Manchester United 2 – 1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

November 4, 2012

Both sides were very comparable in the stats for passing and possession. But perhaps those were the only similarities, on the pitch the performances couldn’t have been more different. We were given another reminder about Manchester United’s dominance over Arsenal in recent years. This fixture has become predictable and easy for the Red Devils.

Any game plan Wenger might have devised was rendered worthless by some calamitous defending as early as the 3rd minute. Santos was neither tight on Valencia nor in a position to deal with a rampaging Rafael. The speed of the move meant Podolski was never going to be in a position to track the full-back who actually did Arsenal a favour by playing an early, aimless cross. Vermaelen should have dealt with it with ease. It’s tough to say whether he was trying to clear it or cushion/pass it to Arteta. In any case his effort was disastrous. Van Persie smashed it in first-time.

The other vital aspect of this goal was the Dutchman’s anticipation and ability to finish. When Valencia played the flick, RvP was inside the centre circle. From that point he sprinted forward with purpose and awareness. It would have been easy for him to assume the Belgian defender will deal with the ball but he kept his eyes open for even the tiniest of openings. That skill cannot be taught and would cost a fortune if bought. That’s one of the main ingredients missing from the Arsenal attack this season.

After the goal United were able to sit back and play in second gear. I don’t think Arsenal created anything of note in the entire first half. The only half-chance was in the form of a Ramsey cross and that too was missed opportunity as the Welshman delayed his cross.

At the other end, the Gunners were not as troubled as most teams facing United are but the hosts did have noteworthy opportunities on the break. They did conjure to waste most of them with the Penalty miss being the most blatant. On a couple of occasions Vito Mannone kept his team in the game.

The patterns of play were predictable and disappointing. United got into a good defensive shape and limited the passing options that the Gunners had. Arsenal’s passing was slow and lacked any sort of incision. Once again the understanding between the attacking players was not at the level needed to open up such a defence. Their runs were easy to read and there were hardly any moves where three or four Gunners combined with one-touch passes.

The beginning of the second half was slightly different. Arsenal had a bit more urgency and it seemed to me that Santos finally realized he had some space to run into with Podolski drifting inside and pulling Rafael away.

In a 10 minute period after the restart, the Gunners got into three or four promising positions but their final ball was poor. Santos disappointed at least twice when very well placed. Cazorla did find Giroud once and the Frenchman did well to hold off Ferdinand, but his shot from a tight angle only found the post.

That impetus only lasted a short while as the Red Devils raised their defensive game to close out the openings. The next ten minutes were largely a midfield battle but the game was settled by two events in quick succession.

Van Persie got in behind the Arsenal defence in the 66th minute but he rushed his shot and could only win a corner. From the resulting set-piece, Evra doubled the home advantage via a free header. How did one of the shortest players on the pitch get that kind of space in the box? Perhaps, Arsenal would have done better if Mertesacker had been present to “organize” the defence? Oh!, well, he was there and couldn’t make any difference.

Within a couple of minutes, Wilshere was  shown his second yellow card for a needless and dangerous-looking foul. In the past, we’ve often seen the youngster lunge after the ball once it’s rolled away from him due to a heavy touch. This case seemed very similar and it’s hard to argue against the ref’s decision considering the fact that Jack had already clattered into Van Persie earlier in the game after getting his first yellow for a bad foul on Cleverly. None of those were leg-breaking challenges but they did look clumsy and overly aggressive.

With Arsenal down to 10, United saw the game off at a canter. The Arsenal substitutes didn’t really have a chance to make an impact as the team looked deflated. The Gunners did get a goal back with the last kick of the game but at the end this was the third straight defeat in which the score seemed to flatter the Gunners. A 2-1 score creates the impression of a close game but this never was one.

Individual Performances:

Mannone: MotM in my opinion and the only Arsenal player who was consistent. Can’t be faulted for either goal and made some useful saves. Showed good composure and distribution was respectable.

Sagna: His flank was largely safe defensively. Was 6/6 on ground duels which is interesting because the team as a whole only had a 37 percent success rate. Did put in a couple of crosses into useful areas but couldn’t make a meaningful impact in the attacking areas.

Mertesacker: Saw a lot of the ball as part of Arsenal’s “illusionary domination”. Can’t be faulted for the first goal but misjudged the flight of the ball for the second. On the whole he had a good game as his positioning prevented some dangerous situations from turning into chances/goals.

Vermaelen: Did his part for the Be a Gooner, Be a Giver campaign, almost gave a second away but was saved as Valencia couldn’t direct the ball into an open goal. Wasn’t as composed and assured as a central defender should be, couldn’t offer any attacking threat, wasn’t able to lift the team when the chips were down. A disappointing effort in more ways than one.

Santos: Was 2/11 on ground duels and didn’t impress with his positioning. Was lucky that United took it easy for bulk of the game. Did get into useful attacking areas early in the second half but final ball was highly disappointing.

The Arsenal defence wasn’t under the cosh, so to speak, throughout the game but they showed enough vulnerabilities to give the opponents a relatively easy win.

Arteta: Rooney didn’t allow him enough time or space on the ball and that limited the contribution that he could make. Was still a vital presence in front of the defence and was one of the few players who showed composure/confidence on the ball but it was easily his least effective outing for the Gunners this season.

Cazorla: Got a goal, created that chance for Giroud, and was generally involved with whatever little quality that Arsenal produced. His link with Podolski isn’t working anymore and that’s an area of concern. Conceded a cheap penalty (not harsh IMO).

Wilshere: In his long absence some fans might have forgotten his tendency for rash tackles but this game served as a stark reminder. He’s still a young man who has a lot to learn and not a superman who is going to magically heal all of Arsenal’s woes. Had virtually no attacking impact and didn’t do enough to support the defence.

The midfield played in the manner that United allowed them to. This had been the crux of the battles between the sides that Ferguson’s side have been dominating. Arsenal do see a lot of the ball but it’s mostly in harmless areas. United protect their goal well and are much more efficient on quick transitions.

Ramsey: The effort was there but decisive output wasn’t. Didn’t have the pace to get in behind, didn’t look up when he did get behind Evra on one occasion, wasn’t able to create space for himself or his teammates. He was the extra midfielder and that helped with the possession, which in turn protected the defence from wave after wave of attacks, but that’s just one part of the game.

Giroud: 36 touches, 4 dispossessed, 4 unsuccessful touches, 16 total loss of possession, 13/18 passes ; in contrast RvP – 41 touches, 0 dispossessed, 0 unsuccessful touches, 7 loss of possession, 26/30 passes. The Frenchman has big boots to fill and frankly, no one expects him to be just as good individually but he is lacking on many fronts. Didn’t have the same awareness, anticipation, and movement. Couldn’t link with wide players. It’s one thing to get into a good area, it’s quite another to know what your teammates (and opponents for that matter) can or cannot do. In fairness, the team isn’t playing to his strengths.

Podolski: He has struggled against well-organized defences that don’t give him space to run into. Doesn’t offer enough in terms of working combinations with teammates, making penetrating runs, or vision in tight areas. He is the best goal-scorer in the side but hardly got into a threatening position throughout the game.

The front three just didn’t do enough to help convert possession into incision. All three have their weaknesses and United did well to control their strengths.

Subs: Walcott might have made a difference but wasn’t effective once the team was down to 10. Arshavin looked lively in the little time he got.

Wenger: Hasn’t found a way to deal with United’s style despite numerous attempts in recent years. He said the team’s title chances will be known after 10 games. I doubt many see Arsenal challenging for the Premiership or the Champions League this season. Should have substituted Wilshere earlier but betrayed his squad’s lack of depth when he gave a lack of options as the excuse for keeping the youngster on.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Manchester United

November 3, 2012

It seems to me that ever since the loss to Barcelona in the Champions League final a couple of seasons ago, Sir Alex is trying to create a Manchester United side that can match the Catalans’ attacking prowess. Last season United were very open in the early games in search of more goals and as a consequence they were allowing a number of shots on target. This season we’re again seeing something very similar.

Ferguson’s side have scored the most goals in the Premier League in the 9 games this season. Their tally of 24 is more than a goal a game higher than Arsenal’s 14. United often play with three strikers with either Welbeck or Chicarito starting alongside RvP and Rooney. This does leave them a little light in the midfield and has left their defence exposed. Combined with a string of injuries to defenders, this weakness in midfield has given opponents enough chances to score against the Red Devils. Everton and Spurs were able to convert these opportunities into wins but in all other cases Ferguson’s side have been able to outscore the opponents.

The Gunners have lost seven of their last eight visits to Old Trafford and have only scored 10 goals in 20 Premier League visits to the ground. In general, Arsenal’s record against United, particularly in recent years, does not make for pleasant reading.

This poses an interesting challenge for Arsenal. Wenger has a couple of diametrically opposite choices. He could set his team out to play a tight game in order to nullify the United attack in order to recreate the shutouts that have been the source of his three 1-0 wins in the last 18 visits.

This is a risky tactic. Odds are this United side are going to score. Arsenal had a degree of defensive stability in the early weeks but a lot of that was down to a defensive tactic that relied on the side sitting deep. Even in games against Montpellier and Southampton, one got a feeling the Gunners had to park the bus, at least in phases. The attack also suffers when the players have to build-up from deep in their own half on a constant basis. Clearly, Wenger was not happy with that and rightly so. Such an approach is better suited to mid-table teams or those below them. In the last few games Arsenal have pushed up the pitch and we have been reintroduced to some of the vulnerabilities from last season.

That said, many teams, including United, do sit deep in the big games and the ability to hold a shape will help Arsenal. The big question is, can this be done for the duration of 90 minutes? It’s also important to note that defending can only guarantee a draw. Wenger’s team will also have to show they can score on the counter. Admittedly, this is a style that’s worked for Arsenal in some games at the beginning of the season, but I’m not sure Wenger is predisposed to relying on such a tactic.

The other option for Arsenal is to attempt to dominate the midfield battle and then find ways to challenge the United back four and test their goalkeeper. The Gunners do have enough technical quality to control the centre of the pitch but, as we’ve seen often enough in previous battles, that alone is never enough. They need precision and telepathic understanding in the final third along with clinical finishing. Apart from bullying the weakest of defences (Cologne, Southampton, Coventry, and Reading), Wenger’s side have not shown these abilities. 8 goals in 8 League games (leaving out the win over Southampton) is clear evidence that the Arsenal attack is yet to click.

With these facts in mind, the best scenario for Arsenal would be to defend by controlling the midfield. Cutting off the supply to Van Persie and minimising the control that Rooney can exert from deeper positions is vital. But that alone will not be enough. United are very strong in the wide areas and the battle between Valencia and Santos could make or break this game. Support for the full-back is essential but with Wilshere likely to play higher up the pitch there will be gaps for the hosts to exploit.

As far as the starting line-up goes, Wenger will probably make 11 changes and revert to the eleven that started the game against QPR. Injuries to some players means there are few possibilities of changes to that side. Perhaps the only question is whether Walcott is fit enough to start twice in a week, especially considering he had to play over 120 minutes against Reading.

Preferred line-up,

Mannone – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Santos – Arteta, Cazorla, Wilshere – Walcott, Giroud, Podolski.

Most articles I’ve read, the betting odds, and the recent historical record in this fixture seems to indicate that Manchester United are favourites. Arsenal are on an emotional high after the comeback against Reading and a positive result in this fixture will have a multiplier effect that could carry the team far, but even the most optimistic of fans will probably not expect the Gunners to mount a similar fight back in this game.

Can Arsenal produce an impeccable game or will this be another disappointment for the Gooner faithful? I guess we’ll know soon enough.

Arsenal 1 – 2 Manchester United: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

January 22, 2012

A predictably disappointing result will largely overshadow an effort from the Gunners that was valiant and respectable for most periods of the game. Ultimately, poor defending from Arsenal gifted the win to United after a closely fought battle in which the sides shared spells of domination.

The starting line-up for Arsenal had a couple of pleasant surprises. Oxlade-Chamberlain was preferred over experienced players like Arshavin and Benayoun. Vermaelen was passed fit to bolster the defence.

The Gunners started strongly and controlled possession for the opening 20 minutes or so. But United were very well organized and limited the hosts to hopeful or rather wasteful attempts from distance.

Arsenal really could learn a lot from the way Ferguson’s men got bodies between the ball and goal. they fell back to the half-way line and cut off the passing angles. When Arsenal did managed to get past that initial line United almost always had players marking the forward players in Red and White. Van Persie didn’t get any space at all, neither did Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Even when an Arsenal player found some space, like Walcott did when Jones went to ground with an injury, United always had covering players in excellent positions. To an extent the Gunners were also playing a cautious game and weren’t committing bodies forward which curtailed the creative options.

Around half-way through the first period United mustered their first shot on target from a corner that was laxly defended. Giggs was in acres of space in the Arsenal box after playing a simple one-two. His shot, from a very tight angle, was more hopeful than threatening.

After this shot though, the visitors found more confidence and were able to pin the Gunners back for sustained spells. Arsenal fell into the trap of crowding the penalty box and losing their shape in front of it. This meant the ball kept coming back and led to moments of desperate defending, even if the goal wasn’t being threatened that often, as United got into dangerous crossing positions rather easily.

When Arsenal did punt it long they weren’t able to put sufficient pressure on the ball and it came back into the defensive third in no time, often through a simple long ball towards Nani who was tormenting Djourou.

Up front Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain switched sides regularly but couldn’t produce much in terms of penetration. Theo was trying something different and was cutting inside regularly only to run out of options and into a crowd. AOC had a couple of good runs but also had anonymous spells in the first half. Van Persie was marked closely and looked lost without support.

Ferguson’s side took the lead towards the end of the first half by capitalizing on Arsenal’s woeful shape created by out of position players. Nani was able to find Giggs wide on the left with hardly any pressure on the ball. Ramsey did well to track back and got between the goal and Nani but that left Giggs alone. Djourou was nowhere to be seen as he was too narrow – again reinforcing my theory that Arsenal tend to crowd the centre when under pressure. Giggs had ample time to pick out his cross and Valencia was able to attack the ball better than Vermaelen at the back post.

It was poor defending from Arsenal but the problem wasn’t limited to the positioning of the defenders or their ability to attack the ball. It’s more of a tactical issue that the manager has struggled to solve. Arsenal look fairly solid defensively when they hold on to the ball but look like a school side when the opponents pin them back and sustain a period of pressure. We have seen this often enough and with different sets of players in Red and White. The positioning of most of the players, their decision making on the ball, the runs off the ball, and other details affect the performance of the unit as a whole culminating in goals that make the defenders looks very ordinary.

To their credit, the Gunners came out with greater purpose and cohesiveness in the second half. The game should have been level inside five minutes of the restart but Van Persie missed a glorious chance after Rosicky latched on to a slip by Smalling and found De Kapitein in an excellent position in the box. The Dutchman’s first touch wasn’t at its usual impeccable level and his strike was uncharacteristically sloppy. Just shows even top players make mistakes when they feel the pressure.

Arsenal created a number of chances – Ramsey hit a shot just over from the edge of the box and Rosicky could only hit Evra from a good position – but didn’t find the goal. At the other end United too were getting space and time in the box. Valencia hit one well wide when unmarked around the penalty spot while Welbeck forced a desperate off-the-line clearance.

The game was more open as Arsenal were working hard to press the opponents and were also getting more bodies into advanced areas. But the gaps in the structure meant United always had a chance on the counter.

Arsenal’s equalizer came with less than 20 minutes to go. Koscielny did superbly to win the ball with a clean tackle in the box. He then found Rosicky around the centre circle. Little Mozart wasted little time in spreading it wide towards AOC who was able to dart inside before sliding it down the line for Van Persie. The Dutchman finished with an exemplary strike that went between the defender’s legs and nestled into the corner despite a touch from the Keeper.

It’s interesting to note that Rafael was high up the pitch when Koscielny tackled him. This meant AOC was able to run at the United defence without the full-back’s attentions. It was a rare moment when an Arsenal winger got a chance to run at the opposition goal without being tightly marked.

Then came a strange substitution from Arsene. He took of Oxlade-Chamberlain who’d looked threatening in the second half and brought Arshavin on. It was hard to understand because it upset a system that was working for Arsenal, at least relatively. The only reasonable explanation seems to be that of a fitness concern. It’s hard to comment on that without all the facts.

Of course Arshavin’s attempt at tackling Valencia in the build up to the second goal don’t help his or his manager’s cause one bit. But I thought it was again a structural problem and it would have been the same even if Arsenal had Oxlade-Chamberlain on the pitch (Indeed, Evra went past him in the first half as if he didn’t exist). Valencia is a skilful player and you can’t seriously expect a winger to defend that kind of space against him. I have no idea why Arsenal didn’t have a second man coming out to support the Russian. United often had midfielders getting back into defensive positions to thwart such runs from the wings. Arsenal were too keen on crowding the centre but that doesn’t always work. One must also ask why everyone was looking at the ball instead of marking the strikers. Welbeck was completely free when he got his shot away. It’s just poor defending from the team as a unit.

After that Arsenal had a couple of half-chances but United had the skills and experience to waste time and kill the game off. They also had a couple of counter-attacks of their own but couldn’t add the cushion of the second goal.

On the whole it was a fighting display ruined by defensive errors that stem from the way Arsene, his staff, and his players think about that aspect of the game. United looked more dangerous in the attacking areas and were always going to score a goal or two. One could blame Arshavin, or Van Persie for his miss, or Djourou and Vermaelen for their parts in the first goal, and so on. It’s not going to make a difference.

Injuries obviously had a big impact but the manager has to find a way to get a result with the players that he has. In the end United won 60 percent of the ground duels and 73 percent of the aerial ones. Walcott won 25 percent of his ground duels whereas AOC managed 27 percent. Nani clocked 79 and Valencia 50. That was a big difference. All this made United looked relatively more comfortable in defence despite making fewer tackles and interceptions. It was close but not good enough. That’s been Arsenal’s story in the recent weeks.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Made a couple of good saves, but also looked shaky on occasion. Distribution was poor.

Djourou: Had a very tough time against Nani. Didn’t know whether he should get tight or back away. At least partly at fault for the first goal.

Mertesacker: Should he have been tighter on Welbeck for the second goal? Did struggle against the youngster’s pace but also made up for it by not giving up. A good goal-line clearance and also hit the target at the end. More is needed when he stays up the pitch towards the end of games.

Koscielny: Monstrous tackle, excellent composure, and a good pass to start off the move for the Arsenal goal. Was energetic and adventurous in the second half.

Vermaelen: Could he have attacked the ball better to prevent Valencia from getting a clean header on goal? Otherwise it was another battling performance from the Belgian and he was involved in the most ground and aerial duels. Also made a team high 3 interceptions and won back possession 7 times in defensive areas.

Yennaris: Had the best pass percentage if we leave the crosses out, which weren’t great but not too bad either. Won 3 of his four tackles and 4 of his 6 ground duels. An impressive effort from the youngster.

The defenders had their moments but they also made a number of mistakes. The question here is, as we saw with Van Persie at the other end, were the mistakes forced by the sustained spells of pressure? Why can’t Arsenal find a way to sustain such pressure at the other end – simply holding on to the ball without incision is not the same – and why can’t the Gunners find a way to hold the ball when the opponents are on top?

Song: Used the big-match fouling license effectively to break up play. Had the most touches and made the most passes for the Gunners. Won back possession most often, 6 times, in midfield. Also won 4 of his 5 tackles. Decent game from the Cameroonian.

Ramsey: Got into a number of useful defensive and attacking positions. Should probably have done better with his strike that went over. Won all three tackles he attempted and had the best passing success among the midfielders and attacking players. His weaknesses aren’t going to disappear overnight so no point in repeating them.

Rosicky: A big improvement over Benayoun from the previous game. Won 4 of his five tackles and had the best success rate in ground duels, 55 percent. Second highest in terms of passes made and a fairly respectable 86 percent success rate. Put in a strong defensive shift although probably not at the level Arteta would have been.

The midfield wasn’t bad but they were a touch too cautious in the first half and that left the attackers isolated. They should also be providing a lot better defensive cover. Certainly for the second goal Arsenal needed a player who would have doubled up on Valencia. Similarly, Arsenal needed better coverage on other occasions when United found a lot of space in and around the Arsenal box. Again this is part of some long-standing issues so I don’t want to dwell on it at the moment.

Walcott: Looked like he was trying something different and was cutting inside more often. This wasn’t the game to try a different approach but he might have been forced to do that because of lack of support in the first half. Was marked out of the game for large periods. Still had some moments that were impressive like the time he pulled away at the back post and headed the ball across the face of goal or the time he rolled Evra to draw a foul in a dangerous area. But that isn’t enough at this level.

RvP: Worked hard all through the game but looked lost on the pitch in the first half as he hardly had any support. Really should have scored from “that” chance. Took his goal really well.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Very impressive second half from the youngster. Had a few moments in the first half as well. Has to improve his passing and decision making in the final third but does provide a threat with his pace and control. Was dispossessed more often than any other Arsenal player but will improve with time. Should start more games and hopefully will last till the end in most of the them.

The front three looked a bigger threat in the second half but weren’t very effective in the first period even when Arsenal were dominating the ball. It is, of course, linked with the kind of support they got from the midfield and the general link-up play between the players.

Subs: Arshavin didn’t offer much and will be an easy target for many irate fans. Park didn’t get enough time to make an impact.

Wenger: His decision to substitute AOC for Arshavin will obviously be the biggest complaint against the manager but I would like to hold that judgment till all the facts are available. The second goal certainly wasn’t down to Arshavin but more to the structure of the defence, for which Arsene is indeed responsible. Similarly, the first goal was too easy for United and the Arsenal manager has to find a way to stop teams from getting to the attacking third with such ease. But he also deserves credit for the fighting display in the second half. Few teams can put up such a battle against United despite so many injuries.

Manchester United 8 – 2 Arsenal: Quick Thoughts

August 30, 2011

Apologies for the delay in the post, but as I had mentioned in the preview this was a family weekend and, in hindsight, it turned out to be a good one to miss the game.

When I’d seen the team sheet I’d feared this would be a three or four nil kind of a game. No Vermaelen, no Sagna with Jenkinson, Traore, and Coquelin in the back five against an in-form United start was a disaster waiting to happen.

The result wasn’t a surprise and I don’t want to get into the analysis in detail because, honestly speaking, dwelling on the game hurts and I am sure many, if not all, of you would want to move on.

Since the start of the season I have been talking about the ease with which opposition teams have been bringing the ball to the Arsenal defensive third. They lacked the quality in decisive moments. United didn’t.

The number of defensive flaws in Wenger’s 4-3-3 are staggering considering the ambitions of the club. I am more convinced than ever that without a change/addition to the coaching staff there is little hope of challenging for the big titles.

In this particular game, the defenders made a number of mistakes but once again the load on them was unbearable. There are some basic issues that just have to be ironed out.

For the first goal, Djourou was trying to block the run of Welbeck hoping Szczesny will come and deal with the ball. Watching the replays it seems to me that Djourou was the closest to the ball and could easily have reached it before the United youngster. In 09-10, a lot was asked of the goalkeeper and it seems remnants of those errors still exist despite clear change in focus last season. That tells me the defensive coaching still isn’t good/clear enough.

The second goal was an excellent finish but one has to wonder why no one was tracking Ashely Cole.

Rooney scored the third and fourth with top class free-kicks. I believe Gooners, irrespective of their attitude towards the manager and the board, have all been wondering what prevents Arsenal from developing a couple of good set-piece takers from a bunch of so many technically gifted players. Again one has to question the coaching/training. Is enough emphasis put on this or are players left to work on it on their own?

Szczesny too has a weakness in defending set-pieces. Starting with the Henry kick in the Emirates cup, the one by Di Natale, and then these two kicks by Rooney, all show that Wojciech is rooted to his spot and is slow to react to his right. On the other end he tends to move early and leaves a gap that Rooney expertly exploited for the fourth goal. This too appears like an error the coaches should identify and correct.

The fifth goal came from ridiculously ineffective pressing after a corner was cleared and then an appalling lack of effort in tracking back which left the back four vulnerable just when they were running back to get in position.

Sixth was schoolboy defending from the team, the seventh was the price of having Walcott at right back (why couldn’t Arsenal play with a back three?), and the final goal was again an excellent finish with the defence all over the place.

The gunners did manage two at Old Trafford, for just the second time in the Wenger reign and the first time in a League game under Arsene (if I am not mistaken). The first one again highlighted how bad De Gea is at the moment as the Walcott strike went straight through the Spaniard. The second came from some dogged work by Jenkinson and a good finish by Van Persie. How the Dutchman managed to botch the penalty with such a clown in goal is beyond me.

I must say, looking at this performance, United look like they are stronger in attack than they have been for years. But they are also a bit more vulnerable defensively and once teams realize that, their games will be a lot more interesting. On current evidence though, it will be hard to stop the reigning champions from holding on to their trophy.

I don’t want to do much of an individual analysis here. Ramsey deserves a mention for his quality and effort, Rosicky for a couple of wonderful passes and a terrible overall contribution, Arshavin for being the barking dog that never bites (always threatened, never delivered), and the rest of the players for doing as best (or worst) as they could.

Most of the blame does fall on the manager because it seemed the team lacked tactical cohesion (something we have seen often enough in the past). He could have started with a guy like Lansbury instead of Arshavin just to have another defensive body if three youngsters were starting in the back five. The Russian is experienced but out of form and awful at defensive work. Lansbury would have at least ensured another body in the right areas.

The manager also went with an attacking approach even when his team is still developing an understanding. Playing deeper and inviting pressure would have been the right approach in such a game with Walcott and Van Persie left up to play on the counter. There are times when Wenger’s inability to modify the tactics to suit the realities reach hair-tearing levels.

Even his substitutions are hard to understand in such instances. Coquelin, while inexperienced and making his debut, was still working hard to get into the right defensive areas. Once he was taken off it became all the more easier for United to pass the ball in front of the back four. Did Wenger really think he had a chance of getting a point from this game by introducing AOC in place of Coquelin or had he given up on the game/final score and just wanted to see how the youngster did?

While it is clear Arsenal need reinforcements, something the manager and management have acknowledged, I strongly believe the need for a coaching addition is paramount. Some might ask, why bring in a new coach and not a new manager? My answer is that all evidence suggests a change in manager will guarantee a drop out of the top four on Arsenal’s budget. Wenger has a system that works but there are too many critical holes that need to be plugged.

It took Clichy a long time to settle in the role and he sacrificed a lot to keep the gaps on the left covered as best as he could. It is games like these that highlight how valuable his contribution was. Similar arguments can be made for some other players as well and of course, Cesc and Nasri are big losses. Arsene will have to sign the right players but that might not be enough. Let’s not forget Baines was part of the defence that was hammered 6-1 by Arsenal and players like Cahill, Jagielka, and others have always been members of teams that conceded more than the Gunners despite being more defensive minded.

There is no quick fix and there aren’t any players in the current market who are going to come in and perform miracles. The most important answers will have to be found on the training pitch even if four or five new players are signed.

I think for once the international break has come at the right time for Arsenal. The Gunners need time to strengthen and regroup as this season can easily slip away in the next few weeks.

I want to end with a word of appreciation for the away fans. Their support was the only heart-warming memory from an otherwise eminently forgettable game. Hats off to everyone who was there!

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Manchester United

August 26, 2011

This is a tough one. Easily the hardest fixture of the opening month. Let’s be real, if Arsenal had a full team with no injuries or suspensions and even with a couple of signings, this game would still have been the most difficult away game of the League. I am not trying to hype up United but they do have a more than respectable home record. And they have Howard Webb.

Sometimes, a good win sets expectations soaring. Some people lose track of the context and demand miracles in the next game. When reality bites, the pendulum swings to the other extreme and, along with the raucous rants of losers living off of misery, the general degree of despondency hits new heights, or is it lows. Can this be changed or is this an inescapable certainty that we must suffer through? I don’t know the answer to that but setting the right expectations can most definitely help.

Let’s not forget Arsenal have, under Wenger, rarely, if ever, scored more than one goal at Old Trafford. So can the current group, severely limited by injuries and suspension, break that trend? Doubtful. Is this side good enough to win 1-0? I promise not to utter a single criticism against the Arsenal defence all season if that result is achieved.

1-1 then? Now we are entering a more realistic, or cautiously optimistic, zone and this in my opinion is the best result Arsenal can get from this game. Other likely outcomes are not worth discussing before the match.

As I’d said prior to a couple of other games, the progress of the tactical adjustments being made will be of more interest than the final result. But does Arsene have 11 players to put together a tactically strong unit?

Starting line-up option 1 –

Szczesny – Jenkison, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Sagna – Djourou, Ramsey, Rosicky – Walcott, RvP, Arshavin.

This assumes the two centre-backs are fit to play.

Option 2 –

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Djourou, Koscielny, Sagna – Ramsey, Rosicky, RvP – Walcott, Chamakh, Arshavin.

If Vermaelen fails the fitness test, Djourou will have to drop back into the back four. Van Persie seems the most experienced and feasible option for midfield. Rosicky and Ramsey will have to show a great deal of defensive discipline. A considerable improvement in form will be demanded of Arshavin and Chamakh.

There are some other options as well – Traore could play on the wing to provide better defensive cover (with Jenkinson on the left) so that Sagna can do his usual excellent job on the right. Lansbury (if he is fit) could be played in the midfield for his engine and desire. After all, he has played with Cleverly and knows the youngster’s game well. Arsene could also thrust a young gun (AOC or Miyaichi) into the starting line-up for a baptism by fire. This could allow Arshavin to come inwards and take up a position in the hole. That way both teams might end up with a 4-4-1-1. It would make this an open and entertaining game. There are a number of other combinations possible, but these seem to be the most likely ones.

I think the single biggest test for Arsenal will be the quality of the collective defence. Other teams have been able to bring the ball from defence to attack quite often but have lacked the quality in the final third. That won’t be the case with this well-oiled United side that has plenty of pace and finishing prowess. Any lack of concentration or laxity in tracking back can be calamitous.

The first goal will, as is the case in such games, make all the difference. If United get one early they will get complete control over the game and will seamlessly transition into a counter-attacking style.

Last season at Old Trafford, Arsenal started with a cautious approach but didn’t have the right shape to transition from defence to attack. That meant the ball kept coming into the defensive third every minute or so. Eventually, it led to a freakish goal and gave the tie to the hosts. In order to avoid that, Arsene has to find a way to keep the defence solid while having options to break. Walcott can certainly make a big difference in this regard but his runs have to be tactically coordinated otherwise he looks highly ineffective and one dimensional.

Ramsey and Rosicky have the quality to provide balls from deep. Even then, without a clear tactic and practice, it’s hard to expect players to figure these things out on the go. Time will tell whether the Gunners have worked on this in the build up.

If United play with two midfielders like Anderson and Cleverly, Arsenal could get some joy in the middle and opportunities to unlock their defence. I will be surprised if Ferguson leaves that crack open. But if he does, this game won’t be as tight as some of the other encounters between these teams. I expect at least three goals in that case but can’t say which net they will be in.

Szczesny will have the opportunity to put in a MotM display and he has the talent to do it. I would love to know the odds on that one.

And won’t this be a great game for Arshavin to rediscover his shooting boots. Even Rosicky, Ramsey, and RvP should chance their luck at every opportunity. United have a keeper who, in current form, can also be the MotM for the Gunners. The attacking players need to be aware of and attack the second ball from every cross or shot that goes towards De Gea.

Oddly enough, Arsenal have just one win in the last nine League games. Guess who that came against 🙂

Another little tidbit that might interest you is that Arsenal won 49 percent of the games when Nasri started and 62 percent of those he didn’t.

Hopefully, the Webb effect will not come into play and we will get a fascinating tussle between the already presumed League winners and widely predicted no-hopers that will prove the gap isn’t as big as some would have you believe.

Ending on a different note, my folks have come from India and I will be very busy over the weekend. Apologies to regular readers who prefer a quick report after the game. I won’t be able to do one till late on Monday afternoon US Central time. Till then, enjoy the rebuilding phase with reinvigorated hope and tempered expectations.

What About A Nasri-Berbatov Swap?

August 14, 2011

Well, I am not much of a transfer speculation/discussion guy but today’s game and a highly unrealistic transfer rumour about a Nasri-Tevez swap got me thinking.

First, let me just mention why I don’t see any sense in the swap deal with Tevez. The Argentinean is a world-class player but I don’t see him fitting into the Arsenal style. He is, and I say this without intending to be critical, too selfish a striker (a quality that works well in certain cases) and will affect everyone around him. More importantly, I don’t see how Arsenal can afford anywhere near the wages he is on unless all the transfer funds go into that. But the single biggest problem with the deal is that Tevez is unsettled and doesn’t want to be in England (If I haven’t misread his situation). What will prevent him from demanding a move in January or next summer?

If Arsenal want a big name there are better options around.

But once I got thinking about a swap deal, it struck me that Berbatov is in not too dissimilar a position at United. He has scored goals there and won titles but he doesn’t fit as well into their system. There is no doubt in my mind he’d be open to a move after the Champions League Final snub.

United want Nasri and he will improve their squad without a doubt.

Similarly, Berbatov can be an excellent No. 10 for Arsenal. He has the technique to fit into this team, the vision and creativity that will be desperately needed, and he is the kind of a player who would be just as happy giving assists as he would be while scoring goals. I can see him bringing something different and special to the dressing room.

There are some issues with his work rate, but if we are honest, Arsenal have learnt to carry some players. I can see him come into today’s starting line-up in place of Arshavin or just behind the striker.

He can also lead the line when, sorry if, RvP gets injured.

When Fabregas played, his contribution made others perform better. His vision and technique got a lot more out of Arshavin, Van Persie and the others. The Bulgarian can’t be an exact replacement but he will be better than most. He will definitely offer a lot more than someone like Tevez.

Even his wages will be a lot more affordable compared to Tevez or some other superstars.

Anyway, these are just thoughts I had but surprisingly I haven’t read this link before. Of course, this is more likely down to my conscious efforts to stay away from transfer stories than any other reason.

Then again most transfers are complicated affairs, especially this season, and there is no guarantee that a) Ferguson would sell such a player to Arsenal, b) Berbatov would want to come here, c) Wenger shares my views about the Bulgarian, or d) Nasri would agree to a move to United if City are offering a lot more money. And I am sure those are not the only issues that can derail such a move.

But it is worth a thought if nothing more. Don’t you think?

Why Can’t Both Teams Lose The Champions League Final

May 28, 2011

That’s the sad part of the biggest game of the season I guess. One of the two teams will go home as winners. I am finding it hard to pick a team to support and that will make watching the game that much more difficult.

When the same sides met each other three years ago it was easy to support Barcelona. Since then the antics and attitude of the various members of the club, from the players to the board, has been classless and shameful to put it politely. And I don’t have to remind gooners how intolerable United can get.

It will take me a long time to condition myself in order to focus on the game and not on the players/clubs. Those who will succeed in watching the game for the sake of football will find a lot to observe. Such a game might not be an enthralling end-to-end contest, but it will have immense educational value.

Many consider Barcelona to be favourites but I feel this game will be a very close battle with an odd moment of magic or individual mistake settling the tie in a 1-0 result. That’s another disappointing aspect of these big games; they tend to be cagey affairs with very few memorable moments.

Fergie will undoubtedly send his team out to stifle the opponents. It is their single biggest strength so we will get an excellent example of how to keep a defence organized even against the best of attacks. It might be interesting to watch this game and then revisit the Arsenal-Barca games soon after. The difference in styles between the two English sides will be stark even though both will be chasing the ball. I am pretty sure United’s performance will highlight some of the systemic issues that have been troubling the Gunners.

All the noise and nuisance created by the Dark Lord after his side were convincingly dispatched by the Catalans will help Fergie and his players. The referee in this game is likely to be extremely lenient and that will allow the English side to thrive. I also expect more focus on Barcelona so their theatrics might be punished even if they’re somewhat justified.

The point made by Wenger – Barcelona look tired – is valid and will have an impact. Don’t be surprised if Ferguson copies Arsene’s tactic of attacking these opponents late in the game. Guardiola’s team might start as favourites but if the game is deadlocked after an hour his side will struggle.

Both teams have relatively poor away records, certainly when compared to their respective home form. If I’m not mistaken, Messi hasn’t scored yet in England (unlucky to have the goal at the Emirates ruled out). Since the game is at Wembley United might have an edge.

For gooners, there are some aspects that we can learn from both teams. Barcelona will show how to play a patient possession game. This includes the art of defensive possession, preventing counter-attacks by unparalleled pressing and positioning, and picking the right moments to penetrate. There are times when Arsenal try too hard against opponents like United. It stretches the Gunners out of shape and opens the game up for the opponents. I’ll be surprised if Barcelona do it even once. The Manchester side will have to produce quality football to get a goal; they won’t get a gift (They might get one from a set-piece).

From a defensive point of view we will be able to see the importance of concentration as the English side chase the ball and close the opponents down. Their positioning, shape, and decision making (when to press and when to back off) will also be worth watching. I believe Arsenal struggle on this front. There are times when the players get their decisions wrong. On other occasions players are not in sync, some press while others back away. United will show what a well-drilled defensive machine they are. Exemplary if you can tolerate it.

Unless there is a freak early goal, this game is not likely to have too much goalmouth action. It will be boring from that point of view. But to those interested in the details it will be a fascinating duel. I’ve already started conditioning my mind in the effort to focus on the game. Hopefully, it will work out by tomorrow afternoon.