West Brom 1 – 1 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

October 8, 2013

Was the Napoli performance a one-off or did we see the first signs of the “new Arsenal”? That was the question on many Gooner minds and I did mention my reservations in the match preview.

Wenger went with the expected line-up, making two changes to the side that won the midweek Champions League tie. They started the game slowly, kind of handbrake-ish, and it was evident within minutes that we were again going to see a cautious first half from the Gunners.

West Brom were very good at sitting on the edge of their box with their two lines right on top of each other. There was just no space in the vital central creative areas. But this wasn’t a surprise, it was something to be expected as meticulous organization is one of the core strengths of Steve Clarke.

The fragmented nature of Arsenal’s play was the unexpected bit. This season, even when the Gunners have not played as flamboyantly as they did against Napoli, most of the times the attacking players have shown good mobility and understanding in interchanging positions. In the first half on Sunday, when the ball went out to either flank, it seemed as if the players there were cut off from the centre and the opposite side. The full-back, wide midfielder, and either Özil or Giroud played a few passes between themselves in the wider areas of the attacking third but lost possession the moment they tried coming inside. That or they were just forced into going back and building again.

Arsenal FT passes comparison by half

It’s interesting to note that Arsenal actually completed more final third passes in the first half and had 87 percent accuracy in that period. In contrast, the second period saw the success rate drop to 75 percent.

The difference was in the clusters and the direction of passes. In the opening period there are two clusters in the wide areas with a lot of arrows criss-crossing each other. This indicates a lot of short passes were exchanged by players in those zones. They are relatively harmless areas from the defensive side’s point of view as long as they prevent anything dangerous coming in.

The passes that do come into central areas in front of the penalty box are mostly either square or going backwards. That usually means they were played back away from the defensive players or square in front of the second line of defence.

The second half passing was a lot more vertical in that zone. As spaces between the lines opened up Arsenal were able to ping balls into that zone even from deeper areas. And the clusters in the wider areas thin out as there is limited close passing interchange in those areas. The assist for the goal was actually a back pass but the space available to Wilshere just wasn’t there in the opening period with Yacob and Mulumbu sitting in front of the defence and wide players helping out consistently. The goal came after a quick break forward by the Gunners and the hosts just weren’t able to transition to the safety of their two lines of defence.

Rosicky’s presence on the defensive line also made a big difference. When a team sits as deep and compact as West Brom did, there is virtually no space between the lines. The way to counter this is to have more players along the defensive line alonside the striker so that vertical passes can be played towards them bypassing the first line of defence when the opportunity arises. In the first period neither Wilshere nor Ramsey provided this vertical depth to the attack. And Özil is not a player who should be expected to go up close to the striker because his game is best when looking at such players and finding them rather than being highest up the pitch and looking back towards his own goal.

Rosicky’s introduction was, therefore, the logical choice because the Czech star provides two very useful qualities. He can drive at the defence and combine with the striker who is playing with his back to goal and he can join up as an auxiliary striker. It was the second role that got him the assist. Like most fans I guess, I was expecting Wilshere to make way but Wenger took Ramsey off, probably simply because of the Englishman’s fresher legs after a bit of a breather in the previous game.

It was good to see Wilshere on the right side, a flank I think he can thrive at from an offensive point of view because there’s greater scope for dribbling, and with a more open body position on his favoured foot he has better passing and shooting options. This was exemplified by the shot for the goal and the pass for Giroud, both of which would have been harder to execute for him when cutting in from the left. If he has to play on the flank, I’d rather he played on the right.

At the other end West Brom did create a few chances but the most noteworthy ones came in the second half. Given how deep they were defending, Arsenal should really have had them pinned back with coordinated pressing, but the Gunners simply did not have any cohesion to press high up the pitch. This allowed the hosts to move forward repeatedly and they did create some promising moments in the wide areas which resulted in corners, set-pieces, and crosses. They looked threatening on many but, as stated often, it was still an inefficient approach.

Szczesny’s biggest save of the first half was one from a deflection rather than a great chance. The nature of the goal conceded must have disappointed Wenger and Bould. It was way too soft.

But their bigger concerns must surely come from the opportunities conceded in the second half as Anelka twice had the goal handed to him on a plate. It’s worth noting that even with all the recent hype around Flamini and the proven defensive work of Arteta, Arsenal were not able to prevent some genuinely threatening counter-attacks from materializing.

To me that was evidence of gaps at the back that the Gunners still have to address in training. There are many who suggest that only one of Flamini and Arteta should play yet here we saw the goal exposed even with both in the side.  They cannot afford to be picked apart with such ease when chasing a game or it won’t always end in a respectable stalemate.

In the end this seemed like a fair result. The Gunners had a bit of luck with Anelka fluffing his gilt-edged chances but Giroud repaid some of that debt. The penalty non-call for that tackle on Wilshere was unfortunate but in keeping with Lee Mason’s overly lenient approach, which did benefit the hosts more than it did the visitors.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Made an excellent save in the first half and another sharp one in the second. Was good to see he has learnt from some mistakes when he backtracked and got into a good position instead of charging out to tackle Anelka. One of his better performances on the whole.

Jenkinson: His crossing and decision making in attacking areas was below par. The second chance for Anelka came from a weak header by the youngster. Inconsistent with his positioning. Not one of his memorable outings.

Mertesacker: Passing was again reliable. Positioning was helpful, particularly to Jenkinson who left the right flank exposed at times. Never had the pace to catch Anelka once the striker got in behind.

Koscielny: Another one who made safe, reliable passing choices. Was busier of the two defenders in terms of need for making interceptions, clearances, etc. Was largely faultless. Not sure if he played Anelka on when the striker got in behind. If so, that would be a very avoidable and potentially game-losing error.

Gibbs: Had a tough time against Amalfitano and more so when Sessegnon moved to that side as well but he handled most of the challenges commendably. Probably some rushed passes were the only minor blemishes. Should have crossed the ball for Giroud instead of taking that shot early on.

The back four should have had an easier game but they had to work harder because Arsenal allowed the hosts to come forward time and again. They also struggled a bit in the second half when they had to push up. Mertesacker’s lack of pace will be a concern in such instances. I don’t know what the organization was supposed to be for the second ball in from the corner but it was largely the fault of the defensive players who should be taking charge of the situation.

Ramsey: Work rate was again top notch but efficiency was below his recent high standards. Wasn’t able to move into the right attacking areas. I thought this was a game where playing right up alongside Giroud every now and again would have helped him and the team.

Arteta: Getting back to his reliable self. Would have loved to see where his shot in the first half ended had it not deflected away off Giroud. It was interesting that he stayed deeper of the two defensive midfielders.

Özil: Another game that was more about graft than craft. Another display that said he’s ready for it and maybe even relishing it. The move for the goal began with his battling in midfield. Did a lot of work, some of it of the coarse variety but he had his silken moments too. That chance created for Giroud stands out but he was generally very smooth in possession.

Flamini: Often joined the more attack minded players but wasn’t really able to contribute to the creativity. Good to see he’s raised his passing standards and maintains them high on a consistent basis. Defensive work rate and energy were useful as always.

Wilshere: The foul magnet thing can be a problem when the ref is reverse polarized. Had a hard time in the first half as he rarely found space and was constantly in physical battles. Wasn’t able to move diagonally or horizontally to link with the play on the right or central areas. Much more effective in the second half. The  goal was somewhat fortuitous but the power on the shot was commendable. The pass for Giroud was just sublime.

Rosicky: Brought qualities to the team that others didn’t have. Picked up a useful assist and was involved with most of Arsenal’s purposeful offensive play despite playing only the final half-hour of the game.

The midfield was a tad disjointed and lackadaisical in the first half. They upped the ante in the second period and created quite a few chances but also left the defence exposed. Probably one of their weakest displays of the season as a unit though not quite as bad as the opening day shambles.

Giroud: Work rate continues to help the team as his run and hold up play before the goal showed. Should have taken at least one of the two chances. A more instinctive scorer might have taken a first-time shot from Wilshere’s pass after opening up his body. Had more time than he realized, something that needs to improve, from the Özil pass. This was the kind of game where he comes across as an eager to learn and hard working young striker, reminding us of his late development.

Bendtner: Saw very little of the ball.

Wenger: The confidence isn’t quite up the level needed and part of it is down to the fact that Arsenal become very open at the back when they do push forward in numbers. The side is much better defensively when dropping back as a unit but they still have to show they can dominate the ball and control chances when playing in the opposition half for large periods.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against West Brom

October 6, 2013

This is Arsenal’s second visit to the Hawthorns in a couple of weeks but the demands this time around will be completely different. Both manager’s changed bulk of their side for the Capital One Cup encounter but they should field the strongest available line-up for this one. The manner in which the Gunners defeated Napoli also adds to the expectations. Wenger’s team won five away games at the end of last season after the win in Munich. They’ve already picked up wins when revisiting Fulham and Swansea. West Brom are also part of that list. Throw in the opportunity to go into the international break leading the League and the pressure, hopefully of the positive kind, should be high.

Steve Clarke did well in his debut season as a top flight boss. By basing his side on his own strengths, the Scot has given them a stable and reliable platform. Stints as assistant under some big name managers, chief among them being Mourinho, has given Clarke an excellent grip on the defensive aspects of the game.

We can expect West Brom to be extremely compact at the back with two banks of four or even with an extra attacker dropping into midfield to make it five. They like to defend with the back four around the edge of their penalty area with the first line of defence a few yards further ahead. The meticulousness with which Clarke organizes the spacing between his lines and the interlinked movement of the defensive players to constantly provide cover for each other have given them a strong defensive record and allows them to get results where other comparable teams might struggle.

There might not be the same hype around the Baggies as there was with Napoli but it’s quite likely the Gunners will find it harder to score at the Hawthorns than they did in midweek. It’ll be a delightful surprise if they come out flying and are able to settle  the game in the first 15-20 minutes.

McAuley and Olsson are not the quickest of defenders but they work very well in the tight knit defensive unit of West Brom because their weaknesses are covered and strengths brought to the fore. Both are good at attacking crosses and staying tight to the striker. Usually, there is very little space behind them or even in front so their vertical mobility is rarely tested. Giroud might have a very hard time finding space in this game but his performance is also going to be vital for the Gunners because he can contribute to the quick one-touch play in the attacking areas and drag the central defenders away from their comfort zone.

Mulumbu and Yacob offer physicality, discipline, and stamina in front of the back four with the wide players and attackers also pulling their weight.

No defence is going to be watertight for the duration of ninety minutes. I believe that one of the measures of the quality of a defensive side is the speed at which they can shut the openings after the movement and passing of the opposition attack has created one. West Brom rate fairly high in this regard. Space and time, between the lines and in creatively vital central areas, will be at a premium. Wenger’s side have the diversity and quality to score against pretty much any defence but this will surely be another test of the pace and precision of Arsenal’s attack. Even a five percent drop in offensive quality will make things noticeably harder for the Gunners.

The Baggies are not exactly famous for their rapid counter-attacks but in Sessegnon and Amalfitano they have two players with enough individual quality to punish a team that makes errors at the back. Berahino, too, looks like a promising prospect while further up Anichebe, Anelka, and Long all bring Premier League experience and other useful qualities to the side.

With Sagna missing, Clarke might place one of his mercurial offensive players on the left flank with instructions to attack Jenkinson or the space behind him if the youngster bombs forward repeatedly. For West Brom the best chance of scoring might come from isolating their key attackers against the Arsenal defence in a two-v-two or three-v-three (even one-v-one but that would need a massive mess up from the Gunners). That and set-pieces where the aerial strengths of their defenders will be a constant threat.

Arsenal have kept only one clean sheet in the Premier League and I don’t expect them to add to that on Sunday.

The team selection is bit of a tossup. Wenger has a few options at his disposal. He could keep the Flamini-Arteta duo in central midfield if he wants greater assurance, although that might seem overly defensive for this game.

Wilshere could come back into the starting eleven on the left. It’s not an ideal position for him and he is not in the best of form but it’s very hard to keep a player of that potential out of the starting eleven for too long a period.

Ramsey could come back into the middle, stay on the right, or get a breather like Jack did in the last game. Rosicky could man either flank or he might drop back to the bench.

Monreal is another player who deserves more minutes but will Wenger disrupt the balance on both flanks?

All-in-all, this is a hard line-up to predict but there are a few permutations that  could all work well.

I’d probably only make a couple of changes,

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Ramsey, Arteta, Özil, Flamini, Wilshere – Giroud

Before games like this it’s not hard to see why Wenger often tells his team to just play the way they always do. They’ve shown enough quality all over the pitch to deal with everything the hosts could throw at them. But over the last few seasons there have been so many mishaps that I, for one, will always have some questions marks at the back of my mind even when things looks straightforward until we see consistency for at least one whole season.

The question is not whether the Gunners are good enough to win this game. They so obviously are. The question is can they win such games again, and again, and again… Can they get three points every time they’re the favourites and quite often even when they are not? To answer this question in affirmative we have to wait and watch till May. On the other hand, the negative answer could come in any game. As they say, getting to the top is easy, the hard part is in staying there.


Arsenal 2 – 0 West Brom: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

December 9, 2012

A positive result, finally! An entertaining and enjoyable game to go with that, great! On Sunday one of my closest friends celebrates his birthday and wedding anniversary. Thanks to the Gunners it’s going to be a great day.

Arsene went a bit direct with two quick wingers on the flank. The strategy worked and the Gunners dominated the game while creating many chances for which, I thought, two factors were mainly responsible.

Firstly, Arsenal’s pressing in this game was excellent. They shed all inhibitions and harried the visitors deep in their own half. West Brom have among the lowest Possession and Pass Accuracy numbers in the League and they genuinely struggled to hold on to the ball.

To go with that, I also felt Steve Clarke didn’t have a very clear approach to this game. His side was neither pressing up the pitch to prevent or slow down Arsenal’s  build-up, nor were they structurally solid at the back like a team that expects a barrage of attacks. This meant the Gunners could play at a high tempo almost at will.

As a result, the Gunners found it easy to take the ball to the final third where they then had plenty of space to work the combinations. The wingers were able to run at defenders and skip past them. They, Gervinho in particular, were also able to drift into useful areas in the middle.

Despite all that, it was clear the Gunners were still nervy in the final third and their ability to produce the decisive moments was questionable. At this point the help from the ref was vital. There is just no way to justify the penalty call but we’ve seen Arsenal suffer from bad decisions in previous seasons so I’m happy about all the big calls that have gone in favour of the Gunners this season. Yes, there was contact but the replays could easily be used as the definition of negligible.

Arteta buried it calmly but somehow I had a feeling he lacked a bit of conviction when taking it. That’s not to say he can’t take penalties, just that I sensed some doubt in his body language.

Arsenal had created a number of promising moments either side of the goal but the finishing was disappointing. West Brom only moment came just before the Arsenal goal but Brunt’s curled attempt didn’t hit the target.

In the second half, it seemed to me that Clarke’s men came out with greater purpose and tried responding to Arsenal’s tempo. Till the time the second goal was scored in the 64th minute, the game was fairly even. Both teams created a couple of half-chances but nothing worth taking a second look.

The Gunners got the cushion of a second thanks again, in part, to the referee who let play continue when it looked like Oxlade-Chamberlain had committed a foul after losing the ball to a poor touch. There wasn’t a doubt about the penalty decision itself but we’ve seen Wenger moan about a foul in the build-up often enough to know that these things matter.

Again it was Arteta. Again he went down the middle. This time I felt he was has a bit more surety and the finish looked emphatic. The Spaniard’s technique is superb and he is good at set-pieces in general, so he should be a good penalty-taker, but without confidence technique can be worthless. Hopefully, these two goals will give calm his nerves and he’ll be able to deliver on a consistent basis.

In the final 20 minutes or so the Gunners focussed on keeping a clean sheet. But it was still Arsenal who created the better chances, particularly after Wilshere moved up the pitch following the introduction of Coquelin.

West Brom did have one gilt-edged opportunity late in the game, which again arose from a set-piece, but Lukaku couldn’t hit the target. I won’t be surprised if the Belgian has one of the worst, if not the worst, conversion rates for high quality chances in the League this season.

At the end of the day Arsenal looked like the team that deserved the three points. They could easily have scored five. But the fact also remains that apart from the penalties the Gunners only had one other shot on target. On another day this could easily have been a frustrating draw or a late defeat. The margins are very fine at this level.

Nevertheless, the nature of Arsenal’s pressing, the quality of chances created, the combination play in the attacking areas, and the ability to restrict the opponents from creating many opportunities were all appreciable and pleasing aspects of this game.

At the same time, one has to be careful not to read too much into one performance. We need to see this for 6,8,maybe 10 games in a row before saying Arsenal are back. In this game, there is no doubt West Brom’s technical and tactical weaknesses contributed just as much to Arsenal’s dominance as their own play did.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: One of his easiest days in the League.

Sagna: Had a good defensive game with a number of useful aerial challenges. Wasn’t really tested on the ground. Put in an odd good cross but attacking contribution was otherwise limited. Had a more of a sweeping game on the right where he picked up balls that were knocked forward or cleared.

Mertesacker: Dominant in the air against a team that didn’t have the biggest attack in physical terms, steady with his positioning and distribution.

Vermaelen: Another one who had a fairly comfortable game at the back. I liked the way he tried creating something with purposeful balls from the back.

Gibbs: Got into advanced positions often but his crossing still needs a lot of work, but the observation equally applies to Arsenal’s style. Many crosses were played into the box when one or two attackers were hopelessly outnumbered. Surprisingly, West Brom didn’t target his flank as other teams have.

The back five were largely untroubled. There were some moments of concern, especially from set-pieces when the visitors got on the end of the deliveries rather easily. Their wastefulness helped the defence.

Arteta: Another MotM effort from Mr. Reliable. Excellent on the ball, strong defensive shift, took responsibility and delivered from the spot.

Cazorla: It would have been another high quality effort from the Spaniard but the dive for the penalty was disappointing. Have the coaching staff been showing him a lot of Bale and Rooney videos?

Wilshere: As AW said, the zip is coming back. He also looked very impressive in the final third late in the game after Coquelin came on. But there are still many rough edges. Finishing, Final ball, and decision making will all improve with time and experience.

The midfield didn’t have much pressure when bringing the ball out from the back. They were able to control the pace of the game and bring the attacking players into the game regularly. Defensive work was useful, particularly all the aggressive pressing that was done higher up the pitch.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Had a number of promising moments on the right and put some useful balls into the box. It was an efficient game for him where he didn’t see much of the ball but found space when he did. Did well to beat the challenge of Brunt in order to win the penalty but there was a genuine shout for a foul by him just before that.

Giroud: Movement was decent but I thought he was a little late to react to some passes/cutbacks from the wider areas. Distribution and link play was average. Was a good target man and hold up play was useful. Hasn’t had a shot on target in his last 330 mins in League football. There was also this observation about Giroud wanting to take the second penalty and not celebrating the goal. I didn’t see it and can’t vouch for it’s accuracy.

Gervinho: Movement was excellent, finishing was the exact opposite. Looked like he wanted to take more responsibility and make things happen. It worked for him as spaces and time was available even in the final third. Created a very good chance for Wilshere but more is expected.

The front three had decent games given the time and space available to them. Part of it was down to their movement and individual qualities and part of it to the opposition’s weaknesses. All three remain players who have a lot to prove but this game should be good for their confidence.

Subs: Still don’t know how Podolski missed that chance. Rosicky got a few more minutes under his belt. Coquelin’s arrival liberated Wilshere.

Wenger: Got the team flowing again but this needs to be sustained over a run of games, arguably till the end of the season, as too many points have already been lost. Can’t overemphasize the importance of pressing higher up the pitch, that’s another aspect that needs to be sustained and improved upon. The search for balance is ongoing but this might be a big step in the right direction.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against West Brom

December 8, 2012

West Brom have been a bit of a surprise this season. Studying their macro-level stats does not give the impression that this is a team competing for the top four places after 15 games of the season. Steve Clarke’s side are 4th from bottom in terms of possession with an average of 43.5 percent. They’re 13th in pass accuracy, which is less than 80 percent. The Baggies are 14th in shots per game with 12.7 and concede 15.7 shots per game which is worse than 14 other teams. 13 teams make more tackles than West Brom while 17 make more interceptions.

Even if we dig deep into these numbers, there isn’t much that says West Brom are competing at the level of the bigger teams. But the simple and most important fact is that they have 26 points after 15 games and are 5th in the table only on goal difference as they’re level on points with Chelsea and Spurs. That too after two successive defeats in the last two weeks.

Clarke and his players are doing something right for sure. The simplest way to explain their game, although this doesn’t do them complete justice, is to say that they’re an efficient team that works hard in defence and controls the quality of chances they concede while being effective with their limited attacking forays.

Steve Clarke has worked under Mourinho and the influence is clearly visible. The Baggies often look extremely comfortable without the ball as their organization is impeccable. The way they maintain the spacing between the players; the off-the-ball decision making of individuals i.e. when to close an opponent down, when to hold, etc.; manner of protecting the vital central areas by denying time and space to opponents; and other such details point to meticulous planning and diligent training.

However, their tactics make the players chase the ball a lot and as a result they seem to tire towards the end of games. This stat is telling – If games lasted 80 minutes in the Premier League, West Brom would be second.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Gunners approach this game. Ideally, one would want to see them come out aggressively and play higher up the pitch with consistent pressure on the ball. But pressing high up the pitch has just not clicked this season and that invariably leaves the defence vulnerable. That in turn has led to the defenders and midfield dropping back deeper inside the Arsenal half, which has given the opponents more time and space to build their attacks. The Gunners have generally defended well when they drop back but there has been a noticeable effect on the attack as effective transitions from deep have been rare.

Arsenal’s build-up play has also been laborious at times as the midfield does not have the right balance. The load on Arteta has been high as we’ve discussed in earlier posts. West Brom could exploit this by having someone like Morrison marking the Spaniard. By doing that, many teams have been able to control the Gunners in the central third of the pitch.

Having said that, I doubt West Brom will push higher up the pitch unless they’re chasing the game. The visitors will try to minimize the space behind their defenders and in the central areas in front of goal. Once again, Arsenal will have to find some creative moments from the flanks. In many games, the full-backs or even the wide players have gotten into useful attacking positions but their final ball hasn’t been very good. This has to improve or it could be a comfortable day for the Baggies.

At the back, Arsenal will have to watch out for quick transitions, particularly down the flanks. West Brom also have a good aerial threat and many players who can shoot from distance. Not only will the Gunners be tested from set-pieces, they’ll have to quickly close down shooting opportunities after the first ball has been cleared. Long’s energetic running can cause concerns if the defenders have one of those unfortunate slips when in possession.

I’m not sure what the injury situation is. Team News says Podolski and Walcott are out while Sagna and Koscielny are not back. But the German and the French full-back can be seen in the pictures from the training session. I’m assuming they were just involved in some light work and will not be risked.

That means Wenger basically has to decide between Gervinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Ramsey. All three have their strengths and weaknesses but none of them have done enough to justify automatic selection.

Rosicky’s fitness will have an impact on team selection. Hopefully, he’ll be fit enough to start even if he isn’t ready to finish the game. His ability to thread balls through will bring the direct player on the flank into the game in a purposeful manner. The Czech star will also be able to provide meaningful service to Giroud. The alternate option is to have him on the bench in case the game is close late on but I’d prefer a start as Arsenal have to impose themselves on the game from the beginning.

If Little Mozart is fit, I’d be tempted to push Cazorla to the left, Rosicky up the pitch centrally, and Gervinho on the right. But I’ve a feeling that Arsene will play TR7 on the flank if he’s deemed fit enough to start.

Possible line-up,

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Wilshere, Cazorla – Gervinho, Giroud, Rosicky.

With that starting eleven, bulk of the creativity would have to come from the left and central areas. Gervinho should look to make runs in behind on the right or diagonally across the box depending on the availability of space.

One would expect Rosicky and Cazorla to switch places occasionally, and even Wilshere could also join in to make it a very fluid midfield, but they’ll have to ensure the defence isn’t left open. The problem has been one of balance. Keep an eye on the tussle between Mulumbu and Wilshere.

Arsenal’s recent home record has been disappointing. W3 D4 L3 does not make for pleasant reading. It is understandable that many fans will be cautiously optimistic at best. Right now it’s more about hope than genuine belief. It’s up to the players to change that with their performances.


Arsenal 3 – 0 West Brom: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

November 6, 2011

3 Goals. 3 Points. A Clean Sheet. Should make the upcoming fortnight very pleasant for Gooners around the world.

Arsene’s team selection was very much along the expected lines. Indeed, Le Boss mentioned that the reason for picking Koscielny and Vermaelen in the defence was to counter the anticipated pace threat of Odemwinge.

I expected [Peter] Odemwingie to play so I opted for two centre-backs who are quick. In the end he didn’t play but they worked very well together.

I must say it worked quite well. Can you recall the visitors getting any shot on goal in the opening 45? Either the Baggies were getting caught off-side or the centre-backs intercepted passes to the lone forward.

The opening 20 minutes or so were dull. The Gunners had all the possession but the visitors looked fairly safe at the back. Most of the balls into the box were coming from the wide areas and there wasn’t enough cohesion in the attack to make those count.

It all changed in the 22nd minute after a quick free-kick taken just inside the West Brom half. Ramsey received the pass and threaded an early through-ball for Walcott to run onto. Theo looked for support but even his teammates were left behind by his blazing run. From a narrow angle the England international hit the target and went for the gap between Foster’s legs. The West Brom Keeper was able to keep the ball out but was helpless as Van Persie bundled in the loose ball from close range. Ramsey deserves credit for quick thinking and execution; Walcott for his run, control, and strike; and RvP for his poacher’s instincts.

That took the pressure off and the players lost any edginess they might have been feeling. The game returned to similar patters from the initial minutes but now the onus was on the visitors and they didn’t provide any real tests.

Vermaelen provided the second goal cushion in the 39th minute. It came from a corner situation. Finally! While the initial delivery was cleared, Arsenal sustained pressure around the box. Song got on the ball on the left side and played it out to the back post towards Van Persie. The Dutchman squared it for Gervinho but it seemed a little behind the Ivorian who flicked it away from the defender. The ball went across the face of the goal when the Belgian pounced and placed is just away from the Keeper. Once again a number of Gunners were involved in the goal.

West Brom came out with greater desire in the second half and actually had ten attempts on goal but got only two on target which drew routine saves from Szczesny.

Arsenal looked like they’d shifted to second gear but the midfield worked hard in front of the defence. The Gunners were occasionally creating some chances and looked more likely to increase their lead than to concede one. Vermaelen, Ramsey, and Van Persie missed the target from decent chances while Song forced a save from Foster.

The third goal was scored by Arteta as he arrived on the edge of the box at just the right moment. Rosicky, who’d just come on for Ramsey, played a vital role in creating the goal as did RvP who got the assist. I was impressed by the way Arteta caressed the ball into the corner. Once again at least three players showed their quality in the build-up an finish.

After that it was just a matter of seeing the game out. West Brom saw a lot of the ball and got up to the Arsenal penalty area but didn’t create any clear cut chances.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Didn’t have much to do.

Jenkinson: Put in some excellent crosses, went up and down the flank tirelessly, positioning was quite good in the defensive areas.

Koscielny: Was always in control. I enjoyed his confidence and one particular run that took him right up to the opposition box after starting from the defensive third.

Vermaelen: Took his goal well. Went really close with another header. Dominated his area of the pitch.

Santos: I liked his physical strength in defensive areas. Made very good runs but didn’t quite get the right pass. Still there are times when he gets caught out of position on the left and is slow to recover.

The back five were largely untroubled. The visitors were caught off-side regularly. The attacks were also snuffed out with Arsenal consistently outnumbering the forward players. When the ball did get to the final third the central defenders marshalled the area in front of goal and prevented any open chances. There were some half-chances from set-pieces and on another day it might have been a different story but that will take time.

Song: Typical Song performance.

Ramsey: I thought he was struggling with his passing but then he produced the defence splitting pass that led to the first goal. I would love to know his distance covered stats. Seems like he gets everywhere.

Arteta: Good to see him on the score sheet again. The Spaniard can contribute a few more goals from that area of the pitch as his shooting technique is top class. Spread the ball well and did his defensive duties.

Wenger has tweaked some of the midfield roles and this trio is getting better and better with every game. Ramsey played a key pass for the first goal, Song for the second, Arteta got the third. While bulk of their work was non-glamorous and workmanlike, all three are influencing games in their own way.

Walcott: Wasn’t very impressive in the opening 20 minutes but as Arsene has observed, he can be a very efficient player when the right pass arrives. I did feel he could have done better by hugging the touchline rather than cutting inwards against a fullback who preferred staying narrow.

RvP: Another goal with an assist to boot. The goal looked easy but his instincts were sharp. Many strikers would not have reached that ball. Also led from the front on the composure and work rate fronts.

Gervinho: Made a number of runs down the middle without really getting or creating excellent chances but kept going and his resilience must be appreciated. Got a vital touch and should get the assist for the second goal.

The front three weren’t as threatening against a packed defence but found different ways to contribute. Can’t really ask for more game after game.

Subs: Rosicky looked lively in the attacking areas. Benayoun and Arshavin didn’t have much to do but the Israeli captain put in a decent defensive shift.

Wenger: Seems like a straightforward win once it is achieved but would have been criticized for not rotating enough if the team failed to get a win.


Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against West Brom

November 5, 2011

There is a mini-trend that Arsenal just have to curb. The Gunners have gone into the previous two international breaks on the back of defeats – United and Spurs – that have made the fortnight unbearable. It will be nice to have a positive feeling during the upcoming disruption. That means only a win will be the acceptable result at the Emirates against the Baggies.

The visitors had a tough start to the season losing their first three, and four out of the opening five.  Since then they have improved and the loss against Liverpool last week was their only one in the previous five league games.

Hodgson’s side have a better away record than their home form with wins against Norwich and Villa on the road. More interestingly, their opening two losses came against Manchester United and Chelsea in games that were closely fought, especially considering the gap between the sides that one would expect. Arsenal will not have it all their way at the Emirates.

This could be an interesting tactical battle. Hodgson has faced Arsene in the Premier League with four different sides and has achieved a fair bit of success, especially with Fulham. West Brom will not be too dissimilar. Fulham relied a lot on a coordinated pressing effort in the middle third but Arsenal have retained the ball appreciably in the recent games, resisting the pressure applied by quality opponents. If West Brom try the same, they could be clinically dismantled. In this game we might see a more narrow defence that is happy to sit deeper.

However, there are some interesting numbers that could give us a hint about the visitors’ approach. They have collected seven of their total eleven points away from home. And five of their nine goals have come in the opening 10 minutes. We could see early pressure from the Baggies with the hope of forcing a mistake. Subsequently, with or without a goal, they’d ease off and drop back relying largely on counter-attacks and set-pieces.

The best way of disrupting their tactics is, of course, to score early. If Wenger sets his midfield up to absorb this pressure without conceding possession, has one wide player making central runs and another supporting Van Persie, Arsenal could take an early lead in this game which will take the pressure off and change the tactical dynamics. If Song and Arteta push up early on we could see the midfield getting caught in a no-man’s land leading to difficult moments in the defensive third.

Last season West Brom managed 3-0 and 2-0 leads. Those were lethargic performances with a number of individual errors. Arsenal were exposed on the counter-attacks, from a long ball, and via a set-piece. The defence has been better off late but question marks will hang over the back five until a long, solid run is put together.

By and large there should be enough quality in the Arsenal squad to see this one through. Then again, last season I was expecting an easy win so these days caution is the key mantra in my head.

Wenger does have some choices to make in his team selection and it must be a welcome headache for Le Boss. He will have to pick two from Koscielny, Mertesacker, and Vermaelen. The German complements the other two so from a balance point of view either pairing would work. However, I feel West Brom’s biggest threat is on the break and having two quick players like Vermaelen and Koscielny can be an interesting tactical choice. Some might say Vermaelen has already played too much just after returning from injury so the regular pairing of Koscielny and Mertesacker would work best. I guess such a decision is best left to the Boss.

In the middle Song, Ramsey, and Arteta are showing the benefits of playing together. I can’t see any reason for disrupting that combination unless there is a genuine fitness concern. Rosicky, Benayoun, and the others will have to bide their time. Ramsey had a poor game at the Hawthornes last season just after returning from injury. It will be nice if he can put a strong performance in this one.

Up front, Van Persie will obviously get his place back. The choice would be between Theo, Gervinho, and Arshavin. Again I don’t expect any changes unless one of the wide players is tired. Walcott would be the most likely candidate for a breather in that case.

Probable line-up,

Szczesny – Jenkinson, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Santos – Song, Ramsey, Arteta – Theo, RvP, Gervinho.

Here’s to a pleasant fortnight.


Analysis Of Some Interesting Situations From The West Brom Game – Part II

March 30, 2011

Before I begin, I just want to take the opportunity thank everyone who sent me supportive emails over the last couple of weeks. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to reply to everyone individually. The Gooner empire is going through a difficult period and everyone has their own way of dealing with it. There was a time when I got actively involved in the discussions but now it seems pointless to go through the same arguments over and over again. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing but just that I’ll try to keep it about football and analysis of the details of the game rather than opinions on individuals even though that seems to be the popular thing to do at the moment.

Coming back to the game against West Brom, I wanted to talk about a couple of other observations I had.

 

Click on the image to view a larger version

The first image is from the build up to the moment when Van Persie hit the bar and Ramsey couldn’t score from the rebound.

What I noticed about this move was that Clichy actually made a run on the inside channel. Full-backs these days don’t do this on a regular basis and I guess there must be a good reason for that. But there are times when I feel such runs can be extremely useful in opening the opposition up. Evra is one player who does create and utilize such situations rather well.

I was happy that Clichy moved in with the ball from the Arsenal half before playing it to Arshavin on the wing and continuing on his run. Hopefully we will see more of this from Sagna as well. Both Frenchmen did use this tactic and excelled in the 07-08 season but that used to be in a 4-4-2 formation.

In that year the understanding between the wide midfielders and the full-backs was impeccable. If this game is a sign that those movements are coming back it can only lead to a massive improvement in Arsenal’s attacking options.

There was another move in that game which gave me some food for thought. This came just after the half-hour mark. Clichy got the ball on the left inside the Arsenal half. He moved forward with it and played it to Van Persie who had come deep and wide. The Dutchman rolled it first time to Arshavin, who squared it to Ramsey in acres of space. The following snapshot captures this moment.

 

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It’s interesting to note that when Ramsey is about to get the ball there is a great deal of space behind the WBA left-back and central defender. Nasri is free, wide on the right but is also pretty static. Sagna is jogging forward.

Now I’m not sure why Nasri didn’t make a run into this space. It should not have been too tough for Ramsey to find a pass into such a vacant area. Granted, at least one of the defenders would have gotten back to track the Frenchman, but with this kind of space who wouldn’t back Samir to dribble past his man?

I’m fairly certain if it had been Cesc in place of Rambo, Nasri would have been off in a flash. We have seen that combination work quite often. So was this opportunity missed because Ramsey hasn’t played regularly and Nasri didn’t know what to expect?

It’s difficult to say exactly what went on. There are many players involved and each has multiple decisions to make. Any one, if out of sync, could break the move.

In this case what eventually happened was that Rambo took a couple of touches while running square. Then he passed it across to Sagna who’d moved forward. Ultimately the winger and full-back were hemmed into a blind alley.

 

Click on the image to view a larger version

Arsenal get into such positions on the wings quite often. Very rarely does something come out of it and when it does it’s usually due to some individual magic by Cesc, who always seems to be around when needed.

Those who’ve been reading my match reports regularly will know that I often talk about switching flanks at pace or moving the ball at a faster tempo. The above situation is a classic example where moving the ball from the left to the right without many touches could have led to an incisive attack. But for that to happen all the players need to be on the same page and that’s not easy to achieve when there are so many changes to the starting eleven due to injuries and other reasons.

In such cases the functional approach of Fergie and other managers could come in handy. It’s not easy to get in behind teams that are defending deep. If the wide players are under instructions to be alert for such runs when the ball is on the other flank it could speed up the moves. Not only would it lead to more threatening moments, it will also create space for the full-back to run into thereby creating two good options for the man on the ball. As I said in the previous article, Wilshere, Ramsey, Cesc, and even Rosicky are capable of finding the runner when they have that kind of space and time on the ball in the middle of the park.

While it can’t be completely eliminated, such tactics will also reduce the number of times the Gunners run into cul-de-sacs on the wings before passing it backwards.

I want to end with a disclaimer which seems very important in the current climate. Such articles are not meant to prove that Wenger is tactically clueless or that some players don’t know what they are doing. They’re certainly not intended to imply that I can see certain things on the pitch that the manager, his staff, or the players can’t. Only the extremely ignorant can fool themselves into believing such self-indulgent notions.

Football is a dynamic game and a lot goes on that we tend to miss. I’m just trying to discuss some observations and I have no doubt the coaching staff and the players do the same. It could be that what they try doesn’t always work out. It could also be that they might have a genuine blind spot somewhere or a completely different way of looking at these things.

Personally, I’m off the opinion that Arsenal could do with some changes/additions to the coaching staff. I also feel there is room for the team to improve on the tactical front. But I try not to disrespect the people who have been at the club for years and have worked hard sincerely. And I never assume it’s as simple as saying “use more width”, “put in more crosses”, and stuff like that. That only works in pundit-land not in real world football management.