Thoughts On Welbeck And The Transfer Window

September 6, 2014

When I was watching the England team at the World Cup, the biggest question in my mind was, “Why is Welbeck starting for this team?”

Sure, he’s a quick player, and Hodgson was clearly quite gung-ho about pace, but the then United man has hardly offered anything beyond work rate on the flank throughout his career. There were better players for the central striker role and it was hard to see him fit in anywhere other than the bench. The youngster might have had more of an impact as a late sub if he’d played around the goal and the penalty box.

That is not the same thing as saying Welbeck is not good enough or an outright bad player. He is very talented, just also somewhat limited. Just like Giroud, or Sanogo, or Chicharito, or Remy, or Bony, or most of the other forwards currently playing in the top leagues. I think he’s good enough to play in the Premier League but not sure if he’s good enough to lead the line for a team that wants to win it. At least not yet.

The hard fact is that there are very few complete players, and the proportion is even smaller when it comes to strikers because it’s a very tough job demanding exceptional technique and timing along with other qualities.

Most players have a unique mix of traits that makes them very useful in certain situations, while their weaknesses can make them look like absolute chumps in other instances. A lot of transfers fail because people are not able to assess how an individual’s qualities will improve or worsen once the context in which he is playing is changed.

Welbeck has obviously not been a success at United despite being one of the hot prospects in his younger days. 2011-12 was a good season for him in terms of playing time and goals but Ferguson went ahead and bought Van Persie instead of relying on the home grown talent to develop and deliver. The difference was clear and decisive. The Dutchman won them the league. The Englishman would not have.

I have some sympathy with Welbeck because his path has always been blocked by some genuinely top class players. And he didn’t get to play in his favoured position. I like the fact that he’s willing to move from his boyhood club in search of regular playing time. At Arsenal, particularly with Giroud injured, Danny should not face either of these problems.

Welbeck does not have the decisive level needed to star in a central striking role for a team that wants to win the major trophies. Nevertheless, he has age on his side and the raw material is there. Some of his physical attributes like pace, height, and power are very useful. These are, however, secondary qualities. You will, for example, be able to find a lot of people who are as tall, and strong, and fast as Thierry Henry. Even when given the exact same training, most of those people will not become lethal strikers like the Frenchman.

In that sense, this is a good test for both the player and his new manager. Can Wenger guide him to that elusive decisive level? Can the player build on his traits and use his hunger to hit heights he’s not even come close to before?

Technique is harder to develop after a certain age. But he’s already way ahead of Sanogo on that front and should be able to do better by playing centrally on a consistent basis. It remains an area of improvement but there is hope. The biggest question is whether he can develop the game intelligence and instinct that the top strikers have. This is harder to learn and can be a very innate thing. He needs to go up a couple of notches to really get close to the best strikers around the world.

Space is at a premium in and around the opposition goal. The best players have to be aware of where it exists at a given moment (changes all the time), need the ability to manoeuvre space (simple example is going to back post and then darting forward), must know where the goalposts are even when playing with back to goal or making horizontal/diagonal runs, should possess the ability to read the defender’s qualities and identify his weaknesses that they can exploit, and must make the right decisions on a consistent basis.

Any guy scoring goals in the Premier League has these qualities to some degree. You can see Welbeck’s instincts from the runs he makes, the way he adapts his body shape to get shots off, the little dinks over the keeper, and so on. The very best have an extraordinary level of consistency and they can repeat the output against different types of teams and in varying conditions. These are players who can produce a decisive moment out of nothing. Can Wenger take Welbeck to a level where he is ready for all challenges? We’ll have to watch and find out.

I understand if this article leaves you a little confused about my opinion of this deal. I don’t see this a great acquisition or as a panic buy. It seems like an opportunity arose and Wenger has taken it. There is no guarantee of success but the probability of meaningful short term impact and long term development into a top class player is high enough to take the associated risk. Wenger would most probably have preferred someone like Falcao or Reus, as would we. It’s natural to feel a little underwhelmed because of that. Just don’t get bogged down.

There are very real and exciting possibilities based on how things work out. I think Welbeck will be a threat from a lot of those runs behind the defence, which Giroud rarely makes and Sanogo doesn’t capitalize on. He will also gel well with other speed merchants in the side.

It’s not hard to imagine Walcott or Chamberlain bursting past the defence on the right with Danny taking up intelligent positions in front of goal. It could be a very fruitful attacking avenue for the Gunners if he can work on clever movement and develop on the odd unorthodox but instinctive finish that he’s shown to go with simpler conversions.

It may take a while to click but he also possesses the ability to play delectable combinations in and around the penalty box. Sanchez thrived on those at Barca and with Chile. Watch out for the one-twos between these two. I can also visualize him dropping into a hole just in front of the defence before sliding a ball through with one touch for a player like Oxlade-Chamberlain, or Walcott, or even Debuchy to run onto. The speed at which such understanding develops will determine how effective the youngster is. Giroud can be a good role model for this, at least as far as picking up ideas is concerned.

Finishing off gilt-edged opportunities has been a problem for the Gunners in the last two seasons. The England international should do better than the two Frenchmen in converting those chances even though it isn’t one of his big strengths. It could lift the whole team and give the midfielders greater creative desire. There should be 15 League goals for him at the end of the year if he can just take some of the chances that others keep missing far too often. That would be enough for a strong run at 4th place. Arsenal will need 25 or more decisive moments (goals plus assists) from the main striker for having a decent tilt at the title. At the moment I don’t see Welbeck performing at that level but he has the potential to develop into such a productive attacker.

Arsenal’s Transfer Window

The Gunners have added five players to the squad. I think all are quality additions in their own way. Sanchez is absolutely world class. Ospina should, hopefully, take over from Szczesny and give Arsenal a more secure presence in goal. Debuchy is a reasonably good replacement for Sagna. Chambers is an outstanding young talent. And Welbeck has the potential to be a very good striker.

It’s strange that so much good work in the transfer market still left me feeling dissatisfied, to put it mildly. And remember, this is from a guy who normally doesn’t grumble about transfers.

The general complaint, as far as I understand it, is linked to the lack of a “DM” and central defender. Given that I don’t really think any of the commonly linked players (Carvalho, Khedira, Schneiderlin, et. al.) would have improved Arsenal’s first team, my disappointment is not linked to a failure to sign these players.

A central defender was needed. Ideally, I’d have preferred someone who could start ahead of Mertesacker. Most fans would have been glad with a third choice player. It seems, based on various news reports, that Arsenal tried to get someone in but finally chose not to take the decisive step for one reason or another.

Depth is a major concern. I’ve always felt Wenger has gone with one or two players less than needed but there is also the issue that Arsenal perform the best when the first eleven is settled and playing together for a long period of time.

Some graphs/charts by Behnisch on twitter (highly recommend following him if you’re an Arsenal fan on twitter) are very interesting and informative.

Surprisingly, no one really uses all 25 players. It seems 20 very good players should be enough. I’ve read the line, “Only 6 players across 4 defensive positions” quite often. Most other teams have greater depth in these areas but title favourites Chelsea don’t seem to have too many options.

Terry, Cahill, Ivanovic, and Azpilicueta are their regular starters. Felipe Luiz is a big money signing but he could turn out to be the next Asier Del Horno. Kurt Zouma is a highly rated young player who has yet to prove himself at this level. And they have a few other youngsters. Can’t say they are too better off in terms of numbers/depth.

Manchester United, on the other hand, have quite a few players for defensive positions. But how many of those would you want at Arsenal? Can’t say they are comparable in terms of quality.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see more depth. Based on injuries, we might see a backline of Debuchy-Chambers-Monreal-Flamini in some game. Not a heart healthy recipe at all.

But I also understand why Arsenal haven’t done any business. There aren’t too many quality players who’d be happy to come to a club as depth boosters. This makes the transfer decision quite complicated. Do you burn a small but not insignificant chunk of your transfer money on an average player to fill one of the squad spots between 15-20 that is likely to see 30-40 percent utilization. Or do you trust the players you have and wait for quality to become available.

I don’t think Chambers will have too much trouble covering the minutes of Vermaelen and Jenkinson from last season.

Injuries are a valid concern. Then again, the new player could get injured too. Or completely fail to adapt. Here is an exercise you can do – make a list of all central defenders signed by the top 10 Premier League clubs in the last five years. See what percentage of those transfers has worked out.

As we’ve discussed repeatedly, defending is a team activity. Individuals matter and having quality players is important, but you can find short term solutions by adapting the way you play. Don’t lose the ball cheaply or give it away when the team shape is compromised and vast majority of difficult defensive actions won’t even be needed.

To me, that’s the area Arsenal have failed to address. There are far too many individuals who are losing the ball in the central third. Getting a player who could control the midfield and dictate play was vital. It’s understandable that guys like Kroos or Alonso were never realistic possibilities but there was one ex-player who could have made a big difference. Wenger has made a statement of sorts in choosing to let his son go to crosstown rivals. He is counting on his younger prospects to come good. Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain will really have to step up and deliver big performances in midfield to justify that decision.

The other problem areas are more related to coaching/training. Among the top 10/15 clubs across Europe, Arsenal are probably the weakest at pressing the opponents in their half on a consistent basis. Most other teams, even those who normally play defensive, counter-attacking football, have developed the ability to push up and create a period of intense pressure in the opposition half when the need arises. The Gunners couldn’t even keep Leicester pinned deep in their half when pushing for a win late in the game. It’s also the reason a lot of big teams have so much joy against Wenger’s side once they take the lead. The team simply isn’t able to raise the tempo and kick on to overdrive. Signing players is not going to change this.

A similar problem is with Arsenal’s inability to form a high-ish defensive block with the first line of defence around the centre of the pitch. Too many teams can bypass this line and get closer to Szczesny’s penalty box. As an extension, the number of transition opportunities that the Gunners can create from such areas is also very limited. Two of Liverpool’s three goals against Spurs came from transitions from the middle third. Most of the goals Arsenal conceded in big defeats last season also came about from such changes in possession. This is another issue that cannot be solved by transfers.

These issues are related from a training point of view. The players will continue to lose the ball cheaply in dangerous areas unless they train to keep it against intense, intelligent, and integrated pressing. I’ll try to cover more of this in the Reading the Game series.

Speaking of that series, we’re going to India for three weeks and that will probably affect the frequency of articles on the blog. It’s been over five years since we’ve gone back and this will be a very hectic trip. I’m not sure how much time I’ll get to write and publish. If everything goes to plan we should be back by the end of the month. You can keep track of the updates by subscribing through email or through twitter and facebook. All these options are available in the sidebar on the right.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Leicester City

August 31, 2014

It’s always hard to gauge just how a promoted team will play. They sometimes come up with a style that was successful in the Championship and discover that it just doesn’t work in the Premier League. A team that becomes used to winning and topping the table suddenly has to deal with defeats and a scrap at the wrong end. Adjustments have to be made and are not always successful. On the other hand, some promoted teams do really well and produce a fair few surprise results. Often mentioned as favourites for relegation, these sides can hit mid-table heights, even reaching the top half.

Leicester came up with an impressive record. Only two teams have been promoted with more points than their tally of a 102 since the formation of the Premier League. Reading managed a whopping 106 points in 2005/06. They followed it up with an impressive effort in the Premiership as they finished 8th. Sunderland clocked 105 in 1998/99 to gain promotion, and they too got into the top half with a 7th place finish the following season in the top flight. Leicester haven’t played enough games for us to judge just where they will finish but they’ve done enough, with a draw against Everton and a narrow defeat at Stamford Bridge, to show they’re not out of place in the big money league.

Their style of play doesn’t seem too complicated. Reliance on hard work, organization, discipline, and concentration can pay dividends. They’ve the second lowest possession (37%) and the fourth lowest pass completion rate (74.3%). The season is just two games old but I don’t expect them to change these stats drastically. Arsenal controlling the ball and the hosts trying to control vital spaces in the central areas of their half should be the norm on Sunday.

It that sense this game should be similar to the one against Palace, but just a little harder as this is away from home. Arsenal will again have to break a deep seated defence while protecting themselves from transitions and set-pieces.

Fast passing, runs in behind, combination play, clinical finishing…I think we’ve covered such topics often enough over the last few years as this is a typical Premier League game against a fighting opponent from the lower half of the table.

Defensive issues are well known too. Palace scored with their first shot on target. Everton did the same. Wenger’s side have conceded 3 goals from 5 shots on target in two League games. Gifting opponents goal scoring opportunities has long been the bane of Arsenal.

Leicester have some pace and trickery on the wings and play with two forwards who possess useful physical qualities, so they can be a threat on counter-attacks, from long balls, and set-pieces. Absolutely nothing new. It’s going to boil down to number of mistakes made and the degree of luck Arsenal have.

Wenger has quite a few options with his team selection. I’d really like to see something like,

Szczesny – Debuchy, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Flamini, Özil, Ramsey – Wilshere, Alexis, AOC.

Wilshere produced some interesting performances when he played on the right flank last season. He can be more influential when cutting in because the body shape and angle would help him pick a wider range of passes. Such a role would also keep him closer to the dangerous attacking areas with fewer defensive responsibilities. Özil back in his best role obviously helps the team. Oxlade-Chamberlain should have more shooting opportunities when cutting in from the left onto his right foot. He also has a decent enough left foot to go on the outside and deliver balls into the box. Sanchez could move into the wider areas on the right when Wilshere cuts in and he can constantly look to get in behind with two or three players in good positions to pick passes. It seems to me this system can get the best out of a lot of players.

That said, I won’t be surprised if Wenger stays with Wilshere and Ramsey in the middle, particularly if he sees that as a combination for the long term that needs to be given time to gel. This would most probably put Özil back on the left. It might be worthwhile swapping the German and AOC even if Wenger wants to play Jack and Aaron through the centre.

Arsenal have been playing every three days and rotating players can help. Chambers for one of the defenders and Rosicky for one of the midfielders are definitely worth considering.

Last season Arsenal had a very good away record against teams in the bottom half as they picked up 28 points out of a possible 30. The only draw came away to West Brom relatively early in the season. Gaining points in the big games will only matter if the Gunners can replicate this dominance over the weaker sides. Anything less than three points will be a significant setback.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Everton

August 23, 2014

In many ways, this season is going to be a bigger test for Roberto Martinez than last year. He did well in taking Everton to 72 points, their highest tally during the Premier League era. But now he has to show he can do it again or even better it. This won’t be easy because a lot of other teams now know how his side play and will be better prepared.

Speaking of being better prepared, we’ll have to see just how well Wenger has readied his side. While Arsenal had three very different results against the Toffees last season, they were all very tough encounters.

In their win in the corresponding fixture last year, Everton found a lot of joy down their left flank and capitalized on numerous errors by the Arsenal midfield and defence. Baines and Pienaar have developed a very good understanding, while others who sometimes play there, like Mirallas, also combine well. The movements of their striker and the player on the right synchronizes well with attacks building down the left.

Given that Debuchy has been taking up very aggressive positions, this area could again be the key attacking zone for the hosts. Arsenal will have to keep it in control by – 1) Debuchy picking his moments carefully, 2) Central defender on the right side being more aware to the threat, 3) One of the midfielders scooting over to provide cover consistently. Not losing the ball carelessly in the first place, and avoiding half-hearted pressing in the Everton half will also make a big difference.

Lukaku against Monreal could be another difficult battle from an Arsenal perspective. Some people might prefer to see the Belgian centrally but given his obvious advantage against the full back, it’ll be very strange if Martinez indeed made that choice. If he does, I’d expect Lukaku to drift into the channel and towards the left. Otherwise he’ll look to cut across from the left and bend his runs before going in behind.

During the course of the game I expect both of the wide players that Wenger picks will have to put in some defensive tracking. Any laxity there could make life for the defensive players much tougher.

The battle in the centre of midfield will also be very interesting. Without Arteta, the Gunners could struggle with the build-up play if pressed diligently and coherently. This could lead to very threatening transitions.

On the other hand, Everton have had a winless preseason and were held to a draw by Leicester on the opening day. So far their players haven’t quite found the groove again. The Gunners have a chance to capitalize on their rustiness. Since Arsenal aren’t quite firing on all cylinders either, this could be a relatively low quality game decided by mistakes.

When in form, the Toffees defended the central areas very well. Barry and McCarthy formed a very effective central midfield partnership even though neither is physically imposing or fast. Direct passes into the central areas could be ineffective and the Gunners might have to work their way into the threatening zones by combining in the wider areas. Leicester got some joy on set-pieces and Stones wasn’t always in a good position at right back. I wonder if Coleman will be brought back to the right back spot for this game. Irrespective of who starts or the hosts, getting a chance to run at either of their full backs in a one-v-one could lead to very promising moments in attack for the visitors.

Patience could be a handy virtue and the first goal could be absolutely vital again. Arsenal scored first in 24 out of their 38 games and recorded league best 2.79 PPG in these fixtures. They conceded first in 12 ties and only managed 0.83 PPG. The corresponding PPG numbers for Everton are 2.63 from 22 leads and 0.83 from 12 leads conceded.

While the Gunners did turn the game around against Crystal Palace, I don’t think it’d be wise to expect too many such reversals.

Wenger has a few options in team selection with the return of the Germans. However, I’d be very surprised if he started any of them because they haven’t had any match practice (Not sure if any behind the doors friendlies have been arranged, but even those have limited utility).

He’ll have to substitute them around the hour mark if the Germans start or he risks overextending them right at the start of the season. While there is always a chance that he could take a gamble and get away with it, I’m not sure it would be a clever choice. Of the three, if really needed, Mertesacker could be the one to start because central defence requires less physical intensity than a role that Özil would play. Anyway, it’s hard to judge because each player could have different preparation levels.

In midfield, Flamini for Arteta seems like the safest option. Some might suggest Chambers, given the current wave of hype, but I would find such a choice extremely risky. Passing the ball when there is limited pressure at the back is one thing, playing in midfield when there is constantly someone snapping at your heals quite another. It would be best to try him in that role in one of the relatively easier home games where the opponent is more likely to sit back.

Cazorla hasn’t produced the output we know he can so a strong argument exists for dropping him from the side. At the same time, Ramsey and Wilshere in central midfield don’t really make the team performance better. I’d be tempted to leave Wilshere out and bring Cazorla into the attacking midfield role while switching Ramsey to the left of centre and Flamini to right to cover behind Debuchy.

However, since the manager believes so strongly in the young Englishman, and has talked about his performance improving with a run of games, it’s very unlikely that Wilshere will be left out.

Chamberlain for Cazorla would be a popular change. If Chamberlain plays on the right, it’ll be interesting to see his understanding with Debuchy. The best solution would be for the full back to stay deeper for majority of the game and let the youngster hug the touch line. Things could get complicated if both start getting into the same areas out wide.

We might see,

Szczesny – Debuchy, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Flamini, Ramsey, Wilshere – AOC, Giroud, Alexis.

Chambers might start ahead of Mertesacker if the German is not ready.

Alexis through the middle and Chamberlain for Giroud is another option. I’m sure some fans will also like to see Campbell get a start. These don’t seem like the kind of choices Wenger would make though.

It’s hard to predict the result between two teams that are still some ways away from their best. Everton could have a slight edge because they didn’t play in the middle of the week and are at home. Arsenal have a chance to show they can do better than last season.


Besiktas 0 – 0 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

August 21, 2014

Arsenal returned from Turkey after a below par performance that was still enough to get an acceptable result. A win would have helped but a goalless draw is by no means a disaster.

I thought Besiktas worked very hard in this game and played close to their full potential. The pitch helped them a little as did the fact that Arsenal didn’t seem to be on the same fitness levels as the hosts (understandably so). With that in mind, it’s reasonable to expect better quality from the Gunners in the return leg and the visitors should find it tough at the Emirates.

That being said, a few very obvious and oft discussed problems were patently discernible in the Gunners’ performance. These have been covered so often that I’ll just list them in bullet point form rather than discussing the details

  • Playing Ramsey and Wilshere in central midfield makes the team output weaker.
  • Very few runs in behind the defence
  • Failure to establish midfield dominance against a team that pressed with energy and passion
  • Inability to press coherently in the opposition half
  • Inability to defend the centre line/force turnovers leading to counter-attacks form that zone
  • Not getting enough bodies in the opposition box
  • Inefficient attack with many promising moments squandered

This game can be a classic case study for what I’d said should be the first law of football – Defending is significantly easier than attacking.

Look at the amount of final third action on both sides of the pitch. Sure, we can blame Giroud, but what about Demba Ba’s missed chances? Arsenal were irrefutably inefficient, but can you then really praise Besiktas who missed just as many chance, if not more?

Decisive quality in the attacking third makes a huge difference. Neither side had it. The defensive players had a good game but also rode their luck. The percentages worked in their favour.

The game was played at a very fast pace, which worked well as far as knocking Wenger’s side out of their rhythm was concerned. The Gunners should be able to go into such games and establish control over the central third through their technical skills irrespective of the pitch conditions or fitness (relative difference was marginal). They couldn’t do it, just as they struggled in many games last season.

The difference was that this time they didn’t really sit back and defend with as much assurance as we saw last year. They also weren’t able to produce that small 5-10 minute period where they went up a couple of gears to score a goal or two. Many games were won last season on the back of such details.

In this game, it seemed to me that Arsenal were tactically unsure. They were trying to defend the centre line but weren’t really doing a great job. It was adequate most of the time but not sharp enough to result in transition opportunities.

The attacking ideas were chaotic too. At times, Sanchez was trying too much on his own down the right flank. Giroud was erratic and many moves broke down due to poor touches or choices by the Frenchman. Ramsey wasn’t getting into the areas he usually does to support the forwards. Wilshere wasn’t either. Santi has been ineffective during the first two games of the season and I have a feeling it’s linked with the unbalanced midfield. They don’t find him when they should, nor does their movement bring the best out of his passing. Arsenal’s left side was almost non-existent from an attacking perspective.

The hectic nature of the game meant that the gaps between the lines were often too big and the midfield was neither able to join the front line in any purposeful manner, nor did they protect the back five consistently.

The main positive for Arsenal is that despite all the problems the game still ended on even terms. It’s hard to imagine Wenger’s side doing worse at home so they should sneak by. Of course, Arteta’s injury and Ramsey’s suspension will make matters tough. Nevertheless, the Gunners should still be favourites to progress as long as they don’t make any serious errors to gift away goals.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Was almost caught out straight from kick-off but he had a decent game after that. Didn’t really have to make any difficult saves but he looked confident with the things he did have to deal with. Was lucky Ba missed on the near post as he was well beaten.

Debuchy: Almost everything came down his flank and he did well. I like the fact that he’s been able to increase his involvement with play and passing accuracy numbers. Delivery and choices in the final third could have been a little better, but he was by no means the worst on that front. His high positioning did put a little more pressure on Chambers.

Chambers: Worked hard and got into the right places most of the time. Good composure and an excellent performance for his age and experience levels. But it’s important to not forget those qualifiers. Made two bad mistakes that could have led to a goal and the whole tie would be looking very different had either one or both gone in. One was obvious for the Demba Ba chance, but I also thought he was out of position and unaware of the threat when the ball was played past him early in the second half for that clear sight of goal for Sahan. Even the other Demba Ba shot came when the striker pulled away from him. Did he also miss a chance from a corner towards the end? The hype machine is in overdrive but I’d advise caution in building up expectations.

Koscielny: There was less action on his side. Wonder if Besiktas made a conscious decision to target the youngster playing next to him. Probably the player who performed closest to his potential.

Monreal: He is a better player in the attacking half than he is in the defensive one but hardly ever got forward in this game. Passing was uncharacteristically unreliable as Arsenal struggled to build anything from the left. This was at least partly related to poor movement from teammates on that side. Luckily, he didn’t have much to do defensively and practically no one-v-ones to worry about.

The defensive players did well. Some of it was down to their quality and effort while the rest was down to the opponents missing the target. As I said earlier, the percentages worked in their favour.

We’ll have to keep an eye on that gap between Debuchy and the right sided central defender. The Frenchman stays so high up that soon opponents will start targeting that zone as Besiktas almost successfully did in this game.

Arteta: Was having a steady game before his injury. Wasn’t able to set the tempo for the Gunners and did look a little troubled at times when the distances between the lines increased.

Ramsey: Towards the end of last season and earlier in preseason I’ve said that Ramsey will lose form and struggle to keep his place as a guaranteed starter if the decisive moments stop happening for him. This game was a good example of the kind of problems he can face. The point is not that he isn’t playing well or lacks quality. He just doesn’t always make the right choices, which are often the simpler ones. His sending off was harsh but it came from an unnecessary moment of trickery when a simple pass to the right was available. Playing with Wilshere also makes things tough, particularly when Alexis is also new to the system and still adapting. Hopefully, the frustrating moments won’t build up and the decisive ones won’t dry up all at the same time.

Wilshere: Just looking at him play, it’s hard to say the youngster has done much wrong. Like Ramsey, he is another who doesn’t lack quality or desire. But he does lack tactical maturity and an understanding of the details that make the team perform better. At the moment I feel both Ramsey and Cazorla are underperforming because Wilshere is not quite connecting with them as Özil did last season. His off the ball movement, choices in possession, and defensive thought are all suboptimal. One example was the horrible high pass he played back to Koscielny that eventually led to a booking for Monreal.

Cazorla: At the moment, Santi has the biggest gap between quality possessed as against output produced. It’s very hard to put a finger on the exact cause for this. He’s never been quick and you don’t expect him to run past players to make things happen so a lack of that cannot be a reason to blame him. The problem is probably more with the level of understanding with others and the dynamic of the pass-and-move game not quite working out.

Sanchez: He was simultaneously the guy who was making something happen for the Gunners and the guy who was running into cul-de-sacs and squandering promising moments by missing opportunities to combine. I’m not quite sure what Wenger has asked him to do. It seems very odd that instead of playing up against the defensive line and using his intelligent off-the-ball runs, the Chilean is playing more like a midfielder and also looking for the ball to come to his feet rather than going into space.

Flamini: Got booked for an unnecessary tackle, squared up to opponents when things got heated up after a Wilshere challenge, decent job in front of the back four where, rather strangely, he wasn’t really tested.

The midfield failed. It was their job to control the ball and territory. Everything would’ve flowed from that but it never happened. The opponents gave them very little time and the pitch wasn’t perfect, but they have to overcome such challenges for there will be many more in the course of the season.

Giroud: Poor. Touches were disappointing, finishing left a lot to be desired, let his teammates down more often than I can remember. Sometimes having a player with exceptional final third quality can bail you out when the team is otherwise having a bad day. Giroud never looked like he’d deliver. Another player who is a long was off his best. Let’s hope much of that has to do with fitness.

Wenger: Far too many age old problems still exist. There will always be a reason – Opponent played deep, pitch was bad, players were tired, etc. – but none of those qualify as a valid excuse anymore. I have said this for at least three years now – the single most important change Arsenal can make is an addition to the coaching staff. The team has to learn to press higher up the pitch more coherently, they have to be a lot more competitive and threatening when defending the centre line, and they have to find alternate attacking modes when the regular game isn’t working.


Arsenal 2 – 1 Crystal Palace: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

August 18, 2014

The start to the Premier League was always going to be tough for the Gunners, as indeed it was for many other teams. Manchester United lost at home despite numerous seemingly strong performances in preseason. Everton drew, Tottenham got lucky, and the top two from last year had to fight very hard for their wins.

In that sense, and with the knowledge that the Gunners are missing key players, the result against Palace was a welcome one. As Wenger often says though, we must step back from the result and analyze the game without taking it into consideration.

It wasn’t a great game of football from the Gunners. There’s no denying that. At the same time, no one should turn a blind eye to the mitigating circumstances and the difficulties faced by other teams that are fighting for the same prizes. Our analysis must, therefore, differentiate between the problems that were understandable and excusable, and those that need to be addressed urgently.

I’d have easily accepted the reasons (insufficient preseason, key players missing, new players still adapting, etc) for the below par effort had this been a one-off performance. But look back at last season objectively and you’ll recall quite a few game against mid to low level teams where Arsenal had to grind out a result. Playing ugly and winning can be a good thing, but only when it’s a rare occurrence in an otherwise dominant run. Last season the Gunners had successful periods but they weren’t dominant ones. And that was the reason I wasn’t too excited about the title challenge. You could see it crumbling once the big games came around. The first blip came in December and then it was all over by the end of March.

Teams that have to consistently fight very hard to beat the smaller clubs will not be able to repeat those performances against the big sides who offer a much more potent attacking threat and are, as an extension, more secure at the back. So, while we should acknowledge the issues that affect the team, it’s very important to also realize there are certain deeper problems that offer genuine cause for concern.

1) Too slow in the central third

I was expecting Palace to sit a little deeper with their two lines right on top of each other with a gap of around 5-7 meters. For a while, thus, it surprised me when they seemed to be pressing around the centre line. Closer observation made things clearer.

Palace were really just sitting back, about 10-15 yards inside their own half, while maintaining good spacing from a defensive point of view. The Gunners had the ball around the centre line but instead of moving it around quickly, too many players were looking to make something happen all the time. Their desire and spirit were admirable but their tactical maturity and game intelligence were not.

When pass-and-move works as it’s supposed to, the opponents are constantly chasing the ball and have very little time to catch their breath. But sometimes the players in possession don’t make the simple pass that’s become available due to a teammates movement and instead wait for another opportunity for a better pass further forward. This discourages the teammate who’s showed for the ball while the others up front are waiting because they have very little space in a congested area. The rhythm of the possession game is disrupted and the opponent gets a chance to close the ball down higher up the pitch.

This explains how the Eagles were able to press the ball in the centre. They were not very good at it though and committed many fouls. They committed 19 fouls in this game and 12 of those came in the central third of the pitch.

12/19 fouls in the central third

12/19 fouls in the central third

Better teams would have a few successful tackles there instead of the fouls and these would lead to very dangerous counter-attacking opportunities.

To an extent, Arsenal’s problem was understandable. The two players on the right flank were debutants and the midfield combination, with Wilshere and Ramsey in box-to-box roles, isn’t the usual one. Sanogo hasn’t played too many games at the centre of the attack either. It’s hard to find fluidity under such circumstances.

Most of Wenger’s teams played their best football when the players get a run of games together and there is some stability. While it is completely understandable, it’s also not good enough to win the major titles anymore. Injury problems, need for rotations, fixture congestion, and other factors mean that the same line up cannot play bulk of the games. It is, as a result, absolutely imperative that Wenger finds a way to develop the tactical level of his players so they can find the fluidity irrespective of the starting eleven and other circumstances.

They have to rely on their passing and movement to create pockets of space rather than waiting for space to appear in which they can play the killer pass. It can be tedious, but the degree of precision and efficiency they achieve in this process will have a direct bearing on where they finish the season.

2) Defensive thought and set-piece preparation

Palace were resolute in defence and worked very hard. Credit to them for that. However, it’s impossible to say they offered any offensive threat whatsoever. Despite that, the Gunners some contrived to make mistake after mistake in gifting them a goal. This is another major cause for concern.

It started with a poor pass from Chambers. Part of it is excused by his youthful exuberance and inexperience. We can also appreciate that he was trying to do something positive. This though, was another case of a player taking unnecessary risk when many simpler options were available. It is very important that defensive players (Centre Backs, Defensive Midfielders, Full Backs in defensive positions) are constantly aware of the shape of the team at any given moment and work very hard to ensure they don’t lose the ball. And never in a central area because that completely opens the game up for the opponent.

Once Chambers gave the ball away and the counter-attack was on, the second mistake came from Szczesny. He’s been trying to play the sweeper, as was obvious from a couple of preseason games, but he clearly doesn’t know how to pick the right moments. I thought Koscielny was in a good position to deal with the ball and the Pole could have stayed back without any problems.

Having decided to charge forward, Szczesny again betrayed his inability to assess danger as he lumped the ball forward into a very dangerous area where there was no teammate to challenge a grateful opponent. I don’t know whether he was trying to play a pass-cum-clearance, in which case it was poor execution, or if simply didn’t think about what he was doing. The best option for the ‘Keeper in such cases is to put the ball out of play. This gives everyone a chance to get back into position. Obviously, he’d have to adjust his body shape as he arrived at the ball in order to hit it towards the touchline. Time would not have been a problem had he been clear about it from the moment he sensed danger.

The errors by Chambers and Szczesny show a lack of defensive thought that has repeatedly plagued the Arsenal defence over the years in one form or another.

Koscielny made a good block (although the shot was probably going wide) and then a good tackle as the ball went out of play. The danger should have been averted but for Arsenal’s set-piece vulnerability.

There must have been some analysis in the summer that suggested that the Gunners didn’t need a man on any post. Maybe there is merit to it, which will be proven in the long run. This is something we should keep an eye on.

The main problem in defending that corner seemed to be a poor understanding of roles.

For instance, Sanogo was at the near post. Usually strikers are needed there and do a good job of clearing such balls. However, when Chamakh made a run and took up a position just in front of him, the youngster seemed confused. Koscielny then pointed, and presumably said something, after which the lanky forward went a couple of steps ahead to mark one of his predecessors. That little movement probably meant the ball was able to float over his head and drop perfectly for Hangeland.

The goalscorer’s run and Arsenal’s response to that also showed the problems with the requirements of the system as understood by the players. Initially, it was Sanchez marking the giant defender. In fairness, the Chilean was simply marking a zone (probably pre-assigned in training) that the Norwegian was occupying. At first Alexis went with the run of the former Fulham man, as if by instinct. And then, confused, he let him go, glancing back with a worried look to check if his zone had been compromised. All this while, Koscielny was not aware of his counterpart’s movement and it was too late by the time he reacted.

A lot of these things came together for that goal to materialize. Had Arsenal put a man on the back post, or if Sanogo had held his ground, or if Sanchez communicated to Koscielny the moment Hangeland made that run, this goal could have been averted or at least made much harder to score with pressure on the header.

Mertesacker’s return should help things but I think a lot more work is needed on the training ground.

3) Too many take-ons

The Gunners attempted 37 take-ons and lost most of them.

Arsenal Take-ons

Alexis was successful with 3 of his 10 attempts. Ramsey managed 1 out of 6. Sanogo had a fifty percent success rate from his four attempts and Cazorla did just better with 5 out of 8 (although he lost a couple that broke promising moments down).

This numbers are too high and corroborate the tendency to do too much as discussed earlier. When things are not going your way it’s better to revert to the basics and keep things simple. I’d rather they lost possession trying intricate combinations with quick touches, or when making more runs in behind, or via intercepted through-balls rather than lost take-on attempts.

That said, we should see some improvement on this front once the players get their sharpness back. Nevertheless, it would be better if they’re aware of their sharpness levels and make appropriate choices based on that.

The Positives

Apart from the result of course, there were a few other details that were appreciable.

The equalizer was well worked and Koscielny’s header was clever because it was a tough angle.

I also liked the way the team kept going till the end. Wenger made good substitutions. Their concentration levels right at the end were excellent and I also enjoyed the way Koscielny and Giroud directed their headers purposefully.

Debuchy took up really aggressive positions and that can lead to threatening moments if used well.

Some other positives are covered in individual analysis.

This section is much smaller than the problem areas discussed above but don’t take that to be a ratio of the bad and the good from this game. Areas of concern need some elaboration and thus that write up is much longer. We expect Arsenal to win such games, which in turn implies the team is really good. There is no need to explain the strong points we see every day.

Individual Performances

Szczesny: Was a spectator for long periods. Handling was good when the ball did come at him. Didn’t have any saves to make. The lack of defensive thought discussed above is a concern. Could he have done more to organize the defence for the first corner?

Debuchy: Saw a lot of the ball and used it well. I loved his shot on the swivel in injury time and the positions he took up in the box when the ball was on the other flank. Wasn’t really tested in defence. I’m not sure if his aggressive positioning was just natural or part of the game plan. Will have to keep an eye on this in other games and see how it changes based on the opposition. It’s important that the full back doesn’t lose sight of his defensive duties or get in the way of his more talented teammates.

Chambers: One mistake, bad as it was, shouldn’t take too much away from an otherwise assured outing. Was confident on the ball, got tight to the attackers and made tackles when he had to, didn’t commit unnecessary fouls and was wise enough to make one when the opponent got away from him (we’ll have to see how he handles better and faster opponents). Had these moments of stepping out of the defence with the ball, but they seemed hesitant. He can do more with the ball but it’s only fair that some time and experience is needed.

Koscielny: Excellent goal, great block and tackle, good helping hand (or head) for the winner, could probably have done something more to prevent the goal, reliable distribution, seems like he’s picked up where he left off last season.

Gibbs: Was a lot more conservative when compared to his teammate on the other flank, which was a safe choice. Passing could have been better. Seems a little bit off his best at the moment.

Monreal: Was very good in the attacking areas with his positioning, runs, and passing. Gibbs could learn form that. His weakness in one-v-ones was not tested.

Apart from the mistakes discussed above, the defensive players had a very comfortable game. There were times when the full backs were diagonally opposite in the opposition half with Debuchy near the penalty area and Gibbs around the centre line. I’m not sure if this was a conscious tactical choices based on their qualities or if it just worked out that way.

Arteta: Typical game from Arsenal’s captain. Helped with ball circulation constantly, kept things simple and brought others into the game, got into good defensive positions, I liked the way he dropped back at times to let Chambers step up.

Ramsey: Another player who saw a lot of the ball and worked hard constantly. That said, it wasn’t a particularly good performance. He really needs to simplify his game and learn to pick his moments. I don’t know how long these decisive moments are going to last and it’d be a shame if the team dropped points when players are trying too hard.

Wilshere: Was a foul magnet. Played deeper than Ramsey and didn’t venture forward as much. A decent outing but passing could have been crisper/quicker.

Cazorla: He hasn’t looked at his best all through the preseason and this game wasn’t very different. Just seems a little off-the-pace and a couple of promising moves broke down when he was tackled. Movement is good and I think he will do better if the central midfielders and the wide player on the right make full use of his vision and technique. Wenger will probably give some thought to starting him in a central attacking midfield role while Ozil finds fitness.

Sanchez: Saw so much of the ball he seemed more like a midfielder than a forward. Came inside all the time and made a few runs in behind. I’d have preferred it if he spent more time on the defensive line threatening the space behind. Passing needs some calibration. His dummies, the angles on some attempted through-balls, and general movement highlight a great football brain. Now Wenger has to get it to synch with others in the team. Had some interesting moments when playing on the left. I think he can do better from there if he wants to keep coming inside because that provides a more natural passing angle for him as a right-footed player.

Chamberlain: One powerful run that lacked end product. Steady effort otherwise. I think his running on the right and Sanchez on the left can be very interesting in some games.

Crystal Palace completed 123 passes in the game. Arteta was on 100, Ramsey 92. The midfield was in complete control of the ball and territory. But they have to convert that control into greater incisive threat.

Sanogo: His technique is poor and that will limit the contribution he can make, particularly in games where space in the attacking areas is very tight. Also showed his immaturity at times. For instance, he had a great chance to play a one-two with Sanchez and get in-behind but he went for a wildly ambitious shot from outside the box.

Giroud: Had greater presence than Sanogo and was a lot more involved. Good header in the build-up of the winner. Had a couple of other moments in the box that could have troubled Speroni on another day.

Wenger: Some of the problems mentioned above are not new ones, even if the players are new. He’ll have to solve these issues if any sort of a challenge has to last the distance.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Crystal Palace

August 16, 2014

I want to start by saying many thanks to everyone who took the time to share their feedback, and such an overwhelmingly positive one at that, on my article about defending being significantly easier than attacking. Such articles get notably fewer visitors but as long as I know so many people find it useful, I remain motivated to develop the series. Since we’re all back in the mood for Arsenal and the football we love, I’ll hold off on the other articles in that series till the next international break. For now it’s Crystal Palace at Emirates and the buzz is palpable.

The visitors are coming into this game on the back of some turmoil with the departure of their manager Tony Pulis. Their concentration levels during the game could be affected if the players are distracted but we won’t know for sure till we see the performance.

Talking of performance, I won’t be surprised if we again see a very basic system with two banks of four. Keith Millen might even go with 5 across the midfield as he did last October in a similar instance when he was the caretaker.

The idea is pretty simple. Protect the areas most threatening to the goal, i.e. the penalty box and the central areas in front of it. This is done by letting the opponents have the ball in their own half or around the centre line but passes into centre of the pitch are contested and/or discouraged by the presence of the defensive players. Marking in these areas is tight and can get physical. Spaces in wider areas are more readily available for a pass. It’s pretty standard and we see a lot of sideways and backward passing from the side in possession, which is not a bad thing in itself.

One team will defend with the ball while trying to open up spaces through their pass-and-move combinations. The other will defend without the ball but look to rapidly break forward using quick and tricky wingers and/or a strong central striker who can hold up and link play.

The decisive moments for the possession side usually come when the combinations force a mistake or a defensive player switches off. Things are easier if the opponents are a little disjointed and leave more spaces between the lines while being a tad tardy with their tracking. They’ll always have multiple layers of security in front of their goal so breaking through could require patience.

It is vital for the attacking side to make as many runs behind the defence as possible. This can be done in many ways. A through-ball from the central areas, combination play in the wide areas with a delicate ball slid in-behind, and late runs into the box with chipped passes can all lead to promising attacking situations. One-twos are always handy but move involving three or more players are better.

Arsenal don’t always have players who make such runs and that can slow things down. In the pre-season, Alexis Sanchez came central and to the ball more often than he made darts in behind. Hopefully, this will change in this game, although his movement to the centre can open up space for Debuchy who times such runs well.

Wenger’s choice of centre forward could also make a difference. Sanogo will look to go in-behind a lot more than Giroud does.

The team defending without the ball has limited attacking options unless they are extremely proactive and energetic in pressing around the centre line. For the most part, they have to hope for transition opportunities where the side in possession has made some poor tactical choices (and technical mistakes) leaving the defence exposed to runners. Other than that it’s just about gaining territory through long balls and hoping for set-piece chances.

It is quite possible that Wenger will go with Ramsey and Wilshere in midfield with both having the license to go forward at times (in their so-called box-to-box roles) while Arteta offers some protection to the defence. In Millen’s position, I’d be tempted to have two very quick players on the flanks as well as a sharp centre forward instead of Chamakh. Gayle, Bolasie, and Frazier Campbell could be interesting choices that can test Arsenal’s tactical solidity, particularly with a rookie in the centre of defence and a relatively slow defensive midfielder. If they can occasionally leave Bolasie up the pitch, to take one example, when Debuchy takes up an advanced position, the visitors will give themselves a genuine chance to trouble Szczesny. Of course, in order to execute this while protecting their goal, they’ll need impeccable organization and decision making from the two defensive lines. Frustrating the Gunners through resolute defending and forcing ambitious attacking choices is also a way to gain counter-attacking opportunities.

Given their current situation, I feel the visitors will be happy with a point and anything more will be a bonus. Arsenal have not done well in opening fixtures over the last few years. Part of this could be linked to a lot of overseas tours and disrupted pre-season training. This season that training has been affected by the World Cup and it’s understandable that Wenger’s side are not quite at their best yet. Palace have a chance to cause an upset if they play with genuine desire and resolve. Aston Villa’s opening day upset last season offers them an excellent blueprint to copy.

The Gunners are the better side and even without the first choice starting line-up Wenger has enough talent at his disposal to get the three points. With Arsenal, in the recent years, there have always been two questions – Can they win? And will they win? The answer to the first is almost always in the affirmative but the second one has proved to be a stumbling block, often of their own making.

The pairing of Wilshere and Ramsey in central midfield makes me nervous because of their defensive limitations. Hopefully, Arteta will be able to run the game and one of the two will take up good positions to support him at the time of transitions. If they attack well, the need for defending might be eliminated altogether.

The central defence is also an area of concern because Mertesacker is not yet ready and there exists the possibility of Koscielny being played when giving him a rest would be better. I don’t know all the facts of the current situation but the past choices of the manager do justify the worries. Monreal in central defence could lead to problems if Chamakh starts for the visitors, or if any of their quick attackers gets a chance to run at him.

We might see,

Szczesny – Debuchy, Chambers, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Ramsey, Wilshere – Alexis, Sanogo, Cazorla.

It’s the starting line-up that produced an entertaining and decisive first half against City in the Community Shield and seems fairly well-balanced. I hope they start on the front foot with that pesky no-trophy-in-x-years monkey off their backs. The energetic, fast-paced game that we saw against City could be enough to secure an early goal or two, which will really get the crowd going and open the spaces up.

I know a lot of Gooners are extremely gung-ho about this season in general and this game in particular. While I can fully appreciate the reasons for such feelings, at a personal level I am still taking the cautious optimism route. There are some details that I want to see resolved. It could happen very quickly but I’m going to watch the first couple of months to see how things develop before I join the excitement bandwagon.

P.S. After reading the responses here and on twitter, I’m now completely confident that anyone who likes the pre and post match analysis on this blog will really enjoy the article linked to the first paragraph. Do take a few minutes (Pretty long and detailed) to read it if you haven’t done so already.


Thoughts On Debuchy, Ospina, Chambers, Jenkinson, And Emirates Cup

August 1, 2014

The last couple of weeks have been good for Arsenal as some of the obvious holes in the squad have been plugged with quality players who are, for the most part, comparable to the ones they are replacing or even somewhat better.

This being a late article, here are some quick observations that stand out about each of transfers including comparisons with departing players.

Debuchy

Even though the new Arsenal right back started over his predecessor for France at the World Cup, I’ve a feeling he will have to prove himself all over again at Arsenal. It’s not because his quality is questionable, but more due to the important role that Sagna played for the Gunners.

Wenger’s team uses the flanks as an outlet almost all the time when they are trying to build from the back and the opponent is working hard to close the options down in the centre of the field. Sagna’s technical ability, the willingness to receive the ball under pressure, composure in holding and passing it, and other skills like concentration, physicality, and tenacity made him a vital cog in this process. Debuchy is coming from a team that didn’t pass the ball as much as Arsenal. According to stats on Squawka, there is a clear difference in their passes per 90 (Sagna – 53; Debuchy – 36) and pass accuracy (S- 85%; D- 73%).

It won’t be a surprise if Debuchy improved his numbers just by virtue of being in a technically stronger side this season but this is an aspect I’ll be watching closely in the first few competitive games. His passing accuracy for France at the World Cup was just below 78% but total number of passes was still close to his Newcastle number. Any breakdown in the buildup play can lead to defensive problems as well as that situation of the attack being separated from the defence without a link in between. The adjustment here has to be very quick.

It’s interesting that the two are very close to each other in terms of aerial duels contested and won because that’s another outlet for Arsenal when the opponent is somewhat successful with their pressing.

Debuchy seems busier of the two when comparing some of the defensive metrics. He wins more tackles, loses more tackles, makes more interceptions and blocks, and commits more fouls. Again, it’s hard to pinpoint just how much of this is down to the playing styles of the two teams rather than individual qualities. That said, I do get the feeling that Debuchy is slightly more aggressive as a defender and is looking to break forward and get into attacking areas compared to Sagna who was more about providing width and options on the flank even when he got into advanced areas.

Despite his relatively reserved style, fighting spirit, tendency to chase back at full tilt, and endless stamina, there were enough instances in the last couple of years when we all have thought the full-back was not where he should have been. Part of this is down to the manager’s instructions and this is another area where I want to see how Debuchy performs. I’m not convinced he has some of Sagna’s aforementioned qualities and there could be trouble if he keeps getting caught higher up the pitch.

On the positive side, there is a greater chance of getting decisive attacking contribution from the man who’s come to London than the man who’s gone to Manchester. A clever and quick interception just inside the Arsenal half, for instance, could provide a great launch pad for the pace that Wenger could have at his disposal if key players remain fit. I’m also hoping for slightly better crossing, timing of overlapping runs, and attacking contribution on set-pieces from the former Newcastle man.

All-in-all, Debuchy seems like a reasonable replacement for an important player with some risks that will have to be identified and mitigated, and the potential to be a little more exciting and decisive.

Ospina

Fabianski’s Arsenal career has been crazy. From some unbelievable howlers to keeping goal in the title-drought-ending FA Cup win, he’s evoked all kinds of extreme emotions. I thought it was nice that he left with a trophy, but it also felt like something that was good for all concerned. There was something about Fabianski, maybe just the multitude of mistakes from the past, that made it very hard for me to trust him as main goalkeeper at the club.

Given that I’m not a big Szczesny fan either, it seemed essential that the club brings in someone who can do better. Wenger’s answer is Colombian international David Ospina.

In case you haven’t read/seen these already, here are a couple of interesting articles on the Nice guy

And here are a couple of videos…

I haven’t seen much of him outside of the World Cup and some video YouTube, but even in this limited watching experience a few qualities are immediately obvious.

He seems like a goalkeeper with great reflexes and one who keeps his eye on the ball till the very end. That latter part is a big improvement on Szczesny who has this tendency of committing far too early. Training with the Colombian can help the Pole improve. Arsenal’s latest Ligue 1 import is also better than the current goalie when it comes to recovering after making the first save. It’s another crucial detail because both have the tendency to put the ball back into the danger area from the initial save.

None of the Arsenal goalkeepers in recent years have been particularly good in the air and Wenger has finally found some degree of control at the back in such situations by getting his outfield players, mainly centre backs, to take more responsibility. The Colombian does seem the aggressive type but I’m not convinced he will be any better than Szczesny at commanding the air in the penalty box. In that sense, this will still be a work in progress for the coaching staff as they have to ensure the ‘Keepers don’t drop the ball, so to speak, on set-pieces and crosses.

The Colombian’s aggression will also be worth watching when it comes to one-v-ones. Szczesny is adept at giving away penalties and been lucky to get away without a red card on more than one occasion. Fabianski’s wanderlust has given many a gooner a nervous breakdown. Can Ospina do better? I don’t know the answer to that but I’m very eager to find out. He can offer a marked improvement to the Gunners if he combines his concentration and ability to watch the ball till the very end with intelligent decision making, something which might take a bit of time to develop in a new, faster, and more physical league.

While I don’t encourage drawing direct conclusions from it, the following stats comparison using the Squawka tool is quite interesting.

Ospina Stats Comparison

click to enlarge

All things considered, it’s hard to make a case for Szczesny being the first choice. I hope Wenger is ruthless and decisive here.

Chambers and Jenkinson

There has been a need for a versatile defensive player at Arsenal for at least a couple of years now. Wenger has tried to sign a few such players during this period including the likes of Smalling and Jones, who are, in part, comparable to the latest young gun that Wenger has signed.

Calum Chambers seems like a talented prospect with potential to be a very good multifaceted defensive player. He seems to have composure, technique, and game intelligence, which should provide a solid foundation. He lacks experience, obviously, and his mental attributes haven’t really been tested yet to the fullest extent. This will happen over the next season or two as he takes the field in high pressure games. I’m hoping to see a steep learning curve along with the burning desire to get better with every game.

In recent years I’ve felt that a lot of young players have hit their performance ceiling just after or shortly before starting their top flight Arsenal careers. Afobe, Aneke, JET, Miquel, Frimpong, Coquelin, Eastmond, Eisfeld, and others have been on the fringes without quite making the cut in a convincing manner. At this moment, it’s hard to say even the likes of Szczesny, Wilshere, and Chamberlain deserve to be first choice for Arsenal even though they came in with much higher talent than their aforementioned young teammates. The likes of Djourou and Senderos didn’t fulfill the promise shown in their younger years either. Exploring this in depth calls for a separate article so I won’t get into the merits and demerits of the observation.

Nonetheless, Jenkinson is another example. I can’t say he’s improved a lot during his stay at the Emirates. There is a common misconception – Even leading to amusing suggestions that he should start ahead of Sagna after the Frenchman returned to fitness – that he did very well in a phase when Sagna was injured but the reality was that he was used in a more conservative role to hide his weaknesses. His performances were effective but hardly excellent. This was covered in various articles on this blog during that period and was pretty evident once the Frenchman got back to fitness and showed everyone what Arsenal had been missing.

Chambers is undoubtedly an improvement on the West Ham bound Arsenal fan in almost every aspect, except maybe pace and stamina but we’ll have to watch and see on that. That said, I hope Jenkinson has a good time at West Ham leading to a respectable top flight career and potentially bringing a substantially higher chunk of change to the Arsenal coffers than the 3 Million reportedly offered by Hull recently.

I’m also hopeful that Chambers will have a better time at Arsenal than many of the young players listed above mainly because of his better game intelligence. It should allow him to absorb more from his teammates and coaches, which in turn should result in a higher yield from the same hard work.

Emirates Cup

To say that the World Cup has been disruptive to Arsenal’s preparations for the upcoming season would be a massive understatement.

From the first choice eleven that I’d pick, Koscielny, Giroud, Debuchy, Sanchez, and Ospina have only come back to training in the last week or so. Mertesacker and Özil are still on vacation while Walcott is injured. Even if Szczesny starts in the first few games, that’s seven first choice players with little or no preseason training.

Furthermore, those who have been training didn’t quite look up to speed in the last game against the New York Red Bulls. Even with the caveat that it’s relatively early days in preseason, there is some cause for concern in my opinion because Arsenal have a tricky start to the season.

With those thoughts in mind, the importance of the Emirates Cup cannot be overstated. I don’t mean that they have to win the trophy. That’s pointless. But the players have to click together and find their sharpness/rhythm back. Wenger’s teams are generally extremely dependent on flow/momentum because so much of the play is instinctive and interlinked. Mertesacker and Özil might not be physically ready for those games and the lack of a centre back signing along with the uncertainty around Vermaelen only makes things more complicated. Arsene Wenger has to figure out his starting line-up for the first couple of games, at least, and he doesn’t have too many friendly games to suss his options out.

The training camp in Austria was a permanent fixture not too long ago and I believe bringing it back on the itinerary instead of a prolonged overseas visit was a good idea for this season. The performance of the team in the Emirates Cup will tell us if I’m right in thinking that. And more importantly, it’ll give us a good idea about the team’s readiness for a serious challenge.