger (even Dalglish if I am not mistaken) were willing to pay big money for Jones but neither of them has splashed out on Cahill who is reportedly priced in the same range?

Surely, Alex Ferguson would prefer a player with three years of Premiership experience over a relative rookie, don’t you think? This is where, as fans, we need to respect the extraordinary knowledge and understanding of the game that these men possess. And we must acknowledge the fact that they are thinking things through, which is not the same as checking whether you have sufficient money in the bank to pay the fee demanded.

Managers need to put a value on a targets head because they know how much money they have, how many players they need, and also the contingency plan in case things go awry. If the price demanded is far in excess of that value, the deal would make no sense except to those who can’t go beyond basic arithmetic.

My theory, and again this is just guesswork, is that Arsene knew he will need big money to replace Cesc and Nasri (consider the bids for M’Villa and Goetze) so he could not break the bank for the likes of Cahill and/or Jagielka.

I think all through the summer Arsenal have tried hard to keep their best players, made a number of enquiries and some serious bids when that didn’t work, and finally signed the best possible players given the circumstances. They also made a couple of early signings to fill some gaps in the squad.

There is no doubt in my mind that some of these players were not first choice, which is also a factor in the time it took for Arsenal to arrive at these names. A couple are also short term signings who will quite possibly be replaced in a year or two. There is every reason to believe the club will again make big bids for really talented players, probably in January or the summer. Whether that will work out in Arsenal’s favour or not is an entirely different issue.

This also explains the need for the price hike. The primary intent is not to make money – although there could be better ways of handling things – but to strengthen the squad. It does not translate into spending for the sake of spending but demands a more meticulous and sensible buying strategy, the effects of which we should see within a year or so.

Some people think that the 8-2 result forced Wenger to spend. With due respect, that is just ridiculous. All through the summer it has been clear that Wenger wanted to strengthen the squad –by filling the gaps, by trying to keep the best players, and by buying replacements.

Spending crazy money on the likes of Cahill would, in my book, be classified as panic buying because that would completely disrupt the accounts and the amounts remaining for future signings. Buying five players in the last two days for slightly more than the cost of one is not a sign of desperation. It is a culmination of a lot of hard work that went in the prior months.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of opinion available on the internet and in the media but not enough thought. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying this is the only way to think about the whole situation but it does show the need to carefully consider and integrate various issues. Far too often, problems and transfers are analyzed and discussed in isolation. Nothing of any significance can be that trivial.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate what I said in the previous post. The transfers that Arsenal have done in the closing stages of the window are not ideal or without their own issues. For instance, one can argue that Clichy had been sold early enough in the window and a replacement should have been brought in sooner. I find it hard to argue against that.

Moreover, some players are injury prone, some don’t have premiership experience, one or two might be showing a decline in form, and so on. There are valid arguments against some of the signings. At the same time, one could highlight their experience, past performances, and individual qualities like set-piece delivery or height to support the signings. All these points are valid too and the ones you choose to focus on will only be a reflection on your mentality and nothing else.

In addition, I’d say that the venom in one’s voice or the degree of frustration towards the club or its employees, when not supported by necessary and sufficient fact based analysis, is nothing more than the failure of an individual to come to grips with the complexity of the situation.

I am reminded of a one-liner I read a long time ago – Always remember, two plus two equals five for extremely large values of two! It sounds absurd and I am using it completely out of context, but I feel in life often there are hidden complications – just like there can be hidden values after a decimal point on a calculator or spreadsheet – which completely change the outcome. Even when we don’t know these snags we must find a way to factor them into our analysis before we arrive at an opinion.

The simple and obvious answer to the question in the headline is quite possibly – “Yes”, but the real answer? I will leave that up to you.

Udinese Challenge Makes It A Thrilling Fortnight

August 5, 2011

Newcastle (A) – Udinese (H) – Liverpool (H) – Udinese (A) – Manchester United (A)

Five games in 16 days, each with its unique degree of significance. I don’t like dramatizing the consequences of each match, especially at the start, but one gets the feeling, before the end of August Doodh ka doodh, paani ka paani ho jayega. I don’t know the perfect way of expressing that in English but – truth will out – seems succinctly appropriate in the context.

I believe starting at the venue of last season’s calamitous 4-4 draw can provide a strong impetus. The Barcodes have let two key players leave while others like Enrique and Barton don’t seem to be too happy.

After that Arsenal have the first leg of a tricky Champions League Qualifier. Udinese are an exciting team that are more than capable of springing a surprise. I would have been a lot more comfortable if it had been Twente, Zurich, or Odense but off late the Gunners seem to have developed a knack of drawing the strongest side in the draw.

This article provides some interesting details about the Italian side’s tactics and strengths. It will be interesting to see whether they still follow the 3-5-2 described in that piece or the transfers of key men like Sanchez, Inler, and Zapata forces their manager to modify his style. Assuming the guy is as good as he is rated; I won’t be surprised if he too tries to blend younger players into a system that he believes in. That should make for an exciting tactical contest.

These two games should provide a complete test for Arsenal. Udinese will be hard to break down, are dangerous on counter-attacks, have excellent free-kick takers, can cross and finish with accuracy, and will test the Gunners with balls over the top, especially second balls from set-pieces.

Di Natale will obviously be the biggest threat offensively. I have a feeling Vermaelen will struggle against his movement in and around the box. It will also be interesting to see how Koscielny deals with him.

I will try to cover this in more detail in the pre-match write-ups. For now you can enjoy these excellent, well-edited highlights from almost all their games last season on the club’s website.

Then there are games against Liverpool and United, teams that have been amongst the biggest spenders this summer. By popular logic, Arsenal should lose both games comfortably because the opponents have strengthened considerably whereas the Gunners have been indecisive and dormant in the transfer market. It might all change in the next couple of weeks but can any new arrival make a big difference in such a short period of time? I am going to watch these games to see whether Wenger and his players can get the better of popular opinion once again.

There are two home games after the visit to Newcastle and they should give us a fair indication of the vibes in the stadium. Will the Gunners have to perform this season despite the fans or will the fans finally make their presence felt on a consistently positive basis? Only time will tell, but I don’t have a good feeling about this.

Nevertheless, from a football point of view this fortnight should be a feast.

Analyzing The Real Problems Afflicting Arsenal’s Football – Part I

August 4, 2011

I want to start off by acknowledging the response to the previous article. Thank you. And I am sorry I wasn’t able to respond to the many considered opinions that were shared. Right now I am really struggling for time, which is also forcing me into compressing two or three articles worth of content in one.

In this piece I want to focus on a key systemic issue at Arsenal. Regular readers know that I have been talking about weaknesses in the system for a long time and have covered some in the past.

I believe the system of play is a team’s single biggest strength. This comes from the manager and the way he thinks about football. It could also be a philosophy of the club as is the case of Barcelona. Often the two are interlinked.

In order to understand this ask yourself the following questions – How can Wenger keep Arsenal in the top four even while fielding the likes of Almunia, Eboue, Denilson and Diaby in the starting line-up on a regular basis while other managers like O’Neill, or those at Tottenham, spent a lot more money on supposedly established stars but failed to dislodge the Gunners? Why didn’t Manchester United struggle after losing and not replacing the likes of Tevez and Ronaldo? Why was Ibrahimovic a flop at Barcelona, even when the club was successful? Why is the same Ibra a success in Italy?

None of these questions have straightforward answers and they lead us back to the quality of the managers and the systems they use. Ibrahimovic didn’t fit into the Barcelona style. Ferguson and Wenger have much stronger systems than their counterparts at other clubs. This allows them to get more out of their players and they can dominate other teams that spend a lot more money.

A system, in my opinion, is not limited to the numerical formation. A 4-3-3 system deployed by two managers can be as different as sugar and salt. Take a look at the two World Cup finalists as a case in point.

Wenger has often said that the system he plays is based on the players he has. It’s not as simple as 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. A lot of details go into making a distinctive style and as Vermaelen was quoted on the official website today, it’s the little details that make a difference.

I want to look at a few snapshots from the 3-3 draw with the Tiny Totts towards the end of last season. This example is from the 88th minute. I would suggest that you not focus on the instance per se but more on the conceptual discussion.

In the first image we see that Song has just played a pass to Cesc who is running towards the opposition box. Wilshere is next to him and moving in the same direction. Sagna and Bendtner can be seen on the flank. Arshavin, who is supposed to be the left sided attacker, is on the edge of the box.

Click on the image to view a larger version

The Russian and Cesc were able to pass the ball in a tight space which created half a shooting chance for Fabregas. It is interesting to note that only Van Persie is in the box. Bendtner can hardly contribute from his wide position.

Click on the image to view a larger version

The shot is blocked and it falls to Wilshere. Note the two Spurs players just outside their box. These players are free and can counter attack if an opportunity arises.

Click on the image to view a larger version

Eventually, Wilshere chooses to cross with only the Dutchman as the target. The ball floats harmlessly over as he is well marshalled by the two central defenders.

Click on the image to view a larger version

In the final image, it is important to note the positions of Bendtner, Wilshere, Arshavin, Cesc, Sagna, and Song. If the ball had been headed out or intercepted, Spurs would have had a break on as the six players above and Van Persie would have been out of the game because of their positions and the way they are facing.

Song would have to compete for the ball and the two players on the edge of the box could easily play a one two around him to get into yards of space with only two central defenders and perhaps Clichy in front of them. This could easily lead to a three-on-three or a four-on-three situation.

In this case it did not happen but just ask yourself how many times have you seen the ball move from the attacking third to Arsenal’s defensive third in less than 10 seconds?

Here is an excellent video of a similar situation, although there are some differences it shows how easy it can be for a team to transition from attack to defence against Arsenal. The replay around the 17 second mark is from an excellent angle.

At the same time it is important to note that more often than not the defenders do make a block, tackle, interception, or clearance. Otherwise the Gunners would concede a dozen goals in each game. Defenders, when put in such situations regularly, can look like chumps but that’s not the right way to judge them.

The problem is that such transitions lead to a number of free-kicks, corners, and throw-ins in dangerous territories. This increases the chances for the opposition to score and puts pressure on Arsenal.

It also affects the confidence of both sides. The opponents know they will always get some chances. Wenger’s men are always wary of making a mistake.

Overall this affects the balance of play and reduces the impact that Arsenal can have with all their possession. That is the reason teams might consider facing Barcelona, United, or Chelsea (in their pomp) a monumental task but they’d always fancy their chances against Arsenal.

These situations are also linked to the decision making by players which in turn is related to their confidence and mentality at the given moment.

When the team is on a roll players tend to make better judgment calls and the whole unit looks a lot more compact and threatening. When they are down, small errors creep in. Someone might cross the ball when teammates are out of position, another might not be ready to chase back, a tackle might be mistimed, and so on. These are the little details that make a world of difference.

In general, when a football team is attacking, it must also be prepared to defend at a moment’s notice. Barcelona do this by having a large number of players in a small space that leads to their suffocating pressing. Most teams rarely get past this but as Arsenal showed, once you do that, the chances of scoring against the Catalans increase manifold. More importantly, Barcelona rarely play a risky pass when many of their players are out of position or on the wings.

Take another look at the last image above and ask yourself, would a Barcelona player ever cross the ball in such a situation? The odds of success are too low and the risk of a counter-attack is high. They just don’t do it. This comes from an instinctive understanding of the game and only when the players have been in a system for a long time. That is one of the reasons it is important to keep the squad together to the extent possible.

United have a different approach. They are a predominantly defence focussed side i.e. they go out with the intention of not conceding before they think of scoring. They also do this by focussing on the shape of the team. Even when they are camped in the opposition half you will never see two of their central midfielders out wide on a wing at the same time along with their wide player and fullback. They get into a shape so that two or three players are available in the box, someone is covering the opposite flank, and at least two players are present between the opposition box and their central defenders. Such a functional approach limits their ability to attack (still it is better than most) and is found out when the opposition is top class but it works for them in most games as they lose very few.

Arsenal are somewhere in between. In some games, especially away ones, we saw more focus on defending and maintaining the shape last season. And we saw the results in the form of the best away record in the League. In other matches, the team tried to dominate the ball and played an attacking, possession based style. Those games had mixed results.

Based on these observations, I believe Wenger will have to work really hard on improving the shape of the team during moments of transition i.e when Arsenal have to move from attack to defence. This is not an easy task but if you look closely enough it’s clear that they are working hard. The away games last season and some of those against the big teams showed the impact of the work being done to improve in this area. But a lot more needs to be done. The pre-season games, while friendly in nature and intended for fitness and development purposes, have shown that the team shape is not at the level needed and the opponents are able to move from their defensive third to the attacking third within seconds.

One big change could come in the form of limiting the number of players who have the freedom to roam. In the above example, we could see that Arshavin was a long way from his designated areas, Cesc naturally had a free role, and Wilshere too was overlapping Fabregas. In the pre-season games so far, Wilshere has shown the tendency to move forward with the ball. It looks good when he can drop the shoulder and beat a man or two but it affects the team. Nasri and Arshavin didn’t get on the ball often enough and eventually got crowded out.

Keeping Wilshere in deeper positions and having him pull the strings while having a broader view of the pitch can make a big difference. He has the talent to switch the flanks effectively, put in telling balls over the top when the defence is reorganizing, and also chase/tackle when the opposition gets the ball.

This might not be the only solution or a comprehensive one but it should make a difference.

If the players have to have the freedom, a lot more emphasis is needed on retaining possession – no obvious passes than can easily be intercepted, lesser number of crosses, etc. – when they are out of position and exposing the defence. The positioning of the fullbacks can also be altered to provide better cover down the middle.

Similar analysis can be done for transitions from defence to attack but I’ll leave it for another day. Then there are issues with defending set-pieces and some others that I want to cover if I get the chance.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not supposed to be a definitive opinion. Fans and students of the game cannot come up with those as we know very little. I doubt even managers like Redknapp, O’Neill, Hughes, et al. can come up with truly authoritative problem definitions and solutions as far as the Gunners are concerned. If they could, they’d have created teams better than the Arsenal by now!

I realize many people like clear cut answers. Media hacks, pundits, and some bloggers provide that. Unfortunately, nothing worthwhile works that way.

Fans have to acknowledge the complicated nature of issues involved and an honest effort is needed to understand them before one can comment on finding solutions. This is just a step in that direction. With your help I will try to go further down this road during the season.