Arsenal 1 – 0 Besiktas: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

August 29, 2014

Besiktas came to the Emirates with nothing lose and almost went back with everything. Almost…

This was another tough outing for the below par Gunners who are still searching for some fluidity and understanding between the midfielders who are central to all of Arsenal’s play.

The first half had few chances but was generally marked by low quality football. Opportunities arose from bad mistakes and they were squandered by misfiring attackers. For example, Wilshere and Cazorla both got a great sight of the Besiktas goal from cheap giveaways by the opponents but neither came close to hitting the target. At the other end, Pektemek could have been clean through in the first minute but chose to play the ball back to Demba Ba. Counter-attacking chances were continually missed by both teams throughout the game.

It also seemed like Lady Luck had taken to the Suave Frenchman in charge of the home side over his more rugged counterpart sitting in the stands. There were two big controversial penalty calls in the first half that went in favour of the Gunners. My initial feeling was that Debuchy got the ball and that Wilshere had just done enough to avoid contact. Replays at half time seemed to show the French full-back missing the ball and later I read Wilshere acknowledging that he’d touched the opponent. With the benefit of hindsight and slow motion replays, I think it’s safe to say the Gunners got away with two penalty decisions, one of which could easily have been a second booking.

In the recent past, although not in the last couple of seasons, Arsenal used to suffer a lot at the hands of the referee, so I can certainly empathize with the frustrations of the supporters of the Turkish side. Qualifying for the Champions League proper could have been a really big step for them.

Wenger’s side did get some sort of rhythm towards the end of the first period and scored a nice team goal. Debuchy’s initial run was well-timed and his cross, while hopeful, was difficult to clear. Monreal’s positioning in the box was ambitious and his calmness in winning the header to direct the ball to Wilshere was appreciable. Jack played a decent one-two with Özil before Sanchez slotted the ball home. The goalkeeper should probably have done better but he might have been caught off-guard while expecting the Englishman to strike the ball.

This was harsh on the visiting side but as Bilic said, “…they [Arsenal] showed that little bit of extra quality in the box.

The second half started where the first had ended with the Gunners in control. Wilshere gladly received a loose clearance in the box and set up Sanchez. The Chilean’s shot, or was it a square pass, was cleared for a corner. The Gunners had numerous other chances to score, mostly on quick breaks. Özil, Sanchez, Cazorla, and Oxlade-Chamberlain could all have done better to make the game more comfortable for the home side. Debuchy and Koscielny also had the chance to double the lead from a well-struck free-kick.

Slowly, around the hour mark, the game started becoming very vertical. Arsenal didn’t have as much control of the midfield and the visitors were looking threatening. And the direction of attacks swung completely once Debuchy was sent off.

It seemed like a very harsh decision even if the referee called it for some pushing before the actual ball-winning tackle, which didn’t seem like a foul at all. I wonder whether the referee was influenced by his mistakes in the first period and saw this as a way to make amends. From that point on the Portuguese official completely lost the grip on the game (not that he was impeccable before).

The final 15 minutes were extremely tense. While the visitors didn’t muster a single shot on target and only three off target in the whole game (four blocked), Wenger’s side were defending so deep that any momentary lapse in concentration, or individual quality, could have proved extremely costly. Don’t forget that Arsenal had conceded from the first shot on target in both their League games.

This time around the numbers in the box were enough. Top notch focus and determination helped. When one player made a mistake a teammate was there to knock the ball away from danger. I also felt Besiktas should have thrown a few more bodies into the box.

The bottom line is that Arsenal are through. Besiktas deserved more and these are the games where I feel both teams should progress. There is no doubt the Turkish side are better than many of the clubs who’ve made it to the group phase. Good luck to them in the Europa League and the domestic competitions.

Wenger’s side clearly have a lot of room for improvement. Mertesacker touched upon the crux of the problem.

That’s still a tough challenge for us – to get ourselves going, to find our passing game. We’ve only trained two or three times together and this season makes it really difficult for us to stick to our game. We have to find ourselves still.

Arsenal’s spirit and mental qualities have been exceptional. But these eventually break down if the team has to produce backs-to-wall performances week in, week out. Hopefully, the manager will be able to work his magic before it’s too late.

On a side note, it’s worth noting that big, strong defensive midfielder Atiba Hutchinson wasn’t really able to “destroy” many of Arsenal’s counter-attacks. The attacks broke down for different reasons illustrating how percentages work in favour of the defensive side. It’s also interesting that Wenger praised the Canadian’s display after the game, and deservedly so because he did a lot of things well. Most of Arsenal’s counter-attacks were not his fault and there wasn’t much he could have done to break them up.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Incredibly, for such a tense game, the Pole had a relatively comfortable time in goal as the visitors failed to hit the target. Didn’t have to deal with one-v-ones or many crosses either. His handling of the ball was efficient and error free.

Debuchy: Made a number of very exciting forward runs. Also made a few useful interventions in the penalty box. Showed good understanding with AOC. I thought his first foul was really unnecessary and rash. Was lucky and then unlucky, as discussed above.

Mertesacker: His error in judging the flight of the ball led to the first penalty situation. Another ball flew over his head late in the second half and Demba Ba could have scored with better contact. Wasn’t really beaten in other individual duels but I’d hoped he would bring greater composure to the team’s play, particularly in the second half.

Koscielny: Played Pektemek onside in the first minute and was caught a bit flat-footed when Mertesacker missed his header. Apart from that I thought he had a good game. Was alert in the box and almost scored at the other end.

Monreal: This was arguably the Spaniards best game in an Arsenal shirt, at least from a defensive standpoint. Created a great chance for Oxlade-Chamberlain and contributed to the decisive goal but we do expect good attacking quality from the former Malaga man. I really liked his defensive work – concentration, attacking the ball, positioning, etc. Was helped by decent support and didn’t have to deal with quick, tricky players running at him, but more of such efforts will considerably help the team’s cause in the long run.

The defensive players made some mistakes and rode their luck a bit. The two on the right side could certainly have done better.

Flamini: The physicality and broken nature of football meant that this was his kind of a game. Passing was efficient even if not as prolific as the position demands. Lots of tackles all over the pitch and very useful presence in and around the box.

Wilshere: This was close to the Jack of old- turning past players, driving at the opposition defence, combining in tight spaces, exuberant tackle attempts. This was a quality effort from the veteran youngster but I also feel he’ll have to do much better if he wishes to get close to fulfilling his early promise and hit the World Class level. These are the main areas where he needs to improve –

1) Losing the ball cheaply – He lost the ball cheaply in the first minute through an attempted outside of the boot pass. This led to the first threatening counter-attack. Did something very similar again in the 11th minute and play was broken by a foul by Mertesacker. Even the pass for the one-two before the goal was a soft touch and only the alertness of Özil kept the move alive. His ideas are good but the execution isn’t always up to scratch.

2) Decision making – Remember the counter-attack when he picked up the ball around the centre line and had three runners in front. And early ball for Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been much better. Instead he ran with it for 25-30 yards before finding Sanchez with a pass at a very awkward height. In such cases you see his thinking needs to sharpen up. These are never easy choices but the truly top players make them a lot more consistently.

3) Tackling – Absolutely must stop lunging at opponents, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. It’s related, at least partly, to being slow to read the danger and thus having to catch up and cover greater distances which his lack of speed doesn’t allow. The solution is to develop defensive intelligence. He’s working on it – I see him looking around a lot more when the team is defending – but still has a long way to go.

4) Technique – Some of his touches and passes are exquisite. But he needs much better quality and consistency on the outside of the boot pass if he cannot develop his right foot. In that attack discussed in 2 above, I cannot imagine him finding Özil on the left with his current technique. The only way he would be successful is by completely opening up his body, which would then telegraph the pass to defenders. Hard to see him scoring with his right if Sanchez hadn’t taken over.

His desire and physical effort were excellent throughout the game. Technique, awareness of space, and tactical play was also really enjoyable. But it’s one thing to appear heroic and dominant in a hard-fought qualifier against Besiktas and quite another to be the fulcrum of an Arsenal side that wants to dominate major Champions League and Premier League games.

Cazorla: A close second for the MotM in my opinion. He’s not had a great start to the season but the effort in this game was much better. Defensive work when the team was down to 10 was outstanding. Still needs to protect the ball better in physical games.

Özil: Not a game he’d want to remember. Missed quite a few chances to put Sanchez in behind. Didn’t seem to be on the same page as his teammates at times. Did put in a lot of running up and down the pitch, often thanklessly.

AOC: Good understanding with Debuchy, made some powerful runs early on, picked a nice cross-field pass for Cazorla, and I liked the way he dropped deep at times to let Debuchy or Sachez use the space on the right. Should really have done much better from that chance just before the red card.

The midfielders faced a tough physical battle. They were good in patches but didn’t combine as well as they can. Individually, they all had room to do better. Appreciable hard work at the end.

Sanchez: My MotM. Extraordinary work rate, produced the decisive moment, constant clever movement, never gave up. Will still get much better as the team dynamic evolves but this game showed the first signs of what he can offer even when played as a central striker. Could have done better with a couple of chances but don’t forget it’s the hardest thing to do.

Subs: Chambers was unlucky to be booked and didn’t have too much to do. I thought Rosicky for Özil around the hour mark might have helped the team quite a bit.

Wenger: Achieved a major target and hopefully that will liberate him a bit more in the transfer market too. Team dynamic is still a work in progress. Relying on Sanchez as a centre forward could be a masterstroke or a disastrous decision. I’d prefer it if he didn’t take the gamble, but is there a top quality alternative available?


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Besiktas

August 27, 2014

The second leg of the Champions League qualifier could be Arsenal’s biggest game of the season. Barring the case of winning either the Premier League or the Champions League, both in the realm of possibility but not the most likely of events, the huge financial boost received from entering the group phase of Europe’s elite competition could be the Gunners’ most valuable achievement this season. That income as well as the knowledge of Champions League involvement might also affect some business that Wenger might be able to do before the transfer window closes.

Bilic knows all the pressure is on Arsenal. His side have nothing to lose. This could liberate them to play as aggressively as they did in Turkey last week. The intensity of their play will be the key to their chances. Arsenal have quite a few players missing and the visitors will want to make it hard for the hosts to establish their style of play. Sitting back and inviting pressure would be counter-productive for them. Pushing up and chasing every ball would be the best approach. Try and force mistakes in the middle of the pitch, and utilize the individual qualities they have in their attacking players who can dribble, run, combine, and finish, particularly when they have space in the attacking areas. In the Croat’s boots, I’d want my team to try and isolate the wingers against the Arsenal full-backs or Demba Ba against/behind the central defenders. The performances of some of the German teams at the Emirates should provide the template.

They do need to be careful with the physical play and ensure their players don’t pick up early bookings. Avoiding errors seems like a very obvious thing to do but is often not that easy when the game is played at a frantic pace.

Wenger has to do the opposite. He has to preach control. Arsenal have, in the recent past, dismantled a couple of Italian teams by playing at a very high tempo. I’m not convinced the players at the manager’s disposal, given the limited understanding they have at the moment, can reproduce that tempo. This means a vertical battle could be detrimental to the home side’s cause. They don’t want to leave a slow-ish defence exposed with big gaps between the lines. Arsenal have to establish midfield superiority and push the opponents back. Besiktas are a good side but they aren’t exactly experts at parking the bus. As we saw in the first leg, if the Gunners get to the attacking third they will see some openings. Of course, the finishing and the final ball will have to be much better.

With Arteta and Giroud injured and Ramsey suspended, the choices for the starting line-up are somewhat limited. Playing the German twice in a short period would be a risk but it’s one that I think Wenger will take.

We might see,

Szczesny – Debuchy, Chambers, Metesacker, Monreal – Flamini, Özil, Wilshere – AOC, Alexis, Cazorla

That’s not exactly the strongest midfield but I can’t think of a better combination based on availability. Özil and Cazorla have  to take extra responsibility and make sure they don’t lose the ball carelessly.

Sanchez as a striker didn’t quite work in the game against Everton but he should surely get more time there. At the moment, I’d go with the Chilean if Sanogo is the only other realistic option. Changes can always be made at half time. Then again, that argument works for starting the French youngster too.

Rosicky hasn’t seen much game time and that has been a surprise. I don’t know what to expect. Campbell is another player who will be hoping for a better chance to show what he can do. Will this be the game? Doubtful.

Is Koscielny injured? I didn’t see him in the training pictures on the Arsenal website.

From the players available, the individuals in the line-up above have played the most minutes. It’d seem best to go with these guys and expect them to show better understanding in the attacking areas. Arsenal will have a very good chance of qualifying as long as they can keep the goal protected. Set-pieces have been a problem area and the team have been troubled by pace. Space on the right side was a problem area against Everton and in the first leg of this tie. Sorting those issues out could prove vital in the first must-win game of the season.


Besiktas 0 – 0 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

August 21, 2014

Arsenal returned from Turkey after a below par performance that was still enough to get an acceptable result. A win would have helped but a goalless draw is by no means a disaster.

I thought Besiktas worked very hard in this game and played close to their full potential. The pitch helped them a little as did the fact that Arsenal didn’t seem to be on the same fitness levels as the hosts (understandably so). With that in mind, it’s reasonable to expect better quality from the Gunners in the return leg and the visitors should find it tough at the Emirates.

That being said, a few very obvious and oft discussed problems were patently discernible in the Gunners’ performance. These have been covered so often that I’ll just list them in bullet point form rather than discussing the details

  • Playing Ramsey and Wilshere in central midfield makes the team output weaker.
  • Very few runs in behind the defence
  • Failure to establish midfield dominance against a team that pressed with energy and passion
  • Inability to press coherently in the opposition half
  • Inability to defend the centre line/force turnovers leading to counter-attacks form that zone
  • Not getting enough bodies in the opposition box
  • Inefficient attack with many promising moments squandered

This game can be a classic case study for what I’d said should be the first law of football – Defending is significantly easier than attacking.

Look at the amount of final third action on both sides of the pitch. Sure, we can blame Giroud, but what about Demba Ba’s missed chances? Arsenal were irrefutably inefficient, but can you then really praise Besiktas who missed just as many chance, if not more?

Decisive quality in the attacking third makes a huge difference. Neither side had it. The defensive players had a good game but also rode their luck. The percentages worked in their favour.

The game was played at a very fast pace, which worked well as far as knocking Wenger’s side out of their rhythm was concerned. The Gunners should be able to go into such games and establish control over the central third through their technical skills irrespective of the pitch conditions or fitness (relative difference was marginal). They couldn’t do it, just as they struggled in many games last season.

The difference was that this time they didn’t really sit back and defend with as much assurance as we saw last year. They also weren’t able to produce that small 5-10 minute period where they went up a couple of gears to score a goal or two. Many games were won last season on the back of such details.

In this game, it seemed to me that Arsenal were tactically unsure. They were trying to defend the centre line but weren’t really doing a great job. It was adequate most of the time but not sharp enough to result in transition opportunities.

The attacking ideas were chaotic too. At times, Sanchez was trying too much on his own down the right flank. Giroud was erratic and many moves broke down due to poor touches or choices by the Frenchman. Ramsey wasn’t getting into the areas he usually does to support the forwards. Wilshere wasn’t either. Santi has been ineffective during the first two games of the season and I have a feeling it’s linked with the unbalanced midfield. They don’t find him when they should, nor does their movement bring the best out of his passing. Arsenal’s left side was almost non-existent from an attacking perspective.

The hectic nature of the game meant that the gaps between the lines were often too big and the midfield was neither able to join the front line in any purposeful manner, nor did they protect the back five consistently.

The main positive for Arsenal is that despite all the problems the game still ended on even terms. It’s hard to imagine Wenger’s side doing worse at home so they should sneak by. Of course, Arteta’s injury and Ramsey’s suspension will make matters tough. Nevertheless, the Gunners should still be favourites to progress as long as they don’t make any serious errors to gift away goals.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Was almost caught out straight from kick-off but he had a decent game after that. Didn’t really have to make any difficult saves but he looked confident with the things he did have to deal with. Was lucky Ba missed on the near post as he was well beaten.

Debuchy: Almost everything came down his flank and he did well. I like the fact that he’s been able to increase his involvement with play and passing accuracy numbers. Delivery and choices in the final third could have been a little better, but he was by no means the worst on that front. His high positioning did put a little more pressure on Chambers.

Chambers: Worked hard and got into the right places most of the time. Good composure and an excellent performance for his age and experience levels. But it’s important to not forget those qualifiers. Made two bad mistakes that could have led to a goal and the whole tie would be looking very different had either one or both gone in. One was obvious for the Demba Ba chance, but I also thought he was out of position and unaware of the threat when the ball was played past him early in the second half for that clear sight of goal for Sahan. Even the other Demba Ba shot came when the striker pulled away from him. Did he also miss a chance from a corner towards the end? The hype machine is in overdrive but I’d advise caution in building up expectations.

Koscielny: There was less action on his side. Wonder if Besiktas made a conscious decision to target the youngster playing next to him. Probably the player who performed closest to his potential.

Monreal: He is a better player in the attacking half than he is in the defensive one but hardly ever got forward in this game. Passing was uncharacteristically unreliable as Arsenal struggled to build anything from the left. This was at least partly related to poor movement from teammates on that side. Luckily, he didn’t have much to do defensively and practically no one-v-ones to worry about.

The defensive players did well. Some of it was down to their quality and effort while the rest was down to the opponents missing the target. As I said earlier, the percentages worked in their favour.

We’ll have to keep an eye on that gap between Debuchy and the right sided central defender. The Frenchman stays so high up that soon opponents will start targeting that zone as Besiktas almost successfully did in this game.

Arteta: Was having a steady game before his injury. Wasn’t able to set the tempo for the Gunners and did look a little troubled at times when the distances between the lines increased.

Ramsey: Towards the end of last season and earlier in preseason I’ve said that Ramsey will lose form and struggle to keep his place as a guaranteed starter if the decisive moments stop happening for him. This game was a good example of the kind of problems he can face. The point is not that he isn’t playing well or lacks quality. He just doesn’t always make the right choices, which are often the simpler ones. His sending off was harsh but it came from an unnecessary moment of trickery when a simple pass to the right was available. Playing with Wilshere also makes things tough, particularly when Alexis is also new to the system and still adapting. Hopefully, the frustrating moments won’t build up and the decisive ones won’t dry up all at the same time.

Wilshere: Just looking at him play, it’s hard to say the youngster has done much wrong. Like Ramsey, he is another who doesn’t lack quality or desire. But he does lack tactical maturity and an understanding of the details that make the team perform better. At the moment I feel both Ramsey and Cazorla are underperforming because Wilshere is not quite connecting with them as Özil did last season. His off the ball movement, choices in possession, and defensive thought are all suboptimal. One example was the horrible high pass he played back to Koscielny that eventually led to a booking for Monreal.

Cazorla: At the moment, Santi has the biggest gap between quality possessed as against output produced. It’s very hard to put a finger on the exact cause for this. He’s never been quick and you don’t expect him to run past players to make things happen so a lack of that cannot be a reason to blame him. The problem is probably more with the level of understanding with others and the dynamic of the pass-and-move game not quite working out.

Sanchez: He was simultaneously the guy who was making something happen for the Gunners and the guy who was running into cul-de-sacs and squandering promising moments by missing opportunities to combine. I’m not quite sure what Wenger has asked him to do. It seems very odd that instead of playing up against the defensive line and using his intelligent off-the-ball runs, the Chilean is playing more like a midfielder and also looking for the ball to come to his feet rather than going into space.

Flamini: Got booked for an unnecessary tackle, squared up to opponents when things got heated up after a Wilshere challenge, decent job in front of the back four where, rather strangely, he wasn’t really tested.

The midfield failed. It was their job to control the ball and territory. Everything would’ve flowed from that but it never happened. The opponents gave them very little time and the pitch wasn’t perfect, but they have to overcome such challenges for there will be many more in the course of the season.

Giroud: Poor. Touches were disappointing, finishing left a lot to be desired, let his teammates down more often than I can remember. Sometimes having a player with exceptional final third quality can bail you out when the team is otherwise having a bad day. Giroud never looked like he’d deliver. Another player who is a long was off his best. Let’s hope much of that has to do with fitness.

Wenger: Far too many age old problems still exist. There will always be a reason – Opponent played deep, pitch was bad, players were tired, etc. – but none of those qualify as a valid excuse anymore. I have said this for at least three years now – the single most important change Arsenal can make is an addition to the coaching staff. The team has to learn to press higher up the pitch more coherently, they have to be a lot more competitive and threatening when defending the centre line, and they have to find alternate attacking modes when the regular game isn’t working.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Besiktas

August 19, 2014

For the second year running Arsenal have drawn a Turkish opponent in the final round of Champions League qualifying. Last season the Gunners made light work of a tricky game against Fenerbahce so they are favourites to go through at the expense of a team that finished the season 12 points behind the winners of the Super Lig.

I have only seen parts of their impressive preseason that includes wins over Chelsea and Fenerbahce, as well as an aggregate 5-2 victory over Feyenoord in the previous qualifying round. Slavan Bilic’s side come into this game high on confidence and with a strong defensive record. Their main strengths will be their organization, physicality, and hard work. Counter-attacks and set-pieces will be the main offensive weapons.

This could be the kind of game which suits their recently acquired striker as Demba Ba thrives in games where he gets space in the central attacking areas. Karin Frei, Gokhan Tore, and Olcay Sahan are quick, skilful players who can run at defenders and make a decisive contribution in attack. Ozyakup, the youngster who spent a few years with the Arsenal academy, is another talented attacking option at the manager’s disposal.

In order to keep them in check, and to counter the passionate and vociferous home crowd, the Gunners will have to control the ball and play with confidence. Any sloppiness/hesitancy in possession or errors at the start can completely change the dynamic of this game. In a way, this challenge is not very different from playing some of the mid-level Premier League sides except that the Turks have better final third quality and slightly better technical/tactical skills.

Once again, patience in attack, set-piece defending, and sharp tempo could be the key to winning the game. Wenger’s side don’t really need three points from the away leg but a good result here will help them generate some momentum before a tough test at Goodison Park.

It’ll be interesting to see if the manager goes for some changes to his starting eleven. Given the personnel he has, the entire front six could be different from those that started the League opener.

For instance, Wenger could go with – Flamini, Rosicky, Coquelin – Campbell, Giroud, Ox. Still looks pretty strong.

However, I don’t think wholesale changes are needed or advisable. Two or three changes are sufficient to maintain freshness without sacrificing continuity. The Arsenal manager has learnt from previous seasons that a strong line up in away games is the better choice. More changes can be made at home, particularly in a two-legged encounter in which the Gunners hold the advantage after the first game.

Giroud will most probably start as Sanogo has not travelled with the squad. Monreal will be another forced change. Both did well as substitutes in the previous game. One more change may come in the form of Chamberlain starting in place of Wilshere or Cazorla.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Debuchy, Chambers, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Cazorla, Ramsey – Chamberlain, Giroud, Alexis.

Some might say Santi has not been in the best of form and should be left out. Many fans might prefer to start Campbell in the attacking trio. Ox or Rosicky can also be considered for a central midfield role.

The defence remains the only real area of concern from a depth point of view. Hopefully, we won’t see any injuries.

Wenger has many options and there isn’t one outstanding choice. You can form four or five starting elevens that can do the job and the bench should also hold a couple of quality players in every case. In that sense, it’s more down to the players to perform on the pitch rather than choices of the manager.

P.S. If you’re interested, Youtube has full match videos of their home game against Feyenoord as well as friendlies against Chelsea and Fenerbahce through this beIN Sport Channel.


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…


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

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attacking third passes 0 to 8 min

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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!

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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.


Thoughts On The Everton And Napoli Games

December 11, 2013

The game against the Toffees was possibly a bitter-sweet experience for both sides. Martinez’s side showed just how excellent they can be but we also saw the reasons they have drawn so many games when sometimes their football seemingly deserves more. Arsenal had it tough for long periods in the game but the three points were within their grasp at the end. The nature and timing of the goal conceded definitely added to the disappointment.

Some people were surprised that Everton could come to Arsenal and dominate possession but it was something I’d touched upon in the pre-game article. The Gunners have played two very different styles this season, sometimes during the same game.

They look good when pressing technically limited teams higher up the pitch. The likes of Norwich and Hull found it very hard to get out of their half, for instance. They also made the most of certain singular advantages in games against Napoli – where the tempo was just too high for the visitors – and Liverpool – where the Reds’ formation took away any chance they had of competing for the ball on a consistent basis.  But Arsenal haven’t really produced similar pressing and dominance in many of the other games, particularly the big ones. The results against Dortmund and Tottenham, for instance, came on the back of resolute defending in the deeper areas and at the cost of possession.

In this game, it seemed to me that the Gunners were caught in a state of tactical chaos. They were trying to press higher up the pitch but the visitors had the right combination of technique, fluidity, understanding, and bravery to pass their way out of that pressing. They were helped by the fact that Arsenal’s central defenders were not very comfortable higher up the pitch and kept dropping deeper. As a result the gaps between the lines were often very large and it was easier for Everton to play simple short to medium vertical passes that quickly transformed Arsenal’s pressing into frantic acts of chasing back.

The hard working, positionally assured, and committed effort by the central defenders helped keep the visitors at bay. At the same time Arsenal were also helped by the inexperience in the Everton ranks that made them inefficient in the final third. Just as Wilshere often puts the wrong weight on a pass or makes the wrong choice, the likes of Barkley, Lukaku, and other Everton players often got thereabouts in the decisive zones but just fell short of putting it all together.

Ideally, in such a game a tactically mature side would slow the tempo down and absorb the pressure because the opponent is likely to tire. But the degree of frivolity that I’ve noted in recent games was again there and it led to numerous technical errors undermining Arsenal’s biggest strength. I don’t think the players mean to be careless. It just seems that they are trying too hard to create extraordinary moves on too many occasions. Against quality opponents a lot of the one-touch flicks and early passes don’t work. Not only do they lead to a loss of possession it opens the game up for quick transitions.

The players have to learn to bide their time in the build-up because they can be excellent once they are able to advance in numbers as we saw repeatedly when they combined to get in behind the Everton lines. There might be fewer chances created with a more restrained approach but it gives an appearance of solidity, which affects public perception and opposition tactics in equal measure. We have seen such performances from the Gunners and so we know they can do it, it just has to happen on a more consistent basis.

A related issue is that Arsenal have to regain the ability to defend a little higher up the pitch against quality opponents. Defending deep, and effectively at that, can result in clean sheets and results against smaller teams but it won’t always be a clever approach in the big games.

Then again, the equalizer was conceded when the team was sitting deep – something they’ve excelled at thus far this season. It might have been the result of all the pressure Everton had created in the game till that point but I did feel a bit more urgency from Rosicky and/or Gibbs would have made the difference. Could Szczesny have saved a shot that seemed to fly straight over him? Hard to say, it was a powerful shot and I felt there was a slight deflection too.

Another topic that I’d touched upon in the preview was the importance of space in the wide areas when the Arsenal midfielders move all over the pitch. The Gunners could have had numerical advantages in the centre if they’d succeed in moving the ball purposefully but quick transitions and incoherent pressing meant that Everton often had vast open spaces on the flank that they could exploit. Again, it was their inefficiency in the final third that saved Szczesny from having to make many more saves.

All said and done, I thought this game came at a good time for the team. They’re on a high but still have a lot to prove and many areas of improvement to address. It could take some of the playfulness out of their game and bring the professionalism back in. They will need a very professional performance in Italy and the two subsequent games. The results in those games will tell us if this was a good point gained or two vital ones dropped.

Napoli need to win by a margin of three goals to qualify. That’s a tough ask particularly against this stingy version of the Gunners. But it’s not beyond them on their day because they have experienced attacking players and goalscorers.

Italian teams don’t usually play at breakneck speeds but are more tactical in their approach. So it’s more about ball circulation and clever breaks rather than a gung-ho all-action approach. Creating one excellent move can take as little as 10 seconds and if the quality of chance is high they certainly have finishers who can bury it. From that point of view, there is plenty of time in a game to score three goals. However, getting the first one in early might be very important for them and that could force the hosts into taking greater risks.

Wenger’s primary task will probably be to ensure that his players are focussed and don’t make mistakes that gift goals. Let Napoli work hard if they have to succeed and odds are Arsenal’s quality will shine through. On the other hand, we’ve seen Arsenal sides in panic mode that can crumble defensively. It’s not happened recently but the memories are not too distant either for them to be casually dismissed with a wry smile.

Once again spaces between the lines and the narrowness of Arsenal’s defending will be areas to watch out for. Pandev, Higuain, and Co. will certainly offer greater offensive threat if they find the kind of openings Barkley and Lukaku were able to get. You don’t want to see Higuain getting a clear run or shot at goal.

Their full-backs will also pose a greater threat as they will look to pick passes after well-timed late runs instead of swinging in hopeful crosses. Wide players need to be more consistent with their tracking back and the central midfielders more aware of the space in front of the centre-backs, particularly on the edge of the box or just inside.

Arsenal should be able to create a few chances of their own too, especially if they can avoid technical errors. The movement we’ve seen in recent games has been excellent, which in turn has fostered delightful combination play between three, four, and sometimes even more players. A little more efficiency and concentration in vital attacking moments can prove decisive.

It’s hard to say just how many changes Arsene Wenger will make. I’d like to see Walcott on the right as that would give the Gunners a constant threat. To compensate for Theo’s limited defensive skills and given the somewhat tired nature of Ramsey’s last effort, it might be interesting to have Flamini start alongside Arteta. It’d limit the team’s fluidity to an extent but the clever play would be ask both of them to concentrate on defending and sitting deep. This would free up the other more creative players to an extent and avoid the awkwardness of having someone like Flamini trying to play one-twos in tight attacking spaces. The Frenchman knows the league well – in terms of tactics and the pace of the game – so that too could be an added advantage if he starts.

Rosicky for Cazorla is another possibility worth exploring and Monreal could come in for Gibbs. The last two changes don’t give any clear tactical advantage but Rosicky is more comfortable at dropping back to retrieve the ball from the central defenders than Santi, a trait that could come in handy in the absence of Wilshere and Ramsey.

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Flamini – Walcott, Giroud, Rosicky.

A defeat in itself will be a setback but getting knocked out of the Champions League could potentially undo all the good work done thus far this season. It seems highly unlikely as long as the Gunners perform close to the level they’ve shown in recent weeks. That said, you won’t be alone if the lingering ghosts of relatively recent disappointments send a chill down your spine.

A draw will see Arsenal top the group and the players must remember their own qualities if they concede an early goal. Giving the players a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might be a good idea!

P.S. In case you were wondering, combining the match preview and detailed analysis is not the new approach i want to take, it’s just a matter of time crunch and my disinterest in repeating many points over and over again. I want to take the level of analysis a step higher without being verbose, but thus far I haven’t found concise explanations for certain observations. Appreciate your patience and support at this time.


Thoughts On Southampton And Marseille

November 26, 2013

The win against the Saints was a good one in terms of performance and obviously useful in terms of consolidating the position at the top. However, there wasn’t much in that game from an analytical point of view. It was pretty much the Arsenal we’ve seen for the most part this season.

The visitors tried pressing up the pitch but Arsenal’s midfield and technical quality in general was just too good. In the end it seemed Pochettino’s men were often chasing the ball valiantly but in vain. I doubt there were any turnovers that led to attacks on the Arsenal goal. Apart from Arsenal’s ability to move the ball, you could also see Southampton are still new at this and have a lot to learn before they master such a style of play. On a number of occasions their pressing was reactionary and individualistic rather than cohesive, although the energy, persistence, and the attempted methodical nature might still be enough to rattle most teams in the League.

Similarly, you could see their build up from the back is also a work in progress. Boruc was palpably the culprit for the first goal but any manager who wants his Keeper to play passes like an outfielder has to instruct his defenders and midfielder to provide options when the custodian has the ball. Nobody moved when Boruc was getting cornered. It was a systemic fault and I’m sure Pochettino will look to improve all aspects of his team’s play instead of relying on simplistic solutions like kick the ball away.

The Gunners were again excellent in defending as a unit. I don’t recall Southampton having any clear shots at goal. A couple of volley’s from the edge of the box were their most noteworthy moments. Of course, there is some tension when the lead is limited to a solitary goal as the possibility of a freakish equalizer can be felt in the anxious breaths of fans and players alike whenever the opponents advance to the penalty area. Then again, the tendency to concede such goals was directly linked to deficiencies in the defensive unit so solidity on that front does provide greater comfort and reliability.

The only slightly iffy moments I recall were from Arteta when he miskicked his clearance on the edge of the box and when he gave the ball away leading to that chance for Rodriguez. Mertesacker too was caught flat footed once or twice. The fact that others stepped up and covered for errors from the most reliable defensive players bodes well for the future. It’s that layering thing I’ve talked about.

The attack is still not there and I think it will take a little time to get the exact balance between protecting the goal with assurance and attacking the other end ruthlessly and efficiently. It’s happened in some games but part of that was down to the defensive quality of the opponents. Southampton were pretty well organized and worked very hard to limit opportunities for the Gunners. Even then some of the interchanges in the midfield were delightful. They are moving around well but not quite finding either the right positioning in the box, or the final ball, or the shot. Bit of that is down to luck – like hitting the post – but it’s also about probabilities. The more and better chances you create the better your probability of scoring beautiful goals. On the other hand, the team did benefit from a different form of luck. Boruc probably won’t make that mistake again and I doubt Fonte will concede another penalty of that nature. The goals Arsenal got were odd in that sense. But on the whole it was a deserved win.

Individually speaking, it’s hard to pick one outstanding player. I thought everyone played well even if Mertesacker and Arteta were maybe two percent below their usually exceptional standards. Giroud was decisive and probably deserves the man of the match award.

I don’t expect the Marseille game to be very different. The dynamic of the Champions League group has worked out in such a manner that the French side appear to be the whipping boys. But they are a pretty good team in their own right and can still cause an upset if Arsenal drop their level even by a short margin.

Elie Baup’s side are physically strong and fairly well organized. If in his boots, I’d ask the team to press Arsenal really high up the pitch like Southampton did but with greater urgency and anticipation when closing down players off the ball. They haven’t got much to lose and by giving it their all they could regain some pride. Arsenal don’t enjoy it when teams get really tight to them in a physical manner, something Southampton tried but didn’t quite succeed with. It’ll also be interesting to see if they leave at least one of their tricky wide players up the pitch and closer to the striker who was isolated at times in the reverse fixture. That would also give Valbuena greater creative possibilities. Starting without a recognized central striker and playing the extra midfielder could give Marseille greater technical balance to counter Arsenal’s main strength.

Wenger’s side have shown high levels of concentration, discipline, and structure in most of their games. Same again should limit the opportunities that the visitors can create. However, there are times when it seems Arsenal do drop a little too deep. It’s good while it works but the margin of error is very fine when you’re on the edge of your own box or just inside. It’s certainly not good for the nerves and also limits the number of counter-attacks a team can create. Dortmund, for instance, look a much more offensive side even when they’re predominantly defending because their off the ball work is aggressive and higher up the pitch. I’m watching every game hoping Arsenal will move up the pitch a bit more but for now it seems results are the priority and it’s hard to argue against that.

Wenger has the opportunity to make a couple of changes to bring fresh legs in. Flamini is available and Rosicky could be ready for another start even if the game is still too early for Walcott. But given the importance of the tie, Wenger will probably not tinker with the line up from the Southampton game.

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

If things go according to script this would be another tight game where the Gunners show that little bit of extra decisive quality in the attacking third to get three points, but I won’t be surprised if a lack of offensive efficiency proves expensive. Either way, except in the event of Marseille crumbling mentally as they’ve little to play for, I don’t expect more than one goal to separate the teams at the end.