Thoughts On Community Shield, Vermaelen, and Captaincy

August 10, 2014

Earlier today I wanted to make sure my memory wasn’t playing games and the match tomorrow was indeed designated as a friendly. So I googled “Charity Shield designated friendly”. There wasn’t a really funny result or suggestion that I’ve to share here but I was surprised when many results came up for Community Shield instead. It just reminded me that almost a decade has passed since I took any serious interest in this game. So much so that the name change hadn’t even registered mentally.

And then it felt good. For though it is probably nothing more than a very serious friendly game, the fact that Arsenal are involved means something good happened last season. It also took me back to the early part of the Millennium when a casual foreign fan might’ve been forgiven for believing this was the customary Arsenal-V-United game played to mark the start of a new season.

How things have changed. And keep changing…

I’m really looking forward to this game, not as another “trophy” to be won, but as a barometer for the preparedness of Wenger’s side. This upcoming season promises to be one of the most competitive in recent memory and the Gunners will need a fast start.

Arsenal’s World Cup winners are not back in training yet and it’s reasonable to expect them to miss the opening weeks of the season. I truly do hope Wenger doesn’t rush any of them no matter what happens in this period.

This is important because it means the players we shall see on Sunday will bear the responsibility to perform and deliver for the club till after the first international break.

Unless a centre back, who’s had a great preseason elsewhere, comes in ready to play, young Calum Chambers could have a big role to play at the heart of the Arsenal defence alongside Koscielny with very little in the form of back up options available.

In the rest of the positions Wenger seems to have plenty of choices even if there appears to be room to better the centre of midfield. I would love to talk about Diaby as one of the great options but it just feels better to leave him be for at least six months or so just to see how everything goes. No hopes, no pressure, no judgments…

Wenger is almost spoilt for choice (although you might say cosistency and quality remains to be proven in some cases) up front. Any of Sanchez, Campbell, Sanogo, or Giroud (if he’s improved his fitness) can play at the head of the attack. The first two, Chamberlain, Cazorla, and even Rosicky can play in the wider areas. Spain, the Czech Republic, or Britain could provide the main attacking midfielder while the German enjoys a well deserved holiday. The manager also has players to allow for variation in formation and approach.

I have a feeling one of Joel Campbell or Podolski will leave the club before the transfer window closes and thus this is a crucial period for the Costa Rican lad to build on his preseason promise. I know Wenger has said he wants to keep Campbell at the club but it won’t be a surprise if he’s let go. He has to force himself into the starting line up during this month and then produce the quality that proves he belongs at this level. Hopefully, he’ll get a fair few minutes against City, preferably a start.

Here’s the team I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Debuchy, Chambers, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey – Campbell, Sanchez, Chamberlain.

It’ll be great if the front three can interchange positions and combine in the final third with Santi (hasn’t quite looked in form thus far in preseason) pulling the strings. Such a team would also give us an indication of the quality and quantity of defensive work we can expect from the explosive attackers.

I’m also keen to see if Ramsey can control his instincts and show greater game intelligence by carefully picking the moments to charge forward. Against some of the smaller teams in preseason he’s spent a lot of time in and around the opposition box. That won’t work in the big games and the Gunners have to avoid a repeat of last season’s soul-crushers at all cost. In my opinion, even though last season was a breakthrough year for him, 2014-15 will represent a bigger period in the Welshman’s career. He made phenomenal decisive contribution last season but now he has to show he can also control the games, particularly the big ones. That’s the next step. If he takes that, Rambo will be very close to the top five midfielders in the world, and Arsenal will move towards being very serious contenders for the major trophies. It’d be understandable if Ramsey doesn’t have the same decisive impact as he did in 13-14 and that makes the need to evolve as a player even greater. He could end up frustrated at a lack of impact and get caught in the vicious cycle of trying to do too much leading to greater inefficiency, or he could channel his desire into areas that will help the team synergy and let others flourish while he controls the game. It’s a tricky balance to achieve and he’s probably still a bit young to master this but I definitely want to see some effort in that direction.

There are six substitutes available to each manager in this game as it’s officially a friendly. Wilshere should get some time on the pitch. Wenger might even start him in central midfield and push Cazorla to the left. I’m not a fan of Jack in central midfield but his manager has a lot of faith in the veteran youngster. The Englishman probably has more to prove than any of his teammates this season and for that alone I’d understand if Wenger gave him a lot of game time, at least till Özil gets back.

Rosicky, Sanogo, Giroud, Diaby and Monreal should also see some action.

Vermaelen

Moving on, I’d like to say goodbye and good luck to Vermaelen. He started with a bang and became a star after his first season. The impact of his goals meant few noticed the defensive mistakes at the time. They only came to the fore after the goals dried up and the team went through a lean patch. Nevertheless, I thought he was a good enough player and could have done more with regular game time. Part of his struggles coincided with the period when Arsenal had structural weaknesses in their collective defence, which were only really sorted last year and that too in a limited way. Barcelona should be a good place for him and unlike some of the other Arsenal players who’ve gone there, the Belgian could have an excellent career as long as he gets a stable start and doesn’t make any errors in the opening games. It could boil down to the quality of Luis Enrique’s management and the work rate of the squad.

This transfer also reminds me of an email I got a few days back from a friend(modified the last line)…

2005: Juventus sign ARSENAL CAPTAIN Patrick Vieira.

2006: Juventus MANAGER Fabio Capello RESIGNS.

2007: Barcelona sign ARSENAL CAPTAIN Thierry Henry.

2008: Barcelona MANAGER Frank Rijkaard SACKED.

2011: Barcelona sign ARSENAL CAPTAIN Cesc Fabregas.

2012: Barcelona MANAGER Pep Guardiola RESIGNS.

2012: Man Utd sign ARSENAL CAPTAIN Van Persie.

2013: Man Utd MANAGER Ferguson retires.

2014: Barcelona sign TV5 Arsenal captian

Omens not good for Luis Enrique.

On the subject of Captaincy, Wenger has a few interesting possibilities.

Promoting Arteta, who did the job most of last year anyway, is the simplest option but the Spaniard may not be a regular this year and might even leave in a year. Those are not the kind of things that have prevented Wenger in the past so I won’t be surprised if the Spaniard does get the armband.

Mertesacker is another interesting candidate because he is likely to be a regular starter when fit and will be coming back with a World Cup winners medal. While I don’t have any connection with the inner workings of the dressing room, it’ll be a surprise if the German is not a popular member. He certainly comes across as a team player. Remember what Loew said after the win over France,

“When I told him last night (that he won’t be starting), he said ‘Alles klar’ coach, I’m here to help the team any way I can’. It was incredibly professional. He’s extremely important to the team.”

Or this on the subject of leadership and relationship with fans

That said, he did lose his place in the German starting line-up as he struggled when playing in a high line. The same might happen at Arsenal and could depend on what Wenger can do before the transfer window shuts.

Rosicky is another very good candidate but also one who is likely to be on the bench more often than the pitch. I wouldn’t want to see Wilshere or Ramsey given such a responsibility right now when they still have a lot to learn and prove. Özil is different. He should just be left to do his thing on the pitch without extraneous burdens. Giroud, Koscielny, Santi and some of the other players don’t quite feel the right choice for different reasons.

I think Arteta as Captain and Per his deputy would make sense. The reverse also works just as well but since Mertesacker won’t be starting the initial games, the Spaniard is probably the simpler choice.

Before ending, I want to mention these Classified ads in Nigeria that might be of use to Gooners in the region.


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

September 24, 2012

This was going to be an open game but Mancini’s team selection also made it a very interesting one. The Italian went with only one defensive minded midfielder, if you can call Garcia that, while picking Silva on one flank and Sinclair (what is he doing at City!?) on the other. It was difficult to understand the exact reasoning behind these choices. It could be that the City manager wanted pace on one side and creativity on the other but freshness is more likely to be the reason as he made five changes to the side that lost against Madrid.

His counterpart also made a couple of changes. Vermaelen was left out, reportedly, due to health issues, with Koscielny coming in and Ramsey came in for Giroud with Gervinho moving from the wing to a more central role. Clearly, Wenger wanted greater technical quality on the pitch to deal with opponents who can hold on to the ball.

It worked for Arsene and the game might have left Mancini with a headache over his squad depth. There aren’t many teams who come and dominate possession at the Etihad stadium but the Gunners did just that. In fairness though, Hart wasn’t the busier Keeper.

It was relatively tight in the first half. Arsenal were cautious and didn’t commit too many bodies forward. City weren’t able to hold on to the ball and build attacks as they normally do so their moves seemed rushed or reliant on Aguero conjuring something up from the left. Neither side created too many clear chances although both had a few moments that could have been productive but for poor choices and/or execution in the final third.

The Gunners combined well to create some openings on the counter-attack as they found space against an attack-minded City line-up. But none of these forced a big save from Hart. Gervinho’s horrible first touch in the 15th minute was a prime example but there were many others. Gibbs (as has been noted here after at least a couple of previous matches) didn’t get his final pass right after getting into promising positions in attacking areas. Diaby and Podolski were also guilty of either holding on to the ball for too long or picking the wrong pass. Arsenal just had two shots on target in the first half but both were from outside the box and rather innocuous.

The hosts didn’t create much either. Mannone made a couple of saves but you expect the Keeper to make those. He did make a mistake on a corner in the 39th minute and City scored but it would be unfair to single the Keeper out.

It was a simple corner and a backpost header from a running jump. Arsenal have been using zonal marking on set-pieces but it didn’t work this time. It’s difficult to say whether the system was at fault or the individuals. Koscielny and Podolski couldn’t get any elevation from a standing jump, Mannone came but missed the ball by an embarrassing margin, and even if he’d stayed back odds of saving a bullet header to the top corner were pretty low.

So is it the system’s fault or that of the players? The answer lies in the abilities of the individuals. If they cannot get enough elevation from a standing jump – Vermaelen does – then using such a system is very risky. If they can, then they are at fault for not executing their roles in a desired manner. Time will tell whether the system works for this team or needs to be changed. Meanwhile, some routines in training will probably help the coaches assess the player-system fit.

The second period was somewhat different. Mancini introduced Rodwell for Sinclair. After an initial push at the beginning, the hosts played deeper in their half and allowed Arsenal to control the middle third. But the Gunners still struggled on the chance creation front with Hart having a peaceful time. City looked dangerous on the break but it was their turn to waste promising positions. For instance, Toure went on a powerful run down the middle in the 80th minute but took an age to make up his mind allowing Arsenal to get bodies behind and salvage what was a 3-v-2 in favour of the hosts.

The equalizer came from a corner that resulted from another Cazorla blast from distance. This time Hart saw it late and barely kept the ball out. Arsenal benefitted from a couple of mistakes by City’s defenders. Lescott didn’t get any power on his clearance even though he wasn’t under pressure. The ball fell kindly to Koscielny who was left free by Toure. The defender’s shot was unstoppable.

Both sides had one glorious chance to win it late. City’s came from another set-piece. Kompany controlled a partial clearance and tested Mannone with a bicycle kick. The Keeper made a good save but the ball fell in a dangerous central area inside the six yard box. Koscielny rushed his clearance and ended up passing it to Aguero at the near post. The striker tried beating Mannone at the far post but missed by a whisker.

At the other end, Gervinho found himself in space in a central area just inside City’s box but his shot was as woefully high.

On the balance of play a draw seemed a fair result but City might be aggrieved Aguero didn’t get a penalty after a foul by Koscielny. If strikers don’t get the call when they stay on their feet, you can’t blame them for going down at the slightest of touches. Then again, Mike Dean was unnaturally lenient in this game and he’d probably have made the same decision if the event happened in the other box.

Individual Performances:

Mannone: Made some important saves but the kind you expect a Keeper to make. The goal wasn’t really his fault but his weakness against balls in the air, especially poor judgment of flight, has been visible in previous games as well.

Jenkinson: Had a steady game on the right with a couple of useful attacking runs. Benefitted from the fact that Sinclair offered very little threat and City were more conservative in the second half. Saw a lot of the ball again and his passing was more composed and reliable in this game.

Mertesacker: Close shout for MotM in my book. Broke City’s counter-attacking opportunities with intelligent positioning and interceptions on a number of occasions. His tactical intelligence and reading of the game was top class. Passing was composed but not at his typically high level.

Koscielny: Mixed bag for the Frenchman. Scored the vital goal, made a number of timely clearances, was active and effective in defence (5/6 tackles, 6/6 ground duels, 4/6 aerial duels). But he wasn’t able to challenge Lescott for the goal, could have conceded a penalty, and almost gifted a goal to Aguero late in the game. The errors, while few, could have been devastating.

Gibbs: Another impressive game from the youngster but he continues to struggle in the final third. Passing was good for the most part but just didn’t find his teammates when well placed in or around the City box. Wasn’t as effective in tackles or duels but did make some useful interceptions. Most importantly, found a good balance between attacking runs and defensive duties.

The defenders did a commendable job at a difficult ground against top quality opponents. They benefitted from the control that the midfield exerted and the shape of the side as a whole.

Arteta: MotM IMO. ‘Mr Dependable’ completed 100 passes out of his 106 attempts. Got into positions his teammates could find and kept the ball moving, often playing a useful early part in the build-up of attacks. Remains ‘The Wall’ in front of the defence. Recovered possession more than any other player on the pitch and made some timely interceptions. A classic selfless display that made others looks better.

Cazorla: Saw a lot of the ball and was busy in the attacking areas. Created most of the potential opportunities that the Gunners managed to squander. Took the most shots and won the corner that led to the goal.

Diaby: Another one who had a mixed bag. Had a few moments when his presence and power on the pitch was helpful to the team but he was also dispossessed 6 times. Began to tire in the second half and had to come off.

The midfield was conservative in the first half, showed respect to the opponents but kept them in check. They were able to push forward in the second half but couldn’t do enough to break City down from open play.

Ramsey: Another player who came close to the MotM. Attempted and completed the most passes in the final third, and was second highest on those stats in general. Created a fantastic chance for Gervinho. Ramsey was all over the pitch and carried the form from his impressive cameos into this game. Looked stronger on the ball and fractionally sharper when running.

Gervinho: For much of last season I wrote match reports that described him as “exciting and frustrating at the same time”. The same continues although in this game the frustration element must have set a new record. Wasted a number of good chances through poor technique as his touch or shot let him down. Lost possession a total of 19 times including 4 unsuccessful touches and 4 dispossessed while making a total of 56 touches. When moved wide he reverted to the tendency to run into crowds that he showed against Sunderland in the first game. Attempted 12 dribbles with only 4 successful. Easily the most disappointing player on the pitch.

Podolski: Did a decent defensive job on the left and drifted in to help the possession game. City’s organization and defensive qualities meant he didn’t find any space to run into in central areas. Didn’t offer much in the form of width. We can only wish one of the chances that fell to Gervinho had fallen to Poldi but that’s the price to pay for the balance he brings to the left flank.

The front three, it’s difficult to call them attackers or strikers in this game, added to Arsenal’s quality in the middle and supported the defence but they could not make the difference in the decisive areas up front.

Subs: None of the substitutes had a substantial impact on the game.

Wenger: Brave and commendable choice to pick Ramsey for such a big game. His team showed fight after going down and largely retained their defensive shape. Still has to find the solution to the centre-forward conundrum and needs to find a way to break down strong, well-organized, and often deep-lying defences from open play.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Manchester City

April 8, 2012

Manchester City have not won away to Arsenal since October 1975, scoring just 9 times in 26 subsequent visits. But that will count for nothing when the game kicks off this Sunday. Arsenal have failed to score in 5 of their last 6 meetings with City in all competitions. That is a more relevant stat as it reflects the quality, especially defensive, that the visitors have bought in recent years. But even that could mean little in a game that is vital to both clubs’ aspirations.

Wenger knows this,

Both teams are in the same situation – a draw is not good enough.

As does Van Persie,

… a draw is not that good for either of us.

And I am sure most fans on both sides would agree.

Interestingly, Arsene did say this game is more of a must-win for City and a want-win for Arsenal.

I say on our side it is a ‘want-win’ game more than a must-win game… Man City are in a situation where they will have to win.

To an extent it is true. If City don’t win, it pretty much puts paid to their title hopes. The Gunners on the other hand will not be out of the race for the top 4 even if they don’t take all three points from this fixture.

But Le Boss knows winning is important. There is a four-way fight for the final two Champions League spots. Arsenal need all the points they can get.

We love victory and we want to win. On the table side of course you want these three points.

Such a situation sets up a very interesting tactical battle. The Manchester Blues have, in recent years, come to the Emirates with the intention of parking the bus and consequently, the last two league results have been drab, scoreless draws.

How will Mancini approach this game? Will he go on the offensive and take initiative in search of a win?

In the previous two visits Mancini has started the game with 3 defensive-minded midfielders. His choices this time around will dictate the patterns of play because Arsenal will definitely try to go on the offensive irrespective of their tactics.

Their need for a win would suggest a more attacking approach will be needed. The Italian could have Silva in the middle with Nasri on one flank and two strikers sharing the other wide position and central role. Aguero is likely to start so he could be supported by Balotelli or Dzeko, or even Tevez.

If I were Mancini though, I’d take a more conservative approach. Instead of engaging Arsenal in a scoring battle, it would be better to ensure my team doesn’t concede. That’s half the battle won. After that I’d want my attackers to test the Arsenal defence with all the wide spaces to exploit. The likes of Aguero and Tevez can really be a handful for Vermaelen and Koscielny if they consistently get a chance to run in behind.

If City can keep a clean sheet till the final 20 minutes or so they will have a very good chance of nicking the three points. Arsene was recently talking about United knowing how to deal with “money time”.

I believe this year the title at Man United, if they make it, is really down to experience. What I mean by that is that on Monday night against Blackburn, when Giggs came on [in the 63rd minute], you thought: ‘They can only win it now because they know how to deal with the money time.’ That means the last 15 minutes in football when it is 0-0, [they] don’t make a mistake. They have that security at the back. They have won so many titles because they are not nervous.

Sadly, the same cannot be said about Arsenal. We have seen plenty of games where the side is in the ascendancy at the start of this “money time” and even creates a few chances but ends up dropping points through the one chance they concede. Arsenal make defensive mistakes. They’re too open and do not have the necessary security at the back. A motivated and clever side can find a way through; especially one with attackers who have the quality to produce something special in individual battles, and in an inventive sense or clinical manner.

Of course, the Gunners have been very strong at home this season. They’ve the fourth best home  points tally in the League (Spurs have played an extra home game) at the moment with only 12 goals against, which is actually the second best and less than the number United have conceded. On the other hand City have only won 2 of their last 9 away games. So one cannot fault the fans for feeling confident before this fixture.

In order for that to feeling to be justified at the final whistle the Arsenal midfield will have a vital defensive role to play. The back five will have to avoid the kind of mistakes we saw from Vermaelen in the last game but the role of the three in front of them is of greater significance. Even against QPR the midfield was equally at fault for the two goals. They didn’t move across in a timely and defensively intelligent manner from the throw-in as QPR moved the ball across the back and down the middle. Similarly, they completely lost track of Diakite for the second. Such errors might go unpunished against some of the smaller teams but will inevitably prove fatal against a City side desperately fighting to sustain their title chase. The positioning and decision making of the midfielders will have to be spot on to provide sufficient cover to the defenders.

In attack, Arsene will again have a decision to make on the left side. Recently, a trend seems to have developed in that a direct winger starts at home while a midfielder plays the away games. By that logic either Gervinho or Oxlade-Chamberlain could get the nod, with the youngster likely to be the popular pick. However, Wenger could also pick an additional technical player if he thinks winning the possession battle will be important. It hasn’t worked as well, especially for Ramsey, so there will be resistance from the fans – perhaps even vocal – but in principle, the approach is one that can be respected.

I’d like Arsenal to adapt tactics similar to the ones I’ve recommended for City. Start slow, stay in the game, try to force mistakes but without compromising your own shape, rely on pace and finishing skills of the attackers.

Essentially, the teams have to let a win come to them instead of chasing a result. Some might say that’s exactly the kind of approach that led to the previous two stalemates but I don’t completely agree. In those games City didn’t need a result. In this one they do and that will result in more gaps on the pitch. There will be chances. Whether they will be easy ones gifted to a side by the opponent’s bloopers or tough ones worked out by individual and collective skill remains to be seen. The side which minimizes or eliminates the former is likely to be happier at the fulltime whistle.

Preferred line-up,

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

There could be a point made for selecting Santos ahead of Gibbs or even in an advanced role on the wings. It’s not without merit and Wenger will definitely have to give it some thought. From a distance, and with little knowledge of how players are doing in training, it’s hard to be sure about such choices.

Oxlade-Chamberlain is also a valid option in attack but Gervinho did well in the last home game and tends to do better when he starts rather than as a substitute. AOC might be a better option against tired legs later in the game if it’s still tied.

To be completely honest, I don’t expect a win in this game. The 7-game winning streak came when Arsenal were performing a couple of notches above their level, and with a bit of luck involved. It’s hard to sustain that. While City aren’t in great form they will be hard to break down. Sometimes Arsenal make mistakes when the opponents can frustrate them for a long enough period.

The Gunners have also struggled when opponents have pressed them cohesively and consistently. It will be a tough ask, and a risky tactic as it might involve coming higher up the pitch, but Mancini might as well go for it if he is desperate and believes his players can pull it off.

Finally, with Martin Atkinson as the ref, I won’t be surprised if we see a penalty and/or a sending off in this game. Koscielny could be banned for two games if he picks up a yellow in this one (Haven’t had a chance to verify this). He’ll have a tight rope to walk on but even otherwise all the defenders will have to be very careful in and around the penalty box.

All-in-all the point is not to say that Arsenal can’t win. Just that it will require some luck and an effort above and beyond their usual very high standard.

Before ending I want to share a link to a post on clear-cut chances that I did for EPL Index. It has some very interesting numbers and if you enjoyed my previous stat-based articles you’ll find something of interest in this one too.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Man City

November 29, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Probable starting eleven,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How Does The Season Stack Up Against Predictions

May 26, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

This was my prediction for Chelsea,

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

For United,

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

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

For City,

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

Arsenal did make a mess of things.

For Arsenal,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Will Any Team Reach 80 Points In The Premiership This Year?

February 10, 2011

It’s been a while since I looked at the Premiership table with more than a cursory glance. And what I saw left me wondering whether any team will be able to hit the 80 point mark this season.

I did a quick look back over the last decade and in each year the winning team has crossed 80 points. In most cases two or more teams breached that mark. The lowest winning total of this century was the 83 point tally Manchester United got in 02-03 (Arsenal came second that season with 78). The highest was Chelsea’s 95 in 04-05. At least that explains why I’d taken the winners crossing the 80 point mark for granted.

This season however, it seems highly unlikely that any team will cross the 80 point mark. Based on the current points per game average only United, with 2.16 points per game, can get 82. Arsenal would get 76 with an even 2 ppg. All other teams currently have a points per game average of less than 2.

Many believe that Manchester United go on a good in the second part of the season after Christmas. They have done marginally better in their 7 games since the turn of the year with 16 points @ 2.29 ppg. But will they be able to keep up that rate with 7 away games remaining including visits to Arsenal, Chelsea, and a resurgent Liverpool. Maybe they will if they get the kind of help they got in their recent visits to WBA or Blackpool. They also have home games against City and Chelsea.

If United do manage to get 80 or more they’ll win the League. Arsenal have to take 30 points from 13 games to reach the 80 point mark. That means 10 wins and 3 losses or 9 wins, 3 draws, and one loss. Honestly, I can’t see it happening.

Chelsea need to win 12 out of their next 13 to get to 80. City need 10 wins and a draw from their next 12 games. Not going to happen.

In my opinion, realistically speaking, Arsenal can win 8 and draw 3 of the remaining games losing two in the process. Given the performances of this season we might win the tougher games but drop points elsewhere in games one would expect the Gunners to win. I don’t see this changing overnight. Such a finish would leave us with 77 points which is pretty close the tally predicted by the points per game projection.

For that to be a winning total, United would have to get 22 points or less from their remaining 13 games. Again, doesn’t seem very likely unless Chelsea, City and Liverpool do us some favours.

I was a bit optimistic about our Premiership hopes but once I looked at the numbers in the aforementioned manner it looks like a tough ask.

Of course if Arsenal do pick up steam and perform at a higher level the result could be different. Since January the Gunners have played 6 and have picked up 14 points for a ppg of 2.33. Extrapolating that number over the next 13 games we could get 30 points. If Arsenal can match the averages of the invincibles (68 percent wins and the rest drawn) we could get 9 wins and 4 draws for a total of 31 points. That would be some achievement.

A lot could depend on the result of non-premiership game on 27th Feb but my money is on a title winning total of less than 80 points.


Arsenal 0 – 0 Man City: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

January 5, 2011

What a fantastic performance. What rotten luck. One stupid moment!

I must say this game turned out to be the reverse of what I’d expected. The first ten minutes were the most exciting and Arsenal had City on the ropes for that period. After that the visitors found their defensive shape and made it much more difficult for Arsenal to open them up. The Gunners were restricted to half chances and shots from distance but Joe Hart was more than up to the challenge.

I’d expected the game to start at a steady tempo and for Arsenal to raise the stakes in the final few minutes. As it turned out Wenger’s men seemed to run out of steam and ideas towards the end but it doesn’t take anything away from a brilliant performance. The passing, movement, and telepathic understanding shown by the players early on was a real pleasure to watch.

I know some people will go crazy over the result and dropped points but we must not forget City have an incredible 11 clean sheets so far including shutouts against United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Tottenham. I’m convinced the players gave everything and with better luck Arsenal would have picked up the three points. If anything City’s negative display was a great testament to the quality of this Arsenal side.

The Gunners had a number of chances in the first ten minutes but somewhat unfortunately all the best ones fell to the inexperienced Wilshere. The youngster passed when a clear shot was on in the second minute, then tested Hart with a long range strike, and finally had one more volley from the six yard area but couldn’t find the right angle or generate enough power.

The closest Arsenal came was in the 9th minute when RvP struck the woodwork after some excellent individual work. I loved the way the Dutchman used the defenders to shield his strike and I’ve no doubt Hart would have been beaten if the ball had curved a bit more.

The second time the upright was rattled was in the 28th minute when Cesc made an intelligent run across the 18 yard line and Nasri fed him with a delightful ball. The City Keeper was rooted to his spot as the shot was unexpected and perfectly taken, well almost. The ball rebounded off the bar and went just behind Joe Hart. It could quite easily have hit the England international and gone in for an own goal. Theo hit the bar with his follow up but he was off-side.

At that point I’m sure I was not alone in thinking this is not going to be our night.

In the final hour Arsenal pushed the visitors back but they were extremely well organized and limited the Gunners to half chances. Theo, RvP, and Nasri had a crack at goal but it wasn’t enough. Arsenal best chances in the remaining period came when Van Persie let fly from outside the box in the 61st minute. Hart came up with another excellent save.

Defensively Arsenal were fairly solid and it wasn’t a surprise that City couldn’t muster a single shot on target! In order to restrict Arsenal’s attacking threat the visitors had to sacrifice their own. There were some anxious moments no doubt but the Gunners had enough players back on most occasions to cover for each other.

The night was soured by a rush-of-blood moment from Sagna. In the final minute of normal time he went head to head with Zabaleta after a strong challenge that didn’t look malicious. The idiotic Mike Jones sent both players off after taking advice from his assistant. I cannot see how in one game a player can charge at the ref and shove him in the chest without getting so much as a booking, while in another two players get sent off for a moment of madness that wasn’t particularly nasty. This level of inconsistency in the refs is extremely worrying and annoying. And I’m being very polite when I say that.

To be fair, purely on the basis of the letter of the law, Sagna deserved a red. Zabaleta was really unfortunate. But we have seen the refs use some common sense in the big games and that was sorely missing in this one. Well I guess Sagna and Zabaleta’s luck has been transferred to Gary Neville. Surprised, anyone?! Beyond that it’s difficult to say anything about this incident without making it an expletive-ridden rant.

More importantly, Sagna will miss three games now. I’m not completely sure about this but two of those should be the Cup ties and that shouldn’t be a big issue. Hopefully, Eboue will put in a good shift in those games and against West Ham.

Individual Performances

Fabianski: swept well behind the defence, came for the ball when he had to, decent distribution, didn’t have to make a save so a relatively comfortable night!

Sagna: Excellent performance on the night till his moment of madness. Physically strong, defensively solid, struggled a bit in the attacking third but that was down to the way City always had two or three bodies to block the crosses and passes.

Djourou: Another strong display at the back, especially in the air. Made a couple of mistakes – first one was in the early minutes when he came out to intercept but lost the tackle to Yaya Toure allowing City to break on the counter, and second one was when he played Tevez onside through poor positioning but the striker blasted his shot over.

Koscielny: I liked the way he read the game, made important tackles, won some balls in the air, and generally showed a great deal of calmness. As someone once said in the comments section, the Frenchman has the ability to develop like some of the great Italian defenders.

Clichy: Another strong performance. Milner and later Adam Johnson got nothing out of him. As I’ve often said, if he gets better cover Clichy will look superb. I’d still like to see him get forward more often and with better timing but that’s something the players have to develop in training.

The defence was really solid and made Tevez and co. look like second string attackers. The organization wasn’t as strong as that shown by City but it seemed to be the direct result of the differing styles of the two teams.

Song: Immense. Worked really hard, made massive defensive contributions, especially on the right but also in the centre and the left. Couldn’t produce in the final third but we can’t really blame him for that.

Cesc: Was excellent in the opening half hour. Unlucky not to score or get an assist. Later on City were too tight and made it difficult for El Capitan. It’s good to see Fabregas coming close to his best.

Wilshere: Brilliant for his age but was a bit of a weak link in the side. Should’ve scored early on and should have done better in bringing the ball out from defence. But I don’t want to be critical of the youngster, these things can be learnt only by playing at this level and he is improving with each game.

I thought the midfield completely dominated the game against players the misery brigade wanted Arsenal to spend big money on. The only criticism would be that there weren’t enough runs into the box by the midfielders, especially in the final fifteen minutes.

Walcott: Not as effective as the earlier games but he had his moments. Should have won a penalty against Kompany because the defenders arm was raised and in an unnatural position. Crossing was decent but shooting wasn’t at his usual high standard.

RvP: excellent movement, brilliant vision, couple of shots on goal were breathtaking, could have done better with delivery on set pieces. Looked tired towards the end?

Nasri: looked dangerous whenever he drifted into the middle, great understanding with Cesc and Rvp, didn’t make enough runs into scoring positions, good job of tracking back whenever required.

The front three were excellent in the first half hour but struggled to penetrate as the game went on. They can’t be criticized for that because City were very well organized and gave everything to keep the ball out of their net.

Subs: I wasn’t convinced by the choice of Arshavin on the right but the crowd didn’t help him at all, which was extremely disappointing. Bendtner rarely got into the box.

Some people will say that Arsenal should have brought Chamakh on or put Bendtner in a central role but I don’t think it would have made a big difference. City have played against plenty of big strikers and their defence has dealt with a gazillion crosses so far. When such a team sets its mind of parking the bus it’s very difficult to break them down. I’d have preferred Rosicky over Arshavin because Little Mozart make those runs into the box and has a fantastic understanding with Cesc. But there is no guarantee that would have worked.

During the hectic Christmas period Arsenal have picked up 8 points out of twelve, dropping points against the rivals in the process, but considering the toughness of the fixtures I’m quite happy with the results. The draw against Wigan does rankle but the win at Birmingham makes up for it. A win over Chelsea and a point against an extremely negative Man City side are pretty good results.