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Scouting Report: Arsenal vs Newcastle

I’d like to think that the petty back and forth between United and Newcastle over the last few days has interrupted their preparations for Saturday. Even if it hadn’t though, we’re going into this match with a full week’s rest and should have the upper hand against an injury-ravaged Newcastle side. Not to mention, apart from the King of Contracts, Demba Ba – who I would take in a blink of an eye this January – the rest of the team have struggled to reach the heights of last season.

Arsenal on the other hand, as we’re used to seeing annually, are beginning the mad mid-season run that salvages a poor start and saves some humiliation after a bad finish to a season. Confidence has to be high coming off three wins as the odds in favour of a fourth.

The Formation

Newcastle have been playing a 4-4-2 more often than the 4-3-3 this season in an attempt to use both Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse in their natural positions. This allows them to defend with the ever-popular 2012 trend called “two banks of four”, whatever that is. It’s a strange tactic considering Newcastle don’t generally play very deep. And when they do the midfield line seem to play high as well, leaving a great amount of room between them and the defence that was most obvious against United earlier in the season.

The Gameplan

Get the ball to Demba Ba? Probably. With no real gamebreaker in the lineup for this match I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ba drop deep and try to pull the strings.

Newcastle like to stretch the play when attacking so we need to see more of that tracking back from last weekend. The wingers and overlapping fullbacks stick to the byline and whip the ball in for Cisse and Ba who are very capable in the air. With two strikers up front we need to see more solidity in defence. Often Arsenal play a stopper/cover type combination with Vermaelen rushing out to stop the attack from developing. It doesn’t work on most teams let alone one with two up front.

The Dangermen

Ba will obviously be the biggest threat but we’ll have to be very careful of Tim Krul as well. We’ve seen on many occasions how good a keeper he is on his day. With a threadbare side I’m sure he’s expecting to face a lot of shots on goal and confidence from one good save can easily snowball into a world class performance.

The Weak Link

Gutierrez down their left flank usually compensates for some of Davide Santon’s defensive frailties and Santon’s runs forward are usually covered well by the Argentinian. With one of Obertan and Marveaux replacing him down the left, that wing could be left exposed for the likes of Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain to run down and with the latter’s impressive performance against Wigan, he more than deserves the start.

Missing Mike Williamson through suspension will be a big one as well. He’s the kind of defender we’d expect our front man – especially if it’s Feo – to struggle with. With Steven Taylor out injured as well, we’re going to probably see James Perch moved back into defence where he can pose a problem himself but I feel he’d be a lot easier to beat than Williamson would’ve proved to be.

Newcastle will also be forced to play one of their young midfielders likely to go up against a very tenacious Jack Wilshere so we can cut the ball out in midfield before it gets to the strikers, stopping them posing any real danger.

So we should expect to control this match given there’s multiple areas of the pitch where we have the upper hand.

The Verdict

Between Newcastle’s form and injuries, it’s very difficult to look past an Arsenal win.


Scouting Report: Arsenal vs Chelsea

Chelsea’s Champions League run last season is probably what really brought to light Roberto Di Matteo’s reign at the club. It was the defence-first kind of football that just managed to take absolutely everything in the world that annoyed you and make it look like it was nothing. But it was that kind of negative football that won them Europe’s biggest trophy, it’s the same kind of football that England were so enthusiastic about over the European Championships and it did work to a certain extent.

So obviously, you wouldn’t expect Di Matteo to change his style much. Even the signings of Eden Hazard hasn’t added much in that regard. Last season, we saw just how tough they were to break down as the match ended in a goalless draw.  Offensively we do have a little less to worry about. The absence of Didier Drogba is probably the most comforting thing going into this match.

The Formation

Chelsea play a defensive 4-2-3-1. They look to contain the opposition, striking on the counter. The big problem here is that unlike the match against City, where we expected to dominate possession and did for the most part, we’re going to face a team that’s set up to draw the opposition in. Chelsea will definitely make it difficult to get through their backline as a result of that. The saving grace is that, apart from Mata and Hazard, they are generally very poor in possession (only completed 70.7% of their passes in the final third in the previous fixture) so we should be able to dominate the match.

The Gameplan

As mentioned earlier, Chelsea will look to draw us in and hit us on the counter. As mentioned several times over the course of the season, Arsenal’s deeper line makes it tougher for us to be caught off guard. Less players are committed forward with the talent up front more than able to compensate. Again, the beauty of the 4-2-3-1 we play is that we’ll see the short triangles coming to good use in breaking Chelsea down.

We saw against City how their relatively deep line was constantly been drawn out by quick passing, leaving them open on multiple occasions for us to counter.

They play a very direct game as you’d expect. It left us really exposed at Stamford Bridge last season but a better defensive approach at the Emirates ensured that we got a point out of it, although we arguably deserved all three. That shouldn’t be as much of a problem this time around with Arteta sitting back to intercept long balls to Torres.

The Dangermen

The man has a name that practically wants you to put him in this section. Eden Hazard is about as dangerous a player as you can get. Every team these days seems to have at least one all-round footballer. Hazard can pass, dribble, shoot and has the physicality to hold his own against stronger players. The Belgian almost seems to play in a free role so it won’t be easy to mark him either.

In the opening few games of the season he’s definitely had a few chunks kicked out of him by opposition defenders. It’s led to Chelsea having penalties and freekicks in dangerous positions. Arsenal aren’t exactly a rough team but a few mistimed tackles here or there and we could be in real trouble. At the same time, not aggressively closing down could lead to even more dangerous scoring opportunities.

The Weak Links

It’s not easy to pick any one player out as a weak link. Chelsea have good players who also happen to be prone to quite a few mistakes. Petr Cech has been quite poor over the last year or so. Players like Mikel and Ramires lose possession far to easily. With Torres you never know how many easy chances he’ll miss and how many difficult ones he’ll score. So it’s not a question of pinpointing a single weakness but trying to exploit Chelsea’s shortcomings as a whole.

The Verdict

Chelsea have only just scraped by in their games so far. Arsenal have been in good form and should be able to take this one at home.

Scouting Report: Manchester City vs Arsenal

Firstly, I’d like to thank Ravi Ramineni and his brilliant blog, Analyse Football, for all the statistics used in putting together this Scouting Report.

I’ve said it prior to the last fixture against City, I’ll say it once again and it will always apply as long as they are able to spend freely: Manchester City are probably the most unpredictable team in the league simply due to the staff at their disposal. When you can have the individual talent that they do, tactics barely seem to matter.

So much so that Roberto Mancini has opted for a rather odd 3 man backline in an attempt to actually contribute something to this team. Since City are a tactical anomaly at times we’re going to head to some of the brilliant data provided by Ravi.

The most important of which is: City had a season low 53 successful passes in the final third in the game at Emirates (season average : 135). Even at the game in Etihad, City only managed 105 successful passes.

Over the last few meetings between the teams Arsenal have dominated possession – which is why Arsenal have allowed the least touches of the ball by the opposition in the final third – regardless of the final outcome of the match. And between Cazorla and Arteta, both of whom have pass completion rates of over 90%, that could be even more prominent this Sunday. The best way to defend City is to keep the ball away from them.

As a result, City haven’t had much of a chance to threaten the Arsenal defence whether at the Emirates or at the Etihad in recent years. The goals have eventually come out of counter attacks which should be easier to stop this time around with a more defensive set up.

The Formation

We could expect either City’s regular 4-4-1-1 formation or the more experimental 3-5-2. Although considering that Arsenal are more likely to be in control of the game Mancini might have to stick with the former, pushing his wingers back to defend. The way Arsenal are set up, a 3-5-2 would be easy to exploit in any case.

The Gameplan

City are a very explosive team. They can be passing the ball squarely one moment and suddenly spring a pass in behind the defence the next. In that sense, both teams are very similar so it will come down to who takes their chances. In the three matches last season, including the two that they won, City had a grand total of 8 shots on goal while Arsenal had 18 yet they were able to score 2 to our 1. Fortunately, this time around we have more players who can get into goal scoring positions so the likelihood of all those shots on target being converted is a lot higher.

City also scored the most goals from corners last season so those battles will be another interesting aspect of this match. Their ability to bother the opposition from corners really stood out against QPR where Robert Green, unsurprisingly, failed to clear the relatively predictable delivery by David Silva on multiple occasions. It led to a goal, during which Yaya Toure, like so many other times, happily cleaned up the mess left in the goalkeeper’s wake. Fortunately, our defending at the near post has been solid so far which is where we face the biggest threat.

They’ve scored the most goals from outside the box last season as well, which means unlike the previous four matches, we really need to see more pressure in the final third.

The Dangermen

Carlos Tevez and Yaya Toure are the obvious dangermen for City. Tevez is the complete package, able to singlehandedly drive an entire attack with his pace, power and skill. When off the ball he tends to patrol the edge of the box before exploding in behind the defence, mostly likely to get on the end of a David Silva pass.

Yaya offers much of the same in attack. His powerful runs from deep can cause a lot of problems and it’s exactly that that catches defenders off guard as they aren’t set up to track the extra man. Here’s where I would’ve been a bit worried about Song in the side but Arteta is far more responsible in his role and should hopefully be able to keep Toure at bay.

The Verdict

It’s definitely a battle of team vs individual here and either can win it. Like so many past meetings between the two, this could well be decided by a single goal.

Scouting Report: Arsenal vs Southampton

Southampton’s fixture list to start the season hasn’t been the most welcoming on their return to the Premier League. They’ve had to face both Manchester teams and now have a trip to the Emirates ahead of them. They’ve had nothing to show for their efforts so far but if they’ve proven anything, it’s that they don’t lie down and take a beating.

There’s no doubt that the match this weekend will be open as the Saints look to strike lucky. They have the attacking talent to pull off the upset so Arsenal will have to look to surpass their performance from Anfield over a week ago.

The Formation

Southampton play a 4-3-3 formation with the wingers often dropping deep to turn it into a 4-5-1 with Rickie Lambert isolated up front. It leaves them more players in midfield so that they can keep possession and build up attacks at their own pace. The team even look to build attacks from the back if there’s nothing on.

Teams often used to look to exploit Arsenal’s high line on the counter. It’s something that cost us a lot of valuable points in 2011/12. This term with the defence sitting deeper, it may be the only option Southampton have in any case.

On the other end, Southampton themselves play a very high line. This has left them exposed at times in their opening matches though they do play the offside quite well for the most part, it can definitely lead to a few good chances.

The Gameplan

As mentioned before, Southampton are not a team that’s going to just roll over for the opposition. They do try to “play football” much like, well.. one and a half of the newly promoted teams from last season. It’s not unusual to see a team who have fought hard to make it to the top flight, sit back and try to protect that right by throwing everyone behind the ball. Southampton aren’t necessarily like that though.

They do defend in numbers with their wingers often dropping very deep to allow the fullbacks a chance to play more compact. They close down and cover spaces very well and when the two go in tandem there’s only a small chance that you’ll find your way through. At least for parts of the match.

Southampton are a very spotty team, in that they have a potent attack and a solid defence for spells but can easily be overridden by the opposition. In just their opening trio of matches Southampton have conceded four goals in the final ten minutes showing the effects of fatigue on their defensive set up.

Their attacks are a little tougher to predict since it changes based on which striker is playing. If Lambert starts they usually go down the wings as they look to take advantage of his aerial prowess. Guly Do Prado on the other hand is more prone to dropping into midfield to get the ball delivered to his feet, turning the focus of the attack onto the overlapping wingers.

The more advanced midfielder plays an important role in this side’s attack, filling in the gaps that the wingers leave when they move out to the touchline. It creates the same problem in offence that the extra man in Schneiderlin creates in defence. Drawing the midfield forward may be the best way to break down this defence, who I should point out again, attempt to play a dangerous high line.

The Dangermen

It goes without saying what a threat Rickie Lambert is. The big man up front was given little chance by pundits but has already proven them wrong by getting himself a pair of goals early in the season. He has the height and strength to be a good hold up man, a job he does have to carry out on counters while the wingers fall back to help out in defence. He also has the skill to create chances for himself either by dribbling or by shooting from range so he needs to be marked closely.

Like any good defensive midfielder, Morgan Schneiderlin’s work goes almost unnoticed. You’ll find him sitting back just in front of his defence but the explosiveness is what we need to be wary about. Schneiderlin is very good at rushing out of a defensive position to close down the man on the ball, often winning it in the process and sending his team on the counter attack. It wouldn’t be farfetched to compare him to Arteta as he does pass the ball well, rarely ever losing possession.

The Weak Link

The center back partnership of Hooiveld and Fonte have their moments of clumsiness. The duo have already given away two penalties in just three games (though if it’s some consolation to them, neither went in thanks to two horrible spot kicks). Drawing Schneiderlin out might expose this weakness.

The Vedict

This should inevitably be three points in the bag although I’m sure Southampton will make it an exciting match and might even grab themselves a goal in the process.

EDIT: That Gaston Ramirez bloke is pretty good too.

The Robin van Persie situation

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.

Scouting Report: West Brom vs Arsenal

Relegation Sunday looms once again but for Arsenal and West Brom, the weekend holds a different importance. For Arsenal, it’s a chance to bring a difficult season to an end by securing third place. For West Brom, it’s Roy Hodgson’s sending off before he takes over as England manager.

The Baggies have been in a decent run of form lately, only losing one of their last six matches. Last week they played for a tough draw against Bolton, putting both their strengths and weaknesses on show.

The Formation

Hodgson’s men play a simple, flat 4-4-2 which is their first major flaw as it makes them predictable. They attack very methodically and like to slow down the pace of the game. Over the course of this season we’ve been horribly exposed by counter attacking teams like Wigan and Norwich. But West Brom’s slower attacks will allow the Arsenal defence to set up properly and shut down any threats with a lot more ease.

The Gameplan

As mentioned, West Brom are terribly predictable both in attack and in defence. Their defence and midfield stay very compact, forcing the strikers to drop into the hole to bridge the large gap between midfield and attack.

This now creates a 4-3-3 situation if the target man, namely Marc-Antoine Fortune, manages to keep possession. The wingers arrive late and with the more advanced of the strikers up front, it gives Fortune plenty of choices to take the attack further. Fortune is the pivot of this West Brom attack and gets upwards of 50 touches per match.

Sometimes they are pushed out to the wings in an attempt to find some open space and all this does is isolate the strikers further. It could possibly create an another threatening situation on the edge of the box however. Chris Brunt usually ghosts in behind the attack but when the ball is out wide he will move up to cover for the striker on the wing. He’s out for this match but the winger coming into the box can still cause problems and you couldn’t write a better script with former Arsenal man, Jerome Thomas likely to fill in for his injured captain.

Defensively, there’s a lot that can give Arsenal fans hope. The West Brom defence was constantly bombarded by crosses from Bolton and really struggled to defend against them. They couldn’t stop the flick ons by Kevin Davies, allowing the other striker to get into great scoring positions. Having a player like Chamakh on the pitch would give us a more potent attack. Given that he has played well in the handful of playing time he’s got in the last few weeks, it’s not an outrageous suggestion. With Van Persie playing off the big man, it will cause havoc for the West Brom defence.

That suggestion being pointlessly offered, it’s not the only way to trouble them. The West Brom defence shows an amazing lack of grace during spells of the match. They don’t track their men, are constantly caught out of position and leave enough space to be exploited by a quick attack.

The Dangermen

Fortunately, the two biggest threats in the West Brom squad, Peter Odemwingie and Chris Brunt, are out for this match.

Instead, we’ll have to turn our focus on their target man, Marc-Antoine Fortune, who has the pace, strength, skill and heading ability to be a dangerous player. He plays with his back to goal a lot. This pulls a center back out of position and stretches the opposition defence as the overlapping runners get into the space left by the out of position defender. Alex Song will be vital and will either have to cover well or mark Fortune himself, leaving our center backs to focus on the players running in late.

The Weak Link

Right back, Billy Jones is in his first Premier League season and has shown his inexperience at this level time and time again. Attacks down the left will definitely bring a lot of chances for Arsenal.

The Verdict

Arsenal have been unconvincing in possession since Arteta’s injury. In addition to that the team has really struggled away this season but third place should really be enough motivation to go out and win this match. Although that was said prior to last weekend’s clash with Norwich and it clearly wasn’t enough of an incentive to the players. Maybe the fact that West Brom are missing key players will make it easier.

Scouting Report: Arsenal vs Norwich

Norwich are quite the story, securing a second Premier League season after being at the bottom of League One just about two years ago. That’s taking into account that the Canaries have had a tough run recently, only picking up one point in the last five games. They have been on the end of thrashings from Manchester City and Liverpool in the last month and many would expect them to face another at the Emirates this weekend. The last match between these two ended 2-1 to Arsenal with Robin Van Persie having to bail the team out after a poor defensive mistake allowed Norwich to score the opener. With Norwich’s counter attacking style, those mistakes need to be cut out completely.

While this match might not mean much to the visitors, it’s all important for Arsenal, who absolutely need three points to keep third on the table.

The Formation

Paul Lambert has used a 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 this season, playing mostly on the counter against big teams. While this means they might throw a lot of men in defence, they will look to release their attack quickly too, leaving them vulnerable for our own counters. They have used the five man midfield against bigger opposition to give them more stability and to give them a better chance of retaining possession. It also offers support for their defence with an extra man tracking back.

The Gameplan

Norwich played a mixed passing game with the five man midfield helping them slow down play and keep shorter passes. Their initial pass often comes from defence with the ball going out to the wings. They do try to play the ball in behind the defence so that’s another thing to be vary of. The Arsenal fullbacks will need to closely mark the Norwich wingers and make sure that the ball doesn’t get out to them.

Statistically speaking, most of their attacks come from the right wing but Anthony Pilkington is a big threat down the left and is far more likely to cause damage. You’ll find the striker playing with his back to goal often. This moves the focus of the attack onto the wingers who push forward past the striker, which is why it’s necessary to cut off access to the wings if we want to nullify their attack. It goes without saying that players like Grant Holt or Simeon Jackson need to be tightly marked from the resulting crosses as well.

As mentioned earlier, their defence usually plays the initial pass and they do it with some good accuracy. They also try playing the ball out of sticky situations and if Arsenal close down well, they should be able to force Norwich into making enough mistakes.

Norwich’s fullbacks also get involved in the attack and this leaves them very open for the counter. With their defence staying compact, they are poor at defending out wide.

The Dangerman

Anthony Pilkington will be the man to watch on the left flank. He definitely has enough pace and skill to really bother our defence. Fortunately, between Sagna and Koscielny, we should be able to keep him out.

The Weak Link

With Marc Tierney out and Adam Drury picking up an injury against Liverpool last week, we’ll see Russell Martin playing out of position at left back. After coming on against Liverpool, he was constantly exposed and not being a natural left back, he should be the target going forward.

The Verdict

This Arsenal squad usually delivers in big games and even though it may only be Norwich, this is definitely a big game. Arsenal should be winning this comfortably.