Arsenal 1 – 2 Chelsea: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 30, 2012

Wenger made 11 changes from the side that dismantled Coventry with ease but it was the one alteration to the starting eleven against City that might have proven decisive. Everybody expected Vermaelen to come back into the squad, he’s the Captain after all. The question was whether it will be Mertesacker who makes way or Koscielny.

Arsene left the German out, perhaps to give him a longer rest as he’s played the first five League games and the Champions League tie. It could also have been a tactical move. It seemed to me that Wenger wanted his team to press/play higher up the pitch in this game. As was discussed in the Preview, Arsenal were able to rely on counter-attacking football against Liverpool and City but the Gunners had to show greater initiative and control at home. So it is highly like that Wenger wanted two quick and aggressive defenders who would help with the high line and have the pace to recover.

The thing with Mertesacker is that he tends to drop back whenever he senses danger. This allows him to compensate for his relatively slower speed through intelligent reading of the game, but it does affect the shape of the team and tends to pull everyone deeper. Or at times he plays opponents on because he’s the only one who goes deep. This issue is not as pronounced in away games where a deep-lying defence is understandable or against smaller teams who do not possess sufficient attacking potency. But at home against a Chelsea side brimming with quick, clever, fleet-footed players, it’s not difficult to see the reasoning Wenger might have had.

The problem for the Gunners however, was that they just couldn’t get the high press going. In the opening minutes we could see Gervinho and Cazorla pressing the Chelsea defenders with some support from the wide players but the midfield didn’t follow through and the defence stayed fairly deep. There were moments when you could see Bould and/or Wenger egging the players to push up but their expression soon turned to a grimace and finally resignation when they realized it wasn’t working out.

This failure to press higher up the pitch had a big impact on the patterns of play. Chelsea were very comfortable at the back and were able to play out with ease. In possession, they could control 3/4th of the pitch but the Gunners were defensively solid in their deep quarter. The visitors saw a lot of the ball and their players got into very good positions to run at the defence but Arsenal’s structure and discipline was keeping them at bay.

At the other end, the Gunners weren’t able to move forward quite as fluently. Chelsea weren’t employing a high pressing strategy either but they did well to slow Arsenal down through half-pressing which ensured players on the ball didn’t have clear passing channels or easy forward passes. So Arsenal’s early attacks were limited to pops from distance as the visitors got enough time to get back into a deep and narrow shape. Width would have been helpful but Ramsey and Podolski didn’t really offer much. The full-backs were trying but they were often crossing the ball when Arsenal had one or two against six or more in the box.

The opening exchanges were cagey but Chelsea looked like they had greater territorial control. This helped them create the first goal. Hazard was able to pick the ball up in space on the left before running forward to play a one-two with Torres, who did an excellent job of holding his own in front of Vermaelen. Hazard had gotten in between the lines and would have been running towards Koscielny so Vermaelen probably thought it best to attack the ball. But you could argue the merits of that decision as Arteta was chasing back. As it happened, the Belgian lunged for the ball and conceded a set-piece.

Arsenal’s organization for the free-kick seemed like a mess. Diaby’s early substitution might have been the cause as he was probably assigned to mark Luiz. Oxlade-Chamberlain seemed completely unaware of his role. Both Vermaelen and Koscielny could be seen gesturing towards Luiz and saying something, presumably a plea or command directed towards AOC, but it didn’t have the required efffect. The Chelsea centre-back had a free run and was completely unmarked in the box as the ball just sailed over him. However, his positioning and the lack of marking had enough of an impact on Koscielny who lost his bearings and got turned for a few vital moments when Torres was able to stick a foot up and guide the ball towards goal. The Frenchman should never have ended up facing his own goal. The correct approach for him would have been to have his right arm on Torres, just to track the striker’s movement, with his body facing forward so he could have a clear sight of the ball. Once he lost visual contact there was no way he could have prevented Torres from scoring. But it wasn’t just Koscielny’s fault, this was just poor organization on the set-piece to go with his incorrect body positioning. More work is needed on the training ground.

Arsenal, as we’ve come to expect since last season, didn’t give up but went hard at Chelsea who seemed to have eased off.

The pressure paid dividends as the equalizer came from an Oxlade-Chamberlain cross that  Gervinho controlled and finished with aplomb. Both events were a surprise. That was AOC’s only cross in 8 attempts that actually found an Arsenal player. And Gervinho’s composure and technique are rarely this lethal in conjunction. But Chelsea were forcing Arsenal wide and the Gunners produced the necessary response. The game was level again and there was everything to play for.

Arsenal had a good spell after the goal and started the second half in ascendancy. Chelsea were pushed deep for a sustained period but that proved to be Arsenal’s undoing.

It started with a rare loose pass from Arteta at a time when Vermaelen had pushed up the pitch. The midfielder then went to ground, as Chelsea quickly played the ball forward, but failed with his attempted tackle. This left the centre of defence exposed and forced Vermaelen into charging back. The defender was once again rash with his attempted tackle and conceded another set-piece in a position close to where the first originated.

This time Mata’s ball went straight through shaving Koscielny’s shin on the way. I thought it was poor goalkeeping as there was no Chelsea player in a position to attack the ball. Mannone should have read the situation and called for Koscielny to pull out. It should have been the Keeper’s ball but he was late to react and never reached it. But once again you could ask broader questions about set-piece organization and decision making. Someone should have been in position to attack that ball before it got that deep and low. Oddly enough, this wasn’t even zonal marking.

Arsenal tried to get back into the game and created a number of half-chances. Podolski had a header well saved by Cech, Cazorla wasted more than one decent opening by blasting way wide of the target, Giroud hit one on target but missed the best chance of equalizing late in the game after he was put through with Cech. The French striker showed good control and composure in rounding the Keeper but just didn’t know where the goalposts were.

It’s worth noting that Arsenal’s inability to press as a unit meant that they were not able to lay siege on the Chelsea goal towards the end as a top team would do when chasing the game at home. Even Montpellier had long phases where they boxed Arsenal in. That’s somewhat linked to the shape of the team and the new defensive approach but the entire discussion is out of the scope of this already extremely long post.

At the end of the day it’s difficult to say Arsenal deserved anything from the game. You can’t concede such soft goals and expect to win. You can’t hit the target with 4 of your 17 shots and deserve three points. Most importantly, this isn’t the first time the attackers have failed to hit the target or the defence has gifted goals, so there really is no excuse.

 Individual Performances:

Mannone: Don’t blame him for the first goal as Luiz’s position would have forced him to stay on his line but communication could have been better. Definitely a culprit for the second IMO. Had very little to do otherwise.

Jenkinson: Another solid game from the youngster. Defended his flank, ventured forward more often than he has in the recent past, could do better in the final third but showed good confidence and determination.

Koscielny: At least partially at fault for both goals. Won only 1 of his 6 ground duels. Couldn’t contribute as much as Mertesacker does for ball circulation. A disappointing game in general but did make some timely clearances and interceptions.

Vermaelen: Conceded the two fouls that led to both goals. Interestingly, has 3/3 for tackles and 3/5 for ground duels – does that mean the fouls were classified as ground duels lost? These things do make me wonder about the definition of stats. Stats also say he was 6/7 on aerial duels but you also got a feeling Torres was able to hold his own in front of Vermaelen. Was bit of a mixed bag for the Belgian. Needs to work on his judgment and tackling technique. The penalty against Montpellier and these two fouls are just a continuation of some long standing weaknesses.

Gibbs: Probably the best of Arsenal’s defenders. Had the most touches, recovered possession most often, made 5 interceptions, and was 8/9 on tackles, 9/13 on ground duels. Was easily the busiest and most hard working defender on the pitch. Did make one or two mistakes, like the foul he conceded on the edge of the box, but given his work rate and contribution at both ends it’s tough to find faults.

After the game I read some criticism of the Kos-Verm partnership but that was a bit baffling. The problem in this game was not with the partnership but with certain individual decisions and technical aspects along with organizational issues and the failure of the pressing tactic. It’s easy to say Mertesacker would have been different but over the last 3-4 years we’ve seen many players have good and bad patches so such simplifications don’t really help.

Arteta: Absolutely immense once again but it seemed he was a bit isolated in this game and was stretched to his limits which led to some uncharacteristic errors not least of which was the poor pass and failed attempt at tackling in the build-up to the Chelsea winner. Still I’d say his effort was very important to Arsenal’s defence and overall possession game.

Cazorla: Missed two or three semi-decent chances (according to soccernet stats he has 1 goal in 23 shots with 8 on target i.e. less than 5 percent conversion rate, ~33% accuracy). Saw a lot of the ball and moved it around but wasn’t able to influence play in the final third in a decisive manner. Set-piece delivery wasn’t effective but that’s an issue with the whole team and thus related to training.

Diaby: It was always going to be tough. Lasted just over a quarter of an hour. Did complete all his 12 passes in that period and contributed 1 of Arsenal’s total 4 shots on target. Was missed for the rest of the game as Arteta didn’t get sufficient support.

Ramsey: Started on the right but moved to the centre after Diaby was subbed. It seemed he didn’t really understand his role. Kept pushing forward more often than necessary. Decision making was poor as he sometimes played quick passes when an extra touch could have helped and held on to the ball when an early release seemed like the better choice. It was as if he was playing as the attacking midfielder rather than Arteta’s partner who connected defence to attack.

The midfield did a decent job of protecting the defence from open play but both goals came from set-pieces that were conceded after the midfield was bypassed by the attacking players. Replacing Diaby and maintaining the delicate balance between attack and defence will be a challenge for Arsene.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Didn’t start the game but played long enough to be considered a starter. Created Arsenal’s two best chances – the Goal and Giroud’s late miss – but also wasted many opportunities to cross and one prominent chance to shoot. Saw a lot of the ball but couldn’t really express himself.

Gervinho: Took his goal well. Work rate was again very good but overall contribution leaves a lot to be desired. Again had a total loss of possession stat of 14 in 34 touches including 2 unsuccessful touches, 3 dispossessed, and 1 overrun. Has to learn to take care of the ball better and to link up with others in the attacking areas.

Podolski: Chelsea kept the central area packed and that limited the goal scoring opportunities he could get. Did a decent job of helping the defence. But in general he didn’t offer enough from the left.

I thought in such a game Podolski and Gervinho should have swapped places more often. Arsenal could have used a presence in front of the Chelsea defence, someone who could link play with his back to goal. The crossing game, even though it brought the equalizer, didn’t look like a genuine threat on a consistent basis. Arsenal’s passing and combinations were not quick enough in the final third.

Subs: Giroud should have scored once he rounded Cech but he’s hit the target once in 11 shots and that too was a deflected shot that Cech saved. He plays like a talented youngster who still doesn’t quite have his angles worked out. Walcott was disappointing.

Wenger: Ultimately the errors on set-pieces come back to the boss as they’re not a one-off. Don’t blame him for picking Koscielny but his team’s failure to press cohesively and consistently can only be sorted in training. One might wonder if Arshavin would have been a better choice than Walcott. Has a headache in the striking department and now possibly in midfield if Diaby stays out for a long period.

Sometimes I just wonder if the ‘Be a Gooner, Be a Giver’ mantra is too deeply ingrained in everyone’s mindset at the club. Maybe they’re also taking ‘Charity begins at home’ rather literally. Alas! Silly jokes can’t alleviate the suffering after such a game. The next one can’t come soon enough…

Thoughts On Tactis And Starting Eleven Against Liverpool

August 19, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expected line-up,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preferred line-up,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Newcastle 0 – 0 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

August 13, 2011

All-round stupidity will be the only memorable part of this predictable, drab encounter.

Arsene went with the expected line-up and the Gunners played higher up the pitch than would have been advisable. Whenever the Gunners got the ball out wide, and there were at least four or five defenders against an attacker or two. The crosses didn’t lead to a single threatening opportunity.

Unfortunately, the players didn’t have the right understanding or work rate to get past Newcastle’s tight marking and create something down the middle either. Few half chances that did fall to the forwards were squandered by poor first touches.

At the other end, again as expected, the Barcodes just didn’t have any quality in the attacking third to seriously test Szczesny. Even when Arsenal were down to ten men, the hosts never really looked like scoring as the defenders attacked the hopeful balls put in the box with purpose and conviction.

I thought the back six performed admirably for the Gunners whereas the five in front of them ranged from average to pedestrian.

There weren’t too many moments worth talking so I will come straight to the two occasions where the ref might have made big mistakes.

First was an incident with Song stamping Joey Barton. I am not sure if it was deliberate or not but it seemed like Song knew what he was doing. This was probably in retaliation to the trademark Barton tackle in which he kicks the balls by going through the opponent’s calf with a heavy swing of his leg.

Could the ref have given a red card to Song? I thought the stamp was not a malicious one because it didn’t hurt the Newcastle midfielder who was up and running within seconds. It was more like a warning – “Don’t kick me from behind”. But we have seen red cards given for such reactions and technically it would be right. If not a red, it could easily have been the second yellow card for Arsenal’s best player on the night. I am worried there might be some retrospective action as the officials had missed the incident.

The second and undoubtedly a lot more significant moment came in the 76th minute.

Gervinho ran into the box and cut back inside. Tiote went for the tackle and might have grazed the winger’s foot. The way the Ivorian went to ground was overly theatrical and could easily have resulted in a booking. For a foreign player at Arsenal, a repeat of that in the future can be disastrous as he will be singled out and hung out to dry by the press. It will also have a direct impact on the number of valid penalties that are disallowed. Most importantly, he has the ability to stay on his feet and make a difference. So I’d say his focus has to be on doing the right thing.

It seemed Peter Walton was waving play on when Joey Barton went and grabbed Gervinho by his shirt to drag him up. A scuffle ensued as other players got involved. For a short moment, the Ivorian was surrounded by three Newcastle players but his teammates rushed in to support. In the melee, Gervinho somehow managed to tap Barton in the face and he went down as if on the receiving end of a boxer’s knock-out punch.

Gervinho, in a moment of madness, wasn’t able to control his reaction and technically deserved a red card. He will now miss three big games.

Peter Walton then went on to give a yellow to Barton. Inexplicable. Unjustifiable. Impotent stupidity of the highest order. It’s impossible to digest that a man with so much top flight refereeing experience can be so bereft of common sense. But there are quite a few of those around and if the Gunners give the ref a chance to screw them, they should be prepared for the worst. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the ref was anti-Arsenal. I just think referees in the English game make far too many moronic decisions when they go by the book over something trivial while being lenient towards a number of dangerous and serious offences.

I don’t want to pin the result on the referee though. Arsenal were going to struggle with these tactics and players and a Red for Song might have been a lot more disastrous for the Gunners.

The players also need to understand that getting dirty with a guy like Barton can never work in their favour. It’s like wrestling with a pig. Not worth it and can be, as it was in this case, detrimental to the cause. Gervinho, if he had to use theatrics, should have employed them when Barton got physical.

This might still work in Arsenal’s favour as the Ivorian will be able to focus on the Champions League qualifiers but Wenger will have a hard time in picking a strong team to face Liverpool and United.

Anyway, I’d rather put this game behind me. There really wasn’t much to remember or discuss.

Individual Performances

Szczesny: Good decision making, got enough purchase on his punches, collected everything that came his way, looked composed and alert.

Sagna: Worked hard up and down the right. Big contribution in retaining possession. Could have done better with his crosses but the targets were always outnumbered.

Koscielny: Close second in my MotM choice. Read the game well, made crucial clearances, was tight on his man and didn’t make any mistakes.

Vermaelen: Did fairly well but not as good as Koscielny. Missed a couple of headers and Newcastle got some half chances on his side of the box.

Gibbs: Got into good attacking positions and some of his crosses were in the right areas. Could have moved the ball faster on a couple of occasions, which might have led to better attacking chances. Should not drift inside as often as he did. Great pace and good positioning while defending.

On the whole, I thought the back five deserve a lot of credit for the way they defended. There were some iffy moments but that was more down to the fact that enough cover wasn’t always available. I was impressed by the number of first headers that Arsenal won in the box. More of that will be needed all through the season.

Song: Really the only one supporting the defence for most of the game. Did an excellent job sweeping in front of the back four and won most of his physical battles. Passing was quite impressive. Conceded a couple of fouls and could have been off but can’t blame his as he was doing a lot more than one man’s job.

Rosicky: Some neat turns and runs. A couple of deft passes in tight spaces. A lot more is needed. Work rate was not good enough and passing wasn’t incisive enough.

Ramsey: Quite ordinary. Off the ball movement wasn’t very good. Didn’t do well with the ball when put under pressure. Has the abilities but something is holding him back.

I thought the midfield wasn’t playing the rotating triangle anymore but Song was more of a dedicated sweeper, although he did move forward occasionally. The Cameroonian provided good cover in central areas and in the inside channels but wasn’t as much on the right as he is with Wilshere around. Rosicky and Ramsey have to offer a lot more with and without the ball.

Gervinho: Made some intelligent runs. Showed a quick turn of pace. Didn’t really have the final ball. He will struggle when the opposition has numbers in the box.

RvP: Missed some half chances. Poor movement and understanding with other attackers. Looked rusty. Put in a couple of good corners and a decent free-kick.

Arshavin: Played the two best balls of the game but not much more. The midfield just wasn’t able to find him in space. Messed up a glorious 2-v-1 opportunity when his pass was intercepted by the sole defender.

The attacking trio didn’t seem to be on the same page. They also didn’t have a very good understanding with the midfield. This was a bit predictable and disappointing.

Subs: Walcott looked off pace but produced the only real shot on target. Frimpong did his defensive bit. Djourou could have been a hero in the final two minutes but got a crucial pass wrong.

Wenger: The team is desperately short of quality with players like Cesc, Nasri and Wilshere unavailable. The manager has to be decisive. And he has to find some tactical tweaks to get the best out of the players at his disposal. Credit must be given for the work done on the defensive side but can it be sustained?

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Newcastle

August 12, 2011

Man, it feels good to type such a headline once again. Football is back and there is something to look forward to even if it isn’t with the greatest of optimism.

I haven’t done the season preview yet because a lot is bound to happen between now and the end of the season. I want to wait for the transfer window to close and see a couple of games, especially of Chelsea and Liverpool, before making any predictions. I know things are bleak in the Arsenalsphere and don’t look Rosy for Arsenal even through red-tinted glasses. But let’s wait till the end of the month and focus on a game at a time at least till then.

My humble suggestion is – before you do or say anything, just ask yourself “how does this help?”

So with that mantra let me move on to my thoughts before the game.

Cesc and Nasri are not in the squad. Wilshere and Diaby are injured. Denilson has moved on. It wasn’t that long ago that Arsenal had too many similar players vying for the midfield roles. Now, Wenger will be hard pressed to put out a midfield that can dominate the game for 90 minutes.

Looking at the list with squad numbers(Eboue?), only Rosicky, Ramsey, Song, and Frimpong look like players who are fit and available to play in the midfield. Some fans would add RvP and Arshavin to the possibilities behind the striker but pre-season has not given any indications that Wenger will make that change at this stage of the season.

To me, the best possible midfield would be Song and Frimpong behind Rosicky. Ramsey has been extremely disappointing in the warm up fixtures and it would be a big risk to put him in the middle in a game that is set to be a lot more critical to the rest of the season than just the three points at stake. But I have a strong feeling Arsene is going to put his faith in the young Welshman over Frimpong, who is undeniably the most inexperienced player of the four.

Picking the back five and the front three should be straightforward.

Expected line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Song, Ramsey, Rosicky – Gervinho, RvP, Arshavin.

To be frank, and despite my reservations, this team should be good enough to get the three points. Newcastle have issues of their own to deal with. They have lost three key players in Carroll, Nolan, and Enrique. The left-back will be a big miss as he made their left side really strong. Gervinho can have a good time against his replacement.

Arsenal can win this one or throw away the points as they so spectacularly accomplished last time around. A lot will depend on the tactics being used and how the teams perform for the duration of the game. At the risk of breaking all unwritten laws regarding hyperbole, the final half hour of this game might be bigger than any other period of football this season as far  as the Gunners are concerned. Or to put it another way, whether Arsenal can get in a position to have other big matches in the season or not will depend on how this game ends.

That’s putting a lot of pressure on the team but I am not creating the pressure, merely point out what already exists.

If the away support continues their good work from last season the team will benefit and it can have a big, positive knock-on effect for the season.

Tactically, Arsenal have to play the way they did away from home last season and then improve on it. That means the team has to drop off and press from deeper positions just inside the Arsenal half or around the half way line. The midfield would have to be really close to the defence must not leave them exposed on the break.

A lot will depend on Newcastle as well. If they sit back and invite pressure this could be a very different game. To be frank, that would work in the hosts’ favour but I haven’t seen Pardew take that approach in the two visits last season when Arsenal scored four.

Rosicky or Ramsey will have to support Song in bringing the ball out and should spread passes from deeper positions. That can open the game up, especially if they can find they can find the runs of Arshavin and Gervinho. As with most football games, the first goal will make a big difference and the timing will decide how the rest of it shapes up.

I am not sure if the Barcodes have enough quality in the final third. That means Arsenal might get away with some mistakes, especially from open play. Set-pieces will be a different ball game altogether and this will be the first competitive test of Arsenal’s new zonal marking system on corners. I am not convinced but there aren’t anywhere near enough data points to analyze or judge that so this is more of a watch and learn stage. I won’t be surprised if the same can be said for the coaching staff in that limited context, while for the players it might be on-the-job training.

Apart from defending set-plays, and the positioning and contribution of the midfield just in front of the defence, the third and final major factor in this game will be the quality of runs and finishing by the attacking players. Of course, a player can make great runs but they would come to nought if the supply is non-existent. Arsenal’s creative chemistry is going to be tested. I haven’t seen signs of great understanding in pre-season so chances might be limited in this game. That brings me back to the importance of finishing. Good chance for Van Persie to establish himself as the biggest player in the team.

Btw, who will be the captain? One of RvP or TV?

Last season, this game was open and led to a number of goals. This time around, I am not sure that will be replicated even though I am hoping for the kind of result we got against Everton a couple of seasons ago. I have a feeling this game will be a cagey affair and decided by a solitary goal.

Welcome Alex And Pardon The Bewildered Fans + Quick Thoughts On Benfica

August 8, 2011

I was lost for feelings when Arsenal announced the signing of highly rated Southampton youngster, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. This transfer had been in the news for a long time but not many were expecting it to go through at this stage.

The youngster, Walcottesque in his style and a superb talent without doubt, will take time to settle into the first team squad, so this must be one for the future.  I am sure most fans will greet the signing with applause but there will be many among them who are at least a little perplexed. There is no denying the fact that the qualities of the player and his age/experience don’t match the current requirements of Arsenal FC.

I have a feeling AOC has been signed as a replacement for Nasri. That could mean Wenger is resigned to losing the Frenchman at the end of the season if not sooner. Of course, it is pure speculation but it’s hard to find any other explanation.

Replacing Nasri will not be easy. Even though inconsistent, the Frenchman is at a level that very few can reach. Given the present conditions in the market, those who can perform at the same level are valued at astronomical prices. Buying a talented youngster is the only reasonably fair value option and such a player would need time to develop.

This transfer does raise a big question – If Alex Chamberlain, then why not Juan Mata for a slightly higher price? I don’t know Wenger’s reasons but would dearly really love to know the answer to that poser. It’s hard to imagine both the players arriving at the club this summer but stranger things have happened.

There is always the possibility that Arsenal were not as interested in Mata as the media projected even though Wenger does like the player. Perhaps the experience with one Jose Antonio Reyes was a limiting factor. Personally speaking, I am not convinced too many Spanish players can succeed in the English league. That is not an indictment of Mata but just a general observation that might explain Wenger’s reticence in that particular deal.

Another interesting observation is the sudden increase in the number of quick and tricky players who can perform on either flank. With the acquisitions of Gervinho and Alex, along with the development of Miyaichi, Arsenal are on the way to having an exceptional array of lethal wingers. I say on the way because the two youngsters will need a year or two more before they can be considered first team regulars.

Does this signal another philosophical change as Wenger prepares for life without Cesc (and Nasri)? Over the next few years, one can visualize the likes of Wilshere, Song, and Ramsey dominating the midfield as two dynamic wingers tear the opposition defence apart. The freedom given to the attacking midfielder in the present system could be curtailed and the midfield would provide better support to the defence while controlling the tempo of the game from deeper positions.

It’s just a thought but it’s based on the need to change the style of play if Fabregas does go to Barcelona. The present role was created for Cesc and no one else can do justice to it. Anyway, all that is for the future and we will have plenty of time to discuss it in detail.

The Benfica game once again highlighted some of the concerns of the fans and there are more pressing matters for Wenger to deal with.

I thought the midfield was terrible in that game and was the source of most of the problems which worsened as other factors came into play. Ramsey has not impressed in any of the pre-season games and Rosicky just doesn’t offer enough these days. Song was able to keep the team ticking in the first half with exceptionally hard work but the players faltered when he was taken off in the second half.

In the first half, the Gunners struggled to bring the ball out from defence on a consistent basis. This led to precious few chances but at least the shape of the team was strong and they prevented Benfica from creating anything more than half-chances.

The goal was a work of art and many players were involved. It started with Vermaelen beating the man pressing him with a dummy. Then Rosicky came back to the halfway line to receive a pass. Little Mozart beat the man on him with a neat turn. By then Van Persie had dropped deep while Ramsey and Gervinho took up positions as central strikers. The Dutchman received the ball in space and was able to find Arshavin in the inside left channel just outside the opposition box.

Since Benfica were pressing higher up the pitch they had a shortage of players just in front of the defence. The central defenders were exposed and this gave the Russian some time on the ball. He waited for the run of Gibbs who was completely unmarked. The English youngster squared the ball back for Van Persie who had drifted to the edge of the six yard box, again completely unmarked.

In some ways this goal reflected some of the defensive problems that Arsenal face. Benfica’s pressing was good but not as well co-ordinated as it had been till that time. Once a couple of Gunners beat their man, it opened the hosts up and left the back four in an unenviable position.

After a number of changes Arsenal had similar problems in maintaining the right shape. A couple of players were pressing higher up the pitch. Then there was a hesitant line of three in the middle with acres of space behind them and in front of the defence. The ease with which Benfica were able to create wave after wave of attacks again exposed the systemic flaws.

When Arsenal did win the ball back, the players were rarely in the right shape to launch an attack. Possession was squandered without a threat and the opposition grew in confidence as the crowd made its presence felt. With a number of young players introduced over time, Arsenal were never going to come back in this one – which in itself is not a problem.

A good system covers up individual errors, positional or technical, some of which are bound to occur even with the best of players. But when the system fails these errors get magnified as each player, especially in defence, has to cover larger areas and perform more than his fair share of duties.

Vermaelen looked like a clown for the first goal, Squillaci for the second. As I have said on a number of occasions, anyone else in their position would inevitably meet the same fate.

I don’t want to be critical of a team that included Frimpong, Miyaichi, Lansbury and finally Miquel at the end. That’s not the point. But the broader problem exists and will continue to pester unless a coaching solution is found.

I will try to cover this in detail before the start of the season. For now at least, let’s welcome Alex to the club and focus on the possibility of other positive developments.

Udinese Challenge Makes It A Thrilling Fortnight

August 5, 2011

Newcastle (A) – Udinese (H) – Liverpool (H) – Udinese (A) – Manchester United (A)

Five games in 16 days, each with its unique degree of significance. I don’t like dramatizing the consequences of each match, especially at the start, but one gets the feeling, before the end of August Doodh ka doodh, paani ka paani ho jayega. I don’t know the perfect way of expressing that in English but – truth will out – seems succinctly appropriate in the context.

I believe starting at the venue of last season’s calamitous 4-4 draw can provide a strong impetus. The Barcodes have let two key players leave while others like Enrique and Barton don’t seem to be too happy.

After that Arsenal have the first leg of a tricky Champions League Qualifier. Udinese are an exciting team that are more than capable of springing a surprise. I would have been a lot more comfortable if it had been Twente, Zurich, or Odense but off late the Gunners seem to have developed a knack of drawing the strongest side in the draw.

This article provides some interesting details about the Italian side’s tactics and strengths. It will be interesting to see whether they still follow the 3-5-2 described in that piece or the transfers of key men like Sanchez, Inler, and Zapata forces their manager to modify his style. Assuming the guy is as good as he is rated; I won’t be surprised if he too tries to blend younger players into a system that he believes in. That should make for an exciting tactical contest.

These two games should provide a complete test for Arsenal. Udinese will be hard to break down, are dangerous on counter-attacks, have excellent free-kick takers, can cross and finish with accuracy, and will test the Gunners with balls over the top, especially second balls from set-pieces.

Di Natale will obviously be the biggest threat offensively. I have a feeling Vermaelen will struggle against his movement in and around the box. It will also be interesting to see how Koscielny deals with him.

I will try to cover this in more detail in the pre-match write-ups. For now you can enjoy these excellent, well-edited highlights from almost all their games last season on the club’s website.

Then there are games against Liverpool and United, teams that have been amongst the biggest spenders this summer. By popular logic, Arsenal should lose both games comfortably because the opponents have strengthened considerably whereas the Gunners have been indecisive and dormant in the transfer market. It might all change in the next couple of weeks but can any new arrival make a big difference in such a short period of time? I am going to watch these games to see whether Wenger and his players can get the better of popular opinion once again.

There are two home games after the visit to Newcastle and they should give us a fair indication of the vibes in the stadium. Will the Gunners have to perform this season despite the fans or will the fans finally make their presence felt on a consistently positive basis? Only time will tell, but I don’t have a good feeling about this.

Nevertheless, from a football point of view this fortnight should be a feast.