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.

Arsenal 1 – 2 Chelsea: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 30, 2012

Wenger made 11 changes from the side that dismantled Coventry with ease but it was the one alteration to the starting eleven against City that might have proven decisive. Everybody expected Vermaelen to come back into the squad, he’s the Captain after all. The question was whether it will be Mertesacker who makes way or Koscielny.

Arsene left the German out, perhaps to give him a longer rest as he’s played the first five League games and the Champions League tie. It could also have been a tactical move. It seemed to me that Wenger wanted his team to press/play higher up the pitch in this game. As was discussed in the Preview, Arsenal were able to rely on counter-attacking football against Liverpool and City but the Gunners had to show greater initiative and control at home. So it is highly like that Wenger wanted two quick and aggressive defenders who would help with the high line and have the pace to recover.

The thing with Mertesacker is that he tends to drop back whenever he senses danger. This allows him to compensate for his relatively slower speed through intelligent reading of the game, but it does affect the shape of the team and tends to pull everyone deeper. Or at times he plays opponents on because he’s the only one who goes deep. This issue is not as pronounced in away games where a deep-lying defence is understandable or against smaller teams who do not possess sufficient attacking potency. But at home against a Chelsea side brimming with quick, clever, fleet-footed players, it’s not difficult to see the reasoning Wenger might have had.

The problem for the Gunners however, was that they just couldn’t get the high press going. In the opening minutes we could see Gervinho and Cazorla pressing the Chelsea defenders with some support from the wide players but the midfield didn’t follow through and the defence stayed fairly deep. There were moments when you could see Bould and/or Wenger egging the players to push up but their expression soon turned to a grimace and finally resignation when they realized it wasn’t working out.

This failure to press higher up the pitch had a big impact on the patterns of play. Chelsea were very comfortable at the back and were able to play out with ease. In possession, they could control 3/4th of the pitch but the Gunners were defensively solid in their deep quarter. The visitors saw a lot of the ball and their players got into very good positions to run at the defence but Arsenal’s structure and discipline was keeping them at bay.

At the other end, the Gunners weren’t able to move forward quite as fluently. Chelsea weren’t employing a high pressing strategy either but they did well to slow Arsenal down through half-pressing which ensured players on the ball didn’t have clear passing channels or easy forward passes. So Arsenal’s early attacks were limited to pops from distance as the visitors got enough time to get back into a deep and narrow shape. Width would have been helpful but Ramsey and Podolski didn’t really offer much. The full-backs were trying but they were often crossing the ball when Arsenal had one or two against six or more in the box.

The opening exchanges were cagey but Chelsea looked like they had greater territorial control. This helped them create the first goal. Hazard was able to pick the ball up in space on the left before running forward to play a one-two with Torres, who did an excellent job of holding his own in front of Vermaelen. Hazard had gotten in between the lines and would have been running towards Koscielny so Vermaelen probably thought it best to attack the ball. But you could argue the merits of that decision as Arteta was chasing back. As it happened, the Belgian lunged for the ball and conceded a set-piece.

Arsenal’s organization for the free-kick seemed like a mess. Diaby’s early substitution might have been the cause as he was probably assigned to mark Luiz. Oxlade-Chamberlain seemed completely unaware of his role. Both Vermaelen and Koscielny could be seen gesturing towards Luiz and saying something, presumably a plea or command directed towards AOC, but it didn’t have the required efffect. The Chelsea centre-back had a free run and was completely unmarked in the box as the ball just sailed over him. However, his positioning and the lack of marking had enough of an impact on Koscielny who lost his bearings and got turned for a few vital moments when Torres was able to stick a foot up and guide the ball towards goal. The Frenchman should never have ended up facing his own goal. The correct approach for him would have been to have his right arm on Torres, just to track the striker’s movement, with his body facing forward so he could have a clear sight of the ball. Once he lost visual contact there was no way he could have prevented Torres from scoring. But it wasn’t just Koscielny’s fault, this was just poor organization on the set-piece to go with his incorrect body positioning. More work is needed on the training ground.

Arsenal, as we’ve come to expect since last season, didn’t give up but went hard at Chelsea who seemed to have eased off.

The pressure paid dividends as the equalizer came from an Oxlade-Chamberlain cross that  Gervinho controlled and finished with aplomb. Both events were a surprise. That was AOC’s only cross in 8 attempts that actually found an Arsenal player. And Gervinho’s composure and technique are rarely this lethal in conjunction. But Chelsea were forcing Arsenal wide and the Gunners produced the necessary response. The game was level again and there was everything to play for.

Arsenal had a good spell after the goal and started the second half in ascendancy. Chelsea were pushed deep for a sustained period but that proved to be Arsenal’s undoing.

It started with a rare loose pass from Arteta at a time when Vermaelen had pushed up the pitch. The midfielder then went to ground, as Chelsea quickly played the ball forward, but failed with his attempted tackle. This left the centre of defence exposed and forced Vermaelen into charging back. The defender was once again rash with his attempted tackle and conceded another set-piece in a position close to where the first originated.

This time Mata’s ball went straight through shaving Koscielny’s shin on the way. I thought it was poor goalkeeping as there was no Chelsea player in a position to attack the ball. Mannone should have read the situation and called for Koscielny to pull out. It should have been the Keeper’s ball but he was late to react and never reached it. But once again you could ask broader questions about set-piece organization and decision making. Someone should have been in position to attack that ball before it got that deep and low. Oddly enough, this wasn’t even zonal marking.

Arsenal tried to get back into the game and created a number of half-chances. Podolski had a header well saved by Cech, Cazorla wasted more than one decent opening by blasting way wide of the target, Giroud hit one on target but missed the best chance of equalizing late in the game after he was put through with Cech. The French striker showed good control and composure in rounding the Keeper but just didn’t know where the goalposts were.

It’s worth noting that Arsenal’s inability to press as a unit meant that they were not able to lay siege on the Chelsea goal towards the end as a top team would do when chasing the game at home. Even Montpellier had long phases where they boxed Arsenal in. That’s somewhat linked to the shape of the team and the new defensive approach but the entire discussion is out of the scope of this already extremely long post.

At the end of the day it’s difficult to say Arsenal deserved anything from the game. You can’t concede such soft goals and expect to win. You can’t hit the target with 4 of your 17 shots and deserve three points. Most importantly, this isn’t the first time the attackers have failed to hit the target or the defence has gifted goals, so there really is no excuse.

 Individual Performances:

Mannone: Don’t blame him for the first goal as Luiz’s position would have forced him to stay on his line but communication could have been better. Definitely a culprit for the second IMO. Had very little to do otherwise.

Jenkinson: Another solid game from the youngster. Defended his flank, ventured forward more often than he has in the recent past, could do better in the final third but showed good confidence and determination.

Koscielny: At least partially at fault for both goals. Won only 1 of his 6 ground duels. Couldn’t contribute as much as Mertesacker does for ball circulation. A disappointing game in general but did make some timely clearances and interceptions.

Vermaelen: Conceded the two fouls that led to both goals. Interestingly, has 3/3 for tackles and 3/5 for ground duels – does that mean the fouls were classified as ground duels lost? These things do make me wonder about the definition of stats. Stats also say he was 6/7 on aerial duels but you also got a feeling Torres was able to hold his own in front of Vermaelen. Was bit of a mixed bag for the Belgian. Needs to work on his judgment and tackling technique. The penalty against Montpellier and these two fouls are just a continuation of some long standing weaknesses.

Gibbs: Probably the best of Arsenal’s defenders. Had the most touches, recovered possession most often, made 5 interceptions, and was 8/9 on tackles, 9/13 on ground duels. Was easily the busiest and most hard working defender on the pitch. Did make one or two mistakes, like the foul he conceded on the edge of the box, but given his work rate and contribution at both ends it’s tough to find faults.

After the game I read some criticism of the Kos-Verm partnership but that was a bit baffling. The problem in this game was not with the partnership but with certain individual decisions and technical aspects along with organizational issues and the failure of the pressing tactic. It’s easy to say Mertesacker would have been different but over the last 3-4 years we’ve seen many players have good and bad patches so such simplifications don’t really help.

Arteta: Absolutely immense once again but it seemed he was a bit isolated in this game and was stretched to his limits which led to some uncharacteristic errors not least of which was the poor pass and failed attempt at tackling in the build-up to the Chelsea winner. Still I’d say his effort was very important to Arsenal’s defence and overall possession game.

Cazorla: Missed two or three semi-decent chances (according to soccernet stats he has 1 goal in 23 shots with 8 on target i.e. less than 5 percent conversion rate, ~33% accuracy). Saw a lot of the ball and moved it around but wasn’t able to influence play in the final third in a decisive manner. Set-piece delivery wasn’t effective but that’s an issue with the whole team and thus related to training.

Diaby: It was always going to be tough. Lasted just over a quarter of an hour. Did complete all his 12 passes in that period and contributed 1 of Arsenal’s total 4 shots on target. Was missed for the rest of the game as Arteta didn’t get sufficient support.

Ramsey: Started on the right but moved to the centre after Diaby was subbed. It seemed he didn’t really understand his role. Kept pushing forward more often than necessary. Decision making was poor as he sometimes played quick passes when an extra touch could have helped and held on to the ball when an early release seemed like the better choice. It was as if he was playing as the attacking midfielder rather than Arteta’s partner who connected defence to attack.

The midfield did a decent job of protecting the defence from open play but both goals came from set-pieces that were conceded after the midfield was bypassed by the attacking players. Replacing Diaby and maintaining the delicate balance between attack and defence will be a challenge for Arsene.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Didn’t start the game but played long enough to be considered a starter. Created Arsenal’s two best chances – the Goal and Giroud’s late miss – but also wasted many opportunities to cross and one prominent chance to shoot. Saw a lot of the ball but couldn’t really express himself.

Gervinho: Took his goal well. Work rate was again very good but overall contribution leaves a lot to be desired. Again had a total loss of possession stat of 14 in 34 touches including 2 unsuccessful touches, 3 dispossessed, and 1 overrun. Has to learn to take care of the ball better and to link up with others in the attacking areas.

Podolski: Chelsea kept the central area packed and that limited the goal scoring opportunities he could get. Did a decent job of helping the defence. But in general he didn’t offer enough from the left.

I thought in such a game Podolski and Gervinho should have swapped places more often. Arsenal could have used a presence in front of the Chelsea defence, someone who could link play with his back to goal. The crossing game, even though it brought the equalizer, didn’t look like a genuine threat on a consistent basis. Arsenal’s passing and combinations were not quick enough in the final third.

Subs: Giroud should have scored once he rounded Cech but he’s hit the target once in 11 shots and that too was a deflected shot that Cech saved. He plays like a talented youngster who still doesn’t quite have his angles worked out. Walcott was disappointing.

Wenger: Ultimately the errors on set-pieces come back to the boss as they’re not a one-off. Don’t blame him for picking Koscielny but his team’s failure to press cohesively and consistently can only be sorted in training. One might wonder if Arshavin would have been a better choice than Walcott. Has a headache in the striking department and now possibly in midfield if Diaby stays out for a long period.

Sometimes I just wonder if the ‘Be a Gooner, Be a Giver’ mantra is too deeply ingrained in everyone’s mindset at the club. Maybe they’re also taking ‘Charity begins at home’ rather literally. Alas! Silly jokes can’t alleviate the suffering after such a game. The next one can’t come soon enough…

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Chelsea

September 29, 2012

Chelsea’s visit to the Emirates at this juncture in the season seems to have set up a clash of two teams with relatively similar styles but moving in opposite directions in terms of their tactical approach.

In the recent past, the Blues used to be a side that relied on a solid defensive shape, a hard working midfield, and a physically dominant striker. This often allowed them to get the better of a more proactive and technically-oriented Arsenal side that tended to be vulnerable against quick counter-attacks or balls in the air.

The summer signings have made Chelsea a more technical side that now seems to rely more on fluidity, ball control, and combination play in the attacking areas even in the big games, although we have limited evidence of this.

Arsenal, on the other hand, have worked very hard on their defensive shape and so far this season have relied more on counter-attacks than dynamic football, particularly against stronger opponents. The likes of Southampton and Coventry aside, the Gunners haven’t seriously troubled other defences through their possession football in open play. But the new-found solidity at the back has ensured most results haven’t been disappointing.

Of course, both teams have enough players who can circulate the ball and either side is capable of defending resolutely but the primary approach of both teams seems to be changing, at least in the short term.

With that in mind it will be interesting to see how this game pans out. It was easier for Arsenal to rely on the counter-attacking style in away games at Anfield and the Etihad stadium but will they adopt a similar approach at home? Wenger has repeatedly mentioned the importance of home form over the course of the season as it enables a side to gain an advantage over direct rivals while demonstrating consistency. In that regard the onus will be on the Gunners. A draw away to City can be deemed respectable but points dropped at home are almost always a cause for concern.

Interestingly, the similarities between the sides is not limited to their playing philosophy. Both have central strikers who are proving to be inconsistent at best. It’s also likely that the teams will line up with a direct attacking threat on one flank and a more balancing, technical, hard working player on the other. Bulk of the combination play could come from the left side of both teams whereas the right has more orthodox wing play. That said, we might also see the tricky players on either side drifting to the right in certain phases of the game.

Chelsea pose a potent attacking threat with multiple ways of hurting the opposition. Apart from the fluidity discussed above, they continue to offer a challenge from crosses – mainly with their full backs charging forward in an intelligent manner, and through shots from distance. The fleet-footed nature of some of their players also increases the likelihood of winning penalties (set-pieces in general) and that’s something Arsenal have to be cautious against as they’ve already given away a sloppy one against Montpellier, could easily have conceded a second in that game, and one to Aguero in the game against City.

Individual mistakes like lapses in concentration, a rush-of-blood tackle, indifferent tracking, or casual positioning are more likely to be punished by such an opponent. Di Matteo also seems like a manager who will pay close attention to the weak spots in Arsenal’s zonal marking on set-pieces.

At the other end the Gunners will create some chances. Chelsea no longer seem impenetrable as their efforts to change their style of play has made their defensive structure somewhat porous. The likes of Hazard, Oscar, ad Mata do work hard when called upon but aren’t as consistent or meticulous at the back as some of their predecessors were.

Podolski likes to drift into the middle and that could, at least for few but vital moments, give the Gunners a numerical advantage in the central areas. Quick, accurate interchanges coupled with well-timed runs during such moments can open Chelsea up. The German could also get scoring opportunities in the inside channel or central areas if he spots the openings when they appear. Obviously, a team like Chelsea will not leave gaping holes throughout the game as Coventry or Southampton did so timing and opportunism will be the essential qualities.

Wenger’s choice on the right will also have a major bearing on this game. He could retain Ramsey on the flank to provide the extra technical quality that helps in ball circulation but that could create a congestion in the centre if both wide players start drifting in. One way out of that would be to have Gervinho drifting to the right and Podolski driving further forward when he comes through the middle. But such a choice on the right could be deemed a more defensive approach.

Oxlade-Chamberlain or Walcott (or Gervinho if Giroud starts down the middle) will provide a more positive outlet on the flank albeit at the cost of consistency and passing angles as they’ll lose the ball more often and see a lot less of it. Ashley Cole has the ability to move up the pitch rather quickly and Chelsea are adept at switching flanks so a winger on Arsenal’s right flank could open the game up for both sides.

As ever it’s tough to get inside Wenger’s head but I’ll be very surprised if we see many changes from the side that started against City.

Vermaelen is likely to come back. Mertesacker deserves to retain his place as he’s been consistent and effective at the back but Arsene could go with Koscielny if he want to hold a relatively high line instead of having a high line that tends to drop back when possession is lost.

Preferred line-up,

Mannone – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Diaby – Ramsey, Gervinho, Podolski.

Mannone has not been confident against some high balls into the box as his judgment has been erroneous. Di Matteo and his staff must have spotted that. Chelsea don’t really have great physical presence in the box through their attacking players so it will be interesting to see if they can challenge him on that front from open play (set-plays will obviously a test).

Jenkinson had a fairly solid outing against City but to an extent Mancini made his job easier by picking Sinclair. Hazard will pose a bigger threat and leaving the young full-back alone in a one-v-one against such a tricky player will hurt Arsenal. Mertesacker, Arteta, and the wide player on the right will also have to provide cover from time to time based on the positions of play. This could be particularly vital if Chelsea overload that flank.

On the whole this has all the makings of an entertaining encounter that will be much more open than the drab 0-0 between the sides at the Emirates last season but it won’t be quite as frenetic as the  goal-fest at the Bridge. As is common in games between such sides, one that makes fewer errors and/or takes its chances will take the points.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Chelsea

April 20, 2012

Robin van Persie has again hit the nail bang on the head. No customary platitudes showered upon the opposition, no clichés,  just honest and telling observations from the skipper –

Chelsea have picked up considerably in recent weeks and had a great result against Barcelona on Wednesday. They defended unbelievably well and were very strong on the counter-attack, with Didier Drogba having a really good game. At times they defended with eight or nine men, but you can hardly blame them for doing that against Barcelona.

If they put in a performance like that on Saturday, it will be hard for us – but it will also be interesting to see how they approach today’s game in the middle of two massive Champions League fixtures. They only played two and a half days ago, and had to work hard against a lot of Barcelona possession the other day, so we’ll see what their manager decides to do.

Whoever starts the game for them, I expect them to provide a very big test because they have next season’s Champions League at stake too and will not want to slip up.

That’s it in a nutshell. If Chelsea can repeat their midweek effort, or even get close to it, this game will be a massive challenge for Arsenal.

Roberto Di Matteo has re-established the identity, the playing style, that the players are comfortable with and know inside out. Since the departure of AVB Chelsea have been very compact at the back, have played with greater focus and tactical cohesion, and are again looking like a football team that can get results.

I don’t expect Saturday’s fixture to be any different. They’ll probably come higher up the pitch than they did against Barca and are likely to be more aggressive with their pressing in the central third of the pitch, but by and large the Blues will again set up to hit Arsenal on the break.

Let’s not forget it was only last season that RDM masterminded a counter-attacking win at the Emirates with West Brom. He knows what they need to do as do most of the players.

We could also see them come out with an attacking mindset for the opening 10-15 minutes just like Spurs did. This Arsenal side takes time to settle and at times seems vulnerable at the start. Chelsea could try to sneak a lead in that period which would then make it much easier for them to absorb the pressure while waiting for opportunities to counter.

Interestingly, Arsenal are League leaders when it comes to points recovered from losing positions with 6 wins and a draw adding up to 19 points, while Chelsea are second worst when it comes to dropping points from a winning position as they’ve surrendered 7 leads and lost 17 points. The reverse fixture, as you’ll recall, was a classic example of both these traits.

Nevertheless, this is a different game altogether and I don’t expect these trends to be sustained. If Chelsea take the lead, Arsenal will find it difficult – not only to break them down but also to prevent them from scoring again as the Gunners push forward to regain control. The first goal will be vital.

Tactically, Wenger will have to set his team up in the same cautious manner that they adopted against City. That means the midfielders will have to be extremely disciplined and conservative. If that comes at the cost of attacking opportunities and a lack of bodies in the opposition box then so be it. At no point should the back four, especially the central defenders, should be exposed to the counter-attacks.

Di Matteo has said that Drogba and Luiz will miss the clash against Arsenal but I’ll not be surprised if Drogba, in particular, makes a stunning recovery. His record against the Gunners is fairly well known so I won’t repeat it. Even without a physically dominant striker though, Chelsea will still be a threat in the attacking areas as they have plenty of players who know how to exploit N-v-N situations on the break. Torress, Ramires, Mata, Sturridge, and others have good movement and understanding in the final third. They also have technique, dribbling abilities, and pace. Some of these players are not on top form but they can be a handful and Arsenal’s defenders will find it hard to contain them across vast spaces.

From that defensive point of view, the absence of Arteta could be a body blow for the Gunners. A lot of the Spaniard’s work goes unnoticed but his positional sense, discipline, concentration, and defensive intelligence are the best in the team. In his absence Song will have to do much better than he’s done in most games and he’ll have to curb his attacking instincts. Somehow I doubt that will happen so the defensive onus might fall upon Ramsey or Rosicky, which isn’t a comforting thought.

As they showed against Barca, Chelsea, when on  top of their defensive game, can really master the central area in front of their goal. They will undoubtedly push Arsenal wide and the Gunners will have to find a way to get past their full-backs who’ll not be without support. With Ivanovic missing Bosingwa might get a start and he could be the weak link that Arsenal look to exploit. The choice of the left winger will clearly have an impact on this game but I find it hard to pick between Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain as both have their sets of strengths and weaknesses.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Song, Rosicky, Ramsey – Walcott, RvP, Gervinho.

Arsene might keep Santos in the line-up but I’d like to see Gibbs back in if he’s fit.

Le Boss also has the option of moving either Djourou or Vermaelen in midfield while pushing Ramsey or Rosicky out to the left. This way Arsenal would have a defensively stronger side but it’s an approach he hasn’t used or even shown any inclination to use so it is highly unlikely.

Some fans would also want to see AOC in midfield. He wasn’t bad against Milan but, borrowing a Wengerism, I’d say it would be ‘tactical suicide’. Arsenal need players who can get on the ball and help control the game. Oxlade-Chamberlain just does not have enough experience or tactical awareness to do that job in such a big game. Sometimes, I feel, people forget he was playing in League One till last season.

This midfield, if picked, will be the same as the one we saw against United at the Emirates. They struggled in the first half but matched the visitors in the second period. But for some missed chances and poor defending at the end the result could have been different. So there is no doubt Arsenal have a chance of getting one or three points from this game. More so considering the fact that Chelsea have had a tiring midweek fixture and will have one eye on the away leg next week.

Nevertheless, I don’t have high hopes for this game (some readers have noticed a trend here and I hope that continues). Arsenal’s system demands extraordinary levels of physical effort and mental focus in order to compensate for its inherent weaknesses. The players can’t produce it week in, week out.

Van Persie thinks Arsenal have proved they can win the big games,

We’ve proved that we can perform in the big games against top teams, and it’s up to us to show it again.

To me the last part of that sentence is the key one. They’ve to show they can do it again, and again, and again…

Once more the point is not that Arsenal can’t win – just that they’ll need another super special effort, especially considering Chelsea are not likely to make the same mistakes that City did.

Before ending I want to mention that the match report will be delayed. I am traveling over the weekend and will not be able to watch the game till Sunday evening or Monday. I understand most readers prefer an early report but this really is out of my hands.

PS: I also have a Facebook page now and it should have links to new posts and my tweets unless I’ve bungled up the settings.

Chelsea 3 – 5 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 29, 2011

I can’t quite recall but somewhere on the internet there was this discussion about the game that mentioned the possibility of Arsenal winning by outscoring Chelsea. Did you also read it? 😉

What a game! Amazing. That’s how football should be. Both teams started with a very positive intent and carried on in exactly the same manner for the duration of the game irrespective of the scoreline changes. It was as beautiful as a work of art and more thrilling than anything Hollywood has to offer. Although Chelsea fans would probably prefer a comparison with a horror flick.

Both starting line-ups were fairly predictable and the systems very similar variants of the 4-3-3.

The opening minutes were frantic and Chelsea started strongly. The Gunners were caught by an number of runs in behind that appeared pre-planned even for a team that would normally look to make such runs. Ashley Cole was in acres of space around the Arsenal box twice within the opening five minutes while Sturridge too got into a dangerous position at the other flank.

The Blues couldn’t make it count as their final ball lacked quality and the Arsenal central defenders did a good job of tracking the runs. Arsenal full backs were looking terrible but the keyword there is ‘looking’. It was more a structural problem than an individual one albeit exacerbated by some mistakes.

The best chance of the opening minutes was created by Walcott after he skipped past Cole and delivered an inch perfect ball. Gervinho failed to hit the target from six yards. A minute or so later Theo put in another great cross but Van Persie couldn’t guide the bouncing ball towards goal.

In keeping with the dizzying pace and pulsating nature of the game, Lampard scored at the other end after a good cross from Mata. It seemed to me that Mertesacker was caught a bit out of position as he moved towards the near post and wasn’t able to get his head on the ball.

Chelsea continued finding space in the wide areas and created a number of other half chances. Sturridge missed a gilt-edged opportunity around the half-hour mark.

The Gunners were there or thereabouts in the attacking areas despite Chelsea dominating 69 percent possession in that period. Soon after, Van Persie eased the ball into the open net to equalize. The chance was created by an excellent run by Gervinho but more importantly via Ramsey’s delightful turn and through-ball.

Arsenal conceded a corner in the final minute before half-time. Many Gooners would have had that sinking feeling in the pit of their stomachs as Lampard sent the ball into a fairly regular area that the central defenders should dominate. Once again Mertesacker was just a bit off and allowed Terry to attack ball. Chelsea went in ahead at the break and few would have argued it wasn’t deserved.

I would love to know what Wenger said during the break. Arsenal came out with greater desire and confidence in the second half but more importantly the team was a lot more cohesive. An early leveller helped.

Three minutes into the second half Santos, who’d been extremely poor in the first half, scored after excellent work by Djourou on the right and a quick, accurate pass from Song.

There was no letting up though, as Szczesny came out of his area and fouled Cole who would probably have been clean through. The ref gave a yellow card as Koscielny was getting back towards the goal but a red would not have been unprecedented. I thought in general the ref was consistently lenient towards the physical aspects in a game that was feisty but never dirty.

With 55 minutes on the clock, Theo put Arsenal ahead with a wonderful, and somewhat comical, solo goal. The English winger came in from the right and appeared to fall after tripping himself. Cole stopped playing and raised his arms to claim innocence in the matter. Ivanovic and Terry switched off as they too probably looked at the ref. The ball remained near Walcott’s feet who got up and moved past the defenders in a flash, with quick footwork, before hammering it past Cech who was again beaten on the near post.

Subsequently, Arsenal dropped deeper and looked a lot more solid in defence as the wide players supported the fullbacks better. I thought it possible that Wenger would have instructed his speed merchants to look for gaps left by the Chelsea fullbacks which would have led to a more open game in the first half on both ends of the pitch. After taking the lead Arsenal looked a lot more assured and the full backs were fairly composed. Santos made a number of excellent tackles all through the second half.

Chelsea got the equalizer after Lukaku fouled Santos. The ref let play carry on as he’d done all day. Mata got into space in front of the defence and his strike probably benefitted from a deflection off Song’s desperate lunge.

Buy now Chelsea had brought on a number of attacking players and were looking for the winner. Arsenal had always been on the edge of breaking through on the counter.

The fourth goal for the Gunners though, was a result of a terrible pass from Malouda and an untimely slip by Terry near the centre circle. Van Persie’s composure was commendable as we have seen plenty of players waste such opportunities.

With the home side going all out in search for the winner, Arsenal fashioned further chances and secured the game with Van Persie getting his hat-trick. Cech again looked culpable but I thought all the shots he missed were fiercely struck and/or well-placed. The final one swerved just enough to miss the strong part of his hand and went in skinning the fingertips.

I liked the way Arsenal kept the ball and didn’t hoof it every time the opponents put them under pressure. It can get better but they are clearly making an effort. I also appreciated the way central defenders in particular tracked the runs of the attacking players. In the past we have seen Arsenal players stand with their hands up when opponents broke in behind but in this game they stuck to the runners and covered for the mistakes of their teammates.

While Chelsea were undoubtedly the better side in the first half, there can be no arguments against the result as the Gunners bossed the game after the break. In individual moments of significance, the Gunners showed better composure and quality. That was ultimately the difference between two very attacking sides.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Another shaky game from the youngster. Couldn’t have done much for any of the goals but his decision making wasn’t very good and flapped at a few balls into the box. But one might also say he did enough to push the balls away from danger areas.

Djourou: Space behind him was exploited time and again. It was more an issue of coordination and tactical clarity as he wasn’t beaten in one-v-one’s but was caught out positionally. Looked assured in possession and moved the ball well. Big part in the second goal. Not sure why he was subbed. Hope it’s not another injury concern.

Mertesacker: Made a number of crucial interceptions/tackles and won a lot in the air. But he was culpable for both goals and will have to do much better to dominate his area of the pitch.

Koscielny: Absolutely magnificent. Another world class effort from the Frenchman. Joint MotM in my book. Read the game better than anyone else on the pitch, decision making was spot on, got his foot in at vital moments time and again.

Santos: Seemingly a game of two halves for the Brazilian. Struggled when exposed in large spaces or when the opponents got a chance to run at him. But his tackling technique is unusual and rather effective. Did much better once he got some support. Well-timed run and good execution for the goal.

I thought the defence looked very poor but the individuals didn’t make that many mistakes. Certainly higher rated and better valued opponents made more. As I have said for close to two years, when a team plays with an attacking mindset, defenders are exposed and suffer. That doesn’t make them bad players. Nevertheless, there is more than sufficient room for improvement at the back tactically and in terms of decision making, attacking the ball, etc.

Song: Very impressive in the defensive areas, particularly in the second half. Made a good assist for the second goal after a number of disappointing attacking passes in the first half. His tenacity was integral to the relatively solid second half.

Ramsey: Joint MotM with Koscielny. Didn’t have many headline worthy moments but overall contribution was exceptional. The assist for the first goal was sumptuous. Work rate was unquestionable. Showed a great deal of intelligence on the ball. Can do even better but on the right upward curve.

Arteta: Another player who worked his socks off with an appreciable defensive shift. Played some very promising passes as well when the forward players got into space. Picked up an assist for the final goal, is that his first for Arsenal?

I thought the midfield was caught in a no-man’s land in the first half as the pressing wasn’t cohesive which allowed balls in behind rather easily. Once the team dropped deeper in the second half they helped the defence look compact.

All three played a part in sustaining possession under pressure, the importance of which cannot be overstated. All three also got an assist each.

Walcott: Another excellent effort from Theo. He is lethal when the opponents give him a bit of space. Cole used to dominate battles against Walcott when he used to play deeper and with supporting players but was ripped to shreds in an open game. Put in a number of dangerous balls, scored a fantastic goal, worked hard on the flank.

RvP: Immense. On another day he would have walked away with the match ball and the MotM. His movement and positioning is a pure delight. Finishing was top notch.

Gervinho: Excellent movement and good awareness for the assist. Missed a great chance and misplaced some passes, especially in the first half. Was always threatening when he got a chance to run at the defenders.

The attackers showed their quality as they got space to manoeuvre. Both teams missed some opportunities but Arsenal’s front three made the decisive contribution.

Subs: Jenkinson was fairly solid in the few minutes he got. Rosicky looked good on the ball and put in an energetic shift. Vermaelen didn’t have much to do.

Wenger: He was aware Chelsea were going to be very expansive and set his team out to exploit that. It wasn’t as efficient in the first half as one would like but got it right after the break. Deserves immense credit for believing in the players and motivating them despite such negative circumstances. Just like Coyle in midweek, wasn’t AVB another manager who was deemed better than Wenger?

Wonder what the Chelsea  chairman will have to say about that. Will probably pass the buck I guess. At this point I must also say AVB deserves some time and the freedom to buy players he wants. I really liked the way Chelsea played. He needs more experience at this level to fine tune the details but the basics and attitude are there.

Arsenal are slowly and surely moving up with improved performances, better understanding, and indubitable spirit and determination. If you haven’t seen it already, do watch this speech that Arsene gave at the AGM.

How Does The Season Stack Up Against Predictions

May 26, 2011

Now that the horror end to the season is behind us I thought it worthwhile to look back at the predictions I’d made before the start of the season and after the summer transfer window had closed.

In this article, written before the season started, I’d mentioned United as the title favourites.

As of now, I’d say United are favourites. I know many people think Rooney will not be able to maintain his form and Fergie’s team will struggle this year. I’ll be delighted if that happens but I think the Scot is a wily old fox and will change his game style this year. They’ll try to get more from Berbatov, Hernandez, and Nani by playing a more defensive style.

That was a time when many Gooners and pundits were writing them off and predicting a poor year for Fergie’s men. Hate to say it, but the United manager did get a lot more out of Berbatov, Hernandez, and Nani.

After the transfer window closed my predictions were – United, Chelsea, and Arsenal followed by City, Liverpool, and Tottenham battling it out for 4 to 6.

This was my prediction for Chelsea,

I expect them to have some extremely dominant periods and some phases when they drop a lot of points. Second in the League is my prediction.

For United,

I think Fergie understands the Englishness of the League better than anyone else and that will help them a lot. Berbatov looks like he will do much better this season and that should ease some burden of Rooney. United fans will also be hoping for more from Nani, Valencia, and the refs (their twelfth man, especially at home).

It is impossible to ignore the contribution of referees to this United title.

For City,

I think they’ll be fourth because of their squad that should help them see off the Spuds and Liverpool. They will only finish higher if one of the top three really make a mess of things.

Arsenal did make a mess of things.

For Arsenal,

I’d mentioned that the fitness of Van Persie and Fabregas will be the key. RvP showed us his value after Christmas. But I haven’t forgotten the calls to sell him during the January transfer window because he was supposedly made of glass. Of course, that wasn’t anything more than the partly amusing and somewhat annoying routine of a vocal minority of fans changing their tune based on the current form.

Unfortunately for Arsenal, Fabregas struggled for fitness and completely disappeared at the business end of the season. Others like Nasri failed to rise to the occasion and some of the younger players, who’d done well thus far, disintegrated under pressure.

I will review the season over the course of the summer so don’t want to write definitive opinions in this article. But the lack of contribution from Fabregas during key moments of the season did make a big impact on the results. If he’d been fit for the Carling Cup final or if he’d played well in the final couple of months we might have had a completely different finish.

That’s not an excuse, nor is it a comprehensive explanation. It’s just one part of a complex puzzle that was the Arsenal season.

As far as the cups go I didn’t expect a strong run in the Carling Cup. That was a pleasant surprise. Runs in the other two competitions were going to depend on the draw. We all know how that turned out.

Overall I’d say the season went largely as expected although the final few weeks were extremely disappointing and frustrating given the quality of performances prior to the Carling Cup final.

PS: I was doing the Daily Mail crossword online and the following clue brought out a chuckle – A split at Tottenham Hotspur concerning money-management (6). The setter must be a prescient Gooner with a sense of humour 🙂

Thoughts And Predictions For The Champions League Draw

March 18, 2011

Before I proceed I want to mention that this article is mostly speculation about the Champions League draw and the teams in it. There won’t be much about Arsenal.

Ok with that out of the way I thought I’ll jot down some thoughts I had about the Champions League quarter-final draw. While the draw is held live and involves some big names associated with the game, I often get the feeling that it is, at least partially, rigged. Do you get the same feeling?

The way some teams keep bumping into each other (Arsenal – Barca, Real – Lyon, etc), the way it throws up some exciting rematches like the repeat of last season’s final in this season’s second round, and the way some of the relatively smaller teams always play each other so that one of them can get through to the latter stages makes me wonder if it’s all a matter of luck.

Of course, one argument is that there are so many permutations that some patterns will always emerge no matter what the outcome. It really could be that simple. On the other hand the reasons behind fixing the draw could be twofold; firstly, it would allow some of the smaller teams a chance to go one step forward and break the hegemony of the big sides while earning some fame and highly useful cash; and secondly, rematches and the likes add more glamour and increase the chatter around the games.

So going by my theory I’d expect two out of Spuds, Schalke, and Shakhtar to meet in the quarter-finals. That way one of the lesser fancied teams is sure to advance to the semi-finals.

Similarly, there is a chance that Real get paired with Inter. This could lead to a great deal of media coverage about Mourinho’s return to the San Siro, how everyone feels about it, and stuff like that. Essentially, it keeps the Champions League in the limelight for a longer period, for free.

Personally speaking, I’d love to see Real meet United. The battle between two highly intelligent managers who both rely heavily on tactics will be fun to watch at a tactical level even if the football isn’t inspiring. It will also put extra pressure on United in their mid-week fixtures. And of course what could be better than having Barcelona meeting them in the semi-final after disposing off the Spuds in the quarters.

Seriously though, Barcelona-Spuds can be an immensely entertaining fixture with a lot of goals, mostly at one end but one or two at the other as well. I’m really hoping for this tie in the draw even if everything else I’m saying falls flat. ‘Arry’s comments, before and after the games, alone will be worth their weight, or should I say font size, in gold.

On the other side Chelsea could then have a rematch with Inter, a tie they lost in the second round last Year. This will nicely set up the small team fixture between Schalke and Shakhtar.

Well those are just some thoughts I had about the draw and a bit of light-hearted speculation. Even without Arsenal I’m going to watch most of these games as these days I’m trying to control the emotions a bit more and focussing on the tactics and other details.

By the way did anyone catch the Europa League games today? Man City really know how to cure a Gooner’s disappointment. I’d say Liverpool too did their bit by huffing and puffing to a goalless home draw with Braga, a team that did well against us in the Champions League. Interestingly, both these ‘giants’ lost to a couple of teams that have dropped down from the CL to the EL. Does that mean neither of them are really ready for the Champions League? And if so, how far behind Arsenal are these teams? I’ll leave you to ponder on that.