*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.
Hi there! Two blogs in as many days, I know, must be some sort of record for me. Nice choice of picture? What ever do you mean? Nope, sorry. No idea what you’re talking about…
So it seems as if Robin van Persie, our talisman of last season, will be sold if Manchester United meet the asking price, which they apparently have. I wrote about the situation a while ago, before he made the statement, insisting that we couldn’t afford to sell him, even if it meant he ran down his contract and went elsewhere. It’s important to mention that I assumed ‘elsewhere’ would be another league – I was sure he wouldn’t leave us for another English team.
Well, pretty much everything has changed since then. He made the statement, looks likely to go to one of the Manchester clubs with few other teams in for him, and we have signed Santi Cazorla. The situation is completely different, and for us it’s changed for the better.
Last season, we relied on van Persie for goals, and he duly supplied them, winning the Golden Boot and, let’s be honest, firing us into the Champions League. But the team was imbalanced – we relied on him far too heavily. There was a massive disproportion in our list of goal scorers – only Theo Walcott also reached double figures in all competitions.
What was clear as we entered the Robin van Persie saga was that any replacement would be under huge pressure to deliver – van Persie’s role was unique in its style and also importance. Whoever we signed to take his place, assuming we had to replace him, would be thrust into the headlights and would be required to hit the ground running. If not, we’d have another season of transition and if we fell further from our position of last season, we’d most likely miss out on the Champions League.
The statement changed things. It changed van Persie’s status at Arsenal from the king of the current crop to, in the eyes of some, a traitor. Money-grabber was a bit far, but he had let down everyone at the Emirates Stadium, from the fans all the way up to Arsene Wenger. Suddenly he became a bit more dispensable – he hadn’t become a worse player over night but his commitment could be openly questioned after the statement.
Still, on the pitch not much was different. We still had to replace him with a great player if he left, and even then his influence wouldn’t quite be replicated.
The signing of Santi Cazorla was a game-changer. All of last season we had lacked a player to define us – a playmaker. Cesc Fabregas was a massive loss, and we didn’t make up for the sale with a similar player. By all accounts, Arsene tried hard – the size of the bids it’s suggested he made for the likes of Cazorla and Juan Mata back that up – but in the end we were left to rely on Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey. Both good players, but not capable of running the team. Rosicky came into form in the second half of the season, but still didn’t quite do the job, while Ramsey suffered under the pressure of the role.
Cazorla, though, was a fantastic signing. Finally, we had someone to replace Fabregas in that playmaker role. The problem with van Persie being our talisman – the problem with any striker being a talisman – is that, no matter how good he is, he needs service to thrive. Van Persie often did so, with our suppliers focussing their passes and crosses in his direction, but it wasn’t always enough. Sometimes he was off form, and at those times we often struggled.
But when your key player is a central playmaker, like Cazorla, it’s a bit different. A playmaker, by definition, makes those around him play. Fabregas did exactly that, and at his best, goals came from all around the pitch. Whoever made a run would be found, and it would then be up to them to supply the finish. The goals weren’t shared around last season – all of the players knew that they just had to pass to van Persie.
This may have meant that they didn’t take responsibility themselves. Why try and score yourself when it’s so much easier to pass to your captain and best player? Besides, at the beginning of the season especially, we lacked confidence after a poor spell, so a lot of players played within themselves (or should I say with the hand-brake on Arsene?) and van Persie ended up having to rescue us on several occasions.
And don’t let van Persie’s massive goal total fool you – creatively Arsenal were lacking a lot last season. The majority of his goals weren’t simply down to good midfield play, but superb movement from the Dutch striker. Without that we suffered, although luckily we didn’t go without it too often during the season.
Having Cazorla will change things. Our wingers won’t have to focus on feeding the striker, and will instead be able to make more runs. Alex Song won’t have to bomb forwards as much because his passes won’t be so important. We’ll become far less predictable – the theory was that if you stopped van Persie, you stop Arsenal, and while this was a lot easier said than done, it was still managed. The game against Wigan is the best example – at the Emirates they took van Persie out of the game perfectly, and we looked as if we had no idea how to score in the second half.
Finally the balance of the squad is a lot more even. The restructuring with the signings of Podolski and Giroud to shoulder the attacking burden and Cazorla to create have been excellent, especially for a reported total of £35 million (Andy Carroll yadah yadah yadah), but most importantly Cazorla fills the hole that’s been gaping since Cesc Fabregas went back home.
This vital puzzle piece being missing last season meant an increased reliance on our best player, but now, in theory at least, we won’t need to rely on a striker for all of our goals. They should be coming in from all angles now that we have a proper creator. Players don’t always have to be replaced like-for-like; simply their influence has to be replaced, and the signings of Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and, in particular, Santi Cazorla will surely do that for the apparently imminent departure of van Persie.
While the Manchester derby was hardly going to live up to the gargantuan expectations that had been built up by the media in terms of quality, it was still an intriguing game.
Firstly Manchester United made some interesting decisions; Phil Jones came in for Rafael at right back and Park Ji-Sung played in midfield alongside Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, with the champions going with a 4-3-3. Wayne Rooney played up front on his own – which most United fans maintain is his best position – flanked by Ryan Giggs and Nani.
One of the things that stood out was how close Phil Jones played to United’s centre backs in the right back position when United were defending. Partly this was probably natural on Jones’ part, as he’s primarily a central player, but it also meant that there were few gaps between him and the right centre back, meaning the likes of Samir Nasri and David Silva struggled to thread balls in between them for Aguero. Another effect of Jones’ narrow positioning was that it forced City wide, and with Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero not offering much in the air, not to mention United having a lot of players back to defend the crosses, this helped United limit the clear-cut chances afforded to their opponents.
Still, Alex Ferguson’s men couldn’t keep City out, conceding from a corner on the stroke of half time. Vincent Kompany got the goal, easily losing Chris Smalling to power home a header from Silva’s in-swinging corner. Kompany, along with the other centre back Joleon Lescott, is City’s main aerial threat (Yaya Toure is also tall but heading doesn’t seem to be his strong point) so you’d argue that United should have planned better with how to stop Kompany from getting on the end of corners. Ultimately though, it was Smalling’s lack of focus & experience that saw him dragged to the ball, leaving Kompany free to emphatically head home what turned out to be the winner.
To sum up the first half, Man United did well to limit the chances City had; other than Kompany’s header, the Blues registered one shot on target in the first half from a decent position near the penalty spot. There were three off target efforts, including a wayward, rushed volley from Aguero from a tight angle. City’s other three attempts were blocked before breaching the six-yard area in front of Joe Hart.
City managing to break through during the first half despite United’s relatively good organisation in forcing them wide showed a good variety in their play, because while they were stopped from threading balls through they still managed to score from a set piece. Still, it highlighted a short-coming in their attack – neither Aguero or Tevez are particularly good in the air, shown by how City struggled when forced to cross the ball into the box; most of the crosses were low ones, which were mostly cut out easily.
Many teams have tall target men such as Peter Crouch at Stoke, but at City the technical demands are much higher, and they can’t simply sign a tall player who’s good in the air – there must be a good amount of skill there too. Firstly they tried for this type of player in Emmanuel Adebayor, but he failed to make the long-term impact they were hoping for. Edin Dzeko was a similar signing, but after a good start to the season finds himself struggling to get into the team. With Fernando Llorente making noise in Spain and Europe for Athletic Bilbao, it may be that City consider replacing Dzeko with the Spaniard.
In the second half, the game was much more end-to-end. City lived mainly off of counter attacks which eventually led to spells of tentative dominance in United’s half – Yaya Toure’s power was vital in starting off these counters. While City, as stated earlier, had few clear cut chances in the first half, they had more in the second half as United, pushing for an equaliser, left less players back and focussed less on defensive organisation and more on breaching City’s defence.
Vincent Kompany was man of the match, and he was excellent in defence alongside Joleon Lescott, with United also feeding off scraps up front. They had no answer to City’s defensive compactness, which was excellent especially as they managed to transition from resolute defending to free-flowing attack seamlessly. United had few runs in behind the defence, who as it were were playing close to Joe Hart, and first Barry then de Jong tracked Rooney whenever he dropped deep. That left the midfield battle as 2 v 2, but Scholes and Carrick couldn’t take advantage of this new numerical equality; perhaps not quite energetic enough to do so.
Another thing which was worth nothing was the similarity of United’s wide players – Young, Valencia and Nani are all good players (although Valencia is the only one who has been consistent this season) but they’re all mainly speed & trickery based. Valencia is a good team player, but none of them are particularly renowned for their passing or playmaking skills. With Scholes and Carrick sitting relatively deep, United had no playmaker in advanced areas, which limited them when it came to breaking City down and unlocking the stubborn blue walls of defence.
United’s 4-3-3 was set up largely to contain, as they would have taken a draw while a loss would have been disastrous to them. However, with Scholes and Carrick their sitting midfielders, they had no naturally defensive holding midfielder to protect the defence properly a la Gareth Barry. While Scholes and Carrick do well at keeping possession against the likes of QPR at home, they were somewhat overrun by City and didn’t offer enough offensively between them.
In the end City’s discipline defensively having gone 1-0 up was commendable, and they were fully content to hold onto their lead – they knew fully well that they could frustrate United due to a lack of creativity against a stubborn, well-organised defence, and that’s how it panned out.
There would be little point in going over the same negative critiques as everybody else – it would add little to the debate and be very repetitive, not to mention rather detrimental. So instead, this post will discuss some of the positives that can be taken from the Arsenal – Manchester United game.
Let’s start with Laurent Koscielny, a player I (among several others) have long been championing. All season long (and before that too) he has been absolutely superb, barely putting a foot wrong. He kept that up on Sunday, with his immaculate defensive play one of the highlights for Arsenal. As always his tackles were precise and clean, and he was dominant in the air.
Indeed, he was the one who started the attack for Robin van Persie’s goal. He robbed Rafael of the ball expertly, and having carried it out of defence, fired a pass into Tomas Rosicky. Rosicky played a lovely ball to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who set up van Persie to fire home. Koscielny loves to come out of defence with the ball and it is one of the many things that endears him to Arsene Wenger. He loves a ball-playing centre back, and appears to have found a superb one in Koscielny. I’d say he’s quite easily the best defender at the club. There aren’t many better in England right now either.
The manner of Arsenal’s goal was unsurprising and perhaps telling, as it was made by the three stand-out players of the game for the Gunners. After the contribution of Laurent Koscielny came Tomas Rosicky‘s. He found himself in acres of space when found by Koscielny, and lobbed an excellent pass into the path of Oxlade-Chamberlain. Rosicky was easily the best out of Arsenal’s midfield trio, constantly looking for space and helping keep the ball. His dynamic runs on the ball were a great help in starting attacks for the home side, and filled in well for Mikel Arteta.
There have been many times when Rosicky has been written off by most but once again he’s come back and shown his true colours. If he could gain some more consistency in his performances (which are in fairness not very consistent themselves numbers-wise; he often gets thrown in due to injury, instead of being played in a rotation system, something which would probably decrease Arsenal’s injuries as they wouldn’t be relying on players so heavily) he would be seen as a very valuable member of Arsene Wenger’s squad. For now he should be seen as a great fill-in for Mikel Arteta – it is just a shame that Aaron Ramsey is also filling in for Jack Wilshere and is suffering from that reliance on him. It’s never easy when a team is forced to play two second choice midfielders, especially for Arsenal as it’s where the majority of their play comes from.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was the third player involved in the goal before the finishing touch from Robin van Persie and had been having an eye-catching game. His buzzing runs and powerful play created a few openings for Arsenal; a chance spurned by Theo Walcott and one narrowly missed by Aaron Ramsey were both set up by Oxlade-Chamberlain. He finally got the assist he had been working for when captain van Persie drilled home after great work from the youngster.
He repeatedly turned United’s full backs and covering players inside out, and did so again for the goal. Any worries about him not being mentally ready for the big-time seem to have been soothed. Physically he may not be ready 100% as was shown by Wenger bringing him off (although his critics will argue against that point) but that will be easy to improve on.
Talking about the game as a whole, 2-1 is a completely respectable score-line. Arsenal were poor in the first half, but the second half saw them take control. It was a very promising display; they seized upon mistakes (see Rosicky robbing Smalling) and despite missing chances it would have pleased Arsene Wenger, despite the direction the game took in the end. His side have lost by the same score to Manchester United many a time before, and there certainly wasn’t as much hysteria then.
Clearly Arsenal are suffering from injuries to key players; Bacary Sagna, Andre Santos, Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta would all have started, and Gervinho is also missing. Not only that but the replacements for those players aren’t all fit – Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs are both on the sidelines too. 2-1 against the champions is hardly a terrible result. It could have gone either way too – if Arsenal had made more of their period of dominance they could have easily gone ahead.
The point is not that the negatives are irrelevant or even not there. Just that they aren’t all that there is.