Thoughts On West Ham And Hull

April 20, 2014

Arsenal’s win over West Ham wasn’t as comfortable as a 3-1 scoreline suggests, nor was it a great performance, but there were some genuinely pleasing moments which made it enjoyable and the points always help.

There were shades of early season form in this win, particularly in the way the team defended many tricky moments. Wenger’s side did very well to minimize the goalkeeper’s work even though West Ham got into the final third and the penalty box often enough by gaining territory through their long ball approach. The Gunners were vigilant, disciplined, and working for each other to snuff out any danger from the ball bouncing around in the box.

There was a bit of luck involved, as is always the case in such games. For instance, the ref might have blown for a penalty had Jarvis taken a tumble when Sagna’s foot made contact with his. I didn’t think the contact was strong enough for it to be a foul but we’ve seen even softer ones given. In that sense, Jarvis must be lauded for staying up even if the more cynical readers might wonder whether the winger was too slow to realize he could go down and the opportunity was gone before he could seize it.

West Ham’s goal was one of the few moments where Arsenal’s defence failed. There were more defensive players in the penalty box than were offensive ones but the Gunners, mainly Sagna and Arteta, didn’t show the same awareness and desire to get to the ball as Jarvis did. His opportunism paid dividends. In the build-up, Kallstrom was a tad slow to track the run and that allowed Nocerino a clear sight of goal, albeit from a tight angle.

By my count, this was the sixth straight game where the Gunners had conceded the first goal. They’d lost two and drawn three of the previous five (considering the Wigan game as a draw at full time). This time the response was quicker and that probably helped.

The equalizer came from a poor clearance which, one might argue, was forced by Arsenal’s urgency. In any case, the quality of Cazorla’s pass and Podolski’s finish were simply outstanding.

The second half performance was better in terms of ball and territory control but the number of chances was still quite limited. It was exceptional individual quality that made the decisive difference.

Giroud’s goal was just sensational. He had to win two physical battles – Reid backing in and Carroll shoving him from behind – while keeping his eye on the ball before producing a sublime first touch and a powerful finish with his weaker foot that went through the Keeper’s legs from a tight angle. It’s definitely a Goal of the Month contender if not Goal of the Season.

The vital cushion goal was again down to decisive individual brilliance. That lad Ramsey is back for sure. What a header that was. The ball was going away from goal, he had a tight space to hit, and had to get the weight of the pass just right. Podolski’s finish was nonchalant but hardly easy. The German’s a natural goalscorer.

I thought Vermaelen, Giroud, Cazorla, and Podolski had very good games. Others were at a good level too. I was particularly impressed by the way Giroud used his physical qualities to battle for the ball when the opponents had it or in 50-50 scenarios. In the past he’s done well to hold his ground in front of the opposition box or to hold on to the ball once he has control of it, but in this game the Frenchman showed a desire to use those qualities to win the ball back, or to shrug an opponent off the ball. It was fun to watch and very useful to the team. Hopefully, this won’t be a one off.

Working hard in defence and producing decisive moments when needed has been the story for bulk of the season. It was the approach on which the strong run was built and it has worked well against relatively smaller teams. Sustaining this for the rest of the season could still make this a pretty decent year.

Hull City – Rehearsal for the big one

Steve Bruce has done well at the KC Stadium. Many are saying this is Hull’s best ever season. An FA Cup final and safety in the League (not guaranteed yet but fairly likely) are commendable achievements.

That said, it’s worth noting that Hull have a P13 W1 D1 L11 record against the top 8 this season. And they’ve faced only one Premier League team on their way to the FA Cup final – Sunderland, who might not even be in the top flight next season.

They’ve done well but I will be extremely disappointed if the Gunners don’t win this game. Everton are also yet to visit the Tigers and dropping points here could help them get back in contention for that Champions League spot.

Of course, no team can be taken lightly at this level. League leaders Liverpool lost at the KC Stadium. It can happen to anyone. Nevertheless, there aren’t any standout strengths that Arsenal need to worry about. Like any Bruce side, they are well organized, committed, and disciplined. It’s hard to score against the Tigers. Huddlestone is a useful distributor in midfield and both their strikers – Jelavic and Long – can be a handful on their day. Curtis Davies has had a good season while names like Figueroa, Steve Harper, Elmohamady, and Livermore should be fairly well-known to serious followers of the League. It’s a competitive team.

A steady, cohesive defensive display supported by individual qualities in attack should see the Gunners return with the three points. The biggest challenge will be to overcome their own confidence issues and tendency to stop playing their game. Next in line would be defending crosses and set-pieces while ensuring the home strikers don’t get a clear sight of goal. It could mean some aerial battles and the need for tracking runs into wide channels. Nothing they haven’t done before.

Wenger has some options with players returning from injuries and suspensions. Arsenal also have the luxury of an eight day break before their next game.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen – Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey – AOC, Giroud, Podolski.

Özil and Rosicky should provide strong attacking options on the bench. Flamini can be called upon if an extra body is needed to chase the ball.

Gibbs should play if he is fit.

This was the kind of game Arsenal were winning earlier in the season. The last few weeks have been tough and, as noted above, the Gunners have developed a bad habit of conceding first. it’s important to break out of that. Hull have not been great against the top sides but they will be much harder to crack if they take the lead. Arsenal have not won a single game this season when they’ve trailed at half time. In contrast, the Gunners have won all 12 League games (and all cup ties?) when they’ve led at the break.

Clichéd though it may be, the side that scores first is most likely to achieve its desired outcome from this game.


Thoughts On Wigan And West Ham

April 15, 2014

Mission accomplished. It wasn’t a swashbuckling performance but it was a strong one. It wasn’t stylish but it was satisfactory.

This was never going to be a big scoring game. Wigan are the second lowest scorers among the top six Championship sides that are vying for promotion and their goal per game ratio is more comparable to the mid-table or bottom-half sides from that league than the top ones. Arsenal have also lost their rhythm recently and have lacked ideas, combinations, and clinical finishing in the final third.

Low scoring battles often boil down to mistakes. And they tend to even the game up because defending is very significantly easier than attacking, which means the gap between the teams becomes that much smaller. That said, Wigan deserve great credit for making a game out of this, and we saw further evidence that their success in the competition over the last couple of seasons was not a fluke. I expected energy and commitment from them but their discipline and superb organization surprised me. It did come at the cost of offensive qualities because they rarely troubled Fabianksi throughout the 120 minutes of action. But for Mertesacker’s error, this could have been a hard fought one-nil to the Gunners, which would have looked better and would certainly have been gentler on the nerves of millions of Gooners around the world. In that sense, I’m glad I did not watch it live and kudos to you if you did and enjoyed it!

Arsenal are going through a difficult phase right now and it’s not something they’ll break out of easily because it’s almost impossible to pin-point one or two issues as the source of all the troubles. Without proper diagnosis, symptomatic treatment is the only other recourse and that doesn’t always help. Just like doctors sometimes have to hope that a person’s will to live and his/her body’s internal immune system will have to win the fight over a disease, Wenger right now has to hope that his team’s mentality and the players’ inherent qualities will grind out results. That’s what happened in this game, make no mistake.

It is not ideal but the Gunners are extremely reliant on confidence and coordination for success on the pitch. If one part of the system fails it tends to drag everything else down and we get the appearance that the side lacks quality all over. Once it’s all back up and running, few people will be able to correctly tell just what changed. That’s why the Gunners go on strong runs that catch the popular media and many fans by surprise.

While it’s mostly about the unit, some aspects of individual play were worth discussing. Sanogo looked like a striker with good ideas. I liked the way he shifted the ball from one foot to another and tried to get his shot away on the half turn or pivot. He also showed a decent understanding of spaces in the attacking areas when he went between the defenders or tried staying on the edge of the box for cut-backs. Shooting technique remains his basic problem and it is a big one. The raw material is good but it’s hard to judge how much he will evolve as a striker because it’s fair to expect better technique from a player at his age.

Fabianski had a fairly easy game, for them most part. He came close to saving Gomez’s penalty but it was powerfully and accurately struck. The Pole did come rushing out once late in the game and must have been on the end of some abuse from rapidly beating hearts. His penalty saves were excellent as the ball just didn’t hit him and fly away. Fabianksi kept his eye on the ball till the end and made sure he got enough behind it. There was also an element of luck I think, not just in guessing correctly but also in the ref letting him get away with early starts. The first one wasn’t as obvious but the Arsenal goalie was well off his line before the second penalty had been struck. Sometimes little details work in your favour and help make you a hero. Few people notice and it’s soon forgotten.

I also liked the impact Gibbs made after coming on. Monreal is not a bad player but he isn’t as suited to the English style where a full-back often has to charge up and down the pitch while defending the zone on his own. A couple of factors that make a big difference here is that he isn’t as quick at turning as Gibbs, nor does he have the same power over a long distance run or in individual battles.

Ramsey was impressive, albeit not at his earlier decisive levels yet.

West Ham – Ugliest Game of the Season?

I don’t like Allardyce as a football manager and hate watching his teams. That’s about as polite as I can get when it comes to Big Sam and his ability to turn players into thugs.

Normally, at home, Arsenal would not have that much trouble against teams managed by a manager who uses fouls as a tactical attacking tool. But with their current creative struggles, the “rough them up”, “get in their faces”, and “charge the goalkeeper” set of tactics can prove to be a genuine nuisance.

All Allardyce teams are fairly decent at getting bodies between ball and goal with individuals working hard to track runners and mark their man. They also show enough commitment and desire to hurl themselves as the ball if all else fails. That means getting a clear path to goal – in other words, creating the best kind of goalscoring chances – will be hard. Arsenal will have to find a way rise above their current inefficiency levels in order to put the ball in the net. Small openings will inevitably arise as the visitors chase the ball but a side that isn’t on top of its game – players not linking instinctively, for example – will not be fast enough to exploit these openings. It’s little details like these that can be a difference between a free-flowing or a frustrating performance.

At the other end, the Gunners will have to work very hard to deal with West Ham’s aerial and physical qualities. Long balls, crosses, flick-ons, second-ball, crowd in the penalty box, blocking/fouling the goalkeeper, and relying on set-pieces – primitive tactics they may be, but we can’t argue against their effectiveness in being annoying and potentially harmful in terms of points. Usually, their tactics don’t work as well in away games. A big factor, in my opinion, is that referees tend to give 50-50s in the home side’s favour more often than against them. Nevertheless, it would not be wise to rely on the referee to bail them out of trouble, even if it’s caused illegally. That means redundancy in defence, players being close to each other and alert to possible threats, individuals taking responsibility, and a safety-first attitude will be vital.

I will never tire of saying this – if you can’t win, don’t lose. And if you don’t lose, there is always a chance of getting a goal because 90 minutes on a football pitch is a very long time.

Fatigue will be an issue. West Ham have not played since last Sunday and should be fresh and well-prepared. Arsenal’s fitness news is unclear.

Flamini, as he’d done earlier in the season with his reckless red card, is again suspended when the team could use him.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey – Rosicky, Giroud, Podolski.

Oxlade-Chamberlain should play if he is fit.

Giroud will be needed in the penalty box at both ends of the pitch.

It’d be tempting to start with two strikers in Giroud and Sanogo but I’m not sure this is the time to experiment.

Ideally, I’d like to see Ramsey given a rest and someone like Kallstrom starting the game. But the Swede didn’t look like he was up to the pace of the game when he came on against Wigan and a physical battle as this one might not be the best time for a full debut.

I doubt this will be a great game to watch. Arsenal are not out of the rut yet. West Ham have a poor record against the Gunners but this could be their best chance in a long time to change that just as Everton did. A bit of luck could make it or break it for either team. Fingers crossed.


Thoughts On Everton And The Predictably Disappointing March

April 6, 2014

Ever since the fixtures were announced, it was pretty clear that the Feb-March period was going to give us a the real picture of Arsenal’s quality and improvements this season. Starting with Southampton at the end of January till the game against City last weekend, the Gunners have picked up 13 points from 10 games. Crystal Palace have done better, as have eight other teams. Of course, some of them had easier fixtures and Wenger’s side had some injuries to contend with but it’s hard to argue this is the performance of a side deserving to be champions.

The thing that rankles most is the sheer predictability of poor performances and the nature of mistakes made. I cannot understand how a man as brilliant as Wenger chose the side he did at Stamford Bridge, and this is not the first time he has done it. The desire to go there and perform with style in search of a win is, in itself, commendable. Chelsea certainly haven’t been in the kind of form that would warrant extra caution or diffidence of any sort. But handing the game to the hosts with such an unbalanced starting eleven beggars belief. In most games it’s hard to argue any one individual could have turned the game on its head but Flamini alongside Arteta would have done so in that one. Anyway, I’d better not dwell on this too much as you’ve probably worked hard to put it out of your mind.

The draw against Swansea was another poor result. The team probably had some soreness from the previous thrashing that prevented them from playing close to their potential. The Gunners have won such games often this season but when you’re defending that deep there is always the risk of a freakish moment taking points away.

At home against City the team did better, in relative terms at least. And if they can build on that the season can still have a very good finish. The best case scenario is simple – eight wins. That would mean an FA Cup trophy and 82 points in the League. In my opinion that would make this season a resounding success irrespective of the actual league position. Here’s the problem though, I just can’t see it happening.

The Cup remains a lottery and much will depend on the kind of pressure the players feel going into the game. For instance, a bad defeat at Goodison park will create a negative pressure while a solid win will create positive pressure/momentum.

In the League, six wins out of six are doable based on the quality at Wenger’s disposal but unrealistic given current form, injuries, and mental state.

Everton – A Must Not Lose At Any Cost Fixture

Arsenal were 9 points ahead of Spurs and 11 of Everton at the beginning of March. Both those teams had a game in hand. While Sherwood’s side have now fallen behind (form worse than Arsenal’s over the last 10 games), Everton have won their last five games and cut that lead down to 4.

Both teams will feel they have the final top four spot in their hands. The Toffees have a slightly tougher run in but Arsenal are perfectly capable of dropping points in games they should be winning. This is a classic six-pointer and could set the tone for the rest of the season. Arsenal’s priority has to be to avoid defeat. It won’t be easy.

The last time Martinez’s side dropped points at home was on boxing day. That surprise reversal against Sunderland remains their only defeat at Goodison Park. Everton have picked up an impressive 2.4 PPG at home. Arsenal have the second best away record in the League but Wenger’s side have won two and lost three of their last six on the road.

The patterns of play will be governed by the intensity of Everton’s pressing and the control Arsenal can show when dealing with it. They won the Cup tie at home by playing through that pressure to take the lead. In this game, I feel, the Toffees will come harder. Breaking their resistance could result in a sweet win but any lack of sharpness is likely to lead to a bitter disappointment.

Arsenal will also have to find a way to prevent the hosts from controlling the ball in the centre of the park. Martinez’s side will consistently find spaces between the lines and in wide areas if the visitors sit too deep or lack cohesion in their pressing. We’ve seen both problems often enough this season for it to be a genuine worry. In fairness, the Gunners did a decent job of pressing in the centre of the pitch when the sides met a few weeks earlier but I expect the tempo to be much higher in this away game.

Everton have good creativity and attacking diversity in their squad along with energy and power. The main ingredient they lack is experience and that has resulted in a somewhat inefficient attack. In other words, they haven’t scored as many goals as their attacking qualities actually merit. The positive for them here is that if the attack does click as well as it can they have the potential to score three or four goals in such a game.

Their defending is very reliant on the midfield pair of McCarthy and Barry. Neither is particularly quick but both are disciplined, read the game well, and work hard. Nevertheless, getting behind that pairing is Arsenal’s best avenue for creating quality chances and it is possible if the passing has that bit of crispness. It’s not beyond the Gunners from a technical point of view but the players’ mindset plays a big part as well. It’s very hard to create the attacking flow if even one or two players are slow with their off-the-ball reactions or if the defence is demanding greater protection in deeper areas. Often these are linked because laborious possession can invite the opponents forward and make pressing easier for them.

Wenger doesn’t have too many options right now. I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Arteta, Cazorla, Flamini – AOC, Giroud, Rosicky.

Gibbs would be the first choice for left back if fit. Apart from that, Podolski on the left with either Chamberlain, Santi, or Rosicky on the bench is the only other option that seems feasible. The selection of the German could lead to a counter-attacking approach, which is not a bad option if the team is tactically prepared.

A late cameo for Ramsey will be interesting but I hope he is not rushed.

Unlike most other games the Gunners have played, a steady first half followed by a win in the second is not likely to be a good tactic for this one because Everton themselves are adept at gaining points late in the game. Arsenal have to cause some early damage and build on it instead of sitting on it. Conceding first is always a problem.

Over the last few years, one of the most frustrating aspects of supporting the Gunners has been the knowledge that they are good enough to win almost any game and, at the same time, the awareness that they can make a spectacular mess with little warning. I don’t know how the game will pan out but I doubt anything will surprise me.


Thoughts On Spurs, Chelsea, Swansea, And City

March 21, 2014

I am leaving for a trip in a few hours and will be away from a computer for the next week. With limited time the best approach seems to be to note key points from the win over Spurs and the three upcoming fixtures.

Grinding a win

This season has been about defending. And it’s worked reasonably well as far as results are concerned. Thus there was no surprise when the Gunners battled with focus and determination to eke out another away win in a difficult fixture.

The game followed, broadly speaking, the patterns that we’ve seen from both sides throughout the season. Spurs had a lot of control but very little penetration. They were physically strong but lacking in ideas. They had a high line that was suspect and there for the taking. It was easy to see why they’ve been at the receiving end of big defeats against the top sides.

Arsenal got the first goal but lacked decisive quality on the counter attacks subsequently, which meant the game was always in the balance. They defended resolutely and collectively but ended up too deep as time went by. The goal might even have handicapped the team but right now the safest bet is on the Gunners holding on to a lead against a side that has been toothless quite often rather than them coming from behind to secure the swashbuckling comeback wins of seasons past.

The Szczesny blunder and the subsequent blocks by defenders typify this Arsenal. When one individual fails miserably, others are there to save his blushes. Chadli’s miss provided the archetype of Spurs’ season.

Was it fun? No. Was it vital? Yes. It gives Arsenal a little buffer from the teams chasing champions league qualification and keeps them within touching distance of top. I still think the Gunners are fourth favourites for the title (bookmakers also have pretty long odds on Arsenal winning the League) but they have the next three games to change that perception.

Chelsea – Can be historic, can be Déjà Vu, can be a boring goalless draw

Wenger has never beaten Mourinho and Chelsea haven’t lost at home with the Portuguese at helm. It’s also Wenger’s 1000th game in charge. You could say the stage is set for a historic, season-defining game that could set the course for a bright future for Arsenal football club.

Then again, the Frenchman’s record against his counterpart, spread over a few years and a fair number of games, is not an accident. Nor is Jose’s home dominance.

His tactics will be quite predictable. Even though they probably can, Chelsea’s priority will not be to dominate possession or produce high quality football. They’ll start the game with the basic approach of not losing. That means controlling the vital central areas in their half and defending the penalty box.

Occasionally, and we might even see that at the start, they will press with intensity. They’ll build on it if the Gunners make mistakes or drop back into a solid defensive shape if the visitors hold their own and play past the pressure. Chelsea’s biggest goal threat will come on quick breaks. They create many chances, probably same as Liverpool or more, but their finishing has been inconsistent. Arsenal will need a bit of luck when the hosts break forward, as will inevitably happen.

When the game is very tight and a single goal can be decisive, a strong defensive side’s goal scoring potential from set-pieces and long range shots can also make the key difference. Arsenal, if they drop really deep, will have to ensure the opponents don’t get a clear sight of goal. Coming back into this game after conceding the first goal will be very tough.

At the other end, the Gunners offer a much more limited threat, particularly with injuries to important players who can produce the big decisive moments. They’ll again need a little bit of luck to go with a brilliant individual moment if they’re to carve the Chelsea defence apart. I think the best approach for Wenger’s side is to make sure they don’t lose. After that, 90 minutes is a long time for something to click in attack.

Arsenal should back their ability to win the second half and make sure the game is not beyond them before the first half ends.

The hazardous nature of Eden’s talent is not lost on any opponent but few have been able to contain it. Sagna will have a big role to play in the game and history tells us he can do it, but it won’t happen without sufficient help. Hazard is very good at stopping and starting abruptly with a change of direction and when coupled with his excellent initial acceleration, he becomes a slippery customer for any one player because the defender can only react to what the opponent is doing and that happens after the proactive player makes the choice. Often the milliseconds spent in understanding what just happened and then reacting to it are enough for a guy like Hazard to burst into space. After that it can be a wreck of dominoes if the other defensive players are not in the right places. As long as Sagna has enough support to discourage inward movement, the Frenchman should be able to do a good job defending the flank and the outside channel going towards the byline.

Chelsea might try to overload that flank with Oscar drifting towards that side and that will simply redouble the importance of getting the defensive bodies in the right areas. Arsenal cannot afford to be as deep as they were against Spurs and cannot allow Chelsea to see as much of the ball in their penalty box.

It might be interesting to put a player like Chamberlain on the same flank as he would offer similar challenges to the Chelsea left back and can possibly limit his forward forays. Just as it proved against Spurs, that area could be Arsenal’s way in.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Flamini – AOC, Giroud, Podolski.

This remains a must-not-lose six pointer in the title race and avoiding a defeat will also help consolidate the place in Champions League spots. Chelsea don’t have too many big games left but they do have a trip to Anfield coming up. With other Champions League distractions still to come, a wobble at home could see them slip further down in the League. It’s a low probability event but Arsenal can get three points if they play their cards right and get a bit of luck.

Swansea – A tricky game between the big ones

The Swans were flying high last season but seem to have come back down to earth this year. Nevertheless, and their current relegation-threatened existence notwithstanding, the Welsh side remain a formidable opponent who, on their day, can upset any of the big sides.

That this fixture will be played when the Gunners are bruised and battered by some seriously big encounters and still looking forward to other decisive battles in the near future is not be ideal. It could lead to a little bit of lack in focus or concentration. At this level such drops can be decisive.

Otherwise, the game should be a pretty standard fight between two technical sides. Arsenal’s advantage will be that the opponents lack consistent quality in the final third. It’s the biggest factor in determining where teams end up in the table and those very close to the bottom are usually struggling for goals or balance or both. It could be another game where Wenger’s side will have to rely on a patient and professional display. Goals should come if they are persistent as the Swans won’t have as strong a defence as the major challengers Arsenal have come up against this year.

The result and performance against Chelsea could also have a direct bearing on how this game is played. A positive one at Stamford Bridge could make this game a lot more comfortable. A negative one could induce the handbrake and make life harder than it needs to be.

Manchester City – Can Arsenal make the home advantage count?

Pellegrini’s side are out of the FA Cup and the Champions League but that could give them further motivation to win the Premiership. It should also help with their scheduling from here on in. They have games in hand and are capable of winning those, which makes them title favourites.

Arsenal have to win such a game to convince many fans and most neutral observers that they remain serious contenders. Of course, that will also depend on the results from the previous two games but, even assuming the low-probability best case scenario of six points from those ties, it’s such home matches that the Gunners haven’t won often enough over the last few years, and that provides sufficient grounds for doubting their title aspirations.

Wenger’s side will not be crowned champions at the end of march but they could drop out of the reckoning. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily a bad thing as the players can focus more on the FA Cup, but the nagging pull of negativity can result in Cup disappointment too if these types of games produce adverse results and poor performances.

It’s hard to predict this one tactically. Wenger went with a very proactive approach in the corresponding away fixture but suffered a bad defeat. Despite some refereeing decisions going against his side, it’s hard to argue the teams were on the same level. City simply have a much better attack and the Gunners could be on the end of another tennis score if they go all out in attack.

Holding firm defensively and playing for one or two big chances during the course of the game will again be the pragmatic approach. Arsenal have found an extra gear against the smaller teams but it’s not always clicked in place against the top sides. Part of it is linked to the nature of their defending as many players are pulled back deep inside their territory. It remains this side’s biggest area of improvement on the collective front.

Can the team defend well a little higher up the pitch? The answer to that question will have a direct bearing on their result against City and maybe even against Chelsea.

The two central defenders and their supporting cast have done very well but a lot of that is linked to redundancy in defence that comes at the expense of options in attack. Mertesacker and Koscielny have been exceptional in and around the Arsenal penalty box but eventually they’ll have to prove they can do it higher up the pitch. Till that happens the bigger trophies will always be a distant dream.

I’ll write more about this once I’m back and get a chance to watch all these games. That should happen at the end of the month or early in April.


Thoughts On Bayern And NLD

March 16, 2014

Sometimes seemingly redundant games also have their share of tense bits and entertaining moments. Arsenal’s visit to Germany certainly did. Bayern didn’t have to win that game, they didn’t even need a draw because they’d go through as long as they avoided losing by two goals. Arsenal had very little realistic chance of achieving the kind of win that would see them through but a bad defeat could potentially hurt them for the rest of the season. So it was understandable that neither side was looking to force the issue.

The first half was tepid. I couldn’t understand what Wenger’s plan was. While it’s inconceivable that he’d deliberately go with high school tactics – Everyone get behind the ball and when we have possession give the ball to this wonderkid who’ll run through the opposition to get us a goal – that’s how the Gunners seemed to be playing. Chamberlain had some promising individual moments but they were the kind that rarely result in a meaningful shot or goal against such a quality side because there was no cohesiveness in attack. Dribble, dribble, dribble, fizzle. Team selection suggested a counter-attacking approach but most of the time was spent in chasing the ball deep in their own half. There was no urgency in pressing higher up the pitch and that negated any possibility of threatening transitions. Özil’s injury must also have played it’s part but it’s a bit strange that a decision to replace him wasn’t taken earlier.

Bayern, for their part, were lackadaisical and risk averse. They got to the penalty box quite often but rarely had a clear look at goal. Fabianski had a lot of touches but very few, if any, significant saves to make in that period. In fairness, the onus was not on them and they were extremely efficient at controlling Arsenal’s offensive forays. They were also up against a very determined and focussed Arsenal defence.

The second half was a better. The Gunners showed more desire but it was the hosts who went ahead. Schweinsteiger’s run from deep was excellent. Both Chamberlain and Cazorla are not used to a central midfield role and were caught napping as the German international ghosted past them to arrive in the box unmarked. His finish was composed and intelligently placed.

Arsenal got the equalizer almost immediately and it was immensely enjoyable. While watching live, Podolski’s push on Lahm looked like a clear foul to me, but slow motion replays brought a seed of doubt. There were no misgivings about the power and placement of his nonchalantly taken shot though and Neuer’s evasive action in goal was priceless. Guardiola’s disgust on the sidelines added to the effect. The controversial aspect would have been much bigger and the entertainment one limited had this goal, in any way, had an impact on the result of the tie over two legs.

It was interesting to see Bayern rattled for a few minutes after they conceded the equalizer. It just shows that when the tactical rhythm of any team is broken the experience and mentality of the players on the pitch doesn’t make a difference. This was Arsenal’s chance but they didn’t have enough quality to take it. The hosts got back into the groove and regained control after that.

There were some promising moments for Arsenal as the game progressed but they seemed the type that the likes of Norwich and Cardiff would produce against the Gunners in the League. Gnabry breaking forward with one or two options in the box and the rest of the team way behind, or Giroud in a situation where he has to make a 20+ yard pass (not a flick or chip) between the defenders to find a teammate in the box is hardly a situation that will consistently result in a goal against opposition of this quality.

In the end the result was acceptable for both sides. Arsenal got a creditable draw that should help sustain the team’s confidence after the win over Everton. Bayern went through to the quarter-final without getting out of second gear. I enjoyed sporadic moments but not the game per se because it never felt like a real contest.

NLD – 3-pointer in title race, 6-pointer in battle for fourth.

At the start of the tricky period in February, the Gunners had a nine point lead over Spurs in 5th place. Now that is down to six and a defeat at White Hart Lane would bring it down to three. With two massive fixtures coming up, there is a very real possibility that Arsenal could end up outside the top four by the end of March. Some fans think that a domestic cup is more important than finishing in Champions League spots and it’s not unreasonable to think of that as a realistic outcome this season.

In order to avoid that, this game becomes a must-not-lose-at-any-cost fixture as even a draw would keep the buffer at six points. Things could get interesting if United beat Liverpool.

The best case scenario, obviously, is a win for Wenger’s side that will help close the gap with Chelsea and could, at least temporarily, place the team in second spot. We’d have to go back to 2007 to find Arsenal’s last win in this fixture, which doesn’t bode well for a positive result tomorrow. On the other hand, this is Tottenham’s performance against the current top four this season,

  Home Away
Chelsea

D1-1

L0-4

Manchester City

L1-5

L0-6

Liverpool

L0-5

?

Arsenal

?

L0-1

They’ve conceded twenty goals and scored once in four games since that draw against Chelsea at the end of September. Arsenal’s win though, while it came early in the season when Spurs had the excuse of not having had the opportunity to gel together, was a much more closely fought encounter where the visitors had decent possession while the Gunners had many chances on the counter-attack after taking an early lead.

There have been phases in all their big games, even the ones with humiliating defeats, where Tottenham have competed with the opponents on a level footing. But they’ve not found a way to score in these periods and their defence has invariably yielded, often without much pressure.

Is this game going to be different? To be honest, I don’t know. At the moment, Arsenal don’t have the same goal scoring potential that City or Liverpool have. Even Chelsea create more on the counter-attacks than the Gunners. This should give Sherwood’s side a greater chance of protecting their goal.

Arsenal’s collective work in defence has also been their biggest strength so it’ll be a big surprise if Spurs get over their scoring struggles. Individuals like Adebayor can prove decisive on their day but it hasn’t happened often enough for Tottenham this year.

All things considered, unless there are crazy individual errors, this should be a relatively low scoring affair. Three goals or less in total would be my guess.

It’s hard to predict the patterns of play in this game. Spurs played on Thursday so it’s quite likely that Sherwood will rotate some of his side. They do have enough players in the squad and fairly good variety, but neither of their managers has found the right balance this season.

Their biggest offensive threat will possibly come from pace and runs in behind, although a cross that finds Adebayor in the box can also prove lethal. Defensively, the main weakness could be at left-back and just in front of the central defence. A quick transition can also expose the space behind their high line.

Wenger doesn’t have many choices given the spate of injuries.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Cazorla, Flamini – AOC, Giroud, Podolski.

Chamberlain could pose a serious threat down the right against any of their left-backs. Cazorla could have fun in the centre with two direct players on the flanks and a central striker who can play one-touch in a forceful, physically imposing manner.

I’d like to see Flamini stay deeper and Arteta play with greater vertical freedom. The Spaniard was very good in that role when playing alongside Song in his first season at the club.

The full-backs should be a bit more conservative with their positioning because Spurs have the pace to trouble the Gunners when breaking forward. Monreal, in particular, can struggle because he is a slow turner and doesn’t always get his body shape right. Sagna is faster at responding but his adventurous positioning can, at times, leave him with a lot to do.

In the recent past, curiously enough, this fixture has consistently defied the odds when it comes to the side-scoring-first-takes-the-points theory. Even two goals leads have been dangerous! But if it’s a low scoring tie, the first goal could again be decisive.


Thoughts On Everton And Bayern Games

March 11, 2014

The FA Cup seemed like Arsenal’s best trophy chance before the game against Everton. After the win and City’s subsequent loss the Gunners are now the favourites. It seems like fate but we probably shouldn’t tempt it.

Even if we hold our horses and don’t think about results at Wembley, the win over the Toffees was, in itself, quite enjoyable. Not surprisingly, Wenger went with a good combination of pace and skill with sturdy defensive base behind them and, along with notable contributions from the substitutes, that proved strong enough for a convincing win.

I thought the start of the game was pretty similar to the League fixture between the sides. Everton were energetic and made things hard for the Gunners in the central third. The key difference this time around was in Arsenal’s ability to play past that pressure.

The build-up to the goal was superb. Starting with Sagna hassling Pienaar and Arteta chasing Barry, Arsenal forced a turnover in the central third. The Gunners then played 9 passes before Özil slotted the ball into the net. 9 players were involved in the move that lasted around 20 seconds. What I liked most was the ability to the players to deal with Everton’s pressure without panicking or losing sight of their own attacking intent. It always helps when teammates are constantly showing to receive the ball.

See the way Flamini calmly dismissed the attentions of Barkley, or the way Arteta received the ball while facing his own goal and found a way to pass forward. Chamberlain’s flick was a tad ambitious but a slip by McCarthy helped Cazorla get a chance to run into space. A bit of luck is sometimes needed for such a move to succeed and you can also argue the speed of Arsenal’s passing played a part in that mistake.

As discussed before the game, both teams were going to struggle with their high lines if the opponents got past the initial press. So it was no surprise to see Everton stretched and in no shape to defend a simple enough run and finish from Özil as he passed the ball into the net without flinching under the pressure of two defenders sliding in front of him.

The visitors’ best hope of troubling the Gunners lay in their ability to press in the centre of the pitch and control possession but once Arsenal showed, through the goal and a few other attacks, that they could break past that congested centre, it was clear Martinez’s side had lost their plan A. After the first 15 minutes or so they spent most of the time till the half time whistle camped much deeper in their half with very rare meaningful forays forward. This meant the game was now completely different from the League meeting.

That one of those occasional breaks resulted in the equalizer was hugely disappointing and a timely reminder that there’s plenty of scope for improving the defensive thought. We are often told players like Flamini ‘break play up’ but this was an excellent example that individuals don’t make that big a difference because the Frenchman was the primary culprit for the goal.

Arsenal had so many bodies forward that any counter-attack was going to be risky. Flamini should have just held his position behind Barkley and forced him to pass the ball backwards. The couple of seconds or so such an  action would take would normally be enough for a couple of players to get into better defensive positions. Sagna, although you can question why he wasn’t a few yards deeper in the first place, would most certainly have appreciated that opportunity to move back from his advanced position. Having picked up a booking for a trademark lunge earlier in the game, Flamini wasn’t in a position to tackle Barkley either.

He did do reasonably well to slow the youngster’s burst and pushed him wide but the back post remained wide open and Mertesacker was taken out of the picture by Lukaku’s movement. One might argue that Özil could have done a bit more to help Flamini but the Frenchman is in the side to ensure the attacking players have more freedom.

Early in the second half there was another scare when a classic Vermaelen catastrophe moment led to a gilt-edged chance for Barkley, who shot over the bar. I did feel in this game one of Everton’s weaknesses was the inexperience of their talented but raw youngsters. Even Lukaku, for instance, had wasted a promising moment after Chamberlain had gifted the ball to him in a dangerous area. In contrast, the Gunners showed experience and composure that led to precision and efficiency.

The three goals Arsenal got in the second half were also very interesting. Did you notice they all came from Baines’ side with mistakes from Barry as well? The full-back was done in by a simple one-two for the second and lacked the pace to recover. Barry made the obvious error but Baines’ positioning and choices were poor. The third goal was again a one-two down the flank with the full-back again left high and dry. This time Barry didn’t even bother going to the by line and Sagna had ample time to pick his pass. For the fourth, Baines again did not have the pace to track back.

I’ve often noted the fact that his attacking contributions have covered up for his limited defensive contribution and this is augmented by the fact that he’s played most of his games under Moyes whose tactics meant he was rarely left without protection. Just as Barry has showed he isn’t exactly suited to starting roles at top sides, Baines too will struggle if left to man the flank on his own at a big club with very high expectations.

Arsenal’s fourth goal was simply outstanding and one that I enjoyed watching more than Rosicky’s goal against Sunderland or Wilshere’s against Norwich, which came against clearly inferior opposition. The precision of the move and the intelligence of the players was top class. The weight on Cazorla’s pass, and the subsequent one-touch actions by Rosicky, Özil, and Giroud were about as perfect as football can get.

Santi gets my vote for the MotM. Özil was just as good. I don’t think anyone had a poor game, although there were individual errors from more than one.

It was good to see Arsenal use width well in this game. I really enjoyed some quick passes out to a wide player hugging the touchline. But Everton were fairly open throughout the game and that makes a big difference as spaces are more readily available for people to get in behind or when receiving the ball on the touchline.

One way to judge whether the Gunners are close their best or not is to see the number of multi-player moves that are created. As we saw with the first and last goal, and numerous other attacks in this game, four or more players combined to break forward. That can only work when the passing is crisp and accurate, virtually telepathic. In that sense, this was an immensely enjoyable and inspiring performance.

Bayern Munich – Go for broke or play for pride?

This is a tricky game. Arsenal came very close to knocking out the eventual champions last season and, in the process, showed that the difference between the two clubs’ quality was not that big. The first 8-10 minutes of the reverse leg also corroborate that. It’s understandable then if Wenger wants to go for another upset in Germany with hopes of doing one better this time.

The flip side is that Bayern will be much better prepared this time around. As much as Arsenal’s win last season was down to their solidity and efficiency, it was also down to the hosts’ mental state and slackness on the pitch. I don’t think we will see a repeat of that and as a result the Gunners could really get caught out by some clever counter-attacking football by the Germans. If the scoreline becomes embarrassing – and we’ve already seen against City and Liverpool that Arsenal have the potential to crumble against such an attack – it will put pressure on the team before the upcoming big games.

An early goal can work wonders for either team. If Arsenal score they can then settle into the game and Bayern will get a bit nervous because it would mean any other goal from the Gunners and this game would be level. Imagine 80 minutes of play left and Wenger’s side within one goal of forcing extra time? That would certainly make the game very exciting, even if it becomes tense and cagey.

The hosts taking the lead will probably secure the tie for them and they can then perform with greater comfort and look to pick gaps as Wenger’s side are forced into extra risks with passing time. It’s the kind of situation where the score can look bad for the visitors.

I think the best approach for Arsenal would be to go for it in the opening exchanges just as they did at home. Bayern are an excellent team but they are not at the same technical level as Barcelona were and that means they can be hassled into mistakes. Doesn’t happen often, of course, but if anyone can do it a Premier League side can.

The Gunners must be wary of Bayern doing to them what they did to Everton, i.e. play through the pressure and expose the high line. To me the role of Flamini in front of the defence and the two full-backs in tracking the tricky wide players will be vital. Vermaelen, if filling in for injured teammates, can come in under extreme pressure through individual skills, overloads, and well-timed runs of opponents. He will need a fair amount of support.

There is also a good chance that Arsenal will spend a lot of time without the ball deep in their own half. The usual tendency against big teams is to defend the central areas with numbers and surrender the flanks. I’m not convinced that’s a good approach, certainly not if they don’t get close to the ball.

Guardiola is likely to be more aggressive in this game and I won’t be surprised if Lahm starts in midfield. Pressing him and limiting his options on the ball will be important if Arsenal want to defend while having attacking options open.

Team selection will probably be down to one or two choices,

Fabianski – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen – Arteta, Özil, Flamini – AOC, Giroud, Rosicky.

I think Santi could do with a break and Rosicky can provide better cover for the left-back. That would give the Gunners a chance to play their recently favoured 4-4-2 without the ball wherein Özil stays a little higher up the pitch.

Another option is to put Sagna at left-back and bring Jenkinson in at right back. I’m not sure that’d be a very clever choice. Same can be said about starting Flamini at left-back.

Finally, Wenger can also play Rosicky on the right and Cazorla on the left with Chamberlain on the bench. Based on the current winds of hype this is likely to be the least popular option but it can work if the individuals execute their roles as they’re supposed to.

This should not be a high priority game for the Gunners and I don’t have many expectations from it. Any result would be alright as long as Wenger’s side doesn’t crumble defensively. If the players also go with a nothing to lose mentality then who knows…


Thoughts On Stoke And Everton Games

March 8, 2014

Earlier today I was talking to a close friend of mine after a long time. He was wondering why I had limited the number of articles and was covering two games in one post. My answer was in the form of a question, “What can I write about this game against Stoke, for example, that I haven’t already said on multiple occasions over the last 3-4 years?”

Their physicality, the ref’s leniency, Arsenal’s inability to force the issue, the slight but significant vulnerability against balls put in the box, a decision or two going against the Gunners proving decisive, handbrake, slow tempo, absence of width, missing intensity, lack of runs in behind… What’s new?

There have been so many “wake up calls” and “lessons learnt” over the last few seasons that it seems pointless to even go down that route anymore.

The visit to the Britannia was always going to be difficult. I’d mentioned before the game that Arsenal’s best hope from this game would be to grind out a result. A clean sheet helps immensely in such cases and if the game had been level with 10-15 minutes to play the result might have been very different. Speculation doesn’t help but the penalty call was the single biggest moment of the game. I guess the only question was – Are Koscielny’s hands in a natural position? I don’t think they were and for that reason I’m not that disappointed with the penalty decision as many of the fans are. There have been enough arguments against this decision and it’s one where everyone can make their own minds up as it doesn’t really matter now. These kinds of games and such refereeing is part of the League. Teams that win the Premiership find a way to counter it consistently.

Team selection and tactics are the usual culprits in the eyes of many after such a performance and result. Alex certainly added some zip after he came on and it’s only fair to wonder ‘what if’. But it’s also important to remember that Arsenal have won once in seven trips to Stoke since their promotion in 2008. It’s hasn’t always been about pace. Last year, for instance, Arsene started with Gervinho and Podolski and introduced Walcott and Chamberlain later in the game. The team still couldn’t score a goal. In contrast, neither pace, nor width were missed when Sunderland were turned over in the previous game, were they?

On one hand, the predictability of this performance and result maginifies the frustration and pain felt, but on the other, it’s important to understand there isn’t a straightforward solution. I don’t think anyone, even Wenger, can put his finger on the exact cause that results in such a display. That’s why it’s so hard to solve. Every team has bad games and extra quality in the defensive third and attacking third can prove decisive. Arsenal missed that in attack and were somewhat unfortunate in defence.

Having greater offensive diversity – different goal scorers, diverse creators, different ways of scoring, more risk takers offset by a sound tactical system, etc. – always helps counter difficult moments because the probability of something working out when all else fails is naturally higher. In that regard, the Gunners are better than most teams and that explains their position in the table. Being better than most is not the same as being better than everyone though, and that’s the level they’ve to reach if the League title has to come to the Emirates. The gap is really not very big but can feel like an insurmountable chasm if the team collapses repeatedly.

Everton – Is FA Cup the best title hope this season?

Looking at the teams in the FA Cup quarterfinal draw, any Gooner would be tempted to think that Arsenal just need to get past Everton and they’ll be one win over Man City away from ending the title drought. Given that the team has already beaten Spurs and Liverpool in the competition, this could be a very enjoyable triumph if it comes to fruition.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. There are three hurdles to cross before a team lands it’s hands on silverware and we’ve seen the Gunners fall at each of these three against teams of varying qualities.

No game is more important than the next one and it’s even truer given the context of this one. The defeat at Stoke has made the League a very distant prospect where the Gunners will have to rely on three challengers slipping up.  And chances in the Champions League are slim after that defeat to Bayern. Go out of the FA Cup and this season could very well be over. Even if it isn’t technically, for a team that relies so much on rhythm and confidence, it’s hard to imagine the players will recover quickly.

Going through to the semi-finals can have the reverse effect. It will soothe the burns received at Brittania and make the game against Bayern less tense. Performances in subsequent big games could also benefit from this boost.

A replay will not be fun but is better than going out, obviously.

Everton are better than Arsenal’s previous two opponents both technically and tactically. Their performance at the Emirates was among the best by a visiting English side in recent years, particularly their ability to press and sustain possession.

The patterns in this game will depend on their mentality and ability to execute their game plan. There should be no reason for them to not come at the Gunners again. It’s an area where we’ve seen Wenger’s side struggle. That being said, pressing consistently over the duration of the game is never easy and errors from individuals or lack of cohesion can make a team look really ordinary. As long as they attempt it though, it should be a fascinating battle.

The other areas of interest include Arsenal ability to break forward when pushed deeper into their own half. Everton’s defence of the central areas in the midfield and around their penalty box. Use of space by full-backs of both teams. And individual battles like Vermaelen-Lukaku or Flamini-Barkley. Team selections could have a say in shaping these battles.

Neither side is particularly adept at consistently defending with a high line yet both like to control possession and push up at every opportunity. This means controlling transitions can be very important to prevent opponents from getting in-behind. The other option, of course, is to drop deeper and play on the counter-attack. An unnatural approach for both sides but one that could be effective if executed efficiently.

Arsenal, at their best, can play through Everton’s pressure and make their tactics looks ill-advised. Throughout the season there have been patches in various games when I’ve simply loved watching excellent combination play at the back. But we have not seen consistency from the Gunners in this regard. It’s very hard to pin-point the cause of this. Playing quick, one-touch passing, particularly deep in one’s own half, is risky and can only work if the individuals are in sync and make the right runs off the ball and choices on it. A player receiving the ball under pressure has milliseconds to make a choice and then execute it. Unless a teammate offers himself in a manner that makes a pass feasible, pressure from opponents can result in disjointed football that is neither here, nor there in tactical terms. Or it leads to long punts down the pitch that simply ease the pressure for a few moments. Both can bring the handbrake on, and once engaged it can be very hard to shake off.

Team selection again offers a few interesting possibilities and poses a few challenges,

Fabianksi – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Flamini – Alex, Sanogo, Cazorla.

I’m not sure Yaya Sanogo has the required shooting skills to be starting for Arsenal right now but he has a presence in a different way compared to Giroud. While Giroud is better at holding his ground, Sanogo can hassle the defenders a bit more, particularly if they are pushing up. That trait alone might make him a better choice for such a game.

Oxlade-Chamberlain still has a lot to learn but again he is the kind of player you want to see in a one-v-one against the opposing full-back. His presence on the right might force Pienaar to take more defensive positions and limit Everton’s offensive options. Or he might get chances to run at the likes of Barry, McCarthy, Stones, and Distin if Arsenal break from deep.

The presence of these players could also give Özil more options to put balls in-behind.

The flip side here is that with such a side the probability of dominating possession would be slim. Arsenal will have to rely more on counter-attacks and their collective defending. Jenkinson might be a useful option on the right if the team has to defend deep. He can be a steady player as long as he is not too adventurous.

The inclusion of Giroud and/or Rosicky can possibly help with ball retention and circulation but there is no guarantee. In the League game Arsenal had less possession even with Arteta, Wilshere, Cazorla, Özil, and Ramsey in the starting eleven.

I’m hoping Everton are not as inspired and energetic as they were in the League game. That would give the Gunners a bit more breathing room on the ball and that can be enough for them to fire. Relying on the opponent being off their best is not a great approach but the Toffees have not found the sweet spot as often in the last couple of months so it’s not unrealistic.


Thoughts On The Sunderland And Stoke Games

March 1, 2014

A football game can become unbearable for fans if their team doesn’t turn up. Most Arsenal fans know this feeling all too well so they’d have sympathized with the plight of those supporting the Black Cats as they failed to put any sort of a challenge at  the Emirates. It shouldn’t take anything away from the Gunners though as Wenger’s team produced some immensely enjoyable football to win the game comfortably. If anything, it was even more pleasing because it’s been such a while since Arsenal cantered to a win in second gear while playing a sumptuous pass-and-move game.

These days I find it hard to write about such a game because there is almost nothing fresh to offer from an analytical perspective and I’m sure the superlatives have long been exhausted. Enjoy the game and forget about it. Some moments will be etched in memory for a long time, like that move for Rosicky’s goal, and the rest doesn’t matter.

A couple of individual performances deserve a mention, I think. Giroud was left out of two big games and has gone through some unsettling personal issues so it was good to see him back and close to his best. His goals were unspectacular in the individual sense but a distracted striker would most probably have missed those chances. The Frenchman’s overall link play was again excellent as was his work rate. One might even say the break was good for him, mentally and physically.

While Wenger was being understandably charitable in likening Rosicky’s performance in that game to some of Bergkamp’s contributions, I did enjoy Little Mozart’s play. It was nice that he was on the end of that move and I hope he scores a few more goals. The Czech star’s displays have been memorable and decisive in some games over the last couple of seasons but I keep getting this feeling that he has more to offer. Hopefully, this game will help with that unlocking process, although continuity, or lack thereof, might also have a role to play.

Özil was conspicuous by his absence. It must have been a tough call for the manager but I’m glad he made it. The break should help him leave the Bayern game behind and also give him some chance to recover physically.

March Madness Begins with Stoke

Last week there was an interesting poll on the official website. “How many points will Arsenal take from their four league games in March?”, they asked. The responses, when I’d last seen the results, showed the majority of Gooners were quite optimistic about the team’s chances.

Points in March predictions

I don’t know what the final tally was but I doubt it will have changed much. Around 85 percent of fans say the Gunners will pick up 7 or more points from these 4 games.

This is very interesting because last year Wenger’s team managed exactly 1 point from these 4 games. And at the moment, after 27 games, the squad is level on points with last season when corresponding fixtures are compared.

For what it’s worth, The Gunners picked up 7 points from these fixtures in 2011-12 including wins over City at home and Chelsea at the Bridge. The year before that they picked up 2 points from these games.

I guess it shows why many fans think we will truly understand how much this side has improved at the end of this month. Interestingly, in each of the previous three years, Arsenal have failed to win at the Britannia. A win on Saturday will automatically give the Gunners more points than in two of the past three years and it seems a minimum requirement if they wish to pick up more than 7 points from these games.

Stoke are no longer the same team they were under Pulis but they aren’t too different either. Furthermore, Mark Hughes has had some success against Arsenal by adopting a physical approach at some of his previous clubs. That should probably guarantee a battle on the pitch after the previous walkover.

Some aspects of the game should be quite predictable. The Potters will defend the central areas and invite crosses into the box as they’ll back their physical and aerial strengths. Crouch will be a constant threat whenever they gain territory and get the ball around the Arsenal penalty area. The visiting players should be prepared for some pushing and shoving, and maybe even some kicks to the ankles as the hosts attempt to disrupt their passing rhythm.

One of the interesting anomalies of this season is that Stoke have scored very few headed goals (2?) in the League and the Gunners are amongst the most, if not the most, prolific in that regard. If memory serves, Özil picked up three assists from set-pieces in the reverse fixture. I’ll be very surprised if we see a repeat of that.

There were phases in the game at the Emirates where Arsenal had to drop deep and consolidate their position with resolute defending. They’ll probably need more of that again.

In six visits in recent times, only once have the Gunners failed to score on this ground. But only once have they scored more than a solitary goal and that was the only game they won, although it is better remembered for a terrible tragedy. I don’t think Arsenal have happy memories from this ground.

Things might change this time around if Wenger’s side can sustain their collective defensive resolve. Arnautovic is mercurial, Odemwingie fast and occasionally lethal, Walters belligerent and a real nuisance, Adams has an inconsistent but troublesome left foot, while Crouch really does enjoy playing against Arsenal. A ground out win, with maybe a late-ish buffer goal, seems the best possible scenario for the Gunners.

Team selection will again be a tricky task. Many reasonable permutations are possible in midfield. I’d like to see the same team as last week with Flamini coming in for Arteta. The left back spot will probably go to the fittest of Gibbs, Monreal, and Vermalen.

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, ? – Flamini, Cazorla, Wilshere – Rosicky, Giroud, Podolski.

I hope Wenger will give Özil more time away from the pitch. Bigger games are right around the corner. I doubt he will do it though. If Özil starts, it won’t be wise to pick both Wilshere and Cazorla in the side. That midfield will not enjoy the game if the ref is lenient and favours the home side in 50-50 decisions.

A player like Podolski can offer useful goal threat in such a game. Gnabry is another interesting option but it’s possible he won’t enjoy the close attention as much.

Litmus test begins…


Analysis of Bayern Game And Quick Thoughts On Sunderland

February 22, 2014

There were many surprises in this game starting with the line-ups selected by the managers but it ended, unfortunately, in a predictable and disappointing manner. There were some positives for Arsenal but one has to wonder why we end up talking about ‘some positives’ after big games more often than enjoying actual great wins.

There seemed to be three distinct phases to the game.

1) Arsenal’s exhilarating start

Wenger’s side came out all guns blazing. The aggression and purpose showed by the players was simply outstanding. I think this phase lasted from kickoff till the penalty miss, or you could round it up to the first 10 minutes.

I was also surprised by how unprepared Bayern were for such a tempo. Guardiola is widely regarded as a manager who pays excruciating attention to details. But the German side had that deer-in-the-headlights look at times.

The numbers from this phase are interesting.

Passes 1st eight minutes

Click to enlarge

attacking third passes 0 to 8 min

Click to enlarge

The Gunners were moving the ball quickly and with the kind of midfield fluidity that is visible when Wenger’s team are playing their best football. Wilshere was often the highest in midfield, Özil drifted to the left, and Santi came central or went to the right at will. Oxlade-Chamberlain looked in his elements when he got a chance to run at opponents.

Bayern were looking to press up the pitch but they weren’t getting close to the ball. When they did, Arsenal showed greater tenacity and desire to win the 50-50s. That to me was the crux of the home sides advantage – speed and desire.

Five of Arsenal’s eight chances came in this period!

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

It’s worth noting that most of these chances didn’t come from slick one-touch football that carved opponents apart. I think the speed of play was too high for that degree of control. But, in a state of frantic play, opportunities arose from greater willingness and preparedness. For instance, Sanogo was surrounded by Bayern players in the first minute but he fought for the loose ball before breaking forward. Similarly, his shot that forced an excellent save from Neuer came from Wilshere’s tenacity and his own opportunism with an early strike. Bayern had enough players around the ball but they just weren’t fighting hard for it.

The visitors lost some of their composure as the intensity caught them off-guard. This meant their performance in possession was below par and they weren’t in the right shape on transitions or defensive situations.

In a neat little coincidence, the Official Membership Newsletter that I got from Arsenal today had the following words from Rosicky,

When we went to Southampton and Liverpool recently, the big difference was that their opening spell was much more aggressive than us. Basically, if we don’t match our opponents’ fighting spirit and aggression, we can’t expect to win every game just based on our football skills. It doesn’t work like that.

He was talking about the attitude needed for the remaining League games but it could easily have been a lesson for Bayern. It could be that English teams are more used to such a tempo and are not caught unawares but the Germans were simply not ready for it. Don’t be surprised though, if one little spell is enough to ensure Guardiola has his team ready to match any speed the visitors produce in the reverse leg.

A little bit of luck was also involved as two very close off-side decisions went in Arsenal’s favour. Cazorla’s run down the right could have been halted by the flag as could Özil’s penalty winning dart in behind. I am not saying they were off-side as the replays I saw were inconclusive, just that I’ve seen such calls go in favour of the defensive team often enough to acknowledge the role of luck.

Turning point:

The penalty was obviously the turning point. Had the Gunners scored they’d have gained greater conviction as their approach succeeded and the crowd – fantastic on the night, I must say – would have really lifted the atmosphere to another, probably unprecedented, level.

The miss, and the astonishing confidence-sapping manner of it, flattened Arsenal’s momentum in one swift blow. Had Arsenal been dominating through technical or tactical reasons, one could imagine them regaining that superiority at some point in the game. But the fact was they were relying on energy, desire, and belief. These are not so easy to rediscover. Wenger might have said something at half-time to reignite the spark had the team gone in at the break without losing a man. But that was about the only hope.

Not to pile on the misery on a player I love watching and one who’s already receiving unfair criticism in abundance, but Özil wallowing in regret and letting disappointment affect his performance didn’t help. Professionals, particularly those at the highest level, have to know how to get over mistakes and raise the bar when they’re facing the toughest of moments.

I’m not convinced the fact that Neuer and Özil have known each other since their school days had any bearing on the outcome. You can argue Özil knew what Neuer would do just as easily as the opposite has been said. And you can wonder whether either or both players were trying to second guess each other. The simple fact, in my opinion, is that shooting is not Özil’s strength. He doesn’t have the technique for it and it is very different from passing the ball. When he has to pick a pass he can adjust his body shape at the last minute, pause if he has to, or move the ball a little so the angle works. He also has a clear, usually narrow, target. Shooting at goal is like hunting a different beast. That doesn’t mean he cannot ever improve but it’s important to acknowledge this is not the best use of his abilities and puts more pressure on him. He should not be on direct free-kicks or penalties till he’s worked on his shooting technique and demonstrated noteworthy improvements. Of course, it always leaves me wondering what are they seeing in training to put such responsibility on his shoulders in the first place.

Warning Signs:

Bayern had almost nothing going for them during this spell but they still produced a couple of quality shots. These should have served as a warning but I think defending with 4 midfielders instead of 5 – something Arsenal seem to be trying since the second half in Southampton – was always going to be hard for the team that is used to an extra body to help out. Given the consistency of the shape and positioning of the players, I think it’s safe to assume this was pre-planned. And it wasn’t a very good approach because the team dropped too deep and too narrow.

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That is a snapshot from Bayern’s attack in the third minute that led to a shot by Kroos. Notice how much time and space is available in front of Arsenal’s midfield line, which is extremely deep. Players of this quality can pick their passes or place their shots when afforded such luxury. Also see the gap between Koscielny and Gibbs. A similar opening was again visible when Robben went between the centre back and Monreal.

2) Bayern slowly gain control

After the penalty was missed the hosts lost their momentum and their energy levels dropped. There was uncertainty in their actions and as a result, despite their still visible desire to do well, the team wasn’t quite as the same level as they lacked cohesion and were a step behind the play.

This drop also had the effect of bringing the speed of the game to a level that Bayern were extremely comfortable with. A lot of people have said that Arsenal were on top as long as the game was even in numerical terms but this is not exactly accurate.

From the 9th minute onwards the visitors started controlling the ball and territory. They took charge of the centre of the pitch. Whereas earlier the Gunners were breaking their attacks down early in the build up, now the hosts had to drop deep consistently. Similarly, Wenger’s side was no longer able to pass out from the back in the manner that helped them impose themselves in the first 8 minutes. Bayern’s pressing was now quite effective.

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Arsenal made fewer passes from the time the penalty was missed to the time Szczesny was sent off than they did in the phase discussed earlier. And a lot of their passing was long from the back as they just couldn’t beat the Bayern pressing. The odd chance that came – like the long ball that Chamberlain chased down – was more hopeful than genuinely threatening even if it did get the viewers on the edge of their seats.

The visitors on the other hand were quickly settling into a nice rhythm. The diligence of the home side and numbers in and around the Arsenal box prevented clear cut chances but the pressure was building. Guardiola’s side were able to get past Arsenal’s first line of defence with ease when the Gunners pushed up to the centre line. They found spaces between the lines and were able  to spread play to unmarked teammates on the flanks at will.

Robben went close in the 35th minute with a shot from a good position that was blocked by Mertesacker. Soon after that Koscielny had to make a desperate tackle as Mandzukic got into a very promising position in the box. It was almost prescient when Gary Neville in commentary said, “…need to stay in the game here arsenal, sense something’s happening for Bayern Munich…

Within a minute or so of that statement came the decisive moment of the game. See the following images and decide which one came from the second minute and which one from the 37th.

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Kroos had so much time to measure his pass. Monreal not tracking the run was bordering on criminally negligent. It was also interesting that Mandzukic blocked Koscielny as the defender was trying to turn and chase back. I’m not saying it was a foul, just a clever ploy which seemed within the rules. Whether it was intentional or coincidental is something only he can tell.

The biggest culprit, however, was without a doubt the Arsenal goalie Szczesny. His error in judging the flight of the ball, the choice of flying out in that manner, and the utterly unnecessary act of going to ground seem inexcusable.

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See how far away he is from the ball. The way his knees are bent seems to suggest he’s already going to ground. It’s understandable if any player goes for a 50-50 and loses the challenge. I also don’t think it’s fair to criticize someone who has to make a split second decision.

But this was never a contest. Robben would have had a hard time getting his shot away given the way he was stretching to reach the ball. If Szczesny comes out and stays upright, he gives himself the chance to win the ball when the Dutchman has to take a moment to gain his balance while bringing the ball under control. Chances are he could still lose that challenge but at least then it would be close. This was just daft/irresponsible.

It’s not his first mistake either. In fact, if someone in the future gets a chance to analyze players from this generation on an impartial basis, I won’t be surprised if Szczesny is identified amongst the luckiest of his tribe. Over the last two years the Gunners have worked so hard on improving their collective defending that many of his errors are covered for by his teammates. I can’t see him surviving at any other major club for this long.

The worst part is you could see it coming. I covered it in the pre-match notes,

Szczesny is not very good in a one-v-one in my opinion and could potentially be a liability if Bayern get in behind repeatedly.

There is the angle of triple jeopardy with the DOGSO red card and penalty. The merits of the law itself can be debated but in this instance the ref had no choice but to send him off based on current rules. I would like to see some changes in that and related laws but such a discussion is beyond the scope of this article.

3) 10 v 11

I was surprised when Cazorla went out and Özil stayed on the pitch as Fabianski came on. It’s not an easy call and can be argued both ways but my preference would have been to take the German off.

Alaba missed his spot kick and that kept Arsenal in the game. The Gunners did well to reach half time without conceding. The team had to make some decisions in the second half. Did they want to settle for a point? Was there any way they could compete?

I don’t know what they decided but the defensive approach – extremely deep and narrow – meant that it was easy for Bayern to press and box the hosts in and around their penalty box. There was no outlet and seemingly no plan to ease the pressure. It seemed a matter of hunkering down and fighting for their lives.

In terms of physical and mental effort, the Gunners were heroic in their endeavours. But that isn’t always enough. The time and space they afforded the visitors just on the edge of the box was too much and Bayern showed us the importance of patience and a bit of tinkering as Guardiola made subtle changes to his line-up to make the most of the man advantage.

I don’t think the players deserve much blame for the way they defended and conceded, before and after the sending off. The key here is the team’s inability to defend the centre line once the tempo was lost. Arsenal have to learn to defend higher up the pitch and cover more spaces with the players they have. Even with 10 men they should have been able to defend higher up. Of course, we’ve seen the vulnerability with balls in behind when they try that against good teams. These are related issues that show plenty of work still needs to be done before this side can be considered an accomplished defensive unit.

I have covered the difference between assured defending and desperate defending in some detail in earlier articles on this blog. In this game, with so many clearances, blocks, and last man tackles from deep, Arsenal’s defending was far from the assured version. That means they were always going to need a fair bit of luck to keep a clean sheet. It should not take anything away from individual effort – for instance, Koscielny was absolutely sensational – but in terms of organization, tactics, and game intelligence the side has a long way to go if they want to be more competitive in the big games. They’ll not be able to sustain a breathtaking tempo for 90 minutes in game after game and that can never be the basis for defending in big games.

I actually got the feeling Bayern were below their own high standards with their utilization of possession when they had such a big advantage. A lot of their play was individualistic or relied on 2-3 player combinations in the wide areas. You could say they were creating overloads wide on their right whereas Arsenal had extra bodies in central defence, which helped with the blocks, timely tackles, and clearances. The introductions of Muller and Pizzaro certainly helped counter that and it shows Guardiola is constantly looking to make a difference.

The second goal felt like a cruel blow after all the defensive hard work as it’s left faint hopes of a comeback. But you can’t take it away from Bayern they were clearly the dominant side once the frantic tempo was gone.

Sunderland – Opportunity to rise, potential to flop

Arsenal started last season with a goalless draw against Sunderland. That gives the team an opportunity to pick up two points over the corresponding fixture.

This will be another test of Arsenal’s mentality. It’s one of two buffer games before another run of big challenges returns. The Gunners have done well to win such games and that is main reason they are still in with a shout. It is a must win game and the players will have to recover quickly from Wednesday’s exertions. Playing at home should help, more so if the crowd can respond like they did in the midweek tie.

There should be no surprises tactically. It seems like a typical Premier League game against a team on a positive curve when battling relegation. Expect full commitment, organization, and fighting spirit visible in the form of aggressive physical challenges and combative duels. The Black Cats are not a great passing side but they offer sufficient and diverse goal threat. And ever since Poyet has taken over they have slowly become a reliable side in defence with an impressive away record that has them undefeated in six games and includes wins at Goodison Park and St James’ Park. They’re also in the Capital One Cup final and in the FA Cup quarter-finals. It promises to be a very tricky game.

Johnson is their in-form man and Monreal will have to avoid repeating some of his recent mistakes to keep him in check. Arsenal’s best bet would probably be to isolate the attacker against two or three defensive players by pinning most of his teammates back through possession and movement.

Of course, there is the chance that Poyet will set his team up to defend deep. It could be a reversal of roles for the Gunners and hopefully they’ll be up for the challenge. The team hasn’t always looked convincing when the opponents are well-organized in front of their goal but usually against the relatively smaller teams Arsenal find an extra gear at some stage. It’ll be helpful if that comes early in this game. Repeating the start against Bayern would be ideal but not many Premier League teams get caught out by a flying tempo at the start.

I also expect them to use long balls and physicality to trouble the Arsenal defence. It’d be a whole new challenge for the Gunners after the incessant pass-and-move routine of Guardiola’s side.

Wenger will have to make some changes to his line-up to have greater energy on the pitch as the opponents didn’t play in the middle of the week.

I’d like to see,

Fabianksi – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Cazorla, Flamini – AOC, Giroud, Podolski.

I think Szczesny deserves to be dropped for his mistake and disciplined for that flippant, disrespectful, and unjustified gesture. But I’ll be very surprised if Wenger actually keeps him out.

In midfield, many fans don’t like the Arteta-Flamini duo. I think they can work well together as long as the roles are clear. If executed well, they should be able to take the pressure of the four attacking players and the full-backs in such a game, which should leave Arsenal with enough attacking options and width.

Chamberlain should start if he is fit or Gnabry could deputize. Rosicky is another option on the right.

Wilshere and Sanogo ran a lot against Bayern and could do with a break. As did Flamini but he just seems stronger and fitter.

Three of Sunderland last five visits to the Emirates have ended in goalless draws. A point will help their cause but not the Gunners’. If any points are dropped in this game, it’ll be a bigger disappointment than the defeats against Liverpool and Bayern or the draw against United. A win will buy Arsenal some breathing room.


Thoughts On Liverpool And Bayern Munich Games

February 19, 2014

It’s interesting how little details and a bit of luck can alter the entire dynamic of a football game.

We saw this first in the City-v-Chelsea battles. Mourinho had practically the exact same approach in both those games. In the league, City made numerous little errors in terms of team selection, tactics, and choices on the pitch and the feeling we got was that Chelsea were clearly the superior side with the Portuguese manager lauded by many for near perfect approach and execution. Once Pellegrini made some adjustments to his side for the Cup tie, the same approach by Chelsea became pedestrian, unimaginative, and fruitless. City completely dominated the game and fully deserved to progress to the next round.

This shows us the error of our ways when we go overboard in analyzing a game, particularly when said analysis is linked to the result. Arsenal’s win over Liverpool in the FA Cup was another excellent example.

It wasn’t that the Gunners suddenly played much better football, or that Liverpool lost their attacking mojo altogether, but a fair number of little details came together to create the result in Arsenal’s favour. And luck played no small part.

Liverpool again had a few chances at the beginning. Sturridge was wasteful and inefficient. Arsenal also defended the set-pieces better even though the Reds again got a little bit of luck with off-sides. At the other end, whereas Mertesacker had glanced a header wide around the 15 minute mark at Anfield, the Gunners scored from a set-piece in this game.

The importance of the first goal is now well established and it was the subtle details that tilted the scales in favour of Wenger’s side. Had Sturridge taken one of his chance or if Arsenal had switched off at one of the earlier free-kicks, the entire complexion on the game would have been different.

The Gunners were able to drop deep in numbers once they had the lead. This in turn negated Liverpool’s advantage of pace. Instead of having vast spaces to run into, their attackers now had to show they could combine in tight spaces. For most of the first half, after the hosts took the lead, Liverpool created very little. In fairness, they also did not conceded many chances as Wenger’s side was mostly content on securing their advantage.

Fabianski made a massive save at the start of the second half. I loved the way he had his eye on the ball till the very end. Many goalkeepers tend to just jump into a position or stretch their leg out prematurely. For them, a save in such a situation becomes, at least in part, a case of luck because they’re not watching the ball. The Pole, on the other hand, deserves full credit for that save as he watched the ball and reacted in a timely manner.

Arsenal’s second goal, that came soon after this incident, was also quite interesting. While Özil’s through-ball, Chamberlain’s run, and Podolski’s finish were all enjoyable, I thought the key to the goal was Jenkinson’s touch/interception around the centre line. It’s hard to say if it was intentional – and kudos to the youngster if it was – but that one touch interception-cum-pass took the entire Liverpool midfield out of the equation and exposed their stretched defensive line. The subsequent one-two, pass, and finish were high quality individual actions but those are expected from good players at this level when they get so much space.

As is their wont, the Gunners suffered a 10-15 lapse in concentration after creating that buffer. The visitors got one back through a sloppy penalty and deserved another chance to equalize when Chamberlain fouled Suarez. Again, it was that little bit of luck that was decisive.

We can argue that Gerard not getting the second yellow, or Cazorla not getting a penalty for Skrtel’s challenge in the box kind of make up for this obvious blunder by the ref.  Then again, it’s also pretty clear that the patterns of play change dramatically after major events like goals and red cards. So it’s very hard to say these events would have happened had the penalty for the foul on Suarez been given.

To me, if anything, this bit of injustice for Liverpool compensates for the luck they got with the Skrtel off-side decision in the build-up to their first goal in the League. Based on what we saw here, it’s seems safe to say that without a first-minute goal the patterns of play would have been very different in that game too.

I liked the way Arsenal regained control of the game in the final 15-20 minutes and limited the opportunities for the visitors while creating positive moments themselves. Spending that period camped deep in their own half would have proved fatal. They now have to learn to do this more consistently to avoid any reliance on good fortune.

Individually speaking, I think Fabianski, Chamberlain, and Koscielny had good games. Özil was useful but not at the level he can be. Podolski scored one and gave one away with his overall contribution being quite limited. The other three defenders also had fairly good outings. Flamini and Arteta could have done better. The youngster Sanogo looked impressive physically in terms of his ability to duel for position and the ball, as well as his pace. I’m hopeful the two air-kicks he had are not an accurate reflection of his composure and shooting ability. A striker cannot go far without those attributes. He’s very young and playing after a long injury set-back so we should wait a while before judging him. Nevertheless, it’s definitely something to watch out for when he gets time on the pitch.

On the whole, I wouldn’t say it was a particularly great game from the Gunners but it was sufficient to get the result. It showed Liverpool were not as far ahead of Arsenal as the scoreline in the League game suggested and that results can turn on small but significant details. One aspect that did concern me greatly was the sheer number of times Liverpool were able to get in behind even when the team was sitting deep. Bayern will have a field day unless the team improves on that dramatically.

Bayern Munich – Tactically the most complete team of recent years

Based on recent form, according to the broader perception in the press and among fans, and on paper in terms of squad strengths, Bayern are overwhelming favourites to progress to the next round of the Champions League at the expense of Arsenal. I do, however, feel that this tie over two legs can be much closer than many expect it to be. But for that to be the case a simple yet vital question has to be answered in the positive and that’s not easy -

Can the Arsenal defence (the entire unit not just the back five) be trusted to cover structural weaknesses and avoid unforced individual mistakes over 180 minutes (possibly more) of football?

Sounds somewhat familiar? Those are the words I wrote almost exactly a year ago in the preview of the first leg against Bayern. I can copy paste much of the content from that article as it’s still equally applicable!

Based on the Gunners’ improvement over the course of the last year or so, many more fans probably now believe Arsenal can compete while relying on a strong defensive unit than did a year ago.

This is easily Arsenal’s toughest game thus far this season. City, Chelsea, Dortmund, and Napoli were all top quality sides and the Gunners lost some of those games but Bayern are a different beast altogether. That Wenger’s side have lost more of the tough games than they’ve won makes me sceptical about the extent of their improvement in the context of progressing from this two-legged tie.

Heynckes had built a team that could do everything. They could play the possession game, attack with short passes and quick movement, they could sit back and defend while countering at breathtaking speed or utilizing the long balls intelligently, they could press and force lethal transitions, or they could snuff the life out of the game by controlling the tempo. The Bavarians had many players who can run in behind, they could use width, shoot from distance, or run directly at opponents. They could get physical without the ball, didn’t shy away from a tackle, and had willing chasers all over the pitch. When Guardiola took over, I wasn’t sure how the Spaniard’s philosophy would gel with the players they had and the identity that had already resulted in such success.

Interestingly, it’s Guardiola who has adapted his approach to suit the strengths of his squad. By sustaining the diversity that was vital to their success, instead of forcing his intense possession-at-all-costs approach, the Spaniard has ensured the team doesn’t lose a beat. His tinkering has been relatively minor, even if highly specific and noticeable, and with the purpose of fine tuning their already efficient winning machine.

I have a feeling the first 20 minutes of this game could be decisive. Bayern will come with high energy and clear ideas to press and break Arsenal’s possession higher up the pitch. Their movement between the lines and in behind will also be orchestrated to an extent that any degree of laxity from the Gunners is likely to result in gilt-edged chances for the visitors. Wenger’s team will probably need a fair amount of luck and some last gasp defending during this period to ensure they don’t concede vital away goals that hand over the initiative to the Bavarians.

The concern mentioned above, with Liverpool getting in behind quite often, is exacerbated by the quality and intelligence of Bayern’s players. They don’t need to rely on blistering pace to find and exploit such openings because their level of cohesion and precision is very high. The Germans are also much better at finishing off the chances.

Of course, such an approach always leaves gaps at the back and quick passing from Arsenal can result in chances that test Neuer. The Gunners have scored from a few counter-attacks this season but few have come against genuinely big sides. It’s the next step in their evolution as a team and the individual attributes to achieve this already exist in the squad, but we’ll have to wait and see when they can actually make it happen on the pitch consistently.

It’s hard to imagine Arsenal keeping a clean sheet in this game, the recent defensive record at the Emirates notwithstanding. But the closer they can keep the result in this game, the better chance they’ll have of qualifying. That means the players must not panic even if they conceded an early goal. 90 minutes is a very long time and they will get chances to score if they are faithful to their training and skills.

Some details that can affect the result are,

Bayern’s full-backs make intelligent runs and Alaba in particular is very quick. They have to be tracked and must not be allowed to drift into space for cut-backs or crosses without any pressure. At the same time, their forward movement will pose and opportunity for an Arsenal player to break into space behind them. I have a feeling Özil will again have limited defensive responsibility and it will be up to him to exploit these spaces while the wide players track the runs. The efficiency with which players perform these roles will have a direct bearing on the quality of chances created and conceded.

Arsenal have repeatedly shown a tendency for half-cocked pressing higher up the pitch. Bayern can easily play through this and if the gap between the lines is exaggerated the Arsenal defence will be forced to produce miracles or rely on luck beyond a reasonable measure. Without the ball, the players have to perform as a cohesive unit. It is also imperative that the individuals are aware of their roles on transitions and don’t lose possession cheaply in the first place.

Wenger has to earn his wages with the team selection for this game. It’s a tough ask. Some people will obviously ask more direct players like Chamberlain and Podolski be included in the starting line-up. They’d do well to remember Poldi and Walcott started the first leg last year. It didn’t work out too well, did it?! The Frenchman often goes for experience and extra technical quality in such games. That means Rosicky and Cazorla could man the flanks. The risk here is that the team could lack pace to break out of shackles imposed by Bayern’s pressing. With Arteta suspended and Ramsey injured, the options in central midfield are also suboptimal at best. Who is the best player to play alongside Flamini? It’s worth remembering the three forgettable defensive performances this season – Villa, City, and Liverpool – have all come with Wilshere in central midfield (partly at the Etihad). Some fans are enthusiastic about Chamberlain’s qualities in that role. Quite frankly, I see the youngster as a work in progress and someone who is simply not ready for such responsibility in a game like this. His positional sense, tactical awareness, and technical qualities for a central midfield role are clearly inferior to that of Wilshere’s. I’d love to see Rosicky alongside Flamini but Wenger rarely, if ever, plays Little Mozart in that role anymore. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case but it could be linked to his high-risk tackling style, rare but possibly lethal tendency to lose the ball in dangerous areas, and inability to sustain physical output for the duration of the game. All things considered, I’d prefer Rosicky alongside Flamini to the other two options but my guess is that Wenger will go with Wilshere.

We might see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Flamini, Özil, Wilshere – Rosicky, Giroud, Cazorla.

I’d love to see Fabianski retain his spot in the side (again something that is extremely unlikely if not impossible to imagine). Szczesny is not very good in a one-v-one in my opinion and could potentially be a liability if Bayern get in behind repeatedly. Both keepers are suspect when dealing with aerial balls floating across the box and the visitors have some interesting variations up their sleeve so the outfield players will have to be extra vigilant on set-pieces.

Chamberlain for Rosicky on the right is also a good option. Ideally, I’d prefer Rosicky in midfield and the Ox on the flank. Wilshere in place of Giroud could make this game very interesting.

It would be exciting to see,

Fabianski – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Flamini, Özil, Rosicky – Ox, Wilshere, Cazorla.

Once again this is a game where one or more of many possible scenarios can play out. At the risk of repeating ad nauseam, the important of the first goal has to be emphasized. That means the team that gets of the blocks quickly, purposefully, and with a visible degree of control will most likely end the game in high spirits. For Bayern that could mean an explosive start with an early goal that sets up the counter-attacking play. Arsenal might be better off by being prepared for the quick start in a way that they can absorb that pressure. Although scoring early always helps, they don’t have to go all out for the early goal because they’re very good at winning second halves. The visitors can’t sustain high pressing throughout the game and opportunities to play will arise as the time goes on.


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