Swansea 1 – 2 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 30, 2013

Mertesacker has spoken of the importance of keeping things tight in the opening 15-20 minutes in a couple of his press conferences. Those were before Champions League ties but it seems obvious the Gunners have applied the same principle to tricky domestic fixtures.

Swansea away was the first of Arsenal’s domestic wins last season following the morale-boosting triumph in Munich. This game followed patterns established in that one. Keep things simple early on – Don’t concede first – have patience – wait for your chance – score first – add to it if possible – stay solid at the back when sitting on the lead.

It seems overly simplistic. Probably is. But look back at the results and the pattern is hard to refute. The importance of the first goal is cited so often it’s become a cliché. But now the Gunners have shown that not conceding the first goal is just as important. It wasn’t for fun that they used to concede leads. Nor was it a case of players not caring enough as some people suggested. It was simply a case of players trying to play a style that wasn’t suited to the individual qualities. They were too gung-ho with their approach and wanted to score first, but tended to leave the door open for the opponents without realizing it.

Nowadays, Wenger’s side is very patient in possession. Players don’t rush forward at every opportunity. They still want to score first but only when they get the chance. There is a knowledge that chances will come and the belief that they can take them when they arise. It gives confidence.

This game followed the same pattern. Laudrup showed great respect for the Gunners by picking Michu at the head of his attack with 5 midfielders behind him.

The Spaniard is at his best when playing behind a striker. By putting him as the focal point Laudrup limited the impact he could make. It was a sacrifice the manager made for achieving the midfield balance he thought necessary to counter Arsenal’s attacking qualities.

It worked to an extent. Swansea saw more of the ball than the Gunners. But Arsenal were also being cautious and minimized the territorial advantage the hosts could gain. Most of their possession was passive, i.e. in their own half or in relatively harmless wider areas. They created one or two half-chances but the visiting central defenders dealt with those. Szczesny was largely untroubled in the first period.

First half pass comparison

In fairness, Laudrup’s side were also defensively solid. Arsenal played fewer passes and very little in that vital creative area just in front of the penalty box. The only noteworthy chance they created came deep in injury time when Gnabry’s run put Giroud in a great scoring position. The striker missed the mark.

The difference between the sides was that Arsenal had an extra gear or two, which would give them much greater attacking impetus. We saw it engaged early in the second half.

According to numbers on StatZone, the Gunners attempted a total of 126 passes into the final third of the pitch completing 85 of those for a success rate of just over 67 percent. In the first half they completed 32 of 49 attempts (65 percent) and in the second it was 53 of 77 (69 percent). The success rates are comparable but the total passes attempted is higher in the second half, which demonstrates greater attacking intent.

But the picture comes to life when we focus on a ten minutes period from the 53rd and 62nd minutes. The Gunners completed 33 of their 37 passes in the attacking third during that period for a success rate of 89 percent. Most teams can’t hit 89 percent passing accuracy over all leave alone the attacking third where it’s always harder to make passes. In fact, at this moment there is no team with average pass success rate of 89 percent!

Arsenal FT passes 53 to 62

This is when Arsenal hit top gear. The first goal was scored after a spell of pressure with many intricate passes strung together. This video captures them all. A Swansea player got a touch of the ball so technically the goal wasn’t built with 20 plus passes but for all practical purposes it was.

In the same period, Arsenal also created a great chance for Özil and the second goal scored by Ramsey. Again it was a move that involved many players all of whom played a vital part.

Arsenal’s 33 successful passes in that period was more than the accurate final third passes in the whole of the first half. This could not happen without quick ball circulation, which in turn indicates excellent movement and, of course, technically excellent passing. It stretches the defence and creates openings.

The thing with these kinds of goals is that there are many potential points of failures. That’s why most teams that try to score such goals don’t succeed! As a result they provide an excellent benchmark for the attacking quality of a team including the understanding between players, their decision making, and technical qualities like final ball accuracy, first touch, and finishing ability.

After scoring the two goals the Gunners sat back again. Laudrup had by then introduced Bony and his side went all out on the offensive because they had nothing further to lose. They were able to advance territorially and played in threatening areas from Arsenal’s point of view.

Swansea FT passes comparison

The Swans made as many attacking third passes in the final half-hour as they did in the hour than went before it. While they did get up the pitch and central, it’s worth noting that their passing accuracy didn’t go up as it did for the visitors during their short but decisive burst of pressure.

The hosts weren’t able to pulls the Gunners apart. Arsenal defended resolutely as a team barring a couple of mistakes. Wilshere’s ill-advised and poor executed back pass to Bony could have been costly. The striker let Arsenal off the hook with a tame shot from a narrow angle. The second one led to the goal.

It came shortly after Gnabry was taken off and it seemed to me that it wasn’t clear who was picking Davies up. Take another look at the passes comparison in the first half and it’s clear Davies didn’t make that many forward bursts in the opening half. But now that Swansea were in a desperate situation he was stationed high and wide. He received the ball in space and cut inside. That might not have been a problem in itself, but for once in this game Koscielny let Bony drift into the hole in front of the defence without going with him. The full-back and the striker played a delightful one-two. Neither Mertesacker nor Szczesny could do much about it. It was a wonderfully crafted goal and Swansea deserve credit for it. They were in ascendancy after that but the Gunners sorted out that space on the right and in front of the box. There were few clear chances created by Swansea after their goal.

As a matter of fact, the Gunners created 4 good chances (Giroud, Gnabry, Özil, and Ramsey) and scored 2, while the hosts got the aforementioned 2 and scored 1. The result and scoreline seems fair that way. Arsenal just had greater offensive quality and were able to create and take their opportunities in a short space of time.

Some might wonder why the visitors didn’t play in top gear straight from kick-off and shut the game off with four goals in the opening half hour if they had the quality to produce those moments in such a short duration. Others might ask why Laudrup didn’t start with Bony and put the Gunners under pressure straight from kick-off. The answer to these is linked to the understanding of the risk-reward equation associated with any game that varies with time and key events. I will try to cover that separately if I get the time.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: I enjoyed the way he collected some of the long balls at the end. Those were routine catches for any Keeper but the young Pole hasn’t always claimed them with such comfort. Made one really big save from a shot by Dyer. Good decision making for the most part. Almost put the team in trouble in the first half when he was casual in ushering a ball out of play. He should have been focussed and determined to keep Michu away from the ball till the whistle sounded. It was too close and the assistant ref could easily have let play continue.

Sagna: Could he have tracked Davies’ run? This was similar to him letting Arnautovic go in the game against Stoke. I don’t know why he doesn’t track these runs but the tendency is not limited to the Frenchman so there has to be some sort of a policy by the coaches which involves transferring responsibility or playing off-side. This is a source of concern as it has failed more than once. Very limited attacking contribution in this game. Hard to say if it was a tactical pre-game choice or something that just happened because he lacks an understanding with Gnabry. Positioning was good and rarely left his flank open.

Mertesacker: Keeps making vital interventions in and around the penalty box as his reading of defensive situations is excellent. Won a couple of headers in the Swansea box but couldn’t direct them towards goal. That is an area of improvement for the big German.

Koscielny: Loved the way he stuck to Bony and made it impossible for the striker to have any time on the ball or an opportunity to turn. Well, except once. Also brought the ball out a few times from the defence but didn’t do anything silly. As with his partner, made a number of useful interventions in and around the box including a couple of vital blocks.

Gibbs: The move for the first goal started with Gibbs nicking the ball deep in the Arsenal half. Another full-back who made a limited offensive contribution but he was the busier of the two defensively. Mostly it was about holding position and slowing the attacks down or forcing them into hopeful crosses.

The back five had a good game considering the quality that Swansea have. They minimized the number of clear-cut chances produced and that proved as important as scoring goals at the other end. But the fact that Arsenal have kept only one clean sheet in the League despite the defence getting excellent support from the front six shows there is genuine room for improvement. The goal conceded was another good example. While someone should have gone wide and tracked Davies sooner, there is no way Arsenal should be conceding that chance with so many bodies in front of goal. The defenders have to cover for that initial mistake.

Ramsey: MotM again. Quick thinking for the assist, goal scoring form remains impressive, as is his defensive work sweeping the space in front of the back four.

Özil:

This is the kind of game where the German is always likely to struggle, by his standards I must add. There wasn’t enough pace or tactical cohesion in the side for him to have opportunities to slide a ball through or create many genuine chances. His game in deeper areas with back to goal is pretty average as is his finishing. These are areas where he has to improve and that meant, all things considered, this was an average outing from the star signing. That’s not a criticism just a matter of fact observation. I’m prepared for him having a few more such games depending on how the patterns of play turn out. It’ll be interesting to see if he can show a steep learning curve of if his development stagnates.

Flamini: Another industrious effort. Keeps running into good areas to support the defence. Passing, as noted previously, has improved significantly. I think there’s more to come from him as he adapts to his new team mates.

Wilshere: Showed greater positional discipline and helped Gibbs fairly well, except the giveaway late in the second half. Restrained his attacking instincts but played a part in both goals with his commitment to win the ball in the build up to the second being particularly enjoyable.

Gnabry: Created a great chance for Giroud. Excellent touch and finish. In fact, 2 out of Arsenal’s 4 shots on target came from his boot. Good defensive work which included safe passing choices and being available for receiving a pass when a teammate needed an option around him. I have already said he’ll go past AOC if he stays fit for a year and plays regularly. Tactically he’s already ahead, physically he’s comparable, just needs to be on the pitch with the big boys for a few games and realize that he belongs and can perform. I do like the suggestion that he should play from the left at times.

The midfielders were reliable when defending and purposeful in a short spell of attacking. It’s a very unbalanced midfield but they are adapting to the needs of the game producing results even if it means sub optimal performances from class players like Wilshere and Özil.

Giroud: Arsenal’s chance creation is limited and modified at the moment and that means he gets very little service. His angles in the box are better than last season but the chance that he missed shows there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Work rate remains exceptional.

Subs: They just added numbers to the deep sitting defence.

Wenger: It’s interesting that he’s again said in the first half Arsenal lacked purpose and sharpness. It’s almost as if he expects the team to play a more expansive style but the players are being cautious on their own. I don’t fully understand this right now but do expect the team to shift to a more proactive style soon. Retaining defensive stability while playing the possession game and searching for creative options will be a massive challenge. They’re yet to prove they can do that but it will be needed if the form has to last over the duration of the season.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Swansea

September 28, 2013

Building on the good work of his predecessors, Michael Laudrup has taken Swansea to the level of the best mid-level teams across Europe. As their win against pretty formidable Valencia side – albeit an out of sorts one at the moment – showed, this game in Wales will be at least as competitive as almost any away game in the Champions League group phases that Arsenal have contested in recent years.

On the other hand, it’s also a fact that Laudrup’s side is yet to win at home in the Premier League. That their two opponents have been likely title contenders in Manchester United and Liverpool is all the more reason the Gunners need a big performance and the three points. They have to match or better the results of their direct rivals.

An 11 game winning streak in away games across all competitions is a strong record to have but it won’t mean much if the Swans record their first home win. The thing is, once a club starts talking about a title challenge in the League, the degree of consistency required shoots up. Obviously, there is more leeway in terms of dropping points for a team that finishes third or fourth than one that sits at the top. Teams will come at you and try to go past you with all their might, and you have to show you can stay one step ahead. If not now then very soon we will have to see how the Arsenal players respond to that pressure.

By now we are all familiar with Swansea’s playing style. They keep the ball on the ground, build from the back through quick passing and constant movement, are fluid in attack with excellent understanding between different individuals which enables combination plays involving multiple players, many of their players are capable of finding the back of the net as well as the final ball, and they work pretty hard as a team to close the spaces down when defending with an excellent goal keeper behind their respectable back four.

The issue with them is one of consistency. They can do it all but can they do it all the time against all opponents. And it’s here that the quality of individual players comes to the fore. Swansea don’t have the budget of the big clubs so they have to rely on top quality scouting and judgment from their manager. It works for the most part and that’s the reason I put them alongside most mid-level European teams. But there are noticeable mistakes in their games too. At both ends of the pitch. There are times when you watch one of their games and feel they deserved more from it. For example, the score in their opening day defeat against United flattered the visitors. But revisit the decisive moments dispassionately and it seems a fair result.

This is important for the Gunners because there will be mistakes from both sides in this game. And it will be decided in favour of one that produces the more decisive moments. Look back at the battles between these sides over the last couple of years and you’ll see that most of them have been settled by mistakes that were punished. Starting with Arshavin pouncing on Vorm’s error almost two years ago, to Thierry Henry’s irresponsible mislaid pass followed by calamitous defending by the Gunners, to the two away wins shared by the sides last season, almost every game was decided by errors that proved expensive.

This could be an interesting game tactically. Arsenal have struggled to dominate possession in many games, which has worked out well for them because the unit has worked cohesively in defence. Part of the reason was that in Arteta’s absence the starting eleven just didn’t have the right balance to play the possession game with too many players lacking positional discipline. So it will be interesting if the Gunners try to change the system once the Spaniard is back. Then again, Arsenal played a pragmatic defensive game in last season’s win at the Liberty Stadium even with Arteta in the side. It is part of the aforementioned 11 game run and that style could just be perfect for this game because it minimized mistakes. Cut out the gifts and force the hosts into producing something special for their goals. If they still score a couple fair play to them. But chances are Laudrup’s side will conceded more openings than they create if the Gunners can retain their defensive structural integrity and work rate.

In a way there won’t be, or shouldn’t be, anything extraordinary about this game. Michu is a threat from his Number 10 position. His runs into the box have to be tracked and his ability to play one-twos needs to be countered. The tricky and pacy wide players should not get space to run into. Bony is the kind of striker who doesn’t need too much time or space to get his shot away. So the central defenders have to be very tight to him without getting rolled. Rangel will get forward and Arsenal’s lack of a proper left sided winger who tracks back consistently could pose certain problems. It can also be dealt with if Mertesacker and Co. do what they’ve been doing – reading the threat and attacking the balls put into the box. Swansea will create one-v-one situations against defenders and Koscielny-esque hara-kiri moments have to be avoided. The point is you are not going to see much in this game which makes you go, “Hang on, where did that come from!?”

While surprises from the Swansea attack are unlikely, I don’t expect Arsenal to keep a clean sheet in this game.

In attack though, the Gunners will have to continue with their inventive ways. Arsenal do not have players who will be able to get in behind the defence regularly in the absence of Theo Walcott. We’ve seen different kinds of goals this season that we don’t often see. Whether it was Gibbs arriving at the back post, or Ramsey timing his runs and receiving passes at the right moment, or the set-pieces against Stoke, or some well-worked counter-attacks, Wenger’s side have found a way to breach the defence against a diverse set of opponents even in games where it’s been hard work. They will need that combination of patience, practice, and precision to break Swansea down.

Many of the first team players got a good break during the midweek Capital One Cup game where the youngsters ground out a result with the help of senior pros in defence. The starting line up for this game should have a more familiar feel. Barring unexpected injury news, there should be two main questions for Wenger to answer – Should Arteta start after his cramps against West Brom and is there a place for Gnabry in the side.

My answer to both questions would be yes and that would mean only one change to the side that won against Stoke at the Emirates last week.

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

There is an option to shift Wilshere to the right and bring Monreal in on the left. I think Jack could be excellent cutting in from the right while Özil would love to drift out wide to fill the gap as that seems to be his preferred flank. Those two have worked some excellent combinations and it might be even more exciting this way. Monreal can arrive into the box late or dart in behind to the back post. In theory this is a thrilling option but it’s not always the same in practice. I doubt Wenger will go for it.

He could also put Flamini on the right. Gnabry is very good but he isn’t at the level where he is going to take Premier League defenders on or make darting well-timed runs behind the defence. So if it’s going to be a conservative job on the right he might as well give it to a player more naturally suited to that. But that line-up with five midfielders just doesn’t feel right to me and I, for one, would love to see Gnabry get more and more playing time at this level.

I didn’t cover the West Brom game because there wasn’t much to say. It was an enjoyable victory but with so many changes made by both managers reading too much into the performances would be counterproductive. Probably the only thing to say is that Eisfeld could make a great career as a SuperSub if he so chooses and his manager sees that as a role for one of the players on the bench of seven. More on that some other time.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Swansea

March 16, 2013

In a survey organized by the League Managers Association, Laudrup has been voted coach of the year and Michu the signing of the season. The Spanish midfielder has already proven to be a thorn in Arsenal’s side scoring three of Swansea’s four goals against the Gunners in their three encounters this season.

The manner in which Michu has scored his goals against Arsenal is worth recalling. In their shocking 0-2 win at the Emirates, the Spaniard scored his first by playing a deft one-two with Luke Moore after finding the ball in a great deal of space ahead of a fairly high, disorganized, and indecisive Arsenal line. He made matters worse by latching on to Jenkinson’s mistake around the centre line before producing another composed finish.

His goal in the 2-2 draw in the FA Cup again came against a high Arsenal line that could not deal with the second ball. Koscielny lost the physical duel and went to ground, Mertesacker was caught flat-footed and just didn’t have the pace to recover.

While Arsenal’s defensive efforts against Bayern were commendable, it will be interesting to see how players like Jenkinson, Mertesacker, and Koscielny perform against Swansea.

The sale of Danny Graham might work in Arsenal’s favour, particularly if Luke Moore misses the game through injury. Michu performs better when he plays off a leading striker as he takes up very good positions just in front of the central defenders and times his runs wonderfully. He also has excellent ability to combine with clever teammates when opponents play a high line.

Although he doesn’t become a bad player when pushed further up, Swansea’s signing of the season does lose some of his qualities when he has to play as the central striker. In such a case he doesn’t get as many chances to run at the opposition goal. However, if Arsenal continue to drop deep as they did against Bayern, Michu will get plenty of opportunities to get into the penalty box and do his thing, i.e. find space and finish chances.

Too much attention on one player can at times make things easier for his teammates. The Gunners will have to avoid focussing all their attention on the threat posed down the middle because Swansea have some very tricky and creative wide players in their ranks. Dyer, Hernandez, and Routledge can all provide assists and score goals. De Guzman’s forward movement from midfield can also be an attacking option for the Swans.

Considering the possibility that the Welsh side will not be playing with the metaphorical handbrake on as Bayern seemed to, it’s quite likely that Arsenal will have to produce a better all-round defensive game on Saturday than they had to in midweek. If Swansea get players free in the attacking third even half as often as the Germans did, they will succeed where the Bavarians failed and Arsenal will not keep a clean sheet.

In order to produce a stronger team performance Arsenal will need greater control of the midfield than they had the Allianz Arena, something that is patently not beyond their abilities. It will be interesting to see if they continue their attempts to press higher up the pitch. To be honest, I am not completely sure what Arsenal’s plan was in Germany as they pressed high up the pitch but were also very quick to drop back on to the edge of their box when Bayern moved beyond that pressing. While it worked in that game, we’ll have to see if such an approach can be successful over a long period against different types of offensive threats before forming any conclusions.

Irrespective of the choice of defensive tactics employed, the central defenders must not be left in a 2-v-2 with opposing attackers as they were in the 0-2 defeat at the Emirates in the reverse fixture or more recently at White Hart Lane. That is just an open invitation to trouble, particularly when the defenders are unclear as regards their choices and positioning.

In defence, Swansea are a fairly well-organized unit with every player pulling his weight. That said, it’s worth noting the fact that their 19 goals conceded figure at home puts them a modest 14th in the list of home defences (Joint with Arsenal). They’ve been able to offset it by scoring nearly 2 goals a game at home, which has also led to some very entertaining games. The Welsh side are more vulnerable at home where they seem to take greater offensive initiative (their away defence is the third best in the League!) but they remain hard to beat as United, Chelsea, and Liverpool have all failed to win at the Liberty Stadium.

In fact, Swansea have only lost 2 home games all season and that does highlight the nature of Arsenal’s challenge. It is of course, also an opportunity as Spurs are the next team to visit this ground and could potentially drop points.

I have a feeling Arsenal will need at least 2 goals in order to win this game. And they won’t score with their only two shots on target this time around. That means the creative players will have to find ways to combine with the forwards and ensure a steady supply of chances. Rosicky’s drive through the middle, Cazorla’s raking diagonals, Walcott’s runs and positioning, and Giroud’s lay-offs and flick-ons can all make a difference if the execution is up to scratch. The Gunners will probably also need more of an offensive contribution from their full-backs who performed admirable conservative roles in Munich.

Arsene said he’d like to rotate his side a bit for this game but he doesn’t have that many options. Monreal will come in for Gibbs. Vermaelen could come in for Mertesacker if the German needs a break but I highly doubt that will be the case. Diaby’s presence in midfield could be useful but as we’ve seen this season, the Frenchman’s inclusion could prove to be a big gamble. Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho could also be considered, particularly if Wenger feels the need to rest Walcott.

Given the imminent international break and the limited number of games remaining after that, I think Wenger should go with his strongest line-up on current form.

I’d like to see,

Fabianksi – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Rosicky, Ramsey – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.

For over two years now I’ve maintained that most of Arsenal’s problems are not down to issues with individual players. Vermaelen and Szczesny have made some mistakes in the recent past but their absence does not guarantee an error-free outing for the Gunners.

It is imperative that the defenders are all governed by a common tactical brain and their choices work in unison. Similarly, they will  need support from the six players in front of them whether it’s in terms of putting pressure on the ball, or tracking back, or something else given the game situation.

And they have to do this without sacrificing offensive bite. This balance has proven hard to find and sustain this season.

Normally, a win against a team like Bayern, and that too in their own backyard, would be a massive confidence boost. But this season we just can’t be sure when the next twist in Arsenal’s Jekyll and Hyde tale will appear. Fingers crossed.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Swansea

December 1, 2012

Arsene Wenger has pointed at the upcoming home fixtures as his side’s way back and marked December as the crucial month.

We will come back. Now we have six games, four at home, and if we do well in this block I think we have a chance to come back. But of course it is vital for us to do well in these games.

He’s not off the mark here, almost every team has struggled in the Premier League this season, but the top two have consistently found a way to put the points on the table.

In a way though, Wenger’s comments have officially made this a must-win game for the Gunners. Hopefully, that will mean we see the required urgency in play right from the start.

Having said that, I also feel the problem that Arsenal sometimes face – that issue where it seems the players are taking it lightly against smaller teams or don’t want the win desperately enough – is not as much related to desire and winning mentality as it is to confidence.

At the moment, it is difficult to assess the confidence levels in the squad. While the players talk a good talk, we haven’t seen enough inspiration in their play to completely believe that they are enjoying their football while being largely in control of games in a manner which suits their strengths.

As regular readers know, to me this is directly down to the system of play. The Gunners look relatively secure at the back and impressive in attack when the system clicks. They either look vulnerable at the back or bereft of ideas up front when it doesn’t, sometimes both. This season we haven’t seen the right balance in Arsenal’s football in most of the games. I think that makes the players hesitant and inhibits the natural expression of their creative and technical qualities.

In that regard, it’ll be interesting to see how Swansea line-up tactically. Not in terms of their shape or formation, but their intent when out of possession. Many teams have successfully pressed the Gunners in the central third to stifle the attacking threat while opening up avenues for quick transitions.

I’m not convinced Swansea have the same unrelenting desire to chase with boundless energy that Everton, for instance, displayed on Wednesday. This could give the Gunners a little more breathing room in the central third. But even if the visitors take a slightly more passive approach to defending, they will undoubtedly remain structurally strong and will focus on denying time and space in the attacking areas. It’s not by coincidence that they’ve conceded just 7 goals in 6 away games.

We might also see Laudrup using Michu as a central striker which will give them the luxury of picking another midfield player and thus adding to the technical ability of the side. We all know Swansea can defend by holding on to the ball.

So, the other interesting aspect of this game will be Arsenal’s tactics when they lose possession. The Gunners have struggled when they’ve pressed up the pitch but they just can’t let an accomplished Swansea side pass the ball around at the back. The visitors have enough technical quality and mobility to create good chances when offered the convenience of picking their passes without pressure.

In particular, I think their ability to quickly move the ball wide and work combinations with one-touch football will test the Arsenal defence. They also use the ball cleverly when delivering from the wider areas as they try to cross it back across the penalty box or to pick a man at the far post instead of just putting a hopeful ball in. This is possible because their quick combination play creates a bit of room for the man delivering the vital pass from wide. They might miss Pablo Hernandez but Routledge and Dyer – who troubled Arsenal last season – can be just as exciting on their day.

I’ll be very surprised if Arsenal don’t push their back four to at least halfway in their own half. But such a tactic will open room for some runs in behind that their pacy wingers could utilize.  Nevertheless, it’s better than sitting on the edge of the box and inviting the opponents forward in numbers.

Wenger’s team selection will also have an impact on the patterns of play. Hopefully, he’ll be able to rotate a couple of players again but fitness issues and the factor of balance could limit his choices.

If Podolski is fit he should come back into the line-up. I’d like to see him given a game down the middle with Giroud taking a breather but I doubt Arsene will try that ‘experiment’ at this stage of the season when the stakes are high.

Cazorla is another player who could use a rest but this is also the kind of game where the Spaniard could get more time to pick his passes, particularly if he drifts wide.

Sagna could be a doubt at the back, in which case Jenkinson should get another chance to impress. The youngster has done well in a limited context this season in that he’s controlled his positioning and passing – perhaps a direct instruction from the coaches – to make his style of a ‘safety first’ variety. That has kept the right flank relatively well protected but it has come at the cost of attacking impetus from that side. Again, it’s an issue of balance. I have a feeling Wenger will risk Sagna if the inflammation isn’t serious.

Both teams have pace at their disposal and, at the simplest level, the one which is able to get it’s quick players behind the opponents is likely to come away with the points.

Possible starting eleven,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Wilshere, Cazorla – Walcott, Giroud, Podolski.

Wenger has said that he’ll put out a strong team against Olympiacos but I’m guessing we’ll see more players rested in that game than this one.

The following stat on the official website does not inspire confidence,

Arsenal have won just three of their last nine Premier League home games (W3 D4 L2) and two of those have been when the opposition have been reduced to 10 men.

There’s enough quality in the team to win this game. But it’s also not difficult to imagine another disappointing performance, it’s happened way too often. The margins are very fine at this level an we’ll have to hope the right factors dominate.

P.S. This is a link to an article I did for the Betting Expert blog. I was looking at goal difference stats and it provided some interesting insights.


Arsenal 1 – 0 Swansea: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

September 11, 2011

Three points more than welcome but a great deal of work remains to be done.

Arsene picked the expected line-up, handing debuts to Mertesacker and Arteta. It was a strong looking side and almost everyone expected a win for the Gunners.

The Spaniard had an early chance to make his mark as he won a free-kick just outside the box in a central area. I read somewhere (probably on twitter via Orbinho) that Arteta hit the wall with 13 out of his 15 free-kicks last year. With that in mind it, a similar result wasn’t surprising but one would hope for better in the future.

A couple of minutes later, at the other end, a cross from a seemingly harmless position saw Danny Graham get the better of Mertesacker but Szczesny did well to keep the ball out. It would turn out to be the visitors’ best chance of the first half.

The corresponding moment for Arsenal came in the 15th minute. Frimpong passed it to Arshavin around the centre circle. The Russian beat two players with a neat turn and played it through for Walcott. Theo got in behind the defence but wasn’t able to finish with his weaker foot. First the Keeper got a touch and it slowed the ball down enough for a defender to make a goal-line clearance. Van Persie was free to Walcott’s left and on such occasions one learns to appreciate the need for an extra pass!

The rest of the first half was mostly played in the Swansea half but Arsenal weren’t able to create anything more than half-chances. Shots from outside the box either went wide or were blocked. Vorm wasn’t that busy in goal.

Out of nowhere, Arshavin scored what turned out to be the winner. Walcott’s shot was blocked and the Keeper gathered the ball to the right of his goal. Vorm then tried to roll it into the path of his central defender who wasn’t looking. The ball hit the back of his leg and fell kindly for the Russian who finished from a difficult angle with his weaker foot. I liked the way he enjoyed the goal but didn’t really celebrate it. Some might say this is the reason smaller teams punt it long from the back. It was harsh on Swansea but one got a feeling Arsenal would eventually have scored.

In a way it might have been a blessing in disguise for the visitors. They came out fired up in the second half and pushed Arsenal back. The now familiar hesitancy returned among Gunner ranks as the complexion of the game changed. The second half had more end-to-end action.

Within 10 minutes or so the woodwork on both sides had been rattled and other half-chances created and missed. Swansea were growing in confidence whereas Arsenal were looking nervous. The number of aimless hoofs from the back increased as the midfield failed to provide the options for passing the ball short under pressure. The visitors were able to force mistakes through their pressing but just didn’t have enough quality or cohesion in the final third. To their credit, Szczesny and the central defenders dealt with most of the threatening moments with assurance. As we have seen for a while, the Gunners were struggling in the wide areas and were trying to make up for it by crowding the space in front of goal. In this game it worked.

I thought Wenger made good substitutions. Bringing Benayoun on for Arshavin provided another ball-playing midfield player and Arsenal were able to control the game/ball in patches.

Chamakh for Van Persie was another good change. The Moroccan offered more energy as he replaced tired legs. He also offered an aerial presence. On a number of occasions he was able to win the long clearances that were thus far finding opponent heads. In the 83rd minute Chamakh almost broke his home scoring drought when a Gibbs cross found him around the penalty spot. His header was good but a tad closer to the Keeper than one would have liked.

But the best substitution in my opinion was the introduction of one youngster for another. In the 75th minute Arsene sent Coquelin on for Frimpong who was looking a bit ragged as the game went on. I thought the French lad showed excellent composure and got in very good positions. Some of you might find this hard to digest but I have a feeling Coquelin will outshine Frimpong this season.

Both teams had excellent chances of scoring in stoppage time but failed to convert. Szczesny flapped at a corner and the loose ball fell invitingly in front of a visiting player who could only hook it over from a few yards with the goal gaping. At the other end Arsenal had a 4-v-1 opportunity but Ramsey played a tired left-footed pass that didn’t have enough distance to beat the lone defender. Gibbs too had a good chance but hit it straight at the Keeper.

All-in-all this was a good, open game with both sided showing the right spirit. That said, neither set of supporters will be really pleased with the performance of their side and will expect to see serious improvements.

I thought Arsenal had three midfielders who are all kind of new to the team for various reasons. Frimpong is a rookie, Ramsey is still rediscovering his form after his horrific injury, and Arteta was playing his first game for the Gunners. Considering that it wasn’t hard to see the lack of understanding that slowed the play down occasionally or led to missed passing opportunities.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: A couple of good saves, collected some aerial balls really well, could have ended with a black mark when he completely lost the flight of the corner in stoppage time. Should not be rushing into crowded areas like that.

Sagna: Had a solid first half but struggled a bit in the second. Was caught out for pace on more than one occasion on the right edge of the box, recovered well but conceded some corners. Crossing was poor barring one effort that could have led to a goal if Van Persie had gambled on it coming through.

Mertesacker: Very assured in his tackling, read the game well, good positioning. Wasn’t as much of a monster in the air as one might expect.

Koscielny: Conceded one really dangerous free-kick but apart from that there wasn’t much wrong in his performance. Was fairly comfortable in the first half and alert in the second.

Gibbs: Good energy and pace on the left. Got into useful attacking positions. Put in a couple of good crosses. Can’t recall any major errors.

I thought the back five did well enough but the quality of the opposition meant that it wasn’t that stern a test.

Frimpong: He wins hearts and plaudits with an all-action style. Looks powerful and dominating in the middle but has some technical weaknesses. His touch and passing let him down on more than one occasion and it also led  to a loss of possession in central areas. Has the energy to chase and harass the opponents which partially makes up for his weakness.

Ramsey: Wasn’t that effective in the attacking areas but helped create some half-chances. Work rate was good and dropped deep when the team lost possession.

Arteta: Looked classy and played some delightful passes. Another player who did his bit in defence. I’d like to see him take charge from deeper positions when the opponents are pressing as high up the pitch as they did in the second half. Nevertheless, it was an encouraging debut.

I thought Arsenal lacked midfield runs into the box. When the runs were made there was a lack of understanding with the man on the ball. These things will come with time. The midfield should make a conscious effort to control the tempo when the opponents are pressurising the defenders.

Walcott: Almost scored, missed some opportunities to lay it on a plate for Van Persie, was fouled a lot but didn’t get the call from the ref. His crossing was poor but I put it down to a lack of cohesion in the side. There were rarely enough bodies in the box.

RvP: Excellent movement and work rate, hit the post, got into great positions, must be annoyed with Walcott but pleased with Arteta.

Arshavin: Was looking lively in the first half and the only real source of creativity on the pitch. Took his chance well. Still doesn’t look that confident. His style demands better and faster passes from the midfield.

The attack was not as sharp as Gooners would like. Part of it was down to the fact that the midfield trio was relatively new and the rest was down to the weaknesses in the individual play of Walcott and Arshavin.

Subs: Coquelin impressed with his positioning and technique, Chamakh with the controlled headers, and Benayoun with his touch and movement although I did feel he went to sleep occasionally.

Wenger: I thought the starting line-up was as good as it could have been. There seems to have been some effort put in regaining composure when the opponents attack in numbers. It needs more work, not only in terms of sustaining possession but also in transitioning to attack. A balance between rushing the ball forward to a lone attacker and over elaborating in the middle needs to be found. Defensive organization remains a question mark and better teams will create a lot more trouble. Substitutions were useful and appropriate.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Swansea

September 9, 2011

Perhaps I should call this post guesses about the tactics and starting eleven against Swansea! After the recent overhaul of the squad it is hard to figure out exactly who is going to play or the tactical approach that will be used.

By and large, I don’t expect a big change in the style of play. Many fans want to see a change and it is likely to come, but in subtle, hard to notice installments. In this game we are likely see the same 4-3-3 formation with a single defensive midfielder in Frimpong.

I am keen to see the role Arteta gets. My preference would be deeper on the left, in the position Wilshere mastered last season. Arteta can cause serious damage if he gets a chance to arrive late at the edge of the box or if the movement of the forward players creates a pocket of space in front of the Swansea central defence.

Great players have the ability to help their teammates perform a notch or two higher than their usual level. Fabregas excelled at this and I believe the new Spaniard can replicate his predecessor to a fair extent in this regard. Ramsey, Walcott, and Van Persie will all benefit if Arteta can handle the pressure and bring the ball out from defence. Often for great passing teams, harmless looking simple turns and touches in the middle of the park can lead to gilt-edged chances in the blink of an eye. One must not put too high an expectation on a player who will need time to settle in a new system but this will be one of the key benchmarks to measure Arteta’s contribution.

Set-pieces will be another and I hope RvP does not pull rank on the newbie. There is no rational basis for this but I have a feeling the new No. 8 will score from a direct free-kick tomorrow.

At the back, Wenger’s choices are a bit more complicated. Vermaelen’s injury means Mertesacker can make his Arsenal debut just after returning from international duty. The German hasn’t had enough time to train with his teammates and that could hurt if the Gunners want to play a high line with an off-side trap. Given the fact that relative lack of speed is probably his only real weakness, playing him before he gets a chance to fully grasp the tactics seems like a risky move. Wenger will take that chance I think because the understanding between the other defenders hasn’t been that great so far this season. In a way, Mertesacker will be part of the work in progress.

The big German should find this a comfortable game as the Swans have a playing style befitting their nickname and do play at a slightly lower tempo with comparatively lower quality in the final third, which would probably be very similar to some of the teams in Bundesliga. Their wide players are fairly quick but their impact will depend more on the positioning of the Arsenal full-backs.

That brings me to the dilemma of choosing between Gibbs, who is just returning from another injury, or Santos, who hasn’t had genuine match practice for a while. I’d go with the Englishman. Playing two new defenders who haven’t had the chance to settle could be perilous.

Szczesny should be in good form after his heroics for the national team and hopefully the Frenchmen will have fully recovered from illness and a back spasm.

Up front, RvP and Theo should be automatic choices. Benayoun and Arshavin are the two main options for the left. While the Russian is not a fan favourite at this time, I’d go with Arshavin. Again the idea is to minimize the number of changes. Moreover, since the opponents are a good ball-playing team, Arshavin can get time and space to work his magic, which could magically work for his form.

Preferred starting line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Frimpong, Ramsey, Arteta – Walcott, RvP, Arshavin.

Santos, Benayoun, and Park (assuming his visa is sorted out) can come on later in the game if it’s going well.

Wenger might, off course, have other ideas and we could see more than two new signings in action and in unexpected positions. I want to watch this game with a fresh and open mindset.

The result is undoubtedly important, especially with a three game handicap that the Gunners now have, but quickly redeveloping the playing style or integrating the arrivals into the system will prove decisive in the long run. Swansea, with respect and admiration, are ideal opponents from that perspective.

Now that the suspense and the drama is behind us, and even though the transfer window wasn’t ideal, I sense a feel-good factor is returning. Hopefully those at the Emirates will pass it on to the players and this will be the start of a shortened (by forgetting the first three games) but high impact season.