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

November 30, 2011

Arsene went with a 4-4-2 in a system that was designed to give games to players rather than a clear tactical move. Mancini retained his 4-3-3 but was surprisingly defensive in his approach with Kolarov playing as a left winger, at least for half an hour!

The first half was largely uneventful with neither side really creating many chances. City’s experience was being countered by Arsenal’s youthful energy and desire in the middle. Hargreaves and De Jong didn’t command the midfield as City fans would have expected whereas Nasri was anonymous for most of the game. Both sides were looking at their right-sided winger to create but the defences were mostly well organized.

Arsenal created two noteworthy chances in the first half. After a long range strike by Johnson that just went over the bar, the Gunners created what was probably their best chance of the game in the 12th minute. Oxlade-Chamberlain brought the ball forward before finding Chamakh on the edge of the box. The striker did really well to hold the ball and suck in three opponents before sliding it wide for Coquelin. The youngster played a superb early cross to the back post where Park arrived on time but couldn’t sort his feet out to generate enough power. Nevertheless, it drew a big save from the keeper.

Then in the 29th minute AOC unleashed a rasping drive from 25 yards after a neat one-two with Chamakh. It looked spectacular but the Keeper always had it covered.

At the other end there were a few dangerous balls across the box and one occasion where Fabianski had to be sharp to smother a through-ball from Nasri.

City were patient and waiting for their chance while ensuring their goal wasn’t always exposed. Around the 40 minute mark City had 60 percent possession but very little to show for it as most of it was at the back of middle.

When Arsenal did get a chance to go forward the players ran out of ideas in the attacking areas. There were a number of moments when the Gunners had three or more players on the edge of the box and a similar number 15 yards away from the box but in such situations the play got very static and lacked impetus/incision. It was a clear case of individuals lacking understanding due to lack of games and a need for a bit of functional, pre-determined play that Wenger seems to have abandoned completely.

Both teams upped their game in the second half. Dzeko curled one close to the goal a couple of minutes after the restart. Oxlade-Chamberlain forced a couple of punches from Pantilimon at the other end.

A clear warning sign came in the 54th minute when Johnson put Aguero clean through. Only a poor touch from the Argentine allowed Coquelin the chance to nick the ball away. But that moment, along with the number of times City were able to burst forward from Arsenal’s corners/crosses, highlighted the big weakness the visitors could exploit. Most of their efforts were foiled by a combination of errors from the visitors and/or excellent tracking/tackling by the Gunners but they just needed one move to fall in place.

Wenger made two good substitutions. Gervinho came on for Park in the 68th minute and Vermaelen for Miquel on 80. It looked like Arsenal had the momentum and were pushing forward in earnest.

The goal, when it came in the 83rd minute, was an all too familiar story. As Wenger has often lamented, “We were a bit naive. Corner for us, goal for them.” It started with a poor delivery at the near post, one of many from Oxlade-Chamberlain. Dzeko was able to attack the loose ball on the edge of the City box with Koscielny and Benayoun competing. Both Arsenal players went to ground and the field opened up for the Bosnian. On the centre line, Frimpong was marking Johnson while Djourou was on Aguero. The youngster attempted and ill-advised off-side trap allowing Johnson the chance to get past him. But the bigger mistake came from the experienced Swiss defender who let Aguero run past him unchallenged. He should have tracked the run better or could just have brought the player down before he got anywhere near the goal to pick up a booking. City didn’t have anyone else forward.

There were six or seven ways Arsenal could have prevented this goal. It was City’s first shot on target but you couldn’t say it wasn’t coming.

After the goal the visitors were confident in sitting back. Arsenal got into dangerous crossing positions but the players just didn’t know how to attack the ball in the box. It was surprising to see Squillaci staying up in the box when Vermaelen would have been a much bigger threat.

Arsenal’s criminal negligence of set-pieces was typified deep into injury time when even Fabianksi ventured forward. There were seven or more Arsenal players in the opposition box but the delivery went straight to the Keeper who, thankfully, wasn’t aware of the open goal at the other end or, perhaps, didn’t have the confidence to shoot. Interestingly, none of the Gunners showed the awareness to block the Keeper when he did kick it forward with the Arsenal goal gaping.

By and large I thought the defenders and the youngsters did very well against a quality opponent. But there are some basic problems/gaps in the way Arsenal play. Due to that the result wasn’t surprising and cannot be called undeserved.

Individual Performances:

Fabianksi: Had one moment when he came for the ball and flapped but it was a good game otherwise. His positioning was good and did really well to smother the through-ball from Nasri.

Djourou: Was very effective in defence and dominant in the air but made a major mistake for the goal. But why wasn’t he up for the Corner in the first place!? Tried to go forward occasionally but clearly not comfortable at that. Looked at ease in possession and helped soak up pressure.

Squillaci: Not bad, not bad at all. took up decent positions, got his foot in when needed, can’t recall any mistakes. Why was he playing as a striker late in the game?

Koscielny: Phenomenal defensive effort. Made a number of crucial tackles/interceptions. Was very confident on the ball and dominated his part of the pitch. A close second for MotM in my opinion.

Miquel: Struggled initially against Johnson but also made a couple of good tackles late on. Pushed forward surprisingly consistently, often ending up on edge of the opposition box. Crossing was disappointing.

Usually, I don’t blame the defenders but in this case Djourou blotted a good performance with a game-losing rookie mistake.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: Produced a number of driving runs and was involved with most of the half-chances Arsenal created. Touch and control was impressive as were some skills to get out of tight spaces. Was strong in physical battles. Needs better decision making and delivery. Corners were very disappointing.

Frimpong: Physically dominant and energetic, yet effectively disciplined performance. Good to see he didn’t get carried away. Won a number of individual battles all over the pitch against experienced opponents. Attempted a number of driving runs but didn’t really know what to do with the ball once he got forward. Could have done better for the goal.

Coquelin: MotM in my opinion. Very good awareness of space, wonderful touches and technique, solid defensive effort, could have unlocked the defence if there had been better runs up front. Should have taken the corners ahead of AOC, at least some of them.

Benayoun: Hard working game on the flank as he drifted inside in attack and dropped back to defend regularly. Expected a bit more guile and nuance from a player with such experience and skill set.

The midfield four didn’t get overrun despite being outnumbered. The work rate was exceptional, as was the desire to perform. The only criticism can be about the lack of creativity but it would be harsh on the youngsters.

Park: Ran a lot but wasn’t on the same page with his teammates quite often. Got on the end of the side’s best chance and should have done better.

Chamakh: Very effective with his back to the goal and played a key part in both the notable chances of the first half. Also won a number of headers outside the box. Shame that deliveries into the box rarely went anywhere near him.

The attack was Arsenal’s weakest area and unfortunately that’s what counts most. Chamakh was playing more as a link striker while Park just wasn’t making the runs his teammates could read and find. At the end it was disappointing to see so few crosses going towards the Moroccan.

Subs: Gervinho was lively but finishing and final ball were poor. Vermaelen should have stayed higher up the pitch. Arshavin didn’t get much time on the ball but his corners were rather aimless.

Wenger: Put out a fighting team and extracted a respectable effort. But the predictably poor goal and typically ineffective set-pieces leave a lot to be desired. Should be proud of the quality of the young players and must now take them to the next level.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Man City

November 29, 2011

This is a tough one to call. Arsenal are very strong at home in the Carling Cup – the last eight games ending in wins with a cumulative score of 23-3. On the other hand, City are probably the only club that can put out a second-string side that would not look far out of place in the Premiership.

For the visitors, Dzeko, Adam Johnson, Nigel De Jong, Kolo Toure, Kolarov, Zabaleta, Savic, and even Hargreaves might get a start. That would give them a decent back four but one that I wouldn’t find daunting if I were an Arsenal attacker. Still the spine will be quite strong and most importantly, Mancini’s men will have excellent quality in front of goal.

Wenger will have to pick a strong defence but with so many injured full-backs the manager has his work cut out. I didn’t see any of the defenders that played against Fulham in the training pictures. That would imply a centre back pairing of Squillaci and Koscielny with a couple of youngsters, quite possibly Miquel and Yennaris, on the flanks. I am not convinced that defence can keep City out, with due respect to their efforts against Bolton, so this could be another goal glut like the visit to Stamford Bridge.

The back five are likely to be shielded by the dynamic yet inexperienced duo of Frimpong and Coquelin. The choice of the four attacking players will determine Arsenal’s ability to compete in this game.

Interestingly, Arshavin was conspicuous by his absence from the training pictures and could be replaced by Gervinho. Chamakh and Park were both in training but I will be surprised if one of the two is not picked as the lone striker. The Korean is likely to pip the Moroccan to that post.

Probable starting eleven,

Fabianski – Yennaris, Squillaci, Koscielny, Miquel – Coquelin, Benayoun, Frimpong – AOC, Park, Gervinho.

Despite the bigger names in the City side, I won’t be surprised if Arsenal match the higher-rated opponents in terms of passing and possession. But that will also depend on Mancini’s midfield. The Italian will have to pick a couple of youngsters if he chooses to leave out the likes of Silva, Yaya Toure, and Nasri. Even Aguero might be on the bench or completely rested along with the suspended duo, Barry and Balotelli.

Such a City side will rely on Adam Johnson for creativity. Dzeko will be a threat in the box and his shooting from distance could test Fabianksi.

For the Gunners, Frimpong and Coquelin will have to produce absolute blinders. Their job description will include helping the full-backs, bringing the ball out from defence under pressure, sweeping in front of the centre of the penalty box, and tracking runs. It’s vital that they keep things simple, avoid mistakes, and not get caught upfield or out of position.

In attack, much is expected of Gervinho. The Ivorian has been in dazzling form, at least as long as he has been running towards the opposition penalty area. He now needs to add an end product to that. Oxlade-Chamberlain will probably find this his toughest start yet in an Arsenal shirt. The youngster will have to link-up with Gervinho and Park while also providing cover against the forward bursts of Kolarov.

Benayoun will have the unenviable task of guiding the youngsters and feeding the attack. It will demand a tireless effort and an impeccable sense of positioning. I’d prefer if he stayed deeper and let one of the wider players cut in from the wings.

Park must ensure he doesn’t cede possession by straying off-side and will have to show a greater understanding with the other attackers. One would also expect a lot of thankless runs from the striker to create space for the others.

When the Gunners do lose the ball in attacking areas they will have to prevent players like Johnson from running into space. Once a winger like Johnson get’s past the full-back, he can stretch the whole defence out of shape. That means the full-back(s), mostly Miquel, will have to limit their attacking runs and take up positions to intercept passes or close the run down. That’s a very tough ask against a quality player and even many seasoned defenders might struggle at it. Another option is to show him the channel and match him for pace while hoping for cover from a midfielder. I am not sure Miquel can do that right now so his best bet is to be intelligent with his positioning and decision making. It should be a fascinating battle.

I expect the result to be determined by Arsenal’s approach to the game. The visitors will have greater bench strength and will be very hard to beat if they take the lead. It could be a high-scoring encounter, and possibly and embarrassing score for the Gunners if Arsene is very adventurous in his tactics. But we could also see a tight game settled by the odd piece of individual skill if Le Boss matches Mancini’s pragmatism.

Arsenal 2 – 1 Bolton: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 26, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Individual Performances:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Bolton

October 25, 2011

It’s been just over a day since I posted the match report for the Stoke game. It creates an uncomfortable feeling that this game is coming too soon after the previous one. Is it the same for most of the clubs? Somehow I doubt it.

This proximity of fixtures will make Wenger’s job tougher. Given the injuries, especially in defence, Le Boss would probably have appreciated a chance to use one or two regulars in a game like this. But he will just have to play the hand he’s been dealt. If you want a peak at that hand and make some guesses, these pictures of the Gunners training for the game might help.

In his pre-match interview with Arsenal Player, Arsene named Frimpong, Coquelin, Miquel, Alex, and Park as the players who are likely to start. No surprises there. And I will be surprised if Fabianski, Rosicky, and Benayoun don’t get a start. That’s 8 out of 11. It will be interesting to see Wenger’s choices and how he balances the starting line-up.

The back four is completely open for debate. Some have suggested that Vermaelen could make a comeback, others are dreading that Squillaci will get on the team-sheet, Miquel could move to left back, Coquelin might play as makeshift right back, Yennaris or Meade could get a promotion from the reserves to fill in at their respective full back positions, and so on.

Ideally, I’d have preferred a strong defensive unit. Bolton boss Owen Coyle might not play his first eleven but is quite likely to put out a team that has a number of international players and significant Premier League experience. But it would be foolhardy to pick any of the four that started against Stoke. Arsenal have three big games starting with next weekend’s trip to Stamford Bridge. If the injured don’t make a timely return these defenders will have a heavy work load. This game should not be added to that even if winning the Carling Cup seems like an attractive possibility.

For now, Coquelin – Squillaci – Vermaelen – Miquel seems like the strongest available combination. Arsene mentioned that Coquelin is more suited to the midfield role but I am finding it hard to see any other player starting at right back. Playing Yennaris, or the forgotten man Eastmond, would be a big risk.

Moreover,  I doubt there is a place for the youngster in the midfield. Frimpong, Rosicky, and Benayoun should start in the middle. If the French lad is drafted into the middle one of these three will have to move out of the starting eleven or shift to the wings, which will then affect the players who usually play on the flanks.

So, while Coquelin is more of an all-action, Flamini-type midfielder, he should show he can be versatile when the team needs him to perform a different role.

While the return of Vermaelen is an exciting prospect, many will surely be worried whether the manager has been forced into starting him sooner than advisable. In fact, now that I think about it, the Belgian will be lacking match fitness so he might not start at all. I won’t be surprised if a youngster like Boateng made the starting line-up.

Up front, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Park can be supported by Arshavin or Chamakh, depending on the role Arsene has in mind for Park. The Russian and the Moroccan are both in need of games so this will be a tough choice.

An interesting option for Arsene would be to go with a 3-5-2. This way he can have Vermaelen, Squillaci, and Miquel at the back. Pick AOC and Benayoun on the wings with Coquelin, Frimpong and Rosicky in the middle. Park and Chamakh can lead the line. I would love to see it just to see how it works out but I doubt Arsene will change the system.

Le Boss did go with a 4-4-2 last time out. He could do the same again with Benayoun and AOC on the wings, and Frimpong and Rosicky in the middle.

Possible starting eleven,

Fabianski – Coquelin, Squillaci, Miquel/Boateng(Vermaelen?), Miquel/Meade – Frimpong, Rosicky, Benayoun – AOC, Park, Arshavin.

I have left Chamakh out as I failed to spot him in the training pictures. The bench will have youngsters like Miyaichi, Aneke, Ozyakup, Sanchez Watt, Freeman, and others. In that regard the starting eleven will have to do the job. There isn’t much hope of a game changing performance from those with limited experience even if some like Ryo are highly rated. It’s not a slight on their fledgling careers but a simple matter-of-fact observation.

For the last couple of years I have believed Arsenal squad has been a man short in the defensive areas and a versatile player is needed. Emerging talents like Frimpong and Coquelin do add some strength in depth but in such games, and with the injury problems that Arsenal have, the squad does look a bit thin.

The Gunners have worked hard to create some defensive stability but that will be tested if a reserve level back four is put out. It will place a greater burden on the midfield and the attacking players will have to outscore the opponents as a clean sheet will be hard to keep. If nothing else, this could turn out to be a very open and exciting game.

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Arsenal 3 – 1 Shrewsbury Town: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 21, 2011

Strong start. Eased off. Conceded a sloppy goal and some chances. Regrouped. Equalized. Pushed on and closed the game out by adding a couple more. Entertaining. Encouraging. Much needed.

It was a youthful line-up and an even younger bench. Le Boss also started with a fluid 4-4-2 giving Park and Chamakh having a great deal of freedom to move. Wenger took a gamble and it paid off. Credit to the man for believing in his squad players at a time when a win was imperative.

In the first ten minutes or so, all the play was deep in the Shrewsbury half. The tempo was high and Arsenal were pressing effectively. It led to a couple of glorious chances in quick succession. Park was in possession just outside the right edge of the Shrewsbury box. Gibbs made an overlapping run and the Korean skipper found it with a simple yet efficient pass. The full-back delivered an excellent ball between the defenders. Chamakh attacked it but couldn’t direct it away from the Keeper who made a good save.

From the resulting corner the ball went beyond everyone. Coquelin collected it, again just outside the right edge of the opposition D. A step-over and drop-of-the-shoulder later the youngster was at the by-line cutting one back. Once again Chamakh got on the end of it and attempted a well-directed side-footed strike. The Keeper did well to keep it out as it came at him through a crowd of legs.

The visitors were just trying to play it long with the hope of fighting for the ball in the Arsenal half. It led to a free-kick in the 10th minute that wasn’t defended particularly well. Djourou attacked the ball but didn’t get it but the ball fell kindly for Fabianski and the danger was averted for the moment.

The League Two side did grow in confidence from that point on. They pushed forward a bit more as Arsenal eased off. I thought the Gunners were unsure about their pressing which was neither here nor there.

A couple of minutes later a number of individual mistakes allowed the visitors to cut right through Arsenal. Collins got in behind and hit the post with a scuffed strike across the Keeper. Fabianski did well to cover the ground just in time to make a save as Morgan got on the end of the rebound.

Graham Turner’s side took the lead in the 16th minute. It was simple. Throw-in, cross, header, goal. Number of Arsenal bodies back but no pressure on any opponent. Schoolboys would have been ashamed of conceding a goal like that.

The game slowed down and lacked quality for a while after the goal. The atmosphere at the Emirates seemed to be edgy. The players were trying hard and there was a lot of movement but the level of understanding was well below par. For instance, Jenkinson kept getting really high up the pitch and that left very little room for Oxlade-Chamberlain who was forced into questioning the defender about his positioning around the 20th minute.

Coquelin then tested the Keeper from distance but it was a routine save. At the other end another corner was inches away from going in. Fabianski, it appeared to me, was being blocked by an opponent and a foul should have been called. But the Gunners should know better than to expect such decisions from a ref who plies his trade in the lower divisions in England. The defenders must take a lot more responsibility.

Just after the half-hour mark, Shrewsbury again went close. This time from a counter-attack. Coquelin initially made the mistake of going to ground while attempting an interception inside the opposition half. This opened the field up for the visitors who had a 3-v-3 situation. The youngster made up for his mistake by sprinting back to make a timely interception just as an opponent was lining up a clear strike at goal.

Soon after, Arsenal equalized from an unlikely source. Jenkinson whipped in a good cross that was only deflected towards the back post by the Shrewsbury centre back. Gibbs was well placed and his header was immaculate despite the difficult angle.

Both sides produced some excellent crosses with the best one coming from Ainsworth. Collins almost directed it into the goal.

Coquelin, who had been the best Arsenal player, then produced a wonderful long pass after bringing the ball out from the edge of the D. Park got a shot off but wasn’t able to keep it on target.

The first half ended on level terms.

After the break Arsenal came out with greater purpose. The Gunners pressed higher up the pitch and played at a higher tempo in a manner resembling their strong start in the first period. That led to a number of half chances and one could sense a goal coming. The visitors were tiring and the gulf in class was finally beginning to tell.

AOC was a lot more involved in the second half after a rather quiet opening half. His runs were powerful and threatening, often getting the better of two or three opponents. The final ball and overall impact would have been greater if the teammates had been on the same page.

Deservedly, the youngster put Arsenal ahead with a blistering strike that came out of nowhere. I thought it took a deflection but there was enough pace to beat the Keeper. By now the players and crowd were buzzing and there was a more settled feel to the football.

The visitors were limited to long punts but still got some joy as there were a few iffy moments from the Arsenal centre backs and Fabianski.

At the other end, Arsenal might have had two penalties. After a strong run, it appeared to me that a defender knocked AOC without getting anything on the ball. In another incident, a square pass from Benayoun struck the arm of a defender who fell while trying to intercept a pass. But this was one of those games where the ref was in no mood to make big decisions. Wonder how people would have reacted if the result had been different.

Arsene introduced Ryo for Park after 70 minutes. Ozyakup came on for Frimpong a few minutes later and picked up his assist soon after. Benayoun got his first goal for the Gunners.

The home side created more chances, most notably Benayoun going close from distance, but the score remained unchanged.

If I am not mistaken, Gibbs, AOC, and Benayoun got their first goals for the club while Frimpong, and Ozyakup got their first assists. Jenkinson already had an assist against United.

It was a good recovery from Arsenal and a highly positive result in the current climate. The overall defending, especially on set-pieces and crosses is still suspect and it was too easy for the visitors to break on the counter in the first half. It’s a complex problem but Arsene will have to find a solution if much is to be made of this season.

Individual Performances:

Fabianski: Looked shaky but I don’t blame him. The defence in front should be doing a lot better when simple balls are put into the box.

Jenkinson: Amazing stamina, some wonderful crosses, decent defending on the flank. Needed better understanding with AOC as they got in each other’s way quite often.

Djourou: Poor performance from the captain on the night. Should have attacked the cross better. Didn’t look very comfortable on the ball at times and put Fabianski under pressure. One would expect a Premier League defender to dominate his area in such a game.

Miquel: Surprisingly, he did better than his experienced partner. Was put under pressure and had to deal with some physical battles but came out with a strong display. Played some delightful long passes. Still not quite a Premiership defender and needs to improve his positioning but looks like he is improving at a steady rate.

Gibbs: Excellent goal, superb engine, played a key part in the third goal, put in some quality crosses, and fairly strong defensively even though he was caught up the pitch a few times. Most encouraging part is that he can become a lot better.

The defending has to be better. Many players were at fault. Overall shape of the team wasn’t good enough to prevent counter-attacks in the first half. But it wasn’t all down to the back five. They should have dealt with the aerial balls better but looking at the troubles while defending corners, I find it hard to accept this is anything but a coaching issue.

AOC: Jenkinson’s runs unsettled him in the first half and he didn’t know where to go. Often ended up being deeper on the right flank behind the full-back. Presumably, some instructions from the manager at half-time must have changed all that as he took more liberties with his movement. Very dynamic and forceful second half performance with a well deserved goal. Probably the popular choice for the MotM but a close second in my reckoning.

Frimpong: Another physically dominant effort from the youngster. Moved the ball well, offered good protection to the defence in the second half, and tested the Keeper with a couple of well taken shots. Was caught in possession three or four times. That must not happen in the big games. Should contribute more while defending balls into the box.

Coquelin: MotM in my opinion. Simply a delightful performance from start till finish. Made a number of tackles and interceptions, passing was almost silken at times, technically accomplished, looks like a naturally gifted football player. Will have to be stronger in physical battles in order to get more chances in the League.

Benayoun: Looked like the classiest player on the pitch. Struggled with the movement of the others, especially in the first half when he got into good positions but there weren’t enough runs into the box. Still managed to play a couple of excellent through balls. Got a bit greedy towards the end. Good to see him get off the mark.

I thought everyone in the midfield worked hard. But they pushed forward a lot and made some errors in judgement which opened the counter-attacking opportunities for the visitors. When better understanding develops, all of them will offer a lot more.

Chamakh: His movement and work-rate was top notch. Tested the Keeper twice in the opening few minutes but didn’t get much joy after that. I believe his instincts in the box need improvement as he doesn’t anticipate chances, mostly from second balls or deflections, as well as a striker should. Should also offer more while defending set-pieces.

Park: Was moving to the wings all through the opening period. He lacks sharpness at the moment but effort was good. With practice his touch and positioning will get better.

I got a feeling that the front two would have been better off staying more central or dropping a bit deeper rather than moving to wide areas. The full-backs were effective in those areas but often when they got into good crossing positions, there weren’t enough targets in the box. Chamakh would have been unplayable if more crosses came in his vicinity. Fair effort on the whole.

Wenger: All credit to the manager for sticking to his guns! And for being flexible in the formation at the same time.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Shrewsbury Town

September 19, 2011

When it was first announced, not many would have thought an Arsenal V Shrewsbury tie in the third round of the Carling Cup will take on such significance.  I shudder at the thought of elimination but given the recent form, and with the team finding new ways of gifting goals, it’s not too hard to imagine. Certainly, from the oppositions point of view, this is the best time to play Arsenal.

Many, including this blogger, believe domestic cups are the only realistic title hope for this season and Wenger should focus on them more than the main competitions. At the very least he should use this game as an opportunity to provide the new players a better chance to gel together. Some people have said that Arsenal are only now having a proper pre-season. It’s an unfortunate situation but can anyone really claim the Gunners are playing like a side that is on top of its game?

Le Boss faces the unenviable task of finding the right balance in this game. He is likely to give a chance to youngsters like Ryo and AOC. He also has to give a start to Chamakh, probably Frimpong, Djourou, Jenkinson, and Fabianski as well.

That leaves four places up for grabs, a couple on the left side of defence and a couple in midfield.

Arsene might prefer Gibbs, Coquelin, Benayoun, and Miquel for these roles but, to be honest, I am not in favour of starting too many youngsters in this game.

Koscielny has been inconsistent and should start to get his rhythm right. He didn’t play much in the international break so fatigue should not be that big an issue. Moreover, Vermaelen is likely to return in a few weeks so the Frenchman will get another chance to rest.

I’d also pick Santos in this game as he needs a lot more game time to adapt to the system that Arsene is using. He, too, hasn’t played much so tiredness should not be a factor.

Frimpong and Coquelin, despite their age and inexperience, should make a strong midfield duo if they are not too adventurous. If the defence behind them is strong they will be able to play with confidence. These young guns have an important part to play this season and starting in such games will be an immense help.

Up front I’d pick Park ahead of Ryo on the left. Or Benayoun can play on the left and Park can be in the hole. Miyaichi is an exciting talent but the two experienced players will be involved a lot more with the first team and both need time on the pitch. The Japanese youngster can come on later in the game if things go according to plan.

Preferred line-up,

Fabianski – Jenkinson, Djourou, Koscielny, Santos – Frimpong, Benayoun, Coquelin – AOC, Chamakh, Park.

I’d also have a strong bench to avoid further embarrassment.

Arsenal should have technically superior players and they will have to make their quality count in individual tussles. That means the players should be able to keep the ball on the ground and bring it out from the back through the midfielders even if the opponents are pressing them higher up the pitch. In some games this season it hasn’t worked quite so well but there can be no excuses in this fixture.

Shrewsbury Town will try to use width and pace to score on the break. It’s a simple enough tactic but has worked for some teams against the Gunners, especially when the defensive players are in a generous mood. There aren’t many tactical surprises in such matches but one cannot always account for outright bloopers or lack of concentration at key moments.

In the above mentioned starting eleven, I’d like to see Park given a free role to drop in behind Chamakh or take his position when the striker moves in to deeper areas. Santos should get the left wing all to himself. The Brazilian has the speed and skills to dazzle on the wing. Coquelin or Frimpong, whoever is on the left side of midfield, should cover for the attacking full-back.

I’d also like to see Jenkinson playing a conservative game instead of pushing forward at every opportunity. Of late I have felt that the full-backs, especially on the right, tend to get in the way of the wide attacker. They should move forward only when the winger makes a run on the inside.

A good result will not change the mood overnight or instil confidence in a deflated squad. Far too many errors have crept in and only a long, strong run can bring the belief back. But this game can at least be a start. It’s a chance to prevent things from getting worse and to take another step forward. That is the only option right now. Everything else will come later.

Pick a strong line-up to give new players more playing time. Get a result. Keep a clean sheet. Then go back to the training ground and focus on the next game. Sounds simple enough but …

Thoughts On The Champions League Final

May 30, 2011

That was a game worthy of a final. I was worried it might turn into a tight encounter with both teams adopting a very cautious approach, Barca with the ball and United without it, but thankfully that didn’t come to pass.

Ferguson’s tactics were, in my opinion, the reason this tie was such an open encounter and also for it to be a completely one-sided final. United had moments when they pressed Barca but that was really nothing more than some pesky disruptions to the otherwise predictable pattern of the game. The English side also got a goal but it seemed more down to basic mistakes in defending, especially by Busquets. United rarely threatened the Barcelona goal otherwise, those counting Arsenal’s shot on target might want to note that considering this wasn’t even at the Camp Nou.

I was really surprised to see Hernandez in the starting line-up. The Mexican has been an excellent goal-scorer for United in his opening season but he is also a very limited player who doesn’t often makes a meaningful contribution outside the box or in possession. Chicarito is a finisher, and a very good one, but in such a game did the United manager really expect him to get a chance? That too with Giggs, Carrick, and Rooney playing in midfield?

Frankly, I never expected Ferguson to go against the single biggest strength his team has – organization and hard work.  Not that they completely abandoned it, for large parts of this game United did put up a good defensive performance – I’ll talk about it later in the post – but the team selection and approach meant that there were always going to be moments when they struggled. The second half should have been one where the English side grew in strength but it proved to be one where they fell apart.

Normally, Manchester United defend in numbers and against Arsenal they’ve often played with three defensive midfielders and Park. In this game they had Rooney and Giggs in the middle. That meant more work for Park and Valencia on the flanks but it also meant that the cover in front of the back four was going to break on a regular basis.

The first goal was the result of exactly that. Xavi got in behind the midfielders and that meant the defenders had to worry about the man on the ball and the attacking players. If we notice the way Vidic moves – initially he gets sucked towards the centre because he has to provide cover for Ferdinand and then he tries to run back across to close Pedro down – we can see that even the best defenders struggle when they have to deal with two attacking players. This is a problem Arsenal defenders face on a regular basis. Manchester United normally have enough midfield players to help the defenders in that area just outside the penalty box.

For the second goal too Messi was able to get in between the lines and the midfielder, I think it was Park, stopped chasing him. Again, it’s a problem we see repeated quite often by the Arsenal midfield. Some might expect the central defenders to step up and close him down but if you watch the whole game closely, Vidic and Ferdinand rarely stepped up when a player was running at them with the ball. They maintained their shape and kept an eye for runs into the box. This allowed them to make a number of excellent tackles inside the box. At United the job of closing the runners is down to the midfield. This is an aspect that Arsenal have to incorporate in their game with better efficiency.

Another aspect that the Gunners can learn is that playing offside just outside your own box is a very risky proposition. The most recent example in my memory is the second goal Bent scored at the Emirates when Sagna tried to step up at the last moment. In this game we saw the United defenders tracking the runs and staying goal-side of the attacker. It wasn’t enough but it did prevent Van der Saar from being exposed in one-v-one situations.

Playing off-side is not a poor strategy as Stewart Robson would have us believe. Barcelona showed what an excellent weapon it can be for an attacking team.

This game showed us that a team can have defenders like Vidic and Ferdinand with a goalkeeper like Van der Saar behind them but, if the midfield doesn’t do its job as required, even top quality players can’t prevent the opposition from scoring. As usual, this isn’t a black and white issue. The fault doesn’t lie solely with the midfield or with the defenders. There are eleven players on the pitch and each has a role to play. A mistake by one can lead to a chain of events that ends up in a goal. On other occasions someone else covers for that mistake and it goes unnoticed. The odds of conceding a goal are directly proportional to the number of mistakes a team makes because the defenders will falter at some point if they’re overworked.

Ferguson’s side didn’t have a strong defensive midfield in this game and that meant the defenders had a lot more work. Eventually, they had to crack.

As I wrote this piece I realized it is not often that one can say Ferguson got his tactics wrong. This should not be interpreted as a claim that I know better but it does tell us how difficult the job is and how simple it can appear to be with the benefit of hindsight. I am pretty sure if someone scans through the United fan forums, there will be questions about the presence of Anderson, Gibson, et al in the squad. Some fans will be making statements like, “Buying a good defensive midfielder would have won us the game” and so on. I understand that’s how some fans are. There are also those who can take some distance and look at the bigger picture with all its complexities and nuances. That even makes us appreciate the mistakes because we can see why they were made and just how fine the line between the right decisions and the wrong ones can be.

On the whole, despite my feelings, I must congratulate both the teams. There were a lot of quality moments in the game, offensively and defensively. I will try to cover some of those using the snapshot analysis.

Can Any Coach Teach Football To Wenger?

May 27, 2011

Around the time of the Fulham game, Wenger gave a statement in his press conference that caught me by surprise and forced me to think.

By now you probably have seen this line,

But it will be difficult to find a coach who teaches me how to manage a football team.

Some fans have read arrogance and obstinacy in that statement but I disagree. Those who have actually handled responsibility and have read or heard the complete comment will not make the mistake of assuming haughtiness on the part of Arsene.

For the sake of reference this is the complete comment,

We are open-minded. We always add people, you know. When you compare to when I arrived, how many people work with the team? Today we have so many analysts, you always add people. I don’t know yet [if someone will come in], frankly.

The problem when you don’t win is to always raise the right questions. Those who win the games are those on the football pitch and not those who talk in the stands.

I have enough experience to know what is important and what is less than important. It will be difficult to find a coach who teaches me how to manage a football team.

I think that is a pretty honest and intelligent statement just as one would expect from Wenger. You could say it has been taken out of context and misinterpreted by some just as one would expect of an Arsene comment that actually forces people to apply their minds.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a strongly in favour of adding to the coaching staff. I have been talking about it since before it became a somewhat popular notion. But as I have said about other issues, nothing at this level is as simple as some people like to believe.

Wenger has mentioned that he is open minded and has been adding people on a regular basis. I am pretty sure if he finds someone he will not hesitate to augment his staff. Therein lays the complexity.

I refuse to accept that Pat Rice, Boro Primorac, Steve Bould, et al are no good. They have been at Arsenal for a long, long time and have given a lot while making significant contributions that led to some glorious triumphs. I also reject the idea that they are all yes men. The club would never have been successful if that had been the case. Such opinions are extremely disrespectful and reflect poorly on the speakers/writers rather than men who have worked hard and achieved success.

That brings us to the question – Who do we need or what kind of coach will significantly improve this group of players and staff?

Before we get into that let’s consider a hypothetical scenario.

Suppose an uber-rich man is able to create a dream football project and hires the likes of Hiddink, Wenger, and Mourinho to work for his team. Do you think that team can become the best ever? Surely three great football minds will create an unplayable squad, no? Arsene knows all about attacking football, Mourinho is a master of the dark arts, Hiddink is somewhere in between and understands both sides; will the whole be greater than the sum of the parts? Can these three excellent managers combine to make one all-conquering force?

I’d say the answer is no. When three such people come together, the whole will be considerably less than the sum of the parts.

If you’re having difficulty in understanding that ask yourself this – Can three presidents do a better job than one? Can three CEO’s run a company better than one?

It cannot happen. If you have three equally strong people at the top decision making will go haywire because each one will have his own approach and vision. Three, or two for that matter, strong personalities at the top can never work.

It is safe to say the person that Arsenal need has to offer something more and different from the people we have at the club and should be one who can gel with the overall philosophy of the club. It is extremely hard to find such a person and that is what Wenger meant by his statement.

Of course, there is an option of changing the man at the top and bringing in an entirely new approach/vision. Some fans are in favour of that but I believe it will put Arsenal in mid-table obscurity so I don’t dwell on that idea for long.

Despite that I do hope that Wenger finds someone this summer. It seems highly unlikely but without that addition it will be near impossible for Arsenal to win the big trophies.

I realize there is a completely different viewpoint to this issue which says the same staff was good enough to win 3 league titles and 4 FA Cups in the past, including two doubles and an invincible season, so how come they are suddenly in desperate need of help?

I think it is a combination of factors.

Firstly, the Premiership has seen unprecedented investment in the last few years and the overall quality of the League has gone up by several notches. In the past a team could win titles despite some weaknesses because many of the games were easy. If you are struggling to understand this, just look at AC Milan. They won the Italian title this year but never looked like beating the fifth placed team in England. A few years ago the quality of teams in England and Italy was reversed.

Second factor is the number of injuries to key players. In the last few seasons, Arsenal have missed more than one key player for a long period. It could be a factor related to the increasing competitiveness of the league amongst others. In the earlier title winning years the main stars made massive contributions. And while people like to believe otherwise, it’s not easy to find players of the calibre of Van Persie and Fabregas even if you are willing to spend money. Just ask Barcelona.

The third factor is the impact of the referees. One might say the referees have always been that way. I don’t really have an argument against that but when combined with the first point it does make life difficult. In the early part of the decade and that of the Wenger reign, Arsenal could get past smaller teams even with the refereeing decisions going against them because those teams weren’t as good. The same can no longer happen. Experts in hindsight analysis who praise the winners and criticize the losers might not get it, but those who have been watching the football should be able to see the improvement in quality of the smaller teams.

Due to these factors everyone at Arsenal has had to work extremely hard just to maintain the position in the top four. But in order to go a step or two higher the Gunners need something extra. It could be in the form of some players but I have seen too many individuals make similar mistakes to believe that will suffice.

This summer’s biggest acquisition will have to be behind the scenes or it will have to be some conversations with other thinkers of the game that could lead Wenger to an epiphany.

Spare A Thought For The Players

March 10, 2011

The game against Barcelona evoked a number of emotions among all Gooners. Most were infuriated by the ref, some were disappointed with the performance, or by the tactics, or for any number of reasons. As always, there were also those who came up with irrelevant and illogical rhetoric based on their personal fancies that had very little to do with what happened on the pitch. Interestingly, most Gooners did acknowledge that Barcelona were the better team and played a superb game despite their shameful theatrics and throat-grabbing antics.

Having taken a day off from all news and blogs I was able to dwell on the game without further external influences. One thought that came to my mind while doing this was – If fans can be so gutted, how would the players feel?

Over the last few years I have seen and read a lot of thoughts over the internet but not many have talked about this issue from the players’ point of view.

We have a group of players fighting hard all through the season in a squad that is struggling with injuries. They deal with a number of physical teams that leave them bruised and battered without any protection from the refs. They also have to live with constant negative press and cheap, lazy opinions from pundits. Recently, they’ve also been playing in front of some fans who haven’t always been vocally supportive. Still they go on fighting. They reach a stage where they’re in the final of a Cup, fighting for the League, and facing a daunting challenge against the best current team in the Champions League.

They lose the final to a mistake by two usually reliable and high-performing players. How much of that was affected by all the negativity around the club? Could that have led to a hint of self-doubt or indecision in these players at a key moment?

Then we have a game like the one against Sunderland. Arsenal dominate the game, create a number of chances, the opposition keeper saves well, finally a blatant penalty is denied, and a perfectly legal goal disallowed. For some fans it’s easy to criticize from the comfort of their chairs or couches. But what would a player, who has been cheated out of two points after all the hard work that has gone in, feel? And this hasn’t happened once but over and over again. Sometimes one can find a way past it as the players did against Everton but on other occasions it doesn’t work.

Even in the Champions League tie, the players were against a better team and a genius like Messi. They had to play a completely unnatural style and the only real way of staying in the tie was to strain every sinew and fight till the end. Suddenly you have opponents grabbing you by the throat while one of your own is down genuinely hurt. The ref watches everything but doesn’t take action.

Obviously, it has an effect on the players’ mindset as we saw from the way RvP pushed Alves. Once again it’s easy to say he shouldn’t do it but this is not a result of one moment. It’s something that’s come from fighting the whole year against the odds. And it only gets worse when the ref sends him off for virtually nothing.

As a player they must be wondering just what it is that they’re supposed to do. How long will this go on?

The clichéd argument is that the players have to get over it and get results despite the injustices, that champions find a way. But as we saw in the last two games that United lost, it’s not easy to win games when key decisions go against you.

I know I’d break down if I had to go and perform against the odds so many times. That’s one of the reasons I’ve always questioned those who challenge the mentality of these players. They have to establish their credentials and show that they actually understand what winning mentality is. I don’t think ordinary guys like me (and you?) ever face the kind of pressure these players are under. How then does one form an opinion on something he/she doesn’t even begin to understand?

There is no law against irrational arguments or ignorant opinions. You can claim that so and so would have done better or that certain players in the past were better. But those who remember the chances missed by Henry in the Final against Barcelona will hardly criticize Bendtner. Those who remember how the earlier Wenger teams fared in Europe, how they lost to the likes of Mallorca, Werder Bremen, etc will not really feel let down by a loss against this Barcelona side under such circumstance. They’ll be proud of the effort.

This season Arsenal have performed above expectations in all competitions so far. No one expected a title challenge in the league. Who predicted Arsenal will reach the Carling Cup final at the start of the season. The team is still in the FA Cup quarter-finals. And the loss against Barcelona certainly wasn’t a shame.

There have been a number of blips, and there are some weaknesses as there are in all teams, but the depth of the squad and the spirit of the players has taken the team forward.

It’s amusing that Fergie recognizes this better than some Gooners.

But Arsene Wenger and his players have rearranged the pecking order to come storming through to lie in second.

When one admits the fact that this ‘rearranging’ has been done under extremely strenuous external circumstances, a great deal of credit has to go to the players and the manager. I don’t like all of them but that doesn’t take anything away from what they’re doing as a group. It’s almost been two days since the game and right now I feel a stronger sense of support for these players than I have ever done.

PS: Does anyone know the reason Nasri has been charged by UEFA? Something he might have said in the tunnel?

Why Arsenal Can’t Defend Like United Or Chelsea

March 1, 2011

As Arsenal fans there are times when we just want to see the team shut out a result. On other occasions we hope the defence can remain solid so that we don’t concede soft goals as the opposition defence is stubborn and tough to break down. Now for large parts of the season, the team does deliver in defence and that can be seen from the fact that Arsenal reached the final of the Carling Cup, when other big teams failed to, and are still in the other three competitions including a better position in the League than many expensively assembled sides.

However, there are some singular cases where this defence fails woefully. Birmingham’s winning goal was a classic example and it wasn’t a rare occasion; certainly not as infrequent as I’d like it to be.

The most obvious response from the pundits and some misguided fans is to blame it on individuals.This has led to some annoyingly astonishing U-turns in opinions in the last few years.

Almunia was virtually faultless in 07-08 but became a clown after that. Fabianski was supposed to be the worst keeper ever in his early days but was hailed a very good one this season. Szczesny started as a prodigy and one who would solve all problems but is now being questioned by some geniuses.

In terms of central defenders, Arsenal have had so many over the last few years, it’s difficult to accept all were useless. Senderos was amazing in 05-06, yet completely useless by 09. Under Vermaelen and Gallas the team conceded a lot of goals, many really infuriating ones, but nowadays in his absence Vermaelen is seen as a great defender who will come back to save Arsenal whereas Gallas is the one that got away. Djourou was deemed shaky at the start of the season, Koscielny was dismissed as lightweight and not good enough. Both have formed an excellent partnership off late.

When I see the same players being considered good and bad over short durations of time it tells me a few things. Firstly, it highlights the short term memories of most fans and pundits. Secondly, it shows the thankless nature of the job. If the game had been 1-0 and RvP had botched a sitter at the other end with two minutes to go do you think he’d have been criticized as much as the defenders or the keeper? But more importantly, it tells me that the problem Arsenal have is more fundamental and goes beyond the individuals.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not singling Arsenal out. Every team has problems and even one that sweeps all trophies will have certain areas of improvement.

Arsenal’s main problem seems to be with the aerial ball and the physical game. The easy and lazy solution is to buy a big, dominant central defender. Let’s leave aside the staggering oversimplification in that and look at the 2001 FA Cup final.

Arsenal had big, dominant central defenders in that one – Keown and Adams. We also had the likes of Vieira in midfield along with Pires and Ljungberg. Henry was leading the line. Do you recall what happened in that game? I do because it was shown here last night by FSC and I’m thankful for that.

The first half was as boring as a football game could get. Liverpool maintained their shape and defended well, Arsenal had a lot of the ball but didn’t create enough. I could easily have been describing the Birmingham game, couldn’t I? What was noticeable was that the Scousers didn’t show the kind of planning and work rate that Birmingham showed, which only highlights how far the game has come over the last 10 years.

In the second half the game opened up a bit as Liverpool showed more ambition. That gave Arsenal some room to play and they created plenty of chances. Ljungberg scored one, Henry missed a couple of sitters, two shots were cleared off the line, and so the game went. With ten minutes to go Arsenal were leading 1 – 0 with no real threat against the Arsenal goal.

Then came a set-piece. Keown headed it straight up and it fell inside the six yard box. Adams lost the physical battle with Babbel who headed it back across goal for an unmarked Owen to level things up. Sounds a lot like the current team, doesn’t it?

Arsenal went forward in search of a winner. When Liverpool cleared a set-piece the ball fell to Berger on the edge of their box. He was unmarked and was able to hoof it forward. Owen got in behind Lee Dixon and Adams wasn’t able to cover him well enough. Seaman couldn’t save the shot despite getting fingertips to it.

Arsenal blew a one goal lead in the final 10 minutes with poor defending in a Cup final. Only difference was there were plenty of leaders on the pitch; some really big, dominant defenders; pacy strikers; and so on.

The advantage for that team was that there wasn’t enough competition and they could get away with these mistakes more often than the present side can. Another difference is that there weren’t as many ignorant opinions floating around on the net in those days.

This again tells me that the problems Arsenal have are not individual and it’s silly to think that buying one big defender and/or a goalkeeper will solve anything.

So what is the real problem? Why can’t Arsenal defend like United or Chelsea?

There are two related issues here. One is the basic mentality towards the game and the second, which is kind of a subset of the first, is the approach to defence.

Recent United and Chelsea teams have been excellent ones but their primary strength has been their defence. They could/can go out to play a 0 – 0 with anyone and build the rest of their game around that.

The recent Wigan – United game presents a classic example. Even against a team like the Latics, no disrespect, United sat back and played on the counter right from the start. Some might say it was an intelligent approach and those who prefer results to performance all the time will certainly love it. I don’t and it’s not difficult to see that Wenger doesn’t either.

What is even more interesting is that Wigan created plenty of good chances in that game, certainly more than they did in their 2 – 2 draw with Arsenal. Even then one result is 0 – 4 while the other was a 2 – 2, baffling eh!?

The advantage for United was that they were set-up to defend and had plenty of bodies behind. When those bodies failed the Keeper was able to read the game and close the attacker down. Arsenal failed to stop a counter that led to a penalty and then struggled on a set-piece. In both cases the Keeper was put in a helpless situation and even the defenders couldn’t do much.

This, and many other such examples, tells me that when Arsenal do dominate the ball they can reduce the number of chances the opposition creates. But when the Gunners do concede a chance it’s normally a very easy one for the opponents. Obviously, the guy at the back, whether it is the Keeper or a defender, looks like a clown but in reality the problem is not with that individual.

The way I see it, the real problem is with the way Arsenal are tactically set-up to defend against the Premiership hoof tactics and set-pieces.

In the latter case, we see the Gunners pull 10 or 11 men back into their own half and defend by crowding the opposition out. If people don’t get enough space to run and jump, or aren’t able to win the second ball, their effectiveness on set-pieces goes down. It works quite often as we saw most recently against Stoke.

The problem is that by pulling these many players back it leaves no room for a counter attack. Moreover, the opponents get a chance to have men around the Arsenal box to pick up the clearances and it sustains more pressure on the defence. If at any point any Arsenal player does lose concentration or makes a mistake, it can leave the goal exposed as we’ve seen on numerous occasions.

People claim that having a big centre-back will ensure that Arsenal don’t need to pull everyone back but that is a hard to digest. One or two defenders cannot cover the whole box and mark all the players. Arsenal’s problem comes from the fact that the midfielders don’t offer any presence in the box and even the wide attackers aren’t that useful in the air. When a starting eleven has 6 or more players who can’t defend the high balls it’s not easy to get the strategy right. Even Song doesn’t contribute to the aerial presence. How often have you seen the Cameroonian win the first ball? On the other hand, I can recall a number of occasions when he fell asleep and let his man score.

Should Arsenal let go of players like Cesc, Wilshere, Nasri, and Arshavin in order to bring in some brutes? That would be extremely daft and put Arsenal at the level of mid-table teams at best.

Clearly, Wenger has to find alternate solutions and we can see him trying. Buying an odd strong, versatile defensive player might help. But what if that guy gets injured? Or ends up like Song who is not that effective on defending set-pieces? The point is there is no simple solution.

Similar issues can be seen while defending from open play as well. The midfield would have to stay really close to the defence to win the second balls when the opponents have a striker who can win the first. But there are only 11 players on the pitch and pulling the midfield back affects the shape of the team and the quality of attacks that Arsenal can create.

This becomes a tricky issue of finding the right balance. The Gunners have done that with the first team but when two or three key members of that starting eleven are missing it’s not so easy. No team can really maintain their high level if three of their best players are missing but teams that base their games on defence can still hold out much better. For Arsenal it is difficult to achieve that.

In my limited years of watching Arsenal, I have rarely seen them shutting out a strong opponent while looking unlikely to concede. Even though the 2005 FA Cup final was based on defending it needed a lot of luck, something we didn’t get against Birmingham. That Champions League run was the closest Arsenal came to a consistently solid display but the attacking quality was quite poor in that and relied a lot on the pace and trickery of one man.

One of the main reasons for this is that Arsenal’s defence is based on chasing the ball. If you see the other big teams like United and Chelsea, they get into shape and work really hard to maintain that. They track runs diligently and try to avoid conceding clear chances in front of the goal. They also have enough bodies behind to attack crosses.

Arsenal on the other hand, chase the ball in defence. The shape at the back is often lost as two or three players go chasing a ball only to be beaten by simple one-twos. This pulls other defenders out of position and stretches the defence. It takes a lot of hard work and concentration for Arsenal to defend this way and a mistake by one player often gives a clear opening to the opponents.

This is the reason I feel Arsenal need a different defence coach, another perspective. It won’t be easy to integrate the two styles but Arsenal have to find better balance between their attacking, free-flowing style and a functional approach. There are enough times in the season when injuries and form issues demand subtle tactical modifications to the system to get the best out of the players. For most parts Wenger is able to achieve it, as we can see by the reduced number of counter-attacking goals conceded this year, but a small, yet critical, element seems to be missing.

I don’t expect Arsenal to defend like United or Chelsea, which will only come if the manager goes and I hope that doesn’t happen for a long time to come, but with some tactical adjustments this team can win a lot more. Can Wenger achieve it soon enough or will he get help on that front before it’s too late remains to be seen.