Thoughts On Crystal Palace And Liverpool Games

February 8, 2014

I guess we can always count on a rampaging ox to destroy a crystal palace, however nicely structured it may be.

The tie was about as predictable as football games get. Pulis again showed no desire or spirit as his team parked the bus. It worked for a while as the Gunners created very little in the first half. Then they switched to a higher gear and scored immediately. Granted, the visitors had a chance soon after conceding and a spell where they were actually competing on the pitch, but it was simply not enough to merit them any points. Their manager’s negative approach to the game meant their best hopes were limited to frustrating the Gunners.

This game can be a good case study of the impact of the risk-reward equation on the patterns of play.

For bulk of the first half the Gunners played it safe. They were trying to score but didn’t really throw everything at the opponents. Most of their play was in front of the two Palace lines.

First half conservative

That image is indicative of the Gunners’ positioning during the first half. They did try to get through but didn’t commit too many players into advanced areas. So when the ball did get played forward, it was either cleared or played back because the man on the ball just didn’t have enough options.

This is can be frustrating from a fans perspective and even for the players but it’s really ok as long as the team in possession does not concede soft goals on the break. Pushing fewer players forward means more are available to quickly attack a clearance and win the ball back. It leads to greater possession, which is a very good way to keep a clean sheet even when it appears to be a tedious attacking approach.

I don’t know how much of it was a conscious pre-game choice and to what extent the manager’s half-time talk made a difference, but Arsenal’s approach was a lot more aggressive (and risky) straight from the start of the second half.

In the build-up to the goal you can see four Arsenal players positioned between the Palace lines.

Goal build up

Pulis can argue that his players made mistakes with their defensive body shapes and such but they were, at least in part, forced by Arsenal’s aggression and desire.

Many of us wonder why Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t make more such runs in the first half. It’s a fair question. But the fact of the matter is that the defenders would have read those runs and dealt with such passes because they were not engaged with other attacking players as they were in this case. It’s related to the point discussed in the previous article where I talked about off-the-ball positions affecting the momentum of play and it’s resultant impact on the events.

The next logical question might be to ask why more players didn’t get between the lines in the first half. That’s where the risk-reward equation comes into play. Just before this goal was scored, a few seconds after the second half kicked off, Arsenal had a similar moment with four players pushing up.

Arsenal taking risks

In that instance, Giroud came short to receive the ball from Mertesacker and lost it with a poor touch. Had Chamakh played a better pass, or if Arteta let Jerome get away, the striker would have been one-v-one against Koscielny with vast open spaces to attack.

Jerome Through

You can see eight Arsenal players in that frame and Monreal is somewhere on the left side in no position to stop Jerome. The reward with committing players forward was obvious in the goal but this incident highlights the risk. No team wants to play a high risk game for 90 minutes. The key is in picking the right moments and making it count.

At the start of the season the Gunners used to take more risks in the first half and often scored early. But then they also had to face extended periods of pressure from the opponents. These days they are more conservative in the first half and I have a feeling it’s linked to the increased number of clean sheets because the opponents don’t come at the Arsenal goal for as long a period.

Again the risk-reward equation is at play. Most visitors know that going at Arsenal can leave them vulnerable at the back. Chamberlain’s second goal was a good example of that as Palace pushed up and left space for him to exploit which wasn’t available in the first half.

As a result, teams tend to play deep and safe against the Gunners. A point is a good result for many visiting sides and some would think they can get something late in the game. But once they concede, their risk when attacking goes down as they have very little to lose. They’re already a goal down and will return with nothing so they might as well give it a go. When this happens early they have a longer period to attack. By controlling the first half and increasing the tempo in the second, Arsenal are able to contain this threat while maintaining their own offensive potential.

I don’t know how much of this is down to deliberate and considered tactics. Sometimes these things just happen because certain patterns develop and the players get a feel for the game. There is also a risk that no goals will come in the second half and points will be dropped. But thus far the Gunners have executed this fairly well.

The only source of concern from this game was the couple of occasions when Koscielny and Mertesacker were separated by five yards or so vertically. It can play opponents onside and can lead to a genuine chance. They will have to be on the same latitude in the big games that are coming up.

Time to prove themselves all over again

A lot of people still doubt whether the Gunners can go all the way. To be completely honest, I too am not entirely convinced they can. I think the position at the end of March will be telling.

You might recall a table I’d made before the Southampton game that showed the results and points from last season’s fixtures corresponding to those that remain this season. This is the updated version,

Arsenal last 16 games

The results against Southampton and Palace went as expected. The Gunners are still only one point ahead of last season when comparing corresponding fixtures. In order to hit 87 points – the average of last 10 winners, although there is a possibility that this season the eventual winner might get less – Arsenal need to gain 13 points over and above the 19 they got last season from these 14 games. That’s almost one point per game more and assumes a win at Anfield. Any points dropped against Liverpool will only make it that much harder in the remaining games.

You can argue 10 points can be gained from fixtures against Sunderland, Stoke, Swansea, and Norwich. Even then the team will need to win all the games it won last season and get more points from other big games, which have been a relative weakness throughout the otherwise impressive 2013 calendar year.

Consistency is the key word. And a truly remarkable level will be demanded of the winner.

Liverpool – A must win game and the first question mark?!

Arsenal have not done the double on Liverpool since 2009-10. And before that it was the invincibles season. That should give you an idea of how tough this game is going to be for the Gunners.

Don’t let Arsenal’s dominance in the reverse fixture mislead you. Rodgers made a tactical mistake in the previous fixture and the Reds have not done particularly well in away games this season, but their home form is impressive. In fact, their current home form is the best in the League and includes a commendable 4-0 win in the Merseyside derby.

In terms of the very basics, I expect the hosts will have one less defender in lieu of an extra midfielder. This should give them a greater chance to compete technically, a battle they lost comprehensively in the reverse fixture.

In Rodgers’ boots, I’d set the team up to press Arsenal collectively and energetically in the central third of the pitch as the Gunners try to play the ball out from the back. Forcing quick transitions would be the best way to utilize the qualities of Suarez and Sturridge. Getting the first goal will also set the team up to play a very effective and efficient counter-attacking game with accurate long passes to meet clever runs that exploit the space that will present itself once Arsenal’s risk-reward equation changes.

Wenger’s side dominated the previous fixture because they brought the ball forward at will and exploited spaces in the wide areas. They won’t get as many openings in this game so they will have to play the possession game as a form of defence for long periods of the game. Or they can drop deeper and invite Liverpool forward. Arsenal have done that with appreciable results quite often this season but I’m pretty certain it’s not an approach Wenger would deliberately choose. It’ll be a sign of players being cautious and playing with a handbrake.

Arsenal are one of the few teams – maybe the only team? – that have kept a clean sheet against the SaS attack. It was a commendable display but, as discussed in the analysis after the game, it wasn’t without an element of luck. I think Szczesny will be busy in this game and will pick up the ball from his net on more than one occasion. That said, the Arsenal defence has pleasantly surprised me before this season and I can understand why others would place greater faith in them.

Defending, as events throughout the season have reaffirmed, is a team act. It’ll be interesting to see how the Arteta-Wilshere pair provides cover to the central defenders. You don’t want to see defenders isolated in a n-v-n situation against this attack.

The space behind the full-backs will also be an area to watch out for because Mertesacker doesn’t like to get pulled wide while the Gunners have a tendency to concede more chances from wide on their left. I’ve read that Rodgers could start with Sturridge on their left flank and Sterling on the right. I’d put Sturridge on the right and give him the freedom to cut inside. Putting Coutinho on the left is also something I’d consider as it could give the team greater balance to counter Arsenal’s strengths.

Wenger won’t tinker much. And he has few choices in terms of personnel.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Wilshere – AOC, Giroud, Cazorla.

Podolski didn’t give the manager enough reason to keep him in the starting line up. You can argue that he needs a run of games but I’m not sure this is a fixture where you want to fiddle with Santi’s role.

That said, Podolski did have a decisive impact in this game last season. It’s a tough call that Wenger has to make and will probably get criticized for it either way if the result doesn’t work out.

Monreal has struggled in one-v-one situations as he gets into incorrect body positions and is slow to turn/recover. Hopefully, Gibbs will be fit and raring to go. In either case, Arsenal could need greater cover on the left flank, particularly if Sturridge starts there.

That brings me to Rosicky who did exactly that against Palace. And his contribution is not limited to defensive positioning and work rate . Little Mozart can work either flank if Wenger wants greater technical quality on the pitch to resist Liverpool’s pressing. Chamberlain has greater pace and more pronounced dribbling skills but Rosicky is more experienced and will improve the team’s technical game. Another difficult decision that.

I feel both teams have the potential to concede and score goals. The one that can minimize the mistakes and shape the patterns of play to suit it’s tactical strengths will have a greater probability of winning. But this game can easily boil down to moments – freakish, magical, or those full of madness.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Liverpool: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

November 4, 2013

Okay, from now on I’m limiting all predictions to ‘a draw or worse’ as far as big games are concerned. On a more serious note, I accept the comment which says it’s not good to say something like that when many fans visiting a blog want to believe. Not that I’m going to change my opinions, but there certainly are better ways to articulate a point, or three. That the article was written after a whole day of driving to attend a funeral (someone in the extended family, not very close to me personally) cannot be an excuse.

Anyway, let’s start the discussion on the game that was a very good performance from the Gunners resulting in an important win that goes some way in countering the questions raised by defeats against Dortmund and Chelsea. Nevertheless, as I’ve mentioned often, such wins have to be way more common than defeats or draws if the Gunners have to sustain serious title hopes over the course of the season.

At the moment, that is not the case – partly because the side hasn’t played that many big games, and the next few games will tell us more – so we can’t really read too much into a win of this nature, however enjoyable it is from a personal point of view as a fan.

Most analyses  and opinions that I’ve read after the match have done the typical spin-most-things-in-favour-of-winners routine. To me, this was a game which showed why Arsenal consistently finish in the top four despite challenges from various clubs and even when many people write them off, but it was also one which showed why the Gunners haven’t really won anything.

In many ways, Wenger’s side had actually played better in the game they’d lost against Dortmund than they did in this one. That doesn’t mean Arsenal were poor in this game – remember, this isn’t an either-or state where a team is either very good or very bad – but they were certainly a tad lucky at times.

Against Dortmund, for instance, the Gunners were punished on both occasions when they were sloppy. In this game, they got away with six instances for one reason or another. Henderson’s run in the first half, Atkinson stopping a quick restart, the two lapses in concentration by Szczesny and Mertesacker towards the end, Suarez’s run in the 49th minute, and the Suarez shot that grazed the upright.

In the recent past, Arsenal’s ability to minimize quality chances for opponents has been impressive but that was not the case in this game. In fairness, given the individual qualities of Suarez and Sturridge, this was always going to be one of the tougher tests in that regard.

The patterns of play varied as the game went on. There were four long balls in the opening minute as both sides pressed up the pitch and neither got control of possession. Liverpool settled in quicker as the Gunners were perhaps a bit tentative. But the interesting part was that the visitors dropped back into their own half very early in the game, probably in the first five minutes or so.

Instead of pressing on the centre line or inside the Arsenal half, Rodgers’ side were trying to remain compact a good 10 yards or so inside their own half. This was a major tactical win for the Gunners, founded on their obvious technical superiority, and it meant transitions were always going to be that much less dangerous due to the time it would take to turn over.

Even when Henderson broke forward, if you look closely, it seems that the three defensive Arsenal players were keen on protecting a passing opportunity towards Suarez or Sturridge instead of stopping the midfielder’s run from so far out. Mertesacker stayed wide with the Uruguayan while Koscielny stayed towards the Englishman. There was a big gap between the two central defenders but even then Arteta, too, was positioned in the passing channel towards Sturridge.

This worked well for the Gunners in that instance as Sagna had the time to chase back and force a rushed shot. But a better player advancing forward would have caused serious trouble. In fact, one could even argue that the lack of quality behind Suarez and Sturridge was consistently exposed by Arsenal and highlighted technical weaknesses within Liverpool ranks that affected their attacking options and ability to control the ball. This worked in Arsenal’s favour throughout the game.

Liverpool’s formation was part of their problem as it was not suited to pressing higher up the pitch because the wing-backs could not come inside to track Arsenal’s wide players constantly going narrow and swapping positions with other midfielders. The Gunners scored when they bypassed an ineffective pressing attempt. When Arteta received the ball there were five Liverpool players pretty high up inside the Arsenal half. But their pressing lacked cohesion and the Spaniard was able to advance down the pitch with relative ease. Sagna, too, was able to break forward into space while Cazorla came into the box unmarked.

There was an element of luck in this goal for the Gunners as the ball could have deflected anywhere from the upright but it came into Cazorla’s path. Then again, it can be argued that Arsenal made their own luck by exploiting space with appreciable coordination and precision.

Arsenal’s midfield dominance was also seen in the numerous combination plays that led to shots on target or near misses with the final ball lacking quality. Their wing-backs stayed so wide they were hardly useful while Lucas and Gerrard had a hard time in front of the flat back three. This is where Rodgers’ reluctance to play Agger is very surprising as he is someone who can step up to make a difference but that’s only a minor side note in this analysis.

The visitors improved in the second half with the introduction of Coutinho for Cissokho as they got one more body in the midfield and their defence was spread out more efficiently. The Brazilian was erratic but his passing did get more out of the attackers, particularly Suarez.

It’s not a surprise most of Liverpool’s quality moments came in the second half and they looked a much better team in that period.

Even then the Gunners had their own spells on counter-attacks – Giroud could have done better on a couple of occasions – and continued working impressive combinations involving three or more players. If anything, I was a little disappointed Arsenal didn’t have more efficiency in their attack as they could have scored four!

Ramsey’s goal was a bit special and reflective of his current form. The way he waited for the ball to drop perfectly instead of snatching at the opportunity was a sign of confidence and composure. Liverpool’s inability to close him down despite the waiting period betrayed their structural and individual weaknesses.

Ultimately, the game ended 2-0 but it could easily have been a 2-2 draw or a 4-2 for the Gunners depending on either team’s efficiency.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Didn’t have too many saves to make – somewhat fortunately – but did well to go wide and snuff out the angle on a couple of occasions. Again lacked judgment when coming for a couple of crosses and almost handed the ball on a plate to Sturridge. Can he do better with his long kicks?

Sagna: Excellent run and cross for the goal (It was probably the only cross the Gunners were successful with). Good recovery pace and did well to force Henderson’s error, but one might argue he could have sensed the danger a little sooner. Didn’t see as much of the ball as he usually does but was quite judicious in possession. Same can be said about his positioning and choices.

Mertesacker: Often got into very good positions in the box to cut out danger. I liked the way he stayed with Suarez when Henderson was charging forward. Provided stability and calmness at the back. Lucky that his late giveaway wasn’t punished and that remains the only blemish in an otherwise impressive performance.

Koscielny: A lot more aggressive and busier than his partner. It was interesting to see him get tight to the strikers a lot more often and was largely successful in denying them space. But there were two or three occasions when the strikers got the better off him – Sturridge left him on his backside in the first half, Suarez produced an audacious moment to run in behind in the 49th min – and that could have been costly on another day. Passing was very limited but completely reliable.

Gibbs: Probably did enough to deflect that Suarez shot onto the post. Also well positioned when Henderson shot over the bar. Strong defensive game, although did benefit from having a weak opponent in Flanagan. Chose his attacking moments wisely but he can do better with the final ball or choice in a crowded space.

The defenders had a good game and covered well for each other. The full-backs were cautious with their positioning and rarely left the central defenders on their own, which was important against such quality attackers. For instance, when Sturridge went past Koscielny, Gibbs was there to put pressure on him. They did so without compromising attacking intent, which led to a well-balanced performance that gave Arsenal a tactical edge. The central defenders, for their part, were mostly very good at closing the attackers down. Mertesacker might not have made many tackles, but his positioning often broke opportunities down.

Despite that, the five percent or so time when they had a drop could have resulted in a couple of goals for Liverpool and that is something they have to tighten up on, particularly in big games. The truly big teams do not give opponents a sniff.

Arteta: Saw a lot of the ball and was again exceptional on and off it. Easily the MotM in my opinion. Superb defensive support and showed why Wenger calls him the technical leader in a side blessed with such gifted individuals in midfield. Very good at choosing the direction and timing of his passes as well as movement. Provided the foundation for the players in front to shine on.

Özil: Really enjoying his work rate and ability to blend in as just another very good midfielder instead of a prima donna through whom everything must flow. Also love the way he just waits and shift the ball slightly or alters his body position to thread the proverbial eye of the needle. That ability helped with the assist for the Ramsey goal. Had a couple of decent chances to score and shooting remains one of the major areas of improvement. There are moments when he doesn’t seem happy and I cannot quite understand if it’s limited to a mistake by someone or something deeper.

Ramsey: Outstanding goal. Top level work rate. Many very good touches in the attacking areas as he linked beautifully with other more highly rated technicians. But in those areas you could also see room for improving his efficiency, which could make him a seriously scary prospect for opponents.

Cazorla: Very well taken goal, particularly like the way he maintained his concentration after the header and placed the shot intelligently to avoid Skrtel and Mignolet. Created a very good chance for Giroud and work rate was pretty good including some useful defensive moments.

Rosicky: His combinations with others were a delight to watch. Started early with the first shot on target and was involved with many attacking moves. Filled into central roles seamlessly when others moved around the pitch.

All five midfielders played more passes than any of Arsenal’s defenders. That doesn’t happen very often. But in this game it showed two things – the defenders were cautious and focussed on their job of keeping quality attackers quiet, and the midfield took responsibility to establish Arsenal’s dominance through technical superiority. The intelligence with which they interchanged positions without leaving any area truly exposed from a defensive point of view is worth appreciating.

Arsenal will trouble most teams if they can consistently produce attacking moves that involve four or five players. But Liverpool’s lopsided shape was also responsible for the space available to the Gunners so we have to see whether they can retain such offensive quality and defensive balance against even stronger opponents.

Giroud: At this rate he will end the season as the most useful all-round striker in the big European leagues. Not the best goalscorer – again showed he can improve on that front – or the most prolific creator per se, but someone who gets involved at various stages and constantly helps the team function better as a unit. Useful presence in the box when defending set-pieces as well.

Subs: Monreal was reliable in possession and combined well in attacking areas, Vermaelen and Jenkinson had limited time on the pitch.

Wenger: It was good to see more caution from the full-backs. Good defensive layering. The central defenders were also constantly aware of the threat posed by the opposing strikers and focussed their efforts on minimizing those. I don’t know how much of this was a result of conscious decisions taken by the manager and his staff and what part was simply the players knowing what to do. Some of the pressure is eased with that win but it is by no means enough. Bigger tests await and, as he said, the team cannot afford to take a little breather.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Liverpool

November 2, 2013

Liverpool’s 3-5-2 (or 3-4-1-2 if you prefer fancy formation labels) has been quite successful and it will be interesting to see if Rodgers deploys the same system against the Gunners. The strength of their approach lies in two factors – Suarez and Sturridge have been excellent in attack, and the three at the back give them additional defensive security which they’ve used intelligently after taking leads as they absorb pressure and use the space well through their attacking stars.

Wenger’s side will face a massive challenge in stopping the SAS partnership because they’re both extremely mobile and tricky. Mertesacker’s lack of pace will inevitably force the Gunners deeper. It could easily end up sucking the full-backs and defensive midfielders back and Arsenal could have a tough time breaking out of their own half, particularly in the early part of the game if the visitors show urgency with their pressing. Rodgers could use Henderson in place of Moses to help with this.

Liverpool will not be able to sustain high pressing for 90 minutes so their best bet would be to force early mistakes and get a goal or two. This is something they did last season as they took a two goal lead. I’m not convinced this season Arsenal will be able to get back into the game if they go down by a couple of goals. As with every big game, the first goal will have an immense impact on the way the game shapes up.

Arteta is going to have a busy outing. He is the point man for the Gunners if their passing and possession game has to click because he is the only one who can consistently receive the ball from the defenders even under pressure. The Spaniard’s off-the-ball positioning will also be very important when the visitors press high up the pitch or break forward at pace. Flamini will be missed. Hopefully, Ramsey’s energy will make up for his forward-going tendencies. The midfielders will also have to watch out for their cut-backs from the wide areas that often come back and across.

Suarez will move into the channels, particularly down the left, and Liverpool are very good at working one-twos in such areas. So, Sagna too is going to have to be careful with his runs. Bombing forward and standing right next to the attacking midfielders is not a clever approach and could prove costly in this game. He might be better off staying deeper and leaving the right flank for Ozil or Ramsey to overlap.

Liverpool’s back three can be flat at times and that means Arsenal could get overloads in central midfield if the wide players pick and choose their movement wisely. This could allow the team an opportunity to break away from the initial pressing and run at the visiting defence.

We’ll have to see if Liverpool are brave and hold a high line or if they drop back to the edge of their own area. When they drop back their three in defence quicky becomes a five with another layer in front that has a couple of midfielders (Gerrard and Lucas probably) and another of the attacking players chasing back. I expect them to compress the play up the pitch in the first 15-20 minutes, at least.

Wenger doesn’t have too many options to pick from as far as his starting eleven is concerned.

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Ramsey, Ozil, Arteta – Wilshere, Giroud, Cazorla.

In the Frenchman’s position, I’d be tempted to include Rosicky ahead of Wilshere on the right, but I doubt Wenger will go for that unless the youngster is bothered by his injuries.

It’s a shame none of Arsenal’s quick players are available because they would certainly have pushed Liverpool back or troubled their high pressing.

This is the first game this season where the Gunners had dropped point in the corresponding fixture last season. They’d won all the nine played thus far if we compare Crystal Palace with Reading (or any of the other relegated sides). In that sense, Arsenal are -5 when it comes to points from corresponding fixtures and they’ll have to make up the numbers from the games they didn’t win in 2012-13. Will this be the first of those?

Wenger again pointed out that Arsenal didn’t play particularly badly against Chelsea or Dortmund but lost because they gave soft goals away. I agree with that, but the sheer frequency of gifting goals and points has made it very hard to believe these errors will be cut out any time soon. And because of that, I think a draw will be Arsenal’s best hope from this game even though they have the quality to win it.

Arsenal 2 – 2 Liverpool: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

January 31, 2013

It was such a good game for the most part. There was good possession, fluidity, number of chances created, and a couple of very enjoyable goals. And then there were the moments of madness. Predictable, infuriating, expensive.

Arsene started with a fairly well-balanced line-up. As was discussed in the preview, there were some calls that were always going to be tough to make. He went with Mertesacker in defence and Giroud up front. In the middle, Wenger left Diaby on the bench with Ramsey kept his place in the least-attacking midfielder role.

The opening patterns of play stuck to the script. Liverpool put pressure on the Gunners and tried stopping the build-up in the Arsenal half. They succeeded in preventing Wenger’s side from establishing any sort of a rhythm.

Soon enough, we had a comedy of errors – or is it tragedy – at the back.

Agger is able to bring the ball well into the Arsenal half without any pressure. Then Suarez fluffs his attempted pass, which in turn wrong-foots Sagna. Johnson’s advanced position is not tracked by Walcott. The full-backs cross goes past Mertesacker before Vermaelen produces a stunning air-kick while attempting a tougher clearance with his weaker foot instead of simply attacking the ball with the outside of his left foot. Sturridge can only hit Szczesny, who does well to make himself big. Ramsey attempts an ill-advised back heel or something of that sort when he could have tapped it back towards Mertesacker or Sagna. Henderson recovers possession and Suarez scores via a deflection – a shot that was otherwise probably headed straight towards Szczesny.

It’s another one of those freaky goals, the kind that Arsenal specialize in. Vermaelen’s was the primary error but there were a number of people who could have done better to defend the goal.

It was a fairly open game after that but Liverpool retreated into their own half as the game progressed. Walcott could have levelled it in the very next minute but he couldn’t beat Reina from close range. Sturridge had a half-chance a little later from a good counter-attack but couldn’t hit the target.

Arsenal then had 10-15 minute spell of possession that resulted in some promising moments. Vermaelen, in particular, missed a very good chance when Cazorla found him in the box following a set-piece situation. It seemed to me the Belgian wasn’t expecting that pass because of Cazorla’s tendency to shoot from such positions, and it took him a moment to realize what an opening he had. And in that moment the defenders got the time to close him down. It could also be that the Spaniard was too clever for everyone. Walcott forced a good save after Vermaelen’s effort was blocked.

In general, Arsenal were able to create some pressure and chances from their set-pieces.

A terrible pass from Mertesacker broke this spell and led to a corner for Liverpool. Szczesny came for it and was woefully short. Podolski cleared Agger’s header on the line.

Rest of the first-half followed similar patterns. You could see Liverpool were not able to compete with Arsenal in midfield and they did not want to spend all their energy in pressing higher up the pitch. They conceded possession and territory, often having 9 men back in the defensive third. Even Suarez was working hard tracking Sagna deep into his own half. But it was also evident that these tactics didn’t suit the Reds. Arsenal had enough chances and more were sure to come. There were goals in it for the Gunners. Only thing was, every time Liverpool got a chance to build some sort of an attack, the hosts looked vulnerable at the back.

The second-half was virtually a repeat of the first. Liverpool started brightly and had a couple of chances that were not taken. Then they dropped back and the Gunners had a few opportunities of their own.

The second goal was just as bad as the first. Vermaelen was pulled up the pitch by Sturridge and then given the run-around. Henderson got in between Mertesacker and Santos who both got into terrible positions, made wrong choics, and couldn’t show any strength or determination in the duels. Ramsey’s effort to block the shot was commendable but ultimately fatal. Without his intervention, it’s quite possible that Szczesny would have saved the initial shot. After the block, a deflection off Santos took everyone out of the game and opened the goal for Henderson. Again a freaky sort of goal, so typical of Arsenal.

This time the swift response registered on the board. The first goal was simple enough. Nicely floated free-kick was guided home by a well-positioned striker. The build-up of the second was a bit more intricate. Cazorla’s pass in to Giroud, the striker’s soft touch, and Walcott’s blistering finish were all perfect.

The patterns kept repeating. Arsenal had more chances to win the game but Reina wasn’t troubled as much. Giroud missed a great chance for the Gunners in the 87th minute. Suarez almost won it for the visitors in injury time.

Draw seemed a fair result on the balance of play. Both teams can take some positives but a lot of work needs to be done if they even want to stay in this scrap for fourth. Results elsewhere were helpful as only one team between positions 2 and 7 won it’s game.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Good save from Sturridge early on and then from Suarez at the death. Almost conceded a goal while overplaying in the six yard box and that flap from the corner was poor. And when I see Arsenal defending as they are, it’s really hard to give any credence to all the inspires confidence and organizes the defence stories.

Sagna: Unfortunate slip in the build up to the first goal, had a number of strong duels on his flank, wasn’t able to contribute much to the attack, but did a relatively decent job of defending given that he was up against a wily customer like Suarez.

Mertesacker: One of his worst games in an Arsenal shirt. Should have read the danger the moment Sagna slipped and dropped back quickly thus cutting the angle for Johnson, but he was a tad slow to react. Terrible pass led to a corner and a shot on target. Simply awful for the second goal.

Vermaelen: Incredible blooper for the first goal, struggled against the movement of Sturridge all through the game. Missed a great chance in the Liverpool box. Another one who’s had better days.

Gibbs: Liverpool didn’t really try to attack his flank while he was on the pitch. Was a useful presence in the attacking areas. Unfortunate injury but not surprising.

Santos: Was a liability and it was noticeable that Henderson often moved towards his side and the visitors were able to double up on him. Another one who simply has to do better. But can he?

For close to three years now I’ve talked about the importance of collective defending and the need for a good defensive shape. But this season the back four have been very poor. The mistakes we’ve seen in this game are amateurish. It wasn’t amateur hour for duration of the game or Liverpool would have scored half a dozen goal but there were just too many disturbing moments.

Ramsey: Probably his best game in this new role, which is saying something. Very energetic and determined performance. Made the wrong choice for the first goal and was unfortunate for the second but the effort cannot be faulted. Also played his part in some attacking moments.

Cazorla: Good pre-assist for the second goal, created an excellent chance for Vermaelen and some others, was influential in the attacking third of the pitch.

Wilshere: Another strong driving performance. Took players on and won a number of fouls. Good delivery for the assists, created a good chance for Walcott, and put in a decent defensive shift as well.

The midfielders dominated the ball and were largely responsible for Arsenal’s possession and territorial control, which in turn made creating chances easier.

Walcott: Sensational goal, had a couple of other excellent attempts, could have done better in the 6th minute and then with the header in the 54th minute. A small proportion of blame can be put on his shoulders for not tracking Johnson’s run for the first goal and he lost the ball in the build-up to Liverpool’s second. Did have a couple of impressive runs down the right but crosses didn’t find their target. He is developing into a potent attacking weapon but will need more efficiency if the team has to live with some technical weaknesses and lack of defensive work. Alternatively, he can improve his defensive contribution. You just have to see how hard Suarez worked to see the room for improvement.

Giroud: Took his goal well and also had a good assist. His touch, in general, was better as he linked meaningfully with other attackers. Could he have maybe converted one of his other chances, particularly the one in the 87th minute? His physical qualities were useful all over the pitch.

Podolski: Created an excellent chance for Walcott and one for Giroud. Had a couple of powerful shots that just missed the target. Had a good offensive game and cleared a ball off the line but he could probably have done better to support Santos.

The attackers had a good game but it wasn’t good enough. Neither Podolski nor Walcott is primarily to blame for the defensive shambles but they can both improve their defensive contributions.

Wenger: There are just so many niggling issues and the diverse qualities of various opponents seem to bring out different ones in successive games. But he has to find a way to cut out basic individual errors in defence before dealing with the other problems.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Liverpool

January 30, 2013

This is arguably a tussle between the League’s two most unpredictable and inconsistent teams this season. Many scenarios are imaginable. It’ll depend on which Arsenal and which Liverpool shows up.

Many have talked about the Jekyll & Hyde nature of Arsenal’s performances. The Reds are not very different. The following table captures their record against teams in the top half and bottom half of the table (before Tuesday’s games were played).

Liverpool Jekyll and Hyde

Those numbers suggest the Gunners should have an edge in this fixture. But you could also say that the law of averages is going to catch up and Rodgers’ side are going to break their duck against the top half teams sooner rather than later after going 11 games without a win.

Given the way the teams have changed since the reverse fixture in September, it’s highly likely that the patterns of play in this game will be very different. Back then the Gunners were working hard on their defensive shape and it seemed that focusing on defending was the priority. The attack had suffered but they managed to score two good goals to win the game. Liverpool had had a tough start to the campaign and Brendan Rodgers’ ideas were still new to the players.

In this game, Arsenal could suffer from the tactical confusion that has been visible over the last few weeks. The team no longer focuses on defending as it did early in the season as the players search for greater attacking potency. But this had brought greater vulnerability at the back and the Gunners are often tentative at the start of games.

Liverpool like to press energetically in the early part of the game. If Arsenal are not on top of their game they could again find themselves a goal or two down. Defending deep without the right shape and focus against tricky attackers like Suarez and Sturridge will be risky. It’s imperative the defenders are not left one-v-one with the attackers and that their movement into pockets of space is tracked diligently.

Ideally, picking Vermaelen and Koscielny and playing a high line with proactive defending would be the approach to take. But I’m not sure Koscielny has the right form at the moment. The inclusion of Mertesacker will make a high line very difficult but the German’s relatively slower movement will be a handicap against strikers who can turn him or skip past him with quick feet and close control. It’s the kind of decision that can look very wise or rather dumb with the benefit of hindsight.

A clean sheet for the Gunners in this game will be a pleasant surprise. Szczesny will probably be busier than he’s been in most games.

Arsenal are likely to need more than one goal to win this game. Liverpool have not kept a clean sheet in a game against teams above them in the table but they do have 5 clean sheets in their last 9 games.

The visitors could be susceptible if the Gunners can get a chance to run at their back line, particularly the central defenders. Walcott’s pace could be Arsene’s biggest weapon and because of that the Frenchman will have to find a way to keep the winger higher up the pitch with fewer defensive responsibilities.

Set-pieces could be another area of vulnerability but Arsenal have been notoriously inconsistent with those.

Wenger also has a big call to make with his starting eleven. Does he go with four midfielders – one of them on the flank – or does he pick Walcott, Giroud, and Podolski as the attacking trio.

Theo and Giroud will give Arsenal more of a goal threat but it will be redundant if the Gunners can’t bring the ball forward effectively. Both these players have some technical deficiencies that can lead to persistent loss of possession, particularly in a tight game played at a high tempo. It’s another tough call.

I’d go with Cazorla on the right in the first half as Arsenal have been weaker in that period.  The extra midfielder could help the defence and the possession game. Giroud could come on for the last half an hour or so if the team is chasing the game or just to vary the approach.

That said, it’s worth noting that Liverpool are the League’s fourth best team when only second half performances are considered. It won’t be wise to expect a repeat of the West Ham massacre.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Ramsey, Wilshere, Diaby – Cazorla, Walcott, Podolski.

I have a feeling we’ll see Mertesacker and Giroud in the starting line-up and, to be frank, I don’t have a compelling argument against their inclusion. This is the kind of situation where it’s hard to say what the right decision is until we can see the result of the choices made.

As with any game, individual errors or moments of brilliance can always make a difference. But to me the bigger concern is that Arsenal could collectively switch off or we get to see the dreaded handbrake again. ‘Sharpness’ should not be a problem as the squad has had one extra day to recover but with the Gunners you never know.

As mentioned earlier, many results are conceivable, but I don’t have a good feeling about this game given the defensive weaknesses visible in the recent games. Massive improvements will be needed if Arsenal have to stay in touch with the top four. A draw won’t be a good result for either team.

Tactical Observations From Podolski’s Goal Against Liverpool

September 12, 2012

The sequence of events in the build-up to and culminating in Lukas Podolski’s first Arsenal goal provides some interesting talking points.

It starts with a Pepe Reina goal-kick.

This frame has been frozen just after Sahin kicked the ball back to Reina following a quick short goal-kick from the Spaniard that found the German on the edge of the box.

Let’s look at the positioning of the players closely. Skrtel (top left) and Agger (not visible, outside the right edge of the image) have moved wide and Sahin has dropped deep. Giroud (bottom right) and Podolski (not visible, out on the left of the image) are in good positions to block passes to the Liverpool centre-backs. Cazorla is getting close to Sahin. Joe Allen can be seen in the bottom left part of the image.

Rodgers wants his team to focus on retaining possession and Liverpool are in a classic shape for a team that wants to play the ball out from the back. They’ve spread out and are trying to make the pitch as big as possible. We’ll talk more about this as we move into other snapshots that highlight the positions of other players. In this context, it’s worth noting that Reina completed 21 of his 24 passes in this game as against 7/16 for Mannone.

Somewhat surprisingly, Arsenal can be seen pressing really high up the pitch. This was atypical of their approach during this game where they sat back for large parts as Zonal Marking astutely noted. As has been typical in recent months though, the Gunners were, and this was crucial to the goal, not cohesive with their pressing. In other words, there was no one following up on the high press of the three attackers.

In the snapshot above we see Joe Allen receiving the ball somewhere in the centre of the picture, i.e. just outside his penalty box.

Podolski can be seen towards the top in a position where he could close Skrtel down. Cazorla had moved forward as he followed the ball from Sahin to Reina, which is a natural run when pressing, and can now be seen around the penalty spot in the Liverpool box.

The problem for Arsenal was that they did not have anyone pressing Allen. Arteta is seen on the left of the image as he was rushing forward at speed to close the Welshman down but that was merely a reactive measure. The Gunners didn’t apply a full-court press, so to speak, and this negated any advantage that could have been gained from having three players pressurizing defenders on the edge of the opposition penalty box.

The team that does not have the ball should ideally be trying to make the pitch as small as possible but, through their incoherent pressing, Wenger’s team actually offered the hosts an opening that they could have exploited by clever use of the space behind the players pressing. As the Gunners had three players deep inside Liverpool territory, the back four should have pushed up to the centre line and squeezed play in the opposition half with the help of the midfielders. But Vermaelen and Co. stayed deeper with Diaby and Arteta stranded.

Allen had enough time to control Reina’s pass, turn, and then find Johnson who was stretching the playing area of the pitch by hugging the touchline. Huge space opens up in front of Arsenal’s back four as the first line of defence is easily bypassed.

At this point, Diaby can be seen wide on the left trying to close Johnson down. Arteta and Podolski are sprinting back to help the vulnerable defence. Gerrard sees the space and darts forward. Oxlade-Chamberlain is also inside the Liverpool half virtually parallel to Gerrard but further towards the right of the pitch (his head can be seen towards the bottom of the image).

In short Arsenal had five players in Liverpool’s half. The gaps between the lines were huge. It could have developed into a 5-v-5 in the Arsenal half. With intelligent movement and passing the hosts really could have made the Gunners pay.

But things start going wrong for the Reds.

As Johnson moves forward with the ball, Gerrard and Suarez get into the same space. Suarez has vacated the space in front of Arsenal’s central defenders. If he’d stayed there, the Uruguayan international would have had a great chance of running in behind or linking with his captain. Gerrard would also have had more space to manoeuvre the ball. Vermaelen and Mertesacker might have had a real problem here but the Liverpool duo compressed space for them through their inefficient movement.

Gerrard then tries a first time pass but his touch is poor. This technical mistake presents Vermaelen the opportunity to nick the ball and prevent a dangerous situation from becoming worse.

If we pause for a moment and give it a second thought we see that events thus far have been a collection of mistakes and poor choices by both sides rather than great football, although Liverpool’s tactical approach worked early on in the move. The Premier League generally has faster and more end-to-end style of play but some people feel the Italian and Spanish league’s have better technical and tactical qualities. The above seems a good example of the same.

In a recent interview with El Pais (in Spanish) Cazorla said,

Arteta has advised me a lot, he told me football is much faster and less tactical than Spain. It’s more give-and-go.

Backwards Gooner penned (typed?!) a couple of excellent pieces analyzing Barcelona’s brilliance. One of his observations was that the Catalans (also applicable to the Spanish national team) rarely rushed forward in attack. Barcelona always, virtually instinctively, try to ensure they don’t lose their shape and are thus able to compress or expand the pitch at will. Of course, they’ve mastered the possession based game and their players show a high level of tactical maturity as they adhere to the system even at the risk of missing some opportunities. This does make them look slow, dare I say boring, at times and allows the opponents to get men behind the ball, but it also helps them keep their goal well protected.

Liverpool want to play a possession based style and their effort is clearly visible but the principles aren’t fully engrained in the thought processes of their players. In this case they were too direct and rushed forward. This did not allow their defence enough time to push up and close gaps. A technical mistake, that is often harmless in that part of the pitch, proved fatal.

The Gunners, on the other hand, showed better decision making, awareness, desire, and technical execution. It started with Vermaelen’s quick but precise interception-cum-pass that found Podolski in space.

As the events took place at such speed – roughly seven seconds passed between Allen passing the ball to Johnson and Vermaelen making the interception – the Reds didn’t have any time to close their opponents down.

This was another vital detail as Podolski was able to receive the ball in space. He also had the time to turn and weigh his options.

Giroud and Cazorla didn’t chase back and this left them in a 2-v-2 against the Liverpool centre-backs. In the aforementioned interview, the Spaniard also said Wenger has given his greater freedom on the pitch as a second striker,

Moreover, the boss has put me in a position, second striker, with all the freedom I want to have.

Allen and Sahin had pushed up but they got caught in a no man’s land on this quick transition. Jose Enrique was wide on the left, outside this image, providing width on the other flank. Jenkinson, the other player not visible in this snapshot, was keeping him company.

There are a few points worth noting here. Podolski didn’t have a straight pass towards Cazorla as Allen was blocking it. He couldn’t simply play it down the line either as Skrtel would have mopped up. Cazorla read this situation and moved back and across to create an angle for the German who was on the same page and executed the pass perfectly.

Another crucial detail was the run from Giroud who shaped to get in behind Agger. This pulled the Danish defender back. If the Frenchman had been drawn towards the ball, as Suarez had done moments earlier, he might have gotten in the way of Cazorla thereby allowing Agger the opportunity to get a foot in to disrupt the move.

As things turned out Giroud dragged the defender with him, which allowed Cazorla space and time on the ball.

After that it seemed easy but the assist provider and scorer still had to get the pass and finish right. An over hit ball from the Spaniard or a hasty attempt from the German would have led to a wasted chance. But both these players demonstrated their physical and technical qualities in shrugging off the attentions of the defenders to create the major breakthrough.

Giroud again contributed with another off-the-ball run that is well explained by Arsenal Column in this article.

Often, we tend to think that a team scoring the goal did everything right but in this instance it’s clear the opportunity resulted from Arsenal’s incoherent pressing. On another day the Gunners might have paid the price for the gaps in their defence. Football is a game of percentages and Wenger won’t want his players spread out over the pitch when out of possession as the odds of conceding are higher than those of scoring such goals on the break.

For their part, the hosts started with the right approach. They were looking to stretch the pitch and it appeared to have worked for them when Johnson received the ball. But the Reds reverted to the direct form of football and made a decisive mistake on the ball when the shape was awry. Brendan Rodgers would certainly want a better technical and tactical effort from his players. He probably doesn’t want to (or can’t) emulate Barcelona completely but a better balance between the quick attacking style and the more patient approach is needed.

At the other end, Podolski revelled in a counter-attacking scenario that he’s seen so often with the German national side. Along with Cazorla, the striker made it look easy but their decision making and execution was only possible due to years of training. Both these players, and Giroud, knew how to think and act in this situation. It’s something that cannot be taught easily. And in such moments we can see the kind of value that Arsene Wenger has purchased for a relative pittance.

In the upcoming weeks, don’t be surprised if Liverpool find their defence exposed while the players try to find the balance between the direct style and the possession game. Meanwhile, watch out for more Arsenal crackers on the break.

Thoughts On Tactis And Starting Eleven Against Liverpool

August 19, 2011

Arsenal have reached the midpoint of this pivotal opening month. The two games thus far have brought along gruelling performances and just about acceptable results, which in a way has been much better than what many predicted or secretly dreaded.

On Saturday, the Gunners will take on the Scousers in a fixture that should provide a real and reliable benchmark for both sides and an accurate initial assessment of their chances for the season. Arsenal are arguably the weakest they have been in years. Liverpool, on the other hand, are growing stronger with each training session as their new signings get a chance to gel together. They travel to the Emirates stadium with virtually a fully-fit squad and no suspensions.

By popular logic, Liverpool should win this game on a canter. Given the cumulative problems at Arsenal – due to the transfer of a number of players including the talisman Fabregas, the uncertainty over Nasri’s future, injuries to Wilshere, Gibbs, and other squad players, and a couple of suspensions picked up through irresponsible and borderline stupid acts – there is every reason for fans to be worried.

In almost the exact opposite scenario, Liverpool have signed a number of players for relatively big money. That is supposed to make them appreciably stronger than last season when they snatched a draw in added time.

Why then should anyone expect the Gunners to get even a point out of this fixture?

Wenger’s knowledge of the game and the spirit, desire, and the efficacy with which the Gunners can implement the chosen tactics will stand in the way of the visitors. Time will tell if it be enough to prevent their first win at the Emirates and first in North London since 2001.

The biggest poser for Arsene is picking a balanced starting eleven from the available players. There just aren’t enough midfielders available.

Unless Nasri is picked, which is a big issue in itself given his fractious relationship with the fans, Arsenal will not have three recognized midfielders on the pitch. Arshavin or Van Persie are the two most likely candidates to fill in unless Wenger picks a youngster like Lansbury.

With injuries at the back, it would be hard to see a defender moving into a midfield role but that is another possibility that can be explored.

The way I see it, Van Persie, Walcott, Ramsey, Frimpong, Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny, and Szczesny are certain starters unless someone succumbs to a late injury before the game. That puts three positions up for grabs and interestingly, they are all on the left side – Left-Back, Left sided CM, and Left winger/attacker. One can argue that Frimpong can play on the left side of midfield and Ramsey can play on the right or in the attacking position. Since the midfield triangle is often quite flexible, the issue in midfield is not completely positional in nature.

Wenger has to pick three players so that the defence is not exposed on the left, the possession game can be sustained, and there is a balance between attack and defence. All these issues are intricately related.

I have a feeling Arsene will go with Jenkinson at left back as the youngster did reasonably well after coming on at a difficult time against Udinese. Le Boss will also pick Arshavin on the left of the attack while starting Chamakh up front and dropping Van Persie deeper in front of Frimpong and Ramsey.

Expected line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Jenkinson – Ramsey, RvP, Frimpong – Walcott, Chamakh, Arshavin.

Personally speaking, that line-up is not well balanced. But it’s my best guess for Wenger’s choices based on what I have seen in the past. The keyword there is guess.

In my opinion, that team will struggle to keep the ball and the left flank will be hard to defend. Jenkinson – Frimpong – Arshavin can work but it’s too big a risk. Placing Ramsey on the left is also a possibility but the Welshman has a more attacking mindset and will not track back as well as Frimpong might do.

Even if one doesn’t include Nasri into the starting line-up there are some possibilities that can work.

First option would be to play Vermalen at left-back and Squillaci in the centre. Don’t jump out of you chairs it’s just a thought. And Squillaci can do well if the team does not play a high line.

The second option, and one that I would prefer, is to move Vermaelen in to the left-sided midfield role. Again Squillaci would have to come in at centre-back. Van Persie would move into the central striking role with Ramsey behind him. Jenkinson will perform the left-back duties.

The reasoning behind this is that Arsenal will have Jenkinson – Koscielny – Vermaelen to defend the left half of the pitch while Sagna – Squillaci – Frimpong cover the right. Those trios aren’t ideal but look a lot more balanced than any other than can be created with the players available. In this system Van Persie would be expected to drop deep quite often and play as an extra midfielder. The attacking impetus would come from runs by Arshavin and Theo. Ramsey would cover the central midfield and spread the ball from deeper areas. Jenkinson would be under strict instructions to hold his position and not charge forward.

I don’t want to be too critical of Chamakh but his contribution in recent games hasn’t been substantial. Nasri and Bendtner are other options amongst experienced players but it’s hard to predict how the fans will react to either of them. Then we are left with A.O.C or Miyaichi, both extremely talented youngsters but is this really the right situation for them to make their competitive debuts for Arsenal?

Preferred line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Squillaci, Koscielny, Jenkinson – Frimpong, Ramsey, Vermaelen – Walcott , RvP, Arshavin.

I know some fans can’t stand the mention of Squillaci and others would not want to break the central defensive partnership that has done well in the last two games. The latter in particular is a fair point and one that might convince Wenger to leave Squillaci out. I am just not convinced any other combination will have the right balance from a tactical point of view.

That brings me to the tactical aspects of this game. Liverpool impressed in the first half against Sunderland but lost their way after the break as the game ended in a disappointing draw from their point of view.

I thought they were too defensive and lacked fitness and/or cohesion as the game went on. But that defensive approach could work really well against the Gunners, especially if Arsenal make the mistake of playing a high line in this game.

Carroll and Suarez will thrive on open spaces in the Arsenal half and Charlie Adam can cause all sorts of problems with his impeccable delivery from free-kicks.

Liverpool have conceded a number of goals in their pre-season games and have a young player at right-back who has, in fairness to him, done reasonably well. Nevertheless, one would expect Arshavin to trouble the youngster.

They also play with two strikers so Arsenal should be able to find more space in the middle if they can move the ball fast enough. In order to achieve that Wenger has to start players who are comfortable on the ball and with the patient short-passing game. Van Persie and Arshavin are players who look for the killer pass almost every time they get the ball. Neither of the duo is particularly likely to move all over the pitch on a consistent basis just to offer himself for a pass in order to keep possession.

This is clear from the passing stats. Players like Sagna, Wilshere, Nasri, Ramsey, Song, and the likes move the ball well and clock anywhere between 60 to 90 passes per game. Others like Arshavin, Van Persie, Walcott, and Gervinho are usually between 20 and 30 passes. It is a good indicator of their tendencies and positioning and will limit the possibilities as far as the tippy-tappy style goes. Given their adventurous approach, these players are also likely to have a poorer pass completion rate and will lose the ball more often.

The tactics of the team will have to be tailored to the players picked for the game. If Arsenal play Van Persie or Arshavin down the middle it will be hard to dominate possession and suicidal to play higher up the pitch.

The possibilities are endless but I don’t want to dwell on minor details any further. From a football fan’s perspective, the issues surrounding Arsenal have made this game a very intriguing tactical battle. I won’t be too concerned about the result but will be interested in the way Wenger sets his team up. With the changes in personnel this summer, there is every indication that the playing style will have to change. We might get a glimpse of the future in this game.