Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Hull City

May 17, 2014

The Norwich game ended up being a formality. Ramsey’s goal was immensely enjoyable and it was nice to see Diaby and Wilshere back on the pitch. Beyond that there isn’t much to talk about so I’ll come straight to the game we’ve all been waiting for eagerly.

Hull have picked up 1 point from their last five games and that was against relegated Fulham. They’ve lost 15 of their 18 games against the top 9 in the League. Arsenal topped the table when counting points taken against teams in the bottom half. The Gunners are coming into this Final on the back of five straight wins and have done the double over the Tigers scoring five unanswered goals in the process.

As far as any dictates of logic are concerned, Wenger’s side have to be the overwhelming favourites for this game with the usual caveats of the gap between teams being close and anything can happen on a given day being applicable.

There shouldn’t be any major surprises in this game. Hull are a competitive team and the game will certainly be very close till the first goal goes in. The two biggest factors that Arsenal will have to deal with are their own nerves and the opponents desire driven physicality.

Let’s cover anxiety first. I remember the tentativeness from the opening exchanges against Birmingham in the League Cup final. Szczesny was saved by an incorrect offside flag from conceding a penalty, and maybe a red card, really early in the game after the team failed to control the ball or its shape. Nerves can affect the decision making of players, their touch, and the speed with which they react. The resulting technical or tactical errors can level the game up in terms of the quality of the two sides and, if the mistakes are in dangerous zones, it can very quickly hand the initiative to the opponent.

That said, this time around I do have higher hopes. Arsenal have cut out many of their common errors from the recent past. For instance, in that penalty incident mentioned above, Song let his runner through when the team had a high-ish line that wasn’t straight. The frequency of such errors has definitely reduced off late. Those were still the days of struggling against the long ball but that’s another area where Wenger’s side have improved noticeably. There is more experience, greater composure, and a tendency among individuals to take responsibility to keep the vital defensive areas secure. All that should keep the goal relatively better protected even if the players exhibit a degree of hesitancy in expressing their game.

We did see a little bit of this against Wigan. Arsenal’s football wasn’t at the expected level, to put it politely. And Mertesacker’s uncharacteristic error reminded us that one potentially decisive error can come at any time. Nevertheless, over the course of 90 minutes, I have to say Arsenal were a lot more secure at the back than they’d have been a few years earlier. The equalizer that took the game to extra time was also a reminder of the fact that you can always get something from the game if you keep plugging away even when you’re not at your best.

The second factor is a little more complicated. Hull are not going to come up with a novel tactical approach that completely flummoxes the Gunners or produce technical football that will outclass Wenger’s side. What they can do is fight. When I say ‘desire driven physicality’, I don’t mean they’ll get violent. Commitment is the key word here. Most English sides don’t give up. And when it’s a Cup Final we can be sure the Tigers will have some bite. They’ve nothing to lose. All they’ve to do is stay organized – a strength of Steven Bruce, challenge for every ball, throw their bodies on the line when needed, and wait for their chance. They can score from a set-piece, a long range shot, or pounce upon a bad mistake by the Gunners. It’ll become easier for them if Wenger’s side are rattled or show some anxiety induced timidity early on. They’ll also gain confidence as time goes unless the Gunners take the lead.

As ever, the first goal will be very important. Arsenal have the highest PPG ratio (2.79) in the League when games scoring first are considered. Even though Hull are 11th in that chart, their 2.21 PPG is nothing to be scoffed at. Both teams have lost only 1 League game in which they’ve scored first. If we reverse that criterion, Wenger’s team have picked up 0.83 PPG from the 12 games where they’ve conceded first including two wins. Hull have 0.18 PPG (4 points) from the 22 games where they’ve let the first one in and just one win.

This will make the initial tactics interesting. Should Arsenal go for broke? Should Hull sit back and absorb some pressure to make sure they’re safe? What happens if both teams go for it?

The answer will lie as much in the tactical choices of the managers as it will in the way the players feel and are able to express themselves on the pitch. Nerves can be contagious. Just one or two players showing signs of tentativeness can drag the whole team down and that can change the entire tactical dynamic of the game. In this regard, Hull have a slight advantage because expectations are low and they have nothing to lose. It’s already a fairy tale run for them. They can enjoy the event and express themselves without fear. The ape clinging on to Arsenal’s back will have to be tamed quickly if the Gunners are to have fun. Respective fans can make a meaningful contribution. Groans from the Arsenal faithful, for instance, can be severely counter-productive.

One thing Arsenal absolutely must avoid is quick transitions from the central third of the pitch. That means players on the ball have to make the right choices even if it means safe passing that seemingly goes nowhere. Similarly, individuals will have to be stronger in possession. The likes of Santi and Özil have shown a tendency to surrender possession when harassed. This can really fire up the opponents while also opening the route to goal.

Control the ball, ride the challenges, and push the opponents back. Openings will come if they are willing to endure the grind. That doesn’t mean sharp passing and constant movement should be abandoned, just that it’s important to shield the ball in order to control the vital territories on the pitch.

Wenger should have no complaints as far as player availability is concerned. His biggest problem might be in deciding who to leave out of the squad.

I’d like to see,

Fabianski – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Cazorla, Giroud, Podolski.

While the choice of goalkeeper is debatable, the rest of that line up is Wenger’s best starting eleven on current form in my opinion.

To be honest, I’m finding it very hard to see why Arsenal shouldn’t win this game. Worryingly though, far too many times in the recent past, Wenger’s side have shown me how wrong I was when thinking like that. I’m sure many other Gooners are in the same boat and it’s really up to the players to take it to shore and settle the issue once and for all.

I’m amused by the thought of just how vastly different many peoples’ season reviews will be based on the result of just this one game. It has been a good season in my opinion with the potential to become an excellent one if the Gunners perform to their ability. Or it can become a nightmare with no place to hide. Among the many reasons I’d considered for the delay in the extension of the manager’s contract, one was that Wenger wants to give Arsenal the chance to change their mind should his team fail. It’ll certainly be very bad timing for any renewal should the Gunners stumble. Then again, announcing a new deal with monkeyless backs, and the FFP slowly making its presence felt, will surely shine a bright light towards the future.

One way or the other, this could be a historic day for Arsenal.

Thoughts On Stoke And Everton Games

March 8, 2014

Earlier today I was talking to a close friend of mine after a long time. He was wondering why I had limited the number of articles and was covering two games in one post. My answer was in the form of a question, “What can I write about this game against Stoke, for example, that I haven’t already said on multiple occasions over the last 3-4 years?”

Their physicality, the ref’s leniency, Arsenal’s inability to force the issue, the slight but significant vulnerability against balls put in the box, a decision or two going against the Gunners proving decisive, handbrake, slow tempo, absence of width, missing intensity, lack of runs in behind… What’s new?

There have been so many “wake up calls” and “lessons learnt” over the last few seasons that it seems pointless to even go down that route anymore.

The visit to the Britannia was always going to be difficult. I’d mentioned before the game that Arsenal’s best hope from this game would be to grind out a result. A clean sheet helps immensely in such cases and if the game had been level with 10-15 minutes to play the result might have been very different. Speculation doesn’t help but the penalty call was the single biggest moment of the game. I guess the only question was – Are Koscielny’s hands in a natural position? I don’t think they were and for that reason I’m not that disappointed with the penalty decision as many of the fans are. There have been enough arguments against this decision and it’s one where everyone can make their own minds up as it doesn’t really matter now. These kinds of games and such refereeing is part of the League. Teams that win the Premiership find a way to counter it consistently.

Team selection and tactics are the usual culprits in the eyes of many after such a performance and result. Alex certainly added some zip after he came on and it’s only fair to wonder ‘what if’. But it’s also important to remember that Arsenal have won once in seven trips to Stoke since their promotion in 2008. It’s hasn’t always been about pace. Last year, for instance, Arsene started with Gervinho and Podolski and introduced Walcott and Chamberlain later in the game. The team still couldn’t score a goal. In contrast, neither pace, nor width were missed when Sunderland were turned over in the previous game, were they?

On one hand, the predictability of this performance and result maginifies the frustration and pain felt, but on the other, it’s important to understand there isn’t a straightforward solution. I don’t think anyone, even Wenger, can put his finger on the exact cause that results in such a display. That’s why it’s so hard to solve. Every team has bad games and extra quality in the defensive third and attacking third can prove decisive. Arsenal missed that in attack and were somewhat unfortunate in defence.

Having greater offensive diversity – different goal scorers, diverse creators, different ways of scoring, more risk takers offset by a sound tactical system, etc. – always helps counter difficult moments because the probability of something working out when all else fails is naturally higher. In that regard, the Gunners are better than most teams and that explains their position in the table. Being better than most is not the same as being better than everyone though, and that’s the level they’ve to reach if the League title has to come to the Emirates. The gap is really not very big but can feel like an insurmountable chasm if the team collapses repeatedly.

Everton – Is FA Cup the best title hope this season?

Looking at the teams in the FA Cup quarterfinal draw, any Gooner would be tempted to think that Arsenal just need to get past Everton and they’ll be one win over Man City away from ending the title drought. Given that the team has already beaten Spurs and Liverpool in the competition, this could be a very enjoyable triumph if it comes to fruition.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. There are three hurdles to cross before a team lands it’s hands on silverware and we’ve seen the Gunners fall at each of these three against teams of varying qualities.

No game is more important than the next one and it’s even truer given the context of this one. The defeat at Stoke has made the League a very distant prospect where the Gunners will have to rely on three challengers slipping up.  And chances in the Champions League are slim after that defeat to Bayern. Go out of the FA Cup and this season could very well be over. Even if it isn’t technically, for a team that relies so much on rhythm and confidence, it’s hard to imagine the players will recover quickly.

Going through to the semi-finals can have the reverse effect. It will soothe the burns received at Brittania and make the game against Bayern less tense. Performances in subsequent big games could also benefit from this boost.

A replay will not be fun but is better than going out, obviously.

Everton are better than Arsenal’s previous two opponents both technically and tactically. Their performance at the Emirates was among the best by a visiting English side in recent years, particularly their ability to press and sustain possession.

The patterns in this game will depend on their mentality and ability to execute their game plan. There should be no reason for them to not come at the Gunners again. It’s an area where we’ve seen Wenger’s side struggle. That being said, pressing consistently over the duration of the game is never easy and errors from individuals or lack of cohesion can make a team look really ordinary. As long as they attempt it though, it should be a fascinating battle.

The other areas of interest include Arsenal ability to break forward when pushed deeper into their own half. Everton’s defence of the central areas in the midfield and around their penalty box. Use of space by full-backs of both teams. And individual battles like Vermaelen-Lukaku or Flamini-Barkley. Team selections could have a say in shaping these battles.

Neither side is particularly adept at consistently defending with a high line yet both like to control possession and push up at every opportunity. This means controlling transitions can be very important to prevent opponents from getting in-behind. The other option, of course, is to drop deeper and play on the counter-attack. An unnatural approach for both sides but one that could be effective if executed efficiently.

Arsenal, at their best, can play through Everton’s pressure and make their tactics looks ill-advised. Throughout the season there have been patches in various games when I’ve simply loved watching excellent combination play at the back. But we have not seen consistency from the Gunners in this regard. It’s very hard to pin-point the cause of this. Playing quick, one-touch passing, particularly deep in one’s own half, is risky and can only work if the individuals are in sync and make the right runs off the ball and choices on it. A player receiving the ball under pressure has milliseconds to make a choice and then execute it. Unless a teammate offers himself in a manner that makes a pass feasible, pressure from opponents can result in disjointed football that is neither here, nor there in tactical terms. Or it leads to long punts down the pitch that simply ease the pressure for a few moments. Both can bring the handbrake on, and once engaged it can be very hard to shake off.

Team selection again offers a few interesting possibilities and poses a few challenges,

Fabianksi – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Flamini – Alex, Sanogo, Cazorla.

I’m not sure Yaya Sanogo has the required shooting skills to be starting for Arsenal right now but he has a presence in a different way compared to Giroud. While Giroud is better at holding his ground, Sanogo can hassle the defenders a bit more, particularly if they are pushing up. That trait alone might make him a better choice for such a game.

Oxlade-Chamberlain still has a lot to learn but again he is the kind of player you want to see in a one-v-one against the opposing full-back. His presence on the right might force Pienaar to take more defensive positions and limit Everton’s offensive options. Or he might get chances to run at the likes of Barry, McCarthy, Stones, and Distin if Arsenal break from deep.

The presence of these players could also give Özil more options to put balls in-behind.

The flip side here is that with such a side the probability of dominating possession would be slim. Arsenal will have to rely more on counter-attacks and their collective defending. Jenkinson might be a useful option on the right if the team has to defend deep. He can be a steady player as long as he is not too adventurous.

The inclusion of Giroud and/or Rosicky can possibly help with ball retention and circulation but there is no guarantee. In the League game Arsenal had less possession even with Arteta, Wilshere, Cazorla, Özil, and Ramsey in the starting eleven.

I’m hoping Everton are not as inspired and energetic as they were in the League game. That would give the Gunners a bit more breathing room on the ball and that can be enough for them to fire. Relying on the opponent being off their best is not a great approach but the Toffees have not found the sweet spot as often in the last couple of months so it’s not unrealistic.

Thoughts On The Fulham and Coventry Games

January 24, 2014

Arsenal are clearly not playing at their best right now but the results keep coming. It’s important even if it’s not as enjoyable as all of us would like it to be. The performance against Fulham was much better than the one we saw at Villa Park and the three points weren’t in much doubt even during some frustrating moments of the first half.

It’s hard to say anything was wrong, per se, with the way Arsenal were playing except that the pace could have been higher. Fulham did make it harder for the Gunners with as many as 9 outfielders camped deep in their own half for long periods. It was a surprise because the Cottagers are generally a bit more of a footballing side than that. New manager and his attempts to get the team out of a mire I guess.

I thought Meulensteen missed a trick when he went with Berbatov as his lone striker at the start. The Bulgarian was too isolated and is not the kind of player who will make things happen for his team through sheer determination and hard work. Playing him deeper with Bent up top might have caused Arsenal more problems as the former United man would have helped keep the ball a bit better and is capable of picking passes out too. Bent’s pace in behind would have been useful to gain territory and create chances on the break. Then again, hindsight is always 20/20.

Arsenal’s main problem was again about lack of players going in behind. Way too much of the play was in front of the defence. But I don’t mind a patient first half when the team has an extra gear or two to hit as the game progresses. Not conceding early and wearing an opponent out is a good enough strategy when you have the League’s best second half record.

There wasn’t a novel tactical element to the game. Arsenal simply took a few more risks in the second half and pushed more players higher up the pitch. It pushed Fulham from the edge of their box or just outside to somewhere between the penalty spot and the six yard box. This in turn opened up more angles for penetrative passes and positions from which to take shots without having a slew of bodies between the ball and goal.

Cazorla’s decisive contribution was a delight to watch. Wilshere’s tendency to contribute to decisive moments is also coming along nicely. I did get a feeling at times that the youngster was too high up the pitch in the first half without really committing enough to get into the box. It might have been more productive had he stayed a tad deeper so Santi and Özil got more space, or if he pushed into the box and beyond these guys as he did at times in the second half.

Özil did seem a little below par in this game. Not in terms of work rate for the team but there were some uncharacteristic unforced errors in his game. I don’t think shooting or scoring goals has ever been his strength. That’s an area where he’ll probably need some help from Wenger and the coaching staff. It’s not just about willingness to go for goal, he needs to work on his shooting technique, awareness of the goalposts, and belief that he can contribute in that manner.

This was Arsenal’s league-leading 10th clean sheet of the season. It came about without much fuss and was probably among the easier games for the back four and Szczesny. Bent did have a great chance right at the end and that only serves to remind us how a momentary lapse in concentration can prove costly.

One interesting detail – something that I’ve seen quite often this season – was that Arsenal’s two goals again came in a short space of time. Earlier in the season I’d talked about the Gunners’ ability to raise their level and hit back if the opponents scored. This tendency was vital to the strong run that took Wenger’s side to the summit. It’s good to see the players haven’t lost it despite a few injuries and rotations. Most teams can’t sustain a high-risk, fast-paced approach for the duration of the game. But having the ability to hit that zone for short durations and making it count inspires confidence.

Coventry – Tough to take it easy

 This articles does a good job capturing the contrasting states of the two clubs with useful details on Coventry’s plight. Almost all of that is off the pitch though, as Steven Pressley’s side have suffered only one defeat in their last eleven competitive fixtures. But for the 10 point handicap imposed on them, the Sky Blues would be in playoff positions.

Does that make this a massive test for the Gunners? No. But it remains a potential banana skin that could result in a painful stumble.

In football, defending remains significantly easier than attacking. And that means the relatively smaller teams always have a chance if they can produce the work rate and discipline needed to keep a clean sheet. Remember the dictum – if you can’t win, don’t lose. And the corollary of sorts – if you don’t lose, you can sometimes sneak a win.

For the visitors this game is mostly going to be about playing with a nothing-to-lose mindset coupled with a desire to prove themselves against the best. For them, and with all due respect, an upset in a game like this could be the highlight of the season. Losing won’t make much of a difference. Such a scenario can sometimes lift a team to great heights or it can result in an indifferent performance, particularly if the start is poor and they go behind. We’ll have to see how the patterns pan out.

Arsenal don’t have to do much different for this game, they just have to play their game. A steady mix of concentration, work rate, patience, and composure should do the trick. And, it goes without saying, avoid gifting goals.

It’s interesting that Wenger says Ramsey and Arteta are not available. It’s speculation but I think one or both would have been in the squad had this been a game against one of the bigger sides. That’s not to criticize the manager, I actually like the idea of giving his key players extra time to recover. Hopefully, he’ll extend similar courtesy to some others who are likely to be very busy in February and March.

I’d like to see,

Fabianski – Jenkinson, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Flamini, Wilshere, AOC – Gnabry, Bendtner, Podolski.

With Özil, Giroud, and Santi on the bench, Arsenal should have enough firepower to turn things around if they don’t go according to plan.

Of course, many will say that the club should not take the competition lightly and the players have had enough rest over the last couple of weeks. That’s true from a short term point of view but the miles logged in every game start having an effect as the season reaches the business end. I’d prefer if key players like Özil, Mertesacker, and Giroud had extra reserves at such times because the big games will come thick and fast after a couple of weeks.

The starting line-up mentioned above is not an ideal combination but the players should have enough to get the result. Many of them could use the minutes on the pitch anyway. They just have to avoid frustration if the combinations don’t click early on. Trying hard to force things can have unintended adverse effects.

Having said all that, I’ll actually be pleasantly surprised if Wenger does indeed rest so many of his big players. Last season’s disappointments are still fresh in memory and he’ll certainly want to avoid a repeat.

Thoughts On Cardiff And Tottenham Games

January 4, 2014

Arsenal had a few key players missing, which showed in the form of attacking inefficiency, but the game against Cardiff was one where the squad had to show its depth. It got a tad frustrating towards the end but the pressure, and substitutions, paid off. You need a little bit of luck in such games but relentless pressure always helps.

I was a little surprised Bendtner didn’t start the game. Podolski is probably going to get more game time in the coming weeks than the Dane – even if he hadn’t been injured – so Wenger might have felt the need to give him the opportunity to come up to speed. The German is one of Arsenal’s best goalscorers but he doesn’t quite have the movement, work rate, or thought process to truly excel as a central striker at the big club. He’s the kind of player who’s more likely to score from a good chance than most others but the Gunners missed Giroud’s qualities and that affected the quality of chances that were being created. As a result, the attack rarely reached the point where Podolski’s finishing proficiency could make a difference.

It’s not fair to put all the blame on the German though. Blame might not even be the right word. There were just a lot of little details that, in concurrence, made the Arsenal attack blunt in the decisive areas. For instance, Walcott remains a very frustrating player even when he always poses a threat. He’s the kind of guy who can produce a decisive moment out of nothing but is also prone to many annoying phases where he loses the ball cheaply or makes the wrong runs, etc. Similarly, Wilshere constantly displays excellent attacking potential but his choices and execution often betray his inexperience. Ramsey’s attacking input was also missed. Individually, none of these are major issues. All together, they can take the attack down a few percentage points, which can level the game up against a well-organized and hard working defensive unit.

In such games, the fear always is that the opponents will nick a goal from a freakish situations. One of the measure of Arsenal’s defensive improvement is the drop in such goals and that helped again. A team with that much offensive potential can always score. Not conceding, therefore, really holds the probability of winning high even late in the game.

Tricky FA Cup Tie…

Normally, Wenger makes some changes to the side for the FA Cup 3rd round as it comes during a period of fixture congestion. A string of injuries also increases the need for rotations. But this time the draw brings Tottenham to the Emirates and it’s clearly as important as any Premier League game.

I’m not a big fan of domestic cup competitions and wouldn’t really mind if Arsenal went out of the FA Cup, but we could see some longer term adverse impact if that were to happen in a home game against Spurs.

Tim Sherwood has brought Adebayor back into the fold and the striker has justified the manager’s faith in recent games. The Togolese can be an absolute beast when in full flow – the phase just doesn’t seem to last very long – and I expect Arsenal’s defence to have a challenging night. Wenger will probably not be able to rest Mertesacker, who really could use a break.

Spurs have used two strikers in the last few games and that could make the game very open. The Gunners did well against Suarez and Sturridge earlier in the season but this isn’t simply a matter of numbers. The tactics of the team as a whole has a big impact on the patterns of play and that determines whether the presence of two strikers is a positive or a handicap.

I won’t be surprised if Tottenham start the game with high intensity pressing in search of turnovers and the early goal. After a while they will probably play deeper and narrower with four midfielders closer to the defensive line that won’t be as high as it was in the Vilas-Boas era. It is here that the intelligence and work rate of the strikers – their ability to offer an outlet, hold the ball, and attacking the space behind the Arsenal defence – can make a huge difference.

Adebayor, in particular, can really trouble Arsenal if he pulls wide on the right behind Sagna or drops into the space in front of Mertesacker, who’ll prefer to drop back at every opportunity.

The other side of this equation is that Wenger’s side could find greater space in the central third if the Spurs strikers don’t work consistently to press Arsenal’s deepest midfielder. Holding the ball for long periods can frustrate the opponents and lead to mistakes in defence.

I’m not sure Arsenal will have the confidence to press higher up the pitch. This could see the team dropping back and allowing the visitors possession in their own half and the middle of the pitch. It worked in the reverse fixture when a lead was to be protected but won’t be a very clever idea in this game. Wenger’s side have a league leading 9 clean sheets and another 9 games where they’ve conceded just one goal. But don’t be surprised if Tottenham score in this tie. That means the hosts are likely to need two or more goals if they are to progress to the next round.

Wenger’s biggest decision will be the name of the player at the top of the attack. In my opinion it’s not worth risking Giroud even if he’s fully recovered. The Frenchman will be needed till the end of the season and the next two months are like a minefield in terms of dangerous fixtures. Bendtner is not available and Podolski isn’t exactly suited to the role. Walcott too won’t be an ideal choice if the visitors drop back quickly but he could be a useful outlet if Arsenal are going to sit back.

I’d like to see,

Fabianski – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Rosicky, Flamini – Wilshere, Walcott, Cazorla.

It can be argued that bringing Fabianski in for such a game is not advisable as he lacks match practice.

Flamini would have a big role to play defensively to ensure the central defenders aren’t left in a 2-v-2 against the opposing strikers.

I’d like to see Wilshere and Walcott swapping positions while Cazorla drifts inside to pull the strings. Rosicky’s ability to play in the deeper midfield areas and his tenacity should help minimize the risk in central areas. One of the three central midfielders will also have to track back on the left flank if Santi goes wandering. Communication will be important to avoid exposing Monreal to a 2-v-1 on a consistent basis.

There are a few other permutations possible and it’s hard to say one choice is better than the others but I’d strongly prefer it if Arsenal don’t repeat the attacking combination we saw in the previous game.

The improved defence has been integral to Arsenal’s strong run of form. Nevertheless, I have a feeling the Gunners will have to show greater tactical balance to advance to the next round against an opponent that will offer genuine a goal threat.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Brighton

January 26, 2013

Arsenal have a chance to build some momentum following the impressive win against the Hammers when they visit Brighton & Hove Albion for the 4th round of the FA Cup.

The hosts are managed by Gus Poyet – doubt many Arsenal fans like him but somehow I do – and he brings something different to their game. Instead of the usual lower-tier British club tactics we are likely to see a side that tries to play football.

Arsene Wenger had this to say about his next opponents,

They play out from the back, have a lot of possession and, of course, get that big South American influence from their manager. With the players they have and the way they play, I feel we face a typical away game in the Premier League.

If you look at their squad you’ll see plenty of Spanish players. In fact, I was amazed to see former Valencia man Vicente in their ranks. Injuries and age have probably diminished the impact he can make but his presence is solid evidence for the kind of game they like to and try to play. If he’s recovered from his latest injury, I expect the Spaniard will have a say in how this game shapes up.

Brighton are currently seventh in the Championship with the  League’s second best defensive record and have conceded less than a goal a game at home. Poyet has tightened the team up this season and will be focussed on avoiding a repeat of last season’s embarrassing elimination at Anfield where his side scored 3 own goals in a 6-1 defeat.

One of their key defensive players is 23 year old midfielder Liam Bridcutt. According to Poyet he’s good enough to play for Real Madrid! We can understand a manager would want to boost his players confidence and might exaggerate his abilities but I was impressed by the manner in which he did that,

… he is the player who understands who needs help, when to cover and when to help a fullback or centre half. He is always in the right position. There are not many players who understand the game like Liam does.

That sounds like the next Makelele! That might be hyperbolic but I like the detail in his comments (the articles linked above have more). I must confess I haven’t seen him play a full game so it will be interesting to watch how the youngster performs. When Wilshere pushes up or if Arsene selects Rosicky as the central attacking midfielder we could get a fascinating duel to enjoy.

Brighton’s main goal threat is from their striker Craig Mackail-Smith. He has the ability to turn the defenders and can make space for himself. Others like Orlandi, Vicente, Buckley, and Barnes can also chip in. As mentioned earlier, the hosts don’t appear to be a one-dimensional attacking unit. They could ask genuine questions of the Arsenal defence if the Gunners sit back and allow them to build from the back. When given time, their players can pick through-balls and pack a punch from distance. We might also see some long diagonals to switch flanks with overlapping runs. It might actually be a bigger test for the defence than West Ham provided. Don’t forget, Cup ties played away from home are always that extra bit harder.

While they did beat Newcastle in the previous round, just like they’d done last year, it’s worth noting that Brighton have lost 5 of the 7 games played against teams above them in the Championship. Their record in those games is P7 W1 D1 L5 F2 A9. They also seem to have a curious record month wise. The Seagulls were winless in October, unbeaten in November, again winless in December, and are yet to lose this year in January. Let’s hope Arsenal can buck the trend and hand them a defeat on Saturday.

Wenger tends to play a fairly strong team even in the early rounds of the FA Cup. I don’t expect too many changes but a couple of players could do with some rest.

In my opinion, either Sagna or Gibbs should get a breather. In the midfield Cazorla could take a break. Up front, this might be a good game for Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right.

It’s difficult to guess what Wenger will go with but I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Ramsey, Rosicky, Wilshere – AOC, Giroud, Podolski.

Rosicky might not be match fit, in which case Yennaris could come into the midfield with Wilshere pushing up. I don’t see the point in risking Diaby. Santos is another one who might not be match fit.

It might be worth substituting Wilshere around the hour mark if the game goes to plan. Same goes for Gibbs.

As I’d said when analyzing the defeat against Bradford, if you gift goals in such games you make your life infinitely harder. Be a Gooner, Be a Giver is a strictly off-pitch mantra. But it’s easier said than done. I think this will be an entertaining game from a football point of view. Whether it’s a frustrating one or an enjoyable one from an emotional perspective will probably depend on the kind of confidence that Arsenal can show from the start.

Swansea 2 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

January 7, 2013

Arsene produced a couple of surprises in the starting eleven. Ramsey on the left must have raised a few eyebrows. It could be that Wenger wanted another midfielder in the side to counter Swansea’s technical prowess. It may also be that Podolski needed a breather as he’s used to a winter break. The partnership of Mertesacker and Koscielny was also an interesting change. The German had a tough outing but I liked the idea of giving Vermaelen a rest. Walcott went to the wing and Giroud came back into the centre. Is that the end of the Theo-Striker experiment, at least for the foreseeable future?

It’s also worth noting that Laudrup rested some of his key players in this game. Michu, Pablo Hernandez, and Rangel were on the bench, while Ashley Williams wasn’t even in the squad.

The first half was predictably dull. The fight was in the middle but neither side showed enough quality to genuinely control territory or tempo. Arsenal had a bit more possession while the hosts just shaded the limited chances that were created. A Danny Graham shot that forced a save following a clever long ball, and a Kyle Bartley header that rattled the bar come to mind. The Gunners got into promising positions in and around the box but I don’t recall a big save from Vorm in the first half.

Arsenal showed genuine desire to press higher up the pitch but they lacked cohesion – as has been the case all season – and this gave Swansea some opportunities to break forward. Laudrup’s team didn’t have enough precision, composure, and finishing quality in the final third.

The start to the second half was better. Arsenal’s pressing was more urgent and it forced some mistakes. The play was concentrated in the Swansea half for a while. There were a couple of shots from Giroud, a penalty shout, and other promising moments for the Gunners in the initial 10 minutes of the second period.

An injury to Giroud broke their momentum and gave Laudrup a chance to bring a couple of his big players on. Michu’s impact was instant but it was again a case of terrible defending. This goal wasn’t dissimilar to the first one he scored at the Emirates. In that instance it was Vermaelen tangling with Graham, this time it was Koscielny. Mertesacker was caught square on and the slowness of his reactions proved costly. He should have started dropping back the moment Koscielny went into that duel. Will someone please explain to me why Vermaelen – Kocielny is not a good pairing while either can be paired with Mertesacker? Genuine question that.

For a few minutes the game was stretched. Both sides were getting some space in the attacking areas. Then something strange happened. Swansea stopped playing. It’s a problem we’ve seen with Arsenal when they sometimes take the lead and don’t know how to proceed. And just like the Gunners, Laudrup’s side does not look like an assured defensive unit when they decide to sit back and invite pressure. From around the 65th minute onwards it was all Arsenal.

The hosts allowed Arsenal to set camp in front of their defensive third and their nervousness, apparent from the sloppy manner in which they kept losing possession, boosted the visitors’ belief. Even when one promising position after another was squandered, most fans on either side would have seen the goal coming.

It came from a corner that was seemingly too deep. I liked the way Sagna headed it backwards and kept it away from the Swansea goalkeeper and players. Was Koscielny trying to shoot or just playing it into a danger area? Podolski’s finish on the turn was superb.

The second one came soon after. Gibbs played a one-two with Giroud and scored with a well-timed volley. The full-back had gotten into useful areas often. This time he had the end product.

After the goal Swansea’s nervousness was transferred to the Gunners as they retreated into their half. The moment it was clear Arsenal were trying to sit back instead of competing with a resurgent opponent, I could see the equalizer coming. And it didn’t take long.

Once again it was a set-piece and this one looked like a well worked routine. All the Swansea players stayed quite a way away from the usually congested central areas in front of the goal. There was a particular camera angle from which I could not see a single white shirt in the six yard box when the corner was about to be taken. The intention probably was to swing the ball away from the goal with hopes of catching the defence off guard when they’re trying to push up. It worked, in an unexpected manner perhaps, but it did catch the Arsenal players completely by surprise as was evident from the time and space available to Graham despite so many purple shirts in the vicinity of the goal.

Both sides could have won it late in the game. Koscielny forced a big save from Vorm while Tiendalli almost caught Szczesny out on the near post. In the end 2-2 seemed a fair reflection of the events of a largely low-quality game that became entertaining in the final 10 minutes.

All-in-all it wasn’t a bad game from the Gunners. Many Premier League teams have drawn their games. Playing Cup ties away from home is not easy. That said, there’s nothing wrong in demanding more against a Swansea side that rested a number of key players.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: I thought he could have done better for both goals, particularly the second one. Almost got caught out at the end as he left a gaping hole at the near post. Still has a long way to go to convince me he can be a long term solution in goal for Arsenal.

Sagna: Better defensive game than the previous two efforts. Could he have done better for the second goal? I lost count of the number of his crosses that were blocked by the first man. Nevertheless, it was a hardworking and appreciable shift on the flank as he was often left without support.

Mertesacker: Poor body shape and extremely slow reactions for the first goal. It’s not the first time this has happened either. Was also caught out by Graham once in the first half when the striker managed to get on the wrong side and forced a save. Has some weaknesses when the defensive line doesn’t drop back to the edge of the box quickly and these are exposed more often when Arsenal try to press higher up the pitch.

Koscielny: Did well for the Arsenal equalizer, good header late in the game, and did a good job of covering behind Gibbs. Could he have done better in that challenge with Graham?

Gibbs: Excellent goal and a number of useful runs in the attacking areas. Did leave his flank more exposed than Sagna but it’s to be expected when he’s making that many darts into the opposition box. MotM in my opinion.

I’m usually not critical of the defenders every time the team concedes some goals but in this game the back five should have done better for both goals.

Arteta: I thought he had a sloppy game by his near-impeccable standards. Still an above average game with a useful presence in front of the defence.

Cazorla: Wasn’t able to influence proceedings from an attacking point of view. There were a number of disappointing passes in the final third. Even in that 15-20 minute period when Arsenal were rampant, I don’t recall any exceptional moment from the Spaniard. Was involved in the build-up of many moves, but not in a way you’d expect from a special player.

Wilshere: Another one who lacked precision in the final third. For instance, there was that moment when he played a clever one-two with Giroud but then completely missed the target from a good position. Set-piece delivery was poor. Again, he was there or thereabouts but not quite up to the mark.

The midfield had very little impact on the game in the first half. They showed greater urgency in the second half and often won the ball in useful areas but their creative contribution was very limited. Don’t think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts when we consider the individual quality these three players have.

Walcott: Set-piece delivery was disappointing, didn’t see much of the ball and he often took up positions in crowded areas where his technical limitations came to the fore. Don’t know if he was told to drift into the central areas as often or if it was his decision. Should have stayed wide at times and timed his runs more effectively.

Giroud: Produced a few impressive moments and a number of disappointing ones. The one-twos with Wilshere and Gibbs were exciting, as was the pass for Ramsey that might have resulted in a penalty. But there were some poor touches and wrong choices as well. Should have converted at least one of his chances.

Ramsey: Had a tough time on the left but he did get into some threatening positions more often than most of his teammates. Overdid it a bit in the box though. Created an excellent chance for Giroud. Was that a penalty? Looked like one to me but I can see why it wasn’t given. Wenger’s explanation makes a lot of sense.

The front three were anonymous in the first half. They did influence the game in portions of the second half but better chance creation and conversion is expected. Giroud and Walcott are not technically gifted but they have to find a way to compensate for those weaknesses.

Subs: Podolski again showed his goal-scoring instincts. Why didn’t Rosicky come on?

Wenger: He’s clearly trying to get his team pressing high up the pitch but the work done by Bould seems to demand greater positional integrity in the deeper areas which, in my opinion, has confused the players. Has to sort this out quickly. Also needs to find a way transfer the ‘on paper’ quality of this midfield on to the pitch. Attacking quality is limited, can only be sorted from the transfer market.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Swansea

January 6, 2013

Michael Laudrup’s side have had a very impressive season thus far. They’re in the top half of the League table, in the semi-finals of the League Cup, and have given a game to almost every team they’ve faced. But I don’t need to remind anyone of their threat, Arsenal have experienced it firsthand.

Wenger’s attack has been unpredictable to the say the least. I have not been carried away by the big scores and so the failures have not surprised me as much. There are two teams in any football game and the quality of one side’s performance inevitably affects that of the other. In Arsenal’s case this season, this effect has been more pronounced than one would hope to see. If a team is genuinely strong offensively and can impose its quality on the game irrespective of the opposition, we’d see dominant attacking displays repeated on a predictable basis. The Gunners haven’t been able to string together a run of even four or five games where the attack has consistently impressed. That tells me they’re reliant on the opposition’s weaknesses to express their creative talents. Unfortunately, at this level they won’t get too many easy games.

Laudrup’s side are technically competent and organizationally sound. They’ve the sixth best defensive record in the League. That’s no mean feat for a side on their budget. Don’t be surprised if they make it hard for Arsenal to build any sort of a rhythm in this game. Vorm is not likely to be a busy man. That doesn’t mean the visitors can’t or won’t score.

The Gunners will have to rely on individual moments for their creative breaks. Walcott’s pace, Cazorla’s tricky, Wilshere’s drive, and/or Giroud’s presence can lead to chances. There are also some individual mistakes in the Swansea back four that could gift the Gunners a golden chance or a goal just like Southampton did.

It’s going to be tight at the other end as well. I thought the reason Swansea scored a couple of late goals at the Emirates was that the Arsenal players pushed too hard in search of a goal and lost the balance in the centre of the park. This issue with balance has been around all season. It’s related to Arsenal’s consistent failure to press higher up the pitch despite the efforts of some players. It is also connected with the work done to make the defence better, which has been partially successful in that the shape of the team and the choices made by the players are better when they do sit back. But that approach to defending hasn’t suited the attacking game as the transitions have been rather slow and ineffective against opponents who have challenged the Gunners in the central third of the pitch.

Their second goal was just down to terrible individual errors. Unfortunately, that’s been a common occurrence for the Gunners over the last few seasons irrespective of the players involved.

The hosts have pace and trickery in the wide areas, and make clever use of the spaces in the box as they don’t simply hang hopeful crosses up. Arsenal have to be alert to the movement of their midfielders, Michu in particular. Not tracking the runs could be fatal. And someone will have to watch out for cut-backs to the edge of the box or the penalty spot.

Wenger can pick a strong team if he so wishes. There are some choices to be made.

Sagna has had a couple of difficult games. Some might say Jenkinson should be given a go. In my opinion, unless the Frenchman needs a rest – which is unlikely given his physical qualities – there is no reason to make the switch. Sagna is the better player, by quite some distance.

Cazorla is another one who’s had a couple of disappointing games, by his standards. I have been surprised by the limited game-time that Rosicky has seen. If fit, Little Mozart would be a good choice in midfield.

Up front, the Theo Walcott experiment continues to yield mixed results. He had a good time against Reading and Newcastle but struggled against Wigan and Southampton. While his pace is always a threat, his inability to get on the ball and influence the game in any meaningful manner when the opponents mark him well and limit the spaces to run into means starting him in a central role will continue to make the work of his teammates that much harder, particularly against teams that can keep the ball and are well-organized.

I would like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Rosicky, Wilshere – Walcott, Giroud, Podolski.

Don’t be surprised if Arsene retains the same eleven that started the previous game or something very similar. His system demands continuity and excellent understanding between the individuals and that means more time on the pitch in the same roles.

Arsenal have the players to win this game and go through. Any eleven Wenger picks should be good enough. It won’t be plain sailing but they should edge it by the solitary goal or the odd one in three. Arsenal also have the ability to lose or draw the tie. When the game is tight and it boils down to certain moments of quality or weakness, the Gunners have been way too volatile for any prediction to ring true. Will Swansea have one eye on their League Cup semi-final? Let’s hope they do.