Match Preview: Bradford City vs Arsenal

brad

So a trip to Valley Parade to play league 2 Bradford City in the Capital One Cup Quarter Finals! With any luck the lads will be still be on a high after the great win against West Brom and we can move past this round with little difficulty. Mind you I’m sure that’s what Wigan Athletic were thinking last round and look what Bradford did to them, so it’s safe to say we should not take this match lightly. Arsene Wenger was quoted saying “we want to win in normal time” which is good to hear because I don’t think my heart can take another 7-5 win in extra time like in the last round of the Capital One Cup vs Reading.

Looking at how Bradford play and their recent track record they could prove a difficult obstacle to dislodge, they’ve won 10 out of their last 11 matches and progressed to this fixture by beating Wigan on penalties. Against Wigan they basically parked a big fat bus right on their goal box and Wigan simply didn’t have the means to unlock their defense and score. Against us this will be a much bigger risk. While it’s true that Arsenal have been having trouble scoring recently, most of that is due to teams pressing our midfield(particularly Arteta) and not allowing us to build up our nice flowing passing from the back. Bradford play in a 4-4-2 formation which I believe they will deploy rather narrowly against us in an attempt to stifle the midfield with the sheer amount of bodies. But if Bradford choose to play defensively and not even offer a decent counter-attacking threat trying to hold on for a draw and penalties, then i feel that Arsenal will rip them apart even if we play our second string squad players. The likes of Gervinho, Chamberlain, Jenkinson and Rosicky will too much for their defenders to deal with all match if they invite the pressure by playing defensively and by standing off and giving space to our midfielders, the chances will come. One issue we will have to contend with will be the quality of a league 2 football pitch, making passing more difficult but overall I expect us to score a few.

Looking at the players available it will be interesting to see who Wenger selects for this match. There will be the experienced players in the mix like Rosicky, Arshavin, Squillaci and with any luck, Koscielny but also I’m hoping a few of our promising youngsters like Gnabry, Eisfeld and Meade might all start this one. Coquelin is another player who may feature as well as Ramsey, we may even see a midfield of Coquelin, Ramsey and Rosicky starting this match, it just depends how much of a threat Wenger sees Bradford as. The last conundrum will be who starts at Center Forward. Despite some appalling  misses in the last match vs West Brom I think Gervinho should be the one up top, partly because I think he could do no worse than his efforts on the wing and partly because I believe Wenger has very little faith in Chamakh to start this one.

Overall I just hope he chooses a solid defense after that shocking 1-4 result at half time vs Reading last round. Bradford City have a very traditional-style pairing up front in James Hanson and Nahki Wells. Hanson is tall and strong in the air, while Wells is small, pacy and a decent striker from range, meaning long balls forward and the subsequent knockdowns are something that our defense must be wary of. I really hope Koscielny is fit enough to start this game as I feel he is the best player we have when it comes to aerial defense and interceptions. I’d also really rather see Szczesny in goal to Mannone as the memories of those weak save attempts vs Fulham come flooding back and the fact that Nahki Wells has scored 14 goals this season already, is cause for real concern.

Bradford City Dangermen: Nahki Wells, James Hanson and Nathan Doyle who is an ex-player from the Premier League at Hull City.

Result Prediction: Tough to call but I think we’ll manage a solid win. Wells can’t be underestimated so 4-1 Arsenal.

Predicted Lineup: 4-4-1-1 formation – Mannone, Jenkinson, Squillaci,Vermaelen, Meade, Chamberlain, Ramsey, Coquelin, Arshavin, Rosicky, Gervinho. Expect young prospects like Gnabry and Eisfeld on the bench.

Conclusion: This is a Quarter Final, Mickey Mouse Cup or not and Wenger will hopefully take it very seriously. If we field a decent strength squad we should break through their blockade eventually and win the match but be prepared for a frustrating game unless we score early, in which case all hell will break loose as Bradford chase the game.

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Match Review: Arsenal 2 – 0 West Bromwich Albion

I've never seen someone look happier about scoring a penalty

I’ve never seen someone look happier about scoring a penalty

Well done gunners! That’s my first impression after this match. After several disappointing results recently and constant reassurances from players, the manager and the club etc the fans demanded a response and truth be told West Brom didn’t look the easiest target to try and pick on given their season so far so full credit goes to our lads for delivering on their promise.

On the whole our play looked light years better than it has in recent weeks and while fatigue certainly has to stand up and accept it’s fair share of the blame, I chalk up a lot of our resurrection to Jack Wilshere’s constantly improving level of fitness. He was superb in this match and while lacking a bit technically speaking, he provided the surging runs from deep midfield that we’ve lacked since Diaby sneezed too hard and injured half the muscles in his body. As a result our midfield was able to keep it’s shape and not over-commit players forward, resulting in a much more consistent looking Arsenal display. It’s funny reading comments that Cazorla appeared more lively and “fresher” in this match. While fatigue may’ve indeed played a part it was more the fact that Jack’s bursts in midfield created an extra threat for their defense and therefore they weren’t able to closely mark Cazorla, giving our brilliant Spaniard more space to be creative. Oxlade Chamberlain on the right wing was similarly industrious and worried the West Brom defenders all game, producing one of his finest matches in the red and white jersey.

Taking a second to tactically analyse West Brom’s approach to this match, I believe they played into our hands somewhat by choosing to play deep. West Brom curbed their usual attacking enthusiasm and played to hit us on the counter. However this meant less pressure on key players Vermaelen, Arteta and Wilshere, who were able to pass the ball out defense comfortably before beginning our attacks. This wasn’t so much a defensive mistake or indeed a choice by West Brom, as it was a direct result of our pressing midfield play early in the game. Arsenal essentially won the battle for midfield supremacy(largely thanks to Jack) and West Brom were never able to exert their influence and play the free flowing attacking football that has shamed many a team so far this season, so effectively we didn’t allow them to play their natural game which is a nice switch since that’s what many teams have been doing to us lately. It’s nice when the boot’s on the other foot for a change…

There were two unsavoury things to take out of this game, firstly the penalty claim by Cazorla. I’m pretty certain by now most people realise that it was a dive so I won’t make a big deal about it. Diving is something that Wenger’s really not a fan of, despite having had several olympic class ones in the past, most recently Chamakh and no diving team would be complete without mentioning Robert Pires’ efforts. Suffice to say it’s something Wenger usually removes from their game whether that be through simple instruction, forced listening to Justin Beiber, or by chasing the player around the training ground with a big stick, I’ll leave entirely up to him. Secondly and much more frustratingly, the finishing displayed by our attackers. One has to wonder if both Podolski and Gervinho put their boots on the right feet before they played with 2 efforts that will be standing strong in the charts for worst miss of the season. Wilshere although having an otherwise excellent game, also managed to miss an empty net from 5 yards. I think it was unfortunate that Giroud hurt his back early on because he just didn’t have the same impact after that and with him fully fit we might’ve converted a few more. I am however a great believer in the law of averages. If you do the right thing, enough times in a match eventually you will be rewarded and whether by open play, set piece or penalty, I think it was inevitable that we would score and win the game. Just looking at the end stats, Arsenal had 19 shots, with a pathetic 3 on target while West Brom had 9 shots and 1 on target and although this simply isn’t good enough, the sheer amount of attacks and chances we created meant we deserved the 3 points.

Once again our defense was solid, Szczesny had a quiet game in goal but made a good save when he was called upon. His continued solidity at the back, coupled with ice cold displays from Vermaelen and Mertesacker give real hope for the future and the many clean sheets that await us. It’s easy to see the impact Wilshere’s improved performance had as it meant that we were once again playing a true 4-4-1-1 formation, defending in 2 banks of 4 and restricting our opponents movement. In all it looked much more like the Arsenal we saw in the early season, not suprising really when you consider that this is the first time our double pivot pairing has worked perfectly since Diaby’s injury. The increased amount of passes between Wilshere, Arteta and Cazorla is also really encouraging although I believe the best is yet to come. It was always going to take awhile for this formidable trio to get going but these early signs are all we could’ve hoped for. Vermaelen’s increased confidence and defensive display is also a massive boost for the team, as is Chamberlain’s performance in light of the increasing shadow of doubt being cast over Walcott.

Overall, a very well deserved win for the Gunners and hopefully a sign of things to come, provided our players can stay fit and injury free! Hopefully Giroud’s injury is minor and Koscielny will be back from his thigh injury soon. With Rosicky returning to fitness and rumours of Thierry Henry wanting to play for Arsenal till the remainder of the season, the future is positively mouth watering. Bradford City are our next opponent in an important Quarter Final match for the League Cup. While it may only be the Mickey Mouse trophy we all know too well the repercussions for losing in the final stages of the competition, whereas it might provide a springboard and a well of hope and belief for the team and fans if we were to triumph. So let’s take it seriously and field a strong enough team to get the job done,

Come On You Gunners!

Oh and just a teensy morsel to whet the appetite on watching our midfield maestros in the near future…

tikitaka

Foreign ownerships effects on the English Premier League (Part 1)

What are the effects of foreign ownership on a League? Are they primarily positive or do the negatives outweigh the positives? These are questions one often stumbles upon when discussing football nowadays.  Foreign ownership is not exclusive to football, however, as its roots are in the business world where it happens rather often. It basically means that a local company is being bought by a Foreign Investor. So why is it so different when it comes to football? The answer is: you. The presence of fans who love the club they support can make foreign ownership in football a bit messy. This piece will be a 3 part analysis with part 1 having the aim to explore the the types of foreign ownerships. Part 2 will look at its effects on the financial success of the league and foreign ownerships’ effects on the transfer market prices and wages. Part 3 will look at the National team and the youth and how foreign ownership affects it. It is in part 3 where we will see if the 25-man rule of the FA was the right decision or not.  The English Premier League (hereinafter EPL) will be the focal point simply because that is the league I follow and thus have a deeper understanding of how things work in it (compared to other leagues).

Even the lampposts hate Glazer

To date there are primarily three scenarios that can happen to a club when it is taken over. I will name these three scenarios as “Project“, “Business“, and “Self-sustaining”. The first twp scenarios are exactly the opposite of each other which will have an effect on the way the fans perceive it. Generally speaking “project” type ownerships are more welcome by the fans (of the club that is being taken over) while “business” ownerships will most probably bring grief to the fans. Whether foreign ownership sells the soul of the club remains to be seen (and I will not spend much time on this specific issue myself) but I will state that foreign ownership is unfair by default as the fans do not know if the owner will look at the club as a business opportunity or as a project, not to mention a project ownerships external effect on the league. 

1. Foreign ownership in general – Selling the soul of the club?

First of all we have to note that currently the majority of the 20 clubs in the EPL are under foreign ownership, and that out of the big six (Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal FC, Chelsea FC, Tottenham Hotspur, and Liverpool) only Tottenham Hotspur is in British Hands (with Joe Lewis being the majority stockholder owning 85% of spurs). Newcastle United are a team that looks like they can break the top 6 that I have named and they are also a team in British hands.

1.1 Project ownership – Expensive toys for rich (overgrown) kids

By project ownership I mean an owner who looks at his team as a project. In the EPL the first owner to do this successfully was Roman Abramovich whose business attitude towards Chelsea FC, which lead the team to become an EPL force, paved the way for Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Manchester City. The basic idea behind a project ownership is to inject funds into the Football club which will then be used for transfer activities, as illustrated by the table below:

Transfer Market Activity (from Transfer League). Values are nominal and not weighted against inflation

Please note that I only used EPL teams for the representation, and since the EPL was created in 1992 most of the data used in the calculation will be from 1992 onwards. Also note that the table above merely looks at  the dealings of the clubs at hand in the transfer market (in no way are these numbers a representation of the boards dealings) and that I only looked at the clubs within the top 6. There are other clubs that would fit the description of project buyout in the EPL: QPR, Sunderland (prior to Short buyout).

Looking at the table above one might ask if Liverpool FC really does fall under the banner of “project” ownership and it might be argued that to some extent yes it does (especially with last seasons transfer dealings).  But these numbers do not show other revenue streams apart from players being sold and when that is being factored in, Liverpool’s financial activity on the transfer market does not stand out like Manchester City’s and Chelsea’s. In short, John W Henry is a massive improvement over Hicks and Gillet (regarding funds invested in the team), but is far from following the classic “sugar daddy” concept. Instead Fenway Sports Group is aiming at maximising its revenue streams similar to Stan Kroenke of Arsenal FC and and Elis Short of Sunderland.

What is a distinguishing feature of this type of ownership is that the enterprise will have a soft budget constraint. This basically means that the clubs management (this is a wider group than just the club manager) can negotiate with the owners to invest more money into the enterprise’s squad. This is a vital difference as it leads to these clubs having seemingly  limitless demand for players since when they would need to balance the books they simply engage in vertical negotiation with the well off owners to invest more into the club. However by doing so the clubs management loses some control over the club and allows it to be shaped by the owner.

In a “project” ownership the personality of the owner will very much define the managerial aspect of the football club. Ever since Roman Abramovich took over Chelsea, the team has seen 10 different managers at its helm which is roughly 1 manager/season (!!!). This is an alarming figure by itself but factor into the equation the amount of money needed for these manager changes and you get a fortune being paid just for hiring and sacking managers.There is nothing wrong with this but a manager tends to plan for a longer term than 1 season and most of the times the real benefits are only reaped in the 2nd or 3rd season when the manager figured out which tactic is suited for the team and who he should ship in (and out) to make the team better.

If we look at André Villas-Boas record with Chelsea it is not horrible in fact it is better (by a very small margin) than Mancinis record was when he got the Manchester City job (as represented by the table on the left). From the table and the fact that Roberto Di Matteo was just recently sacked after being in charge of Chelsea for a shorter time than Villas-Boas,  it is apparent that Abramovich’s impatience is starting to define Chelsea FC’s decisions. Roman Abramovich wants to produce a team that can consistently win (such as Barcelona FC or Manchester United) but in the process of doing so he is actually taking 2 steps back every time he sacks a manager. If Chelsea do want to be a European force they might have to consider parting ways with Roman Abramovich. The real question is: can they afford to?

Suddenly this doesn’t just seem like a joke

Indeed the first issue that most teams under this type of ownership will experience is that they are essentially locked into a position. Due to the excessive transfer spending (and commercial deals that come from the owners network) these teams generally become indebted to their owner to the extent that they can no longer afford to walk different paths. This dependence is the reason why the personality of the owner will start the define the football club. In fact the more money the owner invests in the club the more it can define what it will look like as the more dependant the club becomes the more superior the owner becomes in any vertical bargaining situation. Of course it is not to say that if the owner leaves the club has to file for bankruptcy but the lavish transfer lifestyle the fans are used to will suddenly come to an end and these teams will have to look to their academy for survival, assuming their academy is good enough to supply the quality needed to stay on top.

Apart from the monetary issues when the enterprise parts way with their ‘sugar daddy’ there is the issue of the managers (Im referring to the boardroom staff here not the manager of the team) having a different set of skills under this type of ownership. Due to the soft budget constraint the teams management will not be as responsive as other teams when the transfer is negotiated. If there seems to be a financial issue the management of these teams usually just go to their owners and engage in vertical bargaining. This does not mean that these  managers are inadequate (vertical bargaining needs skill as well after all) it merely means that the management has a different set of skills. Thus if the owner decides to leave the club it will be a financial and a managerial challenge which is extremely hard to mount.

However the most important question is: Is this type of ownership sustainable? The answer is no. It creates an extreme subordinate-superior position where dependence is what keeps things in place. What if the owner decides to not pay for the team? For a recent example we have to venture into la liga which has recently become another attractive prospect for investors as “there are no more clubs for sale in the Premier League” (Rossell, 2011). There is a high chance that foreign ownership will be popular in this league as it has a financial disparity that stems from televising rights (will talk about this later) which has the potential to “kill Spanish football” to quote the words of Villareal manager Fernando Roig (2011). The team I shall look at is Malága CF which is currently under the hands of Abdullah bin Naser bin Abdullah Al Ahmed Al Thani. In the summer of 2012 Malága CF were struggling financially and didn’t pay their taxes or the player wages for the past weeks. The management of the team engaged in vertical bargaining with the owner to ask the owner to finance things. However things did not work out and the team was forced to liquidise its assets. This meant that Santi Cazorla and José Salamón Rondon left the club on the cheap for the team to be able to continue. Many things can be said about the owner and how he ‘doesn’t understand the ‘sugar daddy’ concept’; however this attitude doesn’t look at the management of the team: Why did they start vertical bargaining rather than sell their less wanted players? When it was obvious the owner won’t pay the team was at a disadvantage when negotiating their players sales. Of course Malága continued on to the Champions League after the sales but the damage dealt to the club puts it at a huge deficit if it wants to be in the Champions League the next season.

1.2 Business ownership – Fans money in businessmen’s  pockets

Ownership of an EPL team (or ex-EPL team) is a very lucrative investment fuelled by huge amounts of income from television deals. The reason behind this is that televising rights are centrally negotiated and distributed to keep financial equality between the teams. Without a doubt teams such as Manchester United and Arsenal FC could negotiate better television deals than the likes of Wigan Athletic or West Ham United. Of course this all sounds fine but Walters et al. (2009) raises a concern that the foreign investors might be solely driven by business and profiteering and not really interested in the success of the team and the league in general. This moral hazard problem is aggravated by the fact that the fans continue to pay their ticket prices which then end up with an owner who has no interest in reinvesting these funds (neither in the squad nor in increasing revenue growth). Very often these type of foreign ownerships are brief (1 or 2 seasons long) and end up with the owners leaving the club with heaps of cash siphoned from the club. This was the case for Portsmouth FC

Fortunately these types of ownerships are not common for teams who already cemented their place in the EPL; however the same could not be said for lower league teams where the respective team is ambitious to break into the EPL. Breaking into the EPL is lucrative as an average EPL club gets 45 million while an average Football League division team gets 1 million (from televising rights). Naturally this invites investors to buy teams which have a high probability of breaking into the EPL and once they make it (if they do) sell the club for a higher value. Some might even argue that this is the reason why newly promoted clubs often get relegated in either their first or second season. Whether this is the case is debatable, however it points to an obvious gulf between the EPL and the lower divisions of England.

Why should we care about this gulf? The reasoning is simple: The larger the gap in financial power between the EPL and the lower divisions the more desperate the management becomes to break into the EPL. This desperation will lead to the active search of people who are willing to invest in the team. The investment required is minimal and the rewards are huge if the team does make it. The worrying part is that the FA does nothing to address this issue and the EPL is only concerned with maximizing the profits for the top division. In fact if a team is relegated from the EPL it is subject to receive funds from the EPL to help it rise back to the top division. As ‘altruistic’ as this might seem it essentially creates a private club of EPL teams that are always financially better off than their lower division counterparts even if their managerial skill is subpar to that of lower division teams. How to tackle this problem is beyond the scope of this piece, but it does present a question to ponder on: Is financial elitism healthy for the league?

1.3 Self-sufficiency – The clubs that desperately want to fit the bill

This is the category that is the exception to the rule (so to speak) and is the broadest in definition. The owners (foreign or not) will want to make the club as self sufficient as possible. One could think of this as the middle ground for foreign ownership. It is not a “business” ownership since the owners do not siphon money out of the club (YES, Kroenke and the board does NOT take money out of Arsenal Holdings plc.). However these owners don’t handle their clubs as a “project” ownership either by throwing money at the squad. Instead these owners aim to maximize revenue streams. According to Dobson et al (2001) these owners of the football club assess the success of the club not solely on trophies but on five factors: profit, security, attendance or revenue, playing success, and health of the league. It is important to note that just like the “project” owners, the “self-sustaining” ownership model also invests/reinvests into the club. However instead of investing completely into the squad, clubs under this model invest in the enterprise itself in an effort to maximise revenue streams.

The degrees to which how much is invested in the squad and how much in the enterprise varies a lot and is often dependant on the saturation of current revenue streams and the potential of revenue growth. Manchester United and Liverpool FC were both capable of increasing their commercial revenues (Liverpool against the odds since they fell out of the Champions League) which allowed both teams to invest in their squad knowing that revenue growth can cover these expenditures. Arsenal FC, however drove its main revenue streams (matchday revenue and property development) close to saturation before attempting to increase commercial revenue via the Asia tour. Now of course Arsenal are tied down in certain deals until 2014 but nothing would’ve stopped the commercial team to attract new secondary sponsors (think about it: Manchester United have 2 different shirt sponsors for their playing kit AND their training kit). Because of this Arsenal are lagging behind in commercial revenue and in order to keep themselves afloat are forced to dip into their squad and sell their assets (More on this here). Of course for Arsenal this is mainly due to the debt they had to incur to construct the Emirates Stadium, a project which left a huge dent on its finances but in the long run, with a strong commercial team, can make the club a European powerhouse as the board envisioned it to be. But for this to become a reality it is imperative for the commercial team of Arsenal FC to ‘up its game’ otherwise the team will start to drift out of the top 4 on the football field as the management will dip in the squad to keep its accounts healthy.

Another point to note is that “self-sustaining” ownerships interest is making the league better as the financial success of the owners are closely related to the financial success of the league (to a large part due to televising rights) as Dobson et al. (2001) rightly point out. In this sense it is closer to “business” ownership since both of these types of ownerships look at the success of the league for potential financial profit. However while  “business” ownership free-rides the success of a league a “self-sustaining” ownership aims to create the success of a league. “Project” ownership takes a neutral standpoint on this matter and one might even argue that it is against the financial success of the league as it decreases financial disparity between teams (increasing competition), and decreases the teams dependency on the owner. However this is debatable and I will stick to “project” ownership being neutral to the success of the league as the team under the owners control has nothing to lose if the league becomes financially successful.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in which the financial success of the EPL is looked at and how foreign ownership affected this. If you are interested in transfer market prices and wages and how  foreign ownership affected it then this is the piece you don’t want to miss out. Part 3 will be published shortly after part 2. Youth development and the national squad will be looked at. If you are interested in how the mixture of the 25-man rule and foreign ownership turned out to be then this is what you’re looking for.

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Sources

Match Review: Arsenal 0 – 2 Swansea City

Arsenal-vs-Swansea-City-preview,-English-Premier-League-96280

After a slightly disappointing draw against Everton I was hoping for a better result against Swansea but in my mind I knew that given the level of fatigue on our players, we would have a hard time against an impressive Swansea side. That we kept them at bay till the 88th minute is a credit to our back 4 and goal keeper, more than a team performance. Arsenal enjoyed more possession, dominated the aerial duels and had a higher passing accuracy than Swansea, why then did Swansea create more chances and have more shots? The answer is actually pretty simple, the majority of our passing was lateral ie sideways. This wasn’t the fault of the midfield either. While it’s certain that both Arteta and Cazorla are suffering from being overplayed, they were still the best players on the pitch for us and Wilshere also did a good job in the pivot with Arteta. But our attackers were dismal. They were so lazy that our formation actually changed from our usual 4-4-1-1 system to a 4-3-3, that’s how far forwards the wingers Walcott and Podolski were playing. This was also the cause of the many thru balls in this match, our midfield had to play further forward in order to try and link up with the lazy front three, which in turn meant that Vermaelen played in a more advanced role to keep the link to the midfield and this created space in behind that Swansea exploited. Our wingers also offered very little in the way of defensive support for their fullbacks, Podolski had a paltry 22 touches all game while Walcott appeared to be more industrious with 44 touches. However to the trained eye Walcott’s performance had all the hallmarks of a player who doesn’t give a toss and it’s clear to me he will be leaving either in the transfer window or the end of the season. Heatmaps never lie and it shows that our usual wide playing winger, drifted inwards towards the Swansea defense. Why would he do this? Because he doesn’t want the ball. Drifting close to the defense appears as if you’re being industrious and wanting the ball when in actual fact you’re ensuring that your team mate sees that you’re heavily marked and therefore not an option. There was plenty of space for Walcott out wide, he just chose not to use it. As for Podolski I’m not too sure what his problem is. Gibbs is back in the side playing wide for him so that’s not the issue and leads me to speculate as to whether he’s carrying some sort of injury or if he’s just not fit enough for the Premier League. He’s starting to remind me a little of Chamakh, starting the season red hot and just petering out into invisibility. God help us if he visits the same Swedish hookers that destroyed Chamakh’s confidence…

Just look at these heatmaps

heatmap1

Which leads me to Gervinho. I’ve never been a great fan of this guy, I think he has the decision making ability of a kamikaze pilot and the gentle touch of a rapist but on occasion he does do well. Sadly this was not one of those times. Gervinho is very different to Giroud in that he creates space for himself whereas Giroud creates space for the team. The difference is that Giroud’s movement can pull defenses apart like we saw against Tottenham. Gervinho however will only run into space to score goals and allow the oppositions defense to remain organised throughout the match. Swansea’s defense for the most part marked him tightly and prevented passes from Cazorla reaching him, resulting in only 27 touches of the ball but the Arsenal players still picked him out with a few crosses and his finishing efforts from these were simply not good enough. I’m not saying that each time a free cross is received from 8 yards he should score but he damn well should be getting his header on target and forcing a save. It just shows more and more that we really do need a secondary option for Giroud and if Chamakh once again can’t make the bench for this game then his time at Arsenal really is over and we need to look at realistic replacements. I see Gervinho as a cover for the right wing and nothing more, certainly not a viable replacement for Olivier Giroud and I can confidently say that if Giroud had been on the pitch we would’ve won the game.

On to the positives. Our back 4 did a good job of limiting Swansea’s chances although Vermaelen and Gibbs were on occasion caught out of position. Podolski bears some blame here for not dropping back and picking up the wide option, leaving Gibbs to do the job and isolating Vermaelen 2 on 1 with a player in front of him and a wide runner, which was perfectly illustrated during one very dangerous thru ball and shot in the first half that Szczesny dealt with expertly. Szczesny was excellent in this match, producing several fine saves and deservedly earning Man of the Match. Vermaelen’s advanced position was slight cause for worry with several dangerous thru balls nearly allowing Michu to score but thankfully he had the pace to make up for his lack of positioning. I will however still breathe easier when Koscielny is back in the starting lineup as he is far more solid. Jenkinson showed vast improvement from his efforts against Aston Villa, making far more attacking runs to the corner flag and whipping in several dangerous crosses, just as Gibbs does on the left wing. The other great positive to come out of this is the return to fitness of Rosicky which will hopefully mean much needed rest for Cazorla, to allow him to return to his best for us.

So basically a combination of fatigue for our key players in Cazorla, Arteta and Podolski prevented us from creating more chances to score as well as a very lack lustre front 3. Gervinho in particular is just not the type of player we required on the pitch to drop deeper and link up play, he tended to drift towards the left nearer the tired Cazorla, rather than the middle where Wilshere was. This is why we saw so little direct passing throughout the match. While I understand Giroud has a knock and needs rest his presence was sorely missed for this one. The late loss I contribute to Wenger refusing to lie down in this one and continuing to go for the win in the dying minutes, something that every manager knows is a dangerous premise since players are generally tired and more prone to mistakes at the end of a match, epitomised in the easy thru ball Michu latched onto to score the winner. I certainly hope the irony of the draw against Everton isn’t lost on those fans who cried out that the manager “didn’t know what he’s doing” when this time instead of a defensive substitution to protect the draw result, Wenger opted to bring on the offensive and not fully fit Tomas Rosicky instead and lost the game in the dying minutes. Suddenly that 1 point looks quite attractive when that happens.

So with Olympiacos next and group qualification assured I’d like to see a very young side start with the likes of Arshavin and Chamakh in there providing experience. Having seen Wenger’s named squad for the match I’m extremely pleased to see that Arteta, Cazorla, Wilshere, Podolski, Giroud and Mertesacker are all absent for this one. Wenger’s comment post-match about “There are many players who need a rest, because they are on the verge of getting injured. Some played with knocks today.” scares the hell out of me. To me it smacks of the hamstring injury that plagued Cesc Fabregas during his time with Arsenal that was caused by overplaying him. We need to avoid this at all costs, even if it means playing a weakened side and losing the occasional match. 1 or 2 poor results or a terrible season? Your choice..

Time to see what our young Gunners can do, hopefully they show some of the older players what it truly takes to earn the right to wear the red and white jersey, Come On You Young Gunners!

Match Preview: Everton vs Arsenal

Off to Goodison Park for a midweek clash with David Moyes’ Everton, a team that started red hot and is suddenly struggling for results. This fixture always makes for an interesting tactical battle and with both teams experiencing a dip in form I expect high drama once again. Everton have uncharacteristically for a change, started the season really well and sit just above us in 5th place. Winning this game would mean moving up the table and potentially boosting our morale for the relatively light run we have into the end of the year before all hell breaks loose in January with our rather frightening match schedule.

Everton will unfortunately be able to rely on the services of their well rested and fully fit attacking midfield beast Fellaini, who’s just returned from a suspension but they are missing several key players in Coleman, Mirallas and their stalwart captain Phil Neville. This season they have favoured a similar formation and strategy to our own in that they play in a 4-4-1-1 and like to attack down the flanks, particularly the left wing of Baines and Pienaar. Their winger and fullback duos are very aggressive and favour overlapping runs and triangles with Fellaini in order to create space for crossing opportunities, something our fullbacks will have to be very aware of as they create many scoring chances from these crosses. Everton have a tough physical midfield that likes to keep possession in the opponent’s half with short sharp passing and constant lateral movement, testing the defense on both sides. In this game however they may be slightly more predictable without being able to field their usual right wing duo of Coleman and Mirallas which could make them far easier to defend against by focusing their attack only on the left. They are in a sense, very much like Arsenal in that they have a brilliant starting eleven but lack the depth to play convincingly when one or two of their starters are out injured. One thing we will have to be very mindful of is conceding silly, pointless freekicks in dangerous areas as Everton have scored 22% of their goals this season from set pieces and given our weakness at defending them, this is a very real threat. They are also not at all shy about having a go from range, the majority of which come from their central midfielders so our defense will have to stay alert and close down players before they have an opportunity to shoot.

From an attacking point of view, Arsenal will be best off attempting to press their midfield, not easy with the likes of Fellaini and Osman in the center but if we do not and we allow Everton time and space on the ball, it will go very badly for us. Everton’s main weakness is the high defensive line they like to play. With Baines and Coleman always pushing up this allows for wingers to beat the offside trap often and a clever center forward making lateral and diagonal runs may be able to pull their Center Backs out of position and allow a midfielder to run into the space created between them, something a player like Wilshere excels at. Theo Walcott who’s been pronounced fit once more for this match will be against it vs Leighton Baines who’s probably the best left back in the league but this may still prove to be the best avenue for our attacks. He has the pace to beat their high offside trap and his wide runs should help to really stretch the isolated center backs and create scoring opportunities for Giroud, Cazorla and Wilshere. Given that this match will most likely be decided by this battle on our right wing it is critical that both Sagna and Walcott start as their chemistry makes for one of the best pairings in the league and our best hope of gaining this tactical edge.

The combination of Gibbs and Podolski on the left is more of a lucky dip attack avenue as lately with Podolski you’re never sure what you’re going to get. The fact that Vermaelen was rested for the match vs Aston Villa suggests to me he may well start at left back in this one, particularly since Gibbs is still returning from a lengthy injury and probably still lacks match fitness after playing just 3 days ago. I think the biggest worry for Arsenal however is how fatigued Cazorla and Arteta will be for this match, both looked quite lethargic vs Villa and now just 3 days later they face a much sterner test. Arteta will undoubtedly be out under constant pressure by Fellaini and it may prove disastrous for us. We may see early subs for either player in the form of Ramsey and Coquelin and if we’re really lucky our little Mozart Tomas Rosicky, who’s fresh returned from a long injury spell and it will be interesting how these players fare in these key positions. Overall I remain cautiously optimistic of our chances given that we have a better track record against Everton than pretty much any other team in the Premier League and although Everton can be tenacious, our players always seem to be up for this one, home or away.

Everton Dangermen: Fellaini, Jelavic, Baines, Pienaar, Jagielka

Result Prediction: With the disappointing result vs Aston Villa the players will really want to prove themselves and coupled with our results history against Everton and the spirit we usually display against them I’ll say a tight win for us in a real nail biter, 2-1 Arsenal.

Predicted Lineup: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Walcott, Wilshere, Arteta, Podolski, Cazorla, Giroud

Conclusion: Everton will bring it, they always do. They will look to attack us through the wing of Baines and Pienaar with support from Fellaini, befor whipping in crosses for Jelavic. They will also try to punish us from set pieces and corners. Arsenal will try to press back their midfield and nullify Fellaini’s man marking of Arteta while playing triangles through Cazorla and the wing of Walcott and Sagna. Giroud will make lateral runs to both stay onside and pull their Center Backs out of position for Wilshere and Cazorla to run into the channels of space created. Wilshere’s involvement both in attack and defense is key in this match.

We may well get a really pleasant and welcome suprise by seeing Tomas Rosicky back in the side today off the bench and this would do wonders for our season ambition as well as finally allowing Santi Cazorla some rest! Time to get behind the team and listen to those crazy away fans of ours again, Come On You Gunners!

Match Review: Aston Villa 0 – 0 Arsenal, Our lack of depth exposed

I feel your pain mate…

Yet another frustrating result for those of us who bleed red and white. And yet another bitter reminder that there are no easy games in the Premier League regardless of ladder position. So what went wrong? Why do we continue to struggle against teams in the relegation zone after the top teams have pounded them flat just a week ago? The key answer is in our squad depth, or rather the lack of. While the likes of Manchester City and United can afford to bench their superstars in favour of other excellent talents being paid an obscene amount of money to sit on a bench each week, Arsenal’s bench is brimming with considerably less talent, which was highlighted very late in the game when Giroud who’d picked up an injury, was substituted for the defensive-minded Coquelin. Now whether Giroud was fading or Wenger wanted to ensure we didn’t concede a late goal and simply accept the draw result, only he knows. A tough fixture against Everton just 3 days after this one prompted Wenger to rest several key players, most notably Wilshere who is still recovering from his long term injury and shouldn’t be overplayed. But the problem didn’t stem from this, it stemmed from the injury to Walcott and the decision to play Jenkinson and not Sagna at Right Back. It must be noted that Wenger’s hand was forced here due to Sagna still recovering from a lack of fitness due to his broken leg.

In fact the key players that required more rest than anyone else, played 90 minutes, Arteta and Cazorla. Both looked quite lethargic in this game with Arteta uncharacteristically slow in his movement and rather tellingly having less touches on the ball than his Central Midfield partner Aaron Ramsey and also Santi Cazorla. I can’t recall another game this season where Arteta has failed to manage more touches and passes than any of his team mates so this is a real indicator of his level of fatigue, also backed up by the fact he made around 15/69 of his passes back to our Central Defenders. Annoyingly the movement in the double pivot was actually very good for a change, Ramsey acquitted himself very well in the role, both in his defending and attacking play, ensuring Arteta was free to move around and couldn’t be man-marked. Aston Villa played an extremely aggressive pressing game that pushed our midfield pairing back towards our defense, thus separating the link to Cazorla and Giroud. Giroud’s frustrated response to this was to drop deeper and try to become the link in the advanced midfield, leaving no player up top to press their defense and this made our transition from defense to attack ie when we won the ball back to counter, even harder. Villa also tried to expand this problem for us by having Benteke man-mark Koscielny, leaving Mertesacker as our only passing option out from the back but the big German absolutely shone in this task and managed to distribute the ball to Arteta and Ramsey easily throughout the match.

But where we truly failed to capitalise on the risky aggressive game Aston Villa was playing was on the wings. While the potency of Gibbs and Podolski on the left is a constant threat for any team, it’s no good if you don’t pass there. Podolski looked fairly uninterested in this match and was again substituted(god knows why he’s so tired) although bringing on Gervinho instead is not something I’m a fan of. But this does little to mask the fact that we didn’t attempt to pass to them each time we looked to counter attack. This is due to Arteta’s fatigued performance and the winger’s poor positioning. Ramsey was situated on the right of central midfield and since he was the main man trying to create any kind of attacking play, it’s logical he would pass to the closest wing, being the right. But the inexperience of our right wing duo, Oxlade Chamberlain and Jenkinson, meant we wasted chance after chance to score on the break. The pair managed only 1 successful cross from 11 attempts and with Cazorla clearly fatigued and less influential than in previous games, this proved catastrophic as we were unable to create much in the middle(not aided by the heavy rain throughout the game making quick passing more difficult) and therefore crossing balls for Giroud seemed to be the best route to goal for us. Jenkinson is more of a defensive-minded fullback and I can only imagine the frustration that Ramsey must’ve been feeling every time he passed for Jenkinson to run onto it and take the ball to the corner to whip in a cross, only to have it passed straight back to him. Oxlade-Chamberlain also failed to make any impact filling in for the injured Theo Walcott and is yet to show his potential this season. Andrei Arshavin did come on for him late in the match and looked great, creating one good chance to steal the game from under Villa’s nose but in all honesty it would’ve been a “real smash and grab” style victory and not at all earned by our performance.

With Arteta playing poorly on the left of central midfield the service to Podolski was limited and is the main reason why our counter-attacks weren’t launched down the more potent left wing for Gibbs to whip in a cross for Giroud. I think it’s a rather telling stat that our best chance for a goal came from Giroud making a run down the left wing before delivering a low cross which Koscielny hoisted over the bar. Perhaps if we’d made a few more crosses from this side we would’ve gone home with 3 points. But the wingers did both Ramsey and Arteta no favours by playing too far forward, meaning that the passing distance was increased and becomes a less attractive option with the possibility of interceptions, mis-placed passes etc. If the wingers had realised this and dropped deeper to allow for a safer pass I am confident that our passing would’ve been faster and we would’ve made Aston Villa pay for their bold approach to shutting down our attacks early.

On to a huge positive! Despite the disappointing draw and lack of goals, our defensive shape throughout this match was nothing short of excellent. The continued confidence flowing from the back 4 is a very good thing to see, Szczesny had a quiet game but once again when called upon, he responded in style by making a brilliant fingertip save to parry a 25 yard screamer from Brett Holman onto the bar. Mertesacker was dominant at the heart of our defense and Koscielny once again excelled as his partner in crime. Gibbs looked lively and had a good game returning at left back and Jenkinson was solid in defense despite his lack of attacking impetus. It’s also worth noting that although obviously fatigued, Arteta did a good job of screening the back 4 although the real credit must go to Ramsey who’s workrate in this match was phenomenal.

So what do we do from here? Well clearly we need an extra striking option as Gervinho is inconsistent and if Giroud is injured we may find ourselves in real trouble. If Maroune Chamakh can’t even make the bench for this match then I’m afraid he’s finished at Arsenal. Tomas Rosicky back and fit would be very welcome so that Cazorla can have a well earned rest and I’d like to see Ramsey doing the same for Arteta once Wilshere is fully fit and established in the starting eleven. Looking at the rotation in this match, clearly the boss isn’t underestimating Everton but it’s a real shame about our lack of depth because I feel that with both Sagna and Walcott available for this match, Aston Villa would’ve been destroyed. I also think that despite Ramsey’s solid performance in Wilshere’s role, we need to look at getting a player that can cover for Wilshere as I truly believe that Ramsey is an understudy for Arteta and that one day in the future we will see a double pivot comprised of both Wilshere and Ramsey as the starting choice. Perhaps someone like Moussa Sissohko? Or another utility style midfielder who can play anywhere like Lewis Holtby.

So here’s hoping that Walcott and co are fit to play against Everton and we field a really strong team despite the fatigue to certain key players. I’ll leave you with a picture of hope, good to see him back in training finally. Now we just need him to be fit enough to start a few, Come On You Gunners!

Upping the youth talents! Dahlquist and Raage handed trials at Arsenal

New players could be inbound at Arsenal but not the type that most Arsenal fans are expecting. 15 year old’s,  Hampus Dahlquist and Jamaal Raage are both expected to be on trial at Arsenal in an attempt to bolster the our youth networks reach toward the Scandinavian regions (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, etc.). The next question becomes can they make it at Arsenal? Let’s take a closer in depth look at these two Swedish based players (or to the best of our knowledge!):

Jamaal Raage hails from IF Brommapojkarna, and is a striker that has the positional instincts to be very good at the U-15 level for Sweden. Fresh off of his first full start for the U-15’s against Finland (scoring 2 goals in the process in his first start) Jamaal was handed a trial at Arsenal in order to see if the 15 year old has what it takes to make it at Arsenal. In an interview with Jaamal after his trial he talked about the experience and what it was like to train and trial at a club like Arsenal:

“When we were with P97-national team and played as they had seen and followed me for a while. They then invited me to a week of sample games” says Jaamal.

“During the week of the Arsenal trained once per day, and played an international match and a match.”

on his trial: “It went very well for me, I’m very happy with what I performed during the week”

“It was a great week with many opportunities and it was great fun. I also got to visit some of the first-team players.”

Asked if he would like to join Arsenal if he would be approached to sign: “Absolutely, it would be a dream.”

Asked if there was any difference in the training methods between MUFC and AFC:  “No, both are fantastic clubs”

Full interview link will be posted below*

On to our other trialist, Hampus Dahlquist is a 15 year old defender currently playing in IFK Gotenburg youth set up. Apart from being handed a trial at Arsenal, he is also due to have a trial at the end of the month Bayern Munich. He’s also at the same level in terms of youth international as Raage but lacks a bit more experience in terms of being capped (being only capped 2 times once off the bench and starting once). Arsenal are not the only club that are looking at young Dahlquist as Liverpool, Ajax, Manchester United, and Hamburger SV are all looking at this bright youngster from Gotenburg.

As the weeks have passed so have the trials of these two young swedes as well. According to @goonrambler (the person to first break the story and massive props to him) both have impressed and will be invited back to Arsenal again (Raage scored 2 goals and also assisted one). It’ll be interesting to watch how these two youngsters will be approached by Arsenal, whether or not Arsenal approach them with contracts heavily relies on the fact of whether they can impress the coaching staff with that second opportunity as well. With the big clubs knocking on the door we may just see 2 other swedes added to our AFC youth roster along with Kris Olsson.

Raage Interview: http://www.expressen.se/sport/sanktan/stockholm/att-spela-i-arsenal-skulle-vara-en-drom/

Raage and Dalhquist info: http://svenskfotboll.se/landslag/p97/

Match Preview: Aston Villa vs Arsenal

So off to Villa park to play a side that has really gone downhill in recent years. Aston Villa were once considered a very tricky fixture, capable of upsetting many top teams but these days they find themselves in the relegation zone. With 4 points in their last 5 matches and having received a 0-5 hammering from Manchester City last weekend we’ll likely be playing a side that’s desperate to turn it’s luck around and this may make for a decent contest. The Gunners are flying high after their recent form so let’s hope it continues in this fashion for us.

Looking at their style of play, Aston Villa have the potential to cause us problems. They favour an aggressive, pressing approach in a 4-2-3-1 formation, preferring to not allow their opponent time on the ball and this has the potential to disrupt our flowing passing game. However this is a very different Aston Villa team to the one of previous years that was filled with large physical players. The majority of their team is relatively young and against Manchester City the other week they simply bounced off of their midfield when they attempted to play this way. While we don’t have a rampaging beast like Yaya Toure in our side, this still may actually be one of the few matches where our relatively light midfield isn’t simply out-muscled and enjoys some solid possession as a result. But while I do believe we can dominate in the middle and control the game, the real danger will come from Villa’s tactic of playing long balls to their forwards, something that is bound to keep our defense pretty busy. On top of this they have the likes of Agbonlahor on the wing and Darren Bent upfront who’ve both enjoyed some decent games against us in the past. So all in all it’s set to be a busy afternoon for our back 4 and it will be interesting to see who Wenger favours with Gibbs fit and ready to play at left back once more and Koscielny fast returning to his ice-cold best form. As well as this we play the in-form Everton 3 days after and both Sagna and Wilshere are still returning from injury and may struggle with playing so many fixtures.

Offensively we have plenty of players who can hurt Villa. The match just the other week against Manchester United showed their lack of composure, losing the match 2-3 after being up 2-0 at half time, while against Manchester City they were undone time and again by counter-attacks and dominant play through the middle. Their forwards were also caught offside a lot so a well run offside trap may pay dividends against their long ball strategy. I’d like to see Arsenal play slightly conservative early on in this one, keeping possession and exposing any over-eager pressing from the opposition. Even with Walcott out injured we have the players to really hurt them on the fast break in Gibbs, Gervinho and Podolski and this would seem to be an effective way to play without conceding any stupid early goals. A tricky, direct player like Gervinho might also be useful for running into the box and drawing the foul, since they’ve put in plenty of clumsy challenges this season and gave away 2 penalties vs City last week. Overall with Villa’s poor goal-conversion rate and suspect defense, I’m fairly confident we’ll score enough goals to win this match and would much rather see the emphasis on our defense to keep another clean sheet and maintain building confidence in our team from the back.

Expect a bit of rotation in this match from Mr “I don’t rotate my starting eleven” Wenger. Everton cannot be underestimated and since we play them in 3 days time I’d expect Wilshere to be subbed early on for Ramsey and possibly either Vermaelen or Koscielny, as well as Sagna to be rested.

Aston Villa Dangermen: Aston Villa rotate their starting eleven a lot so it’s hard to say who’ll play. Benteke is a powerful goal threat despite only having scored 2 so far this season. Likewise Agbonlahor and Darren Bent can never be underestimated if they start.

Result Prediction: It’s vital we continue our good form and don’t struggle against a team in the relegation zone. I’d expect a fairly strong lineup despite the mid-week appointment vs Everton and this should see a comprehensive victory for us. 3-0 Arsenal.

Predicted Lineup: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gervinho, Arteta, Wilshere, Podolski, Cazorla, Giroud

Conclusion: Aston Villa will attempt to press us high up the pitch and hopefully be reduced to chasing shadows in the middle if our team is focused from the very first minute. Arsenal will attempt to control the game through the center and use Cazorla’s creative nous to create opportunities, while also looking to exploit their aggressive nature by hitting them hard on the break through Podolski. Our defense will try to stay organised and deal with the many long balls forward and it’s vital to not give them space to shoot. Arteta’s steady disciplined presence in the heart of our midfield will be a potential game changer.

Right then, time to get behind the team for this one, looking forward to hearing our mad away fans drowning out the Villain’s home crowd. Come On You Gunners!

Match Review: Arsenal vs Montpellier – Fire the Cannon Gunners!

And here is the cannon in the form of Podolski’s left boot, what a strike! Arsenal guaranteed qualification to the final 16 of the Champions League thanks to a lovely chipped finish from Wilshere and an emphatic finish from Podolski. However it was not all roses and champagne as once again our players looked slightly hungover for the first 10-15 minutes of the match, misplacing passes and giving away possession very cheaply. They sobered up after this sadly now-characteristic start and started to play with more confidence, asserting their dominance over Montpellier’s midfield by the quarter hour mark. As was outlined in the match preview, Montpellier chose to sit back, stay disciplined and hit us on the counter but all this really did was concede three quarters of the pitch for us to move the ball around in and keep possession. We fired a warning shot early on when Koscielny latched on to Cazorla’s excellent cross and powered a solid header against the crossbar but for the most part, Arsenal looked dominant until the final third in the first half, seeming to lack the key to unlock Montpellier’s solid defensive resolve.

And this is what I love about the new Arsenal compared to the predictable Fabregas-dependant team of old. Montpellier were parking a fairly large-sized bus in their defensive third so what did the lads do? Moved the ball around quickly to create space and then fired dangerous balls into the box for Giroud to win and knock down into the path of our midfielders. This is as good a ‘Plan B’ as we’ve had in years, whereas our old team despite brimming with creative talent, would keep passing the ball around on the edge of the box for 10 minutes at a time, dominating but ultimately not doing a single damn thing to worry their opponent, not even a shot in anger! This new team attempted to create a goal-scoring chance by understanding the weaknesses of their opponent. The shocking stat in this match was that Arsenal enjoyed a whopping 82% success rate on aerial challenges so it would seem the most logical way to force this chance was to ping balls into the box, which ultimately is how we scored both goals. Wilshere’s energy and enthusiasm to get forward into dangerous positions rather than look for the perfect pass and when coupled with Cazorla and Arteta’s vision and Giroud’s ability to win pretty much any ball that comes near him, this is very dangerous. The great thing with Cazorla is he not only understands how to find the space left by opponent’s defenses but doesn’t mind having a go from range either and he nearly scored another thumper for us in this match. Giroud is another player who will do this and it’s these kind of things that make this team a much more potent force despite lacking some of the class of our previous Arsenal players.

While the change in our attacking impetus is great to see it was the defensive side of our game that was the biggest positive to take away from this match and that’s not just because of the clean sheet, it’s because of the way they earned it. It was a return to the well organised defensive system we started the season with and I credit a lot of this to Szczesny being back between the posts. I think the defenders draw a real sense of confidence and familiarity from Tex being there. Mannone was never very impressive in my eyes and although Szczesny had a quiet  game, the one time he had to make a decent save he got it right. The partnership between Koscielny and Mertesacker seems to be gaining solidarity again as well, Koscielny in particular was excellent in this match aside for one small brain-snap where he kicked out at one of Montpellier’s players and gave away a dangerous freekick. Montpellier were reduced to long shots by the domination of our midfield and the no-nonsense approach of our defenders, trying their luck wildly at times(including a rather sad effort from 40 yards..) and were seemingly out of ideas. Ramsey’s substitution in particular reinforced our resolve by helping to keep possession in midfield. Montpellier’s tactic of trying to hit us on the counter down the wings was destroyed by a more disciplined Arsenal performance than previous weeks, never over-commiting bodies forward and simply protecting the lead. The long shots never bothered our keeper and once again Koscielny was having none of it as time and again he made the run forward to either shut down the shooting attempt or nip in and intercept the ball forward. Montpellier’s danger man Belhanda, in particular must’ve been mightily frustrated by his efforts and it saw them have about 10 long range efforts that basically all fizzled out.

I do think Montpellier gave us a helping hand in this regard by not starting Herrera who is a more physical presence in the box than Charbonnier and could’ve given the defense a shake up but overall it was a very business-like and unyielding display by our back line and a hugely positive sign of things to come. Even Vermaelen managed to do a decent job at Left Back and my only worry is that with the imminent return of Gibbs to the lineup, Koscielny might again get squeezed out thanks to the Captain’s armband, despite being the more ideal partner to Mertesacker. For my mind though, the positives in this match far outweigh any negatives. Wilshere played far better in his role of the pivot, helping Arteta in defense more than he has in the last few matches and this is a step in the right direction for our midfield. Szczesny has instilled renewed confidence in the back 4 and looks set to stay between the posts for the season, barring injury. Podolski looked great once more and with Gibbs back next match to support him I expect to see an even better performance vs Aston Villa. Hopefully Walcott’s injury isn’t too bad as his pace is another thing we could really use against the Villains.

The only real improvement needed from this match is for the players to be alert and pass crisply from the starting whistle! The passing stats showed almost everyone’s accuracy lower than normal with the exception of, you guessed it.. Arteta. I put most of the blame for this lower accuracy on the first 10 minutes of the match where the passing was as sloppy as a pub team on the weekend. Against bigger teams this could decide the match quite early on so it’s vital we work on this, maybe our next sponsor should be red bull or some other energy drink? Perhaps that would wake the players up quicker.

So Aston Villa next and let’s hope we continue our good form in that one, though I really want to see better focus from the start from our lads. Till then, North London rivals humiliated?-check, Champions League qualification complete with a chance of topping the group?-check, key players returning to the squad and new financial deals about to be negotiated?-check. Not a bad week really…

On track and forward: Arsenal vs Montpellier preview

After a fabulous game against our neighbors that put them firmly in our shadows we now turn to a game which will determine our qualification into the next round of Europe. Oh hey, look its Olivier Giroud’s old club that we have to beat again. Since the first time we faced them Montpellier have settled down as a team compared to before and look like a threat that can cause problems for us anytime of the week. Let’s take an in depth look at this Montpellier team which is in good form recently:

For Montpellier, there is no way for them to qualify for the next round but there is still a chance that they can get third place and secure a position in the Europa league. How would this be achieved? By beating Arsenal and Olympiacos losing to Schalke, though the chances of something like that occurring are very slim as Arsenal are very tough at home. For obvious reasons we have to look at the previous fixture and think of Montpellier as a formidable opponent as they were able to outplay us for large periods of the 2nd half in the first game we played in France. But looking as to why that happened we have to look at the formation and the players of Montpellier in general. Cabella played on the RW in that game and he ran rings around our first choice Left Back Kieran Gibbs. To do that against our most consistent Left Back was an achievement in itself since Gibbs has covered the left hand side so deftly this year. It was a worry to see and is something that could haunt us in this fixture as well. Apart from Cabella we may now have to deal with Charbonnier on the wings (who was not in the squad vs Arsenal in the first fixture), a tricky winger who can cause trouble for any sides and has a fantastic eye for goal. Also this time Arsenal may have to deal with Herrera from the get go, a player who caused significant problems in our defensive formation last time with his presence in the box.

Montpellier also have been in good form in Ligue 1 this month in general, going 5 games unbeaten in their last 5 (2 wins and 3 draws) which brings up the question are they an easy team to beat? No, they’ve vastly improved their defense from the previous games that they’ve played. They’ve employed a bit more of a defensive style which helps them sit back and counter but in their countering they use the pace of their wingers rather than have everyone push up (which they use to do before). Montpellier are clearly out for some pride at this point with virtually no chance of progressing to the final 16 and this makes any team a dangerous prospect. Montpellier typically setup in a 4-3-3 formation(although this does sometimes switch to a 4-2-3-1 mid-game) with Herrera up top and the dangerous wingers Camara and Charbonnier either side. Their biggest threat however, has to be Younes Belhanda who sits behind the striker in midfield and plays a no.10 role in the team. He likes to get forward often and isn’t afraid to try his luck and is a player that the likes of Mikel Arteta will have to watch closely. In general Montpellier will attempt to keep the ball in midfield, moving the play from side to side before pushing up to the edge of the box to attempt either a through ball or a long shot to hopefully force either a defensive or keeping error.

Now for the good news. Montpellier are quite vulnerable to crosses into the box on counter-attack and they don’t deal with tricky skillful players very well. This means the likes of Gervinho, Gibbs and Giroud should be able to cause some damage to their defense. I would assume that due to their aggressive nature it would benefit Arsenal to play somewhat cautiously and keep possession in midfield and try to expose them if they commit too many bodies forward. Counter-attacking would seem the ideal way to achieve this and if Arsenal can score an early goal I’d love to see this approach taken. I believe our midfield is superior to theirs and should be able to keep possession for decent spells. Patience and using the width of the pitch might be the best way to frustrate Montpellier into losing their defensive shape and hitting them hard when they do. I’d expect Giroud to have decent success vs their Center Backs in the air so the more crosses swung in the better, it’s just a shame Theo Walcott is unavailable to play this one.

Looking at our own lineup for this game we are blessed and cursed at the same time. On the positive side we have Gibbs and Gervinho(err I think that’s positive..) returning to the side and on the negative we have Walcott who’s been in such fine form, nursing his shoulder injury from the match vs that ‘other team in North London’ and Santos unavailable also(probably ate too many burgers or got booked for speeding). Even with Gibbs back and available I would expect Wenger to operate on the side of caution and use him only as a sub in this one, keeping him fresh and fit for the Premier League match this weekend vs Aston Villa. In Walcott’s stead I would expect seniority to rule the vote and therefore Gervinho should start over Oxlade-Chamberlain. The rest will most likely be the victors from last weekend, applying the old adage of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

Montpellier Danger Men: Belhanda, Herrera or Cabella(whichever plays) and Camara.

Result Prediction: This is a must win and Wenger knows it so he won’t be fielding a weak side. If the crowd at the Emirates are anywhere near as loud as they were for the North London Derby the team should play well and we may just get our first clean sheet for awhile. 3-0 Arsenal.

Predicted Lineup: Szczesny, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Sagna, Arteta, Wilshere, Podolski, Gervinho, Cazorla, Giroud

Conclusion: A game that we are capable of winning and winning well. Montpellier will try not to over-commit forwards and hit us on the counter. Arsenal only need to keep their composure and pass the ball around patiently to invoke Montpellier’s self destructing nature. Should be a tight game unless we score early in which case anything could happen.

Right then, let’s get behind the team and show em what they mean to us! Come On You Gunners!