*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.
It’s very tough to predict how big teams will play against us. When we faced Manchester City it was down to very talented squad who were capable of going beyond tactics. A team like United, who are limited in options behind their front line, constantly adapt to accomodate the players they can. That means seeing Danny Welbeck playing on the wing or drafting Michael Carrick in defence or Antonio Valencia at right back at the start of the season.
United will likely stick with the lineup they played against Chelsea last weekend. This would make it a 4-4-1-1 or rather, a 4-2-3-1 since you’d expect them to be on the offensive for a majority of the match.
We saw last weekend how easily United were able to attack down Chelsea’s left side. Their ability to exploit that sort of weakness has been a worry since Gibbs’ injury a few weeks ago. Last season, with Armand Traore at left back, United mercilessly took advantage of us down that wing. So Andre Santos will need to be a lot more defensive than he’s used to because Valencia will undoubtedly be a handful.
Rooney has dropped more into the withdrawn forward role with Persie’s (boooo) arrival, making him even more difficult to mark. Not having a proper defensive midfielder could make this difficult as you don’t want a defender to be pulled out of his line to close Rooney down. Arteta could well keep him at bay but you feel like a little more aggression will be needed to stop him. Inevitably, most attacks end up going through him so that’s the key to really locking down this United team.
United’s wingers also cut inside very often, leaving space for the overlapping fullback. We need to be able to not only stop it but use that space on the counter.
It goes without saying what a danger Rooney and Persie (boooo) are. Both are capable of scoring good goals, but more worryingly both are capable of winning penalties that should never be given. Rooney has seemingly won a penalty in almost every match against us by knocking the ball out of play and falling on top of Lehmann, Almunia, Szczesny and if we fast forward another ten years, he’ll have conned another few generations of referees at the expense of Arsenal goalkeepers.
And as mentioned, Rooney’s deeper role will cause trouble by drawing in the defence and midfield, creating more space for the wingers and striker to get forward and that’s something to be very wary of.
The Weak Links
Patrice Evra has put in some questionable performances recently. It’s definitely an avenue we should look to exploit. Between Gervinho and Walcott running directly at him, it’s bound to force some mistakes. Against Newcastle about a month ago, United were in control for most of the game but Newcastle put together some meaningful counters through the space left by Evra on the right flank. If we show some better finishing than they did that day, we’ll be able to cause serious problems.
Also Rio Ferdinand struggles for pace on the best of days. With United most probably being on the front foot for most of the match, they’ll be playing a high line, leaving a lot of space to get in behind Evans and Ferdinand. I have never been more an advocate of starting Theo Walcott than this Saturday.
Realistically, I’d call this match a throwaway. But this is probably the most vulnerable United have been in a long time. Apart from their front four, there’s very little in terms of stand-out talent. With us going into the match as huge underdogs there’s definitely room for an upset. Probably a draw. Perhaps we could do with an alternative type of training – playing some of the football games at Ladbrokes.com, like Shoot and Soccer Safari. Or maybe have a few games of roulette to relieve the pressure a little.
If there’s one thing I managed to learn from this match, it’s to sneak sustainable glimpses of a match even with people looking over your shoulder. The match itself? Well, I learned absolutely nothing from that.
After two poor matches to open up the Champions League campaign it was only natural that this match would follow suit, especially after the lax performance on the weekend. Even with the gaping holes Schalke left behind their defence due to their high back line, we just failed to capitalize on it. As he’s done often this season, Gervinho seemed to be the only player to take it upon himself to run at the defence but, as he’s done often this seasons, Gervinho wasn’t able to make anything out of it.
Believe it or not a these poor performances have probably come out of the absence of Kieran Gibbs. Our two fullbacks have matured the most this season and in the finally having avoided injury for a long stretch it looked like Gibbs could finally be our defensive answer on the left. He had finally learned to balance out his forward runs with some good defensive positioning. That was before West Ham at least. Andre Santos had to come in, without having played much last season and having played nothing this season, so in a sense you can understand why he’s looked madder than usual. He was at some fault – and that’s probably putting it nicely – for both of Schalke’s goals and caused some really scary moments in trying to dribble the ball out of the back and playing passes in front of goal.
Of course, that’s no excuse for how poorly the rest of the team played. With Koscielny’s return though it would be a little more comforting to see Vermaelen, who wasn’t convincing at LB last season but desperate times call for desperate measures, I guess. Thankfully, Gibbs himself isn’t too far away from making a return either. The Champions league is nowhere near being a disaster though, having won our first two. We have two weeks to turn this around because going away to Gelsenkirchen is not going to be any easier. Still, even if Schalke do manage to win that, I’m confident of our chances of advancing given the remaining matches.
Let’s look on the bright side, one of Manchester City and Real Madrid might go out at the group stages. Let’s have a laugh at them instead!
I had said a while ago that West Ham would be our bogey team much like Bolton had been all those years ago under Sam Allardyce. It’s just a style of football that has stumped this Arsenal side more or less the entirety of Arsène Wenger’s reign. In essence, this year’s side have seemed the most capable of handling such a team in quite a while. Obviously, I was glad that didn’t come to fruition even though we didn’t make it easy for ourselves.
Arsenal, under Wenger, have always struggled to bounce back from a big loss. Single goal losses, sometimes not even that, have led to entire title challenges crumbling under our feet. So after the loss against Chelsea, it was always going to be tough to bounce back. You could see how down the players were against Olympiacos and again lax defending led to West Ham’s first goal.
The team did well to turn the result around and the manner of the win may build up that momentum again. A good comeback like this will surely boost the spirits and in the second half you could see how much more comfortable Arsenal were on the ball after being fairly tentative for the previous game and a half.
Arsene has taken a lot of stick for being poor tactically over the years but over the course of this season he’s shown some brilliant vision, making personnel changes that seem to perfectly counter the opposition.
- Giroud’s inclusion shouldn’t have come as much surprise. His height undoubtedly meant to help when defending set pieces and as another means to break down West Ham’s tough defence. It also meant we could play a little more direct and commit more men to stay deep and contain Diame and Carroll. It did make a big difference as Gervinho wasn’t allowed much space to bring the ball down when he was able to fall into the middle. It was clear right from the start that Giroud was locked in. His presence in the box was clearly felt as he finally broke his Premier League duck and got yet another assist to his name. Set pieces were supposedly a major weakness, amplified by the loss against Chelsea. But, while there were a couple of scary moments, for the most part we were able to deal with them.
- Defensively, there really should have been more pressure later in the game. In the process of attacking West Ham in the second half, we saw a lot more space being left behind the midfield for them to exploit on the counter. It led to a few big chances which fortunately fell to Kevin Nolan. That being said, Mertesacker and Vermaelen dealt brilliantly with Carroll whose effect was stifled to just a handful of notable incidents. Diamé was a little tougher to cope with but apart from a spell of pressure before and after his goal, he didn’t get involved much either.
There were some great performances at the individual level as well:
- Podolski has found himself isolated in the last few matches. Initially we saw nearly every attack going down the left but as Gervinho got the chance to play down the middle, the dependance on wing play was lessened. With Giroud up front, it gave him the impetus to get more involved. The direct running he’s so known for caused West Ham a lot of problems later in the game, especially in the frame of time between Demel’s injury and Tomkins settling into the game.
- Finally, we can’t forget Cazorla’s influence on the game. He really pulled the strings for most of the match and treated us to a brilliant goal to top it off.
This game was what football is all about. Arsenal were in top gear right from the start, turning that momentum from Liverpool into even more goals. Southampton themselves, continued their poor form by conceding two own goals. They were being constantly stretched by Arsenal’s quick, incisive passing and despite a late first half goal, they just couldn’t answer back.
Nigel Adkins made a good tactical move in bringing on Gaston Ramirez and switching to a 4-4-2 in the second half but by then it was too late. Ramirez managed to bridge the gap between midfield and attack which caused us a lot of problems to start the half. Southampton had a few chances to score a second and we were lucky that they didn’t manage it. In the end, with the help of our own substitutes Arsenal were able to put the match away and log a comfortable victory which makes this one of the best starts to a season we’ve seen from this team in a long time.
Here’s a couple of key points from the match:
- Quite simply, the attacks down the left were just brilliant. Cazorla and Podolski link up like they’ve been playing for years together. Gibbs and Gervinho managed to get in on the act, making for a devastating first half for the visitors. We maybe saw a little bit of it in towards the end of the game with the team seemingly desperate to get Giroud off the mark as well. With Cazorla being the focal point of the attack, the short triangles makes it easier to dribble into compact spaces without losing the ball. Since teams tend to throw as many men in their own box as possible to stop Arsenal, this approach will definitely win us more points than we managed last season.
- As ArsenalColumn pointed out, the deep line means we’re going to see a lot of crosses come in this season. And a lot of those are going to end up in the net. But the fumble by Szczesny is unacceptable even though in the end it did nothing more than mar a perfect score. You could’ve seen Szczesny making a mistake today given that he’s just come back from a minor injury so we’ll let him get away with it. Though near the end of last season he seemed lacking in confidence and made a fair few errors then as well. Let’s just hope this doesn’t become a regular occurrence.
Even though there were big performances from the likes of Arteta, a few individual performances stuck out in particular:
- Gervinho himself did a lot better starting down the middle. It was a curious decision to play him up front but I thought it might do him some good as he just seems to isolate himself down the wing. Playing through the middle would have (and did) get him more involved in the build up play. He also instinctively drifted out wide during the match, rotating with Ox and Podolski on occasion. That made him very difficult to mark and it’s what led to his first goal after Fox just seemed completely unaware of where he was.
- The young fullbacks both showed great maturity today. We’re slowly starting to see that our “left back problem” is not such a problem anymore. Gibbs managed to assist in both humiliating own goals, although he would’ve liked to have claimed the first as his own. On top of that, he has improved a lot on the defensive end of things. He’s finally managing to balance it out with his runs up the field. Meanwhile, Jenkinson seems a lot more confident after that Liverpool game. He put in a solid shift against Southampton, rarely, if at all, setting a foot wrong over the course of the match. It’s good news for Sagna who doesn’t need to be rushed back into action only to risk injuring himself again.