Thoughts On Southampton And Marseille

November 26, 2013

The win against the Saints was a good one in terms of performance and obviously useful in terms of consolidating the position at the top. However, there wasn’t much in that game from an analytical point of view. It was pretty much the Arsenal we’ve seen for the most part this season.

The visitors tried pressing up the pitch but Arsenal’s midfield and technical quality in general was just too good. In the end it seemed Pochettino’s men were often chasing the ball valiantly but in vain. I doubt there were any turnovers that led to attacks on the Arsenal goal. Apart from Arsenal’s ability to move the ball, you could also see Southampton are still new at this and have a lot to learn before they master such a style of play. On a number of occasions their pressing was reactionary and individualistic rather than cohesive, although the energy, persistence, and the attempted methodical nature might still be enough to rattle most teams in the League.

Similarly, you could see their build up from the back is also a work in progress. Boruc was palpably the culprit for the first goal but any manager who wants his Keeper to play passes like an outfielder has to instruct his defenders and midfielder to provide options when the custodian has the ball. Nobody moved when Boruc was getting cornered. It was a systemic fault and I’m sure Pochettino will look to improve all aspects of his team’s play instead of relying on simplistic solutions like kick the ball away.

The Gunners were again excellent in defending as a unit. I don’t recall Southampton having any clear shots at goal. A couple of volley’s from the edge of the box were their most noteworthy moments. Of course, there is some tension when the lead is limited to a solitary goal as the possibility of a freakish equalizer can be felt in the anxious breaths of fans and players alike whenever the opponents advance to the penalty area. Then again, the tendency to concede such goals was directly linked to deficiencies in the defensive unit so solidity on that front does provide greater comfort and reliability.

The only slightly iffy moments I recall were from Arteta when he miskicked his clearance on the edge of the box and when he gave the ball away leading to that chance for Rodriguez. Mertesacker too was caught flat footed once or twice. The fact that others stepped up and covered for errors from the most reliable defensive players bodes well for the future. It’s that layering thing I’ve talked about.

The attack is still not there and I think it will take a little time to get the exact balance between protecting the goal with assurance and attacking the other end ruthlessly and efficiently. It’s happened in some games but part of that was down to the defensive quality of the opponents. Southampton were pretty well organized and worked very hard to limit opportunities for the Gunners. Even then some of the interchanges in the midfield were delightful. They are moving around well but not quite finding either the right positioning in the box, or the final ball, or the shot. Bit of that is down to luck – like hitting the post – but it’s also about probabilities. The more and better chances you create the better your probability of scoring beautiful goals. On the other hand, the team did benefit from a different form of luck. Boruc probably won’t make that mistake again and I doubt Fonte will concede another penalty of that nature. The goals Arsenal got were odd in that sense. But on the whole it was a deserved win.

Individually speaking, it’s hard to pick one outstanding player. I thought everyone played well even if Mertesacker and Arteta were maybe two percent below their usually exceptional standards. Giroud was decisive and probably deserves the man of the match award.

I don’t expect the Marseille game to be very different. The dynamic of the Champions League group has worked out in such a manner that the French side appear to be the whipping boys. But they are a pretty good team in their own right and can still cause an upset if Arsenal drop their level even by a short margin.

Elie Baup’s side are physically strong and fairly well organized. If in his boots, I’d ask the team to press Arsenal really high up the pitch like Southampton did but with greater urgency and anticipation when closing down players off the ball. They haven’t got much to lose and by giving it their all they could regain some pride. Arsenal don’t enjoy it when teams get really tight to them in a physical manner, something Southampton tried but didn’t quite succeed with. It’ll also be interesting to see if they leave at least one of their tricky wide players up the pitch and closer to the striker who was isolated at times in the reverse fixture. That would also give Valbuena greater creative possibilities. Starting without a recognized central striker and playing the extra midfielder could give Marseille greater technical balance to counter Arsenal’s main strength.

Wenger’s side have shown high levels of concentration, discipline, and structure in most of their games. Same again should limit the opportunities that the visitors can create. However, there are times when it seems Arsenal do drop a little too deep. It’s good while it works but the margin of error is very fine when you’re on the edge of your own box or just inside. It’s certainly not good for the nerves and also limits the number of counter-attacks a team can create. Dortmund, for instance, look a much more offensive side even when they’re predominantly defending because their off the ball work is aggressive and higher up the pitch. I’m watching every game hoping Arsenal will move up the pitch a bit more but for now it seems results are the priority and it’s hard to argue against that.

Wenger has the opportunity to make a couple of changes to bring fresh legs in. Flamini is available and Rosicky could be ready for another start even if the game is still too early for Walcott. But given the importance of the tie, Wenger will probably not tinker with the line up from the Southampton game.

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

If things go according to script this would be another tight game where the Gunners show that little bit of extra decisive quality in the attacking third to get three points, but I won’t be surprised if a lack of offensive efficiency proves expensive. Either way, except in the event of Marseille crumbling mentally as they’ve little to play for, I don’t expect more than one goal to separate the teams at the end.

Marseille 1 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 20, 2013

10 away wins in a row! That could have been a potential banana skin but Arsenal’s experience and patient approach saw them through to a massive result.

It was interesting that Wenger went with his settled eleven and didn’t introduce either Vermaelen or Monreal into his starting line-up. That was a mark of respect for the opponent. In the same vein Elie Baup showed respect for Arsenal by using both his wide players in a highly restricted role. It was a tense game and could, on another day, have ended in a stalemate.

The hosts had the upper hand for most of the first half. Their momentum was built on the foundation of a strong defence. A thought that struck me at half time was,

Any team can line up eight players in two banks of four. That, in itself, doesn’t mean much. Marseille got the spacing between the players spot on, and they made the right choices to close down space effectively in order to negate the impact of Arsenal’s natural fluid style. The Gunners were really struggling to find any incision.

The visitors had only two main attacking options in the first half. A ball in-behind for Walcott, which seemed threatening in the opening minutes but was dealt with subsequently. And some crosses from wide on the right that were also cleared with ease by the hosts.

Looking for Walcott in behind

Looking for Walcott in-behind in the first half

Most crosses from the right in the first half

Most crosses from the right in the first half

On the other side, Marseille were finding space down the flanks, particularly behind Sagna. Valbuena was playing in front of the midfield line of four and often made runs towards the flanks to convert defence into attack. Gignac also did that from time to time.

Marseille created enough unsettling moments and, as stated above, could have got a goal on another day. But their style of play and qualities of players is such that they will not trouble the big teams often enough to be considered a consistently serious threat at the top level.

Valbuena was their key player but he couldn’t do enough to put his team ahead. Another thought I had after the game was,

Despite their dominance in the first half, Marseille’s only two shots on target during that period came in the first three minutes. Their game lacked efficiency as they relied on the wide areas almost exclusively. Baup used his wingers on their regular flanks. I thought this was more to facilitate compact defending than to promote their offensive skills. Having them on the opposite flanks and cutting inside could have created better chances in central areas but that would also have left the team exposed on transitions. It seemed like a safe choice from the manager but one that limited their attacking potential.

Of course, the problem for him was that Valbuena isn’t the type of player who can control the game from deeper areas and take up serious defensive responsibility. If he could do that, either Payet or Ayew might have had a chance to take more liberties in the Arsenal half. Another related issue was that they lacked a player who could drive at opposition defence during quick transitions. A lot of their attacking momentum was slowed down when they got boxed into wider areas. Valbuena was usually higher than the others without the ball and he tended to drift wide instead of going at the heart of Arsenal’s defence. Gignac getting caught off-side when a ball in-behind was on didn’t help matters either.

When they did create some sort of an opening in the middle their players didn’t have enough decisive quality to make the difference. Valbuena’s chance in the 19th minute is a good example as was Fanni’s miss early in the second half. Theo and Ramsey scored from comparable situations.

The second half was different. Initially it seemed to me that the Gunners were deliberately conservative on their left flank in the first half but Wenger’s comments suggest that was not the case.

I felt we were a bit within ourselves in the first half, a bit timid, and Marseille were more mobile and first on the ball…

I felt we didn’t change sides enough in the first half and didn’t find Jack or Özil enough. But Marseille defended very well and stopped us from playing through the lines. We didn’t go in enough behind and overall there was not enough purpose in our game. I insisted more on that at half-time.

Look at the crosses comparison above and you’ll see there was practically nothing from the left side in the first half. Even the passes in the final third were of the conservative variety on the left with more verticality on the right. This changed in the second period.

Gibbs was decisive and passes to and from the full-back corroborate this argument.

Running into space in the second half

Most of the passes he received in the first half, even those higher up the pitch, were of a flat/square variety. These are usually conservative, safer passes designed to keep possession and recycle the ball. There wasn’t much in the form of penetration or verticality. Even in the second half most of the passes were square and safe, which makes sense, but there were enough passes that brought him into influential attacking positions as he ran onto balls in space.

Passes made by the Englishman into the final third also had greater purpose.

Greater verticality and purpose to passing

Greater verticality and purpose to passing

The difference wasn’t earth shattering and it didn’t turn the game around to the extent that Arsenal became the outright dominant side, but it was decisive enough. Apart from a couple of Walcott moments early on in the first half, there was very little offensive threat from Arsenal in the first half. In contrast, most of the chances created in the second period were high quality ones. These include, apart from the goals, shots by Wilshere, Gibbs, and Özil from the left side.

On the basis of this performance it seems safe to say that Marseille will not be pushovers in this group. But it will be surprising if they go too far in the tournament even if they do get through the group because their attack lacks the level of efficiency and diversity needed at this level unless they take a high level of risk and liberate their wingers, which would then affect the defensive shape and the balance of the side.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Handled the shots on target fairly well. Had one moment of communication gap with Mertesacker and one occasion when he came out and barely got a ball that seemed easy enough to collect. Typically adequate performance behind a defence that shielded him well.

Sagna: He got some space on the right in the first half but there weren’t sufficient targets in the box. That cross for Wilshere in the second half was superb. Work rate on the flank was commendable given the number of times he had to chase back.

Mertesacker: I liked the way he covered the flank when Sagna was up the pitch. Used his reach intelligently and prevented opponents from getting in behind or reaching the byline. It did enough to slow the play down for help to arrive. Passing was reliable, made a number of vital interventions in and around the box, and received a boot to the face for his offensive intent! That mix up with the keeper could have been expensive. Once he started to, he should have taken responsibility and booted the ball away cleanly. Seemed to me Szczesny’s call put him in two minds and led to that horrible outside edge to first slip.

Koscielny: Had a relatively more comfortable game than Mertesacker but his covering wasn’t as effective. The chance for Fanni, for instance, came from his side of the pitch. Passing was more adventurous and less accurate than his partner. Surprisingly, went on a run deep into the opposition half when the team was leading by a goal.

Gibbs: MotM in my opinion. Defensive work was exceptional, including that massive off-the-line clearance, even though he had less support than Sagna on the other end. Made good choices with his positioning and passing and provided the ball for both the goals.

The back four had a challenging game but they did a good job for large periods. There were a few mistakes but those happen to all the teams. Look at Ferdinand’s mistakes against Leverkusen, for instance. Once again the Gunners limited the clear cut chances created by the opponents and this automatically increased their chances of winning the game.

Ramsey: Very close second for the MotM. Another humongous effort from the Welshman, easily doing the work of two midfielders. A bit lucky with the goal, and a tad unfortunate to concede the penalty. Defensive work was top class, including that tackle at the edge of the box that made me jump from my seat.

Özil: As discussed here, the German isn’t the type of player who is very comfortable in dropping deep and receiving the ball straight from the defenders, something that Rosicky does well, for instance. Add to that the fact that Marseille really compressed spaces in their half and it was always going to be a hard game for him to influence. There were some glimpses of his talent in a couple of passes for Walcott, that backheel for Gibbs, and the shot at the end that just went wide, but on the whole the performance was one or two notches below his calibre.

Flamini: Another decent game from the Frenchman as he kept things tidy in midfield and offered energy to move into wide areas when the team needed bodies. Passing was more reliable than it has been in earlier games.

Wilshere: As Wenger stated, in the first half he wasn’t involved in the game as often as one would have liked, although that outside of the boot chip towards Walcott was sumptuous. Did show greater discipline in hugging the flank and that helped Gibbs, but his lack of defensive awareness meant it wasn’t always enough. Not his best game but was another opportunity to learn.

It was a mixed bag for the midfielders but they didn’t make any mistakes and worked hard to support the defence. Eliminating mistakes at this level can be very useful. Ramsey’s qualities made a big difference.

Walcott: Good to see him get off the mark for the season after a few missed chances in previous games. And what a goal it was! Superb technique and concentration. Had a chance early on when it seemed he was pulled back, but over time he’ll have to develop the strength to shrug off that challenge. Decent defensive work too.

Giroud: Was hardly ever free from the attentions of the defenders. Didn’t receive any notable service except for that corner he headed wide. Worked hard for the team but this game showed areas where he still has to improve to contribute at this level.

The attackers had an average game but the first goal made a big difference and it was down to individual quality.

Subs: Monreal didn’t have to do much defending and Miayichi’s appearance was only for the statisticians.

Wenger: His experience and quality at this level shows through not only in Arsenal’s performances but the choices of the opposing managers. If the result had been achieved with a bit more rotation it would have been that much sweeter.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Marseille

September 18, 2013

Three of the teams in Arsenal’s Champions League group are common from 2011-12 but the introduction of Napoli in place of Olympiacos has made this a genuinely tough group. That and Dortmund’s form last season has made Marseille to be the least likely team to come out of this group in the eyes of many. But don’t forget the Germans were very highly rated a couple of years ago too but the French club showed their mettle to secure qualification to the next round.

Marseille don’t concede many goals and that means they don’t lose many games. Only one goal was scored in the two games between the clubs from the 11-12 season, Ramsey’s injury time winner at the Stade Velodrome. There’s been a change of manager since then but Elie Baup’s side are as well organized and structurally sound as Deschamp’s team were. Their back four work well as a unit and the two midfielders, Romao and Imbula, offer physicality and discipline in front of them.

Neither of their two defensive midfielders is particularly adventurous but the left-footed Imbula, although often the deepest midfielder in the side, does sometimes drive forward with the ball and is pretty graceful at it. Most of their offensive threat will come from the guile and horizontal movement of Valbuena and the pace and trickery of the wide players, who often line up as inverted wingers. That means the right-footed Payet cuts inside from the left while Ayew does so from the right. Thauvin is another exciting addition but we’ll have to see whether he gets a start in this game. All three are good dribblers and will trouble the defenders if isolated one-v-one. They also possess a powerful, if somewhat inconsistent, shot.

Up front, Gignac is a bit like Giroud in terms of his physicality and movement. The striker’s finishing hasn’t quite risen to the level many had expected from him but he remains a threat, a bit like Giroud was last season. Arsene will hope this turns out to be one of his off days.

Marseille could be a threat from set-pieces. Valbuena provides excellent delivery and Lucas Mendes has been in good scoring form recently. Both their goals were scored by the defender from set-pieces in the last two games against Toulouse and Monaco and he also had a header cleared off the line against Toulouse.

We’ll have to see if Marseille sit with their two banks of four of if they come out and try to express their qualities a bit more. Arsenal have played a very conservative style in their strong run of form away from home, and it includes very limited pressing in the opposition half. Marseille’s defence can be vulnerable if they push up high and there could be some joy in the wider areas for the Gunners if either Payet or Ayew lacks consistency in the defensive work.

The central area will be congested and it will be hard to find space between Romao, Imbula, and the central defenders. However, some of Arsenal’s passing and combination play has been exceptional in recent games and they should be able to create a few chances irrespective of Marseille’s approach.

Wenger does not have many options in midfield or attack so we might see the same six that started against Sunderland take the field at the Stade Velodrome. In that case, I’d really like to see Özil remain central and Wilshere on the left. Interchanging positions when the opportunity arises is completely fine and vital to Arsenal’s approach but if Wilshere stays in the central areas for longer periods it will affect the balance of the side and leave the left back exposed as we saw in the second half against Sunderland.

At the back there is some scope for rotation depending on Vermaelen’s fitness. Monreal could also get a start to give the team some fresh legs.

Some fans also want to see the Gibbs-Monreal pair on the left flank. That could work in theory, and Wilshere could be rested if a full-back takes the midfield role on the left, but I don’t believe either of the full-backs really thinks like a midfielder. They can offer movement and passing up and down the pitch, but we will see very little in the form of instinctive positional rotation from them. This will slow Arsenal’s play down and limit offensive options. So such an approach is more of a defensive choice and seems a bit unnecessary in this game, unless sharpness/fitness of players is a real concern. It seems like a percentage call that the manager has to make.

I’ve not seen teams really press Arsenal high up the pitch thus far this season and it doesn’t seem to be Marseille’s style but they are capable of pushing up if chasing a game. Such a situation could make things very interesting because the Gunners are very strong on the counter-attack but the midfield could struggle to bring the ball out from defence on a consistent basis, resulting in transitions that would be valuable to the hosts.

Flamini’s performance will be important. He doesn’t quite have Arteta’s ability to circulate the ball and his positioning isn’t as intelligent as the Spaniard’s but he does offer greater energy and can chase the ball all night long. He must cut out unnecessary fouls and should try to focus his movement horizontally instead of occasionally looking for forward runs. Ramsey is a vertical player and will at times be away from defensive zones. Arsenal will need a player who can move into wide areas to help the defenders, because Valbuena and Gignac both have a tendency to drift into wider areas from time to time.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Ramsey, Özil, Flamini – Walcott, Giroud, Wilshere.

Vermaelen lacks match fitness so it might be too early to give him a start.

The Gunners have been defensively strong when they’ve worked as a unit but if it fails to click the team can look amateurish at the back on occasion. Arsenal haven’t lost in France in the Champions League and they might be able to extend that record as long as they don’t gift goals to the opposition. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember the qualities of Marseille and respect them even when the easier option might be to worry about the perceived qualities of Dortmund and Napoli and classify the French side as the minnows of the group. I have a feeling Marseille will surprise a few people, but hopefully it won’t happen today.

Arsenal 0 – 0 Marseille: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

November 2, 2011

There isn’t much to choose between the sides. In the two games over the fortnight, Arsenal and Marseille have shown they are closely matched with the Gunners nicking the away tie late but failing to score at home. Marseille were competitive but couldn’t produce enough in front of goal.

I was a bit surprised with the starting line-up. Wenger left his two best and most consistent players on current form on the bench as Park and Vermaelen came in for RvP and Koscielny. Jenkinson at right back was fairly predictable. I wasn’t expecting many changes and Vermaelen for Koscielny could be considered like-for-like and understandable. But leaving Van Persie out after he’d had a game and a half off recently was unexpected. One can only hope he still isn’t carrying that tightness in muscles that could potentially turn into a problem over the international break.

Nevertheless, it was a strong side and one that was expected to win the game. Credit to Marseille for their tactics and discipline.

Deschamps sent his players out with instructions to press higher up the pitch. That was an approach I’d not have guessed. It worked for the visitors in the first 8-9 minutes as it seemed that Arsenal were caught unawares. The midfield kept pushing up and it was easy for the French side to get into good crossing positions. Arsenal’s defence did well to limit the opponents to half-chances.

After a while Arsenal made some tactical changes. The midfielders, who were being caught away from the defence, dropped back. They players kept the ball on the ground instead of kicking it up and showed composure under pressure. Gervinho started making a number of runs in central areas as the visitors pushed up to press the Arsenal midfield higher up the pitch. Walcott remained in wide areas while Park made runs all over the pitch. The full back on Gervinho’s flank provided width while the one behind Walcott was more conservative. The midfield trio were fluid and interchanged positions but Ramsey got into advanced areas more often than the others. I have been looking for such changes for a long time now so was very pleased to see it all coming together.

The hosts created a number of chances for the rest of the half while restricting the visitors to a handful of bursts on the break that were well defended or resulted in hopeful shots from distance. The telling stat was that Marseille created 3 chances in the opening 8 minutes and the same number in the rest of the half. And those that came later on were further away from goal.

At the other end the Gunners could have done a lot better. Song’s passing in attacking areas was disappointing and ceded possession when better was expected. Park’s running was energetic but needs sharpening and better understanding as he tended to move towards the back post and away from the man on the ball when better intuitive runs could have been more productive. Ramsey missed a couple of decent chances – once when he arrived at the back post but couldn’t hit the target while sliding to connect with a Santos cross, and then, in the best chance of the half, delaying his strike after receiving a great pass from Gervinho on the edge of the box. The Ivorian was a constant menace with his central runs and some from wide areas as well but lacked strength in individual battles against the physically dominant defenders. He got into promising positions all through the game but was brushed off the ball rather easily.

Mandanda was tested twice – one each by Walcott and Gervinho – but those were saves you’d expect the keeper to make. Marseille would have been fairly happy with their defensive effort and the Gunners again failed to utilize the set-pieces.

The opening fifteen minutes of the second half were tight. Arsenal bossed the ball but there were hardly any chances for either side. Around the hour mark the Gunners started tiring. Subsequently the game became stretched and once again Arsenal’s midfield was getting caught away from the defence. Marseille got a lot of space down the wings and produced a number of half-chances. Szczesny wasn’t really tested though as Mertesacker and Vermaelen were immense at the centre of defence.

At the other end the hosts couldn’t create much. Van Persie came on for the ineffective Park while Rosicky was introduced for the visibly exhausted Ramsey. Little Mozart did put Van Persie through on one occasion but De Kapitein’s chip didn’t have enough elevation.

Towards the end Marseille looked more like the team that could snatch something but Arsenal were resolute in the central area in front of their goal.

Both managers will probably feel their side could have won it. I wasn’t very happy with Arsenal’s effort in the attacking third but the number of tactical adjustments were very encouraging as was the performance of the two central defenders. There is a concern over the apparent fatigue and one can only hope the cost won’t be paid against West Brom. The steady trot that the Gunners are on hasn’t turned into a run yet but at least it wasn’t interrupted.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Can’t recall the need for any big saves. Had some communication problems with Vermaelen that resulted in him flapping and getting out of position once or twice and a nervy moment as he came out to head a ball outside the box.

Jenkinson: Very strong in the defensive areas and tracked the runs of Ayew well. There could have been a big chance in the fifth minute if the youngster hadn’t been pressuring the striker into rushing his attempt. Passing and decision making in attacking areas needs to improve.

Mertesacker: Excellent game. MotM in my book. Dominated in the air, read the game beautifully, made a number of timely touches in and around the box.

Vermaelen: Very similar to the his partner. Dominated his area well, made a number of quality tackles, only blemish was his occasional communication gap with the Keeper.

Santos: Made some mistakes at the back, was erratic with his positioning, made useful runs and put in a couple of good crosses, overall defensive effort wasn’t too bad but needs improving.

Marseille got some joy down Arsenal’s flanks but the defenders were dominant in the central areas snuffing out danger before the opponents could capitalize. I thought some of the problems out wide came from leaving the wide players higher up the pitch and it could have worked given the quality of defending in front of goal.

Song: Absolutely dominated individual physical battles, got into excellent defensive positions, handled pressure with composure, needs to do better with his passes in attacking areas especially when he has time.

Ramsey: Not at his usual level from a finishing point of view but he reached the right places regularly. Passing was impressive and sharp in forward areas. Did a fair bit of tracking without the ball as he made up for the wide players staying further up the pitch.

Arteta: Solid shift on the left and bailed Santos out regularly. Steady passing. Tireless understated performance that was vital to the clean sheet.

The midfield took a while to get in the game but controlled it for 50 min or so after that. Song and Arteta deserve credit for their positional play and physical effort at the back. Ramsey probably worked the hardest but must be disappointed with his misses.

Walcott: Got a chance to run at the defence on a few occasions but Marseille made it compact when he reached the defensive third. His early balls weren’t as effective in this game.

Park: Lot of running but not on the same page as some of his teammates. Dropped deep regularly and his attempts at linking play were appreciable.

Gervinho: Was a constant threat with his runs, took up excellent positions centrally and between the lines to receive the ball and break forward, can do better with his final pass, needs to be stronger against the defenders once he gets the ball in and around the box.

The front three were a bit disappointing in this game. Better runs from Park might have made Walcott and Gervinho look impressive. It would be good to see further development of the “wide player making central runs” tactic, especially when counter-attacks are on with the midfield playing deeper. Theo and Gervinho should share this role.

Subs: Van Persie got only one real chance and I don’t blame him for missing it. Did put in a couple of good crosses into the box. Rosicky was tenacious and a bit unfortunate to pick up  a booking. Wasn’t as sharp with  his passing despite creating the chance for RvP. Arshavin struggled against physically strong opponents and put the team in trouble on a couple of occasions by losing the ball just inside the Marseille half with Santos pushing forward.

Wenger: Picked a strong enough side. First two substitutions were understandable but the introduction of Arshavin when the others were tiring was odd. Arsenal needed a player who could offer more physically rather than an odd moment of creativity. Tactical adjustments must be commended as they are clearly a result of work done in training. While this result was acceptable the real impact will probably be seen on the weekend as some players were exhausted by the final whistle.

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Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Marseille

November 1, 2011

We have now to forget about Chelsea, carry on, and prove that we can keep doing the job.

Wenger knows what he is saying. The victory at the weekend was as uplifting as any in recent memory but most fans will recall how a similar win against Barcelona was quickly forgotten when the subsequent results disappointed.

It will be a new day and a new game when Marseille set foot at the Emirates turf. Arsene also knows it will be an even tougher game than the one in France a fortnight ago.

I believe they have the team which certainly is more at ease away from home… They have gained in confidence in between the two games like we have so it should be an interesting tie. But for us it’s an opportunity to qualify and of course we want to take this chance.

They are a side who can defend well with very physical and quick players on the break, so I believe that the counter attack suits them more than dominating the game.

Marseille always make life difficult for teams in England, so let’s be cautious, prepare well and be completely focused tomorrow night.

Arsenal can move to ten points with a win. While mathematically two teams could still match that, the Gunners will probably qualify due to a better head-to-head record against Marseille. However, that’s just a minor point. There is no reason for repeating the second place finish from last season so the Gunners will want to win this one and get more points from the remaining two fixtures.

Tactically, this game will be noticeably different from the humdinger at Chelsea. Deschamps’ side will play deeper in their half, will be structurally stronger, and will make fewer individual mistakes. They cannot boast of an array of attacking talent similar to the Blues but they do have pace on the counter attacks and a fair degree of technical quality that could lead to quality balls and finishes when given space to attack.

Arsenal will have to work harder in the attacking areas to win this one. When a team tries that it can at times leave the back door open. It would be excellent if the Gunners can completely eliminate that but perhaps a touch unrealistic. Some chances will be conceded. The central defenders will have some tracking and intercepting to do whenever the visitors try to get in behind. But if the defenders and the Keeper don’t make any major mistakes they should be fine.

Marseille are also strong on set-pieces. At the Stade Velodrome Arsenal looked more threatening from free-kicks but it would be unwise to let the guard down.

It will also be interesting to see how Wenger approaches this one. Will he put his strongest side out? Will Le Boss rotate and rest a few players with an eye on the weekend clash? I am glad I don’t have to make these decisions as there don’t seem to be any obviously right answers. If he rotates and loses he will be criticized. But starting and losing a player to injury will also be a major problem. We just have to hope Wenger has the right information to make these decisions and nothing untoward happens during the game. It’s November now so fingers crossed.

I believe Arsene will play his best possible team with a few changes if a player really needs a break.

At the back there is a big decision with Vermaelen returning to fitness. Should he come into the central defence straight away? If so at whose expense? Koscielny has been in exceptional form but Mertesacker is more complimentary to the Belgian. Should Djourou retain his place ahead of the rookie Jenkinson? Should TV5 start at left-back? Does Santos have enough in him to play three games in a week or so?

Most fans will probably have instinctive opinions on these questions. I know I do. Jenkinson seems like the right choice for his favoured position. Koscielny and Mertesacker should remain in the centre of defence while Vermaelen should come in at left back. Based purely on what I have seen it’s hard to imagine Santos putting in a solid shift every three days. But Wenger will base his decision on hard facts related to fitness and form so there would be no arguments from my side on these selections even if hindsight proves him wrong.

I can understand calls for replacing Mertesacker with Vermaelen and Arsene could do that but I’d prefer stability in that partnership.

The options in midfield are also quite interesting. Song, Ramsey, and Arteta are developing well together but Benayoun and Rosicky also need games. Up front, Arshavin and Park would be hoping to dislodge a couple from the trio that tormented Chelsea. Again these decisions are just not easy.

I’d leave Walcott out of the starting eleven as he probably won’t be that effective against a team that sits back.

Song is a hard player to replace and the only ones with similar styles are the young guns, Coquelin and Frimpong. It would be risky to put either of them in the starting line-up. Arteta too has a special role and helps the side keep the ball moving while making significant defensive contribution in deeper areas. Can Benayoun do that? I am not sure.

Ramsey and Rosicky could battle for the attacking midfield birth or Little Mozart could start on the wing. Rambo is just getting into a rhythm and could benefit from a continued run.

So after all that discussion I would recommend only three changes to the side that demolished Chelsea.

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen – Song, Ramsey, Arteta – Rosicky/Benayoun/Arshavin, RvP, Gervinho.

Park would have to do with a place on the bench.

Arsene will also have to take the country-football into consideration. For instance, Arteta has played a lot of games but he had a break during the last international fortnight and will have one after this weekend. So does he really need a breather right now? It’s quite possible that Le Boss has had a word with some of the managers of national sides to know their plans for his players. That should also help him balance the load.

After a few rounds of two steps forward one step back, Arsenal are finally on a run of sorts. Well, at least a steady trot. This game should provides a chance to build on that leading up to the West Brom game and the international break.

One thing is for sure, Arsenal have sufficient players to pick a very strong line-up while having respectable bench strength. Touchwood. Now it’s a matter of sending those players out with the right instructions and for the players to deliver on the pitch.

I want to end by sharing a link to my analysis of the Chelsea game for Epl Index. That article has some chalkboards and stats along with a couple of tactical observations. I believe it’s got some interesting points. Those who have enjoyed such articles on this blog in the past will most probably appreciate it. Have a read if you are still relishing that magnificent win and fancy another look at the events of the game.

Marseille 0 – 1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 19, 2011

One-Nil to the Arsenal. Thank you very much.

I would have been happy with a draw so a win, and that too in such a manner with a clean sheet to boot, has put me over the moon – which is a lovely place, you should join me. Ah! I see many are already here and some others on their way. Wonderful.

I need a few deep breaths before writing this so you aren’t blinded by all the moonshine. Ok, enough with the euphoria-induced stupid jokes, let’s get to the match.

I thought this was a very exciting tactical battle and Arsene won it with his experience.

For large parts of this game many Gooners might have been frustrated and nervy. Marseille were looking a lot more threatening while Arsenal weren’t really creating quality chances that one expects/demands.

Deschamps deserves credit for pushing his players up the pitch to press Arsenal and prevent the Gunners from bringing the ball out with ease. The approach disrupted Wenger’s side and possession was squandered time and again. When the Gunners did string a few passes together – which was a hard task mind – it usually ended in a unsuccessful cross from wide on the right. Jenkinson or Walcott the player looking clueless with only Van Persie a target against four or five defenders. I don’t blame the wide players despite the statistic reading 0 successful out of 28 attempted crosses at one point.

The problem here was that Arsenal kept the midfield deeper to provide better cover to the defence. This meant Marseille couldn’t really test Szczesny despite having the ball in dangerous areas. Wenger mentioned Marseille were lethal on the break and this would have been a tactic to counter that.

On the flip side, Arsenal couldn’t get enough bodies forward to support Van Persie. It’s an issue of finding the right balance and Wenger hasn’t achieved that on a consistent basis. When that’s the case, I’d take a strong defensive performance over a flamboyant but leaky effort.

I believe Arsenal need better structure/shape in such games but for now hard work and concentration will have to suffice.

Ultimately, the tactics of both sides meant there weren’t many highlights-worthy moments in the first half. There was a penalty shout in each box. Marseille might be aggrieved that Santos wasn’t shown a second yellow. But by and large I don’t have any complaints against the ref even though the decisions weren’t always to my liking.

The second half started where the first had finished. Marseille got the ball into the Arsenal box but the Gunners always had bodies to protect the goal. It was ugly at times, but effective. On the other side the Gunners only managed a couple of half chances.

In both cases, Walcott and Van Persie got chances from a difficult angle on the right and Mandanda did well to save.

I thought Wenger also won the battle with the right substitutions which were afforded to him by a stronger bench.

Djourou came on for Jenkinson due to an injury but the introductions of Gervinho and Ramsey gave Arsenal greater impetus whereas Gignac and Amalfitano couldn’t make much of an impact for Marseille.

In the final 15-20 minutes Arsenal looked like the team with the momentum and desire as the hosts tired and their pressing waned. Even then the Gunners were cautious not to leave the back door open which prevented a couple of perilous moments from turning into disasters. Song and Koscielny deserve special mention for their work at the back but others did a good job as well.

The goal, I must confess, came out of nowhere. It was however, a result of Arsenal’s greater desire and experience as Marseille lost their concentration and left the defenders without cover at a crucial juncture. It’s the kind of mistake Wenger’s sides have made in the past.

Djourou found himself in space halfway inside the opposition half on the right side after winning a 50-50. His cross was good but clearly directed towards the central players Gervinho and Van Persie. The ball shaved the Ivorian’s skin and fell kindly to Ramsey who’d sneaked into the box from a wide position on the left. The Welshman’s control, composure, and finished underlined his quality.

I wouldn’t say this was a great display from Arsenal. But it was a game which showed Wenger does make subtle tactical adjustments. It also showed the value of his experience and the overall fighting spirit of the squad.

Having said that, I will make my way back down to earth. Two wins on the bounce is just a start and we cannot afford to get carried away.

Individual Performances

Szczesny: Wasn’t really tested despite a number of balls arriving in the box. Was well placed and contributed towards soaking pressure by receiving passes and spreading the ball.

Jenkinson: Energetic performance from a willing worker. Could have done better with some crosses but looking up, he must have been disappointed with the lack of targets. Did win a number of corners though. Tenacious in defence.

Mertesacker: Was beaten by the skill of an opponent on more than a couple of occasions but mainly in a wide position just outside the box. Was strong and decisive in the central areas in front of goal.

Koscielny: Excelled at reading the game. Made a number of vital interceptions/clearances.

Santos: Some of his touches were classy but he also had a languid style which made him look tired and led to a few errors. Will have to buckle down and play with focus if he has to perform every three days.

I thought the back five were impressive. Marseille rarely got a clear look at goal despite having quality players on the ball and good runners. The defensive line was largely solid and they made up for mistakes by being tenacious. For instance, when Remy got in behind from a long chip and beat Mertesacker, Jenkinson got back to cover. Even the right back was beaten but still got back to put a foot in to deflect the shot away from goal. The players worked for each other and protected the goal. It wasn’t the performance of a dominant team but one of a determined side.

Song: Picked up a booking as early as the 4th minute after a loose touch ceded possession in a tricky area. Maintained his composure after that and produced quality tackles in and around the box. Needs to do better with his passing and decision making in advanced areas.

Arteta: Tremendous work rate, good technique on the ball. Provided good cover on the left, especially when Arshavin stayed up.

Rosicky: Looked good on the ball but nowhere near the kind of dominance he showed in the previous game. Fair contribution at the back.

I thought the midfield struggled against the pressing in the first half and for parts of the second. But their primary responsibility seemed to be that of providing cover and that was executed well enough. Usually, when the opponents press the midfielders push up as we saw with Song and Arteta’s positioning against Sunderland. The conservative approach in this game wasn’t easy on the eye but justified and commendable.

Walcott: Will probably be vilified for his crossing but I thought he did well with the limited service for his runs and the lack of options in the box. Honest defensive shift as well.

RvP: Continues to plug away with his work rate – dropping deep, working the channels, rarely a still moment. Didn’t get enough support from the midfield so his effort was even more impressive.

Arshavin: The only truly disappointing performance on the night. Tried as well as he could but wasn’t able to get past his man on the right or the left. Didn’t do enough in defensive areas.

I thought the front three were isolated and out of sync. This must have been a different experience from the usual camping in the opponent half. I would still like to see better tactical utilization of Walcott’s pace when the opponents are pressing so high up. Playing another midfielder on the left might have liberated the Englishman more often.

Subs: All three were involved in the goal! Djourou created the chance by winning the challenge and putting in a good cross, Gervinho got a crucial touch even if unintentionally, Ramsey produced the decisive finish. In general, Djourou looked more confident than in some of the earlier games and was extremely unlucky to get booked for a very good tackle. Gervinho was lively and troubled the defenders with his direct style. Ramsey put in a good shift.

Wenger: Put a strong team out. The repercussions of that will be known in the coming weeks but it should at least produce a confidence boost on the back of table-topping result. Sent his team out with a conservative approach and with a focus on avoiding mistakes. Used the experience, substitutions, and better fitness effectively.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Marseille

October 19, 2011

Wenger says the two games against Marseille will be vital for Arsenal’s qualification hopes and fans who don’t want a repeat of last season’s second round draw know results in these two fixtures will go a long way in deciding the group topper.

Nevertheless, I have a feeling Arsene will rotate some of his players and I support that wholeheartedly. Le Boss has modified his rotation policies since about this time last season when Arsenal struggled on away trips to Shakhtar and Braga after making wholesale changes to the starting line-up. Making four, or at max five, changes seems fair given the resources available and would help in maintaining some continuity in a squad that is still a work-in-progress.

Another interesting point that Wenger made was that four points from these two fixtures would be enough for qualification. I believe he will go for a win at the Stade Velodrome but will take a draw.

The big question is – Which players need a rest?

Van Persie is the first name that comes to mind. De Kapitein played 90 minutes in both international games and has featured in almost all of Arsenal’s games this season. He could do with a break and Chamakh could do with a start. The Moroccan might even find it a tad easier in familiar surroundings of the French League.

Walcott and Gervinho played just the one game during the international break so they should be fairly fresh. However, one gets the feeling the home game will be more of a must win for Arsenal so they will probably have to play three games in succession during that time which includes an away trip to Chelsea. Arsene might choose to rest one of the two in this game and leave the other one on the bench against Stoke. Arshavin could start in both games as he didn’t have that much of an exertion last weekend. He can also leave both of them on the bench with Benayoun getting the nod on the right.

The midfield choices are tricky. Without Song Arsenal are not as solid but if I am not mistaken the Cameroonian featured in both of his country’s games. Arteta didn’t and should be fresher. Rosicky missed one game due to a niggle and his injury record is always a concern. On the other hand Little Mozart played as well as he has for a long, long time last Sunday. It would be tempting to keep him in the starting line-up. Ramsey is back from a minor injury and would also be keen to start. Benayoun, if he doesn’t start on the wing, will be another option for the midfield. Finally, young Coquelin will fancy his chances, especially on the back of his Ligue 1 experience on loan last season.

At the back, Mertesacker played in both internationals so he could do with a break. Djourou could partner Koscielny who didn’t feature for France. Santos and Jenkinson will have to start. Szczesny should also be in good shape.

Preferred starting line-up,

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Djourou, Koscielny, Santos – Coquelin, Arteta, Benayoun – Walcott, Chamakh, Arshavin.

I believe that side will have a fair bit of continuity and will also give game time to some players that need it. Others will get a necessary break.

Tactically, Arsenal’s single biggest concern will be counter-attacks. Marseille have pace on the break and players who are at a high level technically. They will ask a lot more of the Arsenal defence from open play than Sunderland did. On the positive side, their set-pieces might not be that big of a threat but that’s a risky comment to make as the Gunners can make any free-kick look dangerous.

A dodgy off-side trap will be punished in this game so the defenders will have to get it right.

I believe Marseille will try to pass the ball more than many of the teams in the Premier League and this could work to Arsenal’s advantage if the Gunners use the space effectively. Arshavin and Walcott can both be potent weapons when there are gaps in the attacking areas.

Since the starting line-up could vary significantly from the one I’ve mentioned, it’s hard to say how this game will turn out in terms of goals. If Marseille get into a rhythm early on, I am not convinced this side has the confidence to turn things around. Although quality on the bench can be pivotal, it will not be useful if the side cannot control the pattern of play. In the other European games a quick start off the blocks has helped the Gunners and one would certainly hope for more of the same. The hosts are struggling in their domestic league and might have confidence issues of their own.

A win will be an excellent result, a draw acceptable, but a defeat will put qualification in doubt especially if Dortmund do well in their game.

On an unrelated note, I want to end with a link to another statistical piece for Epl Index. In this one I have analyzed some numbers from Sunderland’s last two visits to the Emirates.