Manchester United 8 – 2 Arsenal: Quick Thoughts

August 30, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Fan Relations Exercise That Can Work Wonders For Arsenal

August 18, 2011

The Arsenalsphere is a divided space these days. Has been for a while now and it is getting worse. While different opinions have always existed, we now see more than a degree of animosity amongst fans who are divided into two broad groups – those supporting the manager and those desperate to see him out. Of course, if we zoom into either of these groups, we will again see a fair amount of disagreement over various details like the quality of certain players, use of tactics, etc.

But there seems to be a link that connects all fans. Everyone wants to know more about what’s going on. The acuteness of this need can be estimated from the speed at which rumours spread and even illogical and pointless stories lead to extensive debates.

I believe this presents an opportunity for the club to launch another pioneering initiative which can bring the supporters closer to the club in an unprecedented manner and can assuage their fears to a great extent. In simple terms, it’s the same thing that many have been demanding – more information, but I want to look at the mechanism that can benefit all parties involved without compromising the club’s interests.

We’d all love to know the exact details of all the players that Arsenal are tracking and the kind of bids that have been made. Is it realistic? I doubt anyone will say yes to that. It can complicate all the transfers and destabilize some players at other clubs. That surely isn’t the Arsenal way.

Similarly, some of the more discerning fans would love to know the reasoning behind the interest in players. But do we really want Wenger to share his trade secrets and give others a chance to catch up with him on that front?

Let’s be clear, the club cannot share everything that is going on. It will create all sorts of complications and within no time the whole set-up will be unmanageable. At some level everyone understands this and that is why no club provides all their details to the public or even to the shareholders (at least the minority ones).

The next logical question is – how much information can the club share? I will add to this a related question which seems equally important to me – how does the club share the relevant information with the fans?

I want to start with the latter question because that is the key. The club needs to identify certain discreet individuals with proven loyalty to the club. This could be players like Lee Dixon or Martin Keown and/or a small number of life-long fans that the club can trust. These could be senior members of the AST and one or two top bloggers who can reach out to a wide cross-section of the support.

We can call these people opinion leaders. Fans trust them and understand that theirs is an honest opinion with genuine concern and appreciation for the club. For the sake of the discussion let’s say the club invites Lee Dixon, Tim Payton (of AST), and Goonerholic (an excellent blogger with a sterling reputation amongst all the fans). I have chosen these names based purely on what I have read online so I am not claiming they are the perfect choice or the only possible ones but hopefully it illustrates the point that I am trying to make. The club have a lot more resources and know a lot of the fans and ex-players well so they can make the choice based on their analysis.

The key variables in selecting these individuals should be

  1. They are trusted and respected by a vast majority of the fans
  2. They are capable of understanding complex issues
  3. They are discreet and the club can rely on them to value the sensitivity of the information being shared

The club should invite this group for a tête-à-tête with Arsene and other key members of the staff, including the board and the management. Some details should be shared with these people and they should be allowed to probe for details that address the sincere concerns of the fans.

For instance, wouldn’t you love to know how Bendtner and Benzema stack up when a great many details are analyzed? Most of us have limited statistics and the moments that stay in our memories to go with. Often, once we form an opinion about a player, we only notice the negatives (or positives) and things just get worse (or rosy).

Do you really think Wenger could be where he is if he had been just like us? Surely, his approach is a lot more objective and complex than we even begin to imagine. So wouldn’t it be great if some people can get insights into that?

For fans it is easy to say that defence is a problem and Wenger should spend. There is no accountability involved. If he does spend and the player doesn’t play as well, we can always blame the player, and the manager for betting on the wrong horse. Criticism is easy and doesn’t need any skills.

Squillaci had all the attributes that the fans were asking for, bar one. He was experienced. He’d won titles in other leagues. He was also a fighter, at least he was supposed to be. Only his price tag wasn’t as big as some would want to see. Even then, when he was signed many rated him better than Koscielny just because of the aforementioned attributes. Many of the same fans can’t stand him anymore. Such contradictions and the unerring fluctuation in fan opinions is directly related to the limitations of the information available to them, although that is not the only factor.

Wouldn’t it be fascinating if someone could understand the actual process that went into signing a player? Looking at all the scouting reports and detailed statistical analysis that might have been done to reach a conclusion can be a real eye opener.

The reason I am talking about these things is that I am completely convinced Wenger has a method to his apparent madness. People say he has the ability to find quality players but isn’t willing to spend. I don’t think it is about ability but more about a process. He has a process that works better than anyone else’s and finding the right player and identifying the price for that player are both integral parts of that process.

Now, one can easily claim the process is not working but that is more an expression borne out of frustration at the current state rather than something based on a clear understanding of what actually goes on behind the scenes.

The chosen people who get access to some of these details can then provide the fans with their honest analysis. They don’t have to tow the party line and say everything is perfect, that would defeat the purpose, but we would all be better off if someone we trusted gave us an opinion based on authentic information.

The sincerity of these individuals is the key to bridging the gap between the club and the supporters. That is why they have to be intelligent, trustworthy individuals who can be the opinion leaders and add to the thinking of the majority.

There will still be those who want to insist their opinion is valid and will call these people cronies of the establishment if their thoughts don’t match but we can’t really do much about these people.

Then there is the issue of how much information can be shared. Obviously, if all the information given to these individuals could be made public then the club could just as easily publish it on the official website. It would expose the secrets of Arsenal’s success and that is why discretion is of paramount significance.

So one might expect those involved to write about their experience as follows,

We met with Arsene and it was an amazing experience. The club are looking at 6 central defenders and have analyzed them on 20-30 variables. There are four or five scouting reports for each guy. We also saw comparison with the players we currently have and the difference is not that big. Indeed, a couple of our guys are much better than the names we read in the papers…

Or it could just as easily go like this,

The club are looking at 6 defenders and we saw the analysis and comparison with our players. Two of the defenders we are looking at are excellent and I would like to see the club spend over the odds to get them…

Indeed, it is quite possible that two different individuals might have these opposing views after the same meeting.

The above statements are just examples and speculative. I don’t expect the exact descriptions as I have mentioned. At the very least the language will be much better than what I am able to write and one would expect the content and analysis to have more depth.

The point is that fans will get reliable, first-hand information and the club will not have to disclose the relevant details that are essential for maintaining a competitive edge. Don’t you think it will be infinitely better than all the supposition we have to deal with or the malicious rumours that are doing the rounds?

There is a feeling among many fans that Arsenal are not doing anything or not doing enough. At the very least, such an exercise should put things in the right perspective and help settle the nerves of millions of fans around the world.

There is a fair argument that it is not as easy as I am making is sound. Who is to say that the person chosen won’t talk to a few near and dear ones and reveal the secrets in private? This might not be done out of malice but how many of us can truly resist from sharing such a once in a lifetime experience? And once the details are shared with one or two, it is bound to spread. We all know how it works.

Clearly, it is not an easy task but I think Arsenal are at a stage where they have to push the boundaries of convention and find the way to reach out to the supporters who have genuine concerns because a couple of bad moments can unleash an avalanche in the current environment.

There are enough intelligent and trustworthy individuals at the club and amongst the Gooners to make this work. But it can only begin with the right intent. Either it has to come from the club or from the Supporter’s groups. And working out the details will take some time. But once the intent is demonstrated the vibes around the club can change.

Would you rather work to see something like this come to fruition or you think booing and marching actually solves more problems that it creates?

There are other details related to this, like the criteria for selecting the individuals can be more detailed, but the article is already too long so I will leave those out. Hopefully, I have been able to explain what I have in mind. I don’t know if it will help or will be forgotten in a day or two. The idea is to put a thought out there. I also understand that someone might have thought of this already and it didn’t work out. If so I’d really love to hear more about that experience/attempt.

I consider this an exercise in Fan Relations or Supporter Relations and not Public Relations, which is a broader term and doesn’t involve the kind of passion that is necessary for something like this to work.  Moreover, it involves real desire and a genuine attempt from both sides.

Give it a thought. If you think it won’t work, try and identify the reasons and if possible, the solutions. If you think it makes sense please share it with others. Over to you.


Farewell Cesc Fabregas: Mixed Feelings & Final Thoughts

August 15, 2011

I don’t think any transfer, in my limited time following football, has moved me to the extent this one did. Not even close. And I can’t see it happening again in the future. Regular readers know how much I admire Fabregas, who I rated as the best player in the Premiership. So a part of me feels betrayed and resentful. A thought pops into my head – hope his injury worries get worse and he never truly fulfils his potential.

But then I take a few deep breaths. He deserves better in his life, his career, and from the fans. Once the negative emotions are acknowledged and controlled, it is not hard to see the light. He came as a boy with sublime talent and dreams of making it big, performed miracles on the pitch, always behaved as an immaculate professional, and left with his dignity intact.

The lack of trophies will haunt him and everyone who loves the Arsenal but it certainly wasn’t for want of trying.

The transfer battle was as bad as any custody battle between two estranged parents could get. For that is what Arsenal and Barcelona are to Cesc Fabregas. Most Arsenal fans can’t really stand Barcelona anymore, at least off the pitch, and my feelings for the Catalans in that regard are well documented on this blog. But there is no doubt Arsenal had their share of issues.

Fabregas must have been torn apart by the opposing pulls over the last year or so and that is what makes his professionalism stand out in the modern world. It is impossible to sustain any hostile feelings towards the man once you consider his qualities on and off the football pitch. This is a good interview and I will wait for the time when he can bare his heart out.

I have seen mixed reactions among fans and that seems logical. Not everyone can appreciate the complexity involved. There are way too many speculative opinions around and I don’t want to add to that. Too many facts are unclear, even unknown, and forming opinions on baseless assumptions is a pointless exercise I just don’t have time for.

The key observation – Arsenal are not in the optimal state given the stage of the season – is irrefutable and disconcerting. Do I want to link that with Cesc and tarnish the memories of his magical performances? Absolutely not.

Do I want to dwell on that and twist every event into a miserable knot? No, that is for the misery brigade – people who can’t deal with their emotions and insist on imposing their woes on others.

This is the time to wish Cesc well and remember him for all that he has done for Arsenal Football Club. Then it’s about looking forward.

Fare well Cesc. You will be missed and cherished but I want to concentrate on Udinese now.


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.


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.