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Resilient Arsenal rip Swansea apart with fluid five minute spell

swanseaIt’s a rarity these days that an Arsenal game compels me to write a blog post on it in the aftermath. We have so many writers in the Arsenal fanbase, which means that every man and his blog has an opinion and most of the time someone else is saying what you’re saying, but after the Swansea victory I’m not really fussed – there are a lot of things I want to talk about, and Twitter doesn’t quite cut it.

I think more or less every player deserves a paragraph after the match that we had, so I’ll start with Wojciech Szczesny. The Pole has been doubted by just about everyone for a while, but Arsene Wenger’s faith hasn’t wavered enough for Le Boss to sign a new first-choice goalkeeper. He may have dropped Szczesny in favour of Fabianski, but it seemed the kick up the butt that Wojciech needed, and he duly responded with some fantastic form. He wasn’t actually called on much against Swansea, but I thought he was reliable each time – a Nathan Dyer snapshot that he was alert to springs to mind, while every single aerial ball was his. I thought that @gunnerthoughts made a good point about Arsene’s faith in him.

I said the other day that I thought Bacary Sagna deserves more credit this year, and most agreed, but with the compromise that, despite the fact that he’s playing at full capacity right now, his 100% now compared to a few years ago isn’t quite as good. Fair enough – the Frenchman was quite sluggish in his tracking of Ben Davies for Swansea’s goal, but other than that Sagna was solid and reliable, which is exactly what I hope to see in a full-back. It’s worth remembering how badly he played at points last season and comparing it with now. A full pre-season has him looking quite a lot like his old self. Give that man a new contract.

Speaking of new contracts, Per Mertesacker has been linked with one, and based on his form this season alone, he absolutely deserves one. An impeccable reader of the game, which is how he makes up for a lack of pace – although I’d genuinely posit that he’s become quicker/more agile since signing for Arsenal – Per was more or less flawless yesterday, other than getting caught underneath a wonderful Wilfried Bony ball for the goal. 29 today and showing no signs of slowing down in the mind, let’s hope we continue to see Per proving me and others wrong for having doubts over him. Happy birthday big man.

Alongside him, Laurent Koscielny did his usual thing. There weren’t many individual moments from our defence to talk about, since we defended so well as a team – more on that later – that the defenders didn’t really have to perform any miracles to rescue us. Other than that, Koscielny was solid as usual, without making his occasional error. As you can see from Culann’s video compilation of his performance, his distribution was near-impeccable and pretty much everything he did was positive. I particularly liked how well he kept stepping in front of Bony/Michu as Swansea tried to break us down near the end. Great stuff from Koscielny.

Then we have Kieran Gibbs at left back, and, like Sagna, I think his performances this season have been typical of what a full-back should be: solid and reliable at the back, as well as offering a useful presence going forward. The latter part of his game didn’t quite feature so much against Swansea, other than a penalty appeal after linking with Özil and some nice interplay with Jack and Aaron. Still, the attacking players hardly seemed to need much help, so that’s okay. Another no-frills solid performance from a member of the much-vaunted British core.

Since I’m doing this in formation order, I’ve got a decision to make – was it a 4-2-3-1, or was it more of a 4-4-1-1? I’d say in defence it was definitely the latter, while going forward there was so much freedom of movement that there wasn’t really a structure. Given that we spent a lot of time defending, I’m going to call it a 4-4-1-1 and talk about the guy who started on the right of midfield for the third game in a row.

I was really impressed by Serge Gnabry against Stoke last weekend. I thought he slotted in with minimal fuss to the first team, and didn’t look one bit out of place, which is just so encouraging for a young player. If people were dissatisfied with his performance against Stoke because of a perceived lack of confidence, I don’t think that was an issue for anyone yesterday. He was the player to break through the monotony of the first half, making a great chance for Giroud with a superb dribble and pass, and should have been rewarded with an assist. No matter – he consoled himself by capping off a superb team move with a goal. That’s what I mean when I say he didn’t look out of place – he was on the same wave-length as the rest of the players during the move, and finished it off with the quality you’d expect from a seasoned first-teamer. He got into a great position, checked back so he’d be onside, took a composed touch and fired low past Vorm. I couldn’t have asked for any more from Serge.

Moving across the midfield to the centre, let’s talk about Aaron Ramsey a bit more. Other than a great drilled effort from range, he was pretty much on par with the rest of the team in the first half, in that he wasn’t quite at full capacity. That changed in the second half as he was instrumental in both goals – he set up Serge with an extremely intelligent pass, before capping a thrilling counter-attack with the coolness we’ve come to expect from him. He could’ve had another assist when he laid it onto Özil after the first. He is absolutely on fire right now.

Then we have Mathieu Flamini, the free transfer from Milan that was widely derided by many. The sensible Arsenal fans I know were fine with the move, although it was concerning for lots that he was the only central midfielder brought in (Mesut definitely isn’t a central midfielder). I wasn’t sure he still had it after a few years in Italy, but he seems almost as good as he was when he left. His displays aren’t as all-action – he’s more side-to-side than box-to-box, which is fine as Aaron has the latter role nailed down – but he’s just as useful. A cynical foul and booking after the first goal just summed him up – willing to do anything for the cause, and he demonstrated that with a committed, solid performance in front of the defence. His partnership with Ramsey is such that I’d struggle to break them up if I was the manager. A good headache to have with Arteta returning.

Jack Wilshere lined up on the left again, and I think he deserves a lot of credit. It’s important to recognise that he’s just getting to grips with that position, so he should be given time to overcome the initial shaky form that comes with that territory. Despite that, he played a huge role in both goals. For the first, he was part of the flowing passing that sliced Swansea apart, whereas he was integral throughout the second. Running onto Ramsey’s delightful flick, his desire and skill saw him emerge with the ball and as soon as he leapt to his feet, it was on. A brilliant give-and-go with Giroud before slipping in the Frenchman for the assist, and Arsenal were 2-0 up thanks to the finish from Ramsey. He may not have been brilliant from start to finish, but during that five minute period he had a huge influence on the game.

In front of the midfield was, of course, Mesut Özil, who showed off his skills with a cheeky gum trick in the warm-up. LOOK AT THAT CHEEKY GRIN. All in all, Mesut was a little quiet, although he was involved in both goals early on. Though he was at times peripheral, what’s important is that we didn’t need him to step up, so it was more a case of him stepping aside to let others do the business, and when he did get on the ball, he was excellent. He’ll need time to hit his stride as he gels with the team, and once he does we can expect him to dominate games. Until then, we can enjoy the flashes of brilliance which are definitely a sign of things to come.

Up front, Olivier Giroud toiled in the first half, not getting much joy in any area of his game before wasting a great chance. The key difference in Arsenal in the first and second halves was that we countered as a unit more effectively, and we got players close to Giroud. We were able to create triangles in the second period and that’s how we opened Swansea up, and Giroud deserves a lot of credit for being the attacking pivot, having a hand in both goals. He doesn’t look out of place in a fluid Arsenal side so far this season. Let’s hope he, like the team, continues to play at this higher level.

Focusing on each individual player has, I hope, highlighted that everybody is playing at a high level, but that’s not the point I was hoping to make when I began writing this post. As you can infer from the title, I thought we were solid for just about the full 90 minutes – I’m not sure if we can call Davies’ goal a lapse, given how well-worked it was – but hit our stride in the five minutes between 58 and 63. That’s when our goals came, and also when Mesut spurned a chance to get off the mark for us, and I think it really highlighted our quality.

Excitingly, though I shall try not to get carried away, it reminded me of the Invincibles. Solid and resilient throughout the game, but flicked the switch going forward for a brief period and blew away the opposition. The way we dissected Swansea was magnificent to watch in that time-slot, with the football quite breath-taking. That’s the fluidity that comes with continuity and having a core of quality players remain together for a good period of time. It’s what we lacked in the previous couple of seasons, which explains why our football was often so dull (not that the onlookers seemed to notice).

I think everyone deserves credit for their performances but Arsene also deserves credit for building this team – a team he always maintained faith in, especially a few choice individuals. It’s ridiculous how many important players Arsene has seen taken from other teams in stronger positions than us, and he responded the only way he knew how: by building a new team, and this time he’s not only been able to keep the team together but to add to it with Germany’s best player.

Now we’re in the position of power. Top of the table, on a fantastic winning streak, playing great football, with arguably the league’s most talented player yet to fully gel with his team-mates. Not to mention the absentees – Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would all add massive strength in depth to this side, which is a ridiculous thing to say for players of their quality. People talked about our bench yesterday but given our injuries, a bench of Fabianski, Jenkinson, Vermaelen, Monreal, Arteta, Ryo and Bendtner is still quite strong.

It’s amazing how things change in football. Sitting slumped in my seat as thousands around me jeered the team and the manager off against Aston Villa was one of the lowest points of my time supporting Arsenal, and now, just over a month later, I’m more satisfied with the team than I have been in years, genuinely. The key now is to kick on and try to keep our lead at the top. Extending it would be even better. We’ll need some luck with injuries in certain positions. That was always clear. But with that luck, we can go places. Up the Arsenal.

Old Trafford: a tough task, but not impossible

*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.

Scouting Report: Manchester United vs 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.

The Formation

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.

The Gameplan

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.

The Dangermen

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.

The Verdict

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.

Arsenal vs Schalke fallout

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!

West Ham vs Arsenal: Match Notes

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.