Arsenal 5 – 2 Tottenham: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

February 26, 2012

Given the way Arsenal were playing in recent games, Spurs were always going to score a couple of goals. The first half-hour or so was ominously miserable for the Gunners but the script had a twist! To be fair and honest, the best I expected was a 2-2 draw but Wenger and his players have put me over the moon. Nevertheless, the rest of this article will try to follow Le Boss’ cue and not attach any special meaning to the big score (to the extent possible!).

The opening exchanges were predictable as was the pattern of play after that. Spurs came out with high intensity and pressed the ball all over the pitch. This forced some mistakes from the Gunners and they had to stretch the game in order to resist this pressure. It opened the centre up for the visitors and they exploited Arsenal’s weaknesses twice. On Both occasions they had far too much space in the central area in front of goal and there were a number of mistakes from the Gunners for each goal.

Earlier in the week I’d done a detailed piece on Arsenal’s defensive issues. You might want to check that in case you’d missed it but it’s over 6500 words to go with a bunch of snapshots, so please do so only when you have the time and if you have the interest. The goals conceded weren’t exactly like the examples but many of the observations mentioned in that piece were again visible. Anyway, I don’t want to dwell on them to take anything away from this moment.

On the positive side, it wasn’t that tough to see Arsenal scoring in this game. Even in the opening exchanges when Spurs looked the better side, the Gunners were still creating some chances and were looking like they could score. For instance, RvP went really close in the 15th minute and Rosicky forced a big save. Tottenham too have a number of defensive frailties and they were always going to concede.

The game turned on its head after the second goal which resulted from a soft penalty won by serial diver Gareth Bale. I haven’t seen the incidence carefully enough to comment on it with conviction but it seemed to me the Spurs winger played for the penalty.

Credit to the Gunners for not letting their heads get down. Spurs had started dropping deeper after the first goal and completely went into a shell after the second one. Big mistake. It allowed Arsenal the ability to control the territory and get bodies into the box.

Redknapp had two strikers up front but they were completely isolated and it also left them a body short in midfield where they got overwhelmed. Walcott’s positioning and movement in the first half was very good even if he looked completely bereft of confidence when he did get the ball. This sucked Assou-Ekotto inside and allowed Sagna to push up and play as a winger. Bale was forced into an auxiliary left-back role which made him ineffective in attack and defence. He was nowhere near Sagna when the full-back attacked the ball with great determination and desire. That goal reaffirmed the belief that Arsenal could come back into this one and jolted the visitors out of their undeserved stupor of superiority.

That goal came through sustained pressure and excellent combination play. Arsenal had taken up positions to lay siege around the Tottenham box and that made the difference. First an intricate flick from Theo set up Van Persie for a shot which hit the post. The Gunners were able to retain the ball and had the composure to find the cross and finish. Song, Walcott, RvP, Gibbs, Arteta, and Sagna all deserve credit for that goal.

This is something Arsenal usually lack when they struggle to create chances – combination play involving multiple players in a manner that after one shot on goal the pressure isn’t eased and the second attempt follows soon after against a disorganized and stretched defence.

The equalizer came a couple of minutes later. This time too the first ball into the box was cleared, albeit in a risky and lazy manner, by Assou-Ekotto. But Arsenal had a man lurking on the edge of the box, and Van Persie took full advantage of a defence that was just getting back to shape after dealing with the first attack. His strike was superbly placed and gave Friedel no chance.

It’s important to note that the first ball in behind was for Theo to run on to. Walcott’s positioning and pace were the reason the opportunity was created. Rosicky’s presence high up the pitch put pressure on the left-back and was also a factor in his error.

A minute later the Gunners could have taken the lead but Gibbs, after skipping past a couple of players, narrowly missed a teammate with his pass in the box. Theo too missed a half-chance when he couldn’t effectively latch on to Kyle Walker’s naive attempt to chest the ball inside his own box.

At half-time Arsenal had all the momentum. Redknapp made a couple of substitutions in order to get more bodies in the middle. He brought Sandro on for Saha and Van der Vaart on for Kranjcar. That should have given the visitors more of an ability to control the ball but they were set up to play the long-ball/counter-attack game and never really got hold of the ball despite a change in personnel. For their part, the Gunners deserve plaudits for denying their opponents any time or space on the ball. It was Arsenal’s turn to raise the intensity.

The third goal was a sensational counter-attack from the Gunners. Spurs were pushing men forward and were trying to replicate the kind of pressure they’d created at the start of the game. Vermaelen won the ball just outside the Arsenal box. Song and Gibbs played a one-two in a tight space and both did superbly to resist the pressing. Once a side pressing high up is negated with excellent technical play, they can be caught at the back. Song picked out and unmarked RvP around the halfway line. De Kapitein played it wide to Rosicky who played the second delightful one-two of the move with Sagna. The full-back’s cross was a tad scuffed and there was a bit of luck with the deflection of Assou-Ekotto’s leg but the finish was just sublime as Little Mozart had a very narrow gap to thread with the outside, just had to be, of his weaker foot.

Arsenal had five men in the box against Tottenham’s back four. It was good to see them make different runs instead of getting in each other’s way. It stretched their defence and opened up the angle for the cross/pass from Sagna. Walcott’s movement, in particular, opened the gap for Rosicky’s unmarked run.

The game was open from the start but became more of an end-to-end encounter after that goal. Spurs were pushing bodies forward but bulk of their creativity came from wide areas. In that sense they were a very limited side. Arsenal were rarely in complete control at the back but the defenders worked hard to ensure the worst they did was to concede corners. They also won most of the balls that came into the box and found a block or two when it dropped to an opponent.

At the other end Theo fired a warning shot in the 57th minute when he got in behind and went agonizingly wide of the far post.

The fourth was another phenomenal counter. Once again a number of players were involved. Gibbs won the ball inside the Arsenal penalty box with a neat tackle on Bale. Benayoun was just behind to collect and move it forward. His punt toward RvP was won by Kaboul but Rosicky was first onto the second ball. RvP ran in behind and Little Mozart found him. Kaboul got back to chase and along with his central defensive partner, King, he slowed RvP Down. But Walcott had made a sensational run at the other side of the pitch and arrived at the right time to receive the pass from the skipper. His first touch was a poor one and second a tad fortuitous, but you can’t take anything away from the finish.

A couple of minutes later it was time for a second for Theo. Song’s chip put him in behind with Kaboul the guilty party in defence as he was deeper than everyone else. Walcott’s finish was again excellent as he hit the corner.

Subsequently, Arsenal eased off but Tottenham were a broken, demoralized unit. The best they could do was muster up some pointless long range efforts. Their destroyer-in-chief, England’s next great hope, and the man who should have been Arsenal’s saviour according to the hordes of the clueless – Scotty Parker – was sent off late in the game for a second bookable offence. It was a small detail but this game found Parker way out of his depth.

This wasn’t a bad Spurs side by any means. Undoubtedly their best for years. But it was no match for the ruthlessly purposeful and clinical Arsenal team.

In the pre-match press conference, ignorant hacks pestered Arsene with questions about a shift in power in North London and about his players letting him down. Well, Thank You folks. That might have served as a good motivating tool for Le Boss.

One must remember though, Arsenal’s real treasure hunt is for the illusive jewel called consistency. Little victories along the way will mean nothing if that hunt isn’t successful sooner rather than later.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Not sure why he was so far off his line for the first goal. Should have read the pass and come early to collect the ball before Bale reached it, which showed poor decision making for the second goal. That pass was made from inside the centre circle and the ball travelled up to a few yards inside the penalty box. Made the saves he could make, distribution remains shaky. Was the weakest link in the side.

Sagna: Excellent goal and a wonderful assist. Worked the flank diligently and had Bale in his pocket for most of the game. Also pushed the Welshman back effectively. Needs to get into the box more often but wisely as he did on this occasion.

Koscielny: Struggled against Adebayor’s movement and physicality. Bad slip in the build-up to the first goal. Wasn’t able to win much against the striker but defended resolutely in the second half and did a good job in a sweeping role winning back possession most often in the defensive areas.

Vermaelen: His positioning and decision making was suspect in the opening half hour or so. But he was a monster when it came to individual battles, winning all 11 of the tackles and duels. Quite like the Vermin Eater gobbling up the pests. Also made the most clearances.

Gibbs: The youngster had a very good game in attack and it seemed he had clear instructions to push up the pitch. More than anything his presence provided width even when Benayoun came inside. That exposed the flank to an extent and he might have done better to read the threat for both the goals but he’s coming back to the highest level so deserves some leeway.

Arsenal were far from assured in defence but the effort was commendable. The problems have been well documented and are clearly not individual issues. That doesn’t mean players in the back four don’t make mistakes or don’t have any weaknesses, just that the more serious problems seem to be in the structure of the team. Once Arsenal get that right, the defenders mostly find a way to keep the ball out of the net. Better is needed if the holy grail of consistency is to be reached but that’s a discussion for another day.

Song: His positioning wasn’t ideal for the first goal as he tracked back into an ineffective area. Also worth checking if he  could have anticipated the pass from  Modric and intercepted it to prevent it reaching Bale in the box? He was close enough to the path of the ball. Excellent game from that point on. Very strong in possession. Played a number of vital passes and, apart from the assist for the fifth, was crucially involved in the build-up of the first, second, and third goals. Also made the most interceptions and won back possession most often in the midfield and attacking areas. MotM in my book despite a few errors.

Rosicky: His bullet header from a corner early in the game set the tone for an excellent outing from Little Mozart. He was able to play higher up the pitch as Tottenham dropped back. That helped. His finish was superb and general link-up play was a throwback to the old days. Apart from setting up and scoring the goal that put Arsenal ahead, he was involved in the second and fourth goals as well.

Arteta: Mr. Efficiency produced another quality effort. Completed more passes than any two Tottenham players combined. Excellent composure and awareness for the assist to a goal that gave substance to Arsenal’s belief. Rarely lost the ball, won 4 of his 5 tackles, and 8 of his 11 duels, and created a good chance for Benayoun.

The midfield wasn’t positioned well enough to handle the early pressure. That put extra load on the defence and opened up the centre. But they were nearly perfect once Spurs dropped back and it was good to see the vice like grip on the game wasn’t loosened despite a number of goals going in. A mature and calm performance from the trio in the closing minutes.

Walcott: Was involved in all the goals, if not as a scorer than with his presence in and around the box. Has his set of weaknesses that won’t go away any time soon but deserves applause for holding his head high and delivering despite negative pressure. Finishing was clinical.

RvP: Had a lot of efforts but didn’t hit the target often enough. But boy was that a finish! Excellent hold up play for the assist as well. Hit the post, set-piece delivery was good, and was always a menace for Tottenham’s central defenders.

Benayoun: He wasn’t in the picture often enough when the big events took place but he had a decent game. Was sturdy on the ball and only made 2 unsuccessful passes out of 31. Offered a good work rate on the flank and his tracking back was integral to the fourth goal. Tested Friedel with his shot early in the second half but could have done with more power.

The choice of the front three had a surprise. Benayoun over Gervinho or AOC was not a choice many would have guessed. Is Wenger going back to picking a technical player on the flank? I believe that’s the correct choice as two direct players has put tremendous pressure on the midfield but we will have to see how it develops because Arsenal don’t really have to players to pull it off on a regular basis.

Benayoun had a decent game but was a yard or two off pace, especially in the early period when he should have been available for receiving a pass more often as the players at the back were under pressure. Theo can’t do it anyway and that isolates Van Persie because the Gunners can’t bring the ball out well enough. Grew into the game though and can play a big role if he gets a chance to develop.

Subs: Jenkinson was efficient, Oxlade-Chamberlain made a number of poor choices on the ball but it didn’t matter, Gervinho barely had any time on the pitch.

Wenger: Deserves credit for lifting the players after a couple of major setbacks. His team’s defending can be disastrous but they can also redefine life as we know it when they’re on song. Loved the way Arsenal mastered Spurs at their own game of counter-attacking while outplaying them on the pitch with the ball.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Spurs

February 26, 2012

Tottenham’s latest visit to the Emirates has to potential to be an uplifting and revitalizing game but it can also, just as easily, pile on the pressure.

Wenger can pick a strong side for this one as the players have had a week to recover from the previous fixture. Koscielny and Gibbs will be given fitness tests and I have a feeling both will get into the starting line-up even if they’re on the edge. In the midfield Ramsey picked up an injury in the previous game so Song and Arteta are most likely to have Rosicky in front of them. Out wide Arsene will have to pick two out of Walcott, AOC, and Gervinho. All three have their sets of strengths and weaknesses and it’s tough to say who is better suited. I’d go with experience.

Preferred line-up,

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

Barring fitness issues, I guess the only real talking point in the side is the choice between Theo and Oxlade-Chamberlain. The thing is, it’s not hard to imagine either of them doing well but both have their set of limitations as well. A lot of Walcott’s game relies on the supply that he gets. When he sees a lot of the ball after a slow build-up and in a congested area his output is quite poor. But most people also realize he can be absolutely lethal if he gets the ball early or in behind. With AOC the positives are in his ability to dribble and take on opponents. But the youngster is still in a developing phase and his positioning, decisions on the ball, and tactical awareness aren’t always at the level needed. I guess Wenger just has to take a call based on what he has seen in training this week.

Tactically this should be an interesting game. Tottenham like to come out with high intensity for the opening 10 minutes or so. I expect them to press Arsenal higher up the pitch and in a fairly coordinated manner. The Gunners must avoid making individual mistakes under such pressure. On the other hand, such an approach will also provide openings for Arsenal to make the breakthrough as they will find more space.

If the game is level, or if they take the lead, after the opening salvo from Spurs, they’re likely to drop deeper and will then rely on counter-attacks and long diagonals. Sagna has done well against Bale in the past but the Gunners will have to track his movement, especially if he drifts inside. Van der Vaart is another player who has posed problems to Arsenal with his movement across the pitch after starting in a wide role on the Right.

The midfield has to find it’s rhythm and shape back. Arsenal went on a strong run after the defeat in the reverse fixture as the defence got excellent support from the three midfielders. It’s hard to say why that’s not been consistently visible since the turn of the year but it’s easy to predict Arsenal will struggle without getting their tactical cohesion back.

Tottenham’s full-backs have the pace to match Arsenal’s wingers but they can make mistakes if isolated. Recently, Arsenal haven’t moved the ball well enough or at the right speed to achieve that. Gervinho can also find a lot of joy between the lines if he picks his runs across the width of the pitch in an intelligent manner. Such movement is vital to Arsenal’s ability to open  opposition defences but hasn’t been seen often enough in the recent past. Again movement alone is never sufficient and those in possession must also display the ability to find the player getting into such spaces. Vision and execution too have been problem areas during the rough patch.

Many fans will also be looking for a much improved effort from Szczesny who hasn’t delivered a satisfactory performance on a consistent basis in the last few weeks. The youngster’s reflexes, positioning, and decision making will surely be tested in this game.

I will be very surprised if both sides don’t score in this game. Given Arsenal’s recent defensive efforts, anything less than two goals for Spurs will be an improvement. With that in mind Arsenal would need three goals or more to win this one. To be honest, it’s difficult to visualize that happening. The best I can see from Arsenal is a draw. The Gunners have the ability to win the game against such opponents but they’ve not performed at that level for quite some time now. Watching Arsenal getting back to form in the North London Derby can be one of the highlights of the season but only the optimists will expect that in this game.

My biggest wish from this game is to see a better collective defensive effort. Everything else can be built on that and the fourth place can be achieved. I really do want the Gunners to focus on that because in the recent seasons there have been far too many phases where one defensive frailty or another have cost the team crucial points and Cup ties. Similarly in reverse, strong runs have also been built on well-organized team efforts where the combined output is much better than the sum of the parts.

This game will also be a good test of the mental strengths of this side. This season they’ve achieved some remarkable comebacks and many consider the current squad to be stronger in that regard. In less than nine hours we will learn more.