Match Preview: Arsenal vs Newcastle United

newcastle

So the Toon Army is coming to the Emirates! And on the back of 3 wins in a row this is another must-win to get 3 valuable points before we head into an extremely torrid list of fixtures in January where it’s reasonable to expect we will drop a few points. By contrast to our recent form, Newcastle are not currently enjoying their season and with our team well rested thanks to a screwup with the trains at Christmas and with an energy sapping 3-4 loss to Manchester United just 3 days ago for the toons, now is the perfect time to hit them hard.

Newcastle’s suprisingly poor form this season owes a lot to what I call “Arsenalitis”. This is a condition where the team lacks proper depth and suffers injuries to several key players right when they go up against tough opposition. This usually leaves the team with less offensive power and a shaky back line. In Newcastle’s case they are missing the defensive solidity of Steve Taylor, the playmaking skills of Yohan Cabaye and the star quality of Hatem Ben Arfa on the left wing. So what does this mean for Arsenal? Well let’s look at how they like to play first of all. Newcastle have been favoring playing through the middle with Arfa out injured, they like to retain possession in their own half and attack fairly quickly, using either long balls or thru balls. I think the most telling factor in this match will be whether Alan Pardew opts for playing Newcastle’s standard 4-4-2 formation or the occasionally used 4-5-1 with Cisse on the right wing. Very few teams have dared to play more than one striker against Arsenal this season and most that have learned quickly that it is a mistake. Reading changed to a 4-5-1 after half time to stem the goal flow and even Manchester United who are the undisputed kings of playing 4-4-2 in the Premier League, changed to a 4-5-1 with Rooney dropping deeper to pick up Arteta and make life hard for our midfield.

The only team thus far this season to play a 4-4-2 against us somewhat successfully was Spurs and Adebayor’s stupidity ended that problem for us pretty early on. So if Newcastle do end up playing a 4-4-2 against us I predict that they’ll realise their error fairly early and switch to a 4-5-1 to try and nullify the effectiveness of our midfield trio. This isn’t bad news for us either way as it would mean taking Cisse away from our goalbox and leaving Demba Ba as the only main threat. It’s likely that the combined skills of Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla will be too much for Newcastle’s midfield without Cabaye and I would expect their reaction to be sending even more long balls than normal towards Demba Ba, which is why it is vital to have either Vermaelen or Koscielny man-marking Ba and the wings and this provides a selection headache for Wenger. With Koscielny fit and rested, does he stay with the combination of Mertesacker and Vermaelen? Or does he instead play Vermaelen and Koscielny at the back. Newcastle have enjoyed good success this season by playing thru balls for Demba Ba and although they haven’t been great at beating a well organised offside trap, it only takes one to make you pay the price. Per Mertesacker’s greatest weakness is his lack of pace and against a team utilising this tactic he may not be the best choice at the back. He was caught out last match against Wigan in this manner, which we very nearly paid the price for and with Demba Ba taking the shot we probably would pay dearly. Mertesacker is also not as good in the air as Koscielny and since Newcastle will be attacking both with the aforementioned thru balls and also long balls I don’t see him as a great choice for this encounter although Arsene Wenger does suscribe heavily to the theory of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” when it comes to his defensive selections. This would be an even more dangerous selection if Newcastle choose to play a 4-4-2 and have both Cisse and Ba looking for thru balls.

Looking further forwards we can analyse where the potential for Newcastle’s destruction lies. Steve Taylor may be out but their defense are still a physical bunch and due to this I would expect Giroud to start up front, using his power and intelligent movement to break up their defense. Meanwhile on the right wing I would expect Walcott to start although this may not be our best avenue of attack, since he’ll be facing off against Davide Santon, a youngster who I regard as one of the best left backs in the league and certainly their most consistent defender. Without Ben Arfa supporting him the wing will be less dangerous to defend and if Walcott keeps a high line it’s possible he can be exposed but I think it’s far more practical to target Danny Simpson on the other wing and to this end I would hope to see both Gibbs and Podolski heavily involved in this match, particularly if they play the attack-minded Papiss Cisse as Simpson’s support in a 4-5-1 formation.

There’s no reason why we can’t also attack through the middle but I expect Newcastle to try and stifle the center since that will be their own avenue and as a result Cazorla will drift towards Podolski where the space will hopefully be. Defensively Newcastle have been poor of late and Wilshere’s bursts forward can certainly cause problems for them but the majority of play should be centered on crosses from the left wing unless Walcott decides to have “one of those days” and rip Santon apart. Overall I think both teams will score but as we tend to make less individual errors, have much fresher players and a tighter defense than Newcastle at the moment, I would expect Arsenal to emerge victorious at the final whistle. If Newcastle prove to be too fatigued to make a match of it, this is a game where Walcott’s pace in behind from the right could prove devastating. If the defense doesn’t get tight to him they will pay a hefty price.

Newcastle United Dangermen: Demba Ba and Cisse. Ba has been a big goal threat this season with 11 goals already and Cisse has the ability to turn on the skills at any time. Neither player must be underestimated or left unmarked in the box for a second.

Result Prediction: I think Arsenal’s offensive capability and lack of injuries to key players will give them the edge in this one. Both teams will probably score so  I’ll say 3-1 Arsenal.

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

Conclusion: Newcastle are tired from battling United just 3 days earlier. The Emirates crowd have been louder of late and on the back of 3 wins in a row, they should spur our boys on well. Expect an early battle for control of the middle with occasional wing attacks from Arsenal and thru balls towards Demba Ba. Once the game’s tempo is decided, Newcastle will most likely opt for a long ball game while Arsenal concentrate the majority of their attacking through the left side of the field. Right then, let’s get behind the team and enjoy the match, Come On You Gunners!

Match Preview: Reading vs Arsenal

readingim

OK so here we go again in this roller coaster season we’re having. On paper Arsenal should have no trouble travelling to Reading and knocking the stuffing out of them but how often do things actually pan out the way they should? So let’s take a look at what Reading bring to the plate since the last time we played resulted in an epic 7-5 victory for Arsenal in the League Cup, which is unlikely to happen again…

Brian McDermott’s Reading side attacks in an interesting and innovative way. They use the width of the park to stretch the defense and create crossing opportunities much like Arsenal do but then they utilise their forwards to pull the defense out of position by drifting wide and working the channels, taking the Center Back with them, before pulling the ball back for their midfielders to score from the edge of the area. While this is their primary tactic they also field strong independent strikers in Roberts, Hunt and Le Fondre. Their standard formation of 4-4-2 includes 2 of these threats for Arsenal’s Center Backs to contain, as all three are quite capable of bringing the ball down on their own and turning a defender to shoot. Whichever Center Back pairing Wenger chooses will have to be very alert and quick to shutdown any long range shooting from both the strikers and midfielders if we’re to win this game comfortably.

Looking at the last time we played them and the way that we were shockingly down by 0-4 before halftime is actually quite comforting. The primary problem in this match for Arsenal(besides appearing to be hungover) was the weak secondary defense of Jenkinson, Djourou, Koscielny, Miguel and Martinez, that we fielded for the league cup and boy did I feel sorry for Koscielny having to be paired with that lump. Yet Reading deployed their strongest team and still managed to blow a 4-0 lead. This suggests that they are not good at holding onto a win, evidenced further with their 3-4 loss to United the other week and the fact they’ve lost their last 5 matches. A lot of Arsenal’s problems last time stemmed from having a poor defensive line and Martinez(our 4th choice keeper) in goal. Reading found it incredibly easy to run overlaps past our fullbacks and deliver crosses for Roberts to create chances from. Against the likes of Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen and Gibbs this is far less likely to happen. Particularly with Szczesny also in goal, so we can expect to concede far less stupid goals like the one’s Reading scored that day. I tend to think the primary threat that Reading carry is their scoring from set pieces, 37% of their goals this season have come from this and given Arsenal’s poor record at defending these it’s something we need to be very wary of. While it’s true that Arsenal have become much more solid at defending corners over recent times, freekicks from dangerous positions still fill me with dread. United learnt just last week how deadly Reading can be from these and I believe this will be the main test for Arsenal to maintain a clean sheet.

The best news for Arsenal is that while Reading can score goals, they can’t defend them to save their lives. In particular their penchant for playing possession football in their opponent’s half, coupled with their inability to retain possession for long periods of time makes them extremely vulnerable to counter-attacking football, something that Arsenal do very well. Despite being good at defending set pieces their defense isn’t as organised as it should be leading to a vulnerability against through balls and rather suprisingly a weakness for winning aerial duels. With this in mind I really hope Giroud is sufficiently fit enough to start this match, we saw in the League Cup match against Reading how he changed things after subbing on, quickly ripping their defense to shreds with his intelligent runs off the ball and sending them into disarray for Walcott to take advantage of. This may also be a game for Podolski to redeem himself somewhat in the eyes of Arsenal fans since the last few matches he has appeared invisible on the pitch for unknown reasons. The talent is there for all to see but the desire and hunger seems to be lacking, which I suppose goes for almost the entire team at the moment.

Overall I believe this is a game we should win and win well, which will be dictated by how Reading approach this game. Will they respect Arsenal’s attacking firepower and sit deep in 2 defensive banks of 4 hoping to hit us hard on the counter-attack through the speed of their wingers? Or will they try to play their possession game in our own half despite going up against one of the toughest midfields in the Premier League and having one of the lowest average match possession stats in the league of 41%? The former seems more likely and while on the counter Reading carry an offensive threat, with Vermaelen increasingly looking like the “Verminator” again and not a mouse and the ever impressive Mertesacker, we should have a strong back line further reinforced by the in-form Szczesny. Reading didn’t have to deal with the likes of Wilshere, Arteta and Cazorla last time and I truly believe we carry too much firepower for them to prevent us scoring a few goals. Just don’t let Gervinho start at Center Forward… And for the love of god, please let us have an offensive option on the bench just incase, not Gervinho!

Reading Dangermen: Roberts, Hunt, two offensive threats up front that warrant close attention but the biggest threat is Nicky Shorey, the defender responsible for delivering Reading’s dangerous set pieces.

Result Prediction: I don’t see either team keeping a clean sheet unless Arsenal produce a vintage performance. I’ll say 4-2 Arsenal.

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

Conclusion: Playing away to Reading means our mad away supporters will get behind the team just like they did in the League Cup match. Arsenal should possess to much firepower for Reading to deal with, there are doubts on if Walcott will start but Oxlade Chamberlain has looked impressive lately and should do a fine job. Overall this should be a good match for our team to gain some confidence from by securing the 3 points. Come On You Gunners!

 

 

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: 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!

Match Review: Manchester United 2 – 1 Arsenal

The moment the comeback was off the cards

Well what a disappointment. I can’t say I’m suprised about the result except that it was low scoring. Given the players we had available this one was always going to be tough to get a result from but I think this match in particular highlighted our lack of depth and reliance on players who’re constantly injured. While I place no blame on Wenger for this(and plenty on the board) it sure would’ve helped to have players like Gibbs, Diaby or Rosicky able to play. Looking at it on paper I think Wenger had accepted the mountain he had to climb in this match to get a result and subsequently he chose a lineup designed to keep the scoreline tight until later on when he could introduce players like Walcott and Arshavin to give our offense a bit more punch and throw caution to the wind. Wenger must surely realise the incompatibility of the players on the left wing and I think Podolski was supposed to play slightly more defensive than normal. The other evidence of this cautious approach by Wenger was that we set up in a 4-5-1 formation not 4-4-1-1, Cazorla dropped deep and  isolated Giroud up front who was there to simply pin United’s Center Halfs back.

However in order to play like this you need to not concede inside 3 minutes… I understand that Vermaelen was probably falling over as he attempted that clearance but I’d honestly rather he’d missed it altogether since Mertesacker had Rooney covered. The simple fact is that Vermaelen was out of position in the first place, too far up the pitch and backpeddaling so quickly that he made the error. Is this what we expect from our captain? Hell No. It didn’t help that after this massive cockup he then proceeded to disappear into his shell, feeling sorry for himself instead of trying to rally the troops and inspire them. It’s times like this we need to him to step up and show why he’s captain, all he did however is show why he shouldn’t be. He was at fault for the second goal also, failing to get goal side of Evra(one of United’s shortest players) and allowing a free header from 6 yards, although Mertesacker may’ve mistimed his jump and missed his clearance attempt as a result also.

Andre Santos once again copped a lot of blame but it’s really not his fault that he’s playing with a winger he’s incompatible with. It’s like telling someone off for being left handed, it’s natural to them. You can put a real spin on it by saying why on earth can’t Podolski play wide as a left winger should? The end of the day it’s neither players’ fault and simply unfortunate. What we do need to be looking at however is a left winger option who will fit with Santos’ style whenever Gibbs is unavailable to start. Vermaelen likewise isn’t very compatible with his style since he kept pushing forwards and left a lot of space in behind Santos which Valencia and Rafael exploited. I can’t say I blame Santos for surging forwards either, at least he was trying to make a difference.

Jack Wilshere was also a focal point in this match. It’s hard to place too much blame on the lad since he’s still coming back from injury. He went in rashly on a few tackles and I think his first yellow was far worse than the second where it appeared that he hadn’t regained his fine touch on the ball yet, had it roll too far from him and caught the player stretching for the ball. A lot of fingers have been pointed at Wenger for not subbing Jack off, particularly since Ferguson showed good judgement in removing Cleverly who was also on a yellow. However Ferguson was not in Wenger’s position of being 2-0 down and needing to attack. Since there were no offensive midfielders available on the bench his option was to bring on the more defensive Coquelin and blunt our offense. Sometimes you have to take a risk and this time it didn’t pay off. It’s worth noting that after half time we switched to a 4-4-1-1, aided by the fact that Rooney was too tired by that point to keep on pressing Arteta. This allowed Cazorla to position himself further up field, linking up better with Giroud. Walcott was also introduced for Ramsey and we looked dangerous for about 10-15 minutes before Wilshere was sent off which effectively killed any comback attempt. It’s a real pity that Ramsey had already subbed off at this point as Wenger could then have safely subbed Wilshere off, brought on Walcott to Right Wing and moved Ramsey into Wilshere’s position, thus retaining an attacking midfield and placing Ramsey in a more natural position now that we were chasing the game.

One other noticeable thing when you look through the passing stats is the amount of passes from Mertesacker(101 passes) compared to Vermaelen(73 passes). In most matches they have about the same, the reason they are so different is due to Van Persie shadowing Vermaelen when not in possession, forcing our passing to channel through Mertesacker instead, just one more thing that United did right to make life harder for us. In the end they outplayed us and outfoxed us. Mannone made some great saves to keep the scoreline down and had a good game while Arshavin also showed promise after coming on and being the catalyst for Cazorla to score a really solid goal but it wasn’t enough this time.

Conclusion and Improvements: I think the two biggest things to take out of this loss is that we really need better squad depth rather than relying on injury prone players to help us out when we’re a bit stretched. This of course is difficult with our limited budget but should be a longterm aim for the club. Secondly, we’re new to playing the double pivot midfield and it shows. Arteta being man marked and pressed hard by the opposing attacking midfielders is a game changing problem we need to learn how to solve. Both Chelsea and United have now made us pay for this with Arteta being so key for our passing out of defense. The other midfielder, in this case Wilshere needs to help out by dropping deeper and becoming our anchor, allowing Arteta to push further forwards. That’s how a double pivot works, Chelsea have done it well for years through the likes of Essien, Lampard and Mikel and it’s something we need to learn as well, though it will take time.

Lastly Koscielny deserves a chance as the starting Center Back next to Mertesacker, who was once again outstanding. Vermaelen has made many mistakes this season, he was responsible for both goals vs Chelsea, the 1st goal vs Schalke, both goals in this match etc. If any other defender made these errors they’d be crucified but because he’s our captain he’s cleared of blame? If anything he’s more culpible and really needs to lift his game. He’s an excellent defender when in form but at the moment he’s costing us dearly. As for Wilshere’s send off, he’s young and just back from injury. He will learn from this experience.

Match Preview: Manchester United vs Arsenal

The stage is set! Sharpen your pitch forks and light the torches! As we begin the journey to Old Trafford with last years result burning in our mind, 1 year of pent up frustration and embarrassment will be unleashed over 90 minutes plus “Fergie time” of fuel filled rivalry. Aside from the unsanctioned rape of last year this has always been a classic feature and I think it’s more of a battle between 2 men, rather than 2 teams. Wenger and Ferguson have locked horns over a decade now and both of these men know their counterpart inside out. However, sadly I must admit that in recent times Ferguson has had Wenger all figured out tactics-wise and I don’t expect to see much tactical deviation from the way these matches are usually fought. There will of course be the extra prickly situation of a certain dutchman playing against his former club but the less the players focus on this the better as it could be the distraction necessary for Arsenal to lose focus.

Traditionally Arsenal have gone all out attacking against United who generally sit back, soak up the pressure without conceding and hit hard on the counter-attack through one of their wings. Looking at United’s team I’d expect the same sort of scenario and I think one of the key battles in this will be whoever wins the lucky dip of playing Left Back and having to defend vs Valencia. The guy can be a certifiable nightmare to deal with and his accurate crosses into the box where Rooney and Van Persie will be waiting will be something Arsenal must be very wary of. I’d imagine Santos will be playing in the Left Back position and while defensively he possesses the physical strength if not the technical ability to make life difficult for Valencia it is the attacking side of things here that is far more worrying. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles the combination of Santos and Podolski on our left wing is far less potent than the combination play and chemistry that Podolski has with Gibbs playing behind him. The problem is however that the majority of Arsenal’s goals this season have come from this very partnership. So in a sense playing in our usual style of attacking down the left could see United punish us severely on the break. United may also employ the likes of Thomas Cleverly to man mark Arteta and try to pin him back deep in his own half and deny Arsenal the means to pass the ball out from defense, disrupting their flow. This is something that Chelsea did very effectively to us through Oscar and is definitely something to watch out for.

To this end I’d rather Arsenal attack United through the middle where traditionally they’ve simply clogged up the play and prevented us from playing our slick passing game so as to destroy our  rhythm. Unfortunately since Walcott played 120 minutes vs Reading in that 12 goal thriller I think he’ll be to tired to start so that really only leaves Ramsey to play in Right Mid and his role is much more of a holding player designed to disrupt the opponents play on this wing rather than to create scoring opportunities so that really only leaves the center option with Ramsey drifting inwards and linking up with Cazorla, backed up by Wilshere’s runs forward from his double pivot role with the ever reliable Arteta. While I’d like to see something as radical as playing Cazorla at Right Wing and Ramsey in a Central role I don’t expect Wenger to deviate from his current setup and given this layout I’d expect us to attack through the middle rather than the suicidal option on the left. I’d also like to see Vermaelen placed at Left Back to stop Valencia in his tracks but again I don’t expect this and it will most likely be Santos that is given the nod.

The left wing coincidentally if we were to place an attacking player there, is far less of a consistent threat than the right. Ashley Young can have good games and then others where his positioning lets him down and ruins a promising United attacking move. Likewise Patrice Evra has his moments where he’s brilliant and ones he’d rather forget. This would allow us to play out the inevitable stalemate in the center and focus our attack on a single point. Once more this is unlikely but it’s worth considering and could make for a very unpredictable Arsenal attack. Manchester United have also been conceding plenty of goals with  a defence that seems to be leaking despite looking quite solid on the face of it. I contribute most of this to the ongoing injury saga of their best defender Vidic and the fact that over the last year or so United have been going through a transition of very slowly phasing out the old veterans which have been stalwarts of the club for so many years and gradually introducing fresh young talents who are bound to make the odd mistake as they cement their positions in the team. Hopefully Giroud’s physical presence up front will add to these errors.

Manchester United Danger Men: They’re all dangerous but in particular we should watch Valencia, Van Persie and Rafael very closely. Van Persie is leading goal scorer and a huge threat regardless of how we feel about him. Cleverly in midfield can also be a suprise package and source of scoring opportunities for United.

Predicted Result: I think this will be quite close, both teams have strengths and weaknesses that can be exploited by the opposing team’s usual playing style. United have a great offense but lack a little defensively whereas Arsenal have a solid midfield but are lacking some offensive power and are having to rely on a 3rd choice keeper yet again. I’d say if United score first they have a strong chance of winning but otherwise I’d say a 2-2 draw with either team capable of a late 3-2 winner through impact subs like Arshavin,Walcott for Arsenal and Hernandez,Nani for United.

Expected Lineup: 4-4-2 formation – Mannone, Santos, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Sagna, Podolski, Arteta, Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla, Giroud

Conclusion: On paper, a mouth watering match which has the potential to swing either way. I’d be a lot more confident if Gibbs were playing at Left Back not because Santos is a bad player but because of Gibb’s understanding with Podolski. I’d also feel much more comfortable if Szczesny were in goal. This is a game that Arsenal can win but they will need luck on their side and to turn up at Old Trafford playing their best. Amid the hostility of United’s fans, the Van Persie situation and the memories of last year, I think a lot of the Arsenal players will be up for this game in the sense of unfinished business and professional pride and this may just help tip the balance in our favour. Come On You Gunners!