Match Review: Arsenal 3 – 3 Fulham, What went wrong?…

So close but in reality quite far from the polished performance we were hoping for. Fulham controlled the first half adopting their typical style of keeping possession in their own half with the occasional forray up our left wing, tempting Arsenal to come and get the ball. It worked but not the way that Fulham had hoped as we managed to score twice against the run of play, the first off our only attack forward and the resultant corner(a case of quality over quantity) and the second from catching a player in possession deep in his own half. However it didn’t last and it’s notable that once again the mistakes came from our left wing where Vermaelen was at left back. Podolski once again failed to track back properly giving Vermaelen too much work to do on numerous occasions and the inevitable crosses found their mark and cost us dearly. Podolski also gave away the foul(and a string of others!) for their first goal and in general didn’t have a great game despite scoring.

On the second goal I really feel that Mannone should’ve kept that out, a header from 15 yards out can only travel so fast and he had plenty of time to react to it and make a proper diving attempt rather than falling sideways and fumbling at it and I will be very glad when Szczesny is back between the posts for us. If I was too get overly critical you could say he should’ve also come for the corner that Berbatov scored their first from as it was in the six yard box which is the keeper’s territory on corners. Defensively speaking though, it’s clear that teams recognise our left wing as being the more vulnerable area to attack us from, hopefully the return of Kieran Gibbs into the side will help to change this. In the middle Arsenal looked a little dis-jointed with Fulham applying plenty of pressure on us, Ruiz in particular was a large physical problem for the team to deal with and it would’ve been nice to have Diaby available to manhandle him a little. I’ve chosen to use heatmaps in this review to really illustrate the problems we had in this game and why we didn’t have a better result.Firstly a comparison of the way our two wings operated in this match and the 1st thing I notice is the lack of effort in defense by both wingers. Walcott in general tracks back well and helps out Sagna and in the first half of the season Podolski did this also. In this match however Walcott was purely offensive playing high up the pitch, pinning back Riise and trying to beat the offside trap while Podolski was content to stay pretty much in midfield and not make strong runs to the corner. The comparison between Sagna and Vermaelen shows the difference between a truly professional fullback and a center back playing out of his comfort zone. Sagna ran up and down the wing tirelessly all game, creating overlaps for Walcott and covering his marker in defense, whereas Vermaelen tried to stay near the halfway line and influence play from there, occasionally cutting inwards in attack and dropping very deep in defense. Looking at the charts it’s probably a good thing that Fulham didn’t try to expose our right wing as well as the defensive performance that Walcott usually produces(and makes up for his attacking inconsistency!) was sorely lacking in this match.

Now for the game changer and the reason why we looked far better once Ramsey came on despite scoring goals in the first half, Coquelin’s movement, or lack thereof. In this game I was expecting that with Coquelin in midfield, given that he’s defensive minded Arteta would be able to push further forward and influence play more by linking up closely with Cazorla. I could not have been more wrong. The heatmap shows it plainly, rather than staying deep and defending the back 4, Coquelin chose to hold position on the half way line and remain static. This resulted in Arteta having to run back and forth all match, both influencing play in attack and defending deeper than the supposedly defensive minded Coquelin. Coquelin’s lack of involvement in this match borders on criminal when you compare the stats above. This is not how a double pivot works and this is why we failed to control the midfield and create more chances in the first half. Add to that Cazorla was again forced to drop deep to get the ball because of this and we went back to playing in a 4-5-1 isolating Giroud somewhat and it’s to Giroud’s credit that his massive workrate allowed him to still be such a focal point up front for us in the center forward position. A lot of people will say that Ramsey made mistakes and was dispossessed often but what he did do right is give us drive going forwards, even if it didn’t win the game for us. He provided the offensive thrust that Coquelin just couldn’t do and eased the workload on Arteta.

Ok so that takes care of the negatives for this match apart from Arteta’s penalty miss which to be honest was a harsh penalty in the first place. The inconsistency of the refereeing in this match was laughable however it was balanced ie bad towards both teams. Podolski could’ve easily seen red in the first half for about 4 poorly timed tackles that went unpunished and it was hilarious for me when Phil Dowd reached to his back pocket(where the red card is) to send off Sidwell for a second yellow, only to realise that he was THE ONLY PLAYER on the pitch that he’d bothered to card despite the challenges flying in and changed his mind last second, issuing Ramsey a yellow instead for holding the man on the ball. The handball at the end was similarly poor judgement as the player had his arms by his side and didn’t play at the ball so if it had been scored it would’ve been harsh on Fulham. The fact that Arteta missed was no less than we deserved in this game although 3 points would’ve been nice and I don’t blame him for the miss either as it was well struck and Schwarzer produced a very fine save to keep it out. Schwarzer is quite well known for saving penalties so it didn’t come as a huge suprise. The thing I truly loved about both the penalty given away and the one missed is the grief-stricken reaction from Arteta. This guy truly bleeds red and white and really loves the club. If half the players on the pitch felt the same way we wouldn’t have these problems to begin with.

So on to the positives. Gibbs is returning to the side next week and with opposing teams targeting his wing as our biggest weakness it will be nice to have a true fullback to influence the attack and defense again. His chemistry with Podolski can also not be overlooked and hopefully Podolski will return to the sparkling form he showed us at the start of the season when most people thought he was the best thing since sliced bread. Szczesny in goal again will likewise boost the side, giving confidence to our back 4 as well as putting a stop to cheap goals being conceded(he definitely would’ve saved goal no.2). Ramsey and Chamberlain have both recovered from knocks and add much needed depth to our team and the other bonus is Wilshere returning from suspension and the man who lifted us last season, Tomas Rosicky reportedly fit to play again at long last. In this match, Arsenal seemed to regain their scoring ability somewhat and a lot of it is down to Giroud up front. This man just keeps getting better and better for us and the more the players learn his style of play, the more he will continue to impress us. Walcott in particular should be able to make good use of him with low dangerous crosses whipped into the six yard box.

Overall I don’t see the need to panic just yet, we managed to score two goals while being outplayed in the first half and then failed to win the game when we played better in the second which is more amusing than anything else. Gibbs impact on the team cannot be underestimated and I expect us to play a lot better next week when we host our lily-white nemesis in the form of Tottenham Hotspurs. I do think however that players like Arteta, Podolski and Cazorla(our absolutely key players!) are in much need of a few matches off to rest. The fatigue of having played nearly every minute for Arsenal so far this season is clearly showing in their increased errors and less dominant performances and is key to getting our season back on track. Lastly Koscielny and Mertesacker did quite well in this match despite the goals conceded and with Gibbs returning at left back I’m rather hoping that Vermaelen doesn’t replace him in the center back position once more as it’s clear which one is in better form at the moment. Nevermind the captain’s armband, rest Vermaelen and give the armband to Arteta!

A much need weeks rest and then Spurs next, let’s give em hell and show them there’s only one club in North London!

Come On You Gunners!

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Match Review: Arsenal 1 – 0 Queens Park Rangers

Victory at last! But it didn’t come easily. Queens Park Rangers put up a decent fight before Mikel Arteta’s winning goal in the 84th minute and it’s quite fitting that the player who has given 100% in the games we’ve lost recently should be the one to get us the victory. Arsenal started a bit slow in this match and looked a little lacklustre but they certainly kicked into overdrive in the 2nd half with chances coming often and if not for Julio Cesar having one of the games of his life it could’ve easily ended 4 or 5 nil to the gunners despite still looking a bit out of form offensively. Cesar showed why he’s Brazil’s no. 1 keeper with a string of world class saves denying Giroud, Mertesacker and Ramsey from making QPR pay for poor defending.

Tactically speaking the game panned out rather predictably, Wenger deployed Ramsey on the right and used him to help dominate play through the middle helped in no small way by the energy of the returning Jack Wilshere. However unlike in previous matches we also had Sagna back who did a great job of pushing forwards, staying wide the whole time and adding an extra element to our attack that Jenkinson has been unable to provide so far this season. Much like the combination of Gibbs and Podolski on the left, this allowed Ramsey to move into a secondary striker role without compromising the width of our attack and QPR were clearly stretched. With Wilshere driving forwards in midfield and linking up with Cazorla it was inevitable we would score and if not for some sub par finishing at times the game would’ve been won a lot sooner than it was. Mbia getting a straight red for lashing out at Vermaelen was the death knell for QPR and a goal always looked likely. QPR threatened mostly through Shaun Wright-Phillips down our left and while it would appear that he often got by Santos, our 2nd choice left back never really let him swing in any dangerous crosses and for the most part contained QPR’s most dangerous player rather well.

In fact Santos had a solid game for us, he made several good crosses and key passes and unlike in the previous 2 games he actually made an effort to stay wide and allow Podolski to drift inwards, linking up with Cazorla. Looking once again at a heatmap comparison we can clearly see the difference in Santos’ game in just 1 week. Whether Wenger has asked for this change of play from him or not I don’t know but it’s certainly encouraging to see after the previous results. I think Santos’ biggest problem now is his stamina, Gibbs is far fitter than he is and much more suited to surging forwards in aid of the attack before pelting back again to defend. Lay off the burgers mate and hit the running track.

Match Stats: Pretty much what you’d hope to see apart from the crosses. Tackles, intercepts, and good passing accuracy from the Defense,  Dribbles from Wilshere and Ramsey, Shots on target from Giroud and key passes from the midfield and fullbacks.

Defensively both Santos and Vermaelen put up some good numbers keeping possession and passing very well, while making 9 interceptions and 5 clearances between them which goes some way towards redeeming their lack of effort in the games vs Norwich and Schalke. Sagna also looked like he’d never been out injured and was rock solid at the back containing the energetic and inventive Taraabt while Mertesacker was his usual quiet efficient self, managing the back line and offside trap for us. The only worrying moments defensively for me were at the end, particularly when Granero shook off Arteta and then proceeded on a hero run into the box beating Vermaelen far too easily and scuffing his chance from point blank range thanks to Vito Mannone. The other was from a chipped ball over the top that almost beat the offside trap but thankfully the QPR player’s were just out of tune. Being caught offside has been a feature of their season and it continued against us.

Wenger’s substitutions were decent also, Gervinho made little impact and went off injured but it was quite a relief to see Walcott back on the pitch after suffering cracked ribs from a San Marino thug and he looked good attacking down the right wing and swinging in some truly deadly crosses, why can’t he do that more often? It is truly alarming that Arshavin can come onto the pitch for 5 minutes and do what nobody else could do up to that point, beat a defender and put an accurate cross into the 6 yard box. If not for a brilliant save from Julio Cesar, Giroud would’ve scored but luckily Arteta poked it home. For those still doubting Giroud I would hope this game is a reminder of his talents, he had 2 headed chances both brilliantly saved and in general gave QPR’s defence a torrid time, winning just about every aerial ball that came his way. He is truly a great target man.

Improvements Needed: Our crosses as always were quite poor with Sagna the main culprit making 1 accurate cross in 9 attempts but the most worrying thing I took away from this match was our freekicks, we had no less than 4 in dangerous areas and failed to force the keeper to make a save. One could argue the referee failed to keep the QPR wall back 10 yards but with players like Arteta, Podolski and Vermaelen available to take them this is still not good enough and serious improvement is required. Our shooting likewise, needs to improve, Cazorla missed a great chance while 2 many shots on target were close to the keeper and it’s somewhat annoying that we didn’t score until QPR were reduced to 10 men. Despite looking a bit shoddy in attack i think we deserved to score a few more.  Also after scoring the winner our players got a bit complacent and sat back to play counter-attack rather than playing their natural possession game and this allowed QPR space and they almost made us pay the price late into injury time.

Final Thoughts: Welcome back Jack! He looked great surging forward like a natural box to box midfielder and his energy was much appreciated. He didn’t get into the game as much as we would like having half the possession of the other 2 midfielders but that’s to be expected upon returning from 17 months out! Santos did a much better job in this match but I’ll still breathe a sigh of relief when Gibbs is fit again as I believe his chemistry with Podolski is much stronger and Podolski again disappeared a bit in this match. Here’s hoping Gervinho’s injury isn’t too serious as it would be nice to have our whole squad fit for once, his form has been inconsistent but extra options are always nice to have. It does allow Giroud a string of games up front for us so hopefully this will allow his team mates to learn how best to utilise his abilities. It seems a lot of the time we’re still playing under the pretense that Van Persie is up front and they are very different players. Lastly I’m keen to see if Walcott will be given more starts at Right Wing now that Sagna is back at last. Only time will tell though and for now, let’s enjoy the win(scrappy or not it’s 3 points) and look forward to seeing our youngsters playing in the League Cup this week. Oh and Jack’s welcome back applause at the Emirates wasn’t even close to loud enough. Come on you Gunners!

Welcome back Jack. Hope he never ends up biting his tongue…

Norwich City 1-0 Arsenal: As it happened…

Matches like this one are exactly why I hate international breaks. The players took to the field with all the enthusiasm of a 16 year old boy asking a girl to dance at the school prom. While it’s not accurate to blame the entire thing on players being flown half way across the world to compete in bruising national pride affairs it certainly must put it’s hand up and take a fair share. Vermaelen was sloppy, Mertesacker didn’t look interested, Ramsey was lethargic, Cazorla looked tired which was evidenced in his statistics and Gervinho was downright hopeless. But on top of that, thanks to these stupidly placed internationals Arsenal also had to do without Koscielny and in particular Walcott, who’s pace against Norwich’s aggression could’ve proved valuable. If you wanted to go even further we could also add that both Diaby and Rosicky’s injuries were either caused on international duty or aggravated enough to become an issue so it’s fair to say the international breaks can go to hell.

Okay rant over, let’s look at what Norwich did well and what Arsenal did poorly in order to lose this game. The goal that won the game was frustrating, a decent effort from range was parried into the path of Holt. Mannone maybe should’ve done better and either caught it or palmed it anywhere but where he did. A world class keeper would probably have saved it but Mannone has still done quite well for us in the absence of a better option. I think it’s safe to say though that moments like this one are why Szczesny is deservedly our first choice keeper. Questions should also be asked both of Vermaelen’s marking of the player taking the initial shot and of Santos standing so far back that he played Grant Holt onside for the tap in. Perhaps Santos was lured by a spectator waving a hamburger at him and Vermaelen may have been yawning at the time. There were several other chances afforded to Norwich later in the match due to Vermaelen falling over twice and this has to stop. He’s the captain now, he shouldn’t be making these kind of mistakes. Overall it’s hard to really argue that Norwich didn’t deserve the 3 points anyway as they showed far more desire than Arsenal and any one of about 3 dangerous chances could’ve ended in the net.

Tactically speaking, Norwich pressed up aggressively, yet they still lost possession making plenty of individual errors and our uncharacteristically lazy midfield and wingers just couldn’t keep possession long enough to make them pay for simultaneously being so bold and so clumsy. Norwich did however look far more composed and organised than in their previous matches where they were destroyed by Chelsea and Liverpool, another classic case of a team learning it’s lesson and then playing us with a revised gameplan. Cazorla looked awfully isolated this game due to players passing to him and then not following up by moving into space for him. As a result the majority of the time we were left pinging long balls forward to Giroud who won his aerial duels well winning 6/8 and nodded it down for an Arsenal player each time. However Norwich swarmed these players and we never really threatened from this tactic. To understand the biggest issue of why we failed to score however, we need to look at a heatmap and I’ve marked the diagram for you.

This is a comparison of Gibbs vs Westham to Santos vs Norwich. It’s easy to see that Santos very rarely if ever made the wide run to the corner area in order to stretch the Norwich defense or whip in a cross, preferring instead to cut inside. This means Podolski was forced to play wide instead and as I’ve mentioned in a previous article Evolution of Arsenal’s Gameplay Podolski does not play well in wide positions. The key to Arsenal’s attacking success so far this season has been Gibbs playing wide, allowing Podolski to drift inwards and link up often with Cazorla. The two of them have been involved in most of the goals Arsenal have scored this season. Andre Santos did not do this for us, Cazorla was isolated and double marked without Podolski available to aid him, often having no option but a back pass and tactically speaking, this is the key reason why we were unable to score and lost the match.

Arsenal’s players were also guilty of a large amount of individual errors yesterday. Mannone’s ball distribution clearly needs work as his passing accuracy has been down in the last few matches but the key feature for me is Cazorla’s passing accuracy which is never this low in other matches he’s played. The reason it’s so low is the amount of hopeful balls forward(minus 6 failed corners) he was forced to play in an attempt to create a scoring opportunity and it again highlights the importance of his link up play with Podolski in order for Arsenal to be effective in the final third. Giroud’s accuracy can be forgiven somewhat as most of the balls he was receiving and trying to pass off were delivered to him while being closely marked or airborne. Ramsey’s passing was disappointing also although it was more his lack of running that was an issue. He failed to provide the kind of bursts and surges forward that may have provided us with a few chances of scoring.

Once again our crossing absolutely stank the place out, managing 4 accurate crosses from 25 attempts, only 1 of which came from a winger or fullback. This has been an issue for several seasons now and not one it seems is likely to be fixed soon, although Gibb’s crossing ability has helped with that. Likewise our shooting needs to improve, Cazorla gets in good spaces at times but he needs to hit the target more often. One other worrying thing noticeable in this game was our lack of ability from corners with 6 of our 10 corners going to a Norwich head before our own. This is something that desperately needs addressing and is echoed in our poor clearances from set pieces also, thus hurting us at both ends of the pitch.

Overall though despite this bad result I don’t think there’s any cause for panic just yet. The players will come out firing once more in their next game against Schalke and prove their desire to wear the red and white shirt.  Looking at the lack of energy levels shown on the pitch however I have come up with an alternative solution after each international break. Since Del Bosque has his head firmly lodged up his ass and is unwilling to allow Arteta even a cameo appearance for his national Spanish team, we will just tie everyone to Arteta and let him tow them around the pitch, thus saving their energy levels and allowing them to contribute more. This man plays his heart out no matter what and in a match where the entire team was poor, he was still THE ROCK of the team. Alternatively we could simply field our under 21’s squad or wander down the local park to recruit some kids as I’m quite certain they could’ve shown more desire to win a match than Arsenal did yesterday. This loss has left a bitter taste in the mouth like that time you were young and unwrapped that beautifully wrapped Xmas present under the tree to find an old pair of your dad’s socks..

One plus was that we got see Serge Gnabry come on for the injured Chamberlain and he looked lively and energetic, making 1 key pass and blasting a shot just wide. So come on Arsenal, show us why we love you so much! Show us that you’re worthy to wear the jersey and earn our applause! And send Schalke back to Germany with their tail firmly between their legs.