Arsenal 0 – 2 Chelsea: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 31, 2013

Wenger went with Ramsey and Wilshere in midfield and Miyaichi got a start, presumably because Gnabry wasn’t fit. It was a fairly strong line-up and certainly one that could compete with Chelsea’s second string, which, as discussed in the preview, could easily serve as a starting eleven at many Premier League clubs.

While the tournament itself is of little interest to me, the fact that Wenger played many of his regular players – some from the beginning and some as substitutes – showed he desperately wanted a win. However, numerous old failings were again visible as Chelsea controlled the game, first through possession and later through defence. The quality of Arsenal’s football certainly poses some questions about their ability to last the distance while performing against big teams, and cannot easily be brushed aside simply due to the stature of the competition.

The Gunners looked a little tentative early on and made a number of technical errors in the first five minutes or so. This allowed Chelsea to establish a rhythm and they dominated the ball. The absence of Arteta and Flamini was continuously felt in different ways but the players on the pitch worked hard to get bodies between the ball and goal thereby limiting the impact of any threat the visitors posed.

This wasn’t a case of good defending but a matter of working hard to somehow keep the goal protected. There are certain patterns which, when repeated, give us a good indication that a team is not controlling the game defensively.

For instance, when a striker is regularly able to move into space to receive and lay off the ball, opposition’s midfield runners can find open areas to attack, and many players from the defensive side are facing their own goal and chasing back, it’s safe to assume the defence is in the scramble mode. The image below is a decent example of this as Eto’o has dropped between the lines – gap is huge – and Mata is able to run into the space behind the full-back. Many Gunners are looking at Fabianski’s goal and chasing back including the two supposed defensive midfielders and a full-back.

Defensive Scramble 1

Usually, the oppositions attacking efficiency determines how threatening such instances are and the defensive side has to rely on a bit of luck as they try to slow the attack down and get a crowd around the ball.

Defensive Crowd

In the example above, Vermaelen slowed play down and the Gunners were able to somehow win the ball back by sheer weight of numbers. But look at the vast open space in front of the defence and the acreage that Eto’o is in. In such cases, the probability of conceding freakish goals is high because of these open areas where the ball could easily find its way to through a deflection. Instances of defenders getting in each other’s way because of their proximity and focus on the ball are also more likely than in cases where the shape of the team is not good.

The following example came in the 11th minute when quick feet and a nifty back heel by Mata gave De Bruyne a chance to run into space.

Defensive Scramble 2

Vermaelen gets sucked out wide as does Wilshere. Monreal is chasing back. Look at the gaps that have opened up (black circles) and the distance between the two central defenders (yellow line). There are many runners who can attack these spaces (red arrows). Only poor choice and executions by De Bruyne slowed this attack down and gave the Gunners a chance to regroup. Even then Willian was able to receive the ball in space and get a shot away.

It is important to remember that snapshots don’t really prove anything and you can find any team out of shape for a short instance if you really go looking. The pictures above are only illustrative. But when you see such problems over and over again during the game it’s clear that the defence is not at the level it should be and the side will inevitably concede a goal or two.

The two goals conceded by Arsenal were both down to numerous defensive weaknesses. ‘Corner to the Gunners, goal to the opponents’ will soon become a cliché. Jenkinson will obviously get bulk of the blame, and he should, but it’s worth noting what a mad scramble it was with many players chasing back as they could not control the break from Chelsea higher up the pitch. The ball was skied and had vicious rotation on it because it deflected from a desperate, perhaps ill-advised, attempt at a sliding tackle.

It was again a freakish goal. Azpilicueta will probably not score another such goal this season. For the Gunners it’s a unique goal to concede in that the exact pattern will likely not repeat but it’s also a very predictable goal to concede in that defensive scrambles will gift very soft goals to the opponents.

The second goal represented different types of problems. It starts with two horribly miscued attempts at clearing the ball. First, Koscielny goes to head a long ball and only manages to head it backwards even though he is under no pressure. Then Jenkinson shanks his clearance and it goes out for a throw. From the resulting throw both central defenders are attracted to Eto’o who’d made a run towards the byline. His flick back results in an aerial duel between Willian and Wilshere before the ball falls kindly to Mata whose technique to control and shoot is exemplary. Again there was an element of luck involved as Willian’s header wasn’t exactly a controlled pass. The shot also bisected the defensive players and swung at just the right moment to veer past Fabianski. But with central defenders getting sucked out of position and the defensive midfielders lacking certain physical qualities and ability to read the danger, Arsenal invited misery upon themselves.

Chelsea could have scored more had they been more efficient. But this was their second string and it showed. Even then Vermaelen seemed lucky to escape without a red card at the end as Dowd probably considered the score and time left before letting the Belgian off the hook. That was another instance where Koscielny could only head a long ball towards his own goal.

Having said all that, it’s very important to note that it wasn’t simply a case of inept football from the Gunners. Far from it. There were phases when they were pretty solid defensively and also moments when they produced some quality moments at the other end of the pitch.

Difference was that Chelsea were, for the most part, extremely well organized and maintained excellent spacing between their players which meant they could close threatening moments down or force the Gunners into producing something special.

Arsenal also struggled a bit because two of their starting attacking players were clearly below par for such a game, albeit for different reasons.

Bendtner seemed like a player who was very low on confidence and his touch wasn’t up to scratch. Furthermore, he’s always had a weakness that has limited his output at the highest level – the Dane does not make runs for the sake of running. Van Persie excelled at this and Giroud has picked up where the Dutchman left off. Strikers at a club like Arsenal, where football is so intricately linked to movement, have to be constantly on the move. Whether the ball arrives or not is irrelevant. They have to spot gaps and keep moving. It can be a tedious job at times but it opens the game up for the side. The problem with Bendtner is that he only seems to make runs when he sees the ball being played into a space. And that means he’s static for certain periods of the game, locking up vital portions of real estate on the pitch and making the job of defenders that much easier.

Miyaichi is clearly a kid who is not ready for such games and it would be harsh to expect too much from him. He needs a loan spell at a Premier League club, or a Championship side, or a strong club in a foreign league where he plays regularly. There is just no substitute for regular game time for the level he’s at.

Arsenal had some promising moments after Özil and Giroud came on the pitch but Chelsea always seemed in control defensively, even if they had to park the bus at times.

The lasting memories from this game will be of the defensive errors, some pretty combinations from the Arsenal midfield, and the moments when they seemed to run out of ideas when confronted with a sturdy blue wall in the Chelsea defence.

Individual Performances:

Fabianski: Could he have done better for either goal? Maybe. Certainly for the first a case can be made that he could have read the situation quickly and moved a little earlier. Jenkinson was never going to generate enough power to loop the header over him. Didn’t have many big saves to make and his handling of balls that came at him was confident.

Jenkinson: Villain No. 1 in most peoples’ books I guess. Some fans got carried away with his performances last season but, as I’d noted, it was more down to the limited nature of his role in those games. He is not a player who can be relied upon to move up and down the pitch while constantly maintaining a good position and making all the right choices. He should primarily be asked to focus on defending and keeping things simple with occasional forward forays when space opens up. This game seemed to hectic for him and even his crosses and other attacking moments seemed rushed and clumsy.

Koscielny: Made a number of important interventions in the box and further up the pitch when the side played a high line. But he also lacked concentration at times. The two instances of headers going backwards are good examples. Also struggled against the power of Ba when playing a high line against the striker. Can’t fault him for the first goal but shares the blame for the second.

Vermaelen: Had to spend a lot of time covering behind Monreal and did well to break up or slow down quite a few attacks. Another one who shares some blame for the second goal and shared the struggles of Koscielny against Ba. Lucky to avoid a red card. I was surprised he didn’t venture forward a bit more for some long range shots or getting on the end of crosses. The lack of a proper defensive midfielder might have held him back.

Monreal: Opponents got past him quite often with one-twos and quick interchanges which meant he was seen running back towards the Arsenal goal way more often than a defender should. Part of the problems was that the team wasn’t compact and he didn’t get sufficient timely support on the flank. Attacking contribution much better than Jenkinson’s but his final ball had scope for improvement.

The defenders had a tough game and made numerous mistakes. Better communication and awareness could have prevented the second goal. Mertesacker’s ability to read the game was sorely missed as was the presence of Arteta or Flamini in front of the back four.

Ramsey: Very hard working game in defence but he is not the guy who is going to hold position in front of the defence and keep things simple. Missed having such a player beside him. Was also trying to make things happen at the other end but didn’t quite have the right understanding with teammates and the spaces were too tight, time too short for working it out on the go.

Rosicky: On occasions, his manipulation of ball and space was a joy to watch as was his link play with Cazorla. But it was usually a bit too far from the Chelsea goal. Didn’t do enough to help the defence at times and should probably have played alongside the striker or made runs in behind with greater frequency.

Wilshere: Some of his runs with the ball troubled the Blues. For instance,  the run that saw Mikel picking up a yellow card had the opponents scrambling, while another one led to Giroud’s shot that forced an excellent save from Schwarzer. Defensively, he tried but again he isn’t a guy who naturally reads that aspect of the game. Also his choices and execution in the final third still leave a lot to be desired.

Cazorla: Like Rosicky, he too produced some easy-on-the-eye moments. But not enough, and certainly not in the decisive areas. Work rate was good and he surprisingly curbed his instincts to shoot. Corners could have been better.

Miyaichi: Have discussed above.

The midfield was not particularly well-balanced and that made it hard from a defensive point of view. Throw in the limitations of the two attacking players discussed above and the starting eleven was lacking something on either end of the pitch. The four main midfielders couldn’t quite compensate for it and they didn’t have the experience, mutual understanding, or skill to control the tempo, and thus the game, through their passing and movement. They also got in each other’s way at times when it seemed they were trying to work things out on the go. Sometimes it does feel a slightly higher degree of functional rigidity would help.

Bendtner: discussed above. I don’t think he was simply slacking off, just that he doesn’t have the drive (or the game intelligence) to keep running selflessly but in a tactically meaningful manner.

Subs: Özil and Giroud’s arrival did give Arsenal greater attacking impetus but it only went till the edge of the Chelsea box where a Blue wall held firm.

Wenger: The big games are here and his sides have lost to Dortmund and Chelsea through terrible defensive mistakes while not showing enough offensive bite. Deja Vu? It’s easy to dismiss this competition’s importance but the patterns seen in this game are concerning. Arsenal have struggled without Arteta and they will do so again, particularly when Flamini too is missing.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Chelsea

October 29, 2013

The fixture list is definitely a little harsh on Chelsea as this game comes just two days after their big League encounter against Man City last Sunday. But then you look at the amount of money they’ve spent and the options Mourinho has and there seems little reason to feel sympathetic. Demba Ba, Eto’o, Mata, De Bruyne, Willian, David Luiz, Obi-Mikel, Essien, Azpilicueta, and Schwarzer could all start regularly at many of the Premier League teams. Mourinho will probably have to rely on no more than a couple of youngsters.

With a team that strong, tactics would become irrelevant unless Wenger puts out a competitive midfield. Should he? That is the question.

It would be interesting to see Wenger’s record against Mourinho. Is it P8 W0 D4 L4? The Portuguese manager is exceptional at setting his side up to not lose. And then he usually has enough quality players and good enough ideas to nick a win.

Given the number of changes Wenger will have to make, it seems safe to assume they will concede a goal or two, at least. The Frenchman’s teams work best when there is continuity and the players have a feel for the game. That doesn’t work with wholesale changes.

With that in mind, Penalties might be Arsenal’s best hope and that too only if they can remain defensively resolute for the duration of the game and extra time.

Flamini and Arteta are absent so Wenger has to either go with a youngster like Hayden as the defensive player or start both Jack and Ramsey. I’d just throw Hayden in at the deep end and see what he can do against the likes of Mata, Willian, and De Bruyne. Wilshere and Rambo have bigger fish to fry soon enough. Even then, Wenger will probably have to play one of those two. Jack should get the nod if he is fit (problem is nobody seems to know whether he is fit or not!).

Rosicky could get a nod at the top of midfield with Bendtner leading the line. Gnabry deserves a go against the big boys and he could have a very interesting battle on the right if Mourinho plays Bertrand at left back.

Fabianksi, Jenkinson, Vermaelen, and Monreal should get a start and that leaves a couple of places to fill. Mertesacker would be the ideal partner for Vermaelen because the German is exceptional at reading the game and can be a calming influence.

On the left of midfield, the choice seems to be between the youngster Miyaichi and Cazorla. Santi seems the better choice as he’d bring experience and technical qualities to the side.

I’d like to see,

Fabianski – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Hayden, Rosicky, Wilshere – Gnabry, Bendtner, Cazorla.

That seems like a strong enough side to me. But does it stack up against the team Mourinho can field? It’s a shame Flamini is injured.

Arsenal have some pace and trickery in that midfield. They can trouble the likes of Mikel and Essien if they move the ball quickly. But pushing up the pitch in numbers against any Mourinho side is always a risk. Wenger might be tempted to play Vermaelen and Koscielny together if he wants pace in defence. That will make the game very, very interesting but might make Fabianski’s life miserable.

Avoiding early mistakes will be extremely vital. Going behind will force the Gunners to be even more adventurous and the scoreline could potentially get bad enough to defenestrate all confidence while giving weight to questions about the squad’s qualities and depth.

Bendtner’s movement and link play will have to be top notch. Gnabry or Rosicky will have to continuously join the attack on the defensive line or look to get in behind. If Chelsea have Kalas and Bertrand in the back four, the Gunners should look to force mistakes through their movements by engaging these youngster and forcing them into choices and areas out of their comfort zone.

This tournament is a complete waste of time in my opinion. So I don’t really care about  the result of this game. As long as the key players are able to get a break and those who play don’t get injured, it will be a success in my book.

Bradford City* 1 – 1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

December 12, 2012

Most of the big teams crash out of a competition like the League Cup, often against opponents from the lower divisions. It happens every year. However, few play a virtually full strength side against a team sitting three divisions below and still fail to progress.

In that regard, Arsene Wenger’s surprise selection made the result all the more disheartening, to put it mildly.

I have a feeling Wenger knows this is his weakest squad in years, not just in terms of individual quality, but also in terms of balance and understanding. The total output produced by the 11 players on the pitch is much, much lower than that of their predecessors. His decisions and comments over the season have shown that he isn’t quite sure what his best line-up is and Le Boss is still searching for the right combination in midfield and attack.

It seemed to me that Arsene went with a strong line-up because of two mains reasons – 1) he wanted to use the Cup as an insurance policy in case transfers don’t work out in January and/or the club fails to get into the Champions League spots at the end of the season; 2) He wanted to give some players more time to understand each other’s game and hopefully a boost to their confidence.

The decision bombed in every which way imaginable. Many key players have clocked up minutes which will have an impact by the time we reach the crunch period of March to May. The negative vibes will gain further strength while confidence of the players hits a new low. The only positive I can think of is that there will be fewer games to play in the coming weeks, which is really stretching it.

Coming to the game itself, I got the feeling Arsenal were a tad nervous at the beginning of the game. Bradford were able to chase the ball and put the Gunners under pressure which forced certain mistakes. Despite that the difference in the quality of the two teams was obvious.

The Gunners were well below their best but they were still creating chances. Vermaelen and Podolski couldn’t direct free-headers towards the target and there were some other promising moments that were squandered.

At the other end, the threat was always going to come from long balls and set-pieces. That’s just how the goal came. One long punt took the ball from their goalkeeper’s hands to deep inside the Arsenal defensive third.

Vermaelen’s inability to attack the ball earlier and the ease with which he was nutmegged exposed certain basic defensive weaknesses that many central defenders have shown while putting on a Arsenal shirt. The defending from the set-piece was woeful, it was again a case of a soft goal being gifted to the opposition.

Scoring goals is the hardest part of the game. It may be a cliché but is also the most fundamental tenet of the game. Once a team gifts goals to the opponents it makes its own task infinitely harder. Throw in the inability to produce decisive quality in the final third and you have the perfect recipe for a massive upset.

I don’t agree with people who claim there was no desire or spirit from the players. It’s a stunningly lazy argument that defies everything we saw on the pitch. I thought the players fought really hard, they just didn’t have the right quality in the right moments, and at times their lack of understanding or execution let them down badly.

From Arsenal’s point of view, there were two different phases in the game. In the first 70 minutes, the hosts had a relatively comfortable time. The Gunners got into plenty of threatening positions but the quality of delivery or the shot attempted was really poor. There were no shots on target in this period. If anything, Bradford’s basic long ball tactic created more threatening moments than all of Arsenal’s possession.

The game changed after Wenger’s three substitutions. Arsenal were a different team for the rest of the game and completely controlled the game. Duke was forced into many saves and for 50 minutes it was mostly a training exercise of attack against defence. To Bradford’s great credit they did enough to keep a misfiring Arsenal team at bay.

When Vermaelen equalized late in the game there was hope that Arsenal could turn things around. The players were visibly trying very hard, and that’s the reason I don’t doubt the desire or spirit of the individuals. However, they just didn’t have enough individual quality in the final third of the pitch to convert possession and territorial dominance into goals.

Bradford did not have a single shot on or off target in the second half and in extra time. That highlights the importance of not gifting goals better than anything. You have to be defensively strong in Cup ties, particularly when you’ve a misfiring attack.

I knew Bradford would be favourites once it went to penalties. Tweeted the following during extra-time.

It wasn’t just about their record of winning 8 successive penalty shootouts. The simple fact of the matter was that the game was now completely even. Any technical advantage that Arsenal had was nullified. The players with more confidence were going to go through and the Gunners were clearly second best. To me it wasn’t as much about desire at it was about belief and self-doubt. A single grain of doubt can be the difference between the ball hitting the post and bouncing out or just nestling inside the corner of the goal.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Can’t blame him for the shootout defeat but he was extremely indecisive for the goal. Came forward, went back, got into a mess. Didn’t have much to do otherwise! Still remains a young man with potential but everything to prove as well.

Sagna: Was he at fault for the goal as it was scored from behind him? Maybe he was but definitely not the primary culprit. Put in a good shift on the flank but he wasn’t able to make an impact with his crosses.

Mertesacker: Had a decent game on the whole but he didn’t really show the aerial dominance and organization skills that people keep telling me he has.

Vermaelen: Extremely poor, particularly in the first half of the game. Really struggled against the physical nature of the game and the long balls. To me he was primarily responsible for the goal. Atoned for his error partially by scoring the equalizer but failed in the shootout.

Gibbs: Another one who I thought had a decent game except for the quality of the ball in the final third, which has been a problem throughout the season.

The defending in the first half was relatively poor but they didn’t allow a shot on goal after that. Unfortunately, even that one goal was one too many.

Coquelin: Had some highlights worthy moments when he ventured forward like the time he hit the post or got in behind on the right side, but overall impact was marginal at best. Couldn’t help the defence as well as he should have in the first half. If he’d been able to take charge of the midfield, Arsenal would have pinned Bradford back in the manner they did towards the end.

Cazorla: Many shots from distance, no real return. Did get the assist for the goal. Poor penalty. This is the kind of game where he should have shown he’s a class apart but his style of play is such that he can’t really make others around him better than they are, which means the overall team play suffers. Have some thoughts on his game but need to find time to put them across in a balanced way.

Wilshere: Another one who had many highlights-worthy moments but also very little to show for it at the end of the game. He too has a lot to learn to make his individual qualities work for the team. Desperately needs to improve his right foot.

Ramsey: Very disappointing game. Work rate was again good but there were just too many mistakes. Couldn’t offer penetration on the right or any sort of clever technical combination play.

The midfield had players with individual qualities but it didn’t work as a unit for the first 70 minutes. To be fair, they were not helped by the quality of the attackers but the key point here is that we know the quality of the attackers. IMO the onus of making average players look good is on the great players. That isn’t happening for the Gunners.

Gervinho: I wrote these sentences when he was signed – 1) “I am not convinced about his passing or finishing abilities despite his fairly impressive stats for Lille.” 2) “Gervinho’s weakness seems to be his technique…” 3) “…don’t be surprised if he frustrates more often than he delights…” I haven’t spent the last two years repeating these points because it doesn’t add much value but it’s been clear from the time he signed that Gervinho remains a very average player.

Podolski: There are only certain patterns of play that suit his strengths. Outside of those he looks a very mediocre player. Arsenal haven’t been able to play to his strengths and he hasn’t shown the ability to improve/adapt.

Subs: Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain brought drive and penetration to the side but they too lacked the final finish or supply. Chamakh had decent moments with his hold up play but he also lost possession far too often. Poor penalty as well.

Wenger: We know he focuses on the team more than the individuals. Unfortunately, this season the Gunners just haven’t clicked as a team. A few big wins have created false hopes but the disappointments have been too many to be ignored. The big challenge for him is to get his great players performing in a manner that lifts the average ones.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Bradford City

December 11, 2012

There was an interesting detail mentioned during Arsene Wenger’s pre-match interview on Arsenal Player – Arsenal haven’t won at Bradford for 90 years! It sounds staggering but most of it is down to the fact that the teams haven’t played each other very many times. That said, Arsene Wenger did take the Gunners to Bradford twice – both in the year 2000, but in different seasons – in the Premier League and returned with just a point out of those two games.

The League Two side has beaten Championship and Premier League opposition in the competition already and have shown good form in their league which has put them in contention for promotion.

In the Capital One Cup their wins have come late. Against Wigan it was a scoreless draw even after extra-time, but the Bantams won their 7th successive penalty shootout. It was a commendable achievement away from home against a team playing three levels above them. Their win against Championship side Watford was a result of a dramatic late comeback with the winner being scored deep in injury time at the end of the second half. Prior to that, Phil Parkinson’s side beat League Two opponents Burton Albion and League One side Notts County in extra-time.

Bradford have beaten opponents from all divisions above them in their run to the quarter-finals and it’s safe to say they are fighting hard till the very end. Their home record in League Two is also quite impressive as they’ve the most points (23 having scored 18 and conceded just 6 goals in their 11 home games.

All signs points to a tough battle despite the difference in the levels the teams compete at routinely. League Two sounds a far way down but players like Zavon Hines and Stephen Darby have gone to Bradford after being on the fringes of Premier League clubs in their youth. Cup ties have a way of levelling the gap between teams and this should be no different.

Tactically, this is unlikely to be very different from many of the battles we’ve seen against lower division opponents. For Bradford, it’ll mostly be about remaining organized and denying opportunities to the Gunners while looking for chances to counter-attack and/or win set-pieces.

Two factors will have a major bearing on the game. Arsene Wenger’s team selection will determine the technical quality, tactical balance, and experience that Arsenal have out on the pitch. The support of the home crowd and Bradford’s energy levels will have an impact on how effectively they prevent Arsenal from building their play.

Phil Parkinson will also have to decide whether he wants to play for penalties or go for a result in normal time. We’ll know his choice based on the aggressiveness of his team. If they sit back and soak up pressure I’d venture to say they’re holding out for a penalty shootout, or at least trying to stay in the game till late. Seeing as their wins have all come late in the game, it could be the right option.

The risk for Bradford City would be that Arsenal can settle the game early if they’re not challenged. Although the Gunners have struggled to score in some games, many of their problems seem to be linked with the opponent’s ability to press them in the middle of the pitch or in their own half.

Arsene will have to find a good mix of youth and experience for this one. It’s not as easy as it would seem to some. I expect Coquelin and Ramsey will get a game. Jenkinson should come in at right-back. Apart from that none of the choices are clear cut.

Mannone might get a start if he’s fit. The other places in defence are up for grabs but neither Yennaris nor Miquel are fit. Meade at left-back could be an option. In the centre Squillaci could have another game. I don’t know if Djourou is fit or even in the manager’s thoughts. All three together could make the defence a tad feeble as they haven’t played many games. So, I’d like to see either Gibbs or Vermaelen selected in the starting eleven.

Up front, Podolski could get a start if he’s recovered. He deserves a go down the middle. Wenger could also put the German on the left and Chamakh central. Rosicky and Eisfeld should also be in contention for a starting birth. Arshavin is another option but considering the fact that he wasn’t picked for the dead-rubber against Olympiacos, it’s not clear whether the manager wants to give him any more game-time.

Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho haven’t played many minutes, and the Ivorian will likely be going away to the African Cup of Nations in January, so picking one of the two could give the team greater bite.

I’d start,

Mannone – Jenkinson, Squillaci, Vermaelen, Meade – Coquelin, Ramsey, Rosicky – Gervinho, Podolski, Eisfeld.

Having a couple of senior players on the bench would be a good insurance policy.

A win in this game will take the Gunners into the semi-final of the League Cup. It could lead to some positive news cycles and help build on some of the positive sound bites that came after the win against West Brom. In contrast, failure to progress will pile on the pressure on the five straight Premier League games in the coming weeks.

Will this be another tennis score after 6-1, 7-5 wins in the previous two rounds of the competition?

Reading 5 – 7 Arsenal: From Embarrassing To Inspiring And Onto Pure Magic

October 31, 2012

In the pre-match article I was talking about Reading’s ability to score goals and also touched upon the gaps they leave at the back that have cost them goals. The final line of the post was, “All-in-all this should be a riveting game with plenty of action in the final third.”

In all honesty though, the events of that game were beyond my wildest imagination.

With the such changed line-up featuring a number of youngsters who don’t get to taste high-level competitive football on a weekly basis, there were always going to be a few questions about the patterns of play. The first one I’d posed was, “Will the Gunners be able to dominate the midfield as they usually do?”

In the initial exchanges, the answer to that was a resounding “No!” As is typical of a Wenger side, the players tried to build from the back but Reading were able to disrupt the rhythm through the heavy pressure they applied. The midfield just couldn’t handle it. Youngsters like Coquelin and Frimpong can sometimes hide on the pitch when playing alongside experienced and technically accomplished Pros but in this game they were the key players who buckled under pressure. Too many Arsenal players were struggling to receive, hold, and pass the ball consistently under pressure and you could visibly see the hosts gaining confidence with each technical error.

Reading won a couple of corners in the first two or three minutes itself but it took them till the 12th minute to open the scoring. By the 20th minute they were 3 up. Struggling to build from the back was the initial weakness but the nature of turnovers exposed a bigger underlying vulnerability – the lack of structure, technique, and composure in defence.

The amount of space that Robson-Kanu had because Walcott didn’t track his run after giving the ball away, or the acreage in the penalty box for Roberts to run into was a symptom of that vulnerability. The ease with which Norwich went past Arsenal’s wide players in the build-up to the second, Koscielny’s uncanny knack of directing the ball towards his own goal, Chamakh giving the ball away in the build-up to the third with many Gunners running forward blindly, and Martinez’s flailing attempt to save can all be chalked down as individual errors but the high price paid in the form of goals was a result of the system’s deficiency.

The easiest way to understand it is by observing the impact of similar errors after the patterns of play had changed. Later in the game, there were still mistakes being made at the back but the Gunners had pushed Reading sufficiently away from their goal and thus were in better positions to recover from those mistakes. The problems in defence didn’t just simply vanish but their impact was suppressed by the structure of the side and resulting patterns were threatening but not harmful.

After their third goal, Reading took their foot off the gas. This would prove to be their biggest mistake but it wasn’t evident till much later in the game. From this point on the Gunners were able to build from the back and saw a lot of the ball in central areas where they weren’t challenged. The hosts were willing to sit back in a shape and keep the play in front of them.

In this phase Arsenal’s possession looked harmless with too many misplaced passes or poor touches in the final third. Indeed, it was McDermott’s side who picked up another goal on a foray forward. Once again it was lax tracking on Arsenal’s right flank and an inability to attack the ball in the box.

The Gunners had hit rock bottom. The performance was embarrassing and there is just no way to sugar-coat it. This was my thought at that moment,

The rest of the first half followed similar patterns with Arsenal having a lot of the ball without really testing Federici in goal.

A glimmer of hope came in injury time when a weak header from Gorkss came straight to Arshavin who was able to slide Walcott through. Theo scored with the last kick of the half. His technique and composure were commendable.

The second half was an entirely different affair but it wasn’t until two astute substitutions from Wenger that we started seeing decisive contributions in the final third. Frimpong and Gnabry, arguably the two least effective players in the starting eleven, were taken off for Giroud and Eisfeld.

In the preview I’d also mentioned the point about Arsenal needing reinforcements from the bench in order to make a comeback. Fair play to Arsene for picking Giroud in the squad. The Frenchman made a near-instant impact as he guided a fizzing Walcott corner into the net.

As Wenger said after the 4-4 against Newcastle and indeed after this game as well, “At 4-2 the panic sets in.” You could see Reading were now unsure. They didn’t know whether to stay deep and hold on to the lead or push forward and attempt the same tactics that got them the goals in the first place.

The momentum was with the Gunners and the Royals were often getting caught in a no man’s land. Some of their players were trying to push up while the others were staying deeper. Arsenal chased every ball, showed intense desire to make something happen, and pushed forward in numbers.

As time went on the Royals were pinned deeper and deeper into their own half but they were hanging on. Federici was forced into some fine saves while on other occasions the finish or the final ball didn’t match the build-up play. Nevertheless, it was a thrill-a-minute game with constant edge of the seat action that must have made both sets of fans tense; some in anticipation, the others in anxiety.

The third goal for the Gunners didn’t come till as late as the 89th minute when hopes of a dramatic comeback had began fading. It was another sizzling corner, this time it was Koscielny on the end of it.

Soon after, the Royals had a genuine shout for a second yellow against Koscielny. The ref had been lenient all through the game and let the defender get away with it in injury time. Not only would that have had an impact on Arsenal’s chances of scoring the equalizer, Arsenal would have been down to 10 for the duration of extra time if they did score the fourth.

The equalizer came deep in injury time. On a less dramatic day we might have heard more complaints about the time added on but perhaps Reading only have themselves to blame as their late substitution might have prompted the ref to go well beyond the four added minutes. When Walcott’s shot crossed the line the time on my screen showed 95:01. Don’t think many Gooners would have been happy if Reading had equalized with extra extra-time but I doubt anyone will complain now.

Once again it was the last kick of the half and this time, the comeback was complete. Now it was time for a turnaround.

Chamakh’s first goal of the night was a memorable one and not just for the fact that the Moroccan scored from outside the box. The build-up play was exquisite. It was a 41 second spell of possession in which 9 of the 10 outfield players passed the ball at least once. Starting with Coquelin’s sliding tackle wide on the right, and culminating in a strike that wasn’t a typical blast from distance like the angry, hopeful swing of an amateur’s arm, but a measured and well-placed blow from a professional who knew just how to strike the knockout punch. Walcott was the only guy who didn’t touch the ball which is ironical considering he scored three and set up the other three, playing a big part in all the other six goals.

Oddly enough, although it wasn’t really surprising, the momentum swung again. The Royals had nothing to lose anymore while the Gunners were catching their collective breath after an intense fight back.

Arsenal’s lead lasted 12 minutes or so when another ball played across the face of goal from Reading’s right resulted in a headed goal.

Thankfully for the Gunners, their momentum had not subsided completely and they were able to regain the extra gear. Arshavin’s run and shot was cleared off the line but Walcott was at hand to smash it in. Chamakh’s second was a tad cruel on the Royals but it was a neat finish. In fairness to the ref, he did go over the two minutes added on in extra-time giving Reading a chance to hit back.

We saw everything in this game. There were momentum swings, depths of despair, hope, glory, heart-break, defensive blunders, clinical finishing, and refereeing controversy. It was magical, maybe not so much for the Reading players, coaches, and fans at the end, but at least they know they won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

For Arsenal we saw the best and worst in the same game. We can’t infer much from individual performances after such a game because we are not likely to see a repeat in the near future. The spirit of the side was laudable. I’d certainly love to know who the “leaders” were on the pitch. So often, we hear Arsenal lacked leadership. This team was largely composed of fringe players and youngsters. Was there a leader on the pitch? Were they all leaders? Or is the lack of leadership just a lame, imprudent argument put forward when people can’t explain a flat performance?

As far as individuals go we saw a lot of quality and numerous weaknesses as well. I doubt many would have given Walcott or Arshavin high marks at the end of the first half, and few would dare berate them after the end of the game. There wasn’t anyone who was consistently outstanding and impeccable but the desire and spirit in the second half was top notch. It would have been easy to give up by the 89th minute. They didn’t. It would have been easy to start blaming each other for missed opportunities. They didn’t. Things just clicked for Arsenal and it was truly magical.

With the senior players we got what we’ve come to expect, and it was a real pleasure to see Chamakh back on the score-sheet. Among the youngsters, Eisfeld was the one who impressed me the most. He did have his share of mistakes, particularly in the final third, but on the whole he showed excellent technical quality and tactical awareness. Gnabry looked a little overawed and his touch deserted him at times, but he also played at a time when Reading had control of the game.

Coquelin didn’t do enough in the first half to show he’s ready to challenge for a first-team spot on a consistent basis. The Frenchman was rushed into many mistakes, the kind of which would be unacceptable in bigger, more important games. In fairness, he did an excellent job of sweeping in front of the defence and spreading play once Reading retreated. Frimpong seemed rusty and a touch too casual. Martinez made a couple of big saves but he could have done better for the second and third goals. His distribution will also have to improve. He showed promise for a youngster but I’d not be comfortable with the thought of him in goal for a first-team game.

All-in-all it was riveting game with a lot of action in the final third (Pardon the redundancy but I just had to say that again). It’s a shame one side had to bow out of the competition because you don’t have losers on such a night (unless you’re someone who gave up and stopped watching at point!)

In an era of short memories, this one might just last a lifetime. More importantly though, let’s hope it has a positive impact on the vital upcoming fixtures. There’s a comeback to be made on other, more prestigious fronts as well.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Reading

October 30, 2012

Away games are generally tough and more so in Cup ties where the smaller teams feel they’ve a good chance of causing some upsets on their way to glory. There is no doubt Wenger would have favoured a home game in a CO Cup tie that he’ll use to rest his first choice players, but Arsenal travel to the Madejski where Reading will feel they’ve a fair shot at going through.

By now most managers know Arsene Wenger’s priorities. It seems safe to assume Brian McDermott will be prepared for a second string Arsenal side so it will be interesting to see how many changes he makes to his eleven. I don’t think the Royals have too many youngsters vying for starting birth so we should see at least half their first team from the kick-off.

That will make this a noticeably tougher game than the home win over Coventry in the previous round. Reading are a team with noteworthy quality in the final third. Most smaller clubs struggle for goals but the Royals have scored 11 goals in the League – only Southampton have more among the bottom 8 clubs – and a further 3 each in their two CO Cup games.

Strikers like Pogrebnyak and Roberts are ably supported by midfielders who make clever runs and provide a genuine goal threat. They’re also strong in the air and have the ability to link intelligently on counter-attacks. The hosts are not averse to shooting from outside the box either. Reading will test any defence that Arsene Wenger sends out.

Their problem has been at the back. in 7 out of the 10 games they’ve played in all competitions, Reading have conceded 2 or more goals. They’ve not received many thrashings like Southampton or Norwich, for instance, but McDermott’s side has been leaking goals and chances on a consistent basis as they do tend to leave gaps at the back through some basic errors in positioning, judgment, or execution.

I am tempted to say there should be three or four goals in this one but with a much changed Arsenal side it’s going to be difficult to predict the patterns of play. Will the Gunners be able to dominate the midfield as they usually do? Will they be able to generate and sustain a tempo fast enough to upset the defensive rhythm of the hosts? Will Reading be able to impose their experience and physicality on the relatively inexperienced Arsenal side? Will Wenger’s side have the ability to soak up pressure if the hosts do get an upper hand in midfield? Can Arsenal use their pace and skills to score on the counter-attack or will be see a session of hoof-and-defend?

Wenger made 11 changes to the starting line-up in the previous League Cup fixture and he could do the same again. One would think Djourou, Koscielny, Jenkinson, Coquelin, Arshavin, Walcott, and Gnabry are almost certain to start given how close they’ve been to the first team. Frimpong, if fit, could also be in the starting eleven. Martinez will probably line up in goal as Wenger mentioned Szczesny was still some way away from full fitness. That leaves two positions up for grabs. Miquel could be the preferred player at left-back.

The final choice could have a big say on the way this game shapes up. For instance, Wenger could pick Chamakh up top and start Walcott on the right with Arshavin through the middle and Gnabry on the left. Or he could pick someone like Yennaris in midfield, as he did against Coventry, and start Walcott in the central role he covets.

In the latter choice, Arsenal will have greater technical balance to the side and a relatively stronger collective defence. With Chamakh in attack, the Gunners will have a better reference point going forward and a player who can link the wide players with the midfielders, but the team will miss a body in midfield.

I think, given the fact that this is an away game, the wiser choice will be to start Yennaris in midfield. Wenger could pick him on the right or through the middle. This would make it easier to give Arshavin a free role with marginal defensive responsibilities. Furthermore, it will also liberate Walcott of defensive duties on the flank and make him a constant source of concern for the Reading defence. The hosts will have to push up if they want to impose themselves on this game and that could be the ideal scenario for Theo. Of course, if Walcott plays down the middle and the Gunners are pinned back to the extent that they can only hoof the ball forward, his obvious weakness in the air could be detrimental. In that case, Wenger can always bring Chamakh on at some point.

Preferred line-up,

Martinez – Jenkinson, Djourou, Koscielny, Miquel – Yennaris, Coquelin, Frimpong, Gnabry – Arshavin – Walcott.

Notionally, this would be a 4-4-1-1, but really it could be any variant of the 4-5-1 depending on the way the game shapes up. The basic idea is to give Arshavin and Walcott as much freedom as possible. This system will test Gnabry though, as he’ll have a heavy defensive burden. The German youngster will have to take care of the ball better and can’t afford to give it away cheaply like he did in the build-up to Schalke’s second goal. The game could give him some lessons in decision making in order to find the right balance between attack and defence.

At the back Djourou and Koscielny will have to produce big performances to keep Arsenal strong. Martinez will be tested in this game and it should give us a good idea about his potential.

It’ll be interesting to see whether Wenger selects any of his senior players on the bench. Against Coventry we only saw Chamakh and Squillaci on the bench but AOC and Giroud started that one. Injuries have weakened the squad somewhat and some key players clearly could use a breather so they’re not likely to be involved, but Wenger knows he might need a comeback in this fixture if the club are to progress to the next round and that means he’ll need quality on the bench. The absence of players who can make a difference will clearly put the CO Cup in its place and is likely to disappoint some fans, but the manager is in a tough spot with a couple of vital away fixtures coming up in the next few days so he’ll have my sympathy.

All-in-all this should be a riveting game with plenty of action in the final third.

Arsenal 6 – 1 Coventry: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 27, 2012

I wanted to watch the game without seeing the score but that didn’t work out as they kept flashing the score updates during the United – Newcastle game. Thankfully, the margin of victory liberated me while watching the game and made it more bearable at times, for such was the pedestrian nature of the two sides, particularly in the first half. If you haven’t seen it yet but plan to, I’d recommend skipping the opening half hour or the entire first half. Watch Giroud’s account opening moment in the highlights, there was little else to enjoy.

Coventry came out with a relatively positive attitude and didn’t sit deep in front of their penalty box. Their defence lined up midway through their half and the line in front was formed around the centre of the pitch. This is a tactic we’ve seen often enough but it’s success relies on aggressive marking at the back and a cohesive pressing shape up front. The visitors managed that for part of the game but they also left the Gunners  free on many a occasion. Arsenal found spaces between the lines rather easily and many of the forward runs were not tracked diligently.

The Gunners tried a lot balls in behind, mainly through Arshavin in an advanced central position, but rarely got it right. Far too many passes were wayward and wasteful. On other occasions players lost possession by dribbling into a crowd or through poor touches. The visiting custodian was largely untroubled.

The goal came from a sequence of quick and somewhat fortuitous passing that broke the high line of defence. Oxlade-Chamberlin played a ball from his own half to Arshavin who flicked it forward first time. It seemed like the ball was over hit but it worked to Arsenal’s advantage as the central defender was tempted to challenge for it allowing Coquelin to get a lunging toe on it. Giroud was put clean through on goal and lifted his shot over the Keeper.

At the other end, Coventry were able to head a couple of crosses towards goal from threatening positions in the Arsenal box but couldn’t hit the target.

The visitors came out with greater desire in the second half but that only served to open the game up even more which actually made it even easier for Arsenal.

Giroud missed a penalty that Arshavin had won after pouncing on the centre back’s weak header early in the second half. But chances and goals kept coming.

Oxlade-Chamberlain blasted one in from distance. A clever interceptions from Yennaris in the centre circle led to a quick counter that Arshavin scored from. Giroud picked up the assist. Coventry just weren’t able to track the runs Arsenal were making.

Wenger introduced Gnabry, Frimpong, and Chamakh for Oxlade-Chamberlain, Coquelin, and Giroud with less than 20 minutes to play.

Yennaris picked up an assist by setting up Walcott after again picking up possession in the middle of the pitch.

With just over 10 minutes to go, Gnabry and Santos were caught in the middle of the pitch as Coventry found space down the right. Miquel was pulled wide and there were acres of space in the penalty box. The cross was accurate as was the finish by Ball.

Soon after that Miquel scored the fifth from a corner. Arshavin again provided the assist.

Walcott completed the scoring with a well-taken individual goal minutes before the final whistle. His circular run was reminiscent of Cazorla’s run against Liverpool but the Englishman didn’t have to play a one-two. The full-backs error of judgment meant that he could simply waltz into the box without pressure. His shot was more like a pass to the far post which showed the kind of composure and instinctive awareness of goalposts that Gervinho has been lacking.

The opponents seem to be going through a very tough phase and there were far too many weaknesses in their game. It seems pointless to read too much into this performance but it should have been a good run out for some of the players who needed time on the pitch.

Individual Performances:

Martinez: Had a presence in front of goal. Made one catch look spectacular but wasn’t really tested.

Angha: Showed energy and a degree of intelligence with his forward runs but the final ball/shot was very disappointing. Defensive skills need work.

Djourou: Apart from a free header from a corner that he hit straight at the Keeper and some routine defensive moments it’s hard to recall what he did. That’s not to say he was poor, just that it was more like a straightforward training run for him.

Miquel: Did make some useful tackles. Scored his goal well and hit the bar with another header. Had a decent standing jump and seems to have grown in confidence and technique.

Santos: Disappointing game from the left back. Seemed too casual and disinterested at times. Wasn’t really tested but he might have done better for the goal.

The back five had a stress free outing and it became easier as the goals went in at the other end.

Coquelin: Seemed steady with his distribution, didn’t try too many fancy passes, picked up the assist for the first goal from a surprisingly high position on the pitch, respectable defensive effort, seemed miffed when substituted.

Arshavin: Was at the heart of almost everything creative that Arsenal did. Scored one, had two assists, and one pre-assist. Could have had another assist if Giroud had converted the penalty. But he also lost possession far too often with ambitious one-touch passes that didn’t come off. Didn’t have to track back as the opponents barely threatened the Arsenal goal.

Yennaris: Made a couple of vital recoveries in the middle that lead to goals, wasn’t as composed when venturing into the crowded final third, did a decent job of shielding the defence but looks like he needs more practice and a loan spell before he can be an option in midfield against tougher opposition.

The midfield wasn’t put under pressure, except for small patches during the game, and they had an easy time passing the ball. Retained a good shape in front of the back four and limited the opportunities Coventry could create.

Walcott: Drifted into a central area for most of the game. Was it with the blessings of the manager or was he trying to send a message? Good composure, shooting technique, and awareness of the goalposts for both his goals. But his touch wasn’t convincing in other areas of the pitch.

Giroud: Sadly, he didn’t get enough service despite Arsenal having such an easy ride. Composed and clinical finish for the first goal. Penalty was well struck but the Keeper did well to save it. Good assist for Arshavin’s goal. Movement, in general, remains his strength.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Was too individualistic, bordering on showboating at times, particularly in the first half. Cracking strike for his goal but he needs to offer much more when he gets so much time and space. Will do well to look at Arshavin’s effort in this game to see how often the Russian tried to bring other teammates into play and how he was aware of gaps on the pitch with respect to his own position.

The front three scored 4 goals between them but neither had a consistently good game. Giroud might be disappointed with the two wide men who hardly ever found him in or around the box. Walcott poses a problem for Arsene – he’s better at scoring than Gervinho but will lose the ball more often and won’t offer the same ability to beat players as the Ivorian does. Over 90 minutes who adds greater value to the team is a tough question to answer.

Subs: Was good to see Frimpong on the pitch once again. Theo’s solo goal gave him an assist. The world might have forgotten Chamakh but he hasn’t forgotten his game. It was typical Chamakh, playing intricate one-twos and lay-offs but not threatening the goal himself. Gnabry looked too eager to score. But he does seem to have good control over the ball while running and shooting.

This was more a game for making observations rather than forming any conclusions. The second half in particular was quite enjoyable for its open and entertaining nature along with some moments which offered food for thought.