Arsenal once again undone by its old nemesis: the counter-attack

March 13, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Posted in Arsenal | Leave a comment
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Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal (FA Cup)

Because football isn’t ice-skating and you don’t get points for artistic merit, results have always mattered more than style. The counter-attack was once deemed as a Machiavellian ploy; when Herbert Chapman first devised the W-M formation and ultimately popularised the counter-attack as a primary form of strategy, the FA were quick to hand him a cryptic warning against what they thought was the “right way to play.” But nowadays it’s seen as the most effective way of achieving a win – and those chances enhancing greater against teams that prefer aesthetics over pragmatism.

At Old Trafford on Saturday, Manchester United was always going to play one way against Arsenal, especially with a host of personnel either unfit or deemed not worthy of the occasion to be risked. Sir Alex Ferguson’s selection certainly surprised a few many as he named a midfield comprising of three full-backs but it was quickly evident that any potential shortcomings were to be covered up by Sir Alex’s famed “never say die” attitude, steely determination and belligerent organisation. And in that respect, this battle was to be undertaken in a vein we’ve seen all too often before when these two sides meet, despite the unfamiliar team selection.

United sat deep and countered excellently, taking advantage of any gaps in Arsenal’s backline with a rapid commitment of bodies forward into the box. Arséne Wenger may have bemoaned his side’s luck at the end of the game but having been on the wrong end of United’s devastating breaks in each of the last two seasons, you would have thought he would have devised a strategy by now to guard against such attacks. But on the other hand, his team selection on paper looked far stronger than Manchester United’s and therefore it would be difficult to fault the Frenchman for trusting his side’s technical superiority to prevail on the night.

Initially it looked like it might be a mismatch as Arsenal monopolised possession and United failed to break through The Gunners’ structured organisation. Countless passes from the back were directed to nowhere while Arsenal just continued prompting and probing. However, that’s when United realised there was no way they could compete with Arsenal in the middle of the park and thus, they retreated deeper. But it was Wayne Rooney who instigated the first telling tactical move of the match as he proceeded to drop deeper into the midfield to collect the ball, this allowing the Da Silva twins to get forward with more freedom.

Rooney was detailed before the match to help Manchester United to make a five in midfield whenever they lost the ball but a chance from Rafael on fifteen minutes convinced him it was best that he remained a permanent member of the centre. His forays into midfield gave United an extra man and when they won the ball, Fabio and Rafael could spring forward to make a three with Javier Hérnandez in attack. It particularly worked also because Arsenal committed both full-backs forward and with each attack soacked up by Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling, were able to take advantage of the gaps in the channels. For the first goal, Hérnandez and Fabio drifted into the vacant full-back positions to shoot home. Ferguson stripped Rooney off the selfless running in the second-half by brining on Antonio Valencia and immediately, it brought dividends as the England striker headed home from another counter-attack as the left-sided forward.

For Arsenal it was all too familiar and once again, weaknesses in its game denied them of the chance at another trophy. Wenger pointed to the fact that Arsenal had “control of the game” however in the modern game, teams can also have control without the ball. Indeed, that is part of his argument as to how the referee “killed the game” against Barcelona as he felt his side has put their opponents in the position it wanted dur to the way it defended.

In that game, Barcelona showed Arsenal how to defend without the ball and it was evident at Old Trafford, that their was just no intensity in the press. Arsenal looked too committed in ensuring their structure was in place when United had the ball in defence but at 2-0 and the game to be saved, the lack of urgency proved costly. At different moments, Denilson, Andrey Arshavin and the ever excellent Jack Wilshere urged their side to push forward and close more aggressively but without the support of those around, it was destined to fail. Robin van Persie in particular showed little intensity but it’d be easy to point to scapegoats; the whole team must commit to the press, nevertheless, van Persie sets the tempo and should have taken more responsibility.

It’s hard, however, to see how pressing on it’s own could have stopped United exploiting on the break as it did. Sir Alex Ferguson was comfortable with leaving two or three of his outfield players up the pitch because he was confident that his defence could soak up Arsenal’s attack. Or rather, willing to take that risk because there would always be space up the pitch to exploit. Both Arsenal full-backs pushed forward and that meant the job would be harder for both Denilson and the centre-backs. Laurent Kosicelny and Johan Djourou could not spread as it would then leave space down the centre while Denilson would have to contend with manning both the centre – where Rooney exclusively operated in the first-half – and trying to cover the channels – where Hérnandez or the twins would look to drift. In the second-half, that threat was ever more dangerous with Valencia hugging the touchline. Alex Song was missed due to his capacity to cover although it would have remained tough also if Arsenal’s attacked failed likewise. A tactical solution would be to drop someone like Song into centre-back when Arsenal has possession so that the centre-backs could spread wide and play two tempo-dictating midfielders in front.

The introduction of Aaron Ramsey was a huge plus, for one because it is great to see him back in an Arsenal shirt again and he was straight-away reminded of where he was, having to dodge the senseless lunges of Paul Scholes. But also because he has an urgency and technical accuracy that The Gunners miss when Samir Nasri or Cesc Fabregas are not playing in the centre and something which Abou Diaby couldn’t really provide. The French midfielder did display decent movement and power but was ponderous on the ball, allowing United to get organised quickly.

If Arsenal are to fulfil its potential and concur teams like Manchester United, who break quickly, it must be more effective with its passing. Maybe because Arsenal was not so clinical with its finishing and the shuffling of defenders, United was able to take such a risk and leave players up the field. It knew, no matter how glamorous and graceful Arsenal’s play can be, it can also be too predictable. A Bakary Sagna cross or a procrastinated move at the edge of the box looked Arsenal’s most obvious source of a goal. Effective possession is also a form of defence as it forces opponents to furrow resources back which will have helped guard against the counter. Perhaps Arsenal lost the game at 0-0 when it should have made its possession count and stamped its authority on the game with more ruthlessness.

A far cry then, from the dynamic and explosive football it was producing from December to the middle of February and an appropriate reminder of how reliant Arsenal is of its fantastic eleven. Since the defeat against Manchester United late last year, Arséne Wenger has stumbled on his strongest line-up and the side had produced a series of exciting performances. The balance between organisation, pressing and passing reached its apex in the 2-1 defeat of Barcelona but in between those good performances, there have been a smattering of ugly ones; disjointed because of the unavailability or the resting of key men. Before the match against Manchester United, Arsenal seemed stronger and its passing and movement displayed some form of superiority, but its finishing and resilience indicated there is still work to be done. The season isn’t over and there is still time to show, with one final push, there is quality in depth at Arsenal and the character to secure the league title.

Barcelona sends Arsenal crashing back down to earth

March 9, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Posted in Arsenal | Leave a comment
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Barcelona 3-1 Arsenal (4-3 aggregate): Messi 45, Busquets (og) 53, Xavi 69, Messi (pen) 71.

Arséne Wenger’s men are often too ready to accept their role as beautiful martyrs, highlighting the negativity of their opponents and bad refereeing as causes of their downfall. At Camp Nou, they may have been right to aggrieve the latter, never the former, although in football, much is about managing luck and that Arsenal escaped two penalty decisions has seemingly not registered with their arguments. Perhaps there is a saneness to that action because a penalty at 0-0 and subsequently at 1-0 when Pedro was brought down, wouldn’t have “killed the game” as Wenger exclaimed. When the harsh red-card was given, it certainly deprived the encounter of its competitive edge.

Arsenal was seemingly back in the game after Sergio Busquets headed into his own net following a painfully one-sided first-half which ended with a delightful Lionel Messi goal. And once Robin van Persie was played behind on 55 minutes, there was a feeling Barcelona had lost some of its sharpness; the constant probing and rummaging of Arsenal from left to right in the first period and asphyxiating hard press beginning to take its toll. But the Dutchman was flagged for an offside and then inexplicably called back for a second yellow for taking a shot. One second had elapsed since van Persie took his first touch and shot wide but that was enough for Massimo Busacca to deem it as time wasting. To be fair to the Swiss referee, he had already made clear of his no-nonsense attitude after booking Bakary Sagna for throwing the ball away but he similarly overlooked the Darth Vader Death Grip performed by both Eric Abidal and Adriano a few minutes earlier. And what of the referees role in the modern game? Shouldn’t it be, not just to uphold the spirit of the game but with so much at stake and the mass televisation of football, encouraged to let the game be played as competitively as reasonably possible? Howard Webb was derided by the mass audience for not showing more leniency and understanding to the significance of the event in World Cup Final of 2010 and Busacca should similarly be examined for a soft red-card.

However, to fixate on the red-card alone is perhaps missing the point because before then this was utter superiority in its purest form. Sure, the tie may have taken a different course but as the Madrid based newspaper, AS wrote, “Arsenal, despite Wenger’s complaints, didn’t have a shot at [Víctor] Valdés once. And even so, they were just a step away from making the quarter-finals.”

Here, Barcelona seemingly wiped away any notion of Arsenal’s identity. The rapid passing, the quick interchange of players, the dynamic speed in which it can create an attack was non-existent. Passes never found a sequence; it was as if Arsenal was passing to prime numbers. This was because not only did Barcelona monopolise the ball, they owned space and viciously hounded The Gunners off the ball whenever it had possession. They completed 24 interceptions, the majority in the final third of the pitch and you could say the Cesc Fábregas error was forced by their intense pressing of the opponent. Arsenal couldn’t get out of its own half and the final statistic, 20 shots to 0 tells it’s own story of Barcelona’s domination. In Lionel Messi, Barcelona has the man that can make the difference and more often than not, he does. His goal was sumptuously taken, flicking the ball over Manuel Almunia before shooting in an empty net. And around that, he was at the heart of every dangerous move from Barcelona although there must also be credit given to Xavi, who finished the second after a great move and Andres Iniesta for his assists for the two goals.

Tactical Errors from Wenger

Arsenal tried to reproduce its gameplan from the first-leg by pressing up the pitch and conceding the wings so it didn’t lose its compactness. Abou Diaby came in for Alex Song and produced a competent display; his presence also helping to smother Messi early on. However the first two selectional mistakes Wenger made was to bring in Tomas Rosicky for the injured Theo Walcott and despite their obvious qualities, two players clearly lacking in match sharpness in van Persie and Fábregas. The pair may have been passed fit but that in itself should not have been used to make the decision on whether to start the two. Fitness tests doesn’t necessarily give a great indication on the intensity they would have to exert and it was evident that both men were behind the rest after twenty minutes. Their lack of fitness gave no intensity to the press high up the pitch and that forced Arsenal to defend ever more deeper. But Arsenal didn’t park the bus, it was just unable to get out of its own half. Much to do with Barcelona’s pressing but the lagging intensity levels of the front men and the inability to break past the press, did it for The Gunners. “They attack less. Maybe they play to keep the result,” Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said. “The reality is that they were not able to string together three consecutive passes and they were not able to shoot once on goal.”


Bringing in Rosicky also showed Wenger’s fixation on keeping Barcelona quiet when the presence of Andrei Arshavin or Nicklas Bendtner may have allowed Arsenal of an out-ball. There was no speed in the transition and evidently, Arsenal relied much on Samir Nasri on the break because Rosicky and Fabregas were unable to help get support to van Persie. It all seems quite harsh on the manager to point out selection discrepancies, especially with such a big decision going against them and the sheer quality of Barcelona but the team defended well and that for one deserves some credit even if it seems inferior to say that.

Barcelona sets the benchmark

In Spain they believe Barcelona is the best team in 30 years or so and it is hard not to agree with that assertion. The quality of its own league hinders it acknowledgement as the worlds best, especially with Real Madrid also dismantling La Liga opponents with relative ease yet no one does it in the style Barcelona does. There is an argument the team is too dependent on Lionel Messi and in this game, perhaps that showed but the Real Madrid side of the 1950/60’s were heavily influenced by the genius of Alfredo Di Stéfano yet that does not stop them from being so revered. There is another assertion that, through all their technical brilliance, they play one pass too many but again that is merely clutching at straws and and acknowledged of how good they can still be. Nevertheless, it should be up to the opponents to a) stop the amount of passes played by Barcelona and b) have a respectable amount of its own. That defending to keep a clean sheet for the whole game is seen as a achievement further underlines Barcelona’s greatness and one still waits for the day where a team can compete with them for possession. That Arsenal did try to fight fire with fire and succeeded with a win at The Emirates saw this blog exclaim the game as the best of the modern era because no one else has come close using tactics which can be considered as “proactive.”

AS put Arsenal’s struggles in the 3-1 defeat in the context of just how superior Barcelona is to the rest of the football stratosphere. “Arsenal yesterday spent 90 minutes pursuing what is their hallmark in the [British] Isles. But there, there is no Barça.” Arsenal has Manchester United next. The best team in England. But, in their own right, a long way away from being Barcelona.

The art of defence is in attack for Barcelona and Arsenal

March 8, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Posted in Arsenal | Leave a comment
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It is a celebrated part of Arsenal’s history but Herbert Chapman’s revolutionary tactics were initially received with much furore. The seeds of the change that was to see the W-M formation (or 3-2-2-3) supersede the 2-3-5 were planted in Chapman’s spell in charge of Huddersfield when in 1922, in the FA Cup final game against Notts County, his side won the trophy in a scrappy affair. However, the FA were not pleased with the way Chapman sent out his side because they felt it went against the “right way to play.” It wasn’t that they were incensed with the amount of “niggly” fouls on show in the final but the way Chapman had purposely deployed, what they saw, as a defensive strategy by dropping his centre-half very deep, almost as a third centre-back. Chapman took those tactics to Arsenal where the W-M formation was finally borne out with the aim to win the match, almost at all costs a strategy which Chapman later came to regret. (It remains a strategy that is still the primary objective of most teams and their success measured by the league table). Bernard Joy, writing in Forward Arsenal! gives a greater insight to his tactics: “The secret is not attack, but counter-attack….We at Arsenal achieved our end by deliberately drawing on the opponents by retreating and funneling to our own goal, holding the attack at the limits of the penalty box, and then thrusting quickly away by means of long passes to our wingers.”

The Arsenal of today may be a direct opposite of those such ideals but tonight at Camp Nou, they will be forced to borrow some of the tactics of Chapman’s side from yore. “We will have to [play another way] because it’s one of the few games where we will spend 60 per cent of the time defending,” said manager Arséne Wenger. And that’s no over-statement from Wenger – in fact, it may be a bit hopeful because this season, in 44 matches played by Barcelona in all competitions, the lowest share of the possession they have accrued is an astonishing 61%. Two times and both against Valencia. To put that into context, Arsenal only managed to let Pep Guardiola’s side have 66% of the ball in its 2-1 win.

But there was also something a bit un-defensive about Arsenal’s strategy in the game at The Emirates that makes it distinguishable from those who have faced Barcelona before them.

At the Emirates, there was an unwavering desire from Arsenal not just to stop Barcelona from playing but looking to play, as much as it could, their own game. Their strategy was asphyxiating to the point where the distances between the first line of defence – the attack – and the last line – the back-four – was not much more that 25 metres apart and at some moments, even closer to 15metres. Arsenal’s defence was proactive; they played a high-line, pressed up the pitch although perhaps not all the way up to the centre-backs as they knew the danger of losing shape and stuck tight to Barcelona’s carousel of ball-players. Some labelled it as “parking the bus in front of the goal” and in some respects it was true but more apt will have been a defensive block in the second quarter of the pitch. Arsenal was like a black cloud, swirling and snarling at Barcelona’s feet while it tried to keep passing.

The Gunner’s success this season has been all about the unit and those arguing that Arsenal, as beautiful martyrs, can’t have both a good attack and defence, have been proven wrong. The notion that the two styles are mutually exclusive simply isn’t true. In fact, there seems to be a whole swirl of clichés and truisms that surround the Arsenal Football Club that just do not stand up. Yes, the team is prone to making a few defensive errors which are more a matter of mentality that contrive to throw open a game but it has been an example that modern clubs can be highly-integrated like a machine but still produce expressionist football. In the last nine matches, Arsenal concedes less than 2 shots on target per match and have kept seven clean sheets in nine. “We have to fight against the pre-conceived ideas because the only way of thinking is that Arsenal cannot defend,” said Wenger. “I will just remind you that in the last seven games [actually nine] we have seven clean sheets in the Premier League, we have conceded less goals than Man United who have a very good defence.”

Defence can be an effective form of defence as Barcelona has also shown. They will pass a team to submission because put simply, if you don’t have possession, you can’t attack Barcelona. And when you do get it, you can be sure that you are a) too tired b) committed too many resources back to stop the attack and/or c) Barcelona will press you at all angles quickly in order to win the ball back. The back four are far better than they are given credit for but it is not only about who starts in defence – as Barcelona will have to prove with both Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique unavailable – defending starts with the ball and thus the back-four doesn’t remain a four but rather, becomes a back-eleven. Both Arsenal and Barcelona uses the Dutch principles of through-marking to aid their closing down although while Arsenal’s is more structured, Barcelona try and ensure the ball is won back as quickly as possible. The Gunners use a 4-2-3-1 that transforms into a  4-4-1-1, the Blaugrana opt for an adaptive 4-3-3/3-4-3. But as shown in the first-leg, a team cannot maintain a hard press for the whole 90-minutes. The Ajax side of the 70 would naturally lose intensity at around 70 minutes while, under Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Dynamo Kyiv used to implement “false press” during games to give itself a rest from true pressing. The substituition to bring on Seydou Keita for David Villa last time round was a confirmation that pressing high up the pitch would be difficult to maintain so Guardiola went and added another man in the midfield. Arsenal will surely have to weather out the early storm before sensing their best chance, should they survive, after 60 minutes. Guardiola will prepare for this but his main hope will be getting the goal that will put them in the lead.

Arsenal will need to keep defending as it did at the Emirates – squeezing space to stop Barcelona thriving in the final third.  It is risky but those are the margins against best side in the world. For the Catalan club, passing to keep the ball is the least riskiest strategy, for one because they are wondrously accurate with it but all the more important, because as Pep Guardiola says, they are “horrible” off it. Strategic defending and studious work on positional play, they say, will compensate for a lack of height. Arsenal though will feel they can take advantage. If the chance comes. The encounter may be seen as a match pitting attack vs attack but both sides know defence will be just as important.

Arsenal disjointed after Jack Wilshere reshuffle

March 7, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Posted in Arsenal | Leave a comment
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Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland

The joys of Arsenal this season have been seeing Arséne Wenger construct, out of a young, exuberant and somewhat fragile group of players, a dynamic and highly-integrated passing and pressing machine that reached it’s apex in the 2-1 win over Barcelona. The frustrations, have largely come when that unit becomes disintegrated – mainly due to injuries – and it exposes slight structural inefficiencies thus hampering fluency and every so often, throwing up a momentary lapse of concentration that threatens to throw away the game. So, perhaps it was always inevitable, that Arsenal, without four of its key men this season, would make hard weather of an admittedly tricky meeting with Sunderland.

Much of the post-match moans and groans were about the offside and penalty decisions that weren’t given and while it’s true they may have been decisive, The Gunners should not discount the pattern of play that happened before them. Chances were missed although perhaps not of the quality seen in previous matches as creativity and fluency suffered a hit. It seems, with the multitude of chances the side creates, the preciousness of a single chance is somewhat taken for granted. A shot on target is seemingly good enough for Arsenal to reaffirm its status as beautiful martyrs.

How the adjustment of Jack Wilshere’s role affected Arsenal’s dynamics

Wenger’s selection was as expected and arguably as strong as he could have picked although the inclusion of Denilson, who is woefully out of form, forever irks some Gooners and in this match, he failed to disprove those dissenters. His passing was as ever tidy but it looked unthreatening and comatose against the carefree nature of the game. Both sides traded 4-2-3-1 with 4-2-3-1 as Sunderland looked to man-mark Arsenal whenever it had possession and as a result, the home-side was never allowed any real fluency.

Arsenal looked disjointed from the off and a lot seemed to boil down to one significant adjustment; that of Jack Wilshere moving from his nominal double-pivot role to one behind the striker. He has become so crucial to the team’s dynamics this season as one of the two deeper midfielders that the absence of him from the position was instantly telling. The impact this had on the team was threefold:

(i)                  Passing;

(ii)                Pressing (of which affects structure and distances);

(iii)               Positioning.

First off, a word on Sunderland’s start before we expand on the above bullet points, which initially caused some problems to Arsenal’s defence. Steve Bruce opted for a formation which matched up to The Gunners so his side could press better but it came as some surprise as to where he deployed his men. Sulley Muntari and Jordan Henderson screened the back-four while it was Kieran Richardson, usually their left-back who started as the highest midfielder. He was flanked by Steed Malbranque on the left and Stéphane Sessegnon on the right and the amorphous selection started brightly for the Black Cats.

Arséne Wenger usually pushes his two central midfielders forward at the beginning of the game, in order to negate the opposition pressing through the middle but the tactic proceeded to give those versatile players a bit of room. Arsenal visibly needed a dynamic player to get the ball out of the back but Abou Diaby tends to dwell on the ball and Denilson can often pass too lateral and as a result the ball was not recycled as effectively as it could have been. Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou were therefore given much responsibility to bring the ball out of the defence and often strode with the ball into the opponents half in order to advance the play.

Having said that, Denilson’s sheer desire to keep the ball moving, whether penetrative or not, when he did get the ball higher up the pitch was not such a bad idea. With passes being hit astray, he continued to play the ball to feet, hoping to suck the opposition out of position with his movement. In this instance it didn’t really work because Sunderland defended solidly and kept tight to Arsenal’s midfielders, particularly starving Wilshere of space to influence, and the side also lacked runners getting beyond. Tomas Rosicky’s ineffectiveness in the League Cup Final ultimately cost him a place in the starting line-up but in recent games, he has shown a greater willingness to break forward, doing so against Birmingham City and creating the first goal in 5-0 rout of Leyton Orient.

Arsenal’s pressing also suffered although not to the extent of which was seen against Birmingham as Sunderland naturally dropped back because they were satisfied with the draw while Birmingham in the final was forced to go for the win. Jack Wilshere, who has been an exemplar exponent of Wenger’s tactic of through-marking in the press, looked unsure of who to stick tight too as he was up against two holding midfielders. Through-marking requires each player behind the ball to stick tight to their opposing players to therefore eliminate the easy pass out but there wasn’t something right with the distances between each Arsenal player (See Figure 2). Denilson and Diaby were often too separated from each other when Arsenal didn’t have the ball. Wenger pointed to Diaby’s lack of sharpness in his positional play against Orient and that was on display here. He was given the covering role of Song in the double-pivot but was attracted to the play towards the right. It was by far not a bad performance; however, he failed to provide the drive he usually brings to the team. The absence of Fabregas shifted more responsibility to Nasri and Wilshere to create but the game also highlighted the importance of other absentees. Van Persie has perfectly balanced the art of the striker while Song provides the protection and power to complement Arsenal’s intricacy and Theo Walcott helps create space centrally by stretching the play. Nasri assumed the right sided role very well but was always relied upon to cut inside and help Arsenal create.


Arsenal’s disjointedness is shown against Sunderland in comparison with their average touch positions for the whole season. In Figure 1, Wilshere and Song typically make a more synchronised partnership, showing the importance of the double pivot to the team’s dynamics. In Figure 2, Denilson is too central – his style which is usually playing as the deepest midfielder in a 4-3-3 – while Diaby has pushed to far forward. The distances between the pair are too large and it shows how the roles have been switched. Normally, it is the left-sided midfielder, Wilshere, who circulates possession but this time it was Denilson but he was often too deep. Diaby, who should have assumed the covering role of Alex Song, was too attracted to play on the right.

The Nicklas Bendtner and Marouanne Chamakh rivalry goes on

Had Nicklas Bendtner got on to the end of Gael Clichy’s cross early in the first-half, the Dane would have been a dead cert to start against Barcelona. But as it is, it still leaves us with unanswered questions on who should start in the big match. Should the main role of the striker be to get the best out of the front four or score goals? Everything is relative of course, but Bendtner could have been accused of being too individualistic at times, drifting to the left and looking to get the ball to his feet at all times.

In the second-half, Marouanne Chamakh entered the fray and with Bendtner pushed to the right, Arsenal looked more dynamic. Bendtner was able to tuck in behind the Moroccan and provided Arsenal with more numbers in the box although it should not be discounted, the drive Wilshere provided with the substitution. Picking the ball up from deeper, he has space to run with the ball forward; something which he was denied in the first-half although you could see why Wenger placed him in the attacking midfield slot; Wilshere played some wonderful passes that on another day, may have found a man. Football is a game of margins as Bendtner will have found out but there is a chance he will start along with Chamakh at Camp Nou.

Arsenal’s defence must overcome its mental barriers

March 1, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Posted in Arsenal | Leave a comment
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Arsenal 1-2 Birmingham City (League Cup Final) ~ Fuuuuuuccckk part II

So the monkey on Arséne Wenger’s back remains. On Sunday, it was viciously clawing and grasping onto Wenger’s shoulders, trying desperately to keep balanced; especially so after Arsenal dominated the middle period of the second-half, aiming shot after shot at Ben Foster’s goal. Today, it rests happily on his back, chain-smoking like a simian Zdeněk Zeman casually wearing a porter’s uniform as if waiting for work – without the trousers, of course. On Wednesday night, it will surely be back to its taunting best, furiously pointing and gesticulating at the manager who faces an FA Cup replay at home to Leyton Orient.

Six years it’s been without Arsenal lifting a trophy and it is a monkey Wenger will want to get off his back. Perhaps not desperately because modern football is about staying competitive but it remains a major objective for his iconoclastic side and the 2-1 League Cup defeat remained its best chance. Key matches in the FA Cup and the Champions League are yet to come, not to mention the league where the holders play the leaders tonight. With the loss, Arsenal has become now, perennial failures, having overtaken Manchester United in the domestic cup loses count with 12 defeats and the most recent cup failure had a bit of fatalism about it.

Birmingham City boss Alex McLeish, set up his team to try and exploit what he saw as Arsenal’s flaws as he packed a midfield with runners, backed up by a menacing technician on the right-wing in former Gunner, Sebastian Larsson to aim balls forward to beanpole striker Nikola Zigic. In the end, they may have accrued less possession and were visibly shattered at the back but McLeish knew, because of their direct style, could always create a chance It was up to Arsenal then, to be more effective with the ball – they only completed half the job having notched up 58% of the ball possession – but lacked the cutting edge of Cesc Fabregas or even Theo Walcott. Abou Diaby’s powerful runs would surely have made a difference even but Wenger decided not to risk him in the squad and opted for an adjustment up top after Robin van Persie’s injury.

The second job to negate Birmingham’s strategy, was to press quickly but the hectic nature of the English game can make that difficult. Birmingham were able to escape with one quick release and the fact that Arsenal don’t press as high up the pitch as last season left Barry Ferguson and the back four relatively unopposed. The long ball tactic also meant it was more difficult to get organised as the team would have to rush back into position straight after attack, so knock downs and loose balls would almost exclusively have to be picked up by the defence and Jack Wilshere and Alex Song. Tomas Rosicky was often too high up the pitch to make a three which would have made a great deal of difference to Arsenal as it was already outnumbered in the centre.

And the third task and perhaps the most simplistic instruction on paper, was to win challenges in the air. Initially, Laurent Koscielny tried to stick to Zigic like glue but the Serbian kept on peeling off his markers and when he began to win an increasing amount of headers, doubts crept in. And that, in a nutshell sums up the problem with Arsenal’s defensive strategy, if indeed it is a problem. Wenger has long been criticised for not purchasing another a commanding centre-back and consequently an experienced goalkeeper and that supposed intransigence, cost them the trophy. But can it be as easy as that?

In the goalkeeping department, perhaps more pragmatism should have been taken because it is the most mentally frail position. But at centre-back, it is more complicated than that. Improved fitness, thereby exposing technique and mobility makes “no-nonsense” defenders obsolete. Footballers must be all-rounders and those defenders that are usually described as the aforementioned – John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Vidic – are adept at all parts of the game. Initially Vidic had a uncomfortable transition to the English Premier League but now regularly completes 5-10 passes in the oppositions half while Terry is a fantastic two-footed passer of the ball. Yes, football may still be specialised, but in each position, a player must compose of a multitude of traits.

Arsenal’s centre-backs in the past few years have been on the passive side but the current four, and given that two are in their début season, like nothing more than to put their head on the ball as well as their foot. The mix up between Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny may go down as a communication error and one that highlights the embryonic partnership between the pair rather than meekness. When Wenger did enter the club, he inherited the best back four in the country and so it is to some surprise that he has neglected the battling qualities of the old guard of which he talks glowingly about. But lets not forget also, he signed, possibly the most gifted of the lot. Sol Campbell was boisterous on the pitch and displayed a fantastic all-round ability, no less displayed when he made his comeback to the team last season, at 35 years old and was forced to defend on the half-way line against both FC Porto and Tottenham. Who could have, however, fathomed that he had a mental frailty that he suddenly released in between his two spells? and certainly, what could Arsenal have become did he stay and inspire the class of 2007-08?

Campbell’s reincarnation, however, also shows that some pragmatism may be allowed in the centre-back position even given the expansive nature of Arsenal’s style. Wenger, as the psychologist Jacques Crevoisier who has devised customised personality tests for the manager, explains, wants “above all…intelligent players. To play for Arsenal you have to be intelligent, technical and fast.”

The difficulty then becomes obvious in building a team like Arsenal’s and trying to find a balance between technique, speed, efficiency, dynamism, possession, mental strength and height. Every team must have a weakness. Barcelona has conceded half of their goals from set pieces as height becomes an issue in trying to produce a technical level of football. Brazil may achieve this because as Dunga says, “it’s about the Brazilian population because the height is increasing and this brought a good stature and physical agility.” But on the whole, it’s generally difficult. Chelsea or Manchester United may be closer to getting there but it come as a sacrifice on ball-hungry possession keeping and an intricate style.

As a compensation perhaps, although, Arsenal does practice set-plays and practice, does indeed, make perfect, Arsenal has concentrated a lot on strategic defending. This season, it’s been awe-inspiringly integrated and one that is so dependent on the unit that one chink in the system can affect the whole. If the distances between the back four and the midfield and consequently, the midfield and the attack are too large or too small, the press will fail. The mantra is to win the ball back and that comes through structural pressing and the use of Dutch priniciples of through-marking. (Through-marking sees the players behind the first presser looking to eliminate the next pass through tight-marking and close attention). As Andoni Zubizarreta, the director of professional football at Barcelona says, “strategic defending has nothing to do with height.” But he adds – almost as a caveat – a point one which is perhaps the most pertinent to Arsenal: “But defensively, it’s a good team, and it’s not as if we’re an English team, who are always physically more powerful. We might pay for that in some games.”

Modern football reaches a pantheon. Arsenal prevails in attack vs attack

February 17, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Posted in Arsenal | Leave a comment
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Arsenal's Johan Djourou, at left, with teammates Alex Song, centre and Emmanuel Eboue, at right, challenge for the ball with Barcelona's Lionel Messi during a Champions League, round of 16, first leg soccer match at Arsenal's Emirates stadium in London, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Tom Hevezi)

Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona (First Leg)

This was a match where every detailed seemed to matter just that bit more. Every pass was stressed. Every shot was scrutinised. Every contested challenge, dribble and interception was crucial. Every bounce of Lionel Messi’s hair. The timing of Theo Walcott’s runs. Refereeing decisions. Pep Guardiola’s catwalk struts down the touchline. Every unscrewing of Arsene Wenger’s bottle cap. Every inch Victor Valdes left exposed at his near post. Every substitution. Each moment of ascendancy had to be taken. Those were the margins and fortunately enough, a huge dose of Lady Luck went Arsenal’s way also.

Barcelona played Arsenal off the park for the first forty-five minutes. Or so it should have been. Lionel Messi was sensational in dropping deep and collecting possession then running at Arsenal’s back-line. But Arsenal tried it’s darnest to limit his threat and for keeping it 1-0 and sticking religiously to their gameplan, it nevertheless must go down as a fantastic first-half effort. After the break, however, Arsenal ramped up their intensity and it was Barcelona who looked like they may buckle. Granted, Pep Guardiola’s side had plenty of the possession but that was expected. The Gunners continued to play pro-actively, undeterred by their so-called superior’s level of technical ability. And for that the game must go down as the best of the modern era. Manchester United and Chelsea in the Champions League in 2008 may have been a compelling advert for the speed and power of the evolving game but this was how football should be played: with an unerring technical accuracy, tempo and tactical complexity.

But it is more significant given that Arsenal has beaten the best team of the current generation and one who is light-years ahead of the rest because of the philosophy bestowed onto them by Johan Cruyff (although their financial ethics must be questioned). Whenever anyone has played the Catalan giants, they almost certainly contest in one way; to defend deep and look to counter attack and all with an air of inevitability and fear. Only Villarreal has deferred from the modus operandi but it has only served to highlight the difficulties of facing Barcelona at their own game. “You’re always on the border of collapsing against them,” said Arsène Wenger, after last night’s 2-1 victory and it seemed like it may go that way for Arsenal as well after they made a fantastic start to the game in the first ten minutes. Somehow a good ten minutes becomes a positive thing when facing Barcelona.

Arsenal fought fire with fire and although the possession count was a superior 66%-34% to Barcelona, it was not as if The Gunners tried to concede possession to their opponents. Arsenal pressed and squeezed Barcelona. It worked but at the same time, failed to work also. Messi had a fantastic chance when he chipped wide when one-on-one with Wojcjech Szczesny and had a goal disallowed for offside. But the highly integrated, highly compact pressing from Arsenal, which at most times was never 25 metres apart from the first line of defence to the last, constantly broke up play.  Arsenal’s best play was mostly on the turnover but fortune favours the brave and as a result, they also had their fair share of possession. Jack Wilshere in particular was so impressive that he never gave the ball away in the first-half. He had a composure in front of defence beyond his years and a discipline which was crucial to the moment. The central midfield pair delegated roles accordingly, as Alex Song continued charging for the ball, knowing that he was the better tackler and Wilshere the better circulator.

Arsenal did get a bit of joy when defeating the first line of Barcelona pressing which consisted on Pedro, Messi and David Villa. The threesome tried to close the defenders down high up the pitch but if Arsenal bypassed it, they found space down the wings because it exposed Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the middle. Emmanuel Eboue galloped up and down while Samir Nasri had Dani Alves in knots at times. But by also keeping the front three high up the pitch and the keep ball that Barcelona are capable of, it sucked Walcott and Nasri, in particular, centrally and Alves himself continued bombing up and down.

Arsenal’s strategic defending

It is true Messi had a barnstormer in the first-half but he was eventually squeezed out for big periods in the second. Lethargy had a part to play but also, Barcelona cannot really be asked to defend for 90 minutes and against a team like Arsenal, it was also going to concede chances on the break. Arsenal’s tactic was as it has always been this season; strategic defending that incorporates the Dutch principles of through-marking and winning the ball back quickly. Through-marking sees the players behind the first presser looking to eliminate the next pass through tight-marking and close attention. It is highly dependent on the structure and distances between players and Arsenal’s 4-4-1-1 in the press, which was Arrigo Sacchi-esque, ensured the team could match up well numerically. Laurent Koscielny typified the strategy as he continued to nick the ball away from the Barcelona attackers.

Much was to be made of the two central defender’s style before the game and by the end, showed that their style of winning the ball back quickly, which has been the mantra of Arsenal’s defensive strategy this season, was a masterstroke. The high-line got them in to trouble on occasions but apart from a Messi miss and a lack of concentration from Gael Clichy, it worked to great effect. Villa tried to take advantage by getting in between Johan Djourou and Koscielny and in that one instance, it worked.


<Figure 1> Arsenal’s defensive outline. Arsenal squeezed the play, looking to stop Barcelona from playing their game. Their backline was adventurously high and that meant at most times, a distance of 25 metres between attack and defence.


<Figure 2> Lionel Messi’s completed passes. Arsenal’s compactness shows in Messi’s passing graph. The Argentine had a free striker role and dropped deep to collect possesion but Arsenal tried not to let him get into the final third. (Courtesy of Zonal Marking and Total Football iphone app.)


<Figure 3> Arsenal Interceptions (Courtesy ofSleepy_Nik and and Total Football iphone app.)

In the second-half, Arsenal was more effective, more tighter and this allowed the side to comeback in the fashion that they did. Robin van Persie’s goal had a bit of good fortune but the build up was just what Wenger would have wanted. Quick passing, quick interchange and dynamic movement. Clichy’s dinked pass had Gerard Pique a bit flat-footed, enough for van Persie to exploit. Andrey Arshavin’s goal was even better as an interception at the edge of their own box started a crisp counter attack which saw two great passes by Wilshere and Cesc Fabregas to free Nasri and he showed fantastic composure to tee-up Arshavin to place home.

Much was made of Guardiola’s substitution of David Villa for Seydou Keita. In one sense it was defining but you could understand his reasoning. Barcelona was losing the dynamism and potency that their possession game is famed for and as a result Villa was kept quiet. He wanted to retain control and defend via possession; however, it only served to hand some initiative to Arsenal. Wenger was spot on with his substitutions which saw Nasri just hold his position deeper with Fabregas also dropping back and Nicklas Bendtner replacing Walcott. Guardiola’s tactic, however, also showed his flaws as he wanted to make a artistic impression when the game should have been killed off –  to teach an educational lesson with their belief in keeping the ball on the floor and moving at all times.

“We made more chances and in general terms, we have had a very good game,” said Guardiola. “But Arsenal is good at playing the position and exposing the weaknesses. When they get past the first pressure line, they are very fast. For many years they have set an example in Europe.”

The return leg at Camp Nou promises to be special and judging by the last three games against each other, the first-half will be crucial. But right now, Arsenal can celebrate even though the game is only at the halfway point. They have beaten the best team in the world and in a style that never at one moment, betrayed their own. This was a game where ascendancy had to taken. Where every moment was crucial. When football reached a pantheon. When Arsenal prevailed in attack versus attack.

Abou Diaby’s red-card sparks Arsenal implosion

February 6, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Posted in Arsenal | Leave a comment
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Newcastle United 4-4 Arsenal ~ fuuuuuucckkk

It’s difficult to analyse a match – or even summon the energy for – as remarkable as this, as crazy as this, as one-off as this and one that hinged massively on refereeing decisions. But lest we will. It was the ultimate game of two halves; the first, Arsenal were at their rampaging best in attack, the second saw Newcastle produce the most unlikeliest comebacks via a red card to Abou Diaby and two penalties, the second of which is being looked into by Interpol . In the end, Arsenal was hanging for it’s dear life and rather ironically, spared a defeat by the incompetence of the officials as a perfectly good Newcastle goal was ruled offside. (Robin van Persie may have also been aggrieved by an offside decision likewise at the end of the game although his was less contentious).


Arsenal penetrate Newcastle’s high line

Divide as he may, Arsenal fans, Andrei Arshavin started and created both goals that saw Arsenal make an incredible start. He was there to win a tackle in the centre circle for the first goal before making a brilliant deft pass to free Theo Walcott. The second was more simplistic as his free-kick accurately found the head of Johan Djourou to score. The Gunners speed and movement in the first 30 minutes was devastating and it endlessly dragged Newcastle’s defenders out of position.

In the encounter at the Emirates earlier this season, Newcastle defended deep and cut out expertly, the ball from wide areas. This time they naturally looked to play higher at home but they could find no solutions to Arsenal’s incision as Theo Walcott’s movement, taking advantage of the space created by Robin van Persie, punished their adventurism. Their 4-4-2 was too open and that made tracking Arsenal’s runners more difficult. Van Persie’s movement also helped undo their marking strategy as his roaming style as a “false nine” made Fabricio Coloccini and Mike Williamson unsure of whether to hold their position or stick tight to the striker and follow him. As a result they were often left marking space and because defenders are uncomfortable doing that, were forced to push up, conceding the space behind.

Cesc Fabregas drops deeper to evade markers

In the 1-0 defeat to Newcastle earlier this season, Cheik Tiote’s man-marking of Cesc Fabregas (allayed by his hamstring injury) denied Arsenal the frequent services of their most influential player. Everton did the same last week as they took turns to mark Fabregas but it was a switch of him to a deeper position which contributed to their 2-1 defeat. Fabregas found space for the only time in the second-half to chip the ball unchallenged to Arshavin to slot home. At St. James’ Park, the Spaniard would have been aware that Alan Pardew might try to do the same, so instead he looked to pick the ball up from deeper positions. As a result, he was free to start moves and would later break forward to join the attack, nearly scoring with a good burst that was parried wide by Steven Harper.

Because Newcastle played with a 4-4-2 in straight lines, it was difficult for one of the two central midfielders to follow Fabregas as that would leave the other midfielder isolated in a midfield they were already outnumbered. With Fabregas picking the ball up from a quarterback position, that freed Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby to push forward and the success of the tactic was evident when both players were involved at the edge of the Newcastle goal to create the third.


Abou Diaby goes red after Joey Barton’s tackle

No reaction that involves the shoving of opponents should be excused, (the tackler in this case should be an expert at this) but it is understandable given the injuries suffered by Abou Diaby and the nature of the tackle by Joey Barton. The Newcastle midfielder is a talented player – Wenger should know as he recommended him to Monaco once – however the tackle was a potential leg-breaker and any attempts to claim it as an honest tackle from Pardew misses the point. Danny Murphy was correct and managers should have a duty of care of what their players do on the pitch – Bert van Marwijk’s non-selection of Nigel de Jong in his first match after the World Cup indicates so.

“We forced the sending off. I’ve seen it and it was a sending off,” said Pardew. “Joey’s [Barton] tackle was aggressive, but that’s what you need in football, you need to show that it means something to you. Then we got the second goal and I felt that something was going on here.”

Ultimately, Pardew’s words at half-time to get tackles in and stop Arsenal from having time on the ball worked and especially so as they had a man-advantage. The other enforced loss of an Arsenal player, Johan Djourou was almost as costly but attempts to criticise his replacement, Sebastian Squillaci, is unfair. The French centre-back was directly uninvolved with the goals but after an outstanding display by Djourou and Koscielny in the first period, the roughness of the partnership between him and Koscielny was exposed. Koscielny doesn’t particularly like defending deep and especially with a style such as his which is splayed with risk, two haven’t ever looked at home as a pair. Phil Dowd’s (or rather him and the official’s) decision to award the second penalty was laughable and his non-decision to give a card at least to Kevin Nolan for pushing Szczesny was rightfully aggrieved by Jack Wilshere who complained at the lack of consistency. Indeed, Diaby was incited by a far worse action by Barton while Nolan should have shown more have shown a cooler head in his attempt to save a few seconds.

“The whole back-four unit got changed because of the situation but we were used to playing with each other and we should still have been comfortable playing alongside each other.” Wojciech Szczesny.

End note

The result was not as tragic as it may have been as Arsenal crawled a point closer to Manchester United as the league leaders succumbed to their first defeat of the season to Wolverhampton Wanderers. But it could be damaging as Wenger warns: “Mathematically two points, psychologically the damage is bigger tonight because everyone is very disappointed in the dressing room. Only the future will tell.”

Arsène Wenger will have to find a way to recreate Samir Nasri’s craft

February 3, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Posted in Arsenal | Leave a comment
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After Samir Nasri had waltzed through the Fulham defence – twice – to score two goals for Arsenal in their 2-1 win in December, The Guardian ran the rather flattering headline, “Samir Nasri evokes memories of Best.” Now, some would question the wisdom of a comparison between one of the greatest players in a generation and one who’s career is just fledgling but footballers should be allowed comparisons. The initial feeling of awe and overriding ecstasy can be so large that it induces such sentiments and superlatives and besides, comments like that are never meant to be taken at face value. However, watching it again and you can see why the goals at, descriptive level at least, evoke memories of the great player. Nasri tip-toed past his opposition defenders with much impudence and ease that it was reminiscent of the swagger of Best at a similar age. And on a destructive level, when was the last time a player was able to conjure up the same level mastery and skill to see off the opposition? Perhaps it hasn’t been so prevalent in the Premier League era but there are similarities between Nasri’s goals against Fulham andGeorge Best’s in the 1968 European Cup Final against Benfica.

Samir Nasri’s immediate comparisons are with Zinedine Zidane but Arsène Wenger is quick to play down the playing styles between the two. “The flexibility of his hips is similar to Zidane but Zidane was a different player,” he said. “Zidane was more a guy who creates openings through his skill, Nasri is more direct. Cesc Fabregas is a passer of the ball, Nasri is a guy who is more half-winger; a wing midfielder. He has his own style but he is quick and tricky and very flexible.”

To look at Nasri, you wouldn’t necessarily attribute him to the elegance and athleticism Wenger speaks about. His smile is slightly buck-toothed but that only adds to his boyish handsomeness. His play, splayed with trickery, cunning and a deceptive turn of pace indicates the intrepidity of a leader of a boy’s gang, harking back to the football he played on the streets of Marseilles. He has bulked up a bit also, he has a Bart Simpson belly almost, and has shown he has the determination and maturity to fight for his team, as displayed by the matches giving him the captain’s armband.

Nasri’s performances this season have been scintillating and has backed up Wenger’s faith in his players’ capability of delivering at the age of 23-24 years old. The loyalty and belongingness he feels for the club is part of what the youth policy aims to instil and Nasri wants to stay for longer. “Samir is happy at the club, the coach believes in him, the directors believe in him as well,” told his agent, Jean-Pierre Barnes to the Daily Express. “He said to me, ‘You won’t believe the great atmosphere in the changing room, I’ve rarely experienced anything like this.’”

The rise has been almost inexorable but whereas last season, he was sometimes criticised for not being assertive enough on the ball, this season he has added a ruthlessness and dynamism to his game which has been crucial to Arsenal’s challenge. Playing on the right side at the beginning of the campaign but recently moving to the left with a smattering  of matches in the middle, Nasri has scored 14 goals in 28 matches and has been tipped, like one former Arsenal midfielder, to bag the individual player prizes at the end of the season. There looked no stopping him, that is, until a hamstring injury on 33 minutes of the 2-1 win over Huddersfield struck. The Frenchman is set to be out for three weeks and because of his importance to the team’s dynamics, Arsène Wenger will have to try and recreate his style in his absence.

One of Samir Nasri’s main assets is his versatility. Whether on the right or left side of the front three this season, he almost acts as a balancer to Arsenal’s lop-sidedness in the 4-3-3. With a forward on the other side – earlier this season it was Andrey Arshavin, recently it has been Theo Walcott – his ability to mix up his game gives Arsenal a variety and an unpredictability. He has the temerity to take on his opponents and create chances but a criticism of Arsenal has been they are too elaborate at times, so his ability to get behind has been very effective for The Gunners. Against Tottenham, he bamboozled Benoit Assou-Ekoto by making a diagonal run centrally to open the scoring and did that all day against Fulham, so much so that the starting left-back, Matthew Briggs, had to be taken off midway through the first-half. “Like every player that is good on the ball he was too much attracted by the ball,” said Wenger when analysing Nasri’s impact. “We wanted him to do more runs off the ball, going in behind [the defence] without the ball because we have many players who can give him the ball.”

But perhaps most impressively is the understanding and link-up he has struck up with Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie in recent matches. The triumvirate’s mixture of technical excellency, intelligence and dynamism makes for a potent partnership and the interchange between the three cannot be rivalled in the Premier League. With all of them on the pitch, responsibility can be shared; losing one of them and it places more demands on other two to create. Against Everton, Wenger attempted to try the slightly out of form Tomas Rosicky on the left (although much of it down to a lack of minutes) due to his combination of creativity and guile. However, partly down to Everton’s marking game, dropping their two wingers back to double up on Arsenal’s wide men, Rosicky was unable to influence. As it was, Andrey Arshavin, who was similarly out of form, was introduced and his directness, brought Arsenal back into the match.

But therein lies Wenger’s conundrum; if he starts with Arshavin, Arsenal will have a speed about their game and the ability to get the ball forward quickly but due to his individualism, will lose protection out wide. Nasri and Walcott have done well to cover the spaces on the flanks, thereby alleviating some of the inefficiencies the side had earlier in the season and have allowed the team to press better. With Rosicky, you will get the latter because of his abilities as a half-winger but may lack a bit of penetration and sharpness to balance the system. With a crucial month in February that may decide Arsenal’s season, it’s a dilemma Wenger and Arsenal will need to address.

Arsenal show they have the character for title run-in

February 2, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Posted in Arsenal | Leave a comment
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Arsenal 2-1 Everton

When in a title run-in, there are two ways to assess the crucialness of a fixture in comparison to your rival(s); take it game-by-game and use the league table as your reference or on a team-by-team basis. At 1-0 down against Everton, Arsenal may have done the latter and judged the harshness of the result by the quality of the team they were facing. They knew they had to get a draw at least but because Everton are regarding as a tough team to beat and still have to face Manchester United again, the points dropped could be cancelled out when the pair meet each other. But at half-time, Arsenal decidedly looked at the scoreline from the viewpoint of the former and that meant a win was paramount because Wayne Rooney had already put Manchester United against Aston Villa ahead as early as the first minute.  This Arsenal team, however, is not willing to accept second-best this season and in the second-half, showed great character to fightback and win 2-1.

It’s been a trait of Arsenal under Arsene Wenger to make hard weather of a game and go behind – a consequence of their philosophy perhaps, by trying to force the result early on. The Invincibles did it but unlike in past seasons, and like the title winning side of 2003/04, there was a slight inevitability about the comeback. How much of that, was down to Everton’s lack of resilience, is debatable but there is no doubt that there is a greater mental strength in this Arsenal side and possess, a group of players who are “pulling in the same direction.” We are entering the run-in to the season now, and I’m really happy with the state of the squad,” Wenger wrote in his programme notes. “The attitude is fantastic and the togetherness is great.”

Others, however may interpret the comeback differently. The fact that Arsenal fell behind again, may be seen as a sign of their weakness and the turnaround, masking some of their flaws. In business, it is called the service recovery paradox which states that by making an effective recovery, a service can stand to achieve higher satisfaction ratings from customers than if the failure had never happened. That Arsenal fell behind, and recovered, quite effectively it has to be said as Everton had little of the second-half, and some fans and Wenger crown it as a sign of Arsenal’s “fantastic spirit” when at other times, it may be seen as a fragility. But the proof is in the pudding and Arsenal have made huge improvements, largely by having a settled squad and an easing injury list. The two centre-backs, Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny, had yet to concede in four matches before Louis Saha’s hugely contentious goal and have looked a superb, all-round partnership. The Gunners have also been playing more compact thus allowing them to press more effectively although the way Everton negated that side of the game in the first twenty minutes, highlights some areas for improvement.

Everton pressed high up the pitch but they also dominated possession in the early stages. Arsenal aimed to press themselves, high up the pitch but because they were structured in a 4-2-4 with Cesc Fabregas defending as a second forward, Everton had a man advantage in the middle in the 4-5-1. Their 3v2 in the centre of midfield allowed them control the game even without the ball and Jack Wilshere, who has been tipped to play deeper for England, was easily pressed for time whenever he received the pass. With Arsenal playing no holders, they could do with a ball circulator, something Abou Diaby did in the second-half, wrestling control of the middle from Marouane Fellaini with a strong presence and calmness on the ball. Fabregas could also drop back to make a three in the middle to press, alleviating Arsenal the numerical disadvantage. Of course, that would mean the side conceding possession high up the pitch, but it would create an effective first line of defence – something Arsenal could experiment with before the matches against Barcelona.

Saha’s presence also forced Arsenal’s defence deeper because they were worried about his ability to make runs behind but this only conceded space in front, affording space in front of them for Rodwell, Arteta and Fellaini to break forward. For Arsenal, by defending deeper, that created a larger gap between midfield and defence and that made pressing more inefficient. Thankfully, their attacking play prevailed in the second period and they dominated the half, which Everton had no answers too.

The wingers were forced back thus allowing Arsenal’s full-backs time on the ball and giving Everton little outlet on the break. Wenger switched his team’s formation to an attacking 4-3-3, similar to their base formation but with Robin van Persie playing a dual role. Indeed, the Dutchman’s movement was superb either as a centre-forward dropping off or as a striker, pulling the defenders left and right. Either way, he continued to create space for his midfielders. Arsenal’s passing, because of this, played at breathtaking speed and around the box, look more dynamic than ever. It’s probably not expected of them to have Barcelona-esque spells of possession but if they get the ball in the final third, expect ping-pong passing at the highest precision. It’s just a shame Samir Nasri is out for three weeks.

In the end, sometimes it is better for players to take things into their own hands. Andrey Arshavin’s pure individualism saw him take positions wherever it pleased him and he ended up getting on the end of Fabregas’ pass to score the first. Perhaps, if van Persie hadn’t dropped deep Arshavin wouldn’t have found the space but it shows, even if there’s good movement from the striker – as displayed by van Persie in the World Cup but without the support – there needs to be willingness to make runs, and Arshavin did that. The Russian has been in indifferent form recently but finally looks to be gaining in confidence. And that bodes well for an Arsenal side who believe they have what it takes to lift the league title.

Laurent Koscielny is reaping the benefits of risk

January 28, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Posted in Arsenal | Leave a comment
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Even in an eventful summer in France, there was perhaps one transfer which caused the most surprise; that of Laurent Koscielny. Kosicelny made his move from the relative modesty of FC Lorient to the vibrancy and tradition of Arsenal for a fee of £8.5m rising to £10m in 2010; a fee which seems perfectly normally in today’s climate if only Koscielny hadn’t spent just the one season in the country’s top-flight. Cue plenty of back-slapping, man-hugs and lame-cool guy handshakes from those who brokered the move on Lorient’s side.

Arsène Wenger knew he was taking a gamble on Koscielny but similarly, a calculated one at that. The statistics show he was Ligue 1 best defender last season, making more interceptions (159) than any other player and clearances (328) too, although conversely, Lorient did allow the most shots against them in the championship. He was his club’s best defender – their Gary Cahill if you like – composed on the ball, aggressive although without the frame and a fine reader of play. But due to his rapid rise in a short period of time, there was always question marks regarding his suitability at the top-level. Wenger, however, was willing to take a punt on a raw talent he felt he could nurture into a fine centre-back. “He said he was interested in my quality,” said Koscielny. “That I had progressed well and I was intelligent in the matches.”

In that sense, Koscielny is a typical Wenger signing; plucked from relative obscurity and dropped perfectly into the line-up, it’s as if he had always been there. However, some argue therein lies Arsenal’s weakness because Wenger’s signings in central defence are always usually too similar and lacking a bit of experience. They feel The Gunners need an aggressor, a no-nonsense defender who acts as the antithesis to complement their fixation on style. Which, is a fair argument if not for the fact it is also too simplistic.

Signings need to fit in strategically and by having all-rounders at the back, it allows Arsenal to play a high line to complement their pressing and possession game. Of course, that’s  not to say more orthodox centre-backs don’t have their uses. Phillipe Senderos was crucial in Arsenal’s Champions League final run in 2005/06 although it particularly worked because Arsenal defended deep in a compact 4-5-1 formation. Wenger hadn’t usually played the system and when he did decide to switch back to the 4-4-2 in Europe the next season, his side went crashing out of the tournament to PSV as Ronald Koeman purposely told his team to let Senderos have the ball as often as possible because they felt he was their weakness. Another argument against Wenger is that two similar defenders deny Arsenal of a “first-ball/second-ball” partnership, which is again a valid point because Arsenal do yearn the return of Thomas Vermaelen. However, their recent impressive form shows that as a partnership, Johan Djourou and Koscielny possess the necessary skills to complement each other and in the 3-1 win over Chelsea, Djourou displayed his authoritative side by dropping deeper so he could better handle the threat of Didier Drogba.

The reason for the recent upturn of form – coinciding with a run of four clean sheets – is that Arsenal have found a balance structurally. Wenger has decided on a settled line-up and the team are now playing more compact. Earlier in the season, the gap between the attack and defence was at times large, making it more harder to press – or rather – win the ball back and this owed much to Arsenal’s inconsistencies. The ramifications a bad pressing structure has to the side is that it makes it easier for opponents to break through to the midfield and get the ball quickly to the strikers, forcing the Arsenal defence to scramble back. Former Barcelona defender Víctor Muñoz helps explain the risk in regards to the Catalan club, but because the underlying systems are similar, it can be applied to Arsenal as well.

“You can’t have it both ways, there’s always a downside,” says Muñoz. “If the press doesn’t get the ball, you’ll often see Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol (or Johan Djourour and Lauren Koscielny) furiously sprinting back to ward off the danger. They have the pace to do that. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, it can be scary.”

Ipswich Town exposed that weakness in the first-leg of the League Cup semi-final when Tamas Priskin continually broke the offside trap because of Arsenal’s high-line before finally scoring to give his team a 1-0 aggregate  lead, although, the example also shows the correlation there is between the attack and defence. Arsenal needed to push up as they looked to force the initiative as the dominant team but were rebuffed because the attack failed to work Ipswich’s defence. As a result Ipswich could remain organised and compact because Arsenal’s passing was too parallel and sideways, and often too lethargic to drag them out of position. With each attack that Arsenal failed, the danger was that they could be left exposed to a quick counter-attack and as it turned out, they were punished by a long-ball which had Djourou and Koscielny scrambling back.

Both players, however, have made massive strides this season and Koscielny, in particular, coming into the Premier League in his début season, has made a very rapid transformation. His first game, a 1-1 draw with Liverpool, displayed everything you have come to expect from a Wenger centre-back. Great presence on the ball, allayed with a studious reading of play, Koscielny slotted in perfectly alongside Thomas Vermaelen at the back. However, he blotted his almost faultless performance by picking up two yellow cards in almost identical positions, highlighting his unorthodox style which is sometimes splayed with risk.

“Laurent is tough, he’s not so tall but goes for the close marking style,” Vermaelen told the Official Matchday Programme. “He’s a clever player, quick over the ground, quick with his feet and looks to be the complete defender. I think we can work together well, he’s right-footed and it’s often better to play one left-footed and one right-footed defender together. That’s the boss’s choice.

“With Johan [Djourou] too we are three quite similar defenders – we all like to mark tightly. Johan is big of course, but myself and Laurent aren’t as tall but we all look to play with our feet, and we are all quick. We are all quite similar so we should be able to work together well.”

<Video>Laurent Koscielny v Milan (Emirates Cup, August 2010)

Koscielny likes to win the ball back quickly so he sticks to his opponents like glue. He gets tight to his opposition forwards to deny them any space and you will often see him dangle a leg around the player in order to knock the ball away. His strength, his former manager Christian Gourcuff says, is at one-on-ones, which he says he “never saw him lose” and has an unerring belief that he can win every ball. “He has a real charisma and gives off a feeling of strength and serenity,” say Lorient scout Christophe Le Roux.

His style helps aid Arsenal’s tactic of winning the ball back quickly but Koscielny knows if it goes wrong, he can put him but most importantly, the team in trouble. In the game against Liverpool, despite looking comfortable for much of the match and expertly helping to squeeze Joe Cole out of the game, over-zealousness meant he received almost identical bookings. The first was for a tug that halted a Liverpool counter-attack, the other, a handball, again just on the halfway line as Torres looked to break. In his next game after the suspension, he was skinned by El-Hadji Diouf for Blackburn’s goal in their 2-1 defeat, perhaps out of a bit of casualness and an unwavering belief in his ability at one-on-ones. His technique, to get square on to his attacker in front of him, means he needs to correctly guess which way his opponent will go. Luckily, Koscielny has got this right more often than not but there are moments this season where an over-complication caused Arsenal to concede a goal.

On five minutes in the 2-2 draw against Wigan Athletic, he stood up fantastically to Hugo Rodallega when the striker had only him to beat but was desperately wrong-footed when Charles N’Zogbia skipped passed him on seventeen minutes, to win his side a penalty. Koscielny tried to anticipate which way the French midfielder was going to go and therefore shifted his bodyweight to his left but as N’Zogbia moved the ball to his right, Koscielny dangled his leg out to catch him. It was a similar situation against West Bromwich Albion in the 3-2 defeat, as Koscielny tried to force Gonzalo Jara inside but the right-back was conceded too much space on the outside, and with the help of a mistake by Manuel Almunia, squeezed the ball in. Koscielny’s bad performance in that game saw him hauled off as Arsenal searched for the win.

But since a patchy start to the season where Koscielny’s performances ranged from the frustrating to the brilliant, such as in the League Cup win over Tottenham and the 1-1 draw with Sunderland, he has gone from strength to strength. It’s perhaps a testament to Wenger’s scouting team and the homogenisation of the game, that Koscielny is expected to slot in straight-away to Arsenal’s style. Nevertheless, he has adapted impressively to the rigours of top-level football and is doing it in a style which is thoroughly his own.

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