Holland have a history of producing technically proficient players – after all, total football emanated from the Netherlands. It’s no surprise, then, that three of the most exciting midfielders in Europe – Jordy Clasie, Kevin Strootman and Adam Maher – all play in the Eredivisie and represent the Oranje.
Today saw the latter take on the former, with Maher’s AZ Alkmaar up against Feyenoord, for whom Clasie has been so impressive. My focus was on Maher, AZ’s number 8, and the 19-year-old put in a decent performance as his side went down 3-1, with Clasie grabbing one of the home team’s three goals.
In an entertaining game, AZ started the better side, with Maher at the centre of a lot of impressive moves. He constantly showed a good first touch, including when under pressure, showing also that he can supply a good pass when being pressed, which was his first involvement in the game. His style is elegant, happy to receive the ball and either play it instantly or go on a mazy run – adept with either foot.
This ambidextrosity was demonstrated most obviously just before half-time, with Maher’s biggest involvement. The youngster picked the ball up roughly 35 yards, and drove at the opposition. The player confronting him backed off, clearly frightened by Maher’s close control, meaning he was able to fire in a left-footed shot low to the corner, with the goalkeeper pushing it around the post for a corner.
Other than that, Maher was quiet but impressive when he got on the ball. Positionally he was the most advanced of three midfielders, getting forward to support Jozy Altidore, who had a bit of a battle with Joris Mathijsen throughout. In fact, Maher was the one acting as peacemaker between the two when a scuffle broke out.
Some of the key facets of Maher’s performance were that he was often pressing the defensive midfielders/defenders of Feyenoord when they were on the ball, roaming around looking for space and the ball, and showing good awareness, often looking around him to see how best to position himself when Feyenoord had the ball.
This served him well around the 15 minute mark when he showed good defensive awareness and a short burst of pace to nip in ahead of a Feyenoord midfielder to win possession back for his side just inside the opposition’s half. However, it didn’t go so well when he tried intercepting a short pass in a crowd on the edge of his own box – the ball found its way to a Feyenoord forward who almost scored.
In a way, Maher’s performance was reminiscent of Arsenal’s own Jack Wilshere. At one point, when he burst between two defenders’ challenges into the Feyenoord half before being pushed over as the opposition realised the danger, you could have been forgiven for thinking AZ had signed Wilshere on loan.
On top of that, he continuously lurked at the edge of the Feyenoord area instead of rushing into the box with the rest of the AZ midfielders. The fact that he recognised his own shortcoming of not being particularly good in the air, as well as realising that his side needed someone there in case the ball broke, is promising.
Overall, the young star was composed and assured on the ball, showing an elegant touch and dribbling style – he made two promising runs in the first half when drifting out wide; first getting down the right wing to get in a decent cross, before taking down a cross-field pass assuredly and wriggling past his man, although he then lost his balance.
He appears to have a slight tendency to over-elaborate, but works hard off the ball to chase opponents down when he has the freedom to roam across the pitch – something he seems to like to do. Penetrative passes are also a part of his game on today’s evidence – rather than delaying a counter-attack, he often gets the ball and fires it into a more advanced forward in a good position.
Other than some good passes and touches in the second half, he wasn’t involved much – Nick Viergever was dismissed for a poor tackle in the second period, which seriously disadvantaged AZ. His main involvement of the second 45 was a mazy run which was forced into the corner by the impressive Bruno Martins-Indi. He attempted to lose his man with some extraordinarily quick footwork, but was unable to do so (more due to the competence of his marker than anything).
He wasn’t able to have much of an impact on the game, with Feyenoord winning 3-1 thanks to impressive performances from Graziano Pelle, Jean-Paul Boëtius and the afore-mentioned Jordy Clasie. However, there were certainly signs of quality and potential. Stay tuned for further match reports on Maher, and also perhaps Clasie, whose drilled volley from 20 yards put Feyenoord 2-1 up.
Firstly, I have to apologise for the lack of content on this blog. I’ve been quite busy with college, as well as writing for other sites, so I haven’t found myself with much time to post on here. When I have, I’ve mostly been uninspired by the goings-on at the club, on and off-pitch, and I feel like everyone is just repeating each other when it comes to Arsenal these days.
So I’m going to attempt to bring a little freshness to the blog by looking at reported Arsenal targets, in order to broaden my own horizons and bring people information about players we’ve been linked with. I’ll be hoping to bring reports of games players have played, such as this on Alan Dzagoev a few months ago.
I’ve compiled the following list of players to be following, but it’s by no means comprehensive and suggestions are welcome. I’ll mostly be focusing on players who don’t get much coverage, as there’d be little point in doing a report on, say, Pepe Reina.
If there’s a player you’d like to see covered, or a particular game that player is playing in which can be reported on, drop me a tweet at @sdrewfootball.
*brushes off keyboard, stretches fingers, logs into WordPress* It’s been a while. The last 11 posts on this site have been by Saurabh so I think I’d better pull my weight as well. And what better time to do it? Just off the back of a 12-goal thriller at the Madejski and we’re off to Old Trafford today – myself included for my first away game. If you’re feeling ambitious, there are some good odds on Betfair.
Obviously the almost unavoidable centre of attention is and will continue to be Robin van Persie. I’ll say this – I don’t think he deserves a respectful, appreciative reception from Arsenal fans (we’ll boo who we want, Ferguson), but let’s not bring those accusations from a few years ago into it. The ‘she said no’ chant is one which shows absolutely zero class, which isn’t something I’d like to associate with this great club and its fans, who were absolutely fantastic against Reading, as they have been for a while.
Onto the actual football, which is usually of top quality – although we seemed to forget that during our last visit to Old Trafford – and I don’t think it’s out of the question that we go home with three points. As pretty much everyone’s already highlighted, the left side does seem a worry – one of the league’s best wingers, Antonio Valencia, up against Andre Santos. Last season I was pleased with the Brazilian. His defensive contribution was actually better than most gave him credit for – his interceptions were often crucial, and his use of the ball helped us out of difficult situations and into attacks.
This season, having lost out to Kieran Gibbs in the battle to be first choice, he’s certainly regressed, and his stamina seems a big problem when going forward. He can’t commit too far forward because if he loses the ball then we’re susceptible to counters down that side – and when he does decide to amble forward in support of Podolski, it leaves us massively open to pacy wingers.
Valencia is exactly that, and would rip us apart if Santos did leave gaps in behind. People have suggested playing Sagna or Jenkinson, both of whom have played there before, at left back, but let’s remember that Valencia’s strong foot is his right, and his main threat is when he hugs the touchline and hooks in a cross with his right. If the winger on that side was left-footed and thus likely to cut in, it’d be wise playing one of the two right backs, as they could nullify that threat. While Antonio Valencia attacking Andre Santos isn’t exactly an attractive proposition for Arsenal, I can’t imagine a full back on their weaker side would do too much better against such an old-fashioned wide player in terms of positioning and runs.
On the plus side for us, it’s at home when Santos’ lack of stamina mostly contributes to the threat of counter attacks. It was most obvious against QPR at home, while at Old Trafford you can’t imagine they’ll be as willing to sit back and be so passive in their defending for so long. We certainly wouldn’t throw as many men forward in any case. In away games we usually see Podolski offer more cover to the full back – Liverpool away was the perfect example of this. We’re usually more of a compact, pragmatic side away from home – while we see something of a 4-2-1-3 at the Emirates, that usually becomes a more reserved 4-4-1-1 on our travels.
Defensive shape and organisation will be of pivotal importance to us, as during the you-know-what last time around, we were a shambles at times. It was an incredibly naive performance, and we’ll need the leaders that weren’t present/didn’t step up last time around to make themselves counted at Old Trafford this time.
In goal we’ll have Mannone again, and after Jenkinson and Koscielny played 120 minutes each at Reading, and not doing too well with their positioning, it’s likely that Sagna and Mertesacker will come in; Vermaelen and Santos completing the back-line. Koscielny often struggles when tasked with marking one striker through-out the game – Jason Roberts tormented him at the Madejski – so you sense that facing up against Rooney and Van Persie wouldn’t suit him. We’ll have to hope that Per ‘The Calming Influence’ Mertesacker is at his most calming influence-ness.
United are a threat from all over the pitch – we’ll have to watch out for intricate passing moves, long shots and devious crosses. Like their neighbours they’re a huge multiple threat, and it’s probably unrealistic to hope to restrict them in every aspect. Focus will be the key for us, and we’ll need to defend as a team more than ever.
Going forward it’ll all be about incisive passing and quick inter-play. Hopefully the side has been together long enough to be on roughly the same wave-length, as we’ll need to put together some quick passing moves in order to break quickly. United have shown vulnerability often this season, and quite a few times have left defending up to their back four alone, so if we want to exploit that we’ll have to get the ball forward quickly.
It looks likely that Olivier Giroud will start up top, and that would work in our favour as we look to get forward quickly and in numbers while United are committed. He’ll be up against Ferdinand and Evans, both good defenders, but undoubtedly two which Giroud should dominate aerially. If we can get the ball forwards to Giroud and he can knock it down to a midfielder in support, that’ll give us a chance of opening United up quickly and directly, provided the wingers break quickly.
When we’re dominating the game and are camped in United’s half, I’d imagine our best bet would be crosses. With Giroud up front, quick through balls may not be the way to go, as he’s not the lightest on his feet and he’d have to cover a short distance very quickly to get on the end of a killer pass in front a likely deep United defence. He is, however, very adept at getting on the end of crosses and putting himself about amongst defenders. While Walcott and Podolski might manage to profit from being slipped in by Cazorla or Wilshere, the latter who is still not a cert to start, the full backs would be wise to get a variety of crosses in for Giroud, especially given De Gea’s vulnerability in the air. Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans and Evra isn’t exactly the most dominant of defences, and with Giroud full of confidence after a superb energetic performance against Reading, you’d fancy him to win any cross into United’s box.
So to sum up, it’ll be a difficult task keeping United out, and I’m sure we won’t manage to keep a clean sheet, but I think that if we’re focused, solid and compact at the back and purposeful going forward, we have a chance to out-score them. Put your money on a high-scoring game. And watch it end 0-0. Because that’s just how it goes.
Up the Arsenal.
This article first appeared on Sabotage Times. Click or Diaby will hunt you down
The most inescapable facet of Abou Diaby’s career at Arsenal has been the comparison with Patrick Vieira. A tall, gangly French central midfielder of African descent playing at Arsenal under Arsène Wenger; the likenesses were invariably going to be addressed.
In fairness, they are quite a bit alike on the pitch. Their physical similarities mean that their playing styles have many shared components – both stride around the pitch using their long legs to retain possession, and, when on his game, Diaby uses his strength to hold off opponents in the same way as the former Arsenal captain did time and again at Highbury.
But while Vieira was a disciplined distributor, Diaby is a midfielder who likes to get forward, and often emphasises this in interviews. Having been pigeon-holed by many as a defensive midfielder due to his physical attributes, despite preferring to attack, it’s understandable that his progress has been delayed – and not just by injury – as it’s taken time to perfect his role at Arsenal.
Another player who’s suffered a similar categorization is Yaya Toure. At Barcelona he was classified as a holding midfielder due to his strength and size – it was assumed that he would follow the many midfielders of African descent in being a defensive player, but he seemed reluctant to play in a disciplined role. When he came to Manchester City, he was given freedom to drive forward from midfield into advanced positions, which suited him perfectly.
Comparisons between Diaby and Toure, like those between the current Arsenal number 2 and Vieira, may be easy to make, but there’s certainly weight behind them. Both of them are skilful midfielders who swim against the tide of stereotypes, preferring to break forward in support of attackers than stay back and protect the defence.
One of the main differences has recently been that while Toure has been on top of his game for a while, Diaby has struggled so long for any semblance of form, mainly due to injuries – not just the physical consequences but the mental aspect. His confidence seemed drained during matches, and he looked unsure of himself.
Quite what clicked against Liverpool is unclear. It may be that he just needed games under his belt, or that alongside Arteta given license to get forward everything finally came together for him, but his performance had pundits showering him with praise. The role he played was similar to that of Toure at Man City – alongside a disciplined distributor in midfield, given license to go forward.
Funnily enough, Vieira would probably be Diaby’s perfect central midfield partner. Like Arteta at Anfield, he would sit deep while Diaby probed forwards with driving runs, dancing pirouettes and penetrative passing. We finally saw Diaby produce something close to his best after seemingly laying dormant for so long, and Arsène Wenger will have been pleased to see his persistence pay off.
The comparison of Toure and Diaby isn’t exactly ground-breaking – the Arsenal midfielder made it himself after the game – but it certainly proves that Diaby can be a success after so long without a defined role. He seems to have found his calling, a role in which Toure so frequently excels for Manchester City, and one that should also help his new team-mate, Santi Cazorla. When Diaby breaks forward from midfield, Cazorla can drift into wide areas as he loves to do, with Diaby occupying his position. Indeed, we saw this for Cazorla’s goal at Anfield.
It will certainly give Arsenal unpredictability going forwards – rather than a rigid formation, the team will be free-flowing and fluid going forward. Last season it was similar, but the chaos that often broke down opposing teams also contributed to the Gunners’ own downfall; the lack of structure leading to a leaky defence.
Song was in Diaby’s box-to-box role, and Arteta’s function was slightly vague. This season it’s much clearer that he’s the disciplined holder and Diaby the one with license to get forward, and with more clarity Arsenal should benefit.
Wenger was widely derided for not buying a centre midfielder in the summer, especially after the sale of Song, but Diaby coming good against Liverpool seems to be vindicating him. Everyone knew of his talent, but the question was whether he could finally fulfil that potential. It was a risk to not strengthening centrally, but Diaby seems to have benefitted from the faith his manager put in him.
It took a while, but this may well prove to be another time where Arsène Wenger has the last laugh.
Throughout the season I’ll be writing Arsenal Player of the Month articles in collaboration with the well-known CWDComps, who will be producing a video of the player’s exploits during the month.
Despite two underwhelming 0-0 draws against Sunderland and Stoke, home and away respectively, when Mr CWD and I sat down to discuss the candidates (figuratively) there were a few that came to mind. Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson and Santi Cazorla were mentioned, but eventually we settled on our other Spanish midfielder.
So congratulations to Mikel Arteta! The first winner of the not-yet-prestigious CoA Player of the Month, in association with CWD. We knew from his time at Everton that he was very technically gifted, but we mostly saw that in the final third, with several fantastic goals and excellent assists. Last season he was more disciplined, playing the steady role in midfield, always offering an option and spraying passes around with supreme precision. His passing was incredibly accurate, and his completion percentage was usually 90% or higher.
However, this season he’s reigned his game even more, and in the first two games has been the main holding player, with Abou Diaby breaking forwards from the pivot. He constantly looked to make interceptions and start off attacks by playing the ball into the more advanced players – he and Cazorla linked up well throughout both games, exchanging 15 passes against Stoke and 29 against Sunderland, the highest in each game.
Arteta mostly did the dirty work in midfield, mopping up where it was needed and wrestling the ball from advancing midfielders. He demonstrated his tactical awareness many times by appearing in exactly the right place in midfield time and again, and while it wasn’t anything spectacular, someone has to do it, and Arteta did it splendidly well.
As our new vice-captain he’s expected to lead the team alongside Vermaelen, and he seemed to help organise the players well against Stoke in particular. The organisation was better than ever before, and the team was very compact and solid, thanks in part to Arteta holding his position in front of the defence. He also covered well for full backs Jenkinson and Gibbs when needed, and that’s been a key thing of Arteta’s short Arsenal career – using his experience to shore up the team and help out in any way that he can.
His determination and drive were apparent throughout both games, and his dogged dedication was shown several times as he nipped in to win the ball, with 4 interceptions against Sunderland and 3 against Stoke. While he’s not physically imposing, he uses his body cleverly, throwing himself into challenges and using his guile to his advantage, and these were all things we saw against Sunderland and Stoke.
All in all, despite no goals, it was a good month for Mikel Arteta, with the two clean sheets reflecting his stellar work in front of the defence. He said he wants to score more goals, but I think with that sort of defensive contribution, people won’t be too bothered if he doesn’t score that many.